Sweet Blackberry: Karyn Parsons Is Sharing Stories We All Need Now

June 29, 2017

It seems like Karyn Parsons was born to start Sweet Blackberry, the non-profit organization dedicated to bringing little known stories of African American achievement to light. Her mother was a librarian, and “I did grow up in libraries,” says the star of the long-running hit show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. “The advantage of having a mother who worked there was that you could check books out way over the limit. I grew up with books around the house too, and with a strong love of books and reading.” Parsons mother also made sure to share with her the stories and information about African American culture that she’d been told as a child growing up in the South. “From time to time she was surprised by the things that I wasn’t being taught in school,” says Parsons.

Parsons began dreaming of Sweet Blackberry while her mother worked at the Black Resource Center in South Central Los Angeles. She was playing Hilary Banks on the Fresh Prince and her mother would call to share stories of people she found fascinating. “She told me stories in ways that made them come alive.” And one of the first was the story of Henry Box Brown.
“I had never heard his story before,” she remembers. “I was fascinated! I wasn’t a big history person in school — I couldn’t stand history! It was always presented to me in this very dry and abstract way… ‘Memorize these dates, do a report.’ Nobody was bringing it to you where you lived.” The tale of the enslaved man who literally mailed himself to freedom in a box “still feels like a fable, it’s amazing! Such a magnificent story,” she says. Parsons in turn shared Brown’s story with friends.

“I would tell my friends about it and no one had heard this story, it was so incredible. I became so determined that I was going to share this story with kids.”

But starring on a television show took precedence for a while. Parsons kept Henry Brown’s story in the back of her mind and heart, and would occasionally scribble notes, etc. It was when she was pregnant with her first child that she started thinking about ways to supplement her daughter’s education. “What do they teach the kids in schools these days? What can I expect her to learn? What can I give her?” Motherhood brought with it new responsibilities and opportunities. “My daughter’s watching.” And Sweet Blackberry was born.

Parsons points out that it’s important that we go beyond the usual MLK and Harriet Tubman stories, as important and beautiful as they are. “There’s so much more…I have to get these out.” As she wondered how she’d go about sharing stories like Brown’s, her husband, an independent filmmaker, encouraged her to “just do it.”

Parsons started with the idea to write books, but indie publishing was not as accessible as it is now. She had studied filmmaking, and knew the industry. “I knew I could make a film. And I could press it, make DVDs.” Parsons started talking to friends and acquaintances in the business, and the positive response was encouraging. “There was so much goodwill,” she remembers.

As Sweet Blackberry kicks off a Kickstarter campaign that will bring the story of aviator Bessie Coleman to the screen, Parsons says that she’s more than ready to share Coleman’s story with kids and families. “I love the way Bessie Coleman’s life can show kids that all of us have opportunities for greatness despite the obstacles in our lives,” she says.

And Sweet Blackberry has had its challenges – bringing high-quality animated stories to the screen is not easy work. Some are surprised that a television star is using a crowdfunding campaign. “Everybody thinks you have money because of Fresh Prince,” she says, laughing. “It’s hard to get people to understand that we really need your help,” points out Parsons. “We have this short window of time to raise all of this money or else we don’t keep any of it. We need people to respond now, any way they can – even a dollar. Every little bit matters.”

Choosing and crafting the stories is no easy feat either. “When you sit down to write the story, and consider your young audience, you really have to consider the story you’re trying to tell,” says Parsons.

“It’s not just a person and their achievements, but how you’ll bring this story to young people in a way that they can understand it.”

Though she’d dreamed of sharing the story of Henry “Box” Brown for years, sitting down to write a children’s story of a family that was broken up by this country’s brutal system of slavery was difficult. “The narrative was heart-wrenching…but I didn’t want to sugarcoat things.” Parsons saw that using animals to ask questions in The Journey of Henry Box Brown, narrated by Alfre Woodard, offered a child with some distance from the experience of slavery “An opportunity to understand why one might go to such lengths to escape it.”

Sweet Blackberry went on to tell the story of accomplished inventor Garrett Morgan in Garrett’s Gift, narrated by Queen Latifah. She started looking for an angle that children could connect with. “As I researched, I tapped into his young life, his having so much energy, and how he had a creative mind and how children can get labeled negatively because of that.”

Parsons always knew that she’d tell prima ballerina Janet Collins’ extraordinary story of refusing to dance in whiteface then finding success on her own terms — the result is the powerful Dancing in the Light, illustrated by award-winning artist R. Gregory Christie. While there are an abundance of under-the radar stories to tell Parsons remains thoughtful about her work. “There are some I’ve had to shelve for now because I’m not sure yet how to tell those stories to children…I have to figure out the way in.” All three of the Sweet Blackberry award-winning productions were screened on HBO, and are currently streaming on Netflix.

And now, Bessie Coleman. “I’m so inspired by her…envious of her having that spirit, to be such a badass…She was so ahead of her time. If she was happening right now, she’d be all over Facebook. And this was 100 years ago!”

Children get these messages that “Once in a while, a Black person comes along and does something.” It’s important to Parsons that Sweet Blackberry share the stories of all of the African Americans “who were such a part of the building of this country, such a part of the fabric of this country…These stories are for all children. These are American stories that every child should know.”

Parsons is focused on the Bessie Coleman project, and plans to use other media, including books, to share these vital stories. While she can’t tell us what’s after Coleman, she can promise that “It’s gonna be good!”

But first, the campaign must be fully funded for the production to happen. Parsons believes that not only is Coleman’s story exciting and groundbreaking and remarkable in many ways, it’s especially necessary for the times we’re in right now.

“So many children are feeling helpless, and challenged. Bessie Coleman’s story empowers them and reminds them of what they’re capable of.”

To make a donation of any amount to help bring the Bessie Coleman story to the screen, visit the campaign page now. There are only a few days left, and Sweet Blackberry’s work is more important than ever.

Sweet Blackberry Sizzle from karyn parsons on Vimeo.


Nicola Yoon on #BlackGirlMagic, How Love Changes Everything, and Showing the Possibilities

June 6, 2017

credit: Sonya Sones

Nicola Yoon is the #1 NYT bestselling author of Everything, Everything, which is now a major motion picture, and The Sun Is Also a Star, a National Book Award finalist, Michael L. Printz Honor Book and a Coretta Scott King New Talent Award winner. She grew up in Jamaica and Brooklyn, and lives in Los Angeles with her family.

We featured Nicola back in 2016; a LOT has happened since. We caught up with her for an update. Welcome back, Nicola!

You’ve mentioned that you wrote Everything, Everything because you wanted your daughter to see herself reflected in media. Can you share some of the responses you’ve gotten from readers, and now from those who’ve seen the film?

The response from readers has just been incredible and, not gonna lie, some of them have made me cry. Every day — every single day — I get at least one email from a reader or a viewer telling me how much it means to them at Maddy is a person of color. When my little girl first met Amandla Stenberg on the set of the movie, the first thing she said to me is “she looks just like me.” She said it again when she saw the movie at the Los Angeles premiere. I’ll never be able to put into words how much those moments have meant to me.

In an interview about Everything, Everything, you said that “I didn’t want her to be in a prison as much as yearning for something more, something different.” Why was that important to you? What was the process of getting that concept on paper?

One of the themes I was exploring with the book was the ways in which love changes you. Love is a force. Sometimes it changes you for the better. Sometimes for the worse. In the book, Maddy is very happy with her life before she meets Olly. After she meets and falls in love Olly, she begins to look at the world anew. I think one of the things that love does is open you up to the world and make you more vulnerable. The ways in which we respond to that vulnerability is something I was interested in exploring.

What were some of the challenges for you in the process of seeing the story move from the page to the screen? What surprised you? And what was your cameo experience like?

In the beginning it’s a little hard to let go of your characters, but that went away quickly for me. One of the best moments I had was when I was reading a revision of the script that had a scene that wasn’t in the book. I loved the scene so much that I wished I’d written it. That moment made me happy because both the script and the movie are new pieces of art. Now there are more stories about Maddy and Olly out in the world.

The cameo experience was so great! We are “family on the beach” in one of the Hawaii scenes. It’s about three seconds of me, my husband, and my daughter splashing in the waves in the background. Funnily, the scene took 45 minutes to film because my daughter kept pointing at the drone camera that filmed it so we had to do take after take :)

Congratulations on the success of The Sun is Also A Star! Where did that story start? How was the writing process similar to or different from working on Everything, Everything? What did you feel that you learned and incorporated into Sun? Now that you’re a page-to-screen vet, what are you most looking forward to in the filmmaking process?

Thank you so much! It really started for me from the Carl Sagan quote -— “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” I wanted to tell a love story about two people, but I wanted to include the universe of things that made it possible for the two people to fall in love. I’m really looking forward to the adaptation process. Tracy Oliver is writing the script as we speak!

What does the phrase #BlackGirlMagic mean to you? Where do you see or use that idea in your own work?

It means that black girls are allowed the full range of the human experience. In our current media we see so many stereotyped notions what it means to be black. One of the things I want to do in my work is to push back against those ideas. Black girls can be anyone and love anyone. We are allowed to be the main character.

We are allowed to be smart and beautiful and funny and soft and strong and vulnerable and geeky. We are allowed to be.

In The Sun Is Also A Star, you incorporate issues surrounding immigration, and mentioned in an interview that you’d love to see the immigration conversation “start from a place of empathy.” How do you think your readers can make that happen? How do you think that reading can promote empathy?

I think that books promote empathy. It’s hard to spend 400 pages in the lives of characters without seeing their humanity and coming to a place of understanding.

Like those who’ve come before us, our children, our readers, we’re living in challenging times. Do you think that’s reflected in the work that you do? In the stories that you tell? In the way that you work? How?

I think the times have always been challenging. One of the most powerful things that books can do is give us hope show us what is possible not only for ourselves, but for other people.

What do you think are the keys to writing successful YA romance? What are some of your favorites?

I love when characters fall in love with each other’s ideas of the world. I love when you can see that they are making each other grow and think and explore the world in new ways. Also, a good kissing scene is not to be underestimated. :) One of my all time favorites is I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson.

Thanks so much, Nicola! We can’t wait to see what’s next. Visit Nicola Yoon online for news and updates.


Where Do We Go From Here? Continuing the Conversation With Pat Cummings

May 9, 2017

Here at the Brown Bookshelf, we’ve spoken often and long on the issues and ideas expressed in the Open Declaration. We do this work to lift up our young readers and show them how they can survive, thrive, and soar in this world. For many of us, the way forward might be clear, for others, not so much. We may sign on to petitions and open declarations, forward emails, RT, and “like”, and these can all be good and powerful things. But we believe that it’s important to reflect on how we will hold ourselves accountable, how we will act, and reflect; how we will “live out commitment to using our talents and varied forms of artistic expression to help eliminate the fear that takes root in the human heart amid lack of familiarity and understanding of others; the type of fear that feeds stereotypes, bitterness, racism and hatred; the type of fear that so often leads to tragic violence and senseless death.” We’ll present a series of those posts here; signatories asking, wondering, and doing an essential question: Where do we go from here?

I’m especially honoured to share thoughts from award-winning author, artist, educator, and activist Pat Cummings. As a literacy educator and freshman college student, I carried JUST US WOMEN, illustrated by Ms. Cummings, on all of my summer home visits to families — it was a favourite in every one of the Harlem and Washington Heights homes I visited, as inspired young children and parents shared their own stories and photos of family road trips and vacations. Two of my own daughter’s ABSOLUTE first favourite books were Cummings’ MY AUNT CAME BACK and CLEAN YOUR ROOM, HARVEY MOON — even before she could read, she was enthralled by the wordplay and the joyful Brown faces on the pages.

I’m more than thrilled to welcome Pat Cummings back to The Brown Bookshelf.

Why did you sign the declaration?
A book is personal. Through words and pictures I have a chance to talk directly to more children than I’ll ever meet. Children who may take what’s in the pages of the book to heart. I’ve heard that personalities are formed by the time a child reaches six years of age. So, knowing that this is a window, an opportunity to express positive, open and humane ways of interacting with others on the planet, I feel children’s books can be more effective, more subversive even, than trying to get through to adults who are inexplicably locked in their prejudices, fears and arrogance. I signed the declaration because every point and sentiment in it aligns with my own beliefs.

How do you describe the intersection between art and activism? Who/what has influenced you in that area?
The arts, any art really, is an expression of your core beliefs. It’s like your handwriting or accent: your belief system is distinctly your own. And art provides an avenue for us to express what we think, love, believe. I’m not sure what would happen if we existed in an utopian society. But, faced with the disturbing attitudes and actions around us today and, knowing that vulnerable, open children are taking their cues from what they’re seeing, I think artists have to be activists. Who has influenced me? My mother and father. They are the ones who taught me to use critical thinking, to not only observe what is but to structure a pathway to what can be.

What next steps do you plan to take to carry out your pledge?

My goal is to ensure that readers find positive imagery and healthy relationships in the pages of my books.

In this business, we all try to suggest creative, positive resolutions to any situation. I’m committed to getting at the humaness of my characters…a colorless, genderless, ageless humanity that prevails regardless of nationalities, creeds or isms. Most of my characters are Black. And while that’s partially to address our underrepresentation in children’s literature, it’s also because I’m sick and disheartened about the widespread hostility and misunderstanding that has such negative effects. Walter Dean Myers once told me that he wanted to see his books in the hands of white kids who didn’t actually know anyone Black. And that’s been a big motivator for me: trying to remove the ignorance some readers have. Not ignorance in the sense of stupidity, but ignorance, literally: an ability to ignore anyone who looks, believes, or acts ‘different’. So, writing. Talking to kids. Working with college students and workshop attendees to encourage a more inclusive attitude. My plan is very much based on tossing a stone in the pond to create widening ripples.


How would you like to see the children’s publishing industry do its best to support our children?

I’ve seen improvements so I’m actually encouraged.

The Brown Bookshelf, We Need Diverse Books and even Black Lives Matter have had a significant impact on publishers.

Hiring editors, art directors, and marketing people of color will make a huge difference and I’ve seen initiatives to do just that. But one of the HUGEST things publishers could do is to widen the focus in their marketing. More authors, illustrators and publishing employees of color is a great start. But until books featuring diverse characters are actively marketed to mainstream audiences, diverse books will stay a niche section of the bookstore and a niche in publishers’ marketing plans. There still doesn’t seem to be a push to market books to EVERYONE, regardless of who is on the cover.


Where Do We Go From Here? Continuing the Conversation

January 24, 2017

Here at the Brown Bookshelf, we’ve spoken often and long on the issues and ideas expressed in the Open Declaration. We do this work to lift up our young readers and show them how they can survive, thrive, and soar in this world. For many of us, the way forward might be clear, for others, not so much. We may sign on to petitions and open declarations, forward emails, RT, and “like”, and these can all be good and powerful things. But we believe that it’s important to reflect on how we will hold ourselves accountable, how we will act, and reflect; how we will “live out commitment to using our talents and varied forms of artistic expression to help eliminate the fear that takes root in the human heart amid lack of familiarity and understanding of others; the type of fear that feeds stereotypes, bitterness, racism and hatred; the type of fear that so often leads to tragic violence and senseless death.” We’ll present a series of those posts here; signatories asking, wondering, and doing an essential question: Where do we go from here?
grandmama

Below, in the second of these posts, are some thoughts from award-winning authors, artists, and creators, including Kekla Magoon-KM (Shadows of Sherwood, X: A Novel, How It Went Down), Wade Hudson-WH, author (Jamal’s Busy Day, In Praise of Our Mothers and Fathers, Book of Black Heroes) and publisher of the storied Just Us Books, Margaree King Mitchell-MKM (When Grandmama Sings, Uncle Jed’s Barbershop), and Johnny Ray Moore-JRM, (Meet Martin Luther King, Jr., Howie Has A Stomachache).

Why did you sign the Declaration?

I signed because I believe in the vision of supporting our children through art, and because it’s important in moments of social change or upheaval in my life to stop, reflect, consider, and ultimately recommit myself to my goals. Being part of a thriving creative community that fights to bring truth and light to young readers through art and storytelling has long been one of my personal and professional goals, and being a part of this Declaration affirms that intention.” -KM

moore2
“I signed because, I just can’t sit and watch what my BLACK ANCESTORS fought and died for be viewed as being unimportant. I am determined to continue the fight for justice and equality.“-JRM

“I signed the declaration because it is important that all children see themselves depicted in books. There are many stories in the lives of children that are not being told. All children need to see their lives depicted in books and in movies and know that their lives matter. I will continue to create authentic representations of children and tell their stories honestly and in the process, inspire them to be the best they can be.”-MKM

“I wanted to add my voice to those in the children’s and young adult book community who were determined to take a stand in support of our children, those for whom we create our books. I think it was (is) a powerful statement of commitment and dedication to a better future, and one in which our children are not just bystanders. The truth is, the kind of future we cultivate, water and fertilize, is for them. I was so elated by the number of folks who signed. It was a major success on this long road to the kind of world, kind of future most of us desire, inclusive, respectful of differences, nurturing and empowering.”-WH

sherwood
How do you describe the intersection between art and activism? Who/what has influenced you in that area?

“Art and activism go hand in hand. We create art from the deepest parts of ourselves, the parts that crave connection and belonging and to make our mark on the world. These are the same, most deeply individual and deeply human, parts of ourselves that cause us to strive to create a better world. The beauty of art is the ability to look at what is going on in the world and speak to it and about it from many different angles. That ability to see the world through a new lens, and the constant re-evaluation and challenging of the status quo is a core aspect of effective activism.

I’m influenced by generations of artists that have gone before, and who have attempted to shed light on the harshest conditions of life in our world through beautiful language. A handful of my favorites include Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, and James Baldwin. They used their words for activism, directly and indirectly, and the best community organizers and educators I know today still use these artists’ now-famous words to inspire and uplift new generations of activists.”-KM

I, Johnny Ray Moore, am art in the flesh, trailblazing and warring for what is right for our Black Community, first. Then, I keep trailblazing and warring for all who can’t or won’t do for themselves, for whatever reason.

I am influenced by JESUS CHRIST. He died for wretched ole me, so I might bring glory to The Kingdom of GOD, and help others step out into a better day.”-JRM

“There is a quote by Cesar Cruz which states: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Art transcends entertainment. We use our art to paint the world through our experiences. And those experiences touch others who have had had similar experiences. Whether a book, a painting, or a song, art can touch people to their core. Art activists I admire and have influenced me are Elizabeth Catlett, Sonia Sanchez, Zora Neale Hurston, Lena Horne, Ntozake Shange, and Christine Taylor Butler. “-MKM

Wade Hudson Quote
First, I think I need to share simple definitions of art and activism that work for me. For me, art is an outlet of creative expression normally influenced by culture and that is used to comment on that culture in some way. Activism is a focused and concentrated effort to bring about change in society, or to address a ill, that the activist feels will help make the society in which he or she lives, a fairer and better place.
So, with those definitions, I’ll say that I believe art and activism have been partners in battle for a very long time for us in this country. The style of delivering God’s Word to congregations by Black preachers can be considered art. I believe Nat Turner used that artistic style to inspire and motivate his followers to activism, to revolt. Frederick Douglass used the art of the written word, as well as his oratory (he was an ordained minister), in the cause to abolish slavery. Edmonia Lewis’s sculptures addressed the enslavement of her people, but she also worked on the Underground Railroad and organized support for the first Black regiment that fought in the Civil War. Spirituals were songs that lifted spirits, but some were encoded with signs and directions to assist slaves escaping to freedom. Black churches, and other black institutions, were born out of activism, with Black folks saying, okay, if you won’t allow us to be included, we’ll start our own. The truth is, I believe activism is a part of our DNA. Essentially, I am saying that art and activism more than intersect, they are married.
When I was growing up in Mansfield, LA, a small country town, the public library was for Whites only and there was no library in the Black community. Our school had a small library that contained books that were discarded by the white schools and the segregated library. Obviously, there were only a few books about Black history, Black culture, Black experiences. But as a young boy, I read the books in our library, books that focused on the White experience, the Western experience. As I continued to read them (that’s all that was there) I began to force myself into those pages, even though I was left out. For example, I ran across William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” in a collection of poems. I appropriated that poem to my experience and my challenges as a Black boy growing up in Mansfield.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

That poem spoke to me. I didn’t care about William Ernest Henley’s intent or purpose. That was my poem because it articulated how I felt, but could not put to words. “My head is bloody, but unbowed.” For me, that line meant, “my people are abused and mistreated, but they are still strong.” “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” That meant, “we have the determination and the will to change things.” That was an activist poem, because it, among so much more, helped to inspire and motivate me to become an activist. As I got older, and especially after I left Mansfield to go to college, I was exposed to a world of literature written by folks like Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Haki Madhabuti, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni and others that helped to fuel my activism.”-WH

What next steps do you plan to take to carry out your pledge?
I plan to keep writing powerful stories for young readers. All I can do is use my own gifts, which include writing and storytelling, to try to bring injustice to light and share inspiration, empowerment and hope with the next generation. As part of this work, I follow my books into the world, offering author presentations and workshops around the country to help continue the conversation around literature, black history, civil rights organizing and social justice.”-KM

“I am creating stories for children, teens, and adults to showcase the rich stories of black people, not only through books, but through film and the stage as well.“-MKM

“I will continue to write in as many genres, possible, and entice; educate; and, motivate our youth and others to simply, HAVE FAITH, THEN, DO!“-JRM

“When we first started Just Us Books in the late 1980s, we recognized that a major part of our efforts to promote and sell the books we were publishing would require educating a significant segment of our market. So, we went wherever we could, sharing the importance of reading and books, presenting how books could be used to establish a family reading tradition and cultivating an appreciation for reading, etc. We did this utilizing workshops, book readings, one-on-one interactions at schools, parent/teacher organizations, churches, community organizations, etc. After a number of years of doing this (and it is hard work), we felt we could move to the more traditional model of selling and marketing our books.
I think today, the strategy we used during the early years, is still the way to go to reach more people. There is still a need to meet them where they are rather than assuming what they know and don’t know.
So, we are reaching out again to educate people rather than to merely sell to them. Whether it is via social media, workshops and author presentations, we include sharing why books are important and discuss ways that books can and should be a part of family and community interactions. And it’s not just reaching parents of children, but grandparents, uncles, aunt, cousins, godparents and family friends. A book is a gift that keeps on giving. We are renewing our efforts to take our message and books to various communities.
We are reaching out to more literacy organizations and after school programs. We continue to look for new voices, new illustrators, and often refer these talented book creators to other publishers if there is no room on our list. And, using a word used often by Frederick Douglass, we continue to “agitate, agitate, agitate” for more diversity, inclusion and equity in children’s literature, including staffing, whenever and wherever we can.”-WH

How would you like to see the children’s publishing industry do its best to support our children?
“I’d like to see the publishing industry take off the blinders and be serious and true in their dealings in regards to publishing books that should inspire our youth to do their very best. I challenge the industry to stop thinking black and white, and start thinking equality and justice for all GOD’S children. Life is not a silly venture to be taken lightly.”-JRM

“It is not enough for agents and editors to say they want #ownstories. Books have to connect with agents and editors before they will embrace them. If their worldview is white suburban or white middle class city life, then agents and editors say that books depicting different environments are not for them. They can’t identify with the characters. For example, they only accept stories showing the antebellum South because that is still their principle view of African Americans. Therefore, the publishing industry needs to have agents and editors with more diverse backgrounds.“-MKM

“This is a very challenging time in so many ways and in so many different aspects. We have a new president is who has, in many ways, opened the door to the dark side in our country where racism, homophobia, xenophobia, disrespect, selfishness and just down right nastiness live. These evils are not new. But they now have a more visible platform from which to do their damage. Our responsibilities as book creators, whether we are writers, illustrators or publishers, are crucial. We must counter and fight against this push to make the dark side pervasive and encompassing.
Through our work, the lives that we live, we can lift and give platform for our children, a more caring, respectful, loving and tolerant vision of the world in which they must live. Publishing companies must be bold and aggressive in as they embrace and implement this vision which has provided light and direction for our journeys. We have already seen how some school children have turned against fellow students because they happen to be different. Some of these incidents have been violent. The clear majority of them have occurred since Donald Trump’s candidacy and subsequent election.
Future children’s and young adult books that are published must educate and help children better understand themselves, their families, their communities and the world in which they live. These books should help children understand that despite our many differences, all people share common feelings and aspirations. And that love, tolerance, fairness, peace, respect and justice are desirable. When obstacles and challenges happen, as they most assuredly will, these lofty goals will help see us through. We have much to do!!”-WH

“I’d like to see children’s publishing continue to seek and publish new voices, and to find power and value in stories that originate from many different walks of life. There is such richness in diversity, and there is no better way to see the world more clearly than to challenge ourselves to see ourselves as we might be seen through others’ eyes.“-KM

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked “Where do we go from here?” in 1967. He wondered: chaos or community? He went on to note: “Now, in order to answer the question, ‘Where do we go from here?’ which is our theme, we must first honestly recognize where we are now.” Where do you think we are? Where are you? And where are you planning to go?


Where Do We Go From Here?

December 6, 2016
illustration by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

illustration by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Here at the Brown Bookshelf, we’ve spoken often and long on the issues and ideas expressed in the Open Declaration. We do this work to lift up our young readers and show them how they can survive, thrive, and soar in this world. For many of us, the way forward might be clear, for others, not so much. We may sign on to petitions and open declarations, forward emails, RT, and “like”, and these can all be good and powerful things. But we believe that it’s important to reflect on how we will hold ourselves accountable, how we will act, and reflect; how we will “live out commitment to using our talents and varied forms of artistic expression to help eliminate the fear that takes root in the human heart amid lack of familiarity and understanding of others; the type of fear that feeds stereotypes, bitterness, racism and hatred; the type of fear that so often leads to tragic violence and senseless death.” We’ll present a series of those posts here; signatories asking, wondering, and doing an essential question: Where do we go from here?

Below, some thoughts from five Brown Bookshelf Team members, Kelly Starling Lyons (KSL), Tracey Baptiste (TB), Tameka Fryer Brown (TFB), Crystal Allen (CA), and me, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (ORP).

Why did you sign the Declaration?

I signed because it’s an important statement to make right now, especially as children are dealing with unprecedented racism and xenophobia at their schools since the results of the election. ~ TB

I signed the Declaration because I wanted to express my outrage at the systemic racism, hate and brutality that’s devastating our children. I wanted to transform my feelings of helplessness into a pledge to have kids’ backs, to make sure they are seen and heard. – KSL

My parents taught me that my handshake, and my signature must always mean something to me, and to take both very seriously, because one day, they may be all I have. The Declaration serves as a reminder, and gives me an opportunity to hold myself accountable, through my signature, to use my God-given talent to provide quality stories to empower, embrace, and uplift the youth of today and tomorrow, and continuously remind them that they will always matter. -CA

I signed the declaration because, in the wake of all the injustice and bigotry that people in our community have been experiencing, I felt the need to publicly acknowledge the mental, emotional, and spiritual suffering that has affected us all—including the children. I wanted to publicly affirm that I would use my role as author to foster a predisposition to education, empowerment, and empathy in the next generation. They are always our best hope for enduring change. – TFB

I’m someone who believes in “small, good” acts, and quiet revolutionaries; I admire the people, like Ella Baker, who do the mighty and meaningful work that happens behind the scenes. But I signed on to our Declaration because I believe that sometimes holding oneself accountable in a public sense is necessary, and because I want our children to know that there are adults who value them and their voices, who hold them as precious treasures, who are paying attention. -ORP

How do you describe the intersection between art and activism? Who/what has influenced you in that area?

Art is activism. It is always saying something about the state of the world. Of course, there are books that aren’t about activism, but that’s not art, that’s a commercial product. I think I get my cues from artists like James Baldwin and Maya Angelou who understood this intersection better than most. ~TB

In college, I read about the Black Arts Movement. The belief that art should not be for art’s sake, but to make the experiences of black people seen and felt grabbed me and held on. Art is a bullhorn, an amen, a hug and outstretched hand, a pulsing beat that makes you nod and groove, an exultation to rise and soar. Art is action. Reading about how writers became warriors for change through their creativity, connection and daring helped shaped the kind of writer I strive to be. – KSL

In an article published by The Nation, Toni Morrison recounted a conversation in which a friend responded to her despair about the state of our nation by saying, “No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!” That sums up my perspective on the intersection between art and activism. If you’re a writer, your words can be written to make people understand more thoroughly the need to change. If you are a visual artist, you can create imagery that impacts the soul of man on such a visceral level that he cannot be satisfied until he changes.

Whether it be through art or not, I think maybe the whole point of life is activism in some form or fashion. I remember reading a quote from Dr. King years ago that said, in essence, if a man had not discovered something he was willing to die for, he wasn’t fit to live. That resonated with me deeply. My greatest influence, though, was probably my grandmother. One of her most tried and true sayings was, “Right is right and wrong is wrong.” If you are raised with that as one of your mantras, you can’t help but stand up to wrong when you are confronted with it. – TFB

As a child, I never had the pleasure of meeting an author or illustrator. So back then, for me, I’d say there was no intersection. But as I began my professional writing journey, I was blessed with a core of strong African American women such as Eileen Robinson, Bernette Ford, Dara Sharif, and Christine-Taylor Butler who helped me understand the importance of staying relevant, and involved. -CA

The act of writing, of producing art, of creating, is such a powerful thing. I believe that art and activism are wholly intertwined, that whatever art we make is “a political statement”, whatever we think we intend. I grew up in a home that celebrated activism in the arts, that viewed it as necessary, as a sign of intellectual rigor, of passion about one’s work and community, of a desire to serve, and think of the gifts that we give instead of what we can take from the world. I was surrounded by books music and film and fine art by and about people like Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, Harry Belafonte, Maya Angelou, Odetta, Pete Seeger, Sweet Honey in the Rock…I could go on forever. We went on marches, and we sang. Our family participated in meetings and gatherings where people of all ages spoke truth to power in song, poetry, dance, and more. I was also so fortunate to have had teachers in middle and high school who took extra time to work with us theatre nerds to explore and produce work like A Raisin in the Sun, which we took “on tour” to a local prison, and who encouraged me to write plays and stories, and to read, read, read about the intersection and power of art and activism. -ORP

What next steps do you plan to take to carry out your pledge?

I’m working on new stories, ones that I hope will do more to open up perspectives, bring people together, and help readers think critically about the messages we’re all bombarded with in the world. I’m also reaching back to my training as a teacher and using those skills to explore the effect of literature, not just on learning, but on empathy. ~TB

I will keep writing stories that center the experiences of black children, raise awareness of children’s book creators of color and Native authors and illustrators and push for publishing and marketing equity. I will listen to the children, fight for their safety, visibility, voice and future through my art and vote. – KSL

As a member of The Brown Bookshelf, I will work with the team to come up with concrete ways to get more books by African American authors and illustrators into the hands of our future leaders. First and foremost, I will pen stories that nurture cultural appreciation and empathy. I commit not only to writing such books, but also to finding effective ways to help those already in the marketplace bypass the myriad obstacles standing between them and their intended audiences. – TFB

I will continue to write stories where African American children are the main characters, but race will never drive my stories. I will continue to put my characters in everyday predicaments, show them doing normal activities, and allow them to tell their stories in an effort to encourage conversation among readers about ‘sameness’ in all races, and demolish the ignorance that drives prejudice and social injustice. -CA

I’m proud to continue working with The Brown Bookshelf to promote Black children’s book creators across the Diaspora, to share our many stories with children everywhere. I’m also especially glad to be working with the Internship Committee of We Need Diverse Books, because I believe that in order to have diverse books we need diverse voices in positions of power in all areas of the industry. As an educator, I plan to continue to do workshops such as “Reading and Writing for Change”, and share strategies for teaching and learning with an eye toward social justice in every area, and am planning a couple of long term projects along those lines. I’ll also continue to encourage and empower young people to tell their own stories, to know and hold dear the value of writing, of documenting their journeys, of creating art, and surrounding themselves with people who believe in that. I’m so grateful for my friends and support group in the children’s lit community; people who inspire and encourage every day, sometimes just by their very existence. And of course, I’m very excited about my own upcoming writing projects and opportunities to tell complex stories of vibrant characters of color. – ORP

How would you like to see the children’s publishing industry do its best to support our children?

The industry needs to publish books that are representative of the population of the United States. As it is, children’s literature is disproportionately white. This helps no one. People have been talking about this for a long time, and it’s time for action. Of course, the way to help is not by painting characters brown, but with authentic representations of people and cultures. It’s not a simple task, but the work needs to be done. ~TB

The industry needs to understand where its blind spots and biases are and find ways to correct them. Children deserve to see themselves in stories that show their history, their dreams, their fantastic adventures, their realities. In every level of the industry, we need more representation by people of color and Native people – editors, art directors, publicists, reviewers. Background can shape editorial and marketing sensibilities – what stories you believe will resonate with kids, what you invest in. – KSL

I’d like them to proactively put more marketing dollars into books written by authors of color. And to publish a greater percentage of books by African-Americans that fall outside of the civil rights and civil war time periods, across all genres, including but not limited to contemporary, sci-fi, and fantasy. – TFB

Put more money into marketing books that promote everything the Declaration stands for. I would even love a sticker or a stamp created for books by publishers for parents to know which books will help erase hate, promote unity, and provide religious, ethnic, gender understanding, and include with study guides. -CA

I’d like to see the publishing industry acknowledge the seriousness of these issues, hold itself accountable for perpetuating bias, and take concrete, measurable steps to move toward equity. I would love to see more active encouragement and development of #ownvoices, and a diversification of voices “at the table”, in all sectors of the industry. – ORP


What suggestions do you have for readers who wish to make the same pledge (specific actions, favorite resources, etc.)?

The Brown Bookshelf will be doing curriculum connections with some of the books we have featured on the site. That will be a good resource for teachers who want to promote books that are more representative of the population. There’s also TeachingBooks.net and recommended titles from We Need Diverse Books. ~TB

I urge readers to support books by children’s book creators of color and Native authors and illustrators. When these books are consistently in demand at libraries, bookstores and schools, publishers will respond. There’s power in the dollar. A quote I love is the journey of a thousand miles begins with a simple step. What can you do now? Check out books by children’s book creators of color and Native authors and illustrators at the library, request them if they aren’t there, buy them as holiday and birthday presents not just for kids of color but for all children (Take the Birthday Party Pledge – https://birthdaypartypledge.com/), review them and tell your friends about them, support publishers like Just Us Books, Cinco Puntos Press and Lee & Low. Change begins with each of us. – KSL

In whatever capacity you create or advocate books for children, keep the end goal of a more inclusive, empathetic citizenry at the fore. For example, if you are a media specialist, make sure you (very naturally and without fanfare) offer titles featuring main characters of color to your white students. In addition to offering mirror books to your students of color, offer them window books into other POC cultures as well. Same goes for parents and other adult book buyers. – TFB

Buy books from those authors who have taken the pledge, and tell your friends to do the same. This way, we can flood the world with more love than hate. -CA

In one of my presentations, I always say “Make an effort.” Don’t be complacent. Everyone doesn’t have to do something “big”, but if everyone does *something*, it will be big. If you read and share children’s literature (and you should), make an effort to seek out literature by those who are marginalized, all of the different stories that we tell. Use resources like The Brown Bookshelf, The Pirate Tree, American Indians in Children’s Literature. Read scholars like Edi Campbell, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas and Sarah Park Dahlen. Talk with your children about these issues, offer young people the tools to start doing this work themselves, to think critically about their literacies, perhaps using resources like The Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, Rethinking Schools, and Teaching Tolerance. I’ve written more about this for parents and educators on sites like Brightly. -ORP

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked “Where do we go from here?” in 1967. He wondered: chaos or community? He went on to note:  “Now, in order to answer the question, ‘Where do we go from here?’ which is our theme, we must first honestly recognize where we are now.” Where do you think we are? Where are you? And where are you planning to go?


Justice on The Lesson Plan

September 22, 2014

By Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

 

we_march_JPG_210x1000_q85In addition to the excitement and apprehension about tests, read alouds, and recess, there was tension as the school year got underway in many cities and educators wondered if and how to address the police killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the civil unrest that followed. Do we have one conversation and then “move on”? Schedule a town meeting and then get on with the business of learning? As a parent and children’s author who regularly visits with children in a variety of school communities, I firmly believe that schools should take on the responsibility of engaging students around this story, and do so on an ongoing basis; it’s necessary, it’s relevant, it’s learning.

 
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Some might disagree, with understandable concerns about escalating conflict, and fanning flames of prejudice and fear. It was reported that middle and high school educators in Missouri’s Edwardsville school district were initially advised to “change the subject and refocus the students” if Ferguson was brought up. The Superintendent later clarified his position via a letter to parents, as reported by the Edwardsville Intelligencer, writing “It was not our intent to ignore the educational relevance of these events. However, we felt it was important to take the time to calm a potential situation at the high school and to prepare administrators and teachers to approach this critical issue in an objective, fact-based manner.”
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Please, let’s take the time to engage our children in ongoing conversations about race, justice, and power. The reality of the 24-hour news cycle and the ubiquity of social media most likely mean that children and teens know something of these stories. And what we know, we can unpack and discuss. Even if they are not aware of the specific events in Ferguson, what are we educating children for, if not to engage productively with the world they live in? And when that world goes horribly wrong, how do we help them move toward making things right?
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Teachers can play a positive role by helping students gain a better understanding of troubling events, creating a safe environment where students can think critically about difficult issues, engage in respectful conversation, and think about what they can do to address the problems they see in the world,” write Laura McClure and Tom Roderick of the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, via email. The Ferguson story offers “…an opportunity for them to learn history, better understand current political realities, consider multiple points of view, think about possible ways to address problems and injustices, and perhaps become more aware of their own biases. It’s a chance for students to develop the ability to express their views and listen respectfully and open-heartedly while others share theirs. It’s part of educating young people for participating in a democratic society.”
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In a blog post, Dr Shaun Harper wrote “Most school-age children in Ferguson are Black. They and Black youth across the U.S. need supportive spaces in which to process what happened. Likewise, youth from other racial groups (including Whites) deserve opportunities to talk about Ferguson, particularly what the implications of this tragedy are for their lives and our nation. Young people need to know the truth: Ferguson wasn’t an isolated incident, but instead is connected to a longstanding, more systemic set of structural problems and judicial errors.”

Of course we want teachers doing their best to ensure that all students are educated in a welcoming and safe environment. I’d suggest that that includes demonstrating to students that they, and their ideas and opinions matter. “To keep conversations productive, we encourage teachers to work with students to develop some ‘community agreements,’ starting at the very beginning of the year,” add Roderick and McClure. “This can set the stage for a more caring classroom where it is safe to discuss difficult issues, and safe to disagree.” These agreements include a ‘one mic’ policy (speak one at a time), agreeing to disagree, speaking from one’s own experience, and avoiding sweeping generalizations.

“You may not live in Ferguson, but we all must live with what has happened in Ferguson. Let’s find ways to talk about this,” wrote Dr. Marcia Chatelain in an August 20 Twitter post. Dr. Chatelain, a writer, historian and assistant professor of history at Georgetown University created the #FergusonSyllabus hashtag and initiative, and saw immediately that these conversations can happen in all kinds of communities. “It’s never too early or too late to help a student grapple with the issues that also trouble us…At all ages, students will have questions about why people are so tense and why they are so upset,” she points out in an email. “The best way to respond is to be honest that some people are upset, hurt and frustrated and engage them on how they can prevent making others feel this way through being honest and fair to others.  You don’t have to get mired in the murky details of the killing of Michael Brown if you don’t believe you can handle it.  Rather, you can talk about the range of emotions, the societal challenges, and the questions this moment elicits.” #FergusonSyllabus has become a compendium of resources across disciplines for early childhood to college classrooms, with contributions from educators, artists, activists, librarians, parents, writers and more.

And then there are books. Literature one of the richest, most productive ways of all to frame these conversations. By helping our children understand that Black Youth Matter and we need diverse books, we teach and learn in critical and transformative ways. Books like
Rita Williams-Garcia’s ONE CRAZY SUMMER and P.S. BE ELEVEN,
Kekla Magoon’s THE ROCK AND THE RIVER and HOW IT WENT DOWN,
Tanita S. Davis’ MARE’S WAR,
Sharon Dennis Wyeth’s SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL,
Jaqueline Woodson’s BROWN GIRL DREAMING,
Zetta Elliott’s BIRD, and A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT
MARCH: Book One by John Robert Lewis and Andrew Aydin with artist Nate Powell,
Julius Lester’s LET’S TALK ABOUT RACE,
Shane Evans’ WE MARCH,

and our own Crystal Allen’s THE LAURA LINE and Don Tate’s IT JES’ HAPPENED share the stories of struggle, triumph, creativity, beauty, and more that make up our past, present, and future. Even when not explicitly focused on “big” events, stories can be a vehicle for examination of our culture, values, and systems.Eight Grade Superzero Widget
In my own 8th GRADE SUPERZERO, essentially a contemporary ‘school story’ that involves a middle school election, puking, and Dora the Explorer, characters are challenged by the questions of who and what they stand for, and what they will do about it. Resources like Notable Books for A Global Society, RIF, Sarah Park’s Social Justice in Children’s/YA Reading List, Mitali Perkins, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, Just Us Books, The Pirate Tree, American Indians in Children’s Literature, and of course The Brown Bookshelf’s 28 Days Later campaigns offer a wealth of ideas and titles to add to classrooms and libraries. Studies suggest that reading fiction can cultivate empathy, helping us to understand and respect each other. By connecting our students with a variety of rich, vibrant stories of and about justice, we can educate to empower and inspire.
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Clearly, these conversations won’t be easy and will likely be, at the very least, uncomfortable. But we don’t educate simply for comfort. Discomfort can mean that there is authentic teaching and learning going on. As students examine not only the events but also the narratives that are presented to them, they can learn to think and act responsibly in many areas of their lives. “One lesson is to beware of misinformation coming through social media about upsetting world events, especially as those events are unfolding,” write Roderick and McClure. “Students need to learn how to evaluate the information they are getting and avoid jumping to conclusions.”
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If we claim to be preparing our children for that real world “out there,” let’s recognize that ‘out there’ is our homes, our classrooms, our lives. And these conversations need to continue, need to grow and evolve along with our students during the school year — this is not a “one and done” situation. Let’s give students room to reflect on and navigate many stories in it. Just as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” wove a fascinating narrative of the links between slavery, Jim Crow, and public policies of the past and present, we can use our classrooms to examine how and why Michael Brown is part of the same larger, complex story of race, power, and privilege in America. We can work with our students to look at what we’ve done, and work toward doing better. It’s a matter of life and death.

Additional Resources

“How To Talk To Students About Ferguson” by Dr. Marcia Chatelain

“What Happened in Ferguson and Why” from the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility

“Challenging Stereotypes: Michael Brown and If They Gunned Me Down”, from the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility

#dontshoot, from
Teaching Tolerance

 

Ferguson: Response and Resources compiled by Philip Nelmy teacher cover 2


It’s a Reading and Writing Affair

December 9, 2008

Established in 2000, RAWSistaz (Reading and Writing Sistaz) Literary Group is committed to the support and promotion of books by, for and about African-Americans. Every year, RAWSistaz presents an annual gathering for the members of their online group in various cities.  In addition to being a reunion for the group’s members, The RAWSistaz Affair spotlights authors and focuses on various topics as it relates to literature and increasing the appreciation of the written word.  This year, the RAW Affair will be held online.  As a matter of fact, it is taking place this week beginning December 8 – 13, 2008.

Although primarily a promoter of adult literature of all genres, RAWSistaz is a Brown Bookshelf partner. They’ve wholeheartedly supported our mission to increase exposure of children’s books written and illustrated by African Americans to parents, librarians, teachers and other gatekeepers in a young reader’s life.  On Wednesday, December 10, 2008, visit the RAW event to talk to the members of The Brown Bookshelf as we discuss the best ways to get young readers excited about books, overcoming the required reading slump, and supporting literary balance as the influx of YA street literature increases.  Join Paula, Varian, Don, Kelly, and Carla throughout the day on December 10th in a great discussion about children’s literature.  To visit our panel, or any other, click on the panel topic and submit a comment or question.