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.


Throwback Thursday: Jason Reynolds

December 15, 2016
cover-ghost

Simon & Schuster, 2016; Cover Art by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

 

In 2014, he was already on his way to becoming “the” Jason Reynolds. Today–a mere two years, a John Steptoe Award, multiple CSK Awards, a Walter Dean Myers Award, a Kirkus Prize, a National Book Award Finalist sticker, and an NAACP Image Award nomination later–Reynolds has firmly cemented his status as a kidlit superstar.

Read on as we travel back in time to our seventh 28 Days Later campaign, revisiting the words of a pre-award-winning Jason Reynolds. Enjoy!

 

 

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photo courtesy of the author and http://authors.simonandschuster.com/

photo courtesy of the author and Simon and Schuster

Jason Reynolds is the author of two critically acclaimed books. My Name Is Jason. Mine Too: Our Story. Our Way. (HarperCollins, 2009), an autobiographical collaboration co-written with his friend and artist, Jason Douglas Griffin, was published in 2009 and received two starred reviews. His debut novel, When I Was The Greatest, was published in early 2014 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers. The novel has already been lauded by critics, receiving starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal. Kirkus also praised the novel, noting that Reynolds is “an author worth watching” and calling the novel “a moving and thought-provoking study of the connectivity among a family and friends that plays upon and defies readers’ expectations.” Please welcome Jason Reynolds to The Brown Bookshelf as he discusses his journey.

The Back Story

When_I_Was_The_Greatest-2The back story behind the publishing of When I Was the Greatest is…well…an interesting one. I’ll try to shorten it, as to not spiral out of control (which happens often when telling this story.) Through a strange turn of events, I found myself without a place to live in New York, and was forced to move back home to my mother’s house. I was almost twenty-five years old, and there aren’t too many instances more demoralizing than returning home to your childhood bedroom — music posters still on the wall and everything — after trying to chase your dream. At least, that’s what I thought. Turns out, there was actually more demoralization  just around the corner. I couldn’t find work. I mean, the recession was in full swing, my resume was all over the place, and I had never held any real job, so I ended up working in the stockroom of Lord & Taylor. It was my responsibility to unpack boxes and put sensors on every garment. EVERY garment. My shift was from three in the morning to noon, for a whopping $150 a week.

Meanwhile, I was working on my first novel, BOOM. I still had an agent in New York, and after BOOM was complete, I sent it to him. It took him about five months to tell me that it sucked (it was TERRIBLE.)

Shortly after my first rejection, I started a new job as a case worker servicing mentally ill people. There were twenty-seven people on my caseload, ranging from Schizophrenics, to drug addicts, and my job was to help them get back on their feet and assimilate back into society. I was also working on another novel — a dystopian tale about the island of Bermuda, a place that I had visited many times and had grown to love. My agent and I had parted ways by this point, and I decided to pitch it directly to a publishing house (had an insider) to see if anything would happen. This time, it took six months to tell me it sucked, but by then I was already on my way back to New York. My experiences as a case worker traumatized me to the point that I had to quit and was willing to take anything to get the weight of it and the stories of the people (the most amazing people I’ve ever met, by the way) off my shoulders. So I took a job, back in New York, selling jeans.

I had decided that I was going to quit writing. Maybe I’d push denim the rest of my life, or teach, or get one of those lucky New York City jobs that pay well to have fun. But there were other things in the cards. Christopher Myers, son of Walter Dean Myers, had become a close friend of mine when I lived in New York the first time (before the stockroom and caseworker stuff.) He and I were hanging out one day, and he asked me how the writing was going. I told him that I was done. No more writing. What he said next changed my life. He asked me, “When my father is done, who’s going to carry that banner, that tradition?” I suggested he do it. He suggested I do it. He told me to take one more swing, after all that I had been through, all that I had seen, all the people that I had interacted with and the stories that I had heard, and see what would come of it. What came was, When I Was the Greatest.

My Inspiration

WalterDeanMyersPhotoWalter Dean Myers has been a major inspiration for me. There’s something brilliant in the looseness of his language, though it actually isn’t loose at all. But it seems that way. He’s been able to write tight stories that still come across as eye-level, and human. And that’s my goal, to write slice-of-life, human stories about the communities that have made me who I am. And, of course, to make my mama proud.

My Process:

I always begin with a theme or a particular story I want to tell. There are so many stories, and perspectives, and angles, and I spend a lot of time thinking of which ones I could do justice. Then I think of characters, and usually I pull right from my pot of friends and family, which, let me tell you, are a colorful bunch. It means a lot to me to make sure that every character is real. That these stories read like memoirs, each character, breathing. I typically start with the protagonist. I flesh him/her out pretty thoroughly, that way as he/she begins to live, he/she will tell me what happens in the story, who joins in on this journey, what twists and turns occur, etc. I do just as much observing of the characters I create, as I do writing them. To me, that’s the fun in it all, the adventure of conceiving a character, and then having it lead you through the story it wants to tell.

Others under the Radar:

So many. But if I had to name one, Sheri Booker. She’s the author of Nine Years Under, which is about her time working in a funeral home for nine years in Baltimore City. But recently, she mentioned that she was thinking about writing a YA novel. PLEASE SHERI! I think she’d be a serious asset, especially when it comes to a fresh take on YA for girls of color.


Throwback Thursday: Malaika Rose Stanley

December 8, 2016

Since Malaika Rose Stanley was first featured here in 2013, she has released a memoir, LOOSE CONNECTIONS, and another children’s book, WHILE I AM SLEEPING. The former teacher also compiled a list of books featuring multiracial families, and wrote about her decision to create that resource here. Malaika Rose Stanley’s work offers a glimpse into a window of the global Black experience, and as a child of immigrants, living in the U.S., I especially value her voice in the world of children’s literature.

Malaika Rose Stanley was born in Birmingham – Britain’s ‘second city’ – and now lives in the capital, London. She has been a teacher in Zambia, Uganda, Germany and Switzerland, as well as the UK – and at all levels of education including supporting autistic children in primary schools, teaching adult language, literacy, numeracy and creative writing, one-to-one tutoring, conflict resolution and teacher training. She has also worked as a researcher helping adopted people find their birth parents.

She is now a children’s author, whose books feature strong, positive African, Caribbean and Asian characters and reflect the cultural richness and diversity of family life, friendship groups, schools and society in general. Her work ranges from picture books to young fiction and she has recently had an adult short story included in the US-published anthology For Women – In Tribute to Nina Simone (ed Debra Powell-Wright). Her latest books, all published by Tamarind/Random House include Baby Ruby Bawled, Miss Bubble’s Troubles (2010 World Book Day Recommended Read), Spike and Ali Enson (2010 Book of the Year in The Independent national newspaper) and, most recently, the sequel Spike in Space. Skin Deep, the first novel in her Sugar and Spice series was published in 2011 and the second, Dance Dreams, is due to be published in the USA on 26 March 2013.

Malaika has been a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at London Metropolitan University and the London College of Fashion, a British Council Crossing Borders mentor for writers in Africa and a visiting author and workshop leader at various children’s literature festivals, Black History Month, World Book Day and other events. She has compiled a list of books featuring bi-racial characters published in the UK and the USA, which is available on her blog site.

It is truly a pleasure to kick off this year’s campaign with the very versatile Malaika Rose Stanley!

The Journey:

I first started writing for children when my two grown-up sons were young and I felt that there were too few children’s books with black protagonists published in the UK – especially those that featured and/or appealed to black boys. I have always loved writing, but I only thought about trying to write for children after I went to enroll for an adult education class in French! I was so impressed by a display of covers from books published by authors who had previously attended the Writing for Children class – including Malorie Blackman – that I signed up for both courses (although I have to admit that I ditched French after just one semester).

I progressed from the basic course to a follow-up writing workshop where the one criteria for joining was to have a ‘work-in-progress’. During that time, I wrote my first published book, Man Hunt, very slowly and carefully. My editor did not demand any revisions and made only a few, small editorial changes. It left me with a very distorted and unrealistic view of the publication process. My writing journey since then has been much rockier. After my first three books, I returned to teaching and had a ten-year break from publishing, so I have only been a full-time author for the past four years.

The Inspiration:

I’m giving my age away here, but my favourite books from childhood include
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Heidi by Johanna Spyri and the Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton. The love of reading that these authors fostered in me continues to be an inspiration in my own writing.

As an adult, I have always admired and been inspired by the Australian children’s author, Morris Gleitzman, ever since I read one of his early books, Two Weeks with the Queen. I was impressed by his ability to write honestly about serious, challenging subjects but with humour and a lightness of touch. A couple of years ago, I heard him speak to about 6 adults and 60+ teenagers and he told us that the starting point for any story is to identify the biggest problem in the character’s life. He signed my copy of Now with the words, ‘G’day Malaika’ – which confirmed me as a die-hard fan.

All my own books start off based in reality, even when they stretch it to the limits and extend into fantasy, which is exactly what happens in Spike in Space:

Want a story that’s full of ALIENS and MONSTERS, and horrible, out-of-this-world smelly POO?

Then meet Spike! His adoptive family are from another planet, and now they’re taking him to live with them in SPACE!
Spike_and_Ali_Enson
Can he survive a new school, a horrible bully and a deadly attack from a hairy monster?

Background:
I wrote the first draft of Spike and Ali Enson many years before it was actually published. My manuscript went through many re-writes but I believe that tastes and trends within the publishing industry also changed. When I first started writing, the demand seemed to be almost exclusively for ‘issue-based’ books rather than stories that just happened to feature black characters – and there seemed to be little room for ‘genre’ books such as sci-fi or historical fiction. My experiences have certainly helped to cement my belief that authors should write what they know and love, rather than trying to write for the demands of the market which are likely to be inconsistent and difficult to predict.
Spike_and_Ali_Enson
I have been incredibly lucky to have secured deals directly with the publishers for all my books so far, but just over a year ago, I finally signed up with my first-ever agent, Catherine Pellegrino. The advantages were immediate in terms of the size of my admittedly still-small advance and meagre royalties for Spike in Space, but it’s a complete relief to be able to focus on my writing without diverting my creative energies into negotiations about money or foreign rights.

The Buzz:

“This fast-paced action adventure… designed to appeal to those who like their stories to be tinged with fantasy, thrills and spills, all the drama unfolds in shortish chapters, with a range of galactic vocab and cartoon-like illustrations to add zing.” (Junior Magazine)

“In a hilarious sequel to Spike and Ali Enson, Spike is off to live with his adoptive family on another planet… The combination of everyday things with which all kids are familiar and the excitement of life in space make this a fascinating and enjoyable series, which also carries a strong message about the importance of families and the reassurance they give.” (Parents in Touch)
Skin_DeepDance Dreams Cover

“This touching story of changes, new beginnings and dealing with difference is ideal for sharing with young children facing new experiences or beginning a new school year.” (The Book Trust)

My Brief Thoughts on the Industry:
I strongly believe that the children’s book publishing industry needs to actively challenge and reject the idea that books about black and ethnic minority characters will only appeal to readers from the same background. This view leads to the misconception that their commercial potential is limited and in turn makes it difficult for authors and others from diverse backgrounds to break into publishing.

The industry needs to accept that not all books by or about black people have to focus on the so-called gritty reality of racism or discrimination or identity – but that they should not ignore ‘issues’ if and when they arise in ‘slice of life’ stories – and have a wider approach in terms of ‘genre’, eg magic, sci-fi, thrillers, etc.
To find out more:
Visit Malaika Rose Stanley online at her Web home and on her blog.

Wonderful and inspiring words — thank you so much, Ms. Rose Stanley!


Throwback Thursday: Margaree King Mitchell

December 1, 2016

The tagline of Margaree King Mitchell’s website is “Creating Stories that Inspire.” Indeed her moving titles, from picture books to YA, touch children and adults and show the potential for greatness that lies within each of us. Her Coretta Scott King Honor Award-winning book, Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, debuted in 1993 and became a classic featured in classrooms and libraries, Reading Rainbow and theaters. Is it any wonder that people eagerly awaited a second collaboration by Margaree and acclaimed illustrator James E. Ransome? We featured Margaree as a 28 Days Later honoree the year that stirring book, When Grandmama Sings, debuted. It was  another  intergenerational  treasure, rooted in black history, that stayed with you long after you put it down.

Enjoy Margaree from February 28, 2012

– Kelly

margareeIf you are at all familiar with the picture book genre, you’ve likely heard of Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, the much heralded, 1994 Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Margaree King Mitchell is the author of that still-popular title, as well as Granddaddy’s Gift (1996).

Her latest book, When Grandmama Sings, was released last month to wonderful reviews. As we wind down this year’s campaign, it is an honor to feature the words and work of Margaree King Mitchell.

The Journey

When my son was in kindergarten, his school had Grandparents Day. Students could invite their grandparents to spend the whole day with them. We lived in Memphis, TN at the time and my son’s grandmothers lived in Atlanta and Kansas City, so he had no one to invite to school. When he arrived at school, not only had students brought their grandmothers, some had also brought their grandfathers. When my son got home he unclejedwas very sad. “I don’t have any grandfathers,” he said. I explained to him that both of his grandfathers had died before he was born. But he didn’t understand. Every day he came home from school sad because he had no grandfathers. I searched the public library for books that would show what life was like for his ancestors. I couldn’t find any. Then I went to all the bookstores in town. I still couldn’t find any. Therefore, I decided to write the books myself.

I wanted the books to be set in the rural South because that is where I’m from. I grew up on my grandfather’s farm in Holly Springs, Mississippi. I wanted each book to focus on an ordinary person who does extraordinary things for the time period in which they lived. I patterned the Uncle Jed character in my first book, UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP, after my grandfather. My grandfather owned his own farm during a time of segregation and racial discrimination. And he showed me that a person can rise above their surroundings and make their dreams come true.

I wanted to show the same things in my books. As I was thinking about my first book, I remembered my grandfather telling me about a barber who went house to house cutting hair. I made Uncle Jed a barber because I wanted all children to identify with the character whether they lived in the city or a small town. By the time I began writing the book we had moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. One day my son’s first grade teacher asked me to help out with some of the kids in her class who were behind the other kids academically. I started volunteering three days a week and worked with five students. Those three days turned into four days, then five days. I really cared about the students and wanted them to do well in school. When the end of the school year came, I wondered what would become of students who had no one to believe in them. Then I realized that the book I was writing to teach my son about his ancestors could also inspire children to dream big dreams for their lives.

After submitting my story for two years I received nothing but rejection letters. However, they were personal rejection letters from editors telling me that they loved my story but it didn’t fit in with their publishing plans. Finally, frustrated that those editors could love my story and not publish it, I decided to submit it directly to the publisher of Simon & Schuster. Within a month I had a contract.

When UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP was published, I was asked to read the story during Story Time at the main branch of the Little Rock Public Library. This was the first time kids other than my son had heard the story so I was anxious to see their reaction. After I finished reading the book, parents who were fascinated by the historical aspects of the story dominated the question and answer period. And I didn’t get any comments from children. But as I was leaving a little girl was waiting for me by the door. She said, “I liked your story about Uncle Jed. I want to be a doctor when I grow up but my grandmama keeps telling me I’ll never be one. Now I know I can be a doctor.”

I knew then I had achieved my goal in writing UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP. Since that day I have received many letters from children all across the country telling me their dreams. They also tell me who says they can’t achieve their dreams and why. But because of Uncle Jed’s story, they now know they can be anything they want to be if they just don’t give up.

The Inspiration

I get ideas for my stories on my morning walks. When my mind is quiet and I’m surrounded by nature ideas come to me. If I’m stuck at a certain part in a story I put it aside until the next day. I know that the next morning while I’m walking and appreciating nature the right solution will come.

I’m inspired by stories that are populated by families and friends, the stuff of life. I especially love the books of Mildred D. Taylor, whose stories are inspired by her family and their experiences. She heard about many of these stories at family gatherings in Mississippi. Her book ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY, is set in 1933 Mississippi during the Great Depression and deals with racial injustice. Her stories are filled with characters who find a way to right wrongs done to them.

The Back Story

My agent placed WHEN GRANDMAMA SINGS with Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, a division of William Morrow and Company. WHEN GRANDMAMA SINGS was the third book she had placed with them. However, before the first book came out, HarperCollins grandmamapurchased William Morrow and Company. Therefore, HarperCollins inherited all three books. After a review of my books, it was decided that WHEN GRANDMAMA SINGS would be published first. So I have waited over ten years for WHEN GRANDMAMA SINGS to be published.

However, during those ten years lots of great things happened with UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP. They are too numerous to name. I’ll just mention a few. An award winning musical featuring Broadway veteran Ken Prymus has been adapted from UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP. The most recent performances were in Denver last year. Plans are being made to take it to additional theaters.

The Federal Reserve Bank has developed lesson plans using UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP to teach students about saving, savings goals, opportunity cost, and entrepreneurship.

The Library of Congress has developed a lesson plan connecting events in history to the story in UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP.

The Buzz

From School Library Journal:

Gr-2-4 – Set in the segregated South of the 1950s, Mitchell’s poignant story features eight-year old Belle and her loving, stalwart African-American family. When Grandmama, who can’t read but whose singing voice captures the hearts of all who hear her, joins a jazz band for a tour of the South, Belle pleads to go along. Thrilled to expand her world beyond Pecan Flats, MS, she experiences firsthand the difficulties her people face: hotels marked “White Only,” diners that refuse them service, police who search their cars and luggage for no reason. Through it all, Grandmama sings to growing crowds, believing in the power of music to bring people together. When, at the story’s end, a recording contract beckons her “up north,” Grandmama tells Belle to believe in herself and “sing her own song.” Ransome’s full-page images, rich in color and feeling, portray the landscape of the South and the individual emotions of the characters with equal aplomb. Placed in the past, the message is still relevant for children today.” (Barbara Elleman, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Amherst, MA

From Kirkus Reviews:

Belle joins her beloved grandmother, a jazz singer, on a summer tour of Southern towns and sees that segregation is everywhere—not just at home in Mississippi.

Holding tight to her uncle’s lucky rabbit’s foot, Belle watches as Grandmama and the musicians face the ugliness of Jim Crow in diners and theaters and on the road. In Alabama, the police dump their belongings on the roadside, a state’s welcome. She also listens as her grandmother shares her dreams for an integrated society and thrills to her resounding performance on stage in Atlanta, one that leads to an offer to make recordings for a company up North. It’s a moment that inspires Belle to dream, because “the promise of her song helped me believe in myself.” As in Uncle Jed’s Barbershop (1993), for which Ransome won a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor, Mitchell has crafted another compelling story of an African-American family both strong and determined despite the all-powerful clamp of racism. Ransome uses watercolors in warm tones of yellows and browns to reveal nuances of expression and the warmth of family and community.

A gentle story that shows the everyday realities of segregation through the observant eye of a child. (Picture book. 5-9)

From Publishers Weekly:

“Mitchell and Ransome, the team behind Coretta Scott King Honor–winner Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, reunite for another story set in the early 20th century, in which intimate family relationships are set against a backdrop of racial segregation. Eight-year-old narrator Belle lives with her parents and Grandmama in the fictional town of Pecan Flats, Miss. Grandmama’s singing voice has earned her local fame, and when a man offers to “book her and a band on a small singing tour of the South,” she agrees, bringing Belle along for the ride. Written in the past tense, Belle’s narration has an elegiac quality, but while the band encounters plenty of discrimination on the road, triumphs outweigh setbacks (and Grandmama doesn’t come to any serious harm). Ransome’s lovely, naturalistic watercolors draw out a wealth of emotions from the characters, particularly Grandmama, whose expressions range from weariness to passion while she’s singing, and determination, such as when she slams money on the counter of a restaurant that won’t serve them. It’s a stirring reminder that it’s never too late to chase one’s dreams, no matter the obstacles. Ages 5–9. (Jan.)”

From The Horn Book:

From the author and the illustrator of Uncle Jed’s Barbershop (rev. 11/93) comes another picture book about life in the segregated South. The narrator recounts her grandmother’s story—she couldn’t read but “always had a song to sing”—which centers on Grandmama’s singing tour with her eight-year-old granddaughter there to keenly observe everything. Grandmama and her musicians initially draw small crowds, and Belle nervously points out the “whites only” signs wherever they go, but Grandmama is undeterred. Gradually word spreads about Grandmama’s talent as the tour continues, but the group still must contend with suspicion from Alabama police. The narration is calm and matter-of-fact, like Grandmama, who remains focused on what’s right, while in contrast Ransome’s paintings show the shame, sadness, and anger the characters feel. Mitchell’s latest picture book gives modern-day children a realistic depiction of the small humiliations and frightening moments African American travelers went through in their daily lives during the Jim Crow era, and it makes an excellent book for discussion. – Susan Dove Lempke

From Elizabeth Bird’s Librarian Preview:

Remember Uncle Jed’s Barbershop by Margaree King Mitchell, and illustrated by James Ransome? I sure as heck do because that book ends up on a lot of school lists of required reading. Well, that book came out in 1993 and is still in print to this day. Now Mitchell and Ransome have reunited at long last in When Grandmama Sings. In this picture book (historical) a girl can read and her grandma can’t. When her grandmother’s singing gives her a chance to go on tour she does so with her granddaughter. The trouble? They’re touring the segregated south. This is a book that covers both a meaningful relationship and history. A good companion to last year’s The Green Book by Calvin Ramsey and Floyd Cooper, don’t you think?

The State of the Industry

Publishers should remember that there is a whole market of underserved readers who are interested in stories of the South and other stories featuring the African American experience. There are a myriad of stories about African American life waiting to be told but if traditional publishers are not interested in these stories the literary record will be incomplete. The South is filled with rich history of how African Americans overcame racial obstacles to not only survive but thrive and be successful under unbearable conditions. This is why ordinary people are at the center of my stories. By telling those stories students will realize that they, too, can make a difference in the world.

Regardless of how well previous books by authors of color are received, there is still someone who says no one will read your book. Or the book has to be about a famous African American. Or the person reading the story has no grasp of history and doesn’t believe that ordinary African Americans could be resourceful and create their own destiny. Therefore, it is hard for new books to be published. And it will continue to be so unless there is an advocate in publishing companies who is committed to being sure that all stories are told.


Throwback Thursday- Vanessa Brantley Newton

November 26, 2016

For my throwback Thursday, I chose one of my favorite illustrators, Vanessa Brantley Newton. Although I’m also a big fan of more realistic illustrators / painters such as Eric Velasquez and E.B. Lewis, there’s something about her cartoony style that always makes me smile. The drawings are super cute, and I can always imagine them on a T-shirt or lunch box. And the few times I’ve spoken with her, her personality has matched her art. In my ideal publishing world, she’d never get a vacation because she’d be producing book after book. Sorry Vanessa. Now if you’re reading this, get back to work!

Enjoy Vanessa’s interview from 2011.

Jerry Craft

For this interview, I studied Vanessa’s website and sorted through her artwork, looking for just the right words to use in an introduction. I failed, big-time. Words like “charming,” “fresh,” and “retro” came to mind—boring words that didn’t do her art justice.

I fretted for days. I care about my work here, and I wanted to give Vanessa her due props. But then, over the weekend, Vanessa emailed answers to her interview questions, along with her wonderful artwork. That’s when I realized that I didn’t need to say a word. Vanessa’s words and art say it all. They made me smile, laugh, think, cheer. And her art!—you’ll want to gobble it up!

Vanessa describes herself as a full-time mom, and a freelance illustrator and writer, who loves to craft, cook, and collect vintage children’s books. She lives in East Orange, NJ with her husband and daughter, and a very fat cat named Kirby who thinks he is dog.

Vanessa, in your own words, please tell us about your most recent book Don’t Let Auntie Mabel Bless the Table

What happens when everyone is invited to Auntie Mabel’s house for Sunday Dinner? Craziness that’s what. Auntie Mabel just doesn’t know how to stop her snowballing grace over dinner. Her family loves her, but they are hungry and Auntie wants to pray this long prayer and the food gets cold and everyone is upset. I wanted to show what my family was like. I come from a very multicultural family and they are funny and wonderful, and there are so many magical stories to tell about them. Auntie Mabel is just one of them.

Tell us about  your path of publication, from spark of inspiration to printed book

I had written this story many, many years ago, almost 15 years or more. I put it away. I read it to a couple of members of my family and they seem to like it well enough, but I wasn’t sure. I took some classes at the School of Visual Arts in NYC and I showed it to my teachers, some said it was way too much and others said that it wasn’t enough and so I got even more confused. So I secretly worked on my characters and I let them tell me where they wanted the story to go.  I showed it to my agent about a year ago and she told me to work on it some more and this frustrated me. I then took it with me to one of my publishers. Harriet Ziegert over at Blue Apple  Books. She read it and fell instantly in love with it!! She actually took the script out of my hands and started editing it. She told me, “everything you need is in here already and you just need to move some words around and shorten the dang thing!!!” No need to add another thing. Now draw some pictures.”  I laugh now when I think about it.  Harriet is brilliant. I think that stories are fresh and brilliant when they come from your life experiences .  What you have been through. The people you know.  Harriet shortened the story quite a bit but it works.

Can you talk about your transformation from artist to writer

I have always been writing. I am a musician, singer and songwriter. I love to write songs. They are stories to be “Sungtold.”  It’s a word that I made up.  My mom was a great storyteller and singer.  She weaved words and music together to tell fabulous stories or create word pictures.  Writing is a muscle that has to be worked everyday just as illustration is a muscle.  People tend to think that writing for children is easy, but it’s not.  Good writers make it look easy.  It’s hard work. It takes thinking outside of the box. It’s using the gray matter between the eyes.  It’s the art of telling a story that wants to be told over and over and over again in less than an hour.  It’s the art of telling a story with a few delicious words.  I am being stretched even more now as I am asked to create and share my own stories.  Sometimes I have a clue as how to do it and sometimes I clueless.  I keep a notebook by my bedside to write in and keep notes.  I listen to children.  I watch them and I record them.  I reach back into my childhood to find stories and things that want to be put onto paper.  There is no magic formula that I try to follow.  I am still trying to find my voice in writing.  I am currently working on several stories with my sister Coy Curry who is also a singer and songwriter.  We are country girls from the Low Country. That’s Beaufort , SC and the islands of SC.  We are Geechee people. Or Gullah. These are the sea island people who were enslaved from Serra Leone.  Our Gullah culture is dying and we want to tell the stories that we have carried for years to others.  We want to keep it alive.  We want to share what it was like growing up in a Geechee Gullah household with songs, stories, food, crafts and language.


What kinds of stories inspire you?

Stories of the old. Oral tales and accounts. These things inspire me as a writer.

I love your illustrations on the covers of the popular Ruby and the Booker Boys series. How did you come to be a part of this project?

My good friend Karen Proctor asked me to bring my portfolio over to the city.  She wanted to share it with Andrea Pinkney.  I was so honored to meet someone of the Pinkney family!  That made my day right there!  Andrea graciously looked at my portfolio and told me what I needed to do to make it more workable. She was honest and upfront about it and I liked that about her. She saw a piece that I did called “Ghetto Boy in da Hood” and she loved it.  She loved it so much that she took it out of the portfolio with several other pieces.  She told me that she would give me a call in a couple of months.  A couple of months rolled by and I didn’t hear from her. I was a little disappointed and just when I wasn’t expecting a call I got one from her.  She wanted me to create a girl character.  I did some sketches and a finished piece and sent them too her. She called me back told me that they wanted me to work on a new project called, “Ruby and the Booker Boys” I jumped at the chance and Ruby was born.

Please talk about your training, education. What led you to a career in art?

I wanted to be a doctor, but my grades said otherwise.  I am dyslexic, meaning I have a learning difference.  Drawing was my way to express myself.  I am mainly self-taught.  While I attended FIT and the SVA of NYC, I never got my degree. I had run out of money and I had to get a job fast so I worked as a phlebotomist.  I did side jobs in illustration. I did some greeting cards and fine art work. I worked as a phlebotomist for over 25 years before I started doing children’s book illustration.  I knew that I needed to hone my gift in illustration, but I didn’t have the money to go back to school so I started reading books and taking course here and there to hone my craft.  I hope to get my degree soon, but if I don’t I have found expression and it has found me and we work together.

Do you have any thoughts on why so many black illustrators are male yet so many authors are female? Who are  female illustrators who inspired you?

I believe there are not many female black illustrators, because they are not encouraged to step into the arena of illustration and they are not encouraged to learn the technical side of art.  I also feel, unfortunately, I believe that the culture is divided in thinking women are better storytellers, because we are more verbal by nature and that men are more visual.  It is definitely something I feel needs to change.  I don’t know many black female illustrators, but the ones I do know are award winning and exceptional artist and I am proud to be among them, such as Shadra Strickland, Cozbi and Patricia Cummings are a few that come to mind.

In all honesty I have not been inspired by many black female illustrators, mainly, because at the time of my development there were no known black children’s book illustrators, except for Tom Feelings and the Dillions, let alone female black illustrators.  I hope to dispel this truth with my own work and inspire other up and coming illustrators. 

What is your mission as an artist?

To create illustrations and word pictures that are indelibly printed on the brain.  Images, that restore and heal the inner child in all of us.

Your artwork has a very appealing retro look about it. What inspired this?

There is something so beautiful to me about old children’s books. They are traditional done.  No magic tricks, just the magic of imagination.  The colors and hand work of these books are amazing to me.  I collect tons of children’s books from the 1950’s and 60’s along with Old Humpty Dumpty Magazines and Golden Books.  It takes me back to my childhood.  Ezra Jack Keats is one of my greatest mentors.  He inspires me most in my artwork.  I love his collage work.  I never got to meet him, but he has been one of my greatest teachers ever. The others are Mary Blair, Fiep Westendorp, The Provensen’s Tom O’Louglin, Tommy Unger, David Catrow, Mo Williems and Adrian Johnson.

What inspires you as an illustrator?

People!!!! Oh my goodness PEOPLE!!! I people watch all the time. We are the funniest things on the dang plant Man! I am a lover of people good, bad, ugly, pretty, happy, sad I love to look at people, because they inspire and then, of course, anything retro comes next.  Being a child of the 60’s I got to watch Bugs Bunny, Felix the Cat, the Jetsons and the Flintstones. These cartoons formed a lot of my desire to become and illustrator.  The colors and patterns and subject matter appealed to me. It was without computers, bells and whistles. You had to make your own magic. I love technology, but I am inspired by the old and tattered.  I love to laugh!  I am always looking to find the funny.  It’s major and important to me to find the funny.  So you will see it in my characters that I illustrate and in the situations I put them in.  I want people to see themselves and not take themselves so seriously.

What are you doing when You’re not creating children’s books?

Singing, laughing and spending time with my husband of 16 years and our daughter who is 10.  I love to craft so I spend any couple of minutes I have creating he he he he!!

Can you talk about some of your works in progress, what’s on the horizon?

Children’s books, comics, etc. I just finished a book with Cedella Marley called, ” One Love” A song written by her father, the great Bob Marley and adapted by his daughter. I have been working on my first traditional collage book called, “Magic Trash “The story of Tyree Guyton.  My sister Coy and I are working on a Gullah Geechee children’s book as well as a series of books of Fractured Fairytales from the Hood.  Things like “Lil’ Red in the Hood” is one that will be published soon. All I can say is “HILARIOUS!”

What advice can you offer to aspiring writers and illustrators of children’s books?

Hone, hone, and hone your writing and illustration skills.  Get around people who support your dreams and visions.  Don’t be too eager to share your dreams and visions with everyone, because everyone is not cheering for you.  You can’t put an 18×24 vision in a 3×5 card mind!  If it comes to you right then, write it down NOW!!  Don’t wait to do it later.  A great story could be right there at your fingertips.  Listen to children. Write down what they say and how they say it.  Read other peoples books.  Go to the bookstores and check out what is on the shelf.  See a need and fill it.  If there  are no books that you like, try writing one that you would like to see.  Take classes in illustration and writing often to stay current and fresh.  Visit other people’s blogs on writing and illustration.  Know the business of publishing.  Be true to yourself. Stop measuring your gifts and talents by other people, its hard enough being you as it is.  Search for things to put around you to keep you inspired.  Collect the books of the authors and illustrators that you adore and study them.  You can be mentored from a far.  Find time for yourself. I am working on this myself.  Find time for you and care for YOU.  Start today saying good things and thinking good thoughts about where you want to be as an illustrator or writer or both.  See yourself doing it and go for it!

Who are your cheerleaders?

My hubby, Ray, my daughter, Zoe, my sister Coy, my sisterfriend Loredan, my brother from another mother, Eric Barclay and my agent Lori Nowicki

See. Aren’t you inspired? Told ya so.


Throwback Thursday – Nikki Grimes

November 17, 2016

nikki-grimes

My Throwback Thursday landed on Nikki Grimes and I’m delighted it did. What a talent! If only . . .
I love her Dyamonde Daniel chapter book series. I featured it in my afterschool book club. I sent copies to my teacher-daughter to use in her classroom. Her students loved it, too. I only wish some of the concerns she discussed in 2010 were not issues we still discuss in 2016.

Enjoy Nikki Grimes from February 24, 2010.

-Gwendolyn

I love drawing the long straw and getting to profile a trailblazer during 28 Days Later. And somehow, Varian let me get away with profiling both of the YA vanguards. Shh…he may not realize.

But these are the authors who have been in the industry long enough to truly say where publishing has been and where it needs to go. How they endure the business-side of writing while still producing great work is among life’s greatest mysteries for me.

Nikki Grimes has been writing children’s books since the 1970’s. She’s a best selling author and several times over Coretta Scott King winner or honoree. Often, during Brown Bookshelf discussions, we talk about our heavy hitters, the names that people instantly recognize when talking about children’s books by authors of color and Nikki’s name is always among them.

What hasn’t a long-time author answered in an interview? What haven’t they already divulged about themselves? I’d venture to guess, not much. Still Nikki was game to indulge me. We talked about the industry and her latest baby, the Dyamonde Daniel series – chapter books about an inquisitive, up and coming, young poet.

BBS: Your bio page lists what life as an author is like. It had me in stitches because it’s so true. Ironically, writing is only a small part of a writer’s life, yet you’ve written so much. How do you hear the voices of your characters with so many other things competing for your attention?

NG: Not to worry! My characers are both loud and demanding. I couldn’t miss hearing their voices if I tried. And when I attempt to ignore them, they simply do me the courtesy of waking me in the middle of the night!

BBS: Selling fiction is tough enough, what special challenges are associated with being a working i.e. selling poet? How do you stay competitive in a field that seems to offer so few opportunities?

NG: I don’t wait for opportunities I make my own. Since I’m driven by character and story—not genre—I concentrate on creating story narratives that are relevant, narratives that I believe will speak to the young readers of today. Poetry is my first love, though, and so many of my narratives take that form.

BBS: Share, with us, one change you’ve seen in publishing since your first children’s book that you never thought you’d see?

NG: The growing popularity of e-books! Never saw that coming. I was autographing at the National Book Festival this past September, and a young reader brought me a Kindle to sign! I nearly fell out of my chair. It’s a brand new day!

BBS: Share one thing you have yet to see but would like to see change about children’s book publishing.

NG: I would love to see more diversity in editorial and management positions. That would, quite literally, change the face of children’s poetry.

BBS: Your latest books are the Dyamonde Daniel series. Dyamonde reminds me of my childhood fave chapter book character, Ramona. What inspired the series? How many books are planned in the series?

NG: Over the years, several publishers have approached me about creating a series, but I simply wasn’t interested. Then, about two years ago, I began to wonder: if I were to create a series, what would that look like? The question bored into my psyche and wouldn’t stop until I answered the question. As for the length of my little experiment, Dyamonde is an open-ended series. I’ve no idea how long, or short, the series will end up being. Stay tuned!

BBS: Any chances we might see Dyamonde on the big or little screen in time for my five year old to enjoy? Although I’m serious, the true question is, what do you believe it will take to draw more film/TVinterest in books featuring characters of color? Surely it’s not for a lack of intriguing characters. Your books alone offer a myriad of possibilities.

NG: I’m not sure how to crack that particular nut. I’ve certainly wondered about it, and I get no end of letters from fans asking the same question. Unfortunately, the people of power in those industries still seem to operate under the false notion that stories featuring characters of color are incapable of appealing to a broader audience. Nothing could be further from the truth. My own readership crosses all boundaries of race, nationality, age, and gender. There most definitely is an audience for these stories. However, it may take a Tyler Perry, or an Oprah Winfrey, or some other industry person of color to bring these stories to the screen. Perhaps BET someone at BET could step into the void. We’ll have to see what happens down the road.

BBS: Choose a side in this debate and give us your closing argument on the point: Should brown books fight to be mainstreamed or should people of color “be happy” with just making sure other people of color know about their books?

NG: Mainstream, definitely. Good stories should be read by all children. Books are one of the chief ways we learn about other cultures, other ways of seeing the world. Stories also teach us that we are all the same beneath the skin. We do reaeders a great disservice by isolating the stories of any one culture from all the rest.
The Buzz on Nikki’s Work

Rich: A Dyamonde Daniel Book

“Young readers will wish they had a friend like Dyamonde.” —Kirkus Reviews

Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel

“Meet Dyamonde Daniel. You’ll be happy that you did.” —Betsy Bird, A Fuse #8 Production

“A welcome addition to the steadily growing list of beginning chapter books with African American protagonists, this is a promising start for the Dyamonde Daniel series.” Grades 2-4. —Booklist

Bronx Masquerade

“The book…succeeds because it makes us want the best for these voices so clearly heard.” Horn Book

“As always, Grimes gives young people exactly what they’re looking for—real characters who show them they are not alone.” School Library Journal

*2003 Coretta Scott King Author Award
*Best Book for Young Adults
*Children’s Literature Choice
*Quick Pick for Young Adult Reluctant Readers

Road to Paris

“In clear short chapters, Grimes tells a beautiful story of family, friendship, and faith from the viewpoint of a child in search of home in a harsh world.” – Booklist

*Nominated for the 2009-2010 Nebraska Golden Sower Award, Intermediate divison
*Coretta Scott King Honor Book


Throwback Thursday: Walter Dean Myers

November 3, 2016

WDM-238x300

Very recently, a nephew came to live with me.  He’s quiet, stays in his room, and basically comes downstairs to eat and hang out in the backyard.  Most of the time, his earbuds are in, and therefore I believed he didn’t want to have a face-to-face conversation.  One day, he was sitting at the counter in my kitchen, eating lunch, when I noticed him staring at something.  He took his earbuds out, picked up a book and asked,

“You read Walter Dean Myers?”

I just shrugged, stuck in stupid, totally surprised on so many levels.

He grinned, “I’ve read all the books in my school library written by him.  SLAM, FALLEN ANGELS, SCORPIONS.  Have you read MONSTER?  Everybody says that’s really good.  I can’t believe he’s gone.  You have any more of his books?”

And so, our conversations began.  Thank you, Walter Dean Myers.

He has reached thousands of young people through his writings and teachings.  And in honor of his contributions to children’s literature, I would like to kick off our “Throwback Thursday” with The Brown Bookshelf’s 2008  28 Days Later spotlight of one of the most prolific writers of all time. — C.A.

*         *         *

Walter Dean Myers has had the type of career that most authors can only dream of. Since becoming first published in 1969, Myers has won five Coretta Scott King Awards, two Newbery Honors, and was awarded the first American Library Association Michael L. Printz Award for Monster. In 1994, Myers received the Margaret A. Edwards Award for “lifetime contribution to young adult literature,” and in 2008, the American Library Association chose Myers to present the 2009 May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture–an honor given yearly to an individual of distinction in the field of children’s literature.

Street LoveNot one to limit himself to strictly novels, Myers has also excelled at both short stories and poetry. His novel  Lovein verse, Street Love (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2006), was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a Kirkus Editor’s Choice, and was named to the Horn Book Fanfare List for 2006. Likewise, his most recent collection of short stories, What They Found: Love on 145th Street (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, 2007), was also hailed by critics, receiving starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, School Library Journal, and the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

Known for capturing the emotional and physical heart of Harlem in his novels, Myers returns to a familiar topic, basketball, in his new novel Game (HarperTeen, 2008). From the HarperTeen website: “Drew Lawson knows basketball is taking him places. It has to, because his grades certainly aren’t. But lately his plan has run squarely into a pick. Coach’s new offense has made another player a star, and Drew won’t let anyone disrespect his game. Just as his team makes the playoffs, Drew must come up with something big to save his fading college prospects. It’s all up to Drew to find out just how deep his game really is.”

GameKLIATT gave Game a starred review, saying, “Myers…clearly knows basketball, and he nails the court action… A great choice for sports fans.” School Library Journal adds, “As always, Myers eschews easy answers, and readers are left with the question of whether or not Drew is prepared to deal with the challenges that life will inevitably hand him.”