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?


Where Do We Go From Here?

December 6, 2016
illustration by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

illustration by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

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

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

Why did you sign the Declaration?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Justice on The Lesson Plan

September 22, 2014

By Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Resources

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

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

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

#dontshoot, from
Teaching Tolerance

 

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


Making Our Own Market: DuEwa Frazier

July 23, 2014

We are honoured to welcome DuEwa Frazier to the Brown Bookshelf today. Poet, founder of Lit Noire Publishing, author of DEANNE IN THE MIDDLE, and much, much more — DuEwa is a true wonder woman. Grab your notebook and a glass of iced tea, lemonade, or just some cool, clear water…and prepare to be inspired.

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If I could describe myself in one word, it would be determined. When I graduated from Hampton University as an English major, a few of my classmates asked me what I planned to do after graduation. I told them, “I’m going to be a writer and children’s author.” I didn’t know how I was going to do it but that was my goal and I was determined. Upon graduation I was chosen to be an editorial intern at a teen publication in Massachusetts, my family did not think it was a good idea for me to move to Massachusetts by myself, being so young and right out of college. So I moved back to the Midwest and became an elementary school teacher, I also started graduate school in Secondary English.

Through the 90’s and into the early 2000’s I wrote poetry and children’s stories. In 1999, I moved to my birthplace of Brooklyn. The internet wasn’t quite as booming as it is now, so when I submitted my work for publishing, I made phone calls to agents and publishers and sent my submissions via mail. I even submitted my children’s stories to Nickelodeon hoping to write for the hit show “Little Bill.” I started hand making children’s picture books, putting pencil sketched illustrations to words, in order to create visuals for the stories I wanted to share with young readers. During this time, I received rejection after rejection. Agents and publishers communicated to me that they couldn’t accept my work because I didn’t have a solid track record in publishing. I met an editor at an event who was seeking to publish poets. My first poem “Son of My Sun” was published in Essence Magazine’s December 1999 issue featuring Samuel Jackson and his wife on the cover. It was my first publishing experience and I was actually paid for it!

Years ago I heard the phrase, “What you put your attention on – grows.” This became true for me in my creative life. My poems were published in Essence several more times, as well as in literary journals, online and anthologies. I also published editorials and interviews online. Still, receiving a “publishing deal” through a book publisher was not something that was offered to me, and after a while I didn’t seek it. I kept writing, networking at author signings, attending conferences, reading, doing research, performing my poetry and saving money. Eventually, I taught myself how to self-publish. There was no one there to hold my hand through the entire process but I did receive support. I took writing workshops with the late, great poet, Louis Reyes Rivera and was mentored by Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets. I attended many of the Center for Black Literature’s National Black Writers Conference’s early panels and workshops. I later took children’s writing and non-fiction workshops at other centers in the city. I became a part of a community of writers who had academics and cultural consciousness in their backgrounds.

When I published my first book, Shedding Light From My Journeys in 2002, publishing became an act of community service for me and an added connection to my being an educator. My company, Lit Noire Publishing was founded in 2002. I became an author, publisher, cultural organizer and consultant all under one umbrella. I hired graphic designers and printers. I shared my book and the books of other authors with my middle school students in Brooklyn. Louis Reyes Rivera helped me edit my first collection. He gave me advice about selecting poems that relate to each other in theme. I had been performing on the poetry circuit in various cafes, arts venues and colleges. I was no different from many other writers and poets who wanted their work heard and read, but I made a conscious decision to publish my books because long after we are all gone, the books will still stand.

I am the author or editor of six books to date: Shedding Light From My Journeys (2002), Stardust Tracks on a Road (2005), Check the Rhyme: Anthology of Female Poets & Emcees (2006), Ten Marbles and Bag to Put Them in: Poems for Children (2010), Goddess Under the Bridge: Poems (2013) and Deanne in the Middle (2014). The anthology I edited, Check the Rhyme features 50 women poets from across the globe and was nominated for three awards: NAACP Image Award in Outstanding Literary Work – Poetry, African American Literary Awards Show – Poetry and Writer’s Digest Publishing Awards – Poetry. If your intent is to produce quality literature and share with a community of readers, your work will land where it is supposed to.

I have many writing projects that are “waiting” to be further worked on or picked up, including a few I am currently editing. Creation never stops when you have a passion for writing, but I am not interested in releasing a book every few months. I think each project should have its own space and time. A possible challenge in self-publishing is that you have to motivate yourself to use both traditional and alternative or creative methods of marketing and promoting your work. I have an entrepreneurial, pull myself “up by the bootstraps” spirit, so self-publishing and managing my work doesn’t frazzle me. But every writer may not be suited for it, because you do not have a publicist, manager and editor at your disposal 24/7 creating plans, representing your ideas and doing your bookings.

When you’re self-published, you become DIY all around and you have to be okay with that, including being okay with spending your money to fuel your ideas. However, I do support writers who have good experiences with traditional houses and I find value in it. It’s all about communities of readers and however you are able to share you work is what is most important.

To date, what I enjoy about publishing my work is that I have a certain amount of creative control and as long as I am here, my books will not go out of print. I have talked with writers who have had experiences with publishers who allow their works to go out of print. I do not know why that happened, but I thought it was unfortunate because we’re living in an age where our children need access to books in print to become literate. And one of our legacies is printed books. As an author, I love participating in programs with my books and interacting with readers – both youth and adults. There is nothing like discussing books and hearing about the interests of readers. I have been fortunate to participate in numerous literacy programs for youth, literary conferences and author signings where it has not mattered that I represent myself as an indie author. I have been a writer for fifteen years and I think I have shown my commitment to the work. But I have humility in knowing I still have much to learn and work to do. As a new children’s author, I believe there is great value in continuing to produce books in print, not just in digital format. When I teach workshops for youth, I bring my books with me as references and students enjoy paging through the books and reading from them. There is relationship that a reader has with a book, which digital reading cannot replace. You can curl up with a book and dog ear your favorite pages. You can make notes and symbols in books on the pages. And there’s nothing like the smell of a book – whether new or worn. I am also a big library geek, and I promote our young people to always have a library card and access books through the local library.
My new book Deanne in the Middle chronicles the experiences of 14-year old Deanne Summers who is starting her first year of high school.

Not unlike many youth, Deanne faces bullying, peer pressure and issues in conflict resolution during her first semester. I wrote the story to have a dialogue with young readers about conflict and having friendships with those who are different from you. So many students are bullied and harassed for being different.

I felt Deanne in the Middle was a worthwhile story to tell. This is a story I began writing in 2007 and I submitted it to agents in the past. I was told there was “no market” for my story. ditm-FRONT-vEBOOK-1 And when I workshopped the story I was told that my characters didn’t “sound black enough.” Well as an educated person who has worked with youth of diverse backgrounds, and whose family is also diverse, I really didn’t know what “black enough” was. How many “yo shortys” and “what ups” can you put in a young adult novel to make it believable? For me, not many. If I were a teen, I would become bored with a book written with lingo just to target me and I would feel that the author is patronizing and stereotyping me. And these are among my reasons for publishing my novel Deanne in the Middle, and not waiting another five years or so for someone else to find the “market” in my work. There is value in my story because I know the youth who I serve and young readers deserve to have a myriad of stories to choose from when selecting books to read.

I suggest to aspiring authors and writers for children to: (1) write often (2) have your work workshopped and critiqued and (3) attend literary events and conferences to network. There are times when I could not devote 100% of my time to publishing due to working and attending graduate school (I earned three Master’s degrees from 2006 to 2013 and have an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from The New School) but I realize that it’s all about the journey. The journey is filled with learning experiences – how I learn from other authors and what I have to teach. I made a market for my work and have felt privileged to share my writing with young readers and connect with like minded authors.

Thank you for this opportunity to tell my publishing story!

For more from DuEwa Frazier, visit her online at duewaworld.com.

What are you waiting on? Go!


MAKING OUR OWN MARKET: Cake Literary on Writing Diversity and Spicing Up High Concept Fiction

May 15, 2014

CAKE logo+2.7.12

Honoured to welcome Cake Literary to The Brown Bookshelf today! Writers, activists and entrepreneurs who “believe that crafting a good read is like baking a great cake — rich, fresh, delectable flavor with a healthy dose of heart”, the founders of Cake have already transformed the publishing landscape with a mission to engage readers and writers from all walks of life. From their Web site: “Co-founded by New School MFA grads Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, Cake Literary is a creative kitchen whipping up decadent literary confections for middle grade, young adult, and women’s fiction readers.”

These women are awesome. Let me just get out of the way:

Guest Post: Making Our Own Recipe – CAKE Literary on Writing Diversity and Spicing Up High Concept Fiction


Black people don’t often view writing as a viable career path.

A professor in my first MA program told me this during an advisory meeting. He said it so casually, as if he was talking about the sky being blue or water being wet. He waited for me to affirm his conclusion: to shake my head up and down, acknowledging that he’d made an astute social observation, or to start crying while launching into my story of overcoming adversity to get into college, and now, against all odds, into a specialized graduate program in children’s and young adult literature.
I gnawed at my bottom lip, kneading my hands in my lap, and waited anxiously for him to hand me back my paper on religious programming in children’s fantasy fiction, so I could leave. There was no story to be told to validate his belief. I grew up a spoiled nerd in the suburbs of Washington, DC, with my nuclear family (minus the dog), and an endless pile of books.

I said nothing.

My professor wasn’t a racist who had a closet full of white KKK robes. Instead, he was a deeply intellectual widower with a quiet, almost granola, hippy-ish energy, and this made the whole thing even worse. He was kind and supportive. He was smart and well-read. Yet his observation of me (and my people) was so limited and reductive.

I should’ve corrected him. I should’ve told him that I stand on the words and pages and books of others who paved a road for me: Alice Walker, Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes, Virginia Hamilton, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Andrea Pinkney, and many more. That I wouldn’t be knee-deep in unsubsidized federal school loans if I didn’t see being a writer as a viable career path.

To make sure I didn’t come off as the aggressive/overly-spirited/feisty/sassy/angry black woman, and to make sure he didn’t feel uncomfortable around me (or with my blackness), I stayed silent. I smiled, sipped a cup of tea, and I let his statement stand. I stayed in the safe-zone.

I should’ve said something.

The phrase still replays in my head. Dhonielle Clayton photo
I failed those who had taken the risk to put pen to page, who had fought to get published. Over the last six years, this moment became a little suitcase of shame that I carried around, where his words and the way I felt were neatly packed inside like layers of folded shirts and matching socks and starched dresses.
I should’ve said something.

When I met Sona Charaipotra, a super smart and savvy woman who I connected with on the first day of class at The New School, I knew she was going to become a major part of my life. Over endless chats and shared stories of invisibility (and not the kind that comes with a cloak) and being TV/film junkies and a collective well-spring of great ideas that we wish were on the shelves, we knew we’d stumbled upon something that was missing from the books we read as kids and teens, and the books and media circulating now.

Diversity.
sonaheadshotWe discussed the books we wanted to write, those that we thought would be awesome, and tinkered around with starting a venture that used diversity as a spring-board to great story-telling in a fun, sexy, page-turning, un-put-downable way. And CAKE Literary was born.

CAKE Literary is a literary development company that focuses on high concept fiction with a strong commitment to diversity.
What exactly does that mean? We’re not a literary agency, or a publisher. We’re a packager cooking up decidedly diverse book ideas, manuscripts, and proposals, and providing work-for-hire opportunities to authors in order to bring those books into reality.

What’s high concept? That book or movie or TV show you can describe in one-line. An orphaned boy discovers he’s a wizard and must destroy the evil warlock who murdered his parents. A feisty girl takes her sister’s place in a televised death game in a dystopian America. Two sick teens fall in love and confront the fault in their respective stars. Sound familiar? These are the kind of books we’re aiming to create. Big stories with heart, delicious concepts, a compulsive energy, and a healthy dose of diversity. We have a secret recipe that you’ll have to stay tuned to learn more about.

Our first project, formerly called DARK POINTE, now TINY PRETTY THINGS, follows the journey of three ballerinas at a cutthroat ballet academy. Each girl has a different background, mirroring the natural (and sadly, often hidden) diversity in the ballet world. But it’s not the primary focus of the book. It’s about ambition and dance and what one is willing to do to be the best. But these diverse characters are not tokens either – with just their skin color or hairstyle described one or twice to remind the reader of their “otherness.” Their otherness is innate, integral. Readers won’t forget how their backgrounds inform parts of their everyday experiences – the very way it shapes both Sona and I as we navigate our realities.
What’s cooking in CAKE’s kitchen? We’re working on several projects, and busy trying to find talented writers to join us on this mission. We hope to have more news to share soon.

We’re hopeful that, with the recent articles being written about the dearth of diversity in YA and children’s book publishing, and Ellen Oh’s fabulous #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, our colorful world will start to be reflected in the books written for children and teens, and that more authors of color realize that their voices are needed.

I am lucky because CAKE Literary is helping me finally say something.

Interested in learning more? We’ll be looking to hire writers beginning this summer, so connect with us on CAKELiterary.com or via CakeLiterarySubmissions@gmail.com. You can also follow us on Twitter @CAKELiterary.