Throwback Thursday: Brandy Colbert

December 22, 2016

As a teen I studied ballet, but it was already too late for me to be a professional dancer. (I was no Misty Copeland.) I loved going to the ballet, but there were no black or brown ballerinas on stage at New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theater. If there were, maybe I might have pushed a little harder. Maybe this profession might not have seemed too out of reach. Little bunheads like me would have loved books like Brandy Colbert’s POINTE, or the young reader’s edition of LIFE IN MOTION which she co-authored with Copeland. In this throwback post, Colbert talks about the path to getting her first book published, and the state of diversity in Kidlit.
~Tracey

 

 BrandyWeb

Pointe may be Brandy’s first published novel, but it is not her first attempt at writing. She is a magazine journalist. Add that to her tap and jazz dance training and you have the perfect person to write about ballet. Her life story is riveting and so is Pointe. After learning about Brandy, you will not be able to resist the urge to read her first novel. The Brown Bookshelf is honored to feature Brandy on 28 Days Later 2015.

The Journey

I’ve wanted to be an author since I was seven years old (at least that’s the first time I documented my aspiration), and have been writing stories since then. I took a bit of a break in college and afterward, while I earned a journalism degree and moved out to Los Angeles to start my career in magazine publishing. Of course I never stopped reading, and I would write sporadically, but I had a hard time finishing projects that I’d started. At the time, I also found it hard to come home and work on my own manuscripts after writing and editing all day at my full-time job.

In 2006, I decided to get serious about pursuing publication. I completed a novel during NaNoWriMo and also signed up for a writing class, as I realized I’d have to start sharing my work with others and get feedback (terrifying!) if I wanted to get published. That project was the first book I’d finished writing since I was a child. It started out as an adult book, but I soon realized the voice wasn’t right. After I switched to teenage characters, I felt like I was on the right track—exploring the issues and lives of teens, as well as writing in their voice.

The Inspiration
I think inspiration can (and should) come from various and unexpected sources. I’m inspired by honest writers, those who aren’t afraid to tackle messy subjects (and even messier characters). Some of my favorites are Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Courtney Summers, Colson Whitehead, Aimee Bender, Sarah McCarry, ZZ Packer, and Toni Morrison.

pointecover

The Back Story
Pointe is the fourth book I’d written since I began actively working toward publication, and it’s strange to look back
on this now, but I was just about ready to give up if I hadn’t found representation with that book. It was easily the most honest book I’d written to date, and the one I’d put the most work into. I ended up working on it with an agent who was interested in signing me, but unfortunately, once I turned in the final book, we saw that our visions for it were quite different. After that, I queried a few other agents at the top of my list, not expecting to get very far. But much to my surprise, Tina Wexler of ICM requested a full manuscript just a few hours after I’d queried her! She asked for a fairly big revision, which I turned in around six weeks later. She offered representation shortly after that, and just three days after I’d been laid off from my job as a business writer in Chicago.

After three books and four years of rejection from agents, I also didn’t anticipate interest from editors, though I believed in the book and finally had someone else in my corner who did, too. I’d decided to move back to Los Angeles after being laid off, and at the end of my first day driving cross-country, I stopped in Missouri to see my parents and recharge for a few days. And the morning after arriving in my hometown, Tina called to tell me we had an offer from Ari Lewin at Putnam! I was happy to have an offer, but more important, I was thrilled that Ari believed in my book and had some wonderful ideas on how to improve it while staying true to my vision.

The Buzz
Pointe received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start, is a Cybils Awards finalist, and was named a best book of 2014 by Publishers Weekly, Book Riot, BuzzFeed, the Los Angeles Public Library, and the Chicago Public Library.

The State of the Industry
I think 2014 was a turning point for the children’s books industry in that the conversation on diversity really began to make waves. Many people had noted prior to last year that diversity was an important (and often overlooked) initiative in children’s books, but We Need Diverse Books catapulted it to the forefront, turning a hashtag campaign into a pledge into a nonprofit. I’m so impressed by the group’s commitment to implementing change in the industry, including the provision of publishing internships and grants and awards to writers and authors of color.

When I was growing up, I didn’t need two hands to count the number of black kids in contemporary stories, and it’s sad to me that things aren’t much better so many years later. But I believe the conversation is a great start. And in addition to books that reflect the world around us, we also need diverse authors and agents and editors and publicists and marketing departments—people of color, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTQ. I truly believe that if diversity is championed from within the industry, there will be a greater chance of seeing these stories published. And they are stories that desperately need to be told.

For more about Brandy, please check out her website Brandy Colbert. Brandy’s twitter handle is @BrandyColbert.


Day 26 Brandy Colbert

February 26, 2015

BrandyWeb

 

Pointe may be Brandy’s first published novel, but it is not her first attempt at writing. She is a magazine journalist. Add that to her tap and jazz dance training and you have the perfect person to write about ballet. Her life story is riveting and so is Pointe. After learning about Brandy, you will not be able to resist the urge to read her first novel. The Brown Bookshelf is honored to feature Brandy on 28 Days Later 2015.

The Journey

I’ve wanted to be an author since I was seven years old (at least that’s the first time I documented my aspiration), and have been writing stories since then. I took a bit of a break in college and afterward, while I earned a journalism degree and moved out to Los Angeles to start my career in magazine publishing. Of course I never stopped reading, and I would write sporadically, but I had a hard time finishing projects that I’d started. At the time, I also found it hard to come home and work on my own manuscripts after writing and editing all day at my full-time job.

In 2006, I decided to get serious about pursuing publication. I completed a novel during NaNoWriMo and also signed up for a writing class, as I realized I’d have to start sharing my work with others and get feedback (terrifying!) if I wanted to get published. That project was the first book I’d finished writing since I was a child. It started out as an adult book, but I soon realized the voice wasn’t right. After I switched to teenage characters, I felt like I was on the right track—exploring the issues and lives of teens, as well as writing in their voice.

The Inspiration
I think inspiration can (and should) come from various and unexpected sources. I’m inspired by honest writers, those who aren’t afraid to tackle messy subjects (and even messier characters). Some of my favorites are Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Courtney Summers, Colson Whitehead, Aimee Bender, Sarah McCarry, ZZ Packer, and Toni Morrison.

The Back Story
Pointe is the fourth book I’d written since I began actively working toward publication, and it’s strange to look back pointecoveron this now, but I was just about ready to give up if I hadn’t found representation with that book. It was easily the most honest book I’d written to date, and the one I’d put the most work into. I ended up working on it with an agent who was interested in signing me, but unfortunately, once I turned in the final book, we saw that our visions for it were quite different. After that, I queried a few other agents at the top of my list, not expecting to get very far. But much to my surprise, Tina Wexler of ICM requested a full manuscript just a few hours after I’d queried her! She asked for a fairly big revision, which I turned in around six weeks later. She offered representation shortly after that, and just three days after I’d been laid off from my job as a business writer in Chicago.

After three books and four years of rejection from agents, I also didn’t anticipate interest from editors, though I believed in the book and finally had someone else in my corner who did, too. I’d decided to move back to Los Angeles after being laid off, and at the end of my first day driving cross-country, I stopped in Missouri to see my parents and recharge for a few days. And the morning after arriving in my hometown, Tina called to tell me we had an offer from Ari Lewin at Putnam! I was happy to have an offer, but more important, I was thrilled that Ari believed in my book and had some wonderful ideas on how to improve it while staying true to my vision.

The Buzz
Pointe received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start, is a Cybils Awards finalist, and was named a best book of 2014 by Publishers Weekly, Book Riot, BuzzFeed, the Los Angeles Public Library, and the Chicago Public Library.

The State of the Industry
I think 2014 was a turning point for the children’s books industry in that the conversation on diversity really began to make waves. Many people had noted prior to last year that diversity was an important (and often overlooked) initiative in children’s books, but We Need Diverse Books catapulted it to the forefront, turning a hashtag campaign into a pledge into a nonprofit. I’m so impressed by the group’s commitment to implementing change in the industry, including the provision of publishing internships and grants and awards to writers and authors of color.

When I was growing up, I didn’t need two hands to count the number of black kids in contemporary stories, and it’s sad to me that things aren’t much better so many years later. But I believe the conversation is a great start. And in addition to books that reflect the world around us, we also need diverse authors and agents and editors and publicists and marketing departments—people of color, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTQ. I truly believe that if diversity is championed from within the industry, there will be a greater chance of seeing these stories published. And they are stories that desperately need to be told.

For more about Brandy, please check out her website Brandy Colbert. Brandy’s twitter handle is @BrandyColbert.

Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks


Tonya Hegamin

February 15, 2010

photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Tonya C. Hegamin is an author that refuses to be penned down to one category. She has degrees in both poetry (from the University of Pittsburgh) and in creative writing (from the New School University). She’s penned both picture books (Most Loved In All The World, Houghton Mifflin, 2008) and novels. And even within her novels, she’s avoids categorization. Her first novel, M+0 4EVR (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) is a seamless blend of contemporary fiction and historical drama, and her second novel, Pemba’s Song (Scholastic, 2008) co-written with Marilyn Nelson, blends poetry and prose.

For the 15th day of 28 Days Later, we are proud to present Tonya C. Hegamin.

After receiving an undergraduate degree in poetry, why did you decide to back to school for your MFA? Why in writing for children and young adults?

After undergrad I decided to take a few years off to “experience the real world”.  I worked as an educator for Women Against Rape in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. I also prepared teen moms for the GED in a town whose median income was $9,000. Then I was the teen safe sex educator for Planned Parenthood.  I even taught 6th grade math for a minute!  That was a total disaster–I barely know the times tables!  I only knew that I wanted to help and teach kids and teens and reading was my number one passion as a kid.  It was something I always wanted to do–write the books I loved.

M+0 4EVR is mainly a contemporary story, but you also weave in narrative about a runaway slave named Hannah. Was it difficult to intertwine the two stories together?

Writing M+O was like watching some complex organic biology experiment unfold.  I had written long stories before but never attempted a novel.  It was really just the beginning of a puzzle for me when it was sold off of 30 pages.  Nobody expects that!  I didn’t really have a plan for it, I was just fascinated by the characters and the story they wanted to tell.  It was like a vine in my brain.  Every character took on a complete life of their own.  I’m working on a sequel that is in the voice of M.  Gran has perhaps an entire book to her life, as well as the rest of the characters.  Hannah and Mine were just a story that the characters wanted to tell.  The only thing I consciously did was make Mine a Nanticoke; my Grandfather Coursey’s family was from a line of chiefs in that community so I added some of his history.

What gave you the idea to write the novel?

I think the idea germinated when I was in High School and my mother and I had moved to Rochester, NY from the suburbs of Philadelphia where I grew up.  We drove hours through the wilds of Pennsylvania several times a year and it gave me the opportunity to dream unlikely dreams.  I love wondering what people’s lives are like in those houses you get a glimpse of when driving through country highways.  I wanted characters that I had never seen written before in those places.  It’s the perfect storm for a melodrama.

According to some reviews, Opal’s love for Marianne goes beyond platonic? Did you or your publisher have any concerning about including this thread in the novel?

Yes, Opal is in love with Marianne; it’s not totally overt because I’m not an advocate for gratuitous sex scenes in teen lit.  One of the reasons I read so much as a kid was looking for “sex parts” in Norma Klein books!  Reading them now, they were so ambiguous and tame, but that tension was what led me to keep reading.  I wanted to write a love story that wasn’t typical or urban and Opal’s story was important for me to tell.  She is the witness to tragedy but not tragic herself.  Understanding that makes her realize that being open about her sexuality is actually not going to cause the Earth to stop spinning.  I wanted the love stories that surrounded her to be untraditional yet unconditional so that she knew how to love well.  I think most teens can relate to longing for someone they can’t have.  I wasn’t trying to write a “coming out story”, just a good love story. Of course, Opal is the first African-American lesbian protagonist in teen lit; that’s not easy to market and that’s what publishers think about.  Strangely, I’ve had more direct ‘controversy’ over my picture book, MOST LOVED IN ALL THE WORLD. Recently I spoke to a group of Queer teens at the New York City LGBT Center.  Even though my publishers haven’t put vampire money into M+O, getting to see those kids’ faces and to hear how much they needed the book was payment enough.

You also wrote a novel, Pemba’s Song, with Marilyn Nelson. How did this novel originate?

We wrote it to help our friend, Abraham Haqq (who is a character in the book).  Abraham did a lot of research about African-Americans who built the town he lived in, which did not celebrate or note the integral part that African-Americans played throughout history.  Abraham taught himself to read and do research.  He recently left his life in Connecticut and is now living in Mexico.  He’s a blazing fire of information as well as an amazing inspiration!

You wrote the voice of Pemba, and Marilyn Nelson wrote the voice of Phyllis? What was your process of working on the novel?

Marilyn wrote Phyllis first since her story is chronologically first.  Once she gave me her poems I wrote Pemba’s story around them.  Originally Pemba’s story was going to be all poems but I felt that the narrative flowed better and would interest more readers if told in a hybrid fashion.

Tough Question—do you consider yourself more of a poet or more of a novelist?

I’m a storyteller.  In teaching fiction and in teaching poetry I want to get my students to the same underbelly of human beauty that strikes a chord in the reader.  I write poetry for instant voluntary torture and novels for prolonged voluntary torture.  It just depends on my mood or the nature of the story I want to tell.  My Introduction to Poetry class (in 1996?!) was with Toi Derricotte (co-founder of the first African-American poetry retreat, Cave Canem) and she taught me that the most important thing about writing was to open your heart onto the page.  It really doesn’t matter to me what form it comes out in.

Can you talk a little about what you’re working on now?

Mostly these days I’m working on teaching writing as an extension of my craft.  Over my winter break I worked on another historical novel and a graphic novel.  I have a large section of the sequel to M+O that needs to be edited (again).  I’ve got a short story or two for adults percolating and I’m refining a performance of a poem/song about John Henry’s wife, Polly Ann.  I’m also trying to write two really good Haiku poems a week.  It’s harder than you’d think!

(Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths (http://rachelelizagriffiths.com/)).