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
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.

Behind The Shelves

November 12, 2007

paula_thumb.jpgCockeysville Library in Baltimore County, with its glass enclosed front and neon section signs, is very much a “now” library. It must be. Even in today’s video crazed, Playstation nation, you can find it packed with students. The rows of computers are full and amidst the obligatory quiet is contained chatter – youthful and energetic.

If Cockeysville has secret weapons to explain its inviting environment, among them is Librarian, Miriam DesHarnais (what a cool name). Neither quiet or reserved, Miriam is the sort of librarian you’d expect to burst into spontaneous song. No shushing from this hip, library chick.

So who better to talk about how libraries can keep teen readers hanging at the P.L.?

Here are my three obligatory author questions. Every author wants to know the answer to these things:

On average, how many titles does your library purchase either per season or annually?

I don’t know how many titles, but according to my friend Liz Rafferty, BCPL (Baltimore County Public Library) purchases 350,000 new items a year, but some of those are multiple copies of the same title, obviously. We are a big library system and buy quite broadly.

With so many titles to choose from, what usually goes into deciding what books a library purchases? Is it reviews from trusted sources, publisher buzz/push, what’s the magic “it” factor?

Our library has a Collection Development department that selects our materials. In general, smaller libraries rely heavily on reviews in professional journals, but larger library systems with more money have more flexibility in responding to customer requests.

 Obviously, we buy bestsellers, but also a wide range of fiction and nonfiction materials that people need for their informational and recreational needs. Our library system even buys certain self published or certain small press items. We have standing orders with some vendors, selectors receive advanced reading copies and decide based on that. Other library staff routinely send in suggestions for additions to the collection, either specific titles or for a subject area, and we also accept customer requests.

What is the best way for a traditionally published author to approach a library about carrying their book? Does this approach change at all if the author is self-published?

We have a form that we ask authors to fill out and send to the Collection development department, along with a copy of their book. It’s called the Request for Materials Consideration form at BCPL. They would then review the book and decide if they wanted to purchase it for some or all of the branches.

However, the best method to having your book purchased is to have it reviewed in a publication. Libraries generally use Library journal, School Library Journal, Horn Review, VOYA, Booklist, and other similar publications. Obviously, if you get a review in the NY Times, that can help, but it is worthwhile to pursue review from local media, because customers routinely come in requesting books they read about in the Baltimore Sun or heard about on local radio or TV stations.

Sometimes internet promotion is enough. You can talk to Zane about that!! Even if you are self published, it’s less work to let the media do some of the work for you. Doing programs at local bookstores, libraries and festivals can be a good way to get your name out there.

On to the more youth-inspired questions.

Based purely on observational evidence, Fact or fiction – reading for pleasure/library visits fall off significantly when young readers become teens?

As far as my branch, the Cockeysville Branch of BCPL is concerned, that would be an emphatic NO! My library is so full of teenagers that on my first day there, I thought that a school had dropped off a busload of students for some special event. It took a week or two before I realized that my library was one of the two places kids and teens in the area tend to go after school. We have schools all around us and the PAL center is next door.

This is not to say that all of the teen library users are checking out books or even reading books every day, they use the library for many things; a social space, a gaming area, a hang-out, a place to do homework, etc., but a lot of kids do read comic books, magazines and yes, even books, while they are in the branch. One of the nicest things about working at my library is that I do get to do a lot of recommending of books to teen readers. Our young adult collection is one of the highest circulating areas in the whole library.

Barring a petition requesting schools decrease homework loads, what can libraries do to increase pleasure reading among young adults – ages 12+?
Understand that teenagers, like most of us, derive their entertainment from a variety of formats, and having a collection that meets library users halfway by both anticipating what they will want to read and responding to customer requests.

Libraries don’t need to buy only the “best” materials, because all readers (including adults) read for entertainment as well as intellectual stimulation, and that’s okay. It’s not a research library, it’s the public library and one of our goals is to give people what they want as well as what they need.

How can authors help?
By being true to your own voice and your vision for your book, rather than trying to create with a financial end in mind. Sometimes I see books that are jumping on different marketable trends and seem really hollow.

One genre that I think has been missing and has been in high demand for a long time are lighter reads that feature or include African American characters. If you are a teen reader and you like literary fiction, there’s Walter dean Myers, Jacqueline Woodson, Sharon Draper, Angela Johnson, but if you are a teen reader who wants to read the equivalent of Gossip Girl but don’t see yourself reflected anywhere in that world, you’re faced with an insulting choice of choosing a ‘fun’ book, or choosing books with African American characters.

I’ve actually seen a real change for the better in the last year where publishers are finally catching on to the fact that there is a huge demand for series fiction and other teen books that focus on dating or friendship or sports or day to day life that are by African American authors. I think that this is an example of the system ignoring certain types of books or certain authors to the extent that those authors created their own means of promotion through self publishing and the internet and generated enormous buzz from readers and potential readers (the best example of this is urban fiction) and then publishing companies caught on and either re-released some of these self published books or designed lines of fiction designed to look like urban fiction, like now Snoop Dog and 50 Cent have their own urban fiction imprints. I think the end result of this is something really positive; that mainstream publishing, including young adult and children’s presses, are finally starting to publish a wider range of genres with multicultural characters.

Describe your dream library program/event?
We had a very good program when you visited the branch. Talking for a few minutes about what it means to be a writer, having the kids brainstorm about what makes a good chapter, reading a chapter of your book and letting the teens take turns writing sentences to make a chapter of their own worked so well. Having prizes, taking pictures with the kids, a few even asked for your autograph – made it very interactive. When they left, they seemed really energized and excited by what they had accomplished. They were also asking to check out your book and if we had anything else like it. Also, no program is complete without snacks!!

Are there any books your young patrons are asking for that aren’t currently on the market or maybe aren’t enough of on the market?

In addition to what I said above (lighter genre fiction that appeals to girls with more multicultural characters), I also think that more mystery, suspense and sports stories that appeal to boys and feature multicultural characters are needed.

I have some younger readers who really like urban fiction. As a librarian, it’s important to respect what the reader is looking for, but I wish there were more titles that combined the grittiness and quick readability that they are looking for with characters and issues more appropriate to the readers’ age.

What do you think libraries should/can do to stay appealing to teen readers? To continue to draw them into the library as a community center?

Currently our library doesn’t have a teen area, and we need one. Also, how library staff treats younger customers needs to be consistent and fair. Some libraries in our system have established teen advisory boards, where teenagers provide input on how to improve the library’s environment for teens.

In the spirit of meeting teens where they are, interest wise, many of our libraries have been using grant funds specifically for creating gaming clubs/tournaments for teens after school. We also check out video games and have recently made it easier for teenagers to check out DVDs and games.

Basically, I think libraries need to recognize that teenagers may use libraries differently than users of other ages, and that’s okay. We make adjustments for babies and seniors, but since teens are traditionally viewed as difficult, we try to get then to adjust their behavior rather than adjusting library rules/spaces.

Behind The Shelves will be a recurring blog post featuring children’s literature industry professionals.


October 31, 2007

PaulaThe old saying, “if you want something done, ask the busiest person in the room to do it” has become somewhat of a lifestyle for me, starring me as the busiest person in the room. Note: This is not a boast! I could honestly, use a good lesson in saying no. But when Varian emailed me, pondering aloud who might be the best organization to start a Reader Girlz type group, to highlight children’s authors of color, even as I read the words I thought – well…I guess us.

Considering both of us hold full-time jobs outside of our profession as authors, it’s not as if we have deep industry-knowledge or access to the powers that be who determine what is published and what gets buzz. But we share a strong desire to see our own books succeed. And if another old saying, a rising tide floats all boats, is true, then it makes perfect sense that we’d jumpstart an initiative to shine the light on our peers in the children’s literature community.

In the year since my novel was released, I’ve experienced a sense of schizophrenia that, I believe, comes with being both a children’s writer and an author of color. I’ve traveled in circles with other YA authors and enjoyed the camaraderie that accompanies sharing the trials and tribulations specific to the world of writing for young readers, with those who understand it best.

I’ve also networked and socialized with many authors of color – primarily of adult fiction and non-fiction – where I’ve found a sense of belonging one usually experiences when race is the primary common denominator.

Both those circles are home – comfortable, comforting and a much-needed balm for the solitary life of a writer. And yet, some days I fit within neither. Just as the adult authors don’t necessarily understand some of the challenges facing a children’s writer, nor can my white YA peers comprehend some of the issues I face as an author of color.

The irony, I wrote my YA hoping to eschew being lumped into the neat, publishing box of “African American.” Yet, how do you do that when there are readers, parents and librarians looking for just that label on a book? It makes me wonder, who am I as a writer? And how much of who I am is marketing babble vs. just, who I am?Some days, it’s like having no home at all…until now.When Varian proposed that we create a group that would highlight voices of color writing for children – bring them to the forefront so librarians, teachers, parents and any book lover would discover or re-discover their works, I didn’t hesitate. For me, The Brown Bookshelf is more than a marketing vehicle. It’s a place where being both African American and a YA writer is finally, the norm.