As a child, one of Sharon Bell Mathis’ favorite reading spaces was the iron fire escape above the backyard. There, she stepped through the pages of books into new and exciting worlds.
“I don’t remember when I actually realized how very special was this private playground/haven/sanctuary of mine . . . Everything was possible while I sat and imagined on my fire escape,” said Mathis in Something About the Author.
But though she had a passion for reading and a talent for writing, Mathis didn’t plan on becoming an author. Instead, she became a teacher after graduating from Morgan State University.
Perhaps the magic of the fire escape – peopled with characters from her books and her imagination — never left her. In the 60s, Mathis returned to her roots. Her story, “The Fire Escape,” was published and her career as a children’s book author began to bloom.
According to a Horn Book interview with Rudine Sims Bishop, Mathis’ work was brought to the attention of publishers by a contest sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. That contest also helped Walter Dean Myers and Mildred Taylor break in, Bishop said.
It didn’t take long for Mathis’ books to win acclaim. One of her early middle-grade novels, Sidewalk Story, was chosen as a Child Study Association of America’s Children’s Book of the Year. Tea Cup Full of Roses, another middle-grade, was recognized as a notable title by the American Library Association (ALA). In 1974, she won the Coretta Scott King Author Award for her picture book, Ray Charles. (Illustrator George Ford won the first Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for that title too.) And in 1976, Mathis won one of the industry’s highest awards — a Newbery Honor for The Hundred Penny Box, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon.
Whether writing about the life of Ray Charles, exploring the rich bond between a boy and his great-great aunt in The Hundred Penny Box or a girl with a dream of running like the greats in Running Girl: The Diary of Ebonee Rose, Mathis writes stories that celebrate the fortitude, resilience and beauty of African-Americans.
Mathis is quoted as saying: “I write to salute the strength in Black children and to say to them, ‘Stay strong, stay Black and stay alive’”
Mathis has made many contributions. She was a longtime teacher and school library media specialist. She inspired young voices just as her parents nurtured her creativity by encouraging her to write. She was a columnist for Ebony Jr! magazine. And she continues to create an important legacy as a children’s book author.
We are proud to salute the amazing Sharon Bell Mathis on day 13 of our campaign.
A Few of Sharon Bell Mathis’ Awards:
Coretta Scott King Author Award, Ray Charles
Newbery Honor Book, The Hundred Penny Box
ALA Notable, Tea Cup Full of Roses
American Bookseller Association Pick of the List, Red Dog, Blue Fly
Teacup Full of Roses (Viking, 1972)
Ray Charles (Crowell, 1973)
Listen for the Fig Tree (Viking, 1974)
The Hundred Penny Box (Viking, 1975)
Red Dog, Blue Sky (Viking, 1991)
Running Girl: The Diary of Ebonee Rose (Harcourt, 1997)
Several of Mathis’ wonderful books have been republished and remain in print. Ray Charles was published by Lee & Low in 2001. Puffin released a paperback edition of The Hundred Penny Box in 2006.
22 thoughts on “Sharon Bell Mathis”
A few years ago at the Capital Book Fest, I was a new author attending one of my first big events. Just a few people were gathered to hear me read, but one woman encouraged me with smiles and nods of her head. After I finished, she came up to me and applauded my work. She said I had a bright future in children’s book writing. That woman was award-winning author Sharon Bell Mathis. I’ll always remember her kindness. I am so happy we are celebrating her work. And if you haven’t read her books, definitely check them out. I was blown away by Listen for the Fig Tree. The Hundred Penny Box is a beautiful classic.
What a wonderful tribute – and the personal story adds a lot! I haven’t commented a lot, but I’ve stopped by every day. It is just GREAT! Though I admit that the TBR is straining under the weight of all the new additions 😉
I just shared Red Dog, Blue Fly with my boys book club. Wonderful author. Great post Kelly.
I just stumbled upon your site and am loving what I see. Thanks for sharing all the wonderful books and suggestions. I look forward to sharing them with my daughter. Many blessings.
Great books and stories. Thanks for sharing yours.
Always good to know how people who are long-time familiar names in children’s literature got started. Dear Mrs. Parks which the author wrote with Gregory Reed, remains a dearly-loved favorite.
Hundred Penny Box is one of my all time top favorite books! It’s an excellent addition to any reading program!
Sharon Bell Mathis is a jewel in Washington, DC. I am honored to have worked with her at the now closed Patricia Roberts Harris Educational Center, where, for years, she enthusiastically and tirelessly labored, often at her own expense, to instill a love of reading in the hearts of thousands of children—including my own daughter. I have been enriched by her wisdom, friendship, creativity, encouragement, and rare kindness, and am very happy to see her outstanding work highlighted here.
I was one of those students! Back when the building was named Friendship. I loved Ms. Mathis.
Ms. Mathis was my media specialist – when I was middle school aged 6 – 8 grade. She enfluenced my life in many positive ways. I am blessed to have had her guidance during those years.
Influenced. Embarrassed by the typo in the message about Ms. Mathis.
When I attended Friendship, which later became Patricia Harris, she sponsored and mentored a group of us middle schoolers – mostly girls – right there in the library during lunchtime. We called ourselves The BRATS – Books Really Are Terrific! Shout out to Tiffany, Ranisha, Opal and Mukarrama!
She was so loving and smart and kind. During Black History Month, she provided us the opportunities to meet Black authors, poets, politicians, musicians and many more influential people. This was very educational to me, a young white girl from Georgia. This was 30 years ago. I hope to speak with her again, well before another 30 years.
I work at the American Int’l School of Zagreb and my third graders just finished The Hundred Penny Box.
They wrote ideas for sequels and wanted to share with Ms. Mathis…any chance you know how/if we could email her?
Thanks so much.
My name is Vicki Mason.Many years ago you and my mother were good friends and she’s been talking about you ever since. Her name is Lois Mason. I’m hoping you have a face book page or another way I can reach you. Back then,I remember you having 3 daughters, one by the name of Sherry and you were living in D.C. at that time. We eventually moved to Capital Heights Md. and in the 70″s,to California. Growing up was great fun, and though very vague, I remember us visiting you and the girls and your husband. In 2005, I moved to Atlanta and went back for my mom and daughter a yr later. We are all living in Georgia now with the exception of may brother & father who still live in Baltimore. Hope to hear from you soon. Vicki Mason Sanchez.
I was in a school library yesterday and saw a poster for Sidewalk Story. It brought back so many memories. Back in second grade I read the book and wrote a letter to the author. She responded on Teddy Bear paper and I proudly read her letter to my class. I still have it over 30 years later!
Thank you for inspiring me to write.
Any chance you made contact with Ms. Bell. I am a teacher and my class just finished the Hundred Penny Box. We were so inspired that we are going to write a play for the school. We would sure love to write her.
I am an actress and 18 year veteran teacher of drama and speech communications. I just finished reading The Hundred Penny Box. It has been a long time since I was so moved by a story. I am named after my grandmother, who died at the age of 96. Precious Lord is one of my favorite songs that my mother, Georgia (77) sings today. She doesn’t get to sing as much in the choir these days because the choir director doesn’t appreciate her style of singing. Anyway my daughter named my granddaughter after me and my journey made me connect with this story. Please contact me at your earliest convenience, I would love to give you a copy of my mom’s CD, as I share an idea that have to bridge the generations using the ARTS and Literature as my vehicle of choice. My cell number is 904-414-1859. I am visiting my mom in Little Rock, Arkansas, but reside in Jacksonville, Florida. Thank you in advance.
This message is for Sharon Bell Mathis. I want to thank you for writing the book, Tea Cup Full of Roses. It was one of my favorite books growing up. The pandemic has given me time to reflect and your book came to my mind again, as it has over the years. I am now 55 years old and I am making it my goal to read all of your books and to share them with others. Thank you and may God continue to bless you.
she helped us become great writers she inspired us to be the writers we are you guys keep up the great work people