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.

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.”

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?
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.”
parable sower cover
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,
Tanita S. Davis’ MARE’S WAR,
Sharon Dennis Wyeth’s SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL,
Jaqueline Woodson’s BROWN GIRL DREAMING,
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.
bright eyes cover

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.”
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

Celebrating the Multifaceted, Multicultural, and Multicolored World of YA Fiction

May 2, 2011

Diversity in YA Fiction (DIYA) is a website and book tour founded by two young adult authors, Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon, to celebrate diverse stories in YA. From the site:

“DIYA is a positive, friendly gathering of readers and writers who want to see diversity in their fiction. We come from all walks of life and backgrounds, and we hope that you do, too. We encourage an attitude of openness and curiosity, and we welcome questions and discussion. Most of all, we can’t wait to have fun sharing some great books with you!”

Cindy is the author of Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow, 2009), which was named one of the Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Youth by the American Library Association’s Booklist, and one of 2009′s best Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror by VOYA. The sequel to Silver Phoenix, titled Fury of the Phoenix, will be published in April 2011.

Malinda is the author of Ash (Little, Brown, 2009), which was a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, and named one of the Kirkus Best Young Adult Novels of 2009. A companion novel to Ash, titled Huntress, will be published in April 2011. Cindy and Malinda will be joined on tour by a marvelously diverse array of award-winning authors across the country; with the launch just days away, Malinda took the time to answer a few questions for The Brown Bookshelf.

Where and how do you see the biggest changes happening regarding diversity in children’s literature?

I think that in recent years there has been a huge growth in books that feature diverse main characters but don’t focus on diversity as an issue. I really welcome that development, because while I know there’s a place for the issue novel in children’s literature, I personally am not drawn to those kinds of stories. I like to read books that focus on story, and in that story, it’s wonderful if the characters happen to be black or Asian or gay. I think that sometimes race and sexuality can be better understood when experienced sort of sideways, via a broader story that isn’t specifically about race or sexuality.

What would you like to see “gatekeepers” such as booksellers, librarians, educators, etc. do to support more diversity in children’s literature?

I know that gatekeepers are already encouraging readers to try out books that feature diverse characters, and I thank them for that! One thing I don’t want is for these books to be seen as chores, you know? I think that gatekeepers should consider booktalking these books without emphasizing the educational or politically correct aspect. Kids don’t want to read books that are good for them — at least, I never did! — they want to read books that excite them in some way. So many of the books I’ve seen from authors on our diversity tour are full of adventure and thrills and romance. I think it would be great to position these books based on those hooks.

Along with the blog and tour, can we expect other initiatives from DIYA? What are your goals for the project?

Although the majority of our tour will take place from May 7-14, we’ll definitely be around for the rest of 2011. This summer we’re launching a Diversify Your Reading Challenge for libraries and readers everywhere. Our goals are to challenge readers to read novels featuring diverse characters, and to invite librarians to focus on these books as well. We’ll have some great prizes!

Later this year in October, we’ll be doing some events in San Diego during the World Fantasy Convention. Our website will be going strong all year, so be sure to stop by and see what we’re up to. And we hope to see lots of folks out on the road during our tour in May!

The tour begins in a few days — find out when DIYA will be in your neck of the woods. And those great prizes? You can win one now! Leave a comment on this post for a chance to receive a book from one of the tour authors. (Winner and book will be chosen at random; giveaway open to U.S. residents only.)

Where The Rubber Meets The Road

April 28, 2008

So many books.  So little time.

 I’m overwhelmed with the sheer number of books available. I used to feel ignorant when someone would wax on about an author I hadn’t heard of, because they’d speak of them as if everyone should know the person.

I no longer feel that way.

There are lots of books out there. Our job here at The Brown Bookshelf is to help bring attention to a very tiny niche of books in that vast sea of literature.

It’s no easy feat. So I got to thinking (always a dangerous thing,  by the way), how does one narrow the field when directing someone to good books?

Hey, I thought, those books were produced by a publisher!  Why not start there?

Although the CCBC’s stats revealed that the number of African American authors producing children’s books actually decreased in 2007 – made my heart ache – information is a dangerous thing.  If you’re looking for children’s books for and/or by African American authors here the following are a few places to begin.

Now, just like it’s tricky to go all “I’d like to thank” on people, because you’ll always leave someone out – I do not claim the list below is comprehensive.  Nor are these the only imprints that print multi-cultural books. But it’s a good starting point.

Jump At the Sun (Hyperion)
Likely one of the most recognized African American children’s publishers, the 10-year-old imprint is home to some of the most well-known African American children’s authors, among them Sharon G. Flake, Kadir Nelson, Andrea Pinkney & Jerry Pinkney, Deborah Gregory (author of The Cheetah Girls) and Christopher Myers. It’s also the publisher of several 28 Days Later spotlight authors including Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, Valerie Wilson Wesley and illustrator Shane Evans.

Inspired by and named for the advice of author Zora Neale Hurston’s mother, telling her daughter to aim high and jump at the sun, JATS is a leading publisher in the field of African American children’s books, offering both the literary and the popular. If award-winning books are your thing, you’ll find no shortage among JATS’ authors.

Dafina for Young Readers (Kensington)
Kensington Books is the last man standing among independent U.S. publishers of hardcover, mass trade and paperback books. Well-known among romance readers and writers, Kensington’s African American imprint, Dafina, ventured into YA in 2006 to help fill the void in diverse offerings for African American teen readers, with the release of the popular Drama High series.

Though a newcomer to YA, Dafina for Young Readers is fast earning a reputation for hip, contemporary, multi-cultural popular teen literature. The imprint is cultivating a growing stable of authors, among them 28 Days spotlight author, Stephanie Perry Moore, Latino author, Kim Flores and Brown Book shelf co-founder, yours truly, Paula Chase.

Amistad (Harper Collins)
Another long-time player in the African American children’s book publishing game, Amistad is home to 28 Days Later vanguard authors Walter Dean Myers, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Eloise Greenfield as well as hidden gem, Nina Crews.

Although best known for its heavily literay list with name authors like Nikki Grimes and Gwendolyn Brooks, Amistad could rightly be credited with taking the first step in offering middle grade pop fic for African American readers with the ’05 release of Philana Marie Boles, Little Divas.

Kimani Tru (Harlequin)
Like Dafina for Young Readers, Kimani Tru was born of a traditional romance house. One of the most recognized romance publishers in the U.S. and no doubt internationally, Harlequin joined the YA for AA fray in ’07 with its first release, Indigo Summer by Monica McKayhan. Since then, you’re likely unable to get out of the YA section without noticing the bold, colorful Kimani Tru label luring your eye to one of their many teen lit books.

Using a balanced mix of fresh new voices – teen writer, Cassandra Carter and JD Guilford- combined with veteran writers taking their first step into young adult fiction (Joyce Davis of Upscale Magazine, Kendra Lee of Heart & Soul) Kimani Tru is becoming a go-to source for readers seeking teen lit with various shades of romance.

Just Us Books
A rare bird in today’s giant publisher-dominated landscape, Just Us Books is an independent black-owned company dedicated to publishing children’s books. Kicked off with the popular AFRO-BETS ABC picture book, Just Us Books is now celebrating its 20th year offering books of interest to people of color. Although they offer all levels of children’s books, picture books are the lion’s share of JUB’s catalog.

Known for agressively pursuing opportunities to showcase their authors, JUB’s focus on children’s books has attracted a wide range of writers – from the award-winning to the debut. Among the authors whose books have found a home at JUB, 28 Days spotlight authors Eleanora E. Tate, Valerie Wilson-Wesley, vanguard, Carole Boston-Weatherford, popular authors Nikki Grimes and Rosa Guy, and Brown Bookshelf member, Kelly Starling Lyons.

When looking for children’s books of African American interest, no better place to start than where the rubber meets the road. Check these publishers and their imprints out for future releases and stay tuned while I dig deep among publishers like Flux and biggie, Random House – those without a special imprint for multi-cultural but who have and are publishing multi-cultural books.

The 28 Days poster

December 26, 2007

In February, we here at The Brown Bookshelf will begin our first initiative, 28 Days Later. For each day, we will highlight an author of children’s or young adult books. To go along with the initiative, I’ve designed a poster which will be available for download. For now, question marks mask the faces of the authors to be featured, but the final poster will display a photograph and more information about each author. Come February, for your school library, home library or classroom, I encourage you to download, print, laminate and display some of the best and brightest stars in African American children’s literature.


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