Day 22: Salva Dut

February 22, 2017

More than two decades of civil war in Sudan caused much trauma, displacement, and destruction. Children were forced to flee the country, and many of the boys became known as “The Lost Boys of Sudan”. In the midst of the pain, stories like Salva Dut’s shone. From the Water for South Sudan website: “As an 11-year old Dinka from Tonj in southwest Sudan, Salva fled first to Ethiopia. Then later, as a teenager, he led 1500 ‘Lost Boys’ hundreds of miles through the Southern Sudan desert to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. That courage and heroic perseverance continue to this day. Relocated to the United States in 1996, he now leads Water for South Sudan, Inc., the non-profit organization he founded in 2003.”

Salva’s story was told in Linda Sue Park’s bestselling and award-winning 2010 novel, A Long Walk To Water. Park combines Salva’s true story with the story of the fictional Nya, who walks for hours each day to get water for her family. Working from research, Salva’s own writing, and finally, interviews with Salva himself, Park worked with Salva Dut to tell his remarkable story. Though she’d never been to Sudan, Park believed in shining a light on Salva’s story: “One of my biggest hurdles was writing about a place I’d never visited myself. That had always been a deal-breaker for me in the past, and it remains so today. It was a tough decision to make, but I decided that if I stuck *like glue* to the information that Salva had given me, I could break that ironclad rule JUST THIS ONCE.”

Salva Dut now leads Water for South Sudan, Inc., the non-profit organization he founded in 2003. Today, on the Brown Bookshelf, he reflects on the impact of sharing his story and the phenomenon the book has become. (BBS Note: Check out some of the thrilling “Success Stories” from readers who were inspired by Salva’s work — it’s wonderful what sharing a story can do.)

What has surprised you most since the book’s release?
The number of copies sold! And how much the book impacts people. The story touches people so deeply. People sometimes cry when they meet me.

Water for South Sudan is headquartered in both South Sudan and New York State. How are people involved at each location? How can young people get involved in this work? What advice do you have for young readers who want to engage in activism?
Water for South Sudan is headquartered in Rochester, New York, and we have our Operations Center in Wau, South Sudan. The Rochester office handles all of the fundraising, and a lot of the administrative details. All donations come through our Rochester office. We also handle all the communications, including our website, social media and mailings.
Our Operations Center handles the hard work! They have a compound in Wau, where we store our vehicles and equipment during the rainy season. Our operations center handles all of the drilling, hygiene and rehabilitation work, and have begun researching how we might do sanitation work. Our team has an office there, and communicates with our Rochester office from there.
Young people can spread the word about our work! Follow us on social media, tell your friends and family about us, and suggest that people read A Long Walk to Water.
For readers who want to engage in activism I say Do it! This is your world. You can make a difference.
My message to all children is to stay calm when things are hard or not going right for you. You can overcome those things if you have hope, faith, and perseverance. You will find people who will help you succeed. Also, value your education and do whatever you can to make life better for others.

What have been some challenges in the work that you do? How have they changed (or remained the same) over time?
It is always a challenge to work in Africa, and specifically in South Sudan. The temperature is very hot. There is also very little infrastructure in South Sudan- very few roads, and no places to buy supplies or have our equipment and vehicles repaired. Our team members have to be very resourceful.
Tell us a bit about your day-to-day work. As an entrepreneur and activist, what kinds of habits have you cultivated? What are your routines? Do you have an office or other location that works best for you?
My day to day work varies based on where I am. Sometimes I am in Wau with our team, helping them to plan and brainstorm. Sometimes I am in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and meet with government officials to help Water for South Sudan get the permits and customs clearances to do our work, and sometimes I am in Kampala, Uganda, where we do our banking and buy our major supplies.
I must always be patient, and always be ready to operate on “African time.” Things often take much longer than they would in the US. I must always be thinking of different ways to get things done, or of working with different people who can help me. I must often be a good problem solver.
I come to the US about two times a year. I do not like it when it’s cold, which, for me would be below 70 degrees! I also do not like the snow. I like it when the weather is hot—over 90 degrees is very nice for me.

Are there any books, stories, or people that inspire you and your work?
I like to watch documentaries, and like to learn about people doing good work in our world.
One person I have admired in my life is John Garang de Mabior. He was a leader in the Sudan Liberation Army and also served as First Vice President of Sudan for a very short time before he died.

What else would you like us to know about you and your work?
I am so grateful to all the people who have helped me in my life. My family in South Sudan, my American family and friends, and all the people who have donated money and raised funds for Water for South Sudan. My team members in South Sudan are now doing the hard work of drilling and rehabilitating wells and I am so grateful for their commitment to Water for South Sudan. I could not have done any of this alone.

How can educators best share your work and message with their students and families? Are there resources you’d recommend that they use?

I think Linda Sue Park’s book has been such a wonderful gift for Water for South Sudan. It has taken our story across the US and around the world. I think it’s an excellent way for people to learn about our work. I think teachers and students and families can also learn more about Africa. It’s a very big place! South Sudan is just one of 54 countries on the continent of Africa.
I also think it’s important for people to learn more about water in our world. Water is becoming such an important resource, and I think the current generation should be paying attention to how we use water in our world.

Where Do We Go From Here?
I think that the people of our world, particularly young people, need to learn how to get along. This is not just a phrase or saying. We need peace in our world, and peace begins at home, and in our hearts. If young people can learn how to solve disagreements, and learn how to get along with people who are different, then I think we have a hopeful future.
I am very hopeful when I meet so many young people who are inspired by A Long Walk to Water, and want to help others.

Don’t miss Salva’s powerful TED talk, “I Kept Walking.”

Resources for Educators and Families from Water for South Sudan.

Thank you for sharing your story and inspiring so many, Salva!

DAY 19: Anaya Lee Willabus

February 19, 2017


As an author / illustrator, there’s nothing like looking back at the books I’ve done to make me feel proud. And when I think that I published my first book way back in 1997, there’s nothing quite like that to make me feel old. With the possible exception of interviewing Anaya Lee Willabus, who is all of 9 years old! Once I got over that, it was indeed a pleasure to share the spotlight on this up-and-coming author.

So without further delay, The Brown Bookshelf would like to introduce you to today’s star of 28 Days Later: Miss Anaya Lee Willabus.


The Process: How do you work? Do you start with a character, a concept, an idea? Do you outline first or just go? Is there a technique or routine for drafting or revising that you find particularly helpful? Do you have an office or other location that works best for you?

As for me, ideas for another book are always flowing through my head. When writing my books, I would sit and jot down my ideas so that I do not forget them.  Thereafter, I would re-read and make the necessary changes.  When I was about five, I would put together small pieces of pages and write mini stories about various topics. I knew as I grew that I would be an author. The interest in writing has also captured my attention. Also, I walk with a special notebook to school so when ideas pop up, I would write them down. Overall, I am a ‘write as I go’ type of author, however, I usually have an idea of what my story will be about.

The Journey: Discuss your path to publishing.

My first book was inspired by my trip to Guyana, South America. My parents were born there and they wanted my siblings and me to visit and learn about our Guyanese culture. Upon my visit, it was beyond my expectations. Guyana was truly a difference from what I was accustom to in the USA. Not only was there an abundance of fresh fruit trees everywhere, and summer weather every day, but the celebrations for holidays were done differently. We spent the 2014 Easter holiday  there, and it is part of the Guyanese tradition to fly kites and host picnics with family and friends. That was my first time flying a kite. Overall, my trip was not only awesome, but the cool part was I had a ton of creative book ideas that I needed to write down.  Eventually, my parents saw how serious I was about my idea of writing my first book and they decided to support my initiative. Since my parents were not familiar with the process, it took me about one year to complete the entire process of my first published book.  I would write after school and on the weekends.


Under The Radar: Share the name(s) of authors or illustrators of color who you believe are rising stars.

Firstly, I prefer to read a mixture of fiction and non-fiction books. It is important to learn from different authors’ perspectives to feed my mind. I am not sure of names of other upcoming authors and illustrators, but I do have my own favorites who are already established.

If I have to give a name of one of the favorite illustrators, I would have to shine the light on Mr. Frank Morrison. He is one of the best children’s book illustrators in my opinion.  Not only is he a master at his craft, but he is a great person. I had the honor of meeting him a few months ago at the African American Museum and Library in Oakland, California.

When it comes to authors, there are many that stand out. I have read in excess of six hundred books and there are so many great pieces of literature. Sharon Draper’s book ‘Fire from the Rock,’ was a great read. Jacqueline Woodson’s book, ‘Brown Girl Dreaming’ was an excellent piece on what went on in the 1960’s as an African-American child.  ‘One Crazy Summer’ by Rita Williams-Garcia was another great story. Also, just to add a few more names, I had the pleasure of reading the works of some great civil rights activists like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, George Washington Carver and many more. ‘Dreams from My Father’ by Barack Obama was an interesting take on how the former president grew up and his path to being the great man he is today.


The State of the Industry: Share your thoughts on the state of kidlit by authors of color specifically, or more generally, your views on children’s book publishing.

Throughout my years of reading, there have been many interesting books, but not any that I found by children of color, besides myself. However, I was always encouraged by my parents to read history books. According to my parents, it is important to learn the facts so that I would be furnished with the knowledge of the past and appreciate the people who created the opportunities for me, today.

Upon visiting the library, I do not recall seeing nor reading any books written by African-American children, thus far. This finding was one of my motivations for publishing my books. Also, I could not find books that told stories of my Guyanese culture nor heritage from a child’s perspective.

I think that the big publishing companies focus more on the ‘Quantity’ rather than the ‘Quality!’ In other words, it is more about what sells first and not necessarily what the content has to offer the readers. Most books for children my age focus on picture books while others focus on keeping children in a dream world.

I enjoy writing ‘realist fiction’ books since it gives the readers an opportunity to dive into something different. It is my hope that publishers read my work and appreciate the uniqueness of what I offer.


The Buzz: List reviews/honors, trailers, etc. for featured book(s)

Here are some websites and additional links about my books.

New York Daily News

PIX 11News

Huffington Post

News 12 Brooklyn


Day 16: Alix Delinois

February 16, 2017

alixdelinoisFor me, the coolest aspect of being a part of The Brown Bookshelf is learning about, and reaching out to, artists and writers who are not currently on my radar. Recently I had the pleasure of learning about Alix Delinois,  a fine artist and art teacher living in Harlem. He has illustrated two children’s books written by award-winning authors Walter Dean Meyers and Edwidge Danticat. His work displays a dynamic color palette and bold compositions to express human emotions and experience. And his subjects of interest include Harlem and NYC’s urban setting; his Haitian background; and his love of Black culture and history.

Please join me in welcoming Alix Delinois to 28 Days Later.

The Journey:

At the age of seven, I moved from Saint Marc, Haiti to Harlem, NYC.  Drawing, for me, became a source of distraction from all of the huge changes in my life at that time.  Doodling characters in notebooks and trying to copy the different characters in children’s books was very appealing to me. It helped me begin to become familiar with my new world and feel some level of mastery and control.  From that point on, I started collecting comic books and practiced drawing the characters from them, too.  Even though I loved comic books, I always returned to picture book stories and their illustrations. When I was in the fourth grade, I came across Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe. From that point on, I would say to myself that I wanted to be like this artist. I knew I wanted to create and illustrate stories that depicted the beauty of African/ Caribbean life and history.

At the age of 13, I was lucky enough to be accepted into the City College Arts Institute, a program focused on teaching inner city students about careers in art and museums.  Every Saturday, I attended classes at the City College Arts Institute.  When it was time to attend high school, my mentor in the City College program, Joseph Harris, suggested that I apply to his alma mater, the High School of Art and Design.  He helped me with my portfolio and I was accepted into the school where I majored in illustration and worked closely with another mentor, Richard Manigualt.  I went on to study illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology and completed my BFA in Illustration at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY.   During my last three semesters at Pratt, I began to focus on children’s book illustration. I was fortunate to work with many great picture book illustrators at Pratt including Leonard Jenkins, Floyd Hughes, James Ransome, and Rudy Gutirrez.  While at Pratt, I learned that John Steptoe also graduated from the High School of Art and Design. That knowledge made me tremendously proud and made me feel confident that I was following the right path.
The Inspiration:

Well, I have been influenced by many artists. John Steptoe is my all- time favorite book illustrator. That said, I am inspired by greats such as Arron Douglass, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, and illustrators Tom Feelings, Jerry Pinkney, Leo and Diane Dillone, to name a few.  I also draw inspiration from my own life and experiences in Haiti and Harlem as well as Black culture and history.

Groundwood Logos Spine

The Process:

My process is very straightforward. I sketch many different ideas of what I think could work well for a book. My concepts and sketches usually involve the character(s) in the appropriate space /scene and then I build around them. When it comes to colors, I find it natural for me to use a lot of colors, particularly bright colors. I think being from Haiti makes that very natural for me.

Sometimes, to develop scenes, I research and take pictures that I can use for references.  I had a lot of fun with my last book, Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence. Since Mumbet was a period piece, once I had my sketches and storyboard in good order, I rented American colonial period outfits from a costume shop. My friends and I drove to Staten Island in a small Zipcar and took photos in costume at Richmond Town, a preserved colonial village.
The Back Story:

I met Sheila of Groundwood Publishing at a book convention.  I was happy to hear back from Sheila regarding a book idea for a story entitled Greetings Leroy after our meeting. I liked the story very much because it reminded me of my own story when I first came to America. Thank you, Sheila, for providing with a beautiful and relatable story to work from.  Greetings Leroy is set for release on May 1st, 2017.

Day 15: Maya Penn

February 15, 2017

Maya Penn headshot 16 year-old Maya Penn is a CEO, activist, author, illustrator, animator, coder, and so much more. She started her first company at eight years old, has TEDtalked to millions of people across the globe (as the youngest female in history to deliver two back-to back official TED Talks–her 2013 TEDWomen Talk is ranked as one of top 15 TEDWomen talks of all time), and is now sharing her inspirational message with young people around the world with her recent release: YOU GOT THIS!. I’m thrilled to welcome this dynamic young woman to The Brown Bookshelf.

The Journey

I’m a eco-designer, artist, philanthropist, activist, entrepreneur, animated filmmaker, coder, illustrator, writer and author. I’m the author of 3 books, 2 fictional children’s books that I wrote, illustrated, and self published, and 1 nonfiction book which is my latest book called “You Got This! Unleash Your Awesomeness, Find Your Path, and Change Your World”. It is published by Simon & Schuster. I’ve given three TEDTalks and, my latest TEDWomen Talk has gone viral worldwide and with almost 2 million views and growing. It was because of this TEDTalk that I decided to write You Got This!, as I began to receive a multitude of emails and messages from people of all ages who have been inspired to follow their passion because of my TEDTalk and want to know the best place to start.

The Inspiration:

Maya Angelou, my grandfather (he is also a children’s book author), and bell hooks (I read her book Happy to Be Nappy when I was little and it really reinforced my belief in being proud of who I am, and embracing my natural hair).

The Process

Writing tends to be very spontaneous for me. When writing my latest book “You Got This!” I approached it like a journal (no really, I kept a journal). I wrote it over the course of about a year, and since the general theme was my journey as a young CEO, artist, activist, etc. and how others can put their passion into action, I just took a topic or two each day pertaining to that theme and wrote about it. Whether it be a story I lived through and what I took away from it, or just a brain-dump on the topic, I wrote it down. I just kind of let it happen. In terms of a choice location, when it comes to any form of exercising my creativity (writing, animating, designing), I love being outside. Nature always creates a kind of sanctuary for my ideas to flourish. Of course this doesn’t always permit so my second choice is my studio.
The Buzz

It has been incredible to see the huge impact my book has made in such a short amount of time. I’m so happy and blessed to have received such a flood of emails and messages from teens and people of all ages who have been inspired by my book. There have been a multitude of libraries, schools, workshops, conferences (such as the ALA/American Library Association Conference where I was a keynote speaker in 2016) etc. that have invited me to speak about my book. It’s been so exciting to also see organizations such as Donors Choose have been providing copies of my book to schools.

Under The Radar

Taylor Moxey is an incredible 10 year old entrepreneur, activist and author of color! Her book The Adventures of Taylor The Chef is inspiring and encouraging for all youth.

Where Do We Go From Here?

More and more young people have a chance to use their voice to make a positive impact on the world and fight for the causes they’re passionate about. This is why it’s so important for us not to take this chance for granted as more platforms are available to create awareness and be the change you want to see in the world, online and offline. This current generation of young people will be the future leaders in our world and we have to make sure our world and society will be in good hands. As for my next projects, I will launch a bigger animation and film studio in Atlanta called Penn Point Studios and the first project I will be releasing is an animated series called The Pollinators.

I will also continue my project with my nonprofit organization Maya’s Ideas 4 The Planet where I designed and have now created eco-friendly sanitary pads for women and girls in developing countries in need. They’re being shipped out to girls and women all over the world and our most recent shipment was sent to women at the St. Joseph Health Care Center of Baback in Senegal.

Now this year I’m launching an initiative through my nonprofit to provide seed grants to young female entrepreneurs that aspire to start their own businesses. I am also putting into action a girl’s empowerment event and a STEM/STEAM workshop for girls where my book You Got This! will be used during the workshop to guide and inspire the girls. It’s been so exciting to also see organizations such as Donors Choose have been providing copies of my book to schools.

Thank you, Maya!

For more about Maya and her work, visit her online, and check out her 2013 TED Talk.


Day 13: Ibi Zoboi

February 13, 2017

I first met Ibi Zoboi at a writing conference in New York City. We were passing each other through a crowd, and she said that an editor had mistaken her for me because we both submitted stories set in Haiti. My novel is more of a mashup between Trinidadian and Haitian cultures, but Ibi’s debut, AMERICAN STREET is an immigrant story that is solidly Haitian and questions how the American dream may be different in our minds than it is in reality. What I found most striking in her work is the juxtaposition of gritty reality with magical realism. Her book debuts tomorrow to rave reviews. Please welcome Ibi to the Brown Bookshelf.

The Journey

Iibiz can clearly remember the actual day I made the decision to be a writer. There was no particular journey or goal. I called myself a writer and that was that. I was in college and got myself one of those pens you can wear around your neck and carried around a steno notepad and proclaimed to the world that I was a writer. And writers write. This was all after first calling myself a spoken word poet and storyteller. I embraced the oral tradition before the written mode, although, I was writing the whole time. I studied black poets and I read African and Caribbean folktales and myths. I tried to commit to memory Anansi stories and Brer Rabbit stories. So in that sense, I was always a storyteller. But as a writer, I was a journalist first. One of my first passions besides myths and folktales, was investigative journalism. So my journey to publishing began there, needing to dig for the truth and tell it to the world. From that point on, I realized that I could make a little bit of money with this writing thing. I published articles, essays, and short stories. But unfortunately, I ended up spending more money than I was making. (No one had warned me, or if they did, I didn’t listen). I took writing workshops in college. I applied for and got accepted into the Clarion West Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Workshop to study with the late Octavia Butler. I spent one week at the VONA (Voices of Our Nation) Workshop. Finally, I went for an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I loved the process of studying craft and talking about writing and books. So I consider myself both a writer and a scholar. I need to understand both the craft and the canon. So for me, writing is studying, and studying is writing. It’s an endless journey.

The Back Story

americanstreet_revised8Now that is long, winding road of a back story. I’ve always written about the immigrant experience. As a Haitian immigrant, it’s the only kind of story I know. Whether it’s in the form of science fiction, fantasy, or even a long poem, I write about what it’s like to move from one place to another trying to fit into strange surroundings while preserving cultural traditions. The very first ideas for American Street began to take root after I read a New York Times article titled “Last Stop on the L Train: Detroit.” The L Train runs through my old Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick which is now being gentrified. These new residents are priced out by wealthier newcomers and some are considering less expensive cities like Detroit. I remembered how incredibly broken and underserved Bushwick was back when I was a little girl, much like many parts of Detroit now. So I wondered what it would be like for a Haitian teen to move to somewhere like old Bushwick with its boarded up windows and empty lots. I needed to dig deep into this idea of going from one broken place to another, and what we keep and what we leave behind in the process. And through my teen girl’s story, I wanted to uphold the beauty and strength of black girlhood in the the midst of uncertainty and trauma. Most of all, I wanted to explore what happens to families in both marginalized communities and countries. How do they preserve their love for each other? How do they build dreams atop so much adversity?

The Inspiration 

Edwidge Danticat, for sure! Even before I watched her on Oprah, through her first book Breath, Eyes, Memory, she let me know that the world still cared about little black girls from poor countries like Haiti. And she also let me know that Haiti may be financial poor, but it is incredibly rich in culture and has a long tradition of storytelling. Octavia Butler taught me to think big, to reach for not only stars, but other planets. I’ve had the honor of meeting and speaking with both writers.

The Buzz

American Street has received five starred reviews. My proudest moments were signing books for teachers who either had Haitian students in their classrooms or were Haitian themselves; and anyone who’ve told me that they connected with Fabiola’s story, even if they didn’t share her background. My next YA book is set in Bushwick and is a love story. My first middle grade novel, My Life As An Ice Cream Sandwich, is set in 1980s Harlem. I’m excited about these next books and they’re both due out in 2018.

The State of the Industry

I’ve read plenty of beautiful YA novels that I absolutely loved which are not written by black authors, nor do they feature black children or any characters of color. There was something truly remarkable in these stories that I connected with, and it didn’t have anything to do with race, identity, oppression, or trauma. This is what I would like to see as a reader—books featureing black main characters that don’t focus on any of these things. Why not a blockbuster book featureing a black girl that not only saves herself or her community, but saves the world? How about a love story featuring two black characters where no one dies? There’s a spoken word video that sums this up poetically—“I wanna see a movie about dinosaurs in the ‘hood!” And this would be a testament to our magic—nothing more, nothing less. I don’t think the industry understands what blackness is in order to accurately portray it in books, or to have blackness in all its diversity honestly reflected back to young black readers. We need more range, more diversity within diversity, more magic and adventure to balance out the pain and trauma. We still have a very long way to go.

You can find Ibi online at her website and on Twitter.

Day 12: Margot Lee Shetterly

February 12, 2017


The world knows Margot Lee Shetterly‘s work. Hidden Figures, the $125 million-grossing movie starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, was based on her New York Times bestselling book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (William Morrow/HC, September 2016). The book pays homage to four trailblazing African American human computers–Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden–who served as an integral part of NASA/NACA at the height of the Space Race between America and Russia. In November 2016, HarperCollins released the Young Readers’ version of Hidden Figures for middle grade readers. It too, of course, became a NYT bestseller.

We are honored to feature Margot Lee Shetterly on Day 12 of 28 Days Later…and we thank her for bringing this essential piece of our collective history to glorious light.


*    *   *   MARGOT LEE SHETTERLY   *   *   *


The Journey:

I remember writing poetry, a play and even a “book” during elementary and junior high school, but it never occurred to me that being a writer was something that one could actually do for a living. My mother was an English professor at Hampton University, my father a research scientist at the NASA Langley Research Center. Many of my parents’ friends, or my friends’ parents, also worked at NASA, or as teachers, or shipyard workers or served in the military. I was good at English, but also good at math and science; I studied finance in college and my first job was as an investment banker in New York.

That first job was not to be my last job, however: I pulled several stints in internet startups and even moved to Mexico to start an English-language magazine with my husband before walking down the path to becoming a professional writer. I started researching Hidden Figures in 2010, after a conversation between my father, a retired NASA-Langley research scientist, and my husband, made me curious about some of the women he worked with, women I had known since I was a little girl. Why were there so many black women at NASA, and how had they come to work there? I did three years of research before finding my agent, Mackenzie Brady Watson. The two of us worked on the book proposal that sold to HarperCollins in 2014, and the adult version of the book was published in September 2016.


The Back Story:

No sooner had I submitted the manuscript for the adult version of Hidden Figures than I sat down to work on the Young Readers Edition, which came out in November. I had no experience writing for children, but then again, I had no experience writing a book for adults either. I learned a lot and I’m excited that schoolchildren will also get a chance to learn this important history.


The Process:

Hidden Figures faded in like a Polaroid photo. The story started with Katherine Johnson, the best known of NASA’s human computers. She was the first person I heard speak the name Dorothy Vaughan. From there it was a quest to turn up any possible lead that could help me understand where these women came from, what they were working on, and what being a mathematician meant to them. The book also required learning quite a bit of aeronautical engineering, which I loved, and World War II and Virginia history, which completely absorbed me.

I knew from the beginning that the story would start in World War II and go at least through the Moon landing: this was the same adventure that had captivated readers in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and James Michener’s fictionalized Space, but told from the point of view of the black women. I started with a detailed outline and started filling it in. I’m a slow writer, and an obsessive rewriter. I think I revised the manuscript three times in the six weeks before I turned it in. I wish I were the kind of writer who sits down at the desk and starts writing in an orderly fashion first thing in the morning but the truth is I’m at my best from midnight to 4 AM.


The Buzz:

Hidden Figures: Young Readers’ Edition is a #1 NY Times Bestseller

Prior to the release of the Young Readers’ version, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (also a #1 NY Times Bestseller) received the following starred reviews:

“Shetterly’s highly recommended work offers up a crucial history that had previously and unforgivably been lost.” – Library Journal, starred review

“This is an incredibly powerful and complex story, and Shetterly has it down cold. The breadth of her well-documented research is immense, and her narrative compels on every level.” – Booklist, starred review

“Exploring the intimate relationships among blackness, womanhood, and 20th-century American technological development, Shetterly crafts a narrative that is crucial to understanding subsequent movements for civil rights.” – Publishers Weekly, starred review


Learn more about Margot Lee Shetterly here and HIDDEN FIGURES here.

Day 8: Leah Henderson

February 8, 2017

Day 8 begins our focus on book creators for older readers, starting with Leah Henderson whose debut middle grade novel One Shadow on the Wall is due out in June. Leah’s adventuresome spirit and love of stories helped her turn a passing encounter into her first novel. I first met Leah at the Kweli Writers Conference in Spring 2016 when she was an attendee, but this weekend she will be presenting at AWP in Washington, D.C., taking on the timely subject of social justice and activism. Please welcome Leah to the Brown Bookshelf!

The Journey

hndersonMy path to publishing cannot be truly understood without first understanding my love of travel. Anyone who knows me, knows that I love to get lost and found anywhere in the world. I have been blessed with the wanderlust bug from a young age due in large part to my parents. From very early on they realized the potential effects of my brothers and me not seeing ourselves represented in the pages of many books we read. So they helped us make our own adventures, taking us to amazing places and stuffing us to almost bursting with the accomplishments of people who looked like us.

We saw black cowboys, and traveled to lands with black princesses, learned of black scholars, and toured historically black institutions. But that wasn’t all. My parents enriched us with possibilities, cultures, worlds, and experiences outside our own—Arabian souks and great walls, rickshaws and palaces.

These real-life experiences were the first stories I truly loved and held tight to, verbally painting them for any family member, friend, or stranger I could cajole into listening. Then I started imagining my own stories in these places and spaces and began spreading them across notebook pages. While living in Italy on the streets where Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Dante strolled, amongst artistic energy, I tried my hand at writing a novel with the backdrop of Florence’s nightlife as my muse. I spent many hours next to a booming loudspeaker in a club typing away with partiers stopping by to slosh a drink and say, in bocca al lupo (good luck) before stumbling away. As much as I loved working on that novel there, surrounded by friends, I craved a writing community and decided to wander down a new path towards graduate school and an MFA.

The Back Story

A snapshot taken through a car window in St. Louis, Senegal of the boy who would inspire Mor’s story.

A snapshot taken through a car window in St. Louis, Senegal of the boy who would inspire Mor’s story.

Unlike with other manuscripts, in many ways One Shadow on the Wall found me. Years ago in Senegal, a place which has cradled a piece of my heart from my first sniffs of thiouraye (incense) spicing the air, I locked eyes for the briefest of moments with a boy sitting on a beach wall. I can’t explain what exactly held my gaze, but he exuded an inner resilience that almost shouted at the sky. I couldn’t help but ask myself “What story would you tell me?”

Later that day as so many wonderful images collided in my mind, that boy came back to me and without truly thinking about it, only hearing his answers to my question, I wrote a short story about him for a grad school assignment.

Although I never imagined that ten-page story would go any farther than my professor’s inbox, she saw a novel and thought I was the one to write it. Every part of me disagreed. Who was I to tell this story about a boy, a place, and an experience I only knew from a distance? Another story about a struggling Africa—although filled with hope—it was still wrapped in sadness, not the diverse beauty, richness, and wonder alive on that continent.

The children of Senegal deserved a story and a writer who could capture their warmth, vibrancy, and charm.

I do not scare easily, but writing this novel terrified me, and still does. In my own life, I have opened far too many books where the character that was supposed to look, think, and sound like me was simply a stereotype, a caricature, or a few brush strokes of paint. The pages of those books were supposed to speak about me, and for me to the wider world, lifting me up, when all they accomplished was to hold me in a box, keeping my true life hidden and unexplained. These books let me know what little value those writers placed on me and getting my story right. I did not, and do not want that to be the experience young readers have when they read my words. So I dragged my feet on this project for several months after graduate school.

Even with all of my reasons why not, so many people still encouraged me to continue, especially my mentor and friend Lesléa Newman who believed in Mor’s story long before I did. She read every word I wrote, even when I had no clue where they were going. She understood how determined I was to try and infuse the beauty and magic of Senegal into the project if I could. And after many scenes met their demise, I hoped I’d finally written a story the boy on the beach wall could be proud to have inspired. I queried a small group of agents and received a small but encouraging group of personalized rejections in return. Disappointed by their concerns it would be too hard to promote and sell, but not discouraged about writing, I started another project and tucked Mor away. Though I loved the characters I’d created, I still wasn’t certain it was a story meant for me to tell.

one-shadow-coverAlmost a year later when our paths crossed, one of the agents who’d first read my manuscript wanted another peek. At the same time I went to a conference where a wonderful editor who’d enjoyed chapters from another work-in-progress asked if I had anything ready. I almost said no, but like so many times before, Mor whispered in my ear to give him a chance.

So I did.

The same weekend the editor wanted to see Mor’s manuscript, the agent expressed interest in representing the project (one knowing nothing of the other).

After so many months of quiet, One Shadow on the Wall and Mor had found their way to a corner of the stage. With nudges and well wishes from so many, I signed my first publishing contract soon after, being fortunate again to work with someone who truly believed in Mor and his story.


The Inspiration

I went back and asked if I could take his photo. He wanted to stand—tall.

I went back and asked if I could take his photo. He wanted to stand—tall.

For me, inspiration comes in all forms and from all directions. Seeing the world and the varied lives of those within it have always had a profound effect on my every step. Photography, especially the work of the Smith Brothers, Gordon Parks, and most travel images, get my mind whirling. Art by Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Modigliani, Arthur Melville, and Margit Kovács have me ready to build scenes and imagined people. Any music that wraps around my soul fuels me. But books that have left a lasting impression are Don Freeman’s Corduroy where for the first time I saw a likeness of my mother and myself, a character in a room of her own, on an adventure where she was the shero. I have read many books that have gotten me thinking and left me feeling but none so much as Toni Morrison’s Sula, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly which has always sat front and center on one of my family’s bookshelves or coffee tables. These books have a rhythm and heartbeat all their own. Not only do the characters and settings transport me, I am in admiration and awe of the souls of these books themselves.

 The Process

Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “Sometimes I hear a little story, a spark of a story, and then I make from the spark a fire.” And though I am not a Nobel Prize winning writer, I approach new projects in much the same way. I get a twinkling of and idea, sometimes just a title, other times a character, or a certain place I want an adventure to unfold. After that the twinkle will take up root in my mind for a while before I ever attempt to put even one word on paper. Then I’ll scribble down a brief outline, nothing too specific. I like to get lost and found with my characters as much as I can. I love being surprised by where they traverse and what they decide to say.

Then I take the plunge.

Stop thinking, and start writing.

Attempting to make sense of things during a first draft is the quickest way to get me stuck. It’s like a hovering adult when a child is just trying to do her thing. My characters are in the lead during first draft. Then once I have a beginning, middle, and end, I start digging, and building and stretching the mess. And then I clean, trying to make sense of the knots, though not too much. Some chaos is needed.

But I also have to remind myself not to get discouraged by that same explosion on the page. That it is just a start. I continue fleshing out scenes, creating new characters, and merging old ones until that first twinkle has grown into a pinhole of light. Then I try and carve more layers into my characters, pluck more details out of my setting, sprinkling new ideas and new possibilities wherever I can now that I know where my characters are going and mostly what they want to say. Then hopefully by the sixth or seventh draft everyone is finally sitting in a flood of light.

The State of the Industry

My hope for children and children’s books is that gatekeepers and readers alike truly understand: the need for more diversity on bookshelves is not a passing fad, coming and going, because we are not a fad. And we will not go.

Adding more depths, hues, textures, and voices to any child’s world can only help make it more enriching and the child more empathetic and curious about what other stories are apart of this world she shares. Being able to experience a likeness of yourself in books is a joy and empowerment every child should know (Saturday’s NYT had a piece “Mirrors for My Daughter’s Bookshelf” that sums this importance up well).

There are so many marginalized writers who can tell these captivating stories, and my hope is that more of us are given the opportunity in traditional publishing to do so, especially now, in the current climate.

It is so vital that the industry understands this and continues to act. We cannot afford for it not to.


Brown Bookshelf, thank you so much for this opportunity to tell a little piece of my story.

One Shadow on the Wall will be published June 6th with Atheneum/Simon & Schuster and is currently available to pre-order.

In the meantime you can find Leah on Twitter @LeahsMark or on her website: