As this year’s campaign approaches its end, we are happy to include the work of this talented picture book author. Presenting the captivating words of Day 27’s honoree, we introduce to you, Becky Birtha.
I started writing poems and stories as a child, growing up in a red brick row house in Philadelphia. My parents, both Hampton graduates, valued literature and writing. We had books in every room, several typewriters, and even a mimeograph machine. My father was the teller of family stories. My mother read to us. To balance out the affordable Little Golden Books and library loans, where black characters and voices were nearly nonexistent, she read aloud classics of African American poetry—Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes.
I took writing classes and workshops whenever I could, in high school, college, and in the community. Nine years after graduating from the State University of New York at Buffalo, I went back to school for the MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. My first publications were for adults. I wrote book reviews for feminist newspapers, hoping to build a following for later acceptance of my own work. Slowly, the plan succeeded; two collections of my short stories and a volume of poetry were published by small presses. But entering the field of writing for children was a whole new endeavor. I knew that I wanted my children’s books to be published by a mainstream publisher, so that they could reach the kids for whom I was writing, who might only encounter books at schools and public libraries.
My journey led through many years of frustration: the manuscripts submitted to publishers and received back many months later; the book that was accepted, with illustrator chosen and pictures painted, but that never came out; the house that paid me for the option to publish my book, then decided not to; the editor who liked my story and was on a friendly email basis with me, before she moved to another publishing house, where my emails to her resulted in a form rejection letter. Fortunately, I got encouragement and support from my writing group friends and from my membership in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).
The breakthrough came when I reread the last two letters I’d received from Albert Whitman and Company. The editor had declined my manuscripts but said they were well written, and that she would like to see more. Somehow, it registered that these were not rejections. I sent a third manuscript. After much shortening, rewriting, and negotiating about historical facts, sentences, and even single words, it became my first published picture book, Grandmama’s Pride. I was lucky to have Colin Bootman chosen as illustrator. His paintings were a perfect match.
When I was nine or ten years old, a famous author/illustrator came to speak at our neighborhood library, a white woman with glasses and gray hair named Marguerite Di Angeli. I had already read about half a dozen of her books, including Bright April, the only book in my childhood with realistic paintings of a brown skinned child who looked like me. After the author’s talk, I even got called on to ask a question. I was thrilled.
In a summer writing program for students, following my senior year in high school, I heard my second author speak. Kristen Hunter (Lattany) was a much younger, black woman, whose book I had also read, God Bless the Child. In the audience of eager young writers filling the auditorium that day, mine was the only black face, and I knew that she could see me, and was speaking to me, as clearly as I saw and understood her.
Those two experiences exemplify the writers who have inspired me: the many, many children’s book authors that I read as a child, and continue to read, and the black women poets and fiction writers, most of whom did not publish books until after I grew up. My favorite contemporary children’s author is Jacqueline Woodson, for her gift of language, saying so much in so few words, and for her courage in writing about subjects that so need to be addressed. And there will also always be a special place in my heart for Lucille Clifton.
The Back Story
There isn’t much back story to Lucky Beans, my most recent book. My editor at Albert Whitman, Abby Levine, invited me to send more work. Eventually, after some miscommunications and an email that never reached her, I did. They accepted it. It has never been that easy, before or since. Of course, weeks of revisions followed. My editor and I hashed out details and literally counted beans, wondering whether to go with the more historically correct navy beans, or the more colorful kidney beans. And were beans smaller in the 1930s? Nicole Tadgell and I never met, but I was delighted with her bright, kid-friendly water colors, that added humor to my text.
Perhaps, though, the real back story is not about the deal I make with a publishing house, but the deal I make with myself. For me, it’s not easy to sustain the confidence, belief in myself, and fortitude that it takes to continue, through years of challenges and while scuffling to make a living, to keep working steadily, and to finally send work out. I read writing self-help books and push myself with opportunities like the Picture Book Marathon. It helps to know that other writers and readers value my work. Recently it’s been helpful to think of my writing in terms of stewardship—of a precious gift that has been entrusted to me. It also helps to be invited to write a piece like this one, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity, and for the honor.
The Buzz on Lucky Beans
From Horn Book Magazine:
“…With its math and social studies elements, this will be a practical book for schools, but it’s also a welcome addition to the growing number of picture books about families getting through difficult economic times.” Susan Dove Lempke
From Kirkus Reviews:
“…The family works together to survive and finds moments of love, appreciation and sheer happiness. This moving tale not only relates a little history but also some math, as Marshall helps his mother estimate the number of beans in the furniture-store jar and ultimately wins a new sewing machine, which helps alleviate their dire financial situation…. Many children today can relate to the family’s challenges, which makes the timing of this picture book sadly relevant.”
From School Library Journal:
“…Children will appreciate the story’s humor and happy ending. Lucky Beans can be used across the curriculum to educate while it entertains. Ideal for classrooms and school libraries, it’s also a strong choice for public libraries.” Mary Landrum, Lexington Public Library, KY
“Math and wry comedy mix in this lively historical story based on Birtha’s grandmother’s memories of life during the Depression. Young Marshall describes his African American family’s hardship when Dad loses his job and then his relatives crowd into Marshall’s room. Worst of all are the beans Ma constantly cooks….” Hazel Rochman
From Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children:
“…Based on real events in the life of the author’s grandmother, this new book helps today’s generation of young readers better understand the difficult economic times and the racial discrimination of the Great Depression years. With illustrations that beautifully match the text’s subtle humor and grace, Lucky Beans is an ideal choice when seeking picture books that are rich in substantive content.”
From Multicultural Review:
“This heartwarming story provides young readers a lesson in addition and multiplication and reveals a family’s perseverance to make the best of life’s circumstances….”
From Children’s Literature:
“This story is fitting for today’s economic times, and along with the social studies and math connection, it will be welcome in any classroom…Soft watercolors bring to life the 1930s and the warmth of togetherness of a loving African-American family.”
From Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast:
“…And I’ve read Lucky Beans, and I like it. (And if I were a math teacher for late-elementary students—or even a social studies teacher—I’d be all about using it in the classroom.)” Jules (Julie Danielson)
Awards for Lucky Beans:
Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices 2011
New York Public Library 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing 2010
Smithsonian Magazine 2010 Notable Books for Children
2010 BookLinks Lasting Connection
2011 Storytelling World Resource Award
2012-2013 Show Me Readers Award Nominee List (Missouri)
2012-2013 Arkansas Diamond Primary Book Award Nominee
2013 Magnolia Awards Nominee (Mississippi)
2012-2013 Georgia Children’s Book Awards Picture Book Award Nominee
The State of the Industry
I continue to be incredulous and appalled about the small percentage of children’s books published each year, written by African Americans and other people of color. I worry about the effect that the ongoing economic low is having on these writers, and on children’s book publishing in general. I’m scared by the disappearance of bookstores, and the possibility that the entire bookselling business may soon be controlled by one online monopoly. Nevertheless, I’m still optimistic, believing that this industry will continue to thrive, and become more diverse along with changes in the U.S. population and the global interplay among cultures. I am very curious to see how children’s books will continue to evolve in this age of technology. Perhaps, when every child (not every family, but every child) owns an electronic device that can access age appropriate literature, I’ll be able to let go of my belief in the need for books, as we now know them. But I’ve been spending time recently in the public schools of Camden, NJ, Philadelphia, and Chester, PA, where, without question, children still need books.
To hear more from Becky Birtha, check out this podcast: