Day 28: YA Panel

February 28, 2018

As the sole resident YA author on the BBS team, I’m often consulted about potential candidates to cover for 28 Days Later.  Having returned to the campaign after a very long hiatus, the sound my colleagues heard when asking that question was akin to *crickets.* Not because I’m unaware of the authors out there, but because there aren’t nearly as many as there should be 10 years after somewhat of an explosion of Black YA authors. Nearly everyone I suggested, BBS had already covered.  Why hadn’t the explosion continued? How could I not find five solidly under-the-radar YA authors?

As I looked around, I realized a few things 1) Those of us who debuted 10 years ago are now writing MG and 2) Today’s YA is a bit edgier, a true reflection of our fragile social times, and so…go back to number one.

Out of this conundrum, a fantastic idea presented itself – chat with YA authors who were 28 Days Later “Alum” and put publishing under the microscope. On top of the chat being more fun than I’ve had in a long time, it was insightful. Treat yourself to today’s spotlight: an industry chat with authors Justina Ireland (Dread Nation), Brandy Colbert (Little & Lion) and Dhonielle Clayton (The Belles).

BBS: Finish this thought – “Before I was published, I thought YA was missing…”

brandy_n5d7247Brandy:  Before I was published, I thought YA was missing black people, in general. But especially black people with agency, who weren’t reduced to stereotypes by authors who were writing outside of their experience.

I grew up in a very white community and probably 100% of the books on my shelf were by and about white people, so I’m not sure I noticed. Which is sad to think about now. I started writing when I was seven years old, and that also affected my stories, which were all about white people. I felt that I was meant to be a writer but I didn’t think anyone wanted to read about black people.

Justina:  Like Brandy, I didn’t really notice how white books were, because I kind of thought it was just that all of the Black kids were in books I didn’t want to read (Like Sounder, Roll of Thunder). It was until I got older that I realized Black characters existed, just in a very narrow range. As I scooted over to the adult section I found books about Black people…in the African American literature section.

BBS:  The narrow range is important to note because not existing was issue one and then existing only in one frame was the other.  

Brandy Yes, exactly! I remember the first time I saw the African American section in a bookstore. It was a very strange feeling. Like, yay! But also—why do we have to be shelved in a different section entirely?

Dhonielle: Before I was published, I thought YA was missing stories of brown kids and magic, Brown kids falling in love, fantasies that featured non-western worlds.

BBS:  So, now what? Because whether it’s sexuality, mental illness, racism and zombies, or the power of beauty in society – looking at today’s landscape, through the three of your books alone, makes it clear that a broad variety of books featuring characters of color are here. 

Justina: Exactly, and that’s awesome. And now we need people to show up and buy them.

Brandy: Yes, indeed. And we need to allow Black/POC creators to publish a wide range of books and not pigeonhole us into certain categories or celebrate a certain type of narrative over another.

DhonielleDhonielle:  Now, it’s times for marginalized and black content creators to get the same roll outs that white women have gotten for decades for their books. Tours, big marketing campaigns. Our books deserve a shot at big audiences.

Justina: Seriously though: THUG by Angie Thomas has opened the door for a lot of other authors also writing gritty contemporary YA. Imagine what Dhonielle’s book could do for Fantasy or Brandy to do for intersectional contemporary or mine for whatever Dread Nation is this week.  I think it’s horror this week. And of course I’m talking about Black authors, since this isn’t a problem for white authors.

BBS: My next question came about specifically because Dhonielle is a sensitivity reader (SR). In the Vulture article about her work as a SR, she hit on a lot of great points.  One being that the most important piece of the conversation revolves around the number of white authors writing about characters of color.  Are we reaching a point where publishers are starting to overthink sensitivity reads? How do we refocus the discussion on what Dhonielle believes is the important piece of the conversation?

Brandy: I’m not actively doing sensitivity reads but I find the whole topic fascinating. I had a LOT of reads from friends on Little & Lion because I wrote outside of my experience for so much of it.

Justina: So, I do sensitivity reads and I had to back away for awhile because of everything D said in that article. But I stopped doing the reads because I started to feel like I was helping other folks tell my story and that pissed me off.

Dhonielle: Sensitivity reads are a bandaid.

Brandy: Yup. I just wish there were more of our stories being told by us so there was less of a need for sensitivity reads to begin with.

Justina IrelandJustina: Exactly! Because if there was, editors would know what a good story looks like because they’ve had a sampling, instead of the one or two books from the prior year. But we also need ownvoices books that meet the basic elements of craft. There are a lot of ownvoices books that are getting rushed through editorial that are just not going to help, and that’s unfortunate.

Dhonielle: I agree, Justina.

BBS: Own voices shouldn’t be a fad. My concern is this type of thing becomes a campaign. We have far too much catching up to do for it to be that.

Justina: Exactly.

Brandy: Yes!

Dhonielle: We can have mediocrity from every group, because gods knows so many mediocre white folks get published every day, but we need marginalized folks to win the marathon and not the sprint.

Justina: My fear is that if they finish poorly in the sprint they’ll never even get to run in the marathon.

Brandy: And a lot of it seems like back-patting, so publishers can feel like they’re doing their part to participate in the “diversity movement” instead of seeking out stories they actually believe in and authors they want to nurture through a successful career.

BBS:  But what’s great about right now – with just the three of you – finally we’re in a moment where more than one of us is winning!  That’s a big step.

Brandy:  It is! I still remember getting my first contract and being like, But they’re just gonna let me publish this book about a black girl who looks and acts a lot like me? And that’s it??

BBS:  Pay it forward – shout out two or three YA authors who are either an up and coming author, someone unsung or someone who has been dormant and deserves a fresh look by readers. Extra points if that author hasn’t already been covered by BBS.

Justina: There’s a lot of exciting YA by Black authors this year. [Goes on to name authors being covered in 2018 28 Days Later and those we’ve already covered. The struggle was real!] Kosoko Jackson will have a book out here in a minute. His book is slated for late 2019, I think.

Brandy: I’m a big fan of Tiffany Jackson’s work. And I’ve been reading Janice Lynn Mather’s Learning to Breathe, which is an extraordinary debut that comes out in June, and I can’t wait for everyone to read it.

Dhonielle: Sarah RaughleyRebecca Barrow. JA Reynolds – not to be confused with Jason. *laughter* I dropped in non-US based Black authors. They need a little shine. Sarah Raughley is from Canada. Rebecca Barrow is in the UK.

Brandy: It is interesting seeing how much the landscape has changed since we were first published a few years ago. I think black-authored debuts are much more accepted and celebrated. Oh and I just saw a cover reveal for a new debut: Dana L. Davis, Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now.

Justina: Yes! That’s a great cover.

Dhonielle: I need them [Kosoko and Dana] on my radar.

BBS: Good stuff. The fact that I’m able to only get a few names new to me shows that it’s not as many of us out there doing YA as it should be. 

 


Come back, tomorrow, for part two of our chat where the authors discuss author social media etiquette in the age of outrage and tell us what soap box they’re on.


 


Day 27: Gilbert Robertson IV

February 27, 2018

It is so impressive to know that Gilbert “Gil” Robertson earned a B.A. in Political Science from Cal State Los Angeles and is a professional member of the National Press Club, National Association of Black Journalists, The Recording Academy, The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the Motion Picture Association of America. He is also a national lecturer who speaks on such issues as fostering diverse representation in the entertainment industry, as well as personal and communal development.
It is even more impressive to know that through it all, he never lost his desire to write. His path to children’s literature is incredible. So today, The Brown Bookshelf is honored to highlight:

GIL ROBERTSON IV

The Journey

My childhood dream was to be an author. I wrote essays, short stories and plays as a kid, which I would share with my parents and their friends. So, I was motivated early to pursue this path. As I began my adult life following college I was perplexed as to how I could achieve this dream, and so I became an A&E (Arts & Entertainment) freelance journalist armed with a plan that I would create a profile that I could leverage to enter publishing. Over time I established a reputation as a go-to journalist for publications seeking A-list talent and my byline became well-known in the industry. My life as an A&E journalist soon took over my life and I spent the next decade pursuing goals within that career space. However, my passion for writing books gradually rebooted, which lead me to expand my career to include work as an author.

My first book, Writing as A Tool of Empowerment, came about solely because of the notoriety that I had established as an A&E journalist. My profile had risen to point where the public began to take note of my work. I sought to exploit that exposure by first doing a series of lectures via the Learning Annex, which lead me to finally writing my first book. After successful engaging an audience with that project, I began to pursue other opportunities as an author, which led me to assemble the anthology Not in My Family: AIDS in the African American Community. The success of the project finally opened a path of opportunity for me to pursue my dream of being an author.

The Back Story

My previous projects were targeted to adult readers and I wanted to “shift-gears” with a book that would speak to young adult readers. Barack Obama’s presidency represented such a pivotal point in history that I thought should be examined for young readers. I became fascinated by others political “firsts” and so I outlined a book proposal that would highlight the men and women behind these accomplishments. I really wanted to partner with a black publisher and immediately set about putting together a proposal that I sent directly to Wade Hudson at Just Us Books. Thankfully, he recognized my vision and we struck a deal and the process of writing the project began.

The Inspiration

I’ve always been a tremendous fan of Children’s books because of the influence those projects potentially have for their target audience. When you write for adults is basically like “preaching to the choir”. Whatever you write appeals to a certain type of reader who shares or is open to your perspectives and interests. For me, writing for children presents an opportunity to introduce new ideas and concept to an unfiltered mind. It’s an audience who are still forming their thoughts and opinions about life. So, writing for them presents amazing challenges and responsibilities. Partnering with Cheryl and Wade Hudson was another inspiration for me in that I have long admired how they blazed a for books targeting black children.

The Process

Because I live in LA and Atlanta and travel a lot in between, I usually write early morning, but sometimes may start writing after dinner and continue well into night. I always begin with a starting concept, which I outline and start work from that point. I also write in block periods – that is, I may write on consecutive mornings or nights and then break for a week or two before revisiting the copy. This helps me view the material from a different light and perspective.

 

Continue to stand tall, Gil Robertson, IV. We at the Brown Bookshelf are proud of you, and thank you for your contribution to children’s literature.

Please visit Gil at his website: http://www.booksbygil.com

 


Day 20: Liara Tamani

February 20, 2018

When Liara Tamani says she follows her heart, she means it!

She follows her heart when her favorite “jam” comes on, and she’s not ashamed to sing it out loud in public.

She follows her heart by traveling the globe to places some only dream of visiting.

She followed her heart by leaving Harvard Law School, realizing the legal field was not her heart’s desire.

And lucky for us, she followed her heart to create an award-winning, outstanding young adult novel, Calling My Name.

But for those of us who’ve had the pleasure of meeting Liara, it is clear that her heart, and beautiful personality, are huge.

The children’s world of literature is better because of quality writing by this talented author. It is my honor to present:

 

LIARA TAMANI

 

The Journey

Even though I’ve always loved writing, I didn’t always realize becoming a writer was a possibility. Growing up, I was determined to become a lawyer, like my father. It was his dream for me and I adopted it as my own. And I made it all the way to Harvard Law School. But when I got there, the realness of being trapped in a life I didn’t want for myself set in and I was like, Get me out of here! I left after my first year.
Before finding my way back to writing, I went on a winding path through the sports and entertainment industry and the interior design field. And then one night, when I was living in Los Angeles running my own design company, I sat with my laptop at my drafting table and started writing. It felt like home. Soon after, I started taking writing classes at UCLA Extension and then went on to get my Masters in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I wrote Calling My Name.
I finished Calling My Name in 2010, but it took years to get it published. Years of sending it out to agents and getting rejected. Years of revising based on the feedback from agents. Years of doubt and frustration at not liking my revisions. Years when life took over and the book just sat on my computer. Then, in October of 2015, I started sending my original book, the book I loved, out again. This time, I signed with my agent, Jennifer Carlson, the same month. And within the first week of Jennifer sending out Calling My Name, I received a two-book deal from Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins. I don’t know what the difference was. Timing? Different eyes looking at it? Whatever the reason, I’m happy I kept pushing and that my book is now out in the world.

The Inspiration

I seek inspiration anywhere I can find it. I love so many children’s book authors for so many different reasons. It’s impossible to list them all here. But since lyricism gives me so much life, I will say the works of writers like Reneé Watson, Erika Sanchez, Rita Williams Garcia, Jason Reynolds, Elizabeth Acevedo, Jacqueline Woodson, Nicola Yoon, and Kwame Alexander are a big inspiration to me.
In terms of musicians, I’m from Houston so you already know Beyoncé and Solange are going to be at the top of my list. They’re fly and fierce, and their work brims with soul. But I also have to name Khalid, Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna, Chance the Rapper, Erykah Badu, N.E.R.D., Cardi B, and Kayne. Yes, Kayne. Even with all of the missteps on his journey, he is still a great artist.
In film and television, I’m a huge fan of Issa Rae. I love her realness. I love the way she brings the black experience to the screen. I also love Yara Shahidi, Tracee Ellis Ross, Mara Brock Akil (I was a PA on her hit show My Girlfriends), Zoë Kravitz, Joy Bryant, Gina Rodriguez, Ava Duvernay, and of course mama Oprah.

The Process:

I always start with something that has made an emotional impression on me, something that has touched me deeply. I recall these moments, how they made me feel, and begin constructing fiction around them. This construction process starts by filling Moleskin notebooks with a ton of handwritten notes. Bits of dialogue, maybe a whole scene, thoughts on setting and characterization—essentially anything that will help me dive into the world I want to create, into the minds and hearts of my characters. From there, the writing process can vary greatly.
With Calling My Name, I wrote the chapters out of order and rearranged them many times. The process wasn’t linear and I didn’t outline at all. But the book doesn’t have a traditional plot. Being more episodic, it lends itself to that type of process.
The second novel (also written in short chapters), has a traditional plot. So, the process is more orderly. I have a very rough, handwritten outline to keep me on track, and I’m writing the novel piece by piece in chronological order.
Overall, I’m a slow writer. It’s hard for me to move on from a paragraph until it’s just right. And every day, before I start writing new words, I go back and work on the previous days’ words a little more. I know it’s not the most efficient way to work, but it’s the only way my brain allows me to keep putting words on the page.
I work from home, usually on my sofa. Sitting in a chair too long kills my back.

The Buzz

2018 Golden Kite Honor Book

“An excellent portrayal of African American culture, gorgeous lyrical prose, strong characters, and societal critique make Tamani’s debut a must-read.” — Booklist (starred review)

“Taja deals with the insecurities that most young people feel regarding identity, love, and fitting in. Stylish prose brings home quiet depths.” — Kirkus Reviews

“This lush debut novel is written in distinct prose that reads like poetry. Young adults will connect with this protagonist and this dynamic new voice. Fans of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas will especially love this lyrical novel. A great selection in any library collection.”
— School Library Journal

“Tamani’s debut novel brims with heart and soul, following its African-American protagonist, Taja Brown, as she searches for spirituality, love, and a sense of self. Absorbing.” — Publishers Weekly

“While not quite stream of consciousness, this novel moves dreamily along wayward paths. …Readers willing to be swept along by Tamani’s poetic language and imagery will appreciate the journey. … This debut is reminiscent of Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming or Marilyn Hilton’s Full Cicada Moon.” — Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA)

“For Taja, the narrator of Liara Tamani’s luminous episodic debut, faith in God is as much a part of her as her long legs and brown skin…a complex portrait of a young woman trying to reconcile what she’s been taught, both in church and out in the world, with what she truly believes.” — Chicago Tribune

 

Thank you Liara for your contribution to children’s literature.

 

Please connect with Liara Tamani:  https://www.liaratamani.com/

Twitter handle:  @liaratamani

https://www.facebook.com/liara.tamani

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Day 15: Keturah A. Bobo

February 15, 2018

keturahabobo2

Born in Toledo, Ohio with strong family roots in Detroit, Michigan, Keturah grew up with parents that instilled in her the importance of individuality and creativity.

Many of her illustrations depict empowering messages of black women and girls. Her paintings are renown for having large bold beautiful hair styles and representing an underserved, but growing, population of self-aware people within the African diaspora.

And one look at the abundance of her products online is all you’ll need to see exactly what we mean. Keturah is literally a one person shop that features everything from hand-painted denim jackets, to Tees, to prints and mugs all adorned with her beautifully rendered black women.

We asked her about her journey, her backstory and her inspiration.

These are her words:

THE JOURNEY

As an artist it is my duty to make art that inspires, uplifts, and advocates for my community. Nothing is more important in my art than this. I have been consistently working as an art entrepreneur since 2013. Creating my own body of work and doing freelance art projects ranging from logos to entire bodies of work. I was contacted by HarperCollins in 2016 and they were interested in working with me on Grace Byer’s children’s book “I am Enough.”

IAmEnough

THE BACKSTORY

HarperCollins was familiar with my work via social media and presented various artists to Grace and she chose my work because the intention behind my paintings so closely relates to the purpose of “I am Enough.”

THE INSPIRATION

My favorite writer by far is Toni Morrison. She has the ability to utilize words in such a visual way, I’m inspired to paint something every time I read one of her books. My favorite illustrator is probably Kadir Nelson; I love the way he alters perspectives and makes the characters he paints appear monumental. I love music and it is always apart of my creative process.


You can learn more about Keturah and see more of her work at www.arielbrands.com

 

 

 

 

 


Day 14: Tiffany D. Jackson

February 14, 2018

Tiffany D JacksonLast winter, Tiffany D. Jackson’s debut YA novel ALLEGEDLY had a lot of people talking with it’s emotionally charged story literally ripped from the courtroom. Kirkus called the novel “searing and true,” adding it “effectively joins Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th and Michelle Alexander’s THE NEW JIM CROW (2010) to become another indictment of the penal system’s decimating power beyond its bars.” In June, we’ll be treated to a second novel, also based on a real life court case.

THE JOURNEY

TB: When did you start your writing journey?

allegedly coverTJ: My journey started when I was four! I wrote short stories for my mom, lumping random letters together to make them look like real words, and always grew frustrated when she couldn’t read them back to me. Fast forward to college, where I majored in Film and Television but still dreamed of becoming an author, working on stories during summer and winter breaks. Then in 2012, about a decade into my television career, I read of a case involving a nine-year-old being charged with murder. Fascinated, I began crafting a story that would ultimately become my debut novel, ALLEGEDLY. It took two years to polish the story, but I found an agent and landed a deal within a year and finally published in January of 2017.

TB: How do you think your background in film and television comes to play in your writing?

TJ: My background plays a crucial part in my creative process. I tend to write cinematically, meaning I treat each chapter as scenes or acts in a movie, painting pictures that can be clearly visualized. For structure, I follow Syd Field’s famous script writing “Paradigm” formula, which helps with plotting, pacing and tension building. Also, I’m used to cutting shows down to time in order to fit specific programming clocks for broadcast. This makes me a ruthless self-editor when it comes to my novels. If a scene doesn’t help to move the story forward, I trash it, no matter how pretty it is.

THE BACKSTORY

 

MondaysNotComing HCTB: Tell us about your upcoming title.

TJ: MONDAY’S NOT COMING is similar to ALLEGEDLY in that the story is loosely inspired by a real case that occurred in 2009, requiring extensive research. The story takes place in Southeast Washington D.C and deals with gentrification, mental health in the black community, and the biases of missing children. Coincidentally, I turned in my first draft a week before the story on the missing black teen girls in D.C went viral (#missingDCgirls).

But the REAL backstory I attribute to my best friend Tara. When we were in the third grade, Tara sprained her ankle and was out of school for a week. One of the worst weeks of my life! I never realized how connected we were and experienced how it felt to live without my better half. I poured those memories and feelings into every page of MNC.

THE INSPIRATION

TB: What inspired you to write?

TJ: Growing up, I was the type of girl who wanted stories that were relatable to my surroundings in Brooklyn and turned to adult novels at an early age. This inspired me to write for the type of kid that I was, in search of raw, gritty tales.

TB: Is this need for gritty tales the catalyst for choosing stories based on actual legal cases?

TJ: These two particular cases stood out and reminded me of so many unanswered questions I had as a teen. For example, I often wondered why a kid snatched and thrown in the back of a van near my elementary school was barely spoken of yet girls like Elizabeth Smart had weeks of national coverage.

I am hoping using cases will drive home the point to kids that these situations are really happening to their fellow peers. It’s not always about spoon-feeding kids lessons, it’s about putting them in another person’s shoes and letting them walk on their own, ultimately helping them to develop compassion and empathy by seeing injustice through a wider lens.

TB: What other “under the radar” African-American book creators do you want to shout out?

TJ: Liara Tamani’s CALLING MY NAME is SO stunning, poetic and beautiful. I gave five copies of it away for Christmas to friends.

TB: Liara is another one of our honorees this year, you’ll see her post on Day 20!

THE STATE OF KIDLIT

TB: What is your take on the state of the industry especially as regards African-American Kidlit?

TJ: I still consider myself quite the newbie, learning something new everyday about this industry. The good and the bad. But one thing I love about the African-American Kidlit community is the quality of the books we’re publishing, the risks and beautiful ingenuity. So although we still have a lot of work to do in order for publishing giants to respect our stories and journey, it gives me great hope that we have so much beauty to share and readers eager to receive it.

You can find Tiffany at her website, on twitter,  and Instagram.

 


Day 12: Ebony Glenn

February 12, 2018

EbonyGlennEdit Ebony Glenn is an illustrator and artist living on the quiet outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia. With an arts degree in Drawing and Painting from UNG , she aspires to bring stories to life with fanciful illustrations that are filled with whimsy and charm.

While looking through her website,  I was captivated by her  bright colorful illustrations. And somehow everything she draws seems to have a warm childlike innocence. Even the adults!  It’s no wonder that her new book, Mommy’s Khimar, has received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist!

While we anxiously await its release date of April 3, 2018, I was lucky enough to pick her brain on a few things. Here are her comments.

THE JOURNEY

JC: When did you start your writing journey?

EG: Ever since I was a girl, I’ve always known that I wanted to make art for a living.  Illustration has always been my solace, my way of escaping reality to an imaginary world.  Yet it wasn’t until after college that I began to explore the idea of turning this passion into a career. 

While working a part-time job in the day, I worked on my portfolio at night.   I believed in my ability to create compelling imagery for children’s books, so I sought out ways to improve my skills and gain knowledge of the publishing industry.  I studied the artwork of many successful illustrators, experimented with different artistic mediums, read plenty of books on the subject, and joined the organization SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) to help me meet other like-minded folk. 

In 2016, I was fortunate enough to be approached by the Bright Agency for artistic representation, and it’s been a blessing ever since.

mommys-khimar-9781534400597_LR

THE BACKSTORY

 

JC: Tell us a little about Mommy’s Khimar.

EG: Simply put, my wonderful agents at Bright were instrumental in helping me obtain the opportunity to illustrate Mommy’s Khimar, a picture book written by the talented Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow.  It’s a story of a sweet, little Muslim girl who loves to wear her mother’s headscarves.

THE INSPIRATION

JC: What are some of the things that inspire you?

EG: I believe a story that can captivate the mind and transport the reader to another world, time, or place is a very inspirational feat. Be it a movie, a play, or a great book, a story that is told masterfully fuels my imagination.  I’m also inspired by the artwork of many illustrators from the past as well as our modern age.  For example, the illustrations of Bernie Fuchs, Kadir Nelson and Annette Marnat are just a few whose artwork currently inspire me; my favorites always differ.

 I also believe that Life is great source of inspiration.  Sometimes it’s the simplest events in my day that can inspire me to draw something new.

26910691_10210803275494301_5275466459641175483_o

THE PROCESS

JC: And finally, what’s your artistic process like?

EG: Like many artists, I work best alone in the comforts of my home.  I always begin my illustration process by brainstorming ideas and and getting them on paper.  Depending on the project, I may visit the library or scour the internet for research material, and if feasible, I may even travel to ensure that my illustrations are as authentic as possible.  I also find it helpful to post my artwork on a large corkboard.  This way I can track my progress and make sure that my illustrations are working well together.

Thank you, Ebony. To learn more about her, and see more of her wonderful illustrations, please visit her Website atwww.ebonyglenn.com

Follow her on Facebook and Twitter: @artsyebby

 

 

 


Day 11: Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl

February 11, 2018

photo credit: Paige Louw


“My goal is to focus on crafting stories for global audiences inspired by my Ugandan heritage. Set primarily in East and Southern Africa, my stories aim to illuminate the everyday and diverse experiences of African children, while celebrating human universality.” says Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl on Mater Mea. And with its celebration of both the unique and the universal, SLEEP WELL, SIBA AND SABA reads like a loving literary hug. Please join us in welcoming Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl and her children’s literature debut!

The Journey:
I think like many writers, my path to publishing started long ago…as a reader. I read quite a bit as a child and as a young adult, and at some point (about 15 years ago), I recognized that stories that featured an African perspective were missing along the spectrum of fiction from children’s literature to adult literary fiction.  I noticed an even larger absence of African stories written by African writers but wasn’t sure what role I could play. My career path eventually led to work in international development as a writer and editor for specialized UN agencies and international NGOs. I write about a broad range of topics from public health to social protection, education, and other rights-based issues for projects in East and Southern Africa. My family is from Uganda so working in the development context had always been an aspiration.
Over the last decade of working and living in East and Southern Africa, and more recently while living in Johannesburg when I was pregnant with my daughter, I returned to this idea that brown, and more specifically African faces, were missing from the books that I would want to share with her. At the same time, I couldn’t find a children’s book about Uganda that captured how I felt about the country. I also vividly remember so many people struggling to pronounce my Ugandan name while growing up in the US, and very much wanted my daughter to see her own Ugandan name reflected on the bookshelf (Saba is short for Nsaba, which is my daughter’s name).
With all of this as fuel, I decided to take a leap and write a story for my daughter that captured my love of Uganda and that portrayed the many beautiful things that I love about the country. That story was Sleep Well, Siba and Saba and my husband insisted that I try to publish it. Since then, I have not looked back.

The Back Story:
Once I conceived of Siba and Saba, I had to think about where the best literary home for the story would be. Not knowing any published authors personally, or anything about the publishing world for that matter, I reached out to some friends for their contacts and did quite a bit of research online. I also realized that with my story, the illustrations the way in which Uganda would be represented mattered just as much as the story. Through the book, I wanted to create a space for the beauty of Uganda to be celebrated in the world, and by global audiences. From my research, however, it seemed that an author had very little input on the selection of an illustrator or the illustration style at larger publishing houses. Based on that alone, I thought it would be a good idea to focus on a smaller, independent publisher. I spent several months searching online for publishers that focused on diverse stories, and when I found Lantana, I had a gut feeling that they were the one. I sent my story out once, only to them as an exclusive submission, and the rest is………

The Inspiration:
My first inspiration can be found very close to home from my family. I am internally motivated to honor my lineage and culture, as I believe my grandfather would have wanted it. I have witnessed such unsung nobility and grace in African families. I feel obligated to share these storiesif even through the lens of a story for children.
I also draw a lot of inspiration these days from contemporary African visual artists, like Njideka Akunyili Crosby (Nigeria) and Billy Zangewa (Malawi/South Africa). I’m also a fan of the British-born, Ghanaian Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. All three of these women have an amazing, textured brilliance to their artworks that inspires me to create their works are worlds and stories unto themselves. I am also currently absolutely inspired by the prolific Japanese author-illustrator Tarō Gomi, who has written hundreds of books for readers of all ages. I find the simplicity of his illustrations stunning.

The Process:
I usually start with a concept or an idea, a niggling feeling really, that turns into an idea. And then I take it from there. I write it out, as bad as it may be. And then I refine and refine over months (and sometimes years). I just write…and re-write.
* Where Do We Go From Here? (What are your ideas for next steps, for artists, young people — toward a more just world. And: what projects do you have coming up next?)
I have set my personal sights on Africa. Many efforts from business and development to art and storytelling have emerged in recent years to help shift the African narrative. I include myself in that process largely through African-inspired children’s books, but also as a champion of contemporary African art and other projects that focus on the beauty that is black and African culture. I think given the current climate, this has considerable value if we want to raise children that are considerate, empathetic, and have a more global outlook.
In terms of upcoming projects, I have another children’s book coming out with Lantana in the fall and several more stories in progress. I also recently launched an art consultancy, Africa Facing Art, with my husband. Africa Facing Art’s mission is to connect U.S. public and private spaces, and collections, with the contemporary art of Africa.
For any author, artist, or young person looking to make a change, start in any way you can. Just start. I deferred so many dreams when I was younger. I encourage everyone to take that leap. Now.