Throwback Thursday: Alice Randall and Caroline Williams

March 9, 2017

We first featured Alice Randall and Caroline Williams in 2013, after the publication of the joint debut middle grade novel, The Diary of B.B. Bright, Possible Princess, with illustrations by Shadra Strickland. Kirkus offered high praise: “Sweet, sassy and mystical, this novel deftly melds an old-fashioned story of princess preparation with the modern twist of body image and self-esteem. Young readers will respond to the voice as well as the predicament, while grown-ups will appreciate the values.” The duo went on to publish Soul Food Love, a book that “relates the authors’ fascinating family history (which mirrors that of much of black America in the twentieth century), explores the often fraught relationship African-American women have had with food, and forges a powerful new way forward that honors their cultural and culinary heritage.”

For Throwback Thursday, here’s our 2013 profile.

My daughter was immediately enchanted by The Diary of B.B. Bright, Possible Princess, big time. From the moment she saw the luminous cover to her nonstop read of the lyrical, lovely tale, she was hooked. And no wonder. AliceandCarolineCookbookCaseThis mother-daughter team packs a powerhouse punch.

At Vanderbilt University Alice Randall teaches Bedtime in the Briarpatch: African American Children’s Literature. Briarpatch is an intensive examination of African-American children’s literature from the 17th century to the present. In her course and in her writing Randall is concerned with how African-American children’s literature can be used to reflect and challenge the larger society. Some of the books her students read include: Peeny Butter Fudge, by Toni Morrison and Slade Morrison, Please, Baby, Please, by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lewis, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, by Kadir Nelson; Stitchin’ and Pullin’: A Gee’s Bend Quilt, by Patricia McKissack; Zeely, The House of Dies Drear, and M.C. Higgins, the Great all by Virginia Hamilton, Monster and All the Right Stuff, both by Walter Dean Myers;
Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor, The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 , by Christopher Paul Curtis, Tar Beach Faith Ringgold, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou and Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Caroline Randall Williams is the great-grand daughter of the man many consider to be the father of African-American children’s literature, Arna Bontemps. Like Bontemps, Williams is poet and a children’s author.

Many thanks to both for their wonderful and wise words (and a fabulous bit of history below!):


    A Gift To You

“First, we want to wish all the readers out there a very, very happy Valentine’s Day and an inspiring Black History Month. Because it is Valentine’s week and Black History month we have a cyber Valentine for you made possible by the Library of Congress—a link that will allow you to peruse one of the great treasure troves of Black Kid Lit—The Brownies Book.

Edited by W.E.B. DuBois and Jesse Redmon Fauset , The Brownies’ Book was a
“Monthly Magazine for the Children of the Sun.”According to the cover The Brownies’ Book was “designed for all children but especially for ours. “ We love the Brownies’ book. And we think you’ll love it too. What reader of the Brown Bookshelf wouldn’t love a magazine that states on its cover that “it aims to be a thing of Joy and Beauty, dealing in Happiness, Laughter and Emulation, and designed especially for Kiddies from Six to Sixteen.”

There’s poetry, and short stories, there’s history, and letters. And there are wonderful photographs and drawings. Page after page of brilliance by and for African-American children. Elegant and amusing The Brownie’s Book was a kind New Yorker for children.”

    The Journey

Our journey to publishing was a bit circuitous. Though we have a big New York agent for this book, Conrad Rippy, we ultimately chose to publish with a distinguished independent publisher, Turner Books located in our hometown, Nashville.
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    The Inspiration

Working on the creation of a Black Fairytale Princess, B. B. Bright, we were very, very inspired by The Brownies’ Book which was only published for a year or two starting about January 1920. The Brownies’ Book celebrates the writing of Black children by publishing their letters. That was part of our inspiration to narrate our novel in the forms of letters written into a diary. The Brownies’ Book assumed that the child reader was sophisticated and curious and recognized that adults often peer over the shoulder of the children reading in the house. Like The Brownies’ Book our novel is written for children, and for folks who once were children. Other writers who have influenced us significantly that we love include Virginia Hamilton and Patricia McKissack. Both of these writers bring beauty and grace to the page—are willing to summon a kind of archetypical elegance—and they always tell a good story in a voice that is at once feminine and universal. That’s hard. But they do it and do it well. Creating a girl’s voice that boys would listen to was something we were seeking to do. But we were most strongly committed to writing to empower girls to be their full authentic selves and to know when they are being fully and finally themselves—they are royal. No matter who their parents are or what the situation into which they are born or live.

    The Back Story

This story began in a doctor’s office over twenty years ago. Caroline got bored and Alice started telling her a story—about a fairytale princess that looked like young Caroline with beautiful brown skin and brown eyes. Immediately Caroline started changing and adding to the story. Twenty years later we had a book—and a contract for seven more.

    The Buzz

We were so excited that The Diary of B.B. Bright, Possible Princess was nominated for a NAACP Image Award; that was a big honor. Making it better we got to sit next to a hero of ours, Christopher Paul Curtis (The Watson’s Go to Birmingham) at the awards! We were also excited that The Diary of B.B. Bright, Possible Princess was nominated for a Cybils Award in MG Fantasy. We’re even more excited that there’s been some talk of turning The Diary of B.B. Bright Possible Princess into a movie. We’ve begun talks with an Oscar nominated producer about optioning the rights.

    The State of the Industry

It has always been hard to get African American children’s books published and hard to get the word out about them once they are published. There are precious few of us working as agents booksellers, editors, publishers, or publicists. And precious few writing and illustrating. But our children read. There is a growing audience that gets larger by the day. Children are profoundly influenced by the books they read and don’t read. This keeps us writing, to close gaps. There are still far too many aspects of ourselves not reflected on published pages.

We take heart from our history from knowing what our foremothers and forefathers endured to get published and read. The history of African American Children’s literature (something Alice teaches at Vanderbilt) is a history of writers who manage to triumph over obstacles and land in homes and schools, and set up residence in the hearts and heads of children of color.
ALICE

Many thanks for your amazing work!

Visit Alice Randall online at her Web site.


Bringing Books Back Home, Part Two: More with Elaine Dickson of Reading Owls International

March 7, 2017

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Part One of my conversation with Elaine Dickson of Reading Owls International. Here, she tells us more about the work and future of the organization and its impact.

Where/when have you seen the impact of your work?


Part of our strategy for “creating readers for life” in Jamaica is to focus on a geographic area, saturate it before expanding to other areas of the island.
We have been focused in Western Jamaica and built (capital project) and opened our first library in September 2015. Because of the way schools are structured in Jamaica, one school can have students from several communities attending. We have been able to touch a number of communities without having a physical structure in them as all of our libraries have to be lending libraries. In some cases we have created an adult section to help mitigate the absence of a public library close to a community. Some of the communities we work with are in deep rural or remote parts of the country so access to a public library is a real challenge. One of the heartwarming stories from our first library project is that a teacher at the school sometimes opens the library on weekends for the entire community to use.

Since our inception and through 2016, more than 4,400 children now have access to books at a lending library at their school. Our collaboration with the Peace Corps has also given us access to literacy experts on the ground who have been an amazing extra level of support and give us immediate feedback on some of the resource challenges they are seeing and experiencing. We are able to provide a level of support that is a win-win for everyone.

What else would you like us to know about you and your work?

Nonprofit work is both exhilarating and grinding. As we share information with other NGOs, we hear similar stories across channels. Yet the challenges pale in comparison to the joy of seeing a child open their first book and learn to read. Providing access to a great education is not just good public policy, but I firmly believe it is a human right. If we are able to equip and inspire children in Jamaica to be scholars, independent readers and life-long learners, we will begin to address some of the systemic ills – illiteracy, high unemployment, and high crime – plaguing communities across Jamaica. If we truly deliver on our mission, and we cannot do it without help, then we will start to close the book on illiteracy and create an environment where all kids can compete in a global environment.


What does the organization need right now? What’s next for Reading Owls?

The simplest ways people can help our organization is to follow us on Twitter and Instagram (@thereadingowls) and like our Facebook page so they help us spread the word. We also need volunteers and are recruiting board members who are committed and passionate about education and literacy. To create libraries goes beyond gathering books; we do need lots of books and have a carefully selected wishlist at Amazon; we also welcome multicultural, beginner, picture and chapter books of all genres from publishers and book distributors, etc primarily focused on ages infant-tweens. Many of our schools have infrastructure needs and lack access to technology – these are two areas that we want to place additional focus on as we think strategically about how to bring information in real time into the classrooms to help students learn and compete with their peers across the globe.

Safe learning environments, comfortable and age-appropriate seating all make for a better learning experience and many of our schools lack good infrastructure so before we can deliver books, we often have to renovate or help create library spaces and it is an expensive undertaking. Pallets of books are heavy and a significant amount of our funds raised are spent on shipping/custom related expenses. We need partners in the supply chain, especially shipping overland and sea to help us mitigate the cost of shipping.

We are also actively exploring more alliances to support program implementation and expansion. We are devising ways to provide more training and support for our partner organizations. We are also exploring best methods reassessments/outcomes. We will be getting much-needed support from a first class management consulting team to brainstorm best metrics in the next few weeks.

Lastly, we are staying focused on growth so that every child has access to books, if not at home, then certainly at school. The challenge is real: In 2015, 45% of Jamaican girls and 63% of boys in grades 1 through 3 were not proficient in reading.
If these students do not get immediate intervention and ongoing support, they might not become grade-level readers.


Where Do We Go From Here?

As a society, we have to see every child as our child. Our world is becoming more and more connected and challenges in any part of the world affects us here in the US. It may manifest in the form of immigration or more foreign aid, but we are not immune from it. I still believe that education is the best vehicle for getting families out of poverty and providing access to a good education has to be part of any economic development strategy for any country.

We all have a role to play, starting with reading to/with our own kids and presenting books as a wonderful choice for enjoyment and leisure. Then we must engage in ways that effect public policy and make sure that all levels of government provide adequate funding for schools, public libraries and community development. On a more global scale we can lobby our governments to divert aid to countries that value all lives equally and are investing in girls’ education as well. For those of us who are able, we can give to charities/NGOs that promote literacy and education around the world.

Specifically to Jamaica, I would like to see the Jamaican government provide increased funding for early education programs. Plus, higher salaries for teachers. A great education for students starts with ensuring the best and brightest want to enter the teaching profession and stay there. There has been a strong appetite over the last decade for investments in early education and by all measures – gains in the national literacy rate, which is currently in the mid-80s (the goal was 85% for 2015) and up from 77.4% only a few years ago is a good sign. Special attention also needs to be paid to Jamaica’s boys as they consistently lag girls by double digit points.

At Reading Owls we are committed to being on the front lines and are buoyed by the tremendous support we have received to date. Together with our supporters, we are “creating readers for life.”

If you would like to learn more about Reading Owls International and how you can help, visit them online. Thank you for sharing your powerful story, Elaine!


Bringing Books Back Home: A Chat with Elaine Dickson of Reading Owls International

March 6, 2017

elaine_3053I was e-introduced to Elaine Dickson through a friend who is one of those people who know, you know what I mean? If Shelly Ann refers someone, you *know* they’re good people. So I was ready to be blown away, and I was not disappointed! Ms. Dickson and her husband founded Reading Owls International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing literacy levels in Jamaica. Reading Owls does more than just collect and donate books; the organization works with educational institutions and their surrounding communities to build sustainable, community-based programs, giving thousands of children access to literature. Today, Part One of our Interview. Welcome, Ms. Dickson!

Tell us the story of Reading Owls. Why did you start the organization? What were some of the first steps that you took?

Reading Owls International (ROI or Reading Owls) was started out of a desire to give back to Jamaica, the country of my birth, in a way that felt tangible and long lasting. My husband Easton and I had been saying for years that we needed to “do something” as the crippling lack of opportunity and resources was still so evident in places we would visit on the island. When we went back to our communities it was often dispiriting as access to books, a public library and basic educational opportunities – which are a basic human right – were still absent.
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I grew up in eastern Jamaica and there was no library in my community or at my school and I had no books at home. To be able to borrow a book to read, I had to travel several miles by foot and three communities away in order to nurture my love of reading. Easton’s story is similar; at one point he was fortunate enough for a book mobile to travel through his town, but very soon it was discontinued because of a lack of government funding.

For us the time had come to take action. We wanted to fundamentally change the outcome for the current and future crop of kids and felt that we could rally enough support here in the US to make a difference.

Family and friends were very receptive to the idea and this made it a lot easier to organize as a 501 (c)(3) public charity. From December 2013 through the first half of 2014, we spent a lot of time in strategy sessions to really craft a mission that spoke to the needs we saw on the ground. We also wanted to make sure that even as a nascent organization we were strong administratively, so getting needed federal and state registrations, drafting protocols, crafting marketing collaterals, and seeking out as many vendors, partnerships and collaborations as we could was critical in the first half year of 2014.

Then it was on to a full-fledged marketing and social media campaign to get the idea out to the general public. We could not have imagined the tremendous support and reception we have received.
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Tell us a bit about your day-to-day work. What are some of the challenges in what you do?

Our day to day operations are led by a volunteer board and several committees. Our board is not just a strategic board, but also a “working” board. We are heavily focused on growth, building as many libraries as we can to bring access to books as early as possible to as many kids as we can, but in a deliberate way that does not compromise our mission of increasing the literacy levels of school-aged children by partnering with grassroots organizations in Jamaica to create or supplement libraries.

Much of the day-to-day operational work also revolves around increasing our footprint, having social media content to create awareness around our brand and mission. We are focused on finding new partnerships and collaborations, so that we can do more. It is critical for us to have a strong local presence in Jamaica as our challenges are exacerbated without the right local help. Getting back accurate data from the field, as well as the stories and photos that provide the appropriate level of update to our supporters is critical and sometimes challenging, as we are not consistently on the ground and depend largely on our partner organizations to provide information in the absence of our visits.

There have been so many requests for creating or supplementing libraries and as a up-and-coming organization we do not have the capacity to meet some of the needs. Our goal for this year is to create/supplement 5-6 new libraries and for a three-year-old company this is a major milestone.

Finding exceptional and committed board members and fundraising at a level to match our scale and plans for growth are challenges not unique to us, yet they are critical to our success. Currently, it is not possible for us to hire paid staff and finding great and committed talent that is willing to volunteer is challenging. We are extremely fortunate and grateful to have the success we have had with a team that is dedicated to our mission, but we have to carefully guard against burnout. Hopefully with more exposure we will see a greater influx of participation, especially from members of the Jamaican Diaspora. The needs in Jamaica are acute and with the right blend of participation here and locally, I believe we are poised to make even bigger strides this year.

Are there any books, stories, or people that inspire you and your work?

Books – I approach book conversations very carefully because I can never end them. Even with limited resources, I was still very fortunate to have been exposed enough to books so much that to this day I am a voracious reader. In terms of contemporary writers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a favourite. I have read all of the books written by the late Buchi Emecheta after being introduced to The Joys of Motherhood. I am drawn to the works of female writers, writings that explore female independence or a desire to be, especially when it is achieved by gaining more knowledge or formal education. The desire to be one’s true, independent self is a human right issue and works that dig deeply into the subtlety and challenges of gaining such freedom is arresting to me. In so many parts of the world the right to an education – especially for girls – is still aspirational.

John Wood at Room to Read really inspires me. What he has done – certainly with a lot of help – for people in the developing world by building libraries is nothing sort of astounding. He is passionate and relentless and I admire his work ethic tremendously. Likewise, Bill and Melinda Gates with their foundation.

While this is not tied to education, the staff and volunteers at Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have my tremendous respect and admiration. Their bravery and selflessness is truly inspirational.

As a teenager and young adult on the cusp of deep social consciousness, I was – and still am – quite drawn to the works of Claude McKay, Samuel Selvon, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and more recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates. They are my go to readers even as a roborant during quiet reading time. More recently, I am attempting to read from Book Riot’s, “Around the World in 80 Books,” including works by Ondjaki, Margaret Atwood, Marcela Serrano and Gabriel García Márquez, all phenomenal writers.
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Why do you think it’s important for children to see themselves in literature?

All the research shows that children relate better to books when they are able to see themselves and their experiences in the literature they read. There has been much talk recently – especially with the explosion on the scene in 2014 of We Need Diverse Books – that children need windows and mirrors, to view themselves and to see the rest of the world.

At Reading Owls, we view it as a critical component of the curating we do before sending books to Jamaica. We have an even more difficult task as we are attempting in many cases to get kids immersed or hooked on reading. All children have to be able to relate to some of the books they read and the characters and experiences in them. We stress a great deal that our books need to be high quality and culturally relevant. It is hard work finding a significant amount of books that are relevant for Jamaica as there is a dearth of Caribbean (and persons of color) writers who get published. I am aware that many of the books published annually do not have minority characters as the protagonist. While I continue to be encouraged by the uptick in diversity, children’s literature needs to better reflect diversity across the spectrum.

I still vividly recall the introduction of books that reflected me and experiences that I could relate to both at the primary (elementary) level in Jamaica as well as at the college level in the US. For someone who grew up reading lots of Shakespeare, Bronte, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Louis L’Amour (the latter my father had gotten as a gift and I was hooked), finally reading books written by and about Black people was a watershed moment. Green Days by the River by Michael Anthony, The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon, Miguel Street by V.S. Naipaul, No Telephone to Heaven by Michelle Cliff, Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid, The Children of Sisyphus by Orlando Patterson and the poems of the late Louise Bennett Coverley and Claude McKay totally altered my perception of self and Blacks in general. I began to see us as amazing writers and storytellers whose writing is just as beautiful and arresting, but lacking in exposure.

Be sure to come back tomorrow for Part Two with Elaine Dickson! Learn more about her work, and how you can help.


Day 26: Eloise Greenfield

February 26, 2017

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I knew that Eloise Greenfield loved me. As a child, I pored over HONEY, I LOVE over and over again, and could hear the words of her poems just as if she were right next to me, speaking to me, chatting with my mother and grandmother, reminding me that I was special, powerful, beautiful, and fully LOVED.

We featured Ms. Greenfield back in 2008; she was born in 1929, in segregated North Carolina. She studied piano as a child, trained as a teacher and worked in civil service at the U.S. Patent Office. She had her first poem published in the Hartford Times in 1962 and her first book (a biography of Rosa Parks) was published in 1972. Her bio notes that she’s won the Coretta Scott King Award for Africa Dream, and a CSK Honor for The Great Migration: Journey to the North (which was also an ALA 2012 Notable Children’s Book.) honeyilove“She received the Carter G. Woodson Award for Rosa Parks. For Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems, she received the 1990 Recognition of Merit Award, presented by the George G. Stone Center for Children’s Books. She received the Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor Award for Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir, written with her mother, Lessie Jones Little….On February 23, 2013, she was one of twenty African American women who received the Living Legacy Award from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), an organization founded by Carter G. Woodson…the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, given for a body of work to a living American poet; the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award; the Hurston/Wright Foundation’s North Star Award for lifetime achievement…In 1999, Ms Greenfield was inducted into the National Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent. For her body of work, she also received the 2007 Wheatley Book Award, sponsored by Quarterly Black Books Review as part of the Harlem Book Fair.”


(And yes, the ellipses mean more awards.)

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The author of more than 40 books of poetry, fiction, and biography, Ms. Greenfield’s work celebrates “love and the simple joys of everyday life”, the rich heritage of the African Diaspora, family, and childhood. In her 1979 biographical work Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir, she wrote:

“People are a part of their time. They are affected, during the time that they live by the things that happen in their world. Big things and small things. A war, an invention such as radio or television, a birthday party, a kiss. All of these help to shape the present and the future. If we could know more about our ancestors, about the experiences they had when they were children, and after they had grown up, too, we would know much more about what has shaped us and our world.”

Eloise Greenfield’s loving work nurtured me and my creative self; my mother read the poems aloud, I finger-traced Leo and Diane Dillon’s illustrations of cornrows and braids like mine and my sister’s. I read her words and they helped teach me that language was music, rich with flavour and history and hope. Though she often wrote about an African American experience that was not quite my own, I read her mentions of cousins who lived “down South” and a way of life that resonated with this child of immigrants. “I want to make them laugh, I want to give them ideas, I want them to see how beautiful they are,” says Greenfield in this talk at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 40th Annual Legislative Conference in 2010. When I occupied spaces that made me feel as though I did not belong, Ms. Greenfield whispered to me that I did. “I relate to the human experience, whenever and wherever it occurs. Over the many years of my life, I have witnessed the strength of children and I am inspired by it,” she said in an interview.

Thank you, Ms. Greenfield. I remain inspired by you.

For more about Eloise Greenfield:

On TeachingBooks.net

The Poetry Foundation

Balkin Buddies profile


Day 22: Salva Dut

February 22, 2017

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More than two decades of civil war in Sudan caused much trauma, displacement, and destruction. Children were forced to flee the country, and many of the boys became known as “The Lost Boys of Sudan”. In the midst of the pain, stories like Salva Dut’s shone. From the Water for South Sudan website: “As an 11-year old Dinka from Tonj in southwest Sudan, Salva fled first to Ethiopia. Then later, as a teenager, he led 1500 ‘Lost Boys’ hundreds of miles through the Southern Sudan desert to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. That courage and heroic perseverance continue to this day. Relocated to the United States in 1996, he now leads Water for South Sudan, Inc., the non-profit organization he founded in 2003.”

Salva’s story was told in Linda Sue Park’s bestselling and award-winning 2010 novel, A Long Walk To Water. Park combines Salva’s true story with the story of the fictional Nya, who walks for hours each day to get water for her family. Working from research, Salva’s own writing, and finally, interviews with Salva himself, Park worked with Salva Dut to tell his remarkable story. Though she’d never been to Sudan, Park believed in shining a light on Salva’s story: “One of my biggest hurdles was writing about a place I’d never visited myself. That had always been a deal-breaker for me in the past, and it remains so today. It was a tough decision to make, but I decided that if I stuck *like glue* to the information that Salva had given me, I could break that ironclad rule JUST THIS ONCE.”

Salva Dut now leads Water for South Sudan, Inc., the non-profit organization he founded in 2003. Today, on the Brown Bookshelf, he reflects on the impact of sharing his story and the phenomenon the book has become. (BBS Note: Check out some of the thrilling “Success Stories” from readers who were inspired by Salva’s work — it’s wonderful what sharing a story can do.)
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What has surprised you most since the book’s release?
The number of copies sold! And how much the book impacts people. The story touches people so deeply. People sometimes cry when they meet me.

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Water for South Sudan is headquartered in both South Sudan and New York State. How are people involved at each location? How can young people get involved in this work? What advice do you have for young readers who want to engage in activism?
Water for South Sudan is headquartered in Rochester, New York, and we have our Operations Center in Wau, South Sudan. The Rochester office handles all of the fundraising, and a lot of the administrative details. All donations come through our Rochester office. We also handle all the communications, including our website, social media and mailings.
Our Operations Center handles the hard work! They have a compound in Wau, where we store our vehicles and equipment during the rainy season. Our operations center handles all of the drilling, hygiene and rehabilitation work, and have begun researching how we might do sanitation work. Our team has an office there, and communicates with our Rochester office from there.
Young people can spread the word about our work! Follow us on social media, tell your friends and family about us, and suggest that people read A Long Walk to Water.
For readers who want to engage in activism I say Do it! This is your world. You can make a difference.
My message to all children is to stay calm when things are hard or not going right for you. You can overcome those things if you have hope, faith, and perseverance. You will find people who will help you succeed. Also, value your education and do whatever you can to make life better for others.

What have been some challenges in the work that you do? How have they changed (or remained the same) over time?
It is always a challenge to work in Africa, and specifically in South Sudan. The temperature is very hot. There is also very little infrastructure in South Sudan- very few roads, and no places to buy supplies or have our equipment and vehicles repaired. Our team members have to be very resourceful.
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Tell us a bit about your day-to-day work. As an entrepreneur and activist, what kinds of habits have you cultivated? What are your routines? Do you have an office or other location that works best for you?
My day to day work varies based on where I am. Sometimes I am in Wau with our team, helping them to plan and brainstorm. Sometimes I am in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and meet with government officials to help Water for South Sudan get the permits and customs clearances to do our work, and sometimes I am in Kampala, Uganda, where we do our banking and buy our major supplies.
I must always be patient, and always be ready to operate on “African time.” Things often take much longer than they would in the US. I must always be thinking of different ways to get things done, or of working with different people who can help me. I must often be a good problem solver.
I come to the US about two times a year. I do not like it when it’s cold, which, for me would be below 70 degrees! I also do not like the snow. I like it when the weather is hot—over 90 degrees is very nice for me.

Are there any books, stories, or people that inspire you and your work?
I like to watch documentaries, and like to learn about people doing good work in our world.
One person I have admired in my life is John Garang de Mabior. He was a leader in the Sudan Liberation Army and also served as First Vice President of Sudan for a very short time before he died.

What else would you like us to know about you and your work?
I am so grateful to all the people who have helped me in my life. My family in South Sudan, my American family and friends, and all the people who have donated money and raised funds for Water for South Sudan. My team members in South Sudan are now doing the hard work of drilling and rehabilitating wells and I am so grateful for their commitment to Water for South Sudan. I could not have done any of this alone.


How can educators best share your work and message with their students and families? Are there resources you’d recommend that they use?

I think Linda Sue Park’s book has been such a wonderful gift for Water for South Sudan. It has taken our story across the US and around the world. I think it’s an excellent way for people to learn about our work. I think teachers and students and families can also learn more about Africa. It’s a very big place! South Sudan is just one of 54 countries on the continent of Africa.
I also think it’s important for people to learn more about water in our world. Water is becoming such an important resource, and I think the current generation should be paying attention to how we use water in our world.

Where Do We Go From Here?
I think that the people of our world, particularly young people, need to learn how to get along. This is not just a phrase or saying. We need peace in our world, and peace begins at home, and in our hearts. If young people can learn how to solve disagreements, and learn how to get along with people who are different, then I think we have a hopeful future.
I am very hopeful when I meet so many young people who are inspired by A Long Walk to Water, and want to help others.

Don’t miss Salva’s powerful TED talk, “I Kept Walking.”

Resources for Educators and Families from Water for South Sudan.

Thank you for sharing your story and inspiring so many, Salva!


Day 15: Maya Penn

February 15, 2017

Maya Penn headshot 16 year-old Maya Penn is a CEO, activist, author, illustrator, animator, coder, and so much more. She started her first company at eight years old, has TEDtalked to millions of people across the globe (as the youngest female in history to deliver two back-to back official TED Talks–her 2013 TEDWomen Talk is ranked as one of top 15 TEDWomen talks of all time), and is now sharing her inspirational message with young people around the world with her recent release: YOU GOT THIS!. I’m thrilled to welcome this dynamic young woman to The Brown Bookshelf.

The Journey

I’m a eco-designer, artist, philanthropist, activist, entrepreneur, animated filmmaker, coder, illustrator, writer and author. I’m the author of 3 books, 2 fictional children’s books that I wrote, illustrated, and self published, and 1 nonfiction book which is my latest book called “You Got This! Unleash Your Awesomeness, Find Your Path, and Change Your World”. It is published by Simon & Schuster. I’ve given three TEDTalks and, my latest TEDWomen Talk has gone viral worldwide and with almost 2 million views and growing. It was because of this TEDTalk that I decided to write You Got This!, as I began to receive a multitude of emails and messages from people of all ages who have been inspired to follow their passion because of my TEDTalk and want to know the best place to start.


The Inspiration:

Maya Angelou, my grandfather (he is also a children’s book author), and bell hooks (I read her book Happy to Be Nappy when I was little and it really reinforced my belief in being proud of who I am, and embracing my natural hair).


The Process

Writing tends to be very spontaneous for me. When writing my latest book “You Got This!” I approached it like a journal (no really, I kept a journal). I wrote it over the course of about a year, and since the general theme was my journey as a young CEO, artist, activist, etc. and how others can put their passion into action, I just took a topic or two each day pertaining to that theme and wrote about it. Whether it be a story I lived through and what I took away from it, or just a brain-dump on the topic, I wrote it down. I just kind of let it happen. In terms of a choice location, when it comes to any form of exercising my creativity (writing, animating, designing), I love being outside. Nature always creates a kind of sanctuary for my ideas to flourish. Of course this doesn’t always permit so my second choice is my studio.
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The Buzz

It has been incredible to see the huge impact my book has made in such a short amount of time. I’m so happy and blessed to have received such a flood of emails and messages from teens and people of all ages who have been inspired by my book. There have been a multitude of libraries, schools, workshops, conferences (such as the ALA/American Library Association Conference where I was a keynote speaker in 2016) etc. that have invited me to speak about my book. It’s been so exciting to also see organizations such as Donors Choose have been providing copies of my book to schools.

Under The Radar

Taylor Moxey is an incredible 10 year old entrepreneur, activist and author of color! Her book The Adventures of Taylor The Chef is inspiring and encouraging for all youth.

Where Do We Go From Here?

More and more young people have a chance to use their voice to make a positive impact on the world and fight for the causes they’re passionate about. This is why it’s so important for us not to take this chance for granted as more platforms are available to create awareness and be the change you want to see in the world, online and offline. This current generation of young people will be the future leaders in our world and we have to make sure our world and society will be in good hands. As for my next projects, I will launch a bigger animation and film studio in Atlanta called Penn Point Studios and the first project I will be releasing is an animated series called The Pollinators.

I will also continue my project with my nonprofit organization Maya’s Ideas 4 The Planet where I designed and have now created eco-friendly sanitary pads for women and girls in developing countries in need. They’re being shipped out to girls and women all over the world and our most recent shipment was sent to women at the St. Joseph Health Care Center of Baback in Senegal.

Now this year I’m launching an initiative through my nonprofit to provide seed grants to young female entrepreneurs that aspire to start their own businesses. I am also putting into action a girl’s empowerment event and a STEM/STEAM workshop for girls where my book You Got This! will be used during the workshop to guide and inspire the girls. It’s been so exciting to also see organizations such as Donors Choose have been providing copies of my book to schools.

Thank you, Maya!

For more about Maya and her work, visit her online, and check out her 2013 TED Talk.

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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?
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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

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“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

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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?