Day 11: Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl

February 11, 2018

photo credit: Paige Louw

“My goal is to focus on crafting stories for global audiences inspired by my Ugandan heritage. Set primarily in East and Southern Africa, my stories aim to illuminate the everyday and diverse experiences of African children, while celebrating human universality.” says Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl on Mater Mea. And with its celebration of both the unique and the universal, SLEEP WELL, SIBA AND SABA reads like a loving literary hug. Please join us in welcoming Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl and her children’s literature debut!

The Journey:
I think like many writers, my path to publishing started long ago…as a reader. I read quite a bit as a child and as a young adult, and at some point (about 15 years ago), I recognized that stories that featured an African perspective were missing along the spectrum of fiction from children’s literature to adult literary fiction.  I noticed an even larger absence of African stories written by African writers but wasn’t sure what role I could play. My career path eventually led to work in international development as a writer and editor for specialized UN agencies and international NGOs. I write about a broad range of topics from public health to social protection, education, and other rights-based issues for projects in East and Southern Africa. My family is from Uganda so working in the development context had always been an aspiration.
Over the last decade of working and living in East and Southern Africa, and more recently while living in Johannesburg when I was pregnant with my daughter, I returned to this idea that brown, and more specifically African faces, were missing from the books that I would want to share with her. At the same time, I couldn’t find a children’s book about Uganda that captured how I felt about the country. I also vividly remember so many people struggling to pronounce my Ugandan name while growing up in the US, and very much wanted my daughter to see her own Ugandan name reflected on the bookshelf (Saba is short for Nsaba, which is my daughter’s name).
With all of this as fuel, I decided to take a leap and write a story for my daughter that captured my love of Uganda and that portrayed the many beautiful things that I love about the country. That story was Sleep Well, Siba and Saba and my husband insisted that I try to publish it. Since then, I have not looked back.

The Back Story:
Once I conceived of Siba and Saba, I had to think about where the best literary home for the story would be. Not knowing any published authors personally, or anything about the publishing world for that matter, I reached out to some friends for their contacts and did quite a bit of research online. I also realized that with my story, the illustrations the way in which Uganda would be represented mattered just as much as the story. Through the book, I wanted to create a space for the beauty of Uganda to be celebrated in the world, and by global audiences. From my research, however, it seemed that an author had very little input on the selection of an illustrator or the illustration style at larger publishing houses. Based on that alone, I thought it would be a good idea to focus on a smaller, independent publisher. I spent several months searching online for publishers that focused on diverse stories, and when I found Lantana, I had a gut feeling that they were the one. I sent my story out once, only to them as an exclusive submission, and the rest is………

The Inspiration:
My first inspiration can be found very close to home from my family. I am internally motivated to honor my lineage and culture, as I believe my grandfather would have wanted it. I have witnessed such unsung nobility and grace in African families. I feel obligated to share these storiesif even through the lens of a story for children.
I also draw a lot of inspiration these days from contemporary African visual artists, like Njideka Akunyili Crosby (Nigeria) and Billy Zangewa (Malawi/South Africa). I’m also a fan of the British-born, Ghanaian Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. All three of these women have an amazing, textured brilliance to their artworks that inspires me to create their works are worlds and stories unto themselves. I am also currently absolutely inspired by the prolific Japanese author-illustrator Tarō Gomi, who has written hundreds of books for readers of all ages. I find the simplicity of his illustrations stunning.

The Process:
I usually start with a concept or an idea, a niggling feeling really, that turns into an idea. And then I take it from there. I write it out, as bad as it may be. And then I refine and refine over months (and sometimes years). I just write…and re-write.
* Where Do We Go From Here? (What are your ideas for next steps, for artists, young people — toward a more just world. And: what projects do you have coming up next?)
I have set my personal sights on Africa. Many efforts from business and development to art and storytelling have emerged in recent years to help shift the African narrative. I include myself in that process largely through African-inspired children’s books, but also as a champion of contemporary African art and other projects that focus on the beauty that is black and African culture. I think given the current climate, this has considerable value if we want to raise children that are considerate, empathetic, and have a more global outlook.
In terms of upcoming projects, I have another children’s book coming out with Lantana in the fall and several more stories in progress. I also recently launched an art consultancy, Africa Facing Art, with my husband. Africa Facing Art’s mission is to connect U.S. public and private spaces, and collections, with the contemporary art of Africa.
For any author, artist, or young person looking to make a change, start in any way you can. Just start. I deferred so many dreams when I was younger. I encourage everyone to take that leap. Now.

Day 28: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

February 28, 2015

kareem author photoHe’s far more awesome than I realized.

When I went to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s website to get a little background info on him for this post, I discovered a man that has contributed more to our society than I believe most people are aware of. While I don’t have the space to recount all of his accomplishments here, I’ll bullet-point a fraction of them:

  • NBA All-Time Leading Scorer
  • US Cultural Ambassador, 2012
  • California’s STEAM Education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Mathematics) Afterschool Ambassador, 2012
  • Cancer Research Advocate
  • Columnist for TIME Magazine and LA & OC Registers
  • Award-winning Filmaker
  • New York Times Best Selling Author of 9 Titles (including 3 children’s books)
  • Two-time NAACP Image Award Winner (What Color Is My World & On the Shoulders of Giants)

It is his for work as a children’s book author that we celebrate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on this final day of 28 Days Later. The three, well-reviewed children’s titles he has co-authored with Raymond Obstfeld (thus far) are:


Streetball Crew Series, Book Two: Stealing the Game

stealing the game cover


“Abdul-Jabbar and Obstfeld…team up for another exploration of the intersection of sports and life conduct. Chris is a good, quiet kid who likes to keep his head down. As he says, ‘I was friendly to everyone but friends with no one.’ Still, if the machinery of thought made much noise, Chris would be a one-man band. For a 13-year-old, he does considerable shrewd, high-ground thinking, as do his friends (‘You know,’ one says, ‘not talking about things doesn’t actually make them disappear’). Where it really shows itself is on the basketball court, where he plays a savvy, court-wise game. Enter his brother, Jax, a golden boy who appears to have fallen from the pedestal upon which his well-intentioned parents have placed him, and Chris’ still waters are about to feel a hefty stone break their surface. Add his classmate Brooke, a sharp girl with plenty of her own baggage, and a waterspout is in the making. The authors’ light hand allows readers to inhabit the characters; to taste the value of respect, dignity and vulnerability; and to embrace the elemental joy of sports-all without ever feeling like they are being tube fed. The shifting structure of the story and a clever series of blind alleys keep readers on tenterhooks. A deft, understated sports thriller with a solid moral compass.”Kirkus

“In another exemplary mix of issues and action both on and off the court, the middle-school cast of Sasquatch in the Paint (2013) returns to take on a team of older, bigger, thuggish rivals amidst a rash of local burglaries. Thirteen-year-old Chris is stunned when his golden-boy big brother, Jax, suddenly shows up at home with gambling debts after (he claims) dropping out of law school. With extreme reluctance, Chris agrees to help Jax get out from under-both by enlisting his street-ball buddies against a club team to settle a bet and by helping his brother break into a pawnshop. At the same time, Chris asks his Sherlockian friend Theo to check out Jax’s story, and he also definitely beats the odds by finding common ground with brilliant, acid-tongued classmate Brooke. Along with vividly drawn characters, the coauthors craft a mystery with artfully placed clues that Jax might not be the loser he seems to be, and also inject plenty of exciting, hard-fought basketball in which speed, strategy, and heart play equally strong roles. Flashbacks crank up the tale-s suspense, flashes of humor brighten it, and the end brings both surprise twists and just deserts all round.”Booklist Online


Streetball Crew Series, Book One: Sasquatch in the Paint

sasquatch cover bigger


“The author team behind What Color Is My World? opens the Streetball Crew series with the story of Theo Rollins who, though only an eighth grader, is already more than six feet tall. A self-proclaimed nerd, Theo gets recruited for the school basketball team, even though he’s terrible at the sport. Additionally, Theo is puzzled by new girl Rain, who’s smart but being threatened by a guy on a motorcycle; his widowed father is unexpectedly interested in dating; and he might be kicked off the school’s Aca-lympics team if he can’t balance his responsibilities. The depth and realism Abdul-Jabbar and Obstfeld bring to the novel keep it from being a run-of-the-mill sports story. Rain, for instance, is Muslim, while Theo is one of only a few black kids at his school; their ostracism doesn’t overshadow the action, but it isn’t ignored, either. Perhaps most refreshing is the fact that the authors allow Theo to gain confidence in basketball without the predictable game-winning shot. Readers will feel a kinship with Theo as he maneuvers through tough but realistic choices.”Publishers Weekly

“A crisp tale of sports, smarts and what it means to be your own man or woman-or boy or girl, if you happen to be 13. It seems to be an embarrassment of riches to be, say, one of the best basketball players in history and also write tightly entertaining novels for kids, but there you have Abdul-Jabbar. Surely Obstfeld added polish and framing, but this obviously is a work of someone intimate with sports and, by extension, how sports can serve as metaphor for a way of being in the world. Here, newly tall eighth-grader Theo Rollins is trying to find his way between the brainiacs and the basketball players. Along the way, he meets Rain-aka Crazy Girl-a sort of ‘girl with the dragon tattoo’ minus the heaviest baggage. Characters, both friend and foe, feel real; there is talk of abandonment as well as serious comments about the skewed vision Americans have of Islam. The deepest running narrative pivots around sports, but the story has much to give. Theo’s cousin’s taxonomy of basketball players is broadly applicable: There are the happy-go-lucky, the self-conscious and ‘those who never want the game to be over, because each minute is like living on some planet where you got no problems….[They are], for that brief time, in a place where everything they thought or did mattered.’ Fearless, caring sports fiction.” —Kirkus


What Color Is My World?: The Lost History of African-American Inventors

what color is my world


“Making use of an unusual format, former NBA star Abdul-Jabbar and his On the Shoulders of Giants coauthor Obstfeld offer an upbeat history lesson set within a fictional narrative framework. Siblings Ella and Herbie, whose story unfolds in typeset chapter booklike pages surrounded by warmly lit paintings of their adventures, are less than enthusiastic about their fixer-upper of a new house. But as eccentric handyman Mr. Mital unveils the house’s potential, he also teaches them about contributions made by African-American inventors (‘There’s more to our history than slavery, jazz, sports, and civil rights marches,’ he says). Flaps show lifelike portraits of individuals like Dr. Mark Dean, a v-p at IBM; Dr. Charles Drew, who developed the concept of blood banks; and nuclear engineer Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker squirt gun. Ella’s off-the-cuff notes appear inside the flaps, while several spreads provide detailed profiles of other inventors and graphic novel–style passages. The banter between the siblings and, in particular, Ella’s snarky zingers keep things from feeling didactic—it’s an entertaining and often surprising exploration of lesser-known innovators, past and present.” Publishers Weekly

“A fictional story lies at the heart of this unusually formatted collective biography. Twins Herbie and Ella and their parents have just moved into a run-down older home; while they work to fix it up, Mr. R. E. Mital, an eccentric handyman hired by their parents, recounts the contributions of African American scientists and inventors. As the figures are introduced, foldouts on the sides of the pages contain Ella’s notes (full of humor, as well as facts) about each one. More detailed profiles of other inventors fill the spreads, and some are introduced in graphic-novel-style pages. Instead of famous inventors such as George Washington Carver and Benjamin Banneker, readers are introduced to lesser-known individuals, including Alfred L. Cralle (inventor of the ice-cream scoop), Dr. Henry T. Sampson (gamma electric cell), and nuclear engineer Lonnie Johnson (Super Soaker). Information about the subjects’ home, lives, and avocations is a welcome addition…the large trim size, numerous illustrations, and unusual format (not to mention the celebrity author) will certainly attract browsers. And a surprise discovery about Mr. Mital’s identity at the end will leave readers with something to ponder.”School Library Journal


For more information on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his work, please visit his website.

Day 29: Meet the BBS — Kelly Starling Lyons

February 29, 2012

The Journey

I still remember the book that called me to write for children — Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth, illustrated by Chris Soentpiet. Looking at that sweet cover of a smiling girl with the same kind of pigtails I used to wear moved me. I was an adult and that was my first time seeing a picture book featuring an African-American child.

Right then, I knew that I wanted to create stories that shared every-day moments and history that put African-American children in the center instead of the margins. I’m so grateful for editors at Just Us Books believing in me. They guided me and published my first two books, NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal and One Million Men and Me.

I wasn’t looking for a story when I came across the cohabitation register that inspired my latest picture book, Ellen’s Broom (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), illustrated by Daniel Minter. I was researching family history in a North Carolina library. But maybe the story was looking for me.

I don’t believe it was chance that after telling a mentor at the Writers Workshop at Chautauqua about the record I found and the jumping the broom tradition, he encouraged me to find the story within. I think some stories are waiting to be told. I feel so blessed that this story chose me.  

Like Just Us Books, agents at Dwyer & O’Grady and then editors at G.P. Putnam’s Sons believed in me too. Putnam published Ellen’s Broom and bought two more of my stories. In December, Tea Cakes for Tosh, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, will debut. Shortly after, my picture book with BBS member Don Tate will hit shelves. So grateful for everyone who has helped me along this journey.

Being part of The Brown Bookshelf is one way I give back. I love shining a light on the wonderful authors and illustrators of color creating stories for kids. They inspire me to keep writing and pushing.

The Buzz on Ellen’s Broom

A Junior Library Guild selection

“Lyons’s homespun and heartfelt dialogue combine with Minter’s exquisite use of line, color, and composition to produce a story that radiates deep faith and strong family bonds.”

— School Library Journal

 “A spirited story filled with the warmth of a close family celebrating a marriage before God and the law.”


“A heartwarming story . . . Daniel Minter’s vividly colored block prints are brilliant.”

— USA Today

“Set during Reconstruction, this story bursts with one family’s joy as Mama and Papa, both former slaves, legalize their marriage . . . Minter’s vibrant, hand-painted block prints, filled with period detail, nicely enhance this testament to remembering the trials of the past and celebrating hardwon freedom.”

— Booklist

“Ellen’s Broom is entertaining and delightful. Enriched with amazing illustrations . . . this book celebrates the meaningful history of weddings for the African American community. This articulate, bright and cheerful story is a must for all families to read.”

— Black Bride and Groom magazine

Javaka Steptoe On The Sounds of a Rainbow

October 19, 2010

Javaka SteptoeJavaka Steptoe is an award-winning, eclectic artist, designer, and illustrator. His debut work, In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers, earned him the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, a nomination for Outstanding Children’s Literature Work at the 1998 NAACP Image Awards, and countless other honors. More accolades followed for his work on books including Do You Know What I’ll Do? by Charlotte Zolotow, A Pocketful of Poems by Nikki Grimes, and Amiri and Odette: A Love Story by Walter Dean Myers.

Once a model and inspiration for his late father, award winning author/illustrator John Steptoe, Javaka Steptoe now utilizes everyday objects, from aluminum plates to pocket lint, and sometimes illustrating with a jigsaw and paint, he delivers reflective and thoughtful collage creations filled with vitality, playful energy, and strength. His latest work, JIMI: Sounds Like All The Rainbow, written by Gary Golio, is the latest example of Steptoe’s vibrant and multi-layered style.

cover image
The art has so much texture and movement, and is wonderfully vibrant. Can you tell us a bit about the materials you used, the decisions you made, and how you put it all together?

I use materials that make connections to the subject matter of the story, with the goal of speaking to the viewer on many levels. I used wood because:

1. Guitars are made out of wood.
2. When learning about Jimi I found him to be very spiritual, so I tried to make my process spiritual. To help capture the feel and energy of Jimi’s hometown, I bought recycled wood at a construction store in Seattle. This wood (probably around when Jimi was alive) was a part of Seattle before it became art. So, besides taking images, research, and memories back to NY, I was able to bring back a physical piece of Seattle to live with, listen to and create from.

I love textures, color, and movement—they are design elements I inherently use in my work. Jimi Hendrix was a complex person, quiet and sensitive, yet when it came to his music he was very dynamic and even over the top. This book let me push that side of myself in order to capture the essence of this duality.

How did you and Gary collaborate? What were some of the challenges on the path to publication of this book? What were some of the sweeter moments?

I actually did not meet Gary until late in the process. We spoke on the telephone but historically most book companies do not like authors and illustrators to talk. Part of the reason is that publishers want to give the illustrator the same freedom and autonomy to create as the author had when creating the story. The other part is that they don’t want the author and illustrator to make decisions on their own, and not be in the loop themselves.

Some of the challenges in illustrating this book were keeping the story visually authentic. There is a lot of pressure in knowing that there are about 50 billion Jimi fans who all knew him better than me, watching and waiting to see if I know my stuff, and ready to send me hate mail if I don’t.
Sweet moments were in going to Seattle, seeing one of Jimi’s childhood houses, visiting and working with the children at the elementary school he attended, and talking with the Seattle natives who knew him or family members. There is still a real excitement about Jimi and his music, and people were very willing to share.

JIMI explores the creative process, which is different for every artist, often different for every project. What in your research of his process and work inspired you? Did you have any surprises along the way? How did you make the connections between sound and color?

One of the most important things that I learned about our geniuses is that they are open to knowledge. They listen, read and watch, they consume information and don’t say “I don’t listen to country music,” or “I only eat hamburgers.” They are interested in all experiences. Because of their openness they are able to make profound statements about life in whatever way they best express themselves.

The process of creating the illustrations for this book has also prompted me to redefine my relationship to creating children’s books. During the process I created a residency program called Exploring the Creative Process with Javaka Steptoe™. This is a cross-disciplinary residency that explores the creative process in an experiential way from many points of view.

What is a “typical” work day like for you? What is your work space like? (photos welcome!)
On a typical work day I get up about 5 am and meditate for an hour. Then I take a shower, eat and go to the library or a coffee shop, and work on my computer until about 1 or 2. After that I take a break for about an hour or two, then work on art until about 7 or 8, eat dinner, drink tea and listen to audio books until it’s time to go to sleep.

At the moment my studio is under construction, so there’s lots of sheetrock and exposed brick, and also lots of tables.

What have been some of the most helpful people, resources, etc. along the way in your work as an illustrator? What are you looking forward to working on? Is there anything that you haven’t yet done that you’d like to do/work with?

Besides my mother and father being the most helpful people, along the way have been my editors. I have lucked out and had really great editors. Though we have not always agreed, they have all been really smart, passionate, very helpful and supportive.

Something that I haven’t yet done that I’d like to do is illustrate a sci-fi book. There are a lot of great black sci-fi book writers like Steven Barnes, Sheree Thomas, Samuel R. Delany, Charles R. Saunders, Tananarive Due, Jewelle Gomez, Ishmael Reed, Kalamu ya Salaam, Robert Fleming, and Nalo Hopkinson, and they are living. (You’re all welcome for the plug—now send me something, guys!)

I read in an essay in Sheree Thomas’s book, “Dark Matter,” that if we don’t see ourselves in sci-fi we don’t see ourselves in the future…so I don’t know about you, but I am not quite ready to disappear—are you?

Thank you!

And I thank you, for sharing a bit of the story behind your work, and adding new layers to our understanding of this legendary artist! Visit Javaka Steptoe online to see and learn more about his fabulous work. For more on the book, visit the Facebook page, and the blog tour all this week. JIMI: Sounds Like A Rainbow is available now at your local bookshop and online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


June 17, 2010

Today’s expert is Jason Wells, Publicity and Marketing Director for Abrams Books for Young Readers and Amulet Books.

Wells began his career in publishing at age sixteen at a small publisher on Long Island. Before joining Abrams in 2002, he held positions at Penguin, DK, Hyperion, and Simon & Schuster. In 2007 he received his MLS from Pratt Institute. He has worked on the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney; Lauren Myracle’s TTYL and Flower Power books; Ian Falconer’s Olivia; NERDS and The Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley; Babar by Laurent de Brunhoff; The Jellybeans series by Laura Numeroff; Tonya Bolden’s Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl and George Washington Carver; 365 Penguins by Jean Luc Fromental and illustrated by Joelle Jolivet; and the forthcoming My Uncle Martin’s Big Heart by Angela Farris Watkins, illustrated by Erica Velasquez (among other titles).

BBS:  Hi, Jason. Welcome to The Brown Bookshelf.

JW:   Glad to be here. I’ve long looked from afar at the work that you do. It’s thrilling to take part.

BBS:  What does your job as Publicity and Marketing Director entail?

JW:   I, with the people in my department, handle everything from setting up author and illustrator interviews and appearances, to pitching authors and illustrators for trade shows, submitting awards, coming up with clever marketing campaigns and much more. Of course, as director I also have to handle managing and motivating the team, and planning out the future.  One of the most important roles I play is as communicator—explaining how things work to authors and illustrators and relaying news to them, talking with our sales reps to help them feed information and promotions to customers, and working directly with librarians, booksellers, and the media to spread the word about our books and get feedback.

BBS:  What is your working relationship with the author/illustrator?

JW:   During the peak promotion period for the book there are calls, e-mails, and information shared back and forth. I like to think of relationships with authors and illustrators as open, in which they feel free to ask lots of questions to discover what is possible.

BBS:  These days, authors have a fair amount of marketing responsibilities—even when published traditionally.  In your view, what are the most effective ways they can spend their time and financial resources?

JW:   To be clear, the author’s involvement has a lot to do with how much time they have to devote to the project.  I’m not going to isolate specific things to do as every book is different. Not all book plans are the same. But in general, authors (if willing, and especially if new) should:

1)      Always consider every opportunity for promotion. We will often get requests from schools or stores that are nowhere near where the author lives. So if the publisher and author can work together to make these happen it is great. A publisher may not be able to always send an author somewhere but they can assist in other ways.

2)       Talk talk talk.  Publishers cannot fulfill every request an author may have, but talking about everything is important.

3)       Don’t ignore local resources. Some of the best campaigns start at home. If you can get a local librarian, bookseller, or media outlet to cheerlead, sometimes the rest of the world then takes notice.

BBS:  What marketing activities does a company like Abrams engage in when promoting a new title?

JW:   The list goes on and on. But here are some things we always do:

1)       Send review copies to key media, booksellers, librarians, and targeted subject areas that make sense.

2)       Keep our sales people informed of activities on the book, so they can then inform booksellers who will want to buy more copies.

3)       Exhibit books at trade shows, and bring in authors and illustrators when we can.

The list goes on and on though!

BBS:  Tell us the biggest error you see authors making with respect to their perspective on promotion?

JW:   I think there is a growing perception that publishers are less supportive than ever before. At least at Abrams, this is not true. So the worst thing an author can do is be distrustful of a publisher without talking to them first.  While answers may not always be what the author wants to hear, at Abrams, we want authors to be part of the process all along the way.

BBS:   There is a perception among many authors that the majority of promotional activities for PBs lie with them—versus the illustrator.  Is that accurate? If so, why do you think that is?

JW:   That is not accurate in my world, unless either party does not like to promote.  I love the “divide and conquer” approach. If the illustrator lives in point A and the author in point B, all the better for spreading the word.

BBS:   Any final advice on book promotion (including anything specific for authors/illustrators of color)?

JW:   In my experience authors and illustrators of color have access to some unique marketing arenas. I’d advise them to take advantage of as many of them as possible. 

BBS:   Drink the leftover milk (from your cereal), or pour it out?

JW:   Drink it, every day.

BBS:   Picket fence and front porch, or high-rise condo with doorman?

JW:   Picket fence and porch if it is waterfront, otherwise high-rise, doorman or not.

BBS:  Street smart, book smart, or smart alec ?

JW: Book smart alec.

BBS:   Let someone else pick all your clothes, or decide what you eat?

JW:   Clothes, for sure. Only two of my seven outfits a week usually make sense.

EXPERT SCOOP with Jennifer Rofé

January 22, 2010


Jennifer Rofé is a literary agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency (ABLA). Jennifer earned a BA in English with a minor in Social and Ethnic Relations from UC Davis, and has a background in secondary education. Jennifer has been on faculty for the Big Sur Writer’s Workshop; the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop; and WNBA, PCCWW and SCBWI conferences.


BBS:    Welcome to the Brown Bookshelf, Jennifer.

JR:      Thanks for having me!

BBS:    PBs have reportedly been a very tough sell for the past few years. Is that still the case today?

JR:      Across the board, the marketplace has become even more difficult on account of the economy. This has certainly affected the already challenging picture book market. But, they’re still selling, so take heart.

BBS:    What types of PBs are selling best right now? What types do publishers seem to be “over”?

JR:      Short, snappy, character-driven picture books are doing the best right now. Picture book writers should aim for texts under 1,000 words, though I encourage aiming for 500.

BBS:    When publishers say they’re looking for “multicultural” books, does that mean books with more than one culture represented–or does it mean books that feature a specific ethnic group? Does the definition of “multi-cultural” vary from publisher to publisher?

JR:      There’s no across-the-board answer to this question. I’d say it’s each and both. Ultimately, it’s important that an author’s representation of all characters be realistic and genuine. I, for one, find myself somewhat put off when it seems an author is including a rainbow of characters in an attempt to make her book multicultural.

BBS:    How does the unpublished PB author know when the time is right to seek representation for their work? Should they have a certain number of manuscripts in their portfolio?

JR:      For those writing only picture books, I do think it’s best to have at least three strong texts when looking for an agent. A challenge that picture book writers can run up against is that they may be very prolific, but a small percentage of their manuscripts will be viable for the market. Having an offer from a publisher is also a fine time to secure an agent.

BBS:    What are the qualities an author should look for in an agent?

JR:      A positive reputation and/or being connected to a well-respected agency are qualities authors should consider when looking for an agent. Beyond that, an author should consider if the agent has (recent) sales to major publishers and if the agent’s body of work aligns with the author’s project(s). There’s a great deal of information out there about agents, and authors should have no problem doing their research. Of course, this research should be done before querying agents.

BBS:    What are the qualities you look for in a prospective client?

JR:      First and foremost, I need to know if a prospective client is willing and able to revise – if not, then I won’t be able to work with the writer and I certainly won’t be able to connect her with an editor, who will expect revisions. I also consider how many projects/works in progress the writer has and if she is knowledgeable of the industry, belongs to a critique group of some sort, and is willing to spend time marketing her book once it’s published.

BBS:    What percentage of your current clients are African American (or people of color)? Do you actively seek out writers of color to represent? Why or why isn’t that a primary factor in your selection process?

JR:      Ten percent of my clients are “people of color”. Though this isn’t a primary factor in my selection process, I do find myself attracted to stories featuring multicultural characters where race isn’t the issue. For instance, Paris Pan Takes the Dare by Cynthea Liu (Penguin 2009) and the forthcoming How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen (HarperCollins 2011) feature a Chinese and African-American protagonist, respectively, but race is not the central focus of either story.

            I’ve never really explored why this is. It could be because of my own background, it could be a personal taste. I minored in Social and Ethnic Relations in college with a focus on multicultural literature, so this is something that has appealed to me for some time.

BBS:    It’s been suggested that the industry tends to keep Af-Am writers in a box regarding the types of books they’re willing to publish (i.e., street lit, historical fiction, historical non-fiction). Have you experienced this with any of your clients? Why or why not, do you think?

JR:      I haven’t experienced this with my clients, but I have been in the situation where a book featuring African American characters that the author intended for the mainstream audience was, had we gone with an interested publisher, slated to be published under the company’s “ethnic” imprint. As this wasn’t the author’s vision for the book, we went with another publisher.

BBS:    What are some of your favorite books recently written or illustrated by African Americans?

JR:      My current favorites are the picture book Around Our Way by none other than Tameka Brown (Abrams, 2010) and the middle grade How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen (HarperCollins, 2011).   :)

Outside of children’s lit, I’m a big Toni Morrison fan, and The Known World by Edward P. Jones is one of my all-time favorite books, so any chance I have to talk it up, I do. It’s a must read!

BBS:    How important is networking for the unpublished author? With whom should they be networking…editors? Agents? Other writers? Is it more important to network with one group above all others?

JR:      Networking definitely plays a role, and I think authors should be networking with other authors and attending conferences where they can meet agents and editors while learning about the industry. SCBWI ( is an absolute must for aspiring authors. But even more important, unpublished authors should be focusing on honing their craft. It doesn’t matter how many people you know if you don’t know your craft. 

BBS:    You speak to writers a lot and you give out lots of advice. What’s the one piece of advice you’d like to leave our readers with…that you almost hesitate to say out loud, but you know would make a tremendous difference in their writing careers if they heeded it?

JR:      Publishing is an art and a business. Aspiring authors need to really, truly study their craft. I have a client who literally takes published books apart to see how the author built and developed the story. An aspiring author should also aim to understand how his/her book fits within the business – where on the shelves would your book go? Who is your audience? How does your manuscript stack up to those currently being published? Is your idea marketable for a broad audience? If a writer is serious about being a published author, then he/she must study and do research.

BBS:    Thanks so much, Jennifer, for your straightforward and honest answers. In keeping with that openness…meatloaf or sushi?

JR:      Wimpy sushi. In other words, California and shrimp tempura rolls.

BBS:    New York or LA?

JR:      “From the South Bay to the Valley, from the West Side to the East Side…looks like another perfect day. I love L.A.”

BBS:    Charlie Brown or Lucy?

JR:      A delicate balance of both.


For more information on Jennifer Rofé and ABLA, visit


December 4, 2009

Being a new member of The Brown Bookshelf, and primarily a picture book writer, I thought it fitting that I dedicate myself to blogging about newbie/PB stuff. My mission is to provide inside info— tapping a broad spectrum of key decision makers that drive what is currently deemed marketable (and therefore, most likely to be purchased). I’ll also shed light on the present and evolving status of PBs in the industry.  

I’ll seek out the usual suspects to help us make sense of all this (editors, agents, and booksellers), but I’ll also access experts and gatekeepers whose thoughts we writers don’t often hear. Toward that end…

Tonya Pointer is a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT), certified in the area of Elementary Education (K-6), and a member of the North Carolina Association for Educators (NCAE).

BBS:  Welcome to The Brown Bookshelf, Tonya.

TP:   Thank you.

BBS:  How long have you been working in the field of literacy/education?

TP:   I’ve worked in the educational field for 19 years…ranging from paraprofessional, teacher, literacy facilitator, and now reading specialist.

BBS:  What age group do you currently work with? What age groups have you worked with in the past?

TP:   Currently, I am a literacy coach for the second grade team at a local elementary school.  I’ve taught 4th grade, and reading to K – 5th grade students.

BBS:  What does your job entail?

TP:   I coach classroom teachers in implementing research based teaching practices to promote high student achievement.  This includes: facilitating team planning to align classroom instruction with state standards; modeling lessons to address all learning styles; co-teaching; and motivating teachers to improve teacher efficacy, collaboration and overall student development.

BBS:  What role do picture books play in improving a child’s literacy level?  Are there specific ways teachers can utilize them in the classroom to do so?

TP:   All genres of books are significant in educating a child.  Picture books are especially useful to promote the core values that underpin the curriculum, and to generate thoughtful debate on a range of issues. These discussions promote oral language development.  They also provide ideal material to develop students’ visual literacy, helping them to achieve stronger outcomes in the viewing mode of the English Learning Area.

Picture books serve as excellent tools for helping students link the text to the pictures, aiding in visualization and comprehension. They also help students make connections to personal experiences, to deepen their understanding of the story.  These books are often used to teach fluency, vocabulary and comprehension strategies for overall reading development. 

BBS:  As a writer of this genre, I’m interested in your opinion about what makes a superior picture book. As a specialist, what attributes do you specifically seek when selecting picture books to help a child improve his or her reading skills?

TP:   It depends on the child’s reading needs.  There are five main components of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.  If a child is weak in phonemic awareness and phonics, I look for picture books that have simple, rhyming text with supporting pictures.  For vocabulary and comprehension development, books that use pictures to support context clues are important to aid in identifying the meaning of unknown words and understand the story.

BBS:  Picture books traditionally have been written for the pre-school to lower elementary set, but increasingly we hear they’re being utilized in the classroom with older children.  Has this been your experience? In what specific ways are they used? 

TP:   Yes.  As I stated, they are extremely useful in teaching comprehension strategies—especially to older students who are still developing fluency.  The illustrations aid in tracking comprehension because these students still spend a lot of effort in decoding text.  Pictures also provide support for students when they are constructing literal meaning such as the “who, what, where, when” in reference to story elements.  Older students often use the images in picture books to help clarify meaning of events, characters or vocabulary.

BBS:  Do you actively seek out books written by (or for) people of color, African-Americans in particular? Is this authorship information readily available to you, or is it difficult to obtain?

TP:   Actually, I purposely choose books from diverse cultures.  Students often have a deeper interest in books to which they can make connections.  These connections lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the author’s intentions.  Another reason I seek diversity is to broaden their knowledge base regarding their world.  Yes, locating minority authors is easily accessible.

BBS:  For all of the aspiring PB writers out there, what types of picture books could you use more of? What are some of the most popular picture books among the students at your school?

TP:   There are a plethora of picture books available to children. Lately, I find myself searching for more bi-lingual books for our students who are learning English as a second language. Picture books by Eric Carle, Patricia Polocco, and  Mildred Taylor are some of my students’ favorites.

BBS:  Thank you so much, Tonya, for the knowledge you have shared with us today. Before you leave us…Coffee or Cocoa?   

TP:   Cocoa

BBS:  Scrabble or Pictionary?

TP:   Scrabble

BBSFat Albert or Akeelah and the Bee

TP:  Fat Albert