Throwback Thursday: Martin Mordecai

June 22, 2017

Martin Mordecai

The gorgeous novel BLUE MOUNTAIN TROUBLE from Martin Mordecai debuted to rave reviews last year. Kirkus gave it a starred review, Booklist called it “rich in characterization with a beautifully realized setting”. Publishers Weekly noted that “the author captures the rhythm of the children’s daily life and effectively conveys their hopes, fears and family love as they look toward the future and learn secrets about the past.” BLUE MOUNTAIN TROUBLE was just recently named an Ontario Library Association (OLA) Best Bet — one of their top 10 Canadian novels for children. Mr. Mordecai was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, far from Top Valley, where his novel is set. Martin’s professions have included television, radio, journalism, and the foreign service, but he has written all his life. Martin now lives in Toronto, Canada, with his wife, Pamela.

In BLUE MOUNTAIN TROUBLE, intrigue and a sense of romance are intertwined with the daily realities of the twins lives, and the life of their community. Do you consider your book a fantasy tale? How do you see the concept of ‘magic’ playing a part in your work? In readers’ lives? How have you seen the ‘magic’ of literature in your own reading life? In your readers’ today?

I think perhaps that the ‘romance’ is in the tone of the writing, which is deliberate — BMT started life as a bedtime story told to a child. And it’s a fantasy only insofar as there is the element of the ‘duppy Goat’. I think the ‘magic’ is really just the goat and the sense of wonder it brings to the lives of the twins. Much of the rest is very reality-based.

For me there is definitely magic to be found in literature, and it saddens me to see and hear people who do not read or “have no time” for books. The magic in books, even in non-fiction, is a shared magic between the author and the reader,— it’s interactive. You bring yourself to the author’s and character’s selves, and something quite alchemical can happen. When you watch television you’re merely observing someone else’s magic — and in many cases there’s no magic at all!

How and why did you choose twin characters? You’ve mentioned that Pollyread was ‘hogging the best lines” — how did you uncover Jackson’s voice and story? How much do the twins’ external and/or internal lives reflect your own at age 11?

As I said, this started as a bedtime story to a child. Unless I’m sitting in front of a keyboard I’m not very imaginative, so after I began the usual way, Once upon a time…I said, there were twins . . . figuring two characters gave me more options than one. Likewise the duppy goat. Pollyread got all the best lines because once I started actually writing the story I had a ready template for her: our daughter, who’s bright and lippy and has been known to be devious. Jackson took more thought and effort. I took some of him – his gift with mathematics and plants – from our eldest son, but otherwise he is, I think, himself, and I kinda like him.

I can’t remember what I was thinking and feeling when I was 11! But I know I wasn’t as smart or as confident as either of the twins.


You’re a very descriptive writer — how does your photography influence your work as an author? What were the stories that transformed your childhood? Are there any contemporary authors or works of children’s literature that are particularly powerful to you?

The photography: Probably a lot. I have to ‘see’ a scene, usually with a line or two of dialogue, before I can start writing. And it was a photograph I took one morning in the mountains that solidified Top Valley for me, the physical aspects of it.

Our house, when I was a child, was full of books and records, of all kinds, so reading was not a remarkable activity for any of us – or music for that matter, most of us learnt an instrument at some time or another. There were fewer books for children at that time, so you read whatever was to hand. I remember some of the stories of Mark Twain, which were fantastic in all meanings of that word, and those of Damon Runyon — my father had lived briefly in New York and loved Runyon, as do I. And from quite young I loved history, historical stories, and still do. It was perhaps fated that I would try to write a historical novel myself.

Among contemporary writers for children, I’ve really only started reading them (a bit) since BMT was accepted for publication. There are some fine ones I’ve found, but what’s enjoyable about them brings pleasure to me as an adult. Which confirms my wife’s conviction that BMT is not really ‘a children’s book’.


You were born in Jamaica, and now live in Canada, where you’ve said that you arrived and “did many different things, as immigrants have to”. What were some of those many things? Can you elaborate on your observations of immigrant lives in North America?

I can’t generalize, each immigrant has a unique experience. I will say, however, that immigrants, especially those from the so-called Third World, bring to their host countries, particularly the U.S. and Canada, a toughness of will and a breadth of vision and experience that those mainstream societies can only benefit from, and ignore at peril to their own future vitality.

For myself, and my wife, Pam, what we did had to do with books in one way or another. My wife’s a well-published author, and without her royalties my own trajectory would probably have been the more archetypal one of the PhD driving a cab — except that I don’t have a PhD; I do however know the streets of Toronto pretty well. But we imported and exported books, published books, edited books, and in the early years did a little consulting.


How did this story come to you? How did your plot evolve? Are you more of a character- or plot-focused writer? Or neither?

I’m not bad with plot ideas for other people’s stories, but hopeless with my own. I follow the words. I make discoveries about the people I’m writing about, and derive plot-points or whatever, from listening to the words in my head or that appear on the screen, and letting the ideas sparked by the words lead me into the light. That’s one reason why I’m a very slow writer. Because the words can lead you into blind alleys, and you have to go back and find the word(s) that point in a new direction.


A review of BMT mentions your use of patois, adding that “Mordecai pays us the compliment of respecting that readers have more than one way of understanding a word and a concept.” How did you make decisions about what to define or not define in the process of telling your story? Why was it important to you to tell your story in the way you did?

I think that review, in a Canadian journal, is the most gratifying of those from North America, and that comment typifies it. I didn’t make any decisions about ‘defining’ or ‘explaining’ words. I’m not a speaker of deep Jamaican Creole, so that language wasn’t available to me, so I just wrote what I heard in my head. Fortunately, Rachel Griffiths, my editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, took the decision against a glossary; I appreciated that.

Tell us a bit about your path to Arthur A. Levine Books, and the factors that made this pairing a success. What was your debut year like? Were there any surprises along the way? What was most gratifying for you? What do you wish you had been told? What would you tell new authors today? Do you have any best/worst moments to share?

I’m embarrassed to say that I’d never heard of Arthur A. Levine Books before my agent, Margaret Hart, told me about Arthur. And Margaret was absolutely convinced that AAL was the ‘right’ place for BMT. She was correct. (She sent it to other publishers, but wasn’t too upset when they turned it down.) What was most gratifying was the respect with which Rachel and Arthur treated the manuscript, and their conviction (far stronger than my own) that it was a worthwhile project to publish.

The best moment for me was when they called one day shortly after publication last year to tell me that BMT had received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. They were so very pleased for me. That was nice.

Another great moment was a ‘review’ from my 9-year-old grandniece, whose mother reported that she had to wrestle the book away from her in the shower! All the words of praise in journals can’t match that.


There have been numerous discussions of the value of ‘multicultural literature’ — what does that term mean to you? How has the Caribbean literary tradition played a role in your reading and writing life?

I’m not sure what the term means at all; I’m not familiar with it in Canada, though we pride ourselves on being ‘the most multicultural country’ in the world. In Canada it’s pretty much all ‘Canadian literature’.

The Caribbean Literary tradition, such as it is, is only, for English-speakers anyway, about 100 years old. For me what it means is that we have stories to tell that people want to hear, and that we are the best people to tell them. People like CLR James, Sam Selvon, John Hearne, VS Naipaul, Sylvia Wynter, Vic Reid – these people gave scribblers of my generation and later ones the confidence to dream about writing books. For myself, the excitement has been more in the use of language, by writers like Reid, Louise Bennett, Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Olive Senior, and my wife, Pam. Younger writers are building on this and taking the ‘tradition’ in new directions.

In the area which BMT occupies, literature for children, the ‘tradition’ is less old. There were stories from the forties by Eddie Burke, a social worker who became a clergyman and established the rural setting as the ‘heart place’ of childhood; Vic Reid, who gave our history the clarity and resonance of childhood; then books written and edited by Jean D’Costa and others, meant for schools but with much original writing. And always, giving delight to children and adults, the poetry and stories of Louise Bennett. BMT is a modest addition to that venerable library.

In a post on Geoffrey Philp’s Blog Spot, you talk about your online critique and support group. Why do you think it worked so well? What were its benefits in comparison to an in-person group? What advice do you have for other authors considering the same?

I think the online writer’s group worked for two reasons. First, all of us knew at least one, maybe two other members of the group. Only Nalo Hopkinson, a marvelous Caribbean-Canadian writer, knew everybody, all six of us (seven eventually). So there was a certain shyness, but also an element of discovery and anticipation about the exchanges. And, like all the best friendships – because we were not just mostly strangers but also writing totally different stuff – it started slowly.

The second reason was that it was non-judgmental. The only thing required of you, so to speak, was a word-count for that day. You didn’t have to ‘show’ anything if you didn’t want to, and when you did there was no obligation for anyone else to comment And if you didn’t write anything for that day you didn’t have to explain why, unless you wanted to. When you’re meeting relative strangers – which is what we were – in the flesh, at a coffee shop or someone’s home, there’s often an unspoken obligation/anticipation dynamic at work: ‘What have you got to show? Why don’t you?’ And you feel you have to make some comment, preferably enthusiastic, about your colleague’s work.

Writing is such a personal thing, so much of your personhood is invested in it, that you are instinctively careful about exposure. Online – ironically, because we hear so much about the nakedness of the online person – provides a filter, a firewall.

But that’s me. Pam is more relaxed about showing her work to other people for their assessment – people whose judgment she trusts, of course. But I don’t. She and my children are the only people who saw any of BMT, until the online writing group started. Different strokes for different folks. But BMT would not have been written without them. And without the grants provided by various arts funding agencies here in Canada. Give thanks for new friends and taxpayers.


What do you do for fun? What do you wish people knew about you? What do you wish an interviewer would just ask already?

Fun? Writers aren’t allowed to have fun – except when they’re writing. The blood, sweat and tears constitute fun, the delete button is our rubber ball!

But I listen to music, talk to my wife, my children and our grandchild, and read a lot, mostly, at the moment, history.

I don’t wish people to know anything about me except what’s in my books or in the author’s profile. That’s why I’m not on Facebook, I don’t Twitter, Buzz, or any of those things. I’m developing a website, but I don’t intend to go further than that. My life is pretty boring anyway — and nobody’s business.

Thank you so much, Mr. Mordecai — this interview has inspired me in many ways.


Throwback Thursday: Fredrick McKissack

May 25, 2017

Today we go back to a great contributor to children’s literature, Fredrick McKissack, who with his wife wrote more than 100 books for children about the African-American experience. On the Scholastic website the McKissacks talked about their process:

“There is no magic formula,” Fred says. “Pat and I talk all the time.” “After talking through a project,” Pat continues, “We outline it. Then Fred does most of the digging and the research, and I write it up on the computer and run off a hard copy. Fred fact-checks and refines it, and then gives it back to me to make his changes and any more of my own.” “Then we run off another hard copy and keep doing that until it satisfies us both,” Fred adds. (More here: https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/authors/fredrick-l–mckissack/)

They made a winning team. Beside winning two Coretta Scott King Awards, four of their collaborations were runners-up, or Coretta Scott King Honor Books. In 2014, the year after his death, the McKissacks were both honored with the Coretta Scott King – Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement by the American Library Association.

Below is the original post that appeared about Fredrick McKissack on the Brown Bookshelf blog in 2015.

In the summer of 2005, I had the pleasure of meeting Fredrick McKissack. He and his wife, author Patricia McKissack, were teaching and sharing their experiences on how to write for children at a Highlights workshop.  He had a fascinating personality and was a gracious host. His work as a researcher was outstanding and informative.

Mr. McKissack discussed his research for Black Hands, White Sails.

He was meticulous, checking and rechecking the finest detail, and traveling to the east coast from their home in St. Louis to visit whaling museums. That book written by his wife won a Coretta Scott King Honor award. It told the story of black sailors on whaling ships. And it showed me the possibilities of writing nonfiction. It remains one of my favorites.

The writing and researching duo published over 100 books. Many won awards including the Coretta Scott King Award, the NAACP Image Award, the Newbery, the C.S. Lewis Medal, the Caldecott Award, the Jane Addams Peace Award, and the Regina Medal.

Mr. McKissack died on April 28, 2013.


Throwback Thursday: Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard

April 20, 2017

Not only is Ms. Howard a children’s book author with many beautiful picture books, according to the Pennsylvania Center for the Book she has worn many hats: professor, librarian, lecturer, and researche assistant. Read on for more about the author of Aunt Flossie’s Hats from 2010.

As a child, Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard loved to read. That her books showed a white world didn’t matter to her back then. She identified with treasured characters and didn’t question the lack of diversity. But when Howard grew up, and multicultural children’s books began to bloom, she realized she missed something important — reflections of her people and herself.

Howard set out to change that. She mined her family life for tales that spoke to the African-American experience, the American experience. Her book, Aunt Flossie’s Hats (and Crabcakes Later), illustrated by James Ransome, is a beautiful example of how a tale rooted in black culture speaks to people of all races. Howard said she’s delighted when people say to her Aunt Flossie reminds them of someone in their family. Next year, she’ll celebrate the 20th anniversary of that classic picture book. It’s one of her most acclaimed works.

Publisher’s Weekly called Aunt Flossie’s Hats ” . . . an affecting portrait of a black American family and of the ways in which shared memories can be a thread, invisible yet strong, that ties generations together.”

Howard’s books, often inspired by real-life family stories, follow the adage, “write what you know,” in a powerful way. Her characters bear the names of family members. She explores relationships and experiences in a black middle-class family. Howard hopes her books will show children that their stories are important.

“I want them to see themselves as part of America’s past and future,” she said.

Howard, a former librarian and professor, is a beloved author who lives in Pittsburgh, my hometown. So I’m particularly proud to share her work.

Please join us in celebrating vanguard author Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard on day 26 of our campaign:

Please tell us about the role storytelling played in your family. How did that experience help shape you as a writer?

Storytelling was definitely important in my family. My mom, dad, Cousin Chita, Aunt Flossie, Aunt Jo were all storytellers. Sunday dinner was the best time. We heard about Raw Head and Bloody Bones, Uncle Clem and the great train, great Baltimore fire, waffle man, Chita’s dad (Uncle Harry) and Cuba, etc. I learned the joy and necessity of family stories and their importance in African-American family life.

I read that you call yourself the “Grandma Moses” of children’s books because you began writing them later in your life. What inspired you to write for children?

I was a children’s librarian for five years at Boston Public Library. When I had my own kids, I became dedicated again (as when growing up) to books for kids. As a professor of library science, I taught mainly children’s literature and began meeting authors as I attended many conferences. I recognized forcefully the dearth of books about African-American experiences by African-American authors. I was inspired by the charm and simplicity of family stories by Cynthia Rylant such as When I was Young In the Mountains. I wondered if my experience as a 7-year-old riding with my 4-year-old sister all day on the train from Boston to Baltimore could get published. I did not know any family stories about just the every-day life of the regular middle-class, so in my mid 50s, I gave it a try.

How did your first picture book, Train to Lulu’s, come to be? Please share your path to publication. What were the toughest and most rewarding moments?

I joined the writers workshop at Marilyn Hollinshead’s wonderful Pinnochio, children’s book store. I sent my story off to good friend Trina Schart Hyman for comments. She was VERY helpful and said the story needed conflict which I added. I sent it off. It was rejected by several publishers. I accosted Richard Jackson, an editor at Bradbury, at ALA. I told him I had sent it to him and received no answer. He was chagrined. He grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me away from the hubbub around his booth and urged me “Send it again!” I did and he accepted it!!!! Happiness!

He soon left Bradbury leaving the book with editor Barbara Lalicki, one of the editors who had rejected the manuscript. Help! But she wrote to me: “I see it is my happy fate to be involved with TRAIN TO LULU’S after all and she saw it through to publication in spring 1988. Joy! My most rewarding moment was driving over to Pinnocchio Bookstore to a book party for ME! But I certainly didn’t think I was a children’s book author.

My family was ecstatic! My dad kept grinning and repeating: “I can’t stop reading this book!” My sister Babs loved it although she was a little unhappy that I had made her cry (in response to Trina Hyman’s advice regarding the story needing some conflict . . . (“I never cried!” she said.)  Lulu had left us at age 96 way back in 1966, but all of the named folks gathering at the train station in Baltimore raved! I was already a grandma when my first book was published.

What was the racial landscape like when you first entered the field? How has it changed? What gains make you proud? What do you hope the future brings?

Well, there were very few books about African American kids, very few black authors…hardly anything about contemporary families i.e. mid-20th century. So the field has changed exponentially!!! I am excited about Christopher Paul Curtis, Sharon Flake, Angela Johnson, etc..etc..etc.. Many distinguished authors. Starting in very late ’80s, ballooning in the ’90s , multicultural books were hot!! Every regular publisher and new one had to have a multicultural list. African-American books and authors got mixed in that madness. For a time, I had a sense that some teachers and school districts might have been thinking, ‘Maybe we’re getting too many “multicultural” books.’ For a while, it seemed interest in black authors and books was flagging.

You’ve been heralded for your portrayal of loving relationships in middle-class African-American families. I read that you love to show that African-American stories are true American stories. Could you please talk about that? Why is that important?

 I’ve always stressed to audiences that the African-American story/stories is/are the AMERICAN STORY. People forgot that we were here. We were not on the edge of the history. We were very much part of it. The picture books I’ve had published show family relationships… One of my speeches/ talks is titled: We All Have Our Aunt Flossie’s. I’ve been told that the stories about a
particular person (Aunt Flossie) and her role in a family mirrors people in any American family…listeners see themselves in Chita’s relationship with her dad…WE ARE CONNECTED beyond blood or ethnic heritage. We are human.

Your books have won many accolades and awards. What writing accomplishments make you most proud? How do you measure success?

Aunt Flossie’s Hats, illustrated by James Ransome, continues to get sizeable royalties every year. The illustrations were absolutely stunning. I’m proud of it for all of those reasons. I’m excited about Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, because it came about as a result of travel we did.

We knew my dad had said my grandfather had been born in Tennessee. The brothers had all gotten educated, but we didn’t know anything about their childhood. When I heard about the walk through the woods carrying their food for the week, I immediately thought picture book. I read that the Quakers had established a school after the Civil War and the building was still on Main Street in Jonesborough, TN. I got very excited. We stayed for a week and found out there were Fitzgeralds still there.

I read that you didn’t see black characters in the books you read as a child. How did this influence your work? Why it is important for children to see themselves in books? You’ve been a librarian and professor of library science. In what ways can authors and libraries work together to raise awareness of black children’s books?

 
I think when I was a young reader the race of the people in books didn’t matter . . . We lived in an African-American lady’s rooming house. The other dwellers were black grad students. The house was the biggest and best on the street. No one else on the street was black. All the kids at our schools were white.

The only black kid I saw was my sister. Sooo . . . if kids we played with were white, and the people I met in books were white, in my early years, I identified with them. Maybe I thought book people just happened to be white. And I grew up identifying with Heidi and the Five Little Peppers and the Bobbsey Twins and Understood Betsy and most of all with Jo and Beth March. And it didn’t matter what color they were.

But suppose I had had black book friends? I know now that I would have been delighted to see myself in a book. When our daughters were brownie scouts and saw that book about the little African-American brownie, I was so pleased. And of course, there was the SNOWY DAY. It was so exciting to have a Caldecott winner with a black main character. I belatedly began to miss reading books with me in them. So in the ’80s, publishers, librarians and teachers got “religion” and began sloooowly to realize the importance of books about black children and I recognized how important it truly was for NON-BLACK kids to have access to books showing how black kids were basically like them.

And still, in West Virginia, I heard from teachers: “We don’t have any black kids in our school so we don’t need to buy books about black kids” [or Mexican, Chinese, Indian, etc.] So when I began to visit schools and talk about multicultural books for kids, I stressed/shouted that if they didn’t have black kids , it was all the more essential to have books featuring African-American characters. I am convinced of the power of books in developing self worth. Librarians and teachers have a responsibility to work to foster this.

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of one of your most celebrated works, Aunt Flossie’s Hats (and Crabcakes Later). How has your career grown since its debut? What have been some of the most meaningful moments?

I am forever grateful to James Ransome and to Dorothy Briley, beloved late editor at Clarion (before Dinah Stevevson) for this book!  Nine-and-a-half years ago or so, I called the publicity director at Clarion reminding her that Aunt Flossie was coming up on 10  years. I said, “Shouldn’t we celebrate?” She said, “Oh yes, maybe an article in Horn Book or something.” And I think I also called Dinah. At any rate, Dinah called me and told me that Clarion would like some biographical material and they would publish a new edition!!!!!!!!!

My career sky-rocketed after Aunt Flossie’s Hats. It took off on its own. People have been so enthusiastic, because everybody has an Aunt Flossie… Aunt Flossie got me the invitation to South Africa where I gave a keynote address for the first international children’s literature conference in Africa on the topic: We All Have Our Aunt Flossie’s. I have been all sorts of places where when people realize I’m me, they say, “Oh, Aunt Flossie’s Hats!”

What’s your mission?

My mission broadly is to get kids connected to books. I want them to see themselves as part of America’s past and future. I want to tell stories of the African-American family. I want to have black kids meet black authors. I want to remind children that they have stories.

Aunt Flossie’s Hats (and Crabcakes Later) was brought to life in a special way last year as part of Pittsburgh’s Storywalk. What did that mean to you?

Storywalk was so much fun. They take a section of Frick Park and set up tents and have golf carts that take authors to one place or another. Aunt Flossie’s Hats was at the end. They had put up a sort of stage and the Park’s department had made models of Aunt Flossie and Sarah and Susan. It was totally delightful. I told Aunt Flossie’s Hats about twelve times. It was so much fun.

What advice would you give to writers just beginning their journey to write for children?

You need to know children’s books. Ideally, read a lot of children’s books. If you know you want to do an alphabet picture books,
you better look at a whole lot of alphabet books. Check out to see what’s already been done. Such a logical, almost no-brainer, first thing to do. I think that going back to one’s own childhood, trying to be a kid. When you’re young and have young children in your house, that’s ideal. If you can, be part of a writing group. It’s very encouraging and affirming. At Pinnochio bookstore, we would come and hear what anyone had to read. Maybe a half-dozen or so folks would be there and we would hear what someone was reading and offer suggestions. It’s good to join a local SCBWI, go to conferences, things like like that.

Your beautiful books have endured in libraries and classrooms around the country. What tips can you offer those who would like to become an author with staying power?

If you’re writing picture books, hope you’ll be paired with an illustrator who will be really helpful. I have been so fortunate with the illustrators – E.B. Lewis, James Ransome, Floyd Cooper. Ten books had nine illustrators.

You have to know if you’re trying to write a picture book that it’s a joint production with the illustrator. In writing the book, don’t over tell. The illustrator needs to be part of the whole story. His or her vision of the story can be quite different from yours. The illustrator does have freedom and you can be disappointed. But sometimes you’re lucky enough to have the right illustrator for your book.

People are doing much more school visiting today. If children’s book authors are trying to make money, it’s school visits that can really do it. Once upon a time, it was just the book itself.

What’s next for you as an author? 

I’m working on a novel about growing up in a rooming house in the Depression.


What’s your greatest joy?

Family. Seeing what our children turn into. And if you think children are fun, wait until you have grandchildren. It’s just a total delight. So many things that provide pleasure – a concert, reading a book, the snowstorm we just had was beautiful. The sun shining on snow-laden branches really is glorious.

The Buzz on Virgie Goes to School With Us Boys:

Howard (Chita’s Christmas Tree) plucks fruit from her family tree for this stellar story of an African-American girl determined to get an education just like her brothers. Narrated by the young C.C. (Howard’s grandfather), the tale is set during Reconstruction, when schools sprang up all over the South to help educate the children of freed slaves, and it is based on the particular school attended by the real-life C.C. and his siblings in Jonesborough, Tenn. Virgie, the youngest of the siblings and the only girl, is determined to attend the school, despite the protests of her family (“You scarcely big as a field mouse. And school’s seven miles from here!”). Finally, her parents acquiesce, sending her off with her five brothers with a week’s worth of food and clothing in a bucket. Undeterred by a slip in the creek and a scary trek through the woods (“Didn’t I tell you about Raw Head and Bloody Bones? Get you if you’re not good, folks said. Might get you anyway”), Virgie is a radiant heroine. The easy flow of vernacular effortlessly propels the story, and Howard proves herself adept at plucking a large-scale episode from history and adapting it to the scale of a picture book. Lewis’s (The Bat Boy and His Violin) luminous watercolors capture both the rhythms of C.C. and Virgie’s rural existence and the story’s emotional subtext, and his character studies fairly burst with life.

— Publisher’s Weekly

The youngest and the only girl in a family with five boys, Virgie works hard to convince everyone she is old enough, strong enough, and smart enough to attend the school set up by the Quakers for recently freed blacks in Jonesborough, TN. By the end of summer, she has convinced her family that she can make the seven-mile walk to board at school each week and willingly handle the job of “learning to be free.” The story is a superb tribute to the author’s great aunt, the inspiration for this book. Howard crystallizes each of the family members, setting the protagonist snugly in the midst of annoying but loving brothers and wise parents. A note provides more information about the school and family. Lewis’s watercolor illustrations capture the characters with warmth and dignity; the many double-page spreads evoke the vastness of both the land and the immensity of Virgie’s undertaking. There is a blush of dialect and two thrilling references to Raw Head and Bloody Bones waiting in the woods to catch the children on their way to school. Youngsters will enjoy Virgie but it will be years before they can harvest all that is planted in this gentle tale. A worthy choice for read-alouds and independent reading.


Day 28: Eric Velasquez

February 28, 2017

ericvelasquez42ndnaacpimageawardsredwyi8pkrnfbul It’s 2 o’clock in the morning and I’ve been working all day on a spread from my upcoming graphic novel. If I can just finish this one last panel, I can go to sleep. I look at the hand on one of the characters, it’s not great, but it’ll do. As I get ready to turn off my monitor, I hear a voice, much like Luke Skywalker did in the original Star Wars. But my voice isn’t telling me to “use the force,”  nor is it coming from Obi Wan Kenobi. The voice belongs to Eric Velasquez.

“Luke. Stop being so lazy and fix that hand!”

Sigh … So I do.

That’s why, when we chose to do our inspiration for the final week of 28 Day Later, he was the first person who I thought of.

Eric Velasquez, the son of Afro-Puerto Rican parents, was born in Spanish Harlem and grew up in Harlem. His dual heritage coupled with the experience of living in dual cultures in New York City gives Eric a rich and unique cultural perspective. He did his first picture book, “The Piano Man,” in 1997 and has completed more than 30 others in the two decades that have followed. He has won many awards including the Coretta Scott King / John Steptoe New Talent Award and is the only person ever to win both an NAACP Image Award and a Pura Belpre Award.

But to find out even more about my friend of 20 years, I decided to have a conversation the way that most of them have been over the years. Over burgers.

Jerry Craft: Okay, let’s start with the project that you’re working on now, a biography of Arturo Schomburg. Tell us about it.

Eric Velasquez: Sure, the title is “Schomburg The Man Who Built a Library,” by Carole Boston Weatherford. I first became intrigued by  this amazing individual in the 3rd grade.  Not only did he look like me, but he also came from the same part of Puerto Rico as my grandmother. He was a superior intellectual who is single-handedly responsible for the African/ African-American artifacts in the collection at the Schomburg Library and Research Center located in Harlem. I pitched the idea to Carole about 10 years ago, and asked her to write the  manuscript. It has been a long process but I am ecstatic that it will finally see the light of day. I just completed the last painting for the project about a month ago and it will be published by Candlewick in the fall of 2017.

schomburg_hj_us_revfinalartJC: Okay, so here’s why I brought that up, specifically the painting you did for the cover of Mr. Schomburg carrying the stack of books. When you showed it to me, it was great.

EV: Yeah, but there was something about his stride that bothered me.

JC: I remember, I think we decided that it should be a little wider. But instead of just fixing that, what did you do?

EV: I started from scratch and did the whole thing over. Even though I had already spent eight hours on the original. And I was much more pleased with the results.

JC: I’ve always thought that one of my strengths is the ability to focus on a project, but you make me feel like a slacker. How do you maintain that?

EV: When I’m working on a book,  everything I’m about relates to that book. Even if I’m watching TV, I’ll pause a movie to examine how a shot or a camera angle will help to improve my work.

JC: I always use the Obi Wan analogy when I talk about you. Who is your Obi Wan Kenobi?

EV:  Tom Feelings is my own Obi Wan. He’s the one who changed the paradigm for me. I remember having a conversation with him and he asked me if I had ever done a drawing and, for seemingly no reason, erased it; or painted over a picture and started from scratch. I told him yes.

pianoman“How did the next version turn out?, he asked. “Usually 10 times better,” I responded.

“Exactly! Whenever that happens, it’s the voice of the ancestors telling you what to do,” he said. “All you have to do is just listen!”

I never forgot that.

JC: Do you have another story when  you started from scratch?

EV: Hundreds! I remember when I was asked by a publisher to send them a painting for them to display at a conference  — and somehow it went missing. All I had was a copy of the original pencil under-drawing that I had used to create it. But although the painting was lost, what I had inside of me that I used to create that painting, was not lost. That was all me. So I recreated it.

JC: Weren’t you afraid that it wouldn’t come out as good?

EV: Fear is a construct. It’s just a hurdle to leap over, and I chose to do it. What artists have to realize is if you do something good once,  it’s not a lucky shot. If you did it once, you can do it again.

JC: So one of the things, or I should say ANOTHER of the reasons why you inspire me to be better is that you never let me off easy with anything. I think that every artist or writer should have someone who is not afraid to tell them the truth. Remember when I told you that I never liked drawing cars? What did you tell me?

velasquez-eric-looking-for-bongoEV: To draw a hundred of them until you liked the result.

JC: Once again, the answer got on my nerves, BUT I’m already seeing the results.

EV: See? One of the things that I always ask my students is, “Why not make yourself into the artist that you like?

JC: By students, you mean from your Book Illustration class at FIT (The Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC). How long have you taught there?

EV: 14 years.

JC: Now elaborate on the message that you shared with them.

EV: Well, my students come into class all the time showing me work from artists they admire. “Professor, look at how he paints trees,” or “Professor, look at how she does faces, I could never do that.” But I tell them, if that’s what you like, then strive to become that person. My goal as an artist has always been, that if I didn’t know who I was, and I saw one of my paintings, what would I think? If I can step back and look at my work and say “wow!” then I know I’ve done my job.

And isn’t that what we’re all striving for?

JC: Yes it is. Thank you, Professor Velasquez.

EV: My pleasure, Jerry Craft.

JC: Speaking of pleasure, it’s time to finish our burgers!

To learn more about Eric Velasquez, visit his website at http://www.ericvelasquez.com/

jerrycraftericvelasquez


Day 27: Vanessa Brantley-Newton

February 27, 2017

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Over the past 13 years, award-winner Vanessa Brantley-Newton has illustrated  (or illustrated and authored) approximately 80 books for children, including titles such as Every Little Thing, We Shall Overcome, Mary Had a Little Glam, and The Hula Hoopin’ Queen. Her most recent release is The Youngest Marcher (written by Cynthia Levinson, Simon & Schuster, 1/2017) and later this year, two new series illustrated by Vanessa will debut: a picture book series, Hannah Sparkles (written by Robin Mellom, HarperCollins) and a chapter book series, Jada Jones (written by Kelly Starling-Lyons, Penguin Workshop). A new picture book project with author Derrick Barnes called The King of Kindergarten  with Nancy Paulsen Books was recently announced…and Vanessa is currently working on two picture book projects she will both write and illustrate: Grandma’s Purse and Jewels.

That’s her bio. It’s a phenomenal bio. But it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of who Vanessa Brantley-Newton truly is, or what she means to so many of us who are in the children’s publishing industry. Below is a letter that describes the inspiration she has been to me.

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Dear Vanessa,

By the time you read this, we will have just had another one of our sister-friend outings. We’ll have shared a meal while talking about life, family, and kidlit—encouraging, commiserating, laughing, possibly even shedding a few tears with one another. It’s what we do, and I’ve grown to value these times we share immensely.

But have I ever told you how much you inspire me? I mean, literally said those words to you? If not….

You inspire me, Vanessa Brantley Newton. A lot.

vanessa-girl-bantu-knots-heartbeat-colors

We first “e-met” on Facebook in September of 2011. I sent you a message complimenting your artwork, which I was first introduced to through your 28 Days Later feature earlier that year.  I was (and still am) enamored with your artistic style, which is vibrant and inclusive and never fails to make me feel.  You responded to my message and, to my disbelief, I found out you had recently relocated from Jersey to Charlotte…WHERE I LIVE!

It was a full year before we would meet face to face, over a meal at The Cheesecake Factory (I think), along with my mother and daughters and your hilarious sister.  We all had a ball! In fact, my mother (who stills asks about you to this day even though she only met you that one time) said to me on the way home, “They felt like old friends.” I thought our connection was about chance chemistry. In hindsight, it was about who you are as a human being:  warm, generous, authentic…

…inspiring.

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It’s inspiring to hear you speak about your purpose as a children’s book creator. I have heard you say many times that you want every child to be able to see themselves within your body of work; that you want them to feel valued, empowered, and worthy of self-love  as they experience your books and illustrations. I’d add the word joyful to that list also, because that’s how your pictures often make me screen-shot-2016-02-03-at-9-37-36-amfeel. To know that you are basically self-taught is mind-blowing to me, given how skilled you are in your craft and how replete with emotion each one of your creations is. I guess that’s the kind of thing that can’t be taught anyway. Emotion. The difference between craft and art.

You are a genuine artist, Vanessa; I am striving to create work as genuine as yours.

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No matter the expression—illustration or fine art, makeup or hair, writing, singing, or speaking to crowds large and small—the totality of your existence seems geared toward creativity, conveyed in a way that motivates and brings people together. You have a positive effect on everyone, and not in a superficial way either.  I think it’s because you believe in the power of truth. Whether sharing your own, or speaking it to others in love, the truth in your hands always feels like encouragement and exhortation as opposed to judgment. How do you do that? My kids would like for me to know. :)

every-little-thing_interior-1-300x297V, I want to thank you for the support you have been to me over these past five-plus years. Along the way you have publicly celebrated my successes, privately consoled me in moments of despair, and consistently encouraged me to reach beyond my expectations for myself. You even gave me an art lesson, for goodness sake, because you want me to be able to illustrate my own books someday! In the face of life you model class and grace, and your actions speak every bit as loudly as your words.

Even though I don’t remember for sure where we dined at our first meeting, I do remember clearly your genuineness, your wisdom, and the immediate gift of sisterhood you bestowed on me that day…and none of those things has ever wavered or diminished. Since then, we’ve shared numerous meals at some pretty cool places, and have taken a couple of business-related road trips together. You’ve prayed with, for, and over me. Your mentorship and friendship have been steadfast and true, and I am eternally thankful for the blessing of you.

Love,
Tameka

vanessa-and-tameka-at-lunch

 

 

All illustrations courtesy Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Enjoy more of Vanessa’s artwork at Painted Words.

Watch the New York Times “Live Illustration with Vanessa Brantley-Newton” below:


Day 26: Eloise Greenfield

February 26, 2017

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I knew that Eloise Greenfield loved me. As a child, I pored over HONEY, I LOVE over and over again, and could hear the words of her poems just as if she were right next to me, speaking to me, chatting with my mother and grandmother, reminding me that I was special, powerful, beautiful, and fully LOVED.

We featured Ms. Greenfield back in 2008; she was born in 1929, in segregated North Carolina. She studied piano as a child, trained as a teacher and worked in civil service at the U.S. Patent Office. She had her first poem published in the Hartford Times in 1962 and her first book (a biography of Rosa Parks) was published in 1972. Her bio notes that she’s won the Coretta Scott King Award for Africa Dream, and a CSK Honor for The Great Migration: Journey to the North (which was also an ALA 2012 Notable Children’s Book.) honeyilove“She received the Carter G. Woodson Award for Rosa Parks. For Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems, she received the 1990 Recognition of Merit Award, presented by the George G. Stone Center for Children’s Books. She received the Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor Award for Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir, written with her mother, Lessie Jones Little….On February 23, 2013, she was one of twenty African American women who received the Living Legacy Award from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), an organization founded by Carter G. Woodson…the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, given for a body of work to a living American poet; the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award; the Hurston/Wright Foundation’s North Star Award for lifetime achievement…In 1999, Ms Greenfield was inducted into the National Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent. For her body of work, she also received the 2007 Wheatley Book Award, sponsored by Quarterly Black Books Review as part of the Harlem Book Fair.”


(And yes, the ellipses mean more awards.)

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The author of more than 40 books of poetry, fiction, and biography, Ms. Greenfield’s work celebrates “love and the simple joys of everyday life”, the rich heritage of the African Diaspora, family, and childhood. In her 1979 biographical work Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir, she wrote:

“People are a part of their time. They are affected, during the time that they live by the things that happen in their world. Big things and small things. A war, an invention such as radio or television, a birthday party, a kiss. All of these help to shape the present and the future. If we could know more about our ancestors, about the experiences they had when they were children, and after they had grown up, too, we would know much more about what has shaped us and our world.”

Eloise Greenfield’s loving work nurtured me and my creative self; my mother read the poems aloud, I finger-traced Leo and Diane Dillon’s illustrations of cornrows and braids like mine and my sister’s. I read her words and they helped teach me that language was music, rich with flavour and history and hope. Though she often wrote about an African American experience that was not quite my own, I read her mentions of cousins who lived “down South” and a way of life that resonated with this child of immigrants. “I want to make them laugh, I want to give them ideas, I want them to see how beautiful they are,” says Greenfield in this talk at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 40th Annual Legislative Conference in 2010. When I occupied spaces that made me feel as though I did not belong, Ms. Greenfield whispered to me that I did. “I relate to the human experience, whenever and wherever it occurs. Over the many years of my life, I have witnessed the strength of children and I am inspired by it,” she said in an interview.

Thank you, Ms. Greenfield. I remain inspired by you.

For more about Eloise Greenfield:

On TeachingBooks.net

The Poetry Foundation

Balkin Buddies profile


Day 25: Rosa Guy

February 25, 2017

Most people have never heard of Rosa Guy (rhymes with “key”), but she has been influential in developing the careers of many writers despite her relative obscurity. Guy was born in Trinidad & Tobago and raised in Harlem from age 7. After the death of her father, and because her older sister was ill, Guy left school at age 14 to take on factory work. She studied acting at the American Negro Theater in the 1940s before she turned to writing.

In 1950, she was one of the founders (the only woman) of the Harlem Writer’s Guild. Their mission to develop works by writers of the African diaspora helped literary greats including Ossie Davis, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, Sidney Poitier, and Walter Dean Myers. In 1977, the group was honored by the United Nations Society of Writers, and by 1986, founder John Oliver Killens estimated that their members “had produced over 300 published works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, and screen plays.”

Guy’s writing career began with a novel for adults, BIRD AT MY WINDOW (1966). It is “set in Harlem and examines the relationship between black mothers and their children, as well as the social forces that foster the demoralization of black men.” It was one of the first novels to be published by a Harlem Writers Guild member. Guy next turned to a work of nonfiction, editing CHILDREN OF LONGING (1970), a compilation of essays by black teens and young adults which “graphically depict the experiences of growing up in a hostile world.”

the-friendsThen came her best-known work, THE FRIENDS (1973), the first of a trilogy followed by RUBY (1976), and EDITH JACKSON (1978), all dealing with the lives of adolescent Black girls in New York, the first two from the perspective of Black Caribbean girls adjusting to American culture. Alice Walker called THE FRIENDS a “heart-slammer.” Both the series, and Guy herself garnered praise from critics and her peers. “She’s never afraid of the truth,” Maya Angelou once said. “Some writers dress the truth in a kind of elegant language, so it doesn’t seem quite so blatant, so harsh, so raw. But Rosa was not afraid of that.”

Another trilogy, THE DISAPPEARANCE (1979), NEW GUYS AROUND THE BLOCK (1983), and AND I HEARD A BIRD SING (1987) also called THE IMAMU JONES MYSTERIES, are about a Harlem teen who finds himself in and out of trouble—and jail—in an emotional and social landscape that still resonates today.

new-guysStandalone young adult novels include MIRROR OF HER OWN (1981), a coming of age story about eighteen-year-old Mary Abbot and THE MUSIC OF SUMMER (1992) which dealt with colorism viewed from the perspective of the darkest-skinned girl in a group of teens during a summer on Cape Cod. For younger readers, Guy wrote PARIS, PEE WEE AND BIG DOG (1984) about ten-year-old Paris and his friends on one adventurous and unsupervised day in New York City, and THE UPS AND DOWNS OF CARL DAVIS III (1992) about a Harlem boy who moves to live with his grandmother in South Carolina.

Guy also wrote picture books. In MOTHER CROCODILE: “MAMAN-CAIMAN” (1988), Guy retold a series of African folktales. The book won a Coretta Scott King Award for the illustrations by John Steptoe. BILLY THE GREAT (1992) explored what happens when parents have different plans for a kid’s future than the kid himself.

my-loveIn between, Guy continued to write for adults. A MEASURE OF TIME (1983) once again delved into her personal experiences living in Harlem, and MY LOVE, MY LOVE, OR THE PEASANT GIRL (1985), which has been described as The Little Mermaid meets Romeo and Juliet, was adapted for stage. It was nominated for eight Tony Awards, a Drama Desk Award, and won the Theatre World Award, as well as the Olivier Award for Best New Musical for the UK production. A Broadway revival was in the works as of 2016.

Guy’s influence on me goes back to my arrival in New York City at age 15, feeling awkward and terrified, and then happening on a copy of THE FRIENDS in the Brooklyn Public Library. The main character Phylissia was literally me in print. The book changed several things for me: first, I didn’t feel like I was alone in my attempts to fit in as a Caribbean immigrant. Second, though I had always wanted to be a writer, I had not considered writing for children. THE FRIENDS changed the trajectory of my writing career.

Guy died in 2012 of cancer. While her work never became as popular as Walter Dean Myers in the kidlit industry, it was certainly as important, and she herself may have been more influential in the number of writers she helped to develop.

Sources:

Fox Margalit. “Rosa Guy, 89, Author of Forthight Novels for Young People, Dies,” The New York Times, June 7, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/07/books/rosa-guy-89-author-of-forthright-novels-for-young-people.html

“Rosa Guy American Author.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 17, 2017, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Rosa-Guy#ref1047496

Review of Children of Longing by Rosa Guy, Kirkus, October 28, 1971, https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/rosa-ed-guy/children-of-longing/

Viagas, Robert. “Once on this Island Revival Aiming for Broadway, Directed by Michael Arden.” Playbill, August 30, 2016, http://www.playbill.com/article/once-on-this-island-revival-aiming-for-broadway