Where Do We Go From Here?

December 6, 2016
illustration by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

illustration by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

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

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

Why did you sign the Declaration?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Day 12: Alice Randall and Caroline Randall Williams

February 12, 2013

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.


It’s a Reading and Writing Affair

December 9, 2008

Established in 2000, RAWSistaz (Reading and Writing Sistaz) Literary Group is committed to the support and promotion of books by, for and about African-Americans. Every year, RAWSistaz presents an annual gathering for the members of their online group in various cities.  In addition to being a reunion for the group’s members, The RAWSistaz Affair spotlights authors and focuses on various topics as it relates to literature and increasing the appreciation of the written word.  This year, the RAW Affair will be held online.  As a matter of fact, it is taking place this week beginning December 8 – 13, 2008.

Although primarily a promoter of adult literature of all genres, RAWSistaz is a Brown Bookshelf partner. They’ve wholeheartedly supported our mission to increase exposure of children’s books written and illustrated by African Americans to parents, librarians, teachers and other gatekeepers in a young reader’s life.  On Wednesday, December 10, 2008, visit the RAW event to talk to the members of The Brown Bookshelf as we discuss the best ways to get young readers excited about books, overcoming the required reading slump, and supporting literary balance as the influx of YA street literature increases.  Join Paula, Varian, Don, Kelly, and Carla throughout the day on December 10th in a great discussion about children’s literature.  To visit our panel, or any other, click on the panel topic and submit a comment or question.


Brown Bookshelf Chat #3: Hype, Hype, Hooray!

August 1, 2008

Teens read books.  They know what they like about books as well as what they dislike.

When I was teaching, I loved to share good books and talk about a good read with my students.  It was fun to be able to pass along a good book recommendation as well as receive a tip about a book that I must read. 

Now it’s time to expand that conversation about books with more teens. 

Just like politicians want to hear from their constituents, authors enjoy being able to hear from our readers.  Thanks to the Internet, we’re able to exchange e-mails or come together on message boards or chat rooms.

The Brown Bookshelf wants to hear from its teen readers.  Hype, Hype, Hooray is the final chat in The Brown Bookshelf’s summer chat series.  We’re inviting teens all over the country to log on to MySpace, stop by the Brown Bookshelf’s group on Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 9:00 PM EST, and express themselves about books, favorite authors, and what makes them love a book. 

Since we’ve launched The Brown Bookshelf, teens have chimed in on some of their author favorites including Dana Davidson, Christopher Paul Curtis, and Stephanie Perry Moore.  They are enthusiastic about books they’ve read for school and for pleasure.  Now is the chance for teens to dialogue with each other and The Brown Bookshelf in real time. 

We’re curious about what books they’re reading and what books they want to read.  Our goal is to dialogue and gain insight from the people we write for as well as introduce them to more authors for them to check out.

So on Wednesday, after checking out the matinee of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, stop by MySpace and talk books with The Brown Bookshelf team.


Speak Up…Who’s Your Favorite?

April 9, 2008

I’m used to my own blog being quiet.  People lurk and like it that way. I never give them a hard time about it.

But Don and I have always wished the comments here at the BBS reflected the number of folks actually visiting.  Still, I don’t want to scare anyone away by making them feel they need to comment.  But I would like you to speak up to Essence Book Editor, Patrik Henry Bass: patrikspicks at esssence dot com.

In the latest issue of Essence, he’s reviewed two children’s books –We Are The Ship by Kadir Nelson and Hotlanta, the new YA series by Denene Millner and Mitzi Miller.  This is a great start, as Essence doesn’t review children’s lit with any regularity.

Now, it just so happens that We Are The Ship and Hotlanta are already hot literary commodities.  So as excited as I am to see them given some shine, I’m more excited that Mr. Bass has asked readers to submit, to him, their favorite African American children’s book titles.

Here’s your chance to let the book editor of an African American lifestyle media mainstay know what you – librarians, teachers, parents and other influencers – are reading or recommending to young readers of color.

The number of children’s titles by authors of color was down in 2007. But that doesn’t mean we can’t pay homage to the authors who wrote some great literature for young readers by making Essence and Mr. Bass aware of them.

What I’m saying is – you don’t have to out yourself in the comments below, but drop Essence a line and let them know what your favorite African American children’s book is – be it one of our jewels (the vets) or hidden gems (newbies and midlisters).

Speak up for your fave.


Head’s Up

December 17, 2007

paula_thumb.jpgHeads Up, a periodic column of The Brown Bookshelf, is a reposting of AACBWI’s announcement of book releases that may picque the interest of young African American readers.

As a Brown Bookshelf partner, The African American Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators society is dedicated to spreading the word about these and other books that are of special interest to multi-cultural audiences.

From Board Books to Young Adult fiction, Heads Up may serve as a guide of what to look for in stores or what to ask for at the library.

STACIE AND COLE by RM Johnson (Jump at the Sun) – Young Adult

“Stacie and Cole have been in love since the beginning of high school. Their heads should be all up in the clouds, but lately it’s been about sins and secrets that threaten to tear their love apart.

Stacie’s dad is acting more overprotective than usual. And what’s up with her best friend being so shady lately? Even Cole has been testing her. Stacie loves him more than anything, but she’s not sure she’s ready to take their relationship to that level just yet.

Cole is ready to take their relationship further. Feeling abandoned by his dad — and harassed for being a virgin by his trash-talking boys– he’s trying to learn intimacy any way he can.

Stacie and Cole have always been close — but with lust and lies at every turn, they’re about to discover if their love really has no limit.”

CHESS RUMBLE by G. Neri (Lee and Low) – Ages 8-12

“In Marcus’s world, battles are fought everyday—on the street, at home, and in school. Angered by his sister’s death and his father’s absence, and pushed to the brink by a bullying classmate, Marcus fights back with his fists.

One punch away from being kicked out of school and his home, Marcus encounters CM, an unlikely chess master who challenges him to fight his battles on the chess board. Guarded and distrusting, Marcus must endure more hard lessons before he can accept CM’s help to regain control of his life.

Inspired by inner-city school chess enrichment programs, Chess Rumble explores the ways this strategic game empowers young people with the skills they need to anticipate and calculate their moves through life.”

ISLAND COUNTING 123 by Frané Lessac (Candlewick Press) – Board Book

“One little island in the Caribbean Sea. Two parrots squawking in a coconut tree.”

 Take a trip to the Caribbean, where one little island offers many exotic items to count! Here the three hilltop houses are painted in tropical hues, the five market ladies wear shady hats, the nine limbo dancers sway on a sunny beach, and the ten wildly dressed children celebrate carnival time.

Counting from one to ten is a lot more fun on a balmy beach in this lively read-aloud full of tropical flair.

Kayla Chronicles by Sherri Winston (Little, Brown) – Young Adult

Available January 1, 2008

Kayla Dean, junior feminist and future journalist, is about the break the story of a lifetime. She is auditioning for the Lady Lions dance team to prove they discriminate against the not-so-well endowed. But when she makes the team, her best friend and fellow feminist, Rosalie, is not happy.

Now a Lady Lion, Kayla is transformed from bushy-haired fashion victim to glammed-up dance diva. But does looking good and having fun mean turning her back on the cause?

Can you be a strong woman and still wear really cute shoes?

Soon Kayla is forced to challenge her views, coming to terms with who she is and what girl power really means.

Narrated with sharp language and just the right amount of attitude, The Kayla Chronicles is the story of a girl’s struggle for self-identity despite pressure from family, friends and her own conscience. Kayla’s story is snappy, fun and inspiring, sure to appeal to anyone who’s every questioned who they really are.

After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson (Putnam) – Young Adult

Available January 10, 2008

D Foster showed up a few months before Tupac got shot that first time and left us the summer before he died.

The day D Foster enters Neeka and her best friend’s lives, the world opens up for them.

D comes from a world vastly different from their safe Queens neighborhood, and through her, the girls see another side of life that includes loss, foster families and an amount of freedom that makes the girls envious.

Although all of them are crazy about Tupac Shakur’s rap music, D is the one who truly understands the place where he’s coming from, and through knowing D, Tupac’s lyrics become more personal for all of them.

The girls are thirteen when D’s mom swoops in to reclaim D—and as magically as she appeared, she now disappears from their lives. Tupac is gone, too, after another shooting; this time fatal.

As the narrator looks back, she sees lives suspended in time, and realizes that even all-too-brief connections can touch deeply.

Ain’t Nothing but a Man: A Historian’s Quest to Find the Real John
Henry
by Scott Nelson (National Geographic Children’s Books) – 9-12

Who was the real John Henry? The story of this legendary
African-American figure has come down to us in so many songs, stories, and plays, that the facts are often lost. Historian Scott Nelson brings John Henry alive for young readers in his personal quest for the true story of the man behind the myth.

Nelson presents the famous folk song as a mystery to be unraveled, identifying the embedded clues within the lyrics, which he examines to uncover many surprising truths. He investigates the legend and reveals the real John Henry in this beautifully illustrated book.

Frenemies by L. Divine (Dafina) – Young Adult

South Bay High wouldn’t be such a bad place to go to school if it weren’t for all the drama. Not that Jayd Jackson’s helping matters. She’s right there in the center of it all—whether she wants to be or not. Maybe it just goes with the turf. After all, there’s a reason they call this place Drama High…

Jayd doesn’t know what’s going on with her girl, Nellie. Ever since she got named homecoming princess, she’s been acting like Mickey and Jayd aren’t her friends anymore, and she’s even falling in deeper with Tania and her crew. It’s amazing the girl can fit her new crown over that big head of hers.

And then there’s Jayd’s boyfriend Jeremy. His aloof attitude is really getting on her nerves. Jayd’s even starting to question his commitment, not to mention her own. Especially since lately, all she can think about is Rah—and that surprise kiss he planted on her the other day…

Trouble Follows by Monica McKayhan (Kimani TRU) – Young Adult

Life Is (Was…Will Be?) Good

Indigo Summer has everything she wants: a coveted spot on the high school dance squad, a hot boyfriend (the one and only Marcus Carter) and—her best friend, Jade, is moving back to Atlanta! But why does trouble always have to follow?

 Jade is suddenly getting too cozy with their good-looking history teacher. And instead of shooting hoops, Marcus is sitting in a courthouse, forced to prove his innocence for something he didn’t do. Indigo is feeling the pressure—from the squad, from her friends, from her family. It’s time to show everyone—and herself—that she’s made of strong stuff.


A Measure of Success

November 26, 2007

paula_thumb2.jpgThere are two measures of success.  You know you’ve made it when Saturday Night Live parodies you in a skit or when dissenting opinions go out over the blogosphere.

The Brown Bookshelf has “arrived”!

No, neither Beyonce or Justin Timberlake has sang a hilarious ode to our venture, but there has been quite a bit of lively (healthy) discussion over at Finding Wonderland.

In my optimistic edging toward naive outlook, I never gave thought to there being any issues surrounding an initiative whose sole goal is to spotlight books.

I forgot that anything revolved around race will always draw scrutiny. In this case, at the heart of the discussion is the name “Brown” bookshelf.

I think, had we named this group, The Black Bookshelf, race would have still be an issue, but probably from another angle.  However, by choosing “Brown” the issue has become that we’re excluding. 

A few questions, at hand, are:

How does someone qualify to be featured? Are they still up for consideration if they’re bi-racial – African American and some other race? How about if they’re among the other definitions of brown – which basically includes any ethnicity except white? Oh and by the way how is white defined?

There’s some great discussion about “what is white?” at the Finding Neverland site. 

As to the other questions – I won’t speak on behalf of the group on the point of how brown is brown. We all have our thoughts. But for me, each of those questions go deeper into race than I ever intended the initiative to.

Nonetheless, they’re legit questions. The very real issue of claiming the descriptor of Brown, while primarily focusing on African American authors does bring up valid and worrisome points.

However, I see a chance to make lemonade out of these lemons. Allow me to break it down, the way it was initially conceived:

The point of The Brown Bookshelf is to highlight 28 African American children authors under the radar.  Why? Because there’s a need to give these books a higher profile among parents, teachers, librarians and booksellers, so they can help readers find them.

This is our way adding our shoulder to the solution grindstone.

Why only African American?

Because our membership is African American and we’ve all felt the pinch of flying under the radar.

As to how “brown” is brown? Well, we’re not going to ask the selected authors for a DNA test or a “Black” card as proof of their racial identity. Most of these authors are easily identified by their book’s content and primary research of a bio and photo.

But, we narrowed our focus to African Americans (be they interracial or not) because, for good, bad or indifferent, the playing field is not yet level.  Children books by black authors isn’t even 10% of the whole. Which means books by other brown authors is likely even less.

In my eyes, that means the Brown Bookshelf has potential to evolve and expand.  Ta-daaa, lemonade!

One day maybe our membership may expand to include  Latino, Indian or Middle Eastern authors, thus expanding our focus. Or we may choose to increase the books spotlighted, to include those with a culturally-relevant theme, no matter the race of the author.

The prospect of doing that, one day, is real and based on the stats, necessary.

One last thing – one of the comments within the Finding Wonderland discussion stated that it was scary to think that The Brown Bookshelf may become a go-to source for purchasing for libraries and schools.

Why? Why is that scary?

The alternative is that the books go undiscovered and either don’t end up in the libraries or schools at all or end up there in much lower quantities than “mainstream” books. In other words, our current state.

Schools and libraries often look to ALA award winners to purchase. But, there’s only one Coretta Scott King award a year. One.

Tell me, outside of that, what source should they rely on (besides the publisher) to deem which books they’d like to carry?

BBS has solicited submissions from the public, we’ve partnered with other groups with literary initiatives and our membership is scouring the shelves for candiates. We’re not in the pocket of any publisher. We’re focused on traditionally published books to cut down on the question of quality. It’s an open process with no strings attached.

Gatekeepers use multiple sources to determine a book’s acquisition worthiness. If BBS can become one of those sources, I see no downside to that at all.

We could continue to talk about what The Brown Bookshelf is lacking. What we could have done better this first time out. But as we do, publishing will remain the same. Children authors of color will continue to be under represented and gatekeepers seeking our books will continue to lean towards the higher profile, more noticeable award-winning books.

It’s up to us, the readers and writers, to press on.  So, please continue to submit names. The submission window closes December 1st.