Black Kids on Covers

July 25, 2017

This is a wonderful time in children’s book publishing, where the faces of black girls and boys on covers is not an anomaly. When I was a kid, I almost never saw myself on the cover of a book, and certainly not ones as spectacular as those upcoming in the next few months. There was a time in this industry when publishers believed having a black person on a cover meant the book wouldn’t sell. (If you haven’t heard Justine Larbalestier’s battle to get a black girl on her cover for LIAR, you can read all about it here.) But that seems to be a thing of the past. Below are upcoming novels with black girls and boys on the cover that we’re all excited about.  

Tomi Adeyemi’s CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE, a young adult fantasy based in African mythology. (March 2018)


Dhonielle Clayton’s THE BELLES, a young adult fantasy about a group of young women who control how people look. (February 2018)


David Barclay Moore’s THE STARS BENEATH OUR FEET, a middle grade novel about 12-year-old Lolly, dealing with the gang-related death of his brother. (September 2017)


Justina Ireland’s DREAD NATION, a young adult novel which reimagines the civil war with children trained to kill zombies. (April 2018)


Ilyasah Shabazz with Renée Watson’s BETTY BEFORE X, a middle grade novelized nonfiction book about activist Betty Shabazz as a young girl. (January 2018)


Jason Reynolds’ MILES MORALES SPIDER-MAN is a novelized version of Marvel’s newest super hero, who is half African-American and half Puerto Rican. (August 2017)


Kheryn Callendar’s HURRICANE CHILD, an MG magical realism about a girl who can see things others can’t. (March 2018)


And my own RISE OF THE JUMBIES, the second in a middle grade fantasy series about a girl who must fight mythological Caribbean creatures. (September 2017)

Feel free to add more upcoming titles you’re excited about in the comments.

Javaka Steptoe On The Sounds of a Rainbow

October 19, 2010

Javaka SteptoeJavaka Steptoe is an award-winning, eclectic artist, designer, and illustrator. His debut work, In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers, earned him the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, a nomination for Outstanding Children’s Literature Work at the 1998 NAACP Image Awards, and countless other honors. More accolades followed for his work on books including Do You Know What I’ll Do? by Charlotte Zolotow, A Pocketful of Poems by Nikki Grimes, and Amiri and Odette: A Love Story by Walter Dean Myers.

Once a model and inspiration for his late father, award winning author/illustrator John Steptoe, Javaka Steptoe now utilizes everyday objects, from aluminum plates to pocket lint, and sometimes illustrating with a jigsaw and paint, he delivers reflective and thoughtful collage creations filled with vitality, playful energy, and strength. His latest work, JIMI: Sounds Like All The Rainbow, written by Gary Golio, is the latest example of Steptoe’s vibrant and multi-layered style.

cover image
The art has so much texture and movement, and is wonderfully vibrant. Can you tell us a bit about the materials you used, the decisions you made, and how you put it all together?

I use materials that make connections to the subject matter of the story, with the goal of speaking to the viewer on many levels. I used wood because:

1. Guitars are made out of wood.
2. When learning about Jimi I found him to be very spiritual, so I tried to make my process spiritual. To help capture the feel and energy of Jimi’s hometown, I bought recycled wood at a construction store in Seattle. This wood (probably around when Jimi was alive) was a part of Seattle before it became art. So, besides taking images, research, and memories back to NY, I was able to bring back a physical piece of Seattle to live with, listen to and create from.

I love textures, color, and movement—they are design elements I inherently use in my work. Jimi Hendrix was a complex person, quiet and sensitive, yet when it came to his music he was very dynamic and even over the top. This book let me push that side of myself in order to capture the essence of this duality.

How did you and Gary collaborate? What were some of the challenges on the path to publication of this book? What were some of the sweeter moments?

I actually did not meet Gary until late in the process. We spoke on the telephone but historically most book companies do not like authors and illustrators to talk. Part of the reason is that publishers want to give the illustrator the same freedom and autonomy to create as the author had when creating the story. The other part is that they don’t want the author and illustrator to make decisions on their own, and not be in the loop themselves.

Some of the challenges in illustrating this book were keeping the story visually authentic. There is a lot of pressure in knowing that there are about 50 billion Jimi fans who all knew him better than me, watching and waiting to see if I know my stuff, and ready to send me hate mail if I don’t.
Sweet moments were in going to Seattle, seeing one of Jimi’s childhood houses, visiting and working with the children at the elementary school he attended, and talking with the Seattle natives who knew him or family members. There is still a real excitement about Jimi and his music, and people were very willing to share.

JIMI explores the creative process, which is different for every artist, often different for every project. What in your research of his process and work inspired you? Did you have any surprises along the way? How did you make the connections between sound and color?

One of the most important things that I learned about our geniuses is that they are open to knowledge. They listen, read and watch, they consume information and don’t say “I don’t listen to country music,” or “I only eat hamburgers.” They are interested in all experiences. Because of their openness they are able to make profound statements about life in whatever way they best express themselves.

The process of creating the illustrations for this book has also prompted me to redefine my relationship to creating children’s books. During the process I created a residency program called Exploring the Creative Process with Javaka Steptoe™. This is a cross-disciplinary residency that explores the creative process in an experiential way from many points of view.

What is a “typical” work day like for you? What is your work space like? (photos welcome!)
On a typical work day I get up about 5 am and meditate for an hour. Then I take a shower, eat and go to the library or a coffee shop, and work on my computer until about 1 or 2. After that I take a break for about an hour or two, then work on art until about 7 or 8, eat dinner, drink tea and listen to audio books until it’s time to go to sleep.

At the moment my studio is under construction, so there’s lots of sheetrock and exposed brick, and also lots of tables.

What have been some of the most helpful people, resources, etc. along the way in your work as an illustrator? What are you looking forward to working on? Is there anything that you haven’t yet done that you’d like to do/work with?

Besides my mother and father being the most helpful people, along the way have been my editors. I have lucked out and had really great editors. Though we have not always agreed, they have all been really smart, passionate, very helpful and supportive.

Something that I haven’t yet done that I’d like to do is illustrate a sci-fi book. There are a lot of great black sci-fi book writers like Steven Barnes, Sheree Thomas, Samuel R. Delany, Charles R. Saunders, Tananarive Due, Jewelle Gomez, Ishmael Reed, Kalamu ya Salaam, Robert Fleming, and Nalo Hopkinson, and they are living. (You’re all welcome for the plug—now send me something, guys!)

I read in an essay in Sheree Thomas’s book, “Dark Matter,” that if we don’t see ourselves in sci-fi we don’t see ourselves in the future…so I don’t know about you, but I am not quite ready to disappear—are you?

Thank you!

And I thank you, for sharing a bit of the story behind your work, and adding new layers to our understanding of this legendary artist! Visit Javaka Steptoe online to see and learn more about his fabulous work. For more on the book, visit the Facebook page, and the blog tour all this week. JIMI: Sounds Like A Rainbow is available now at your local bookshop and online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Blog Tour: Dork Diaries

June 5, 2009

1416980067On June 2, 2009, author Rachel Renee Russell released her debut middle grade  book Dork Diaries.   Never fear, being a dork is cool these days and Nikki Maxwell, the dorky protagonist, embraces her dork status.

To welcome Nikki and Rachel to The Brown Bookshelf family, I sat down with the two of them recently to talk about the book, Nikki’s life as a dork, Rachel’s journey to publication, and what’s next for the both of them.

Nikki, what makes you a dork?
 NM:  It all started when that snob, MacKenzie, called me a dork because I was always writing in my diary.  She said, “OMG!  Only a dork writes in a diary!”  And, I was like, “If I flush, will you go away!”  But, after a while, that word started to take on a different meaning for me.  Now, dork means independent, different and unconventional, which are all good things.  I call myself, dorkalicious :-)!

Dork Diaries is coming to the big screen.  Who are your ideal choices to play you, Mackenzie, and Brandon?
NM:  I would love to be cast as myself in the movie.  I was the understudy for Little Red Riding Hood back in second grade, so I know I can do it.  And, of course, I think Brandon should play himself too, especially since I have this huge crush on him.   I would NOT want MacKenzie anywhere near the movie set.  She is such a diva! I think that snobby girl from High School Musical, Sharpay, should be cast as MacKenzie.  I believe the actress’ name is Ashley Tisdale.

Who’s your celebrity crush?
NM:  I have two: Nick Jonas, from the Jonas Brothers and Corbin Bleu, from High School Musical.  I even drew sketches of both of them in my diary.

The remote control is in your hand, what’s on the TV screen?
NM:  I LOVE that brand new TV show GLEE!  It’s High School Musical on steroids!

I believe a lot of kids will be able to relate to various things that happen to you.  Do you ever plan to go from a written diary to an online blog?  Maybe have an advice column for fellow dorks?
NM:  Actually, I already have a blog  at  The advice column is a good idea.  I think I’m going to consider adding one since being in middle school can sometimes be really traumatic.

Nickelodeon or Disney?
NM:  I’m a Disney kind of girl.  Actually, I’m really hoping Disney will buy the film rights to my diary.  Then,  I can use the money to get that iPhone I’ve been wanting.  And, maybe buy some more art supplies and a new wardrobe from the Mall.  Oh!  And, since I don’t have a drivers license yet, I would need to buy a private jet like Oprah’s.

Rachel, what’s next for Nikki Maxwell?
RRR:  I’m currently working on Book 2 which will be released in the Spring of 2010.

What inspired you to create Dork Diaries?
RRR:  I wanted to write and illustrate a really funny book for Tween girls.  And, I wanted it to have a unique voice, be slightly quirky and contain a lot of pop culture.  I mainly wanted to make people laugh.

I loved the artwork in Dork Diaries.  What led you to create a graphic novel?  Who did the artwork for Dork Diaries?
RRR:  Actually, the book format is not a true graphic novel.  It’s usually referred to as a “hybrid” or “illustrated novel.”  I am the illustrator of the book.  However, toward the end, I started running a bit behind schedule so I took on two assistant artists to help get it finished by the deadline, which is not that unusual when you’re both writing and illustrating a huge project.

Every author has their own story about what led them to pick up a pen to write that first story and how their book was born.  What is your story?
RRR:  I started writing and illustrating homemade books for my family members back in grade school.  I also did several for my two daughters when they were younger.  So, it’s been something I’ve always loved doing.  In recent years, I’ve written a young adult book, a middle grade graphic novel and  Dork Diaries.  So, although this is actually my third book, it’s the first one to get published.

Your main character, Nikki,  is not an African-American. Why did you choose to do this?
RRR:  The character, Nikki, came to me as she is written.  At first I was hesitant, but I remembered reading an article about Shonda Rhimes, the creator, writer and executive director of the hit television show, Grey’s Anatomy.  She was my inspiration for attempting to write a main character very different from myself. The other two major characters in Dork Diaries are  Zoey, who is African-American and Chloe, who is Hispanic.  So, my book has quite a bit of diversity.  The three girls are best friends and are considered the biggest dorks in their school.  They get into all sorts of hilarious mischief.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid took the MG/YA audience by storm with its debut in 2007.  I’ve seen a lot of buzz about your book as well as the expected comparison and contrast to Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  How does that make you feel?  Is there more pressure for Dork Diaries to stand out from Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s shadow?
RRR:  Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a funny and well-written series.  So, I’m really flattered by any comparison.  Dork Diaries, however, is very different.  It’s from a female perspective and deals with issues Tween girls face on a daily basis.  My main character is a bit older and has an edgier voice.  And, my artwork has a slight manga influence.  However, I would be totally elated if  Dork Diaries does even half as well as Diary of a Wimpy Kid!

Rachel and Nikki have been busy blog hopping this week and it doesn’t end today.  Check out some of their other tour stops.

A Patchwork of Books

Peeking Between the Pages

Next week, she will be featured at Bildungsroman on June 8th, That Teen Can Blog on June 10th, and The Reading Zone on June 12th.

Don’t forget to leave a comment to be entered into a drawing to win a copy of Dork Diaries along with a very cool purse that contains items mentioned in the book.

What’s New in YA Releases II?

October 17, 2008

It’s that time again, time to celebrate more young adult books published this year.  Since May, several new titles have come out that are just waiting for you to pick up and read.  Some of our favorite authors are back with their second or third book, inviting us to resume the next saga in their series.  And we are eager to check out Deborah Gregory, the author who bought us The Cheetah Girls, return to the scene with the drama filled Catwalk.

<!–[if !mso]> <! st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } –>

June 1
The Pact (Kimani Tru) by Monica McKayhan

June 24
Catwalk by Deborah Gregory

July 1
That’s What’s Up by Paula Chase

August 1
Shrink to Fit (Kimani Tru) by Dona Sarkar

August 5
The Ashleys:  Birthday Vicious by Melissa de la Cruz

September 1
Drama High: Courtin’ Jayd by L Divine
Chasing Romeo (Kimani Tru) by AJ Byrd

September 30
The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez by Alan Lawrence Sitomer

October 1, 2008
The Pledge (Kimani Tru) by Chandra Sparks Taylor
Kendra by Coe Booth
Hotlanta:  If Only You Knew by Denene Millner and Mitzi Miller

Heads Up Vol IV

January 28, 2008

aacbwismalllogo_thumbnail.jpgHeads Up is a reposting of AACBWI’s announcement of book releases that may picque the interest of young African American readers. As a Brown Bookshelf partner, The African American Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators society is dedicated to spreading the word about these and other books that are of special interest to multi-cultural audiences.

From Board Books to Young Adult fiction, Heads Up serves as a guide of what to look for in stores or what to ask for at the library.

hope-chest.jpgTHE HOPE CHEST (Random House) by Karen Schwabach (Ages 9-12)

Violet’s older sister Chloe didn’t get married. She bought a car instead. And then she drove that car to New York City and never came home again. Violet’s parents said Chloe had turned into the Wrong Sort of Person, but Violet knew better. Now she’s determined to find her sister, and she’ll go all the way to New York City to do it. The only problem is that Chloe’s not in New York anymore. So Violet must journey even further to Tennessee , where Chloe is fighting for the vote for women. Nashville is a hotbed of political intrigue. Suffs and Antis are doing anything and everything to sway legislators to their side: bribing them, pleading with them, and even kidnapping them. Violet is hanging out with suffragists, socialists, and colored people. But if she’s becoming the Wrong Sort of Person, why does it feel just right?

nikki-and-deja.jpgNIKKI AND DEJA by Karen English – Clarion Books (Ages 4-8)

Can Nikki and Deja’s friendship survive the drill team club and the new girl? Meet Nikki and Deja, who live next door to each other and are best friends. They do everything together-watch Saturday morning cartoons, play jacks, jump double Dutch at recess, and help each other with their homework for Ms. Shelby’s third-grade class. But when an arrogant new girl arrives and Nikki and Deja form a club that would exclude her, the results are not what they expect. This warm, easy-to-read chapter book from an award-winning author captures all the joys and complexities of elementary school life-particularly friendships and cliques-with finesse and humor.

new-boy.jpgNEW BOY by Julian Houston – Paperback version (Young Adult)

In this compelling debut novel, a sixteen year-old African American boy discovers the world-and himself-when he integrates an all-white boarding school in the 1950s.

missy-violet.jpg MISSY VIOLET AND ME by Barbara Hathaway – Houghton Mifflin paperback version (Ages 9-12)

The Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award was given to this moving story of a young girl’s apprenticeship to a midwife. The summer that Viney is eleven years old is extraordinary. It takes her out of school and puts her under the wing of Missy Violet, a well-loved midwife whose wise and warm ways help teach Viney about the business of catchin’ babies. At turns scary, funny, and exhilarating, the rhythm of Viney’s rural life in the South quickens as she embraces her apprenticeship and finds her own special place as Missy Violet’s “best helper girl.”

road-to-paris.jpgTHE ROAD TO PARIS by Nikki Grimes – Puffin paperback version (Ages 9-12)

Paris has just moved in with the Lincoln family, and she isnt thrilled to be in yet another foster home. She has a tough time trusting people, and she misses her brother, whos been sent to a boys home. Over time, the Lincolns grow on Paris . But no matter how hard she tries to fit in, she cant ignore the feeling that she never will, especially in a town thats mostly white while she is half black. It isnt long before Paris has a big decision to make about where she truly belongs.

oprah.jpgUP CLOSE: OPRAH WINFREY by Ilene Cooper – Puffin (Young Adult)

Oprah Winfrey has been called the Queen of All Media for good reasonduring her more than thirty-year career, she has left an indelible mark on radio, television, film, theater, magazines, and books. One of the most influential people today, Oprah is also a committed humanitarian.


Head’s Up Vol III

January 12, 2008


Heads Up is a reposting of AACBWI’s announcement of book releases that may peak the interest of young African American readers. As a Brown Bookshelf partner, The African American Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators society is dedicated to spreading the word about these and other books that are of special interest to multi-cultural audiences.

From Board Books to Young Adult fiction, Heads Up serves as a guide of what to look for in stores or what to ask for at the library.

In keeping with the “theme” of historical books leading to Black History Month, this week’s releases are all biographical.

piano-starts-here.jpgPiano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum by Robert A. Parker (Schwartz & Wade) – Ages 4-8

Regardless of whether they’ve heard of jazz or Art Tatum, young readers will appreciate how Parker uses simple, lyrical storytelling and colorful and energetic ink-and-wash illustrations to show the world as young Art Tatum might have seen it.

Tatum came from modest beginnings and was nearly blind, but his passion for the piano and his acute memory for any sound that he heard drove him to become a virtuoso who was revered by both classical and jazz pianists alike.

ali.jpgMuhammad Ali: Champion of the World by Jonah Winter and illustrated by Francois Roca (Schwartz & Wade) – Ages 4-8

In the history of legendary boxers, there was Joe Louis and Sonny Liston . . . and then, “the heavens opened up, and there appeared a great man descending on a cloud, jump-roping into the Kingdom of Boxing . And he was called Cassius Clay.”

Clay let everyone know that he was the greatest boxer in the world. He converted to the Nation of Islam, refused to be drafted into a war in which he didn’t believe, and boxed his way back to the top after being stripped of his title. The man that came to be known as Muhammad Ali was heard in a voice no one will ever forget.

mandela.jpgMandela: The Rebel Who Led His Nation to Freedom by Ann Kramer (National Geographic Children’s Books) – Ages 9-12

Nelson Mandela comes to life in this portrait of a diplomatic man whose commitment to freedom gained him both the Nobel Peace Prize and Time’s Man of the Year honor. The son of a Thembu chief in South Africa , Mandela began his life-long campaign against white colonial rule while a college student.

Kramer’s eloquent, yet approachable text describes the leader’s dedication to nonviolence, his role in the African National Congress and his arrest in 1962 for sabotage and conspiracy. During his 27 years in prison, Mandela continued his fight for a democratic and free society, and ultimately was released and elected president of South Africa .

Heads Up Vol. II

December 31, 2007

paula_thumb2.jpgHeads Up is a reposting of AACBWI’s announcement of book releases that may picque the interest of young African American readers.

As a Brown Bookshelf partner, The African American Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators society is dedicated to spreading the word about these and other books that are of special interest to multi-cultural audiences.

From Board Books to Young Adult fiction, Heads Up serves as a guide of what to look for in stores or what to ask for at the library.

 Taking a peek at this column’s latest entries, I get the sense that with Black History Month around the corner, historical books are the flavor of the day.

FREEDOM ON THE MENU by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by
Jerome Lagarrigue (Puffin) Picture Book/Paperback (ages 4-8)

There were signs all throughout town telling eight-year-old Connie where she could and could not go. But when Connie sees four young men take a stand for equal rights at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, she realizes that things may soon change.
This event sparks a movement throughout her town and region. And while Connie is too young to march or give a speech, she helps her brother and sister make signs for the cause. Changes are coming to Connie’s town, but Connie just wants to sit at the lunch counter and eat a banana split like everyone else.

CIRCLE UNBROKEN by Margot Theis Raven (Square Fish) Picture Book (ages

As she teaches her granddaughter to sew a traditional sweetgrass basket, a grandmother weaves a story, going back generations to her old-timey grandfather’s village in faraway Africa. There, as a boy, he learned to make baskets so tightly woven they could hold the rain.

Even after being stolen away to a slave ship bound for America, he remembers what he learned and passes these memories on to his children.

FRANCIE by Karen English (Square Fish) – Middle Grade (ages 9-12)

Francie is happiest up on her hill, bare feet pushed into the cool grass, eating a Scooter Pie, reading a Nancy Drew mystery, and–best of all–waving at “her” train as it heads up the tracks to Birmingham. Life isn’t easy being a quiet, bright, “colored” eighth-grader growing up in the ’30s in Noble, Alabama. The fact that Francie can be a little willful doesn’t always help.

Her train promises escape, the chance to travel to “places of possibility.” And anywhere seems better than Noble, with its “pickaninny” racism and back-breaking routine, where she slaves away with her mother cooking and cleaning for white folks in town (when she isn’t studying hard at Booker T. Washington, her clapboard country school, that is).

Francie dreams of Chicago, where her father moved a year ago to work as a Pullman porter, promising to send for Francie, her little brother Prez, and their mama as soon as he could. But Daddy has yet to come through, and Noble begins to offer possibilities of its own, the most exciting being when Francie puts her reading smarts to use tutoring an unschooled 16-year-old from nearby New Carlton.

When he gets framed for attacking a white foreman, though, the courageous Francie can’t keep from trying to help, endangering herself and those she holds dear.

I, MATTHEW HENSON By Carole Boston Weatherford (Walker Books for Young
Children) – Nonfiction (ages 5-10)

Matthew Henson was not meant to lead an ordinary life. His dreams had sails. They took him from the port of Baltimore, around the world, and north to the pole. No amount of fear, cold, hunger, or injustice could keep him from tasting adventure and exploring the world.

He learned to survive in the Arctic wilderness, and he stood by Admiral Peary for
years on end, all for the sake of his goal. And finally, after decades of facing danger and defying the odds, he reached the North Pole and made history. At last, Henson had proved himself as an explorer—and as a man.

A SWEET SMELL OF ROSES by Angela Johnson (Aladdin) – Picture Book
(ages 4-8)

There’s a sweet, sweet smell in the air as two young girls sneak out of their house, down the street, and across town to where men and women are gathered, ready to march for freedom and justice. Inspired by countless children and young adults who took a stand, two Coretta Scott King honorees offer a heart-lifting glimpse of children’s roles
in the civil rights movement.