Throwback Thursday: Justina Ireland

July 27, 2017

As a follow-up to Tuesday’s Black Kids on Covers post, here’s a look back at one of the authors included as she discusses her first two novels and how music helped her to write them. I wonder what music she wrote to while working on her upcoming Dread Nation!

Enjoy this throwback post…

 

What is a purveyor of awesomeness? If you saw one walking down the street would you know? Let me help you out. Just look at the picture to the left. When you write novels about butt-kicking females with a Greek mythology backdrop, you can put “Purveyor of Awesomeness” on your website next to your name because you’re bound to turn heads! She turned ours, and that’s why on this 24th day of February, 2015, The Brown Bookshelf is honored, and excited to spotlight:

JUSTINA IRELAND

The Process

How do you work? Do you start with a character, a concept, an idea? Do you outline first or just go? Is there a technique or routine for drafting or revising that you find particularly helpful? Do you have an office or other location that works best for you?

I am a complete and utter pantser (meaning I don’t outline). So my writing process is deceptively simple and completely insane:

  1. I come up with the basic idea (not a plot, just a general idea). Example: Dexter meets Greek Mythology.
  2. I write the first 30,000 words or so. Generally the entire first act heading into the second (my books are generally between 80,000 and 90,000 words).
  3. I write the ending so I have a direction. Otherwise I would just keep writing with no end in sight.
  4. I fill in the gaps.
  5. Revisions! Smoothing out the plotholes, making sure plot threads make it the entire way through the book, etc.

If the process sounds disorganized, that’s because it is. I see writing as a kind of archeology. The process of uncovering the story is just as important as the story for me, which sounds a lot prettier than it is in reality. There is usually swearing. And lots of swearing. To be honest my process has been different for each story, but there is always swearing.

I think that’s what makes it fun, the spontaneity of it all! Or maddening. Sometimes it is both fun and maddening, which explains the swearing.

I mostly write at home, in the evenings and in the mornings before I head to work (I have a day job that is not writing related). My writing locations are the office I share with my husband within my home and the dining room table. Not sure why I like writing at the dining room table. Maybe because it’s right next to the kitchen and therefore close to the food.

The Inspiration

I actually write a lot of my stories based on music, which sounds weird. But sometimes hearing just the right song will inspire a feeling that drives my story.

Vengeance Bound, my first published story, was sparked by the album American Idiot by Green Day.

Promise of Shadows was pretty much entirely written to three albums: What to Do When You are Dead by Armor for Sleep, Juturna by Circa Survive and On Letting Go by Circa Survive.

My most recent story was inspired by Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire, so you can pretty much imagine what that is like. For me, music is a huge part of my process. I listen to music when I write, and I actually find it pretty hard to write without it.

As for writers who inspire me, I love Courtney Summers, Jenny Han, Justina Chen, Nova Ren Suma, and Alaya Dawn Johnson.

Under The Radar

Brandy Colbert’s Pointe is a book that I think has not gotten nearly enough love. Theo’s journey is just plain heartbreaking, and I hope lots of good things happen for that book in 2015.

I’m also a huge fan of LR Giles, Stephanie Kuehn, Elsie Chapman, Lydia Kang, and Maurene Goo. I hope all of them continue to write fantastic books. And I hope people continue to read them.

 

The State of the Industry

I honestly think that the industry is really at a pretty important decision point. The We Need Diverse Books campaign has done a good job of shining a light on the challenges within the publishing industry with regards to diversity and how we can all do better. There’s a lot of talk about increasing diversity, not just with regards to the books being published but also with regards to the staff at the publishing houses. But right now I feel it’s more lip service than reality. Everyone thinks diversity is important, but it seems like few people are actually challenging themselves to make it a reality. If the big publishing houses want to cater to people of color they need to make a commitment to doing just that. And they need to publish books that reflect diversity across the board, not just a couple of issue books every season or diverse books ghettoized under a specific imprint. Where are my black Katnisses? Or my Latino Harry Potters? I’d love to see more books that really push the envelope and break out of the old models, books like Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Love is the Drug, which is a book that talks about race and class but also has a pretty amazing storyline as well.

Of course, there are publishers like Lee and Low that have always been committed to diversity and that probably don’t get nearly enough credit for what they do. But in an ideal world I’d really like to see publishers like Lee and Low rendered obsolete. I’d like it to be easier to find a book with a character of color than a talking animal or some mythological creature, but I think right now we’re a few years away from that goal.

Thank you, Justina, for your contributions to Young Adult books!

Learn more about Justina Ireland by visiting her website:  http://justinaireland.com


Throwback Thursday: Fredrick McKissack

May 25, 2017

Today we go back to a great contributor to children’s literature, Fredrick McKissack, who with his wife wrote more than 100 books for children about the African-American experience. On the Scholastic website the McKissacks talked about their process:

“There is no magic formula,” Fred says. “Pat and I talk all the time.” “After talking through a project,” Pat continues, “We outline it. Then Fred does most of the digging and the research, and I write it up on the computer and run off a hard copy. Fred fact-checks and refines it, and then gives it back to me to make his changes and any more of my own.” “Then we run off another hard copy and keep doing that until it satisfies us both,” Fred adds. (More here: https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/authors/fredrick-l–mckissack/)

They made a winning team. Beside winning two Coretta Scott King Awards, four of their collaborations were runners-up, or Coretta Scott King Honor Books. In 2014, the year after his death, the McKissacks were both honored with the Coretta Scott King – Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement by the American Library Association.

Below is the original post that appeared about Fredrick McKissack on the Brown Bookshelf blog in 2015.

In the summer of 2005, I had the pleasure of meeting Fredrick McKissack. He and his wife, author Patricia McKissack, were teaching and sharing their experiences on how to write for children at a Highlights workshop.  He had a fascinating personality and was a gracious host. His work as a researcher was outstanding and informative.

Mr. McKissack discussed his research for Black Hands, White Sails.

He was meticulous, checking and rechecking the finest detail, and traveling to the east coast from their home in St. Louis to visit whaling museums. That book written by his wife won a Coretta Scott King Honor award. It told the story of black sailors on whaling ships. And it showed me the possibilities of writing nonfiction. It remains one of my favorites.

The writing and researching duo published over 100 books. Many won awards including the Coretta Scott King Award, the NAACP Image Award, the Newbery, the C.S. Lewis Medal, the Caldecott Award, the Jane Addams Peace Award, and the Regina Medal.

Mr. McKissack died on April 28, 2013.


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.
B.B.coverandsketch

    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.


Throwback Thursday: Brandy Colbert

December 22, 2016

As a teen I studied ballet, but it was already too late for me to be a professional dancer. (I was no Misty Copeland.) I loved going to the ballet, but there were no black or brown ballerinas on stage at New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theater. If there were, maybe I might have pushed a little harder. Maybe this profession might not have seemed too out of reach. Little bunheads like me would have loved books like Brandy Colbert’s POINTE, or the young reader’s edition of LIFE IN MOTION which she co-authored with Copeland. In this throwback post, Colbert talks about the path to getting her first book published, and the state of diversity in Kidlit.
~Tracey

 

 BrandyWeb

Pointe may be Brandy’s first published novel, but it is not her first attempt at writing. She is a magazine journalist. Add that to her tap and jazz dance training and you have the perfect person to write about ballet. Her life story is riveting and so is Pointe. After learning about Brandy, you will not be able to resist the urge to read her first novel. The Brown Bookshelf is honored to feature Brandy on 28 Days Later 2015.

The Journey

I’ve wanted to be an author since I was seven years old (at least that’s the first time I documented my aspiration), and have been writing stories since then. I took a bit of a break in college and afterward, while I earned a journalism degree and moved out to Los Angeles to start my career in magazine publishing. Of course I never stopped reading, and I would write sporadically, but I had a hard time finishing projects that I’d started. At the time, I also found it hard to come home and work on my own manuscripts after writing and editing all day at my full-time job.

In 2006, I decided to get serious about pursuing publication. I completed a novel during NaNoWriMo and also signed up for a writing class, as I realized I’d have to start sharing my work with others and get feedback (terrifying!) if I wanted to get published. That project was the first book I’d finished writing since I was a child. It started out as an adult book, but I soon realized the voice wasn’t right. After I switched to teenage characters, I felt like I was on the right track—exploring the issues and lives of teens, as well as writing in their voice.

The Inspiration
I think inspiration can (and should) come from various and unexpected sources. I’m inspired by honest writers, those who aren’t afraid to tackle messy subjects (and even messier characters). Some of my favorites are Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Courtney Summers, Colson Whitehead, Aimee Bender, Sarah McCarry, ZZ Packer, and Toni Morrison.

pointecover

The Back Story
Pointe is the fourth book I’d written since I began actively working toward publication, and it’s strange to look back
on this now, but I was just about ready to give up if I hadn’t found representation with that book. It was easily the most honest book I’d written to date, and the one I’d put the most work into. I ended up working on it with an agent who was interested in signing me, but unfortunately, once I turned in the final book, we saw that our visions for it were quite different. After that, I queried a few other agents at the top of my list, not expecting to get very far. But much to my surprise, Tina Wexler of ICM requested a full manuscript just a few hours after I’d queried her! She asked for a fairly big revision, which I turned in around six weeks later. She offered representation shortly after that, and just three days after I’d been laid off from my job as a business writer in Chicago.

After three books and four years of rejection from agents, I also didn’t anticipate interest from editors, though I believed in the book and finally had someone else in my corner who did, too. I’d decided to move back to Los Angeles after being laid off, and at the end of my first day driving cross-country, I stopped in Missouri to see my parents and recharge for a few days. And the morning after arriving in my hometown, Tina called to tell me we had an offer from Ari Lewin at Putnam! I was happy to have an offer, but more important, I was thrilled that Ari believed in my book and had some wonderful ideas on how to improve it while staying true to my vision.

The Buzz
Pointe received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start, is a Cybils Awards finalist, and was named a best book of 2014 by Publishers Weekly, Book Riot, BuzzFeed, the Los Angeles Public Library, and the Chicago Public Library.

The State of the Industry
I think 2014 was a turning point for the children’s books industry in that the conversation on diversity really began to make waves. Many people had noted prior to last year that diversity was an important (and often overlooked) initiative in children’s books, but We Need Diverse Books catapulted it to the forefront, turning a hashtag campaign into a pledge into a nonprofit. I’m so impressed by the group’s commitment to implementing change in the industry, including the provision of publishing internships and grants and awards to writers and authors of color.

When I was growing up, I didn’t need two hands to count the number of black kids in contemporary stories, and it’s sad to me that things aren’t much better so many years later. But I believe the conversation is a great start. And in addition to books that reflect the world around us, we also need diverse authors and agents and editors and publicists and marketing departments—people of color, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTQ. I truly believe that if diversity is championed from within the industry, there will be a greater chance of seeing these stories published. And they are stories that desperately need to be told.

For more about Brandy, please check out her website Brandy Colbert. Brandy’s twitter handle is @BrandyColbert.


Throwback Thursday: Jason Reynolds

December 15, 2016
cover-ghost

Simon & Schuster, 2016; Cover Art by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

 

In 2014, he was already on his way to becoming “the” Jason Reynolds. Today–a mere two years, a John Steptoe Award, multiple CSK Awards, a Walter Dean Myers Award, a Kirkus Prize, a National Book Award Finalist sticker, and an NAACP Image Award nomination later–Reynolds has firmly cemented his status as a kidlit superstar.

Read on as we travel back in time to our seventh 28 Days Later campaign, revisiting the words of a pre-award-winning Jason Reynolds. Enjoy!

 

 

*         *        *

photo courtesy of the author and http://authors.simonandschuster.com/

photo courtesy of the author and Simon and Schuster

Jason Reynolds is the author of two critically acclaimed books. My Name Is Jason. Mine Too: Our Story. Our Way. (HarperCollins, 2009), an autobiographical collaboration co-written with his friend and artist, Jason Douglas Griffin, was published in 2009 and received two starred reviews. His debut novel, When I Was The Greatest, was published in early 2014 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers. The novel has already been lauded by critics, receiving starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal. Kirkus also praised the novel, noting that Reynolds is “an author worth watching” and calling the novel “a moving and thought-provoking study of the connectivity among a family and friends that plays upon and defies readers’ expectations.” Please welcome Jason Reynolds to The Brown Bookshelf as he discusses his journey.

The Back Story

When_I_Was_The_Greatest-2The back story behind the publishing of When I Was the Greatest is…well…an interesting one. I’ll try to shorten it, as to not spiral out of control (which happens often when telling this story.) Through a strange turn of events, I found myself without a place to live in New York, and was forced to move back home to my mother’s house. I was almost twenty-five years old, and there aren’t too many instances more demoralizing than returning home to your childhood bedroom — music posters still on the wall and everything — after trying to chase your dream. At least, that’s what I thought. Turns out, there was actually more demoralization  just around the corner. I couldn’t find work. I mean, the recession was in full swing, my resume was all over the place, and I had never held any real job, so I ended up working in the stockroom of Lord & Taylor. It was my responsibility to unpack boxes and put sensors on every garment. EVERY garment. My shift was from three in the morning to noon, for a whopping $150 a week.

Meanwhile, I was working on my first novel, BOOM. I still had an agent in New York, and after BOOM was complete, I sent it to him. It took him about five months to tell me that it sucked (it was TERRIBLE.)

Shortly after my first rejection, I started a new job as a case worker servicing mentally ill people. There were twenty-seven people on my caseload, ranging from Schizophrenics, to drug addicts, and my job was to help them get back on their feet and assimilate back into society. I was also working on another novel — a dystopian tale about the island of Bermuda, a place that I had visited many times and had grown to love. My agent and I had parted ways by this point, and I decided to pitch it directly to a publishing house (had an insider) to see if anything would happen. This time, it took six months to tell me it sucked, but by then I was already on my way back to New York. My experiences as a case worker traumatized me to the point that I had to quit and was willing to take anything to get the weight of it and the stories of the people (the most amazing people I’ve ever met, by the way) off my shoulders. So I took a job, back in New York, selling jeans.

I had decided that I was going to quit writing. Maybe I’d push denim the rest of my life, or teach, or get one of those lucky New York City jobs that pay well to have fun. But there were other things in the cards. Christopher Myers, son of Walter Dean Myers, had become a close friend of mine when I lived in New York the first time (before the stockroom and caseworker stuff.) He and I were hanging out one day, and he asked me how the writing was going. I told him that I was done. No more writing. What he said next changed my life. He asked me, “When my father is done, who’s going to carry that banner, that tradition?” I suggested he do it. He suggested I do it. He told me to take one more swing, after all that I had been through, all that I had seen, all the people that I had interacted with and the stories that I had heard, and see what would come of it. What came was, When I Was the Greatest.

My Inspiration

WalterDeanMyersPhotoWalter Dean Myers has been a major inspiration for me. There’s something brilliant in the looseness of his language, though it actually isn’t loose at all. But it seems that way. He’s been able to write tight stories that still come across as eye-level, and human. And that’s my goal, to write slice-of-life, human stories about the communities that have made me who I am. And, of course, to make my mama proud.

My Process:

I always begin with a theme or a particular story I want to tell. There are so many stories, and perspectives, and angles, and I spend a lot of time thinking of which ones I could do justice. Then I think of characters, and usually I pull right from my pot of friends and family, which, let me tell you, are a colorful bunch. It means a lot to me to make sure that every character is real. That these stories read like memoirs, each character, breathing. I typically start with the protagonist. I flesh him/her out pretty thoroughly, that way as he/she begins to live, he/she will tell me what happens in the story, who joins in on this journey, what twists and turns occur, etc. I do just as much observing of the characters I create, as I do writing them. To me, that’s the fun in it all, the adventure of conceiving a character, and then having it lead you through the story it wants to tell.

Others under the Radar:

So many. But if I had to name one, Sheri Booker. She’s the author of Nine Years Under, which is about her time working in a funeral home for nine years in Baltimore City. But recently, she mentioned that she was thinking about writing a YA novel. PLEASE SHERI! I think she’d be a serious asset, especially when it comes to a fresh take on YA for girls of color.


Throwback Thursday: Malaika Rose Stanley

December 8, 2016

Since Malaika Rose Stanley was first featured here in 2013, she has released a memoir, LOOSE CONNECTIONS, and another children’s book, WHILE I AM SLEEPING. The former teacher also compiled a list of books featuring multiracial families, and wrote about her decision to create that resource here. Malaika Rose Stanley’s work offers a glimpse into a window of the global Black experience, and as a child of immigrants, living in the U.S., I especially value her voice in the world of children’s literature.

Malaika Rose Stanley was born in Birmingham – Britain’s ‘second city’ – and now lives in the capital, London. She has been a teacher in Zambia, Uganda, Germany and Switzerland, as well as the UK – and at all levels of education including supporting autistic children in primary schools, teaching adult language, literacy, numeracy and creative writing, one-to-one tutoring, conflict resolution and teacher training. She has also worked as a researcher helping adopted people find their birth parents.

She is now a children’s author, whose books feature strong, positive African, Caribbean and Asian characters and reflect the cultural richness and diversity of family life, friendship groups, schools and society in general. Her work ranges from picture books to young fiction and she has recently had an adult short story included in the US-published anthology For Women – In Tribute to Nina Simone (ed Debra Powell-Wright). Her latest books, all published by Tamarind/Random House include Baby Ruby Bawled, Miss Bubble’s Troubles (2010 World Book Day Recommended Read), Spike and Ali Enson (2010 Book of the Year in The Independent national newspaper) and, most recently, the sequel Spike in Space. Skin Deep, the first novel in her Sugar and Spice series was published in 2011 and the second, Dance Dreams, is due to be published in the USA on 26 March 2013.

Malaika has been a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at London Metropolitan University and the London College of Fashion, a British Council Crossing Borders mentor for writers in Africa and a visiting author and workshop leader at various children’s literature festivals, Black History Month, World Book Day and other events. She has compiled a list of books featuring bi-racial characters published in the UK and the USA, which is available on her blog site.

It is truly a pleasure to kick off this year’s campaign with the very versatile Malaika Rose Stanley!

The Journey:

I first started writing for children when my two grown-up sons were young and I felt that there were too few children’s books with black protagonists published in the UK – especially those that featured and/or appealed to black boys. I have always loved writing, but I only thought about trying to write for children after I went to enroll for an adult education class in French! I was so impressed by a display of covers from books published by authors who had previously attended the Writing for Children class – including Malorie Blackman – that I signed up for both courses (although I have to admit that I ditched French after just one semester).

I progressed from the basic course to a follow-up writing workshop where the one criteria for joining was to have a ‘work-in-progress’. During that time, I wrote my first published book, Man Hunt, very slowly and carefully. My editor did not demand any revisions and made only a few, small editorial changes. It left me with a very distorted and unrealistic view of the publication process. My writing journey since then has been much rockier. After my first three books, I returned to teaching and had a ten-year break from publishing, so I have only been a full-time author for the past four years.

The Inspiration:

I’m giving my age away here, but my favourite books from childhood include
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Heidi by Johanna Spyri and the Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton. The love of reading that these authors fostered in me continues to be an inspiration in my own writing.

As an adult, I have always admired and been inspired by the Australian children’s author, Morris Gleitzman, ever since I read one of his early books, Two Weeks with the Queen. I was impressed by his ability to write honestly about serious, challenging subjects but with humour and a lightness of touch. A couple of years ago, I heard him speak to about 6 adults and 60+ teenagers and he told us that the starting point for any story is to identify the biggest problem in the character’s life. He signed my copy of Now with the words, ‘G’day Malaika’ – which confirmed me as a die-hard fan.

All my own books start off based in reality, even when they stretch it to the limits and extend into fantasy, which is exactly what happens in Spike in Space:

Want a story that’s full of ALIENS and MONSTERS, and horrible, out-of-this-world smelly POO?

Then meet Spike! His adoptive family are from another planet, and now they’re taking him to live with them in SPACE!
Spike_and_Ali_Enson
Can he survive a new school, a horrible bully and a deadly attack from a hairy monster?

Background:
I wrote the first draft of Spike and Ali Enson many years before it was actually published. My manuscript went through many re-writes but I believe that tastes and trends within the publishing industry also changed. When I first started writing, the demand seemed to be almost exclusively for ‘issue-based’ books rather than stories that just happened to feature black characters – and there seemed to be little room for ‘genre’ books such as sci-fi or historical fiction. My experiences have certainly helped to cement my belief that authors should write what they know and love, rather than trying to write for the demands of the market which are likely to be inconsistent and difficult to predict.
Spike_and_Ali_Enson
I have been incredibly lucky to have secured deals directly with the publishers for all my books so far, but just over a year ago, I finally signed up with my first-ever agent, Catherine Pellegrino. The advantages were immediate in terms of the size of my admittedly still-small advance and meagre royalties for Spike in Space, but it’s a complete relief to be able to focus on my writing without diverting my creative energies into negotiations about money or foreign rights.

The Buzz:

“This fast-paced action adventure… designed to appeal to those who like their stories to be tinged with fantasy, thrills and spills, all the drama unfolds in shortish chapters, with a range of galactic vocab and cartoon-like illustrations to add zing.” (Junior Magazine)

“In a hilarious sequel to Spike and Ali Enson, Spike is off to live with his adoptive family on another planet… The combination of everyday things with which all kids are familiar and the excitement of life in space make this a fascinating and enjoyable series, which also carries a strong message about the importance of families and the reassurance they give.” (Parents in Touch)
Skin_DeepDance Dreams Cover

“This touching story of changes, new beginnings and dealing with difference is ideal for sharing with young children facing new experiences or beginning a new school year.” (The Book Trust)

My Brief Thoughts on the Industry:
I strongly believe that the children’s book publishing industry needs to actively challenge and reject the idea that books about black and ethnic minority characters will only appeal to readers from the same background. This view leads to the misconception that their commercial potential is limited and in turn makes it difficult for authors and others from diverse backgrounds to break into publishing.

The industry needs to accept that not all books by or about black people have to focus on the so-called gritty reality of racism or discrimination or identity – but that they should not ignore ‘issues’ if and when they arise in ‘slice of life’ stories – and have a wider approach in terms of ‘genre’, eg magic, sci-fi, thrillers, etc.
To find out more:
Visit Malaika Rose Stanley online at her Web home and on her blog.

Wonderful and inspiring words — thank you so much, Ms. Rose Stanley!


Throwback Thursday: Margaree King Mitchell

December 1, 2016

The tagline of Margaree King Mitchell’s website is “Creating Stories that Inspire.” Indeed her moving titles, from picture books to YA, touch children and adults and show the potential for greatness that lies within each of us. Her Coretta Scott King Honor Award-winning book, Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, debuted in 1993 and became a classic featured in classrooms and libraries, Reading Rainbow and theaters. Is it any wonder that people eagerly awaited a second collaboration by Margaree and acclaimed illustrator James E. Ransome? We featured Margaree as a 28 Days Later honoree the year that stirring book, When Grandmama Sings, debuted. It was  another  intergenerational  treasure, rooted in black history, that stayed with you long after you put it down.

Enjoy Margaree from February 28, 2012

– Kelly

margareeIf you are at all familiar with the picture book genre, you’ve likely heard of Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, the much heralded, 1994 Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Margaree King Mitchell is the author of that still-popular title, as well as Granddaddy’s Gift (1996).

Her latest book, When Grandmama Sings, was released last month to wonderful reviews. As we wind down this year’s campaign, it is an honor to feature the words and work of Margaree King Mitchell.

The Journey

When my son was in kindergarten, his school had Grandparents Day. Students could invite their grandparents to spend the whole day with them. We lived in Memphis, TN at the time and my son’s grandmothers lived in Atlanta and Kansas City, so he had no one to invite to school. When he arrived at school, not only had students brought their grandmothers, some had also brought their grandfathers. When my son got home he unclejedwas very sad. “I don’t have any grandfathers,” he said. I explained to him that both of his grandfathers had died before he was born. But he didn’t understand. Every day he came home from school sad because he had no grandfathers. I searched the public library for books that would show what life was like for his ancestors. I couldn’t find any. Then I went to all the bookstores in town. I still couldn’t find any. Therefore, I decided to write the books myself.

I wanted the books to be set in the rural South because that is where I’m from. I grew up on my grandfather’s farm in Holly Springs, Mississippi. I wanted each book to focus on an ordinary person who does extraordinary things for the time period in which they lived. I patterned the Uncle Jed character in my first book, UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP, after my grandfather. My grandfather owned his own farm during a time of segregation and racial discrimination. And he showed me that a person can rise above their surroundings and make their dreams come true.

I wanted to show the same things in my books. As I was thinking about my first book, I remembered my grandfather telling me about a barber who went house to house cutting hair. I made Uncle Jed a barber because I wanted all children to identify with the character whether they lived in the city or a small town. By the time I began writing the book we had moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. One day my son’s first grade teacher asked me to help out with some of the kids in her class who were behind the other kids academically. I started volunteering three days a week and worked with five students. Those three days turned into four days, then five days. I really cared about the students and wanted them to do well in school. When the end of the school year came, I wondered what would become of students who had no one to believe in them. Then I realized that the book I was writing to teach my son about his ancestors could also inspire children to dream big dreams for their lives.

After submitting my story for two years I received nothing but rejection letters. However, they were personal rejection letters from editors telling me that they loved my story but it didn’t fit in with their publishing plans. Finally, frustrated that those editors could love my story and not publish it, I decided to submit it directly to the publisher of Simon & Schuster. Within a month I had a contract.

When UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP was published, I was asked to read the story during Story Time at the main branch of the Little Rock Public Library. This was the first time kids other than my son had heard the story so I was anxious to see their reaction. After I finished reading the book, parents who were fascinated by the historical aspects of the story dominated the question and answer period. And I didn’t get any comments from children. But as I was leaving a little girl was waiting for me by the door. She said, “I liked your story about Uncle Jed. I want to be a doctor when I grow up but my grandmama keeps telling me I’ll never be one. Now I know I can be a doctor.”

I knew then I had achieved my goal in writing UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP. Since that day I have received many letters from children all across the country telling me their dreams. They also tell me who says they can’t achieve their dreams and why. But because of Uncle Jed’s story, they now know they can be anything they want to be if they just don’t give up.

The Inspiration

I get ideas for my stories on my morning walks. When my mind is quiet and I’m surrounded by nature ideas come to me. If I’m stuck at a certain part in a story I put it aside until the next day. I know that the next morning while I’m walking and appreciating nature the right solution will come.

I’m inspired by stories that are populated by families and friends, the stuff of life. I especially love the books of Mildred D. Taylor, whose stories are inspired by her family and their experiences. She heard about many of these stories at family gatherings in Mississippi. Her book ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY, is set in 1933 Mississippi during the Great Depression and deals with racial injustice. Her stories are filled with characters who find a way to right wrongs done to them.

The Back Story

My agent placed WHEN GRANDMAMA SINGS with Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, a division of William Morrow and Company. WHEN GRANDMAMA SINGS was the third book she had placed with them. However, before the first book came out, HarperCollins grandmamapurchased William Morrow and Company. Therefore, HarperCollins inherited all three books. After a review of my books, it was decided that WHEN GRANDMAMA SINGS would be published first. So I have waited over ten years for WHEN GRANDMAMA SINGS to be published.

However, during those ten years lots of great things happened with UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP. They are too numerous to name. I’ll just mention a few. An award winning musical featuring Broadway veteran Ken Prymus has been adapted from UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP. The most recent performances were in Denver last year. Plans are being made to take it to additional theaters.

The Federal Reserve Bank has developed lesson plans using UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP to teach students about saving, savings goals, opportunity cost, and entrepreneurship.

The Library of Congress has developed a lesson plan connecting events in history to the story in UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP.

The Buzz

From School Library Journal:

Gr-2-4 – Set in the segregated South of the 1950s, Mitchell’s poignant story features eight-year old Belle and her loving, stalwart African-American family. When Grandmama, who can’t read but whose singing voice captures the hearts of all who hear her, joins a jazz band for a tour of the South, Belle pleads to go along. Thrilled to expand her world beyond Pecan Flats, MS, she experiences firsthand the difficulties her people face: hotels marked “White Only,” diners that refuse them service, police who search their cars and luggage for no reason. Through it all, Grandmama sings to growing crowds, believing in the power of music to bring people together. When, at the story’s end, a recording contract beckons her “up north,” Grandmama tells Belle to believe in herself and “sing her own song.” Ransome’s full-page images, rich in color and feeling, portray the landscape of the South and the individual emotions of the characters with equal aplomb. Placed in the past, the message is still relevant for children today.” (Barbara Elleman, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Amherst, MA

From Kirkus Reviews:

Belle joins her beloved grandmother, a jazz singer, on a summer tour of Southern towns and sees that segregation is everywhere—not just at home in Mississippi.

Holding tight to her uncle’s lucky rabbit’s foot, Belle watches as Grandmama and the musicians face the ugliness of Jim Crow in diners and theaters and on the road. In Alabama, the police dump their belongings on the roadside, a state’s welcome. She also listens as her grandmother shares her dreams for an integrated society and thrills to her resounding performance on stage in Atlanta, one that leads to an offer to make recordings for a company up North. It’s a moment that inspires Belle to dream, because “the promise of her song helped me believe in myself.” As in Uncle Jed’s Barbershop (1993), for which Ransome won a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor, Mitchell has crafted another compelling story of an African-American family both strong and determined despite the all-powerful clamp of racism. Ransome uses watercolors in warm tones of yellows and browns to reveal nuances of expression and the warmth of family and community.

A gentle story that shows the everyday realities of segregation through the observant eye of a child. (Picture book. 5-9)

From Publishers Weekly:

“Mitchell and Ransome, the team behind Coretta Scott King Honor–winner Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, reunite for another story set in the early 20th century, in which intimate family relationships are set against a backdrop of racial segregation. Eight-year-old narrator Belle lives with her parents and Grandmama in the fictional town of Pecan Flats, Miss. Grandmama’s singing voice has earned her local fame, and when a man offers to “book her and a band on a small singing tour of the South,” she agrees, bringing Belle along for the ride. Written in the past tense, Belle’s narration has an elegiac quality, but while the band encounters plenty of discrimination on the road, triumphs outweigh setbacks (and Grandmama doesn’t come to any serious harm). Ransome’s lovely, naturalistic watercolors draw out a wealth of emotions from the characters, particularly Grandmama, whose expressions range from weariness to passion while she’s singing, and determination, such as when she slams money on the counter of a restaurant that won’t serve them. It’s a stirring reminder that it’s never too late to chase one’s dreams, no matter the obstacles. Ages 5–9. (Jan.)”

From The Horn Book:

From the author and the illustrator of Uncle Jed’s Barbershop (rev. 11/93) comes another picture book about life in the segregated South. The narrator recounts her grandmother’s story—she couldn’t read but “always had a song to sing”—which centers on Grandmama’s singing tour with her eight-year-old granddaughter there to keenly observe everything. Grandmama and her musicians initially draw small crowds, and Belle nervously points out the “whites only” signs wherever they go, but Grandmama is undeterred. Gradually word spreads about Grandmama’s talent as the tour continues, but the group still must contend with suspicion from Alabama police. The narration is calm and matter-of-fact, like Grandmama, who remains focused on what’s right, while in contrast Ransome’s paintings show the shame, sadness, and anger the characters feel. Mitchell’s latest picture book gives modern-day children a realistic depiction of the small humiliations and frightening moments African American travelers went through in their daily lives during the Jim Crow era, and it makes an excellent book for discussion. – Susan Dove Lempke

From Elizabeth Bird’s Librarian Preview:

Remember Uncle Jed’s Barbershop by Margaree King Mitchell, and illustrated by James Ransome? I sure as heck do because that book ends up on a lot of school lists of required reading. Well, that book came out in 1993 and is still in print to this day. Now Mitchell and Ransome have reunited at long last in When Grandmama Sings. In this picture book (historical) a girl can read and her grandma can’t. When her grandmother’s singing gives her a chance to go on tour she does so with her granddaughter. The trouble? They’re touring the segregated south. This is a book that covers both a meaningful relationship and history. A good companion to last year’s The Green Book by Calvin Ramsey and Floyd Cooper, don’t you think?

The State of the Industry

Publishers should remember that there is a whole market of underserved readers who are interested in stories of the South and other stories featuring the African American experience. There are a myriad of stories about African American life waiting to be told but if traditional publishers are not interested in these stories the literary record will be incomplete. The South is filled with rich history of how African Americans overcame racial obstacles to not only survive but thrive and be successful under unbearable conditions. This is why ordinary people are at the center of my stories. By telling those stories students will realize that they, too, can make a difference in the world.

Regardless of how well previous books by authors of color are received, there is still someone who says no one will read your book. Or the book has to be about a famous African American. Or the person reading the story has no grasp of history and doesn’t believe that ordinary African Americans could be resourceful and create their own destiny. Therefore, it is hard for new books to be published. And it will continue to be so unless there is an advocate in publishing companies who is committed to being sure that all stories are told.