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

June 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweet Blackberry Sizzle from karyn parsons on Vimeo.


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

June 6, 2017

credit: Sonya Sones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

May 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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.
clifton-basic_1877
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.
lucea-infant_2658

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