So, what DO y’all want?

January 1, 2018

Some days I feel like the old school griot of The Brown Bookshelf whose only job is to remind folks of the origins. You know? I’m here to remind folks where we started and compare it to where we’ve come. So, in that spirit, I got to thinking that maybe behind-the-scenes publishing is saying of writers of color – look, so what do y’all want anyway?

The question is frustrating at best and insincere at worst because representation is the answer. Always has been the answer. And there are no tricks tied to representation. If I tell you that I want to attend your party, I don’t mean – can I send my neighbor to attend for me? Writers of color want to attend the party AND…now pay close attention, because there is an AND. AND we want to be asked to dance.

Verna Myers, an Inclusion Activist (because we’ve reached a time where such a thing must exist) says that “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” So yes, we want to be invited and we want to dance.

The longer people of color are not partying with everyone else, the more that’s required of representation in literature. In 2007, when we launched BBS, our goal was to highlight our voices in kidlit. We wanted to make sure that the few of us at the party were actually getting to hold the mic now and then to showcase our books. Our hope, was that when readers and gatekeepers realized we were out there, that it would increase our numbers.

Ten years later, that’s barely the case. Worse, ten years later, there’s a new bugaboo – more people wanting to tell our stories and publishing thinking it’s okay. Because, apparently, as long as the story is told through the lens of a Black character well then *dusts off hands* our jobs are done here.

According to Cooperative Children’s Book Center, in 2007, of the 3,000 books they received only 77 were by African Americans while 150 were about us. Ten years later – of 3,400 books received by CCBC- 94 were by African Americans while 287 were about us. Do you see the problem here?

Just barely half of the books about us were written by us (51%) in 2007. And ten years later, though there was a 48% increase in books showcasing African Americans, only 33% were written by us. More books about us, but even less by us. That means the bouncer is stopping us at the club door, in droves, while everybody else is inside partying to OUR stories.

That’s why the question of what we want is insincere. Playing dumb only wastes our time. But, if plain English is in order – We want to tell our stories. All of them. Urban. Rural. Suburban. Historical. Contemporary. Fantastical.

Sorry, but no we don’t want anyone else telling our stories, because they’re OURS. Because we live as Black people everyday. So yeah, we know what it’s like. Why on earth would anyone tell that story? How could they?

And anyone asking – Well why can’t I… – go back to the beginning of the blog post and start over. Read it until you understand why.

We’re having a hard enough time showing African American children in a broad scope of stories. It’s insulting to constantly explain that we want our kids to hear what few stories exist, to come from their mommas, poppas, aunties and uncles.

Spare me any confusion or anger because I want my story told by someone who is familiar with the source material. Ten years ago, I was more willing to engage a discussion about that. So, you’d have to get in your time machine to elicit my empathy.

Meanwhile, I ask you this – how crazy would it sound to you if I went into a party, danced with your shoes on and then came back out and was like- Whew, that was a hell of a party. You should have been there.

NOTE: The representation stats for Native Americans is abysmal, with only 55 total books represented in 2016. While Asian Americans and Latinos aren’t winning this battle, by any means, I want to note that statistics show they’re experiencing slightly more success on being able to represent themselves. In 2016, 90% of books received by CCBC about Asians were written by Asians and 61% for Latinos. Tiny, barely there victory.

Writing Through 45

April 3, 2017

My left arm for a time before 45 when I could get on Twitter or write a blog post for BBS and talk about books.  Yes, that 45 – our current President. He’s changed everything, right down to how I function as an author. Anyone else with me?

I hope so. Because some days I feel quite lonely thinking I’m by myself worrying how my writing could or should be impacted by the world swirling around me. And swirling it is.

My Twitter feed used to be packed with news of my author friends book releases, events, writing advice, and the typical requisite cyber hugs for someone having an off-writing day. Now? Well, now I have to carefully pick and choose when I go on Twitter because it makes me ranty. And not the productive type of ranting either.

But last I looked, I was still a writer.  At least that’s what the folks at Greenwillow think, because they just contracted me for two middle grade books.

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Some years ago that would have scared me for the usual reasons being contracted to deliver “the words” would – can I do it? Will I meet my deadline? How long can my family go without food while I focus on these books for awhile? Now, it frightens me for totally different reasons – primarily, do my books matter at a time when the world seems like it’s on fire?

How on earth can we expect kids to read when we need to prepare them for the apocalypse that is the current administration? One that has made permanent sound bites of things like “alternative facts” and “don’t take the tweet literally.”  It’s a world where the Chief Executive of the United States calls anyone who disagrees with him a liar, while constantly spewing lies himself. If  I’m writing, shouldn’t I be trying to find a way to cover the current world to help young readers navigate it?

*deep breath*

Those are the thoughts that creep into my mind, sometimes. Then I remember that the whole point of literature is escape. And not just for the reader.

I know there will be more authors like Angie Thomas, who take the frustration of the world out on the words and come up with masterful stories. And I look forward to seeing more YA like THUG and even MG that finds ways to help young readers see the current world through their lens. It’s what kid lit is about.

Meanwhile, I’m going to stay in my lane. Partly because I’m still trying to figure out how to digest where we are. But also, because, when I allow myself to go into my bubble, I see so many stories that still need to be told to young readers beyond what’s happening at 1600 Pennsylvania.

For some of us, the world is truly on fire. From healthcare to human rights we’re being threatened to fall in line with an ideology, that supposedly defines us all as Americans, or else. But that can’t stop us from fighting to ensure kids of color see themselves represented in literature.

Some of those stories will most definitely be about the fragile relationship between law enforcement and Black communities; crooked and uncaring politicians; or a bogeyman running the nation. And some of them will be about friendships and how they shape us into young adults; growing into our ambition, or falling in love for the first time. No single story is more important than the other.

Once I take a few deep breaths, I realize that some elements of my stories may change to include little pieces of today’s world but ultimately who I am as a writer hasn’t changed nor will it.

I’m renewed in that thought and look forward to diving head first back into the writing and library communities where raging against the machine is done one page at a time.

Reflections: The Tiny Bigness of Ten Years

January 2, 2017

Do you know what can happen over a span of 10 years?

Let me help you…

Personally, my oldest daughter has grown from a thirteen-year-old into a young woman with a college degree and a full time job (my pockets cry amen).

My youngest has gone from a toddler to a middle-schooler with aspirations to be a professional ballerina. A goal I’ll do whatever I can to help her reach – to the dismay of my wallet.

I’ve gone from a debut author to, dare I say, a veteran with five books under my name and a sixth soon to come.

And that’s to say nothing of the world itself having traveled from a place of hope, as our first Black president came to the end of his first term onto his second, to one of abject confusion as we face the consequences of electing a President supported by bigots and hate groups.

Yes, a lot can happen in ten years. But what hasn’t changed is my passion for the world to embrace a wider variety of books that feature and include characters of color by authors of color. Sure, my absence from The Brown Bookshelf as a contributor might make you wonder about that.  No need to.  I’m as committed to that cause as I was, ten long years ago, when I approached an author I knew only from a message board.  When I think back on it now, I wonder where I got the nerve to think that he and I, me a brand new author and he a relatively new one, could start a movement designed to bring attention to our voices.

Had Varian and I had given any real thought to it, we would have both said no.  It would have made more sense.  We were both WWW – working while writing. In other words, writing was not our full time job. It was something we did on our lunch hours, after our family’s had gone to bed, or on scraps of paper while sitting at a stop light commuting to work. Neither of us had the time, to be truthful. And we were essentially strangers to one another.  All we knew about one another was what we purported to be on the message boards. And yet, he said yes when I said – Hey…maybe we should join forces.

I shouldn’t speak for him, but I believe we did so out of instinct (it was just right) and survival.  We knew we couldn’t entrench ourselves in a bubble of only authors of color. The world is bigger than any one circle you belong to. But we also knew if we didn’t advocate for voices like ours – who would?

Along the way, that instinct led us to invite Kelly and Don into our vision. And they have carried the torch the last five years, inviting new authors to sustain this very important site. I remain in awe of it. Of what it stands for, a beacon for librarians, parents and other gatekeepers of children literature. And of what it is – a strong voice that will never be silenced despite those wishing to dilute the importance of diverse books.

Over the years, I’d sometimes get frustrated. I so badly wanted The Brown Bookshelf to be validated by traditional publishers and traditional news outlets that guided folks to books. I wanted us to be THE voice to help folks find good books featuring our stories.

And early on, we faced mild criticism wanting us to be more inclusive beyond African American authors. After all “brown” encompasses a great many people.

But every good fight starts with a step.  And no war can be waged alone.

The Brown Bookshelf was started to help brown authors – those primarily of African American descent. Along the way, we have made many allies to ensure the message supports inclusion of all types. So it’s doing what we hoped it would.  And while some days I still feel like we’re at the start line of the race to diversify publishing, our Open Declaration in Support of Children is exactly why BBS exists – to galvanize our voices so that inclusion of our stories, by us, is understood to be a right not a privilege.

Happy Anniversary to a warrior in the fight for inclusion. A luta continua*!


*The struggle continues!