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?

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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.


28 & Beyond: The Making of Dr. Truelove

March 24, 2008

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I dislike controversy.

I’m drawn to controversy.

In between my two realities lies the author of young adult fiction. While the conscious side of me never wants to piss off the literary influencers by writing something they’d deem censor-worthy, when I’m writing (my unconscious side) I’m not thinking about anyone except the characters at hand. 

That means I very well may piss off some people or at the very least make some unhappy with my books’ content.  The “author” in me may worry about that after the fact, but the writer in me never does nor is the writer willing to change a word simply to appease potential critics.

I bet Derrick Barnes was the same way when he wrote The Making of Dr. Truelove, the tale of Diego, a smitten, “premature ejaculator,” on a quest to win his crush’s heart. 

If you’re still absorbing the words premature ejaculator, gazing upwards at The Brown Bookshelf’s wonderfully colorful banner depicting two children reading and wondering how those words dare grace our pages, you’re probably not alone.  As I mentioned in my 28 & Beyond feature of It Girls, some people simply aren’t comfortable with the frank tone of young adult fiction.

Perhaps because YA is a sub-genre of children’s literature…and maybe it shouldn’t be.  But that’s a post for another day.

YA which graphically depicts making-out is not for everyone and certainly not for the tween set. School Library Journal sets the appropriate reading age for The Making of Dr. Truelove as tenth grade and up. With that in mind, any discussion of the honest sexual talk within the book becomes a non-issue, in my opinion.

The Making of Dr. Truelove is a funny story about one guy’s mission to win back his crush’s affection from the resident jock. The fact that he attempts to do so by creating an alter ego, Dr. Truelove, who dispenses advice to the lovelorn is not only endearing but ballsy, pardon the pun.

Society dictates that there are inherently girl behaviors and inherently boy behaviors. What we’re supposed to do when those behaviors cross genders is a gray area for someone smarter than me to debate. All I know is, when fiction tackles the story of a guy chasing a girl, dedicated more to winning her affection than bedding her, I love it.

Us ladies aren’t the only ones struck by Cupid’s arrow and prone to getting ourselves into trouble in our attempts to get our guy’s attention. In Dr. Truelove, the romance shoe is on the other foot and Diego – with the help of his confident pal, J-Love, is a well-meaning but bumbling teen boy with his heart on his sleeve for Roxy.

Derrick Barnes depicts a side of teen males that’s often glossed over in fiction. We’re hard wired to believe that guys only want to read about blood, guts and sci-fi or that hooking up without committment is their primary goal.

True enough the characters in Dr. Truelove are all about the hook up, but it’s Roxy’s heart that Diego is after and Barnes’ debut is a tickling peek into the mind of a sincere but slightly overzealous horn dog.

If you’re still unable to recomend this book because the entire premise revolves around teen sex, just say to yourself “YA reflects teen life,” ten times slow, take a deep breath then gift the book to your nearest teen reader. Who knows, they may actually think you’re the coolest auntie, uncle, mom, dad or librarian they know.

The Buzz on The Making of Dr. Truelove

An ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Readers

“The youthful high school humor keeps it from veering too far into Zane territory, and romance and urban-fiction fans will no doubt love the saucy comebacks, sexy language, and sheer ridiculousness that befalls Diego and J on their Cyrano-like journey to love.”— School Library Journal

“Barnes holds nothing back here, so in case the previous summary isn’t enough, beware of some racy content. However, if you’re comfortable with that, you will love this book! ” – Teens Read Too


Janet McDonald’s Legacy

January 3, 2008

I first became aware of Janet McDonald with her memoir, PROJECT GIRL. I related to her girl-woman journey to Vassar College, NYU Law School, and living abroad in Paris. Through her words, I learned of my own inner strength to accomplish my goals, and most of all that it was possible to achieve them.

So, I was very excited when I found out that Janet had published a YA novel. She transferred her authentic voice to feisty and funny characters. In the worlds that Janet created, she showed how despite inner obstacles or external circumstances, a teen girl can achieve what matters most—self-respect, love, and acceptance.

Whether it be the entrepreneurial sisters Keeba and Teesha of TWISTS AND TURNS, hilarious Aisha of CHILL WIND, or witty Raven of SPELLBOUND, Janet always made a point of presenting a multi-faceted teen girl and the lessons learned on her journey.

Janet passed away in Paris, France on April 11, 2007, which was a great loss to young adult literature. Her last book, OFF-COLOR, was published last Fall from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux and tells the story of 15 year old Cameron who has to move from her working-class neighborhood to the projects. As with most of Janet’s novels, Cameron finds strength with the revelation of her true self. It is one of her best works showcasing what Janet did best—mixing humor, realism, hope, and honesty.

In an interview, Janet reveals why she wrote several novels for teen girls:

“Maybe since I had so many problems growing up and didn’t have anything to read that spoke directly to me about my world, I want to put something out there for other girls who might need some kind of encouragement or recognition.”

Although Janet is no longer with us, at least her words can live on in the teen girls who read her novels.

Karen Strong is the moderator of the AACBWI List Forum. She is a professional writer for the software industry and currently completing a young adult novel. Her post is the first in an occasional series of guest blog entries by children’s book authors, librarians and industry professionals.


Thinking Teen

December 24, 2007

paula_thumb1.jpgI’ve been asked by both adults and teens, how am I able to write an authentic teen experience, as I’m obviously well beyond my teen years.

My answer is always the same:

My primary responsibility as a writer, is to write a teen character that’s true to my story and the fictional world I’ve developed.  As long as I remain true to what the teens in my world would wear, say, listen to or watch, there’s no need to double check with the zeitgeist, for approval.  Because, face it, there’s no one way to “think teen.”

I believe when talking about what teens are reading, we, as influencers and even writers, sometimes tend to look to the zeitgeist to “think teen.” We ignore that within the teen culture, each and every teen has individual tastes, motivations, experiences and values.

There’s no more a unanimous winner among teen readers when it comes to what they like to read than there is among African American readrs or adult fiction readers. 

Whenever I blog here, my mind is on how to help influencers…well, influence a young reader.  So, I wanted to offer a broad-stroke recommendation on the two types of young readers out there and the fiction that’s available to them.

I hope it will help us to stop trying to “think teen” and instead think individual teen reader.

So, with that, I think it’s safe to say every young reader falls somewhere within or between being a reluctant reader or an avid reader.

Reluctant readers rarely read for pleasure and may only pick up a book for required reading.

While there are some individuals who simply do not find joy in reading, I don’t believe that’s the vast majority (of teens or adults).  Paint me a cock-eyed optimist, but a reluctant reader is simply a reader who has not yet found that book or books to convert them them into an avid reader.

As influencers, it’s our job to help the reluctant reader find their book “first love,” so they may explore similiar books to feed that interest.

Since lengthy books can be intimidating to a reluctant reader, shorter books could be the ticket to an increase in reading. 

Fantasy, paranormal and action books may be this reader’s magic bullet, as a reluctant reader likely prefers “loud” books to “quiet.”

I also believe that popular fiction series are ideal, for this reader, because they offer multiple volumes with familiar characters, surroundings and issues. 

On the flip side are, Avid readers, those who tend to read voraciously.  This is not to be confused with the stereotype of the “book worm,” the reader creature who ONLY reads and does nothing else.  

Avid readers are often as active as any other teen in a myriad of activities.  If anything, these are the teens who are most busy. For that reason, I believe many avid teen readers prefer a mix – reading stand alone books (getting the start and finish of an issue in one book) in between volumes of their favorite series (comfort of the familiar).

Personally, that was my M.O. as a teen reader.

It’s essential to remember that an avid teen reader, while still testing the waters of different genres, has likely already developed author or style/voice preferences and tastes.

In reality, avid readers may not need book suggestions. But they should be encouraged to occasionally read outside of their present favorite genre and preferences, to continue their quest for exploration.

What’s available to these readers is an industry work-in-progress.

Currently, there are still more realistic fiction books aimed at African American teens then there are pure “escape” novels.  And it’s likely that because realistic fiction tends to be more complex, the subject matter more intense, the books rarely series-based – they aren’t as appealing to reluctant readers.

There’s a clear need for more escapist fiction for our young readers.

I define escapist fiction as books which offer a reader entry into an entirely new world – be it a fantastical world or merely an exxagerated parallel to real-life.

Fantasy, paranormal, action adventure and sci-fi books meet this criteria easily. However, due to the lack of availability of such books revolved around characters of color, and because pop fiction tends to offer an extreme perspective of a given lifestyle, pop fic and series books may fill the escapist readers needs. 

A good example of a realistic fiction book good for a reluctant reader would be G. Neri’s Chess Rumble or Angela Johnson’s Heaven

An example of a good read for a reluctant reader preferring escapist fiction is Troy Cle’s, The Marvelous Effect.

Look for more recommendations at the two Brown Bookshelf Amazon Listmania lists.  I will update them as more books come to our attention. And we will be creating other lists for picture book and MG novels, in the near future.

For now, please check out:

The Brown Bookshelf’s Picks for Reluctant Readers

The Brown Bookshelf’s Picks for Avid Readers


The beauty of words

December 18, 2007

Varian Johnson (posts)You hear it all the time now, every time you turn on the radio. Syncopated rhythms, heavy beats, words laced together at an alarming speed. But where many people hear blasting music and demeaning lyrics , I hear alliteration, assonance, and allegory.

Simply put, I hear poetry.

Of course, I’m not saying that there aren’t a lot of harsh, demeaning rap and hip-hop songs out there; truthfully, I listen to a lot less rap than I used to. But if you listen closely, hidden in the harsh language is the emotion and fury of a person trying to tell a story; a person trying to connect with his or her audience.

That’s the beauty of poetry; it allows the poet and the reader to connect in a way that’s very difficult–if not impossible–with traditional prose. The economy of words dictated by poetry means that every word, every line break, every syllable, is important.

Picture books-in-verse have always been popular–so much so that many authors attempt (and fail miserably) at trying to create happy, perfect, rhyming texts. However, poetry novels–called novels-in-verse–have also become quite popular over the years. In addition to exposing readers to the beauty of language, these novels-in-verse also encourage reluctant readers to delve into the world of reading.

Here are a few novels-in-verse that I’d suggest taking a look at:

Street LoveStreet Love, by Walter Dean Myers

LocomotionLocomotion, by Jacqueline Woodson

The Way a Door Closes The Way a Door Closes, by Hope Anita  Smith

 A Wreath for Emmett Till A Wreath for Emmett Till, by Marilyn Nelson