Bringing Books Back Home, Part Two: More with Elaine Dickson of Reading Owls International

March 7, 2017

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Part One of my conversation with Elaine Dickson of Reading Owls International. Here, she tells us more about the work and future of the organization and its impact.

Where/when have you seen the impact of your work?


Part of our strategy for “creating readers for life” in Jamaica is to focus on a geographic area, saturate it before expanding to other areas of the island.
We have been focused in Western Jamaica and built (capital project) and opened our first library in September 2015. Because of the way schools are structured in Jamaica, one school can have students from several communities attending. We have been able to touch a number of communities without having a physical structure in them as all of our libraries have to be lending libraries. In some cases we have created an adult section to help mitigate the absence of a public library close to a community. Some of the communities we work with are in deep rural or remote parts of the country so access to a public library is a real challenge. One of the heartwarming stories from our first library project is that a teacher at the school sometimes opens the library on weekends for the entire community to use.

Since our inception and through 2016, more than 4,400 children now have access to books at a lending library at their school. Our collaboration with the Peace Corps has also given us access to literacy experts on the ground who have been an amazing extra level of support and give us immediate feedback on some of the resource challenges they are seeing and experiencing. We are able to provide a level of support that is a win-win for everyone.

What else would you like us to know about you and your work?

Nonprofit work is both exhilarating and grinding. As we share information with other NGOs, we hear similar stories across channels. Yet the challenges pale in comparison to the joy of seeing a child open their first book and learn to read. Providing access to a great education is not just good public policy, but I firmly believe it is a human right. If we are able to equip and inspire children in Jamaica to be scholars, independent readers and life-long learners, we will begin to address some of the systemic ills – illiteracy, high unemployment, and high crime – plaguing communities across Jamaica. If we truly deliver on our mission, and we cannot do it without help, then we will start to close the book on illiteracy and create an environment where all kids can compete in a global environment.


What does the organization need right now? What’s next for Reading Owls?

The simplest ways people can help our organization is to follow us on Twitter and Instagram (@thereadingowls) and like our Facebook page so they help us spread the word. We also need volunteers and are recruiting board members who are committed and passionate about education and literacy. To create libraries goes beyond gathering books; we do need lots of books and have a carefully selected wishlist at Amazon; we also welcome multicultural, beginner, picture and chapter books of all genres from publishers and book distributors, etc primarily focused on ages infant-tweens. Many of our schools have infrastructure needs and lack access to technology – these are two areas that we want to place additional focus on as we think strategically about how to bring information in real time into the classrooms to help students learn and compete with their peers across the globe.

Safe learning environments, comfortable and age-appropriate seating all make for a better learning experience and many of our schools lack good infrastructure so before we can deliver books, we often have to renovate or help create library spaces and it is an expensive undertaking. Pallets of books are heavy and a significant amount of our funds raised are spent on shipping/custom related expenses. We need partners in the supply chain, especially shipping overland and sea to help us mitigate the cost of shipping.

We are also actively exploring more alliances to support program implementation and expansion. We are devising ways to provide more training and support for our partner organizations. We are also exploring best methods reassessments/outcomes. We will be getting much-needed support from a first class management consulting team to brainstorm best metrics in the next few weeks.

Lastly, we are staying focused on growth so that every child has access to books, if not at home, then certainly at school. The challenge is real: In 2015, 45% of Jamaican girls and 63% of boys in grades 1 through 3 were not proficient in reading.
If these students do not get immediate intervention and ongoing support, they might not become grade-level readers.


Where Do We Go From Here?

As a society, we have to see every child as our child. Our world is becoming more and more connected and challenges in any part of the world affects us here in the US. It may manifest in the form of immigration or more foreign aid, but we are not immune from it. I still believe that education is the best vehicle for getting families out of poverty and providing access to a good education has to be part of any economic development strategy for any country.

We all have a role to play, starting with reading to/with our own kids and presenting books as a wonderful choice for enjoyment and leisure. Then we must engage in ways that effect public policy and make sure that all levels of government provide adequate funding for schools, public libraries and community development. On a more global scale we can lobby our governments to divert aid to countries that value all lives equally and are investing in girls’ education as well. For those of us who are able, we can give to charities/NGOs that promote literacy and education around the world.

Specifically to Jamaica, I would like to see the Jamaican government provide increased funding for early education programs. Plus, higher salaries for teachers. A great education for students starts with ensuring the best and brightest want to enter the teaching profession and stay there. There has been a strong appetite over the last decade for investments in early education and by all measures – gains in the national literacy rate, which is currently in the mid-80s (the goal was 85% for 2015) and up from 77.4% only a few years ago is a good sign. Special attention also needs to be paid to Jamaica’s boys as they consistently lag girls by double digit points.

At Reading Owls we are committed to being on the front lines and are buoyed by the tremendous support we have received to date. Together with our supporters, we are “creating readers for life.”

If you would like to learn more about Reading Owls International and how you can help, visit them online. Thank you for sharing your powerful story, Elaine!


Bringing Books Back Home: A Chat with Elaine Dickson of Reading Owls International

March 6, 2017

elaine_3053I was e-introduced to Elaine Dickson through a friend who is one of those people who know, you know what I mean? If Shelly Ann refers someone, you *know* they’re good people. So I was ready to be blown away, and I was not disappointed! Ms. Dickson and her husband founded Reading Owls International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing literacy levels in Jamaica. Reading Owls does more than just collect and donate books; the organization works with educational institutions and their surrounding communities to build sustainable, community-based programs, giving thousands of children access to literature. Today, Part One of our Interview. Welcome, Ms. Dickson!

Tell us the story of Reading Owls. Why did you start the organization? What were some of the first steps that you took?

Reading Owls International (ROI or Reading Owls) was started out of a desire to give back to Jamaica, the country of my birth, in a way that felt tangible and long lasting. My husband Easton and I had been saying for years that we needed to “do something” as the crippling lack of opportunity and resources was still so evident in places we would visit on the island. When we went back to our communities it was often dispiriting as access to books, a public library and basic educational opportunities – which are a basic human right – were still absent.
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I grew up in eastern Jamaica and there was no library in my community or at my school and I had no books at home. To be able to borrow a book to read, I had to travel several miles by foot and three communities away in order to nurture my love of reading. Easton’s story is similar; at one point he was fortunate enough for a book mobile to travel through his town, but very soon it was discontinued because of a lack of government funding.

For us the time had come to take action. We wanted to fundamentally change the outcome for the current and future crop of kids and felt that we could rally enough support here in the US to make a difference.

Family and friends were very receptive to the idea and this made it a lot easier to organize as a 501 (c)(3) public charity. From December 2013 through the first half of 2014, we spent a lot of time in strategy sessions to really craft a mission that spoke to the needs we saw on the ground. We also wanted to make sure that even as a nascent organization we were strong administratively, so getting needed federal and state registrations, drafting protocols, crafting marketing collaterals, and seeking out as many vendors, partnerships and collaborations as we could was critical in the first half year of 2014.

Then it was on to a full-fledged marketing and social media campaign to get the idea out to the general public. We could not have imagined the tremendous support and reception we have received.
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Tell us a bit about your day-to-day work. What are some of the challenges in what you do?

Our day to day operations are led by a volunteer board and several committees. Our board is not just a strategic board, but also a “working” board. We are heavily focused on growth, building as many libraries as we can to bring access to books as early as possible to as many kids as we can, but in a deliberate way that does not compromise our mission of increasing the literacy levels of school-aged children by partnering with grassroots organizations in Jamaica to create or supplement libraries.

Much of the day-to-day operational work also revolves around increasing our footprint, having social media content to create awareness around our brand and mission. We are focused on finding new partnerships and collaborations, so that we can do more. It is critical for us to have a strong local presence in Jamaica as our challenges are exacerbated without the right local help. Getting back accurate data from the field, as well as the stories and photos that provide the appropriate level of update to our supporters is critical and sometimes challenging, as we are not consistently on the ground and depend largely on our partner organizations to provide information in the absence of our visits.

There have been so many requests for creating or supplementing libraries and as a up-and-coming organization we do not have the capacity to meet some of the needs. Our goal for this year is to create/supplement 5-6 new libraries and for a three-year-old company this is a major milestone.

Finding exceptional and committed board members and fundraising at a level to match our scale and plans for growth are challenges not unique to us, yet they are critical to our success. Currently, it is not possible for us to hire paid staff and finding great and committed talent that is willing to volunteer is challenging. We are extremely fortunate and grateful to have the success we have had with a team that is dedicated to our mission, but we have to carefully guard against burnout. Hopefully with more exposure we will see a greater influx of participation, especially from members of the Jamaican Diaspora. The needs in Jamaica are acute and with the right blend of participation here and locally, I believe we are poised to make even bigger strides this year.

Are there any books, stories, or people that inspire you and your work?

Books – I approach book conversations very carefully because I can never end them. Even with limited resources, I was still very fortunate to have been exposed enough to books so much that to this day I am a voracious reader. In terms of contemporary writers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a favourite. I have read all of the books written by the late Buchi Emecheta after being introduced to The Joys of Motherhood. I am drawn to the works of female writers, writings that explore female independence or a desire to be, especially when it is achieved by gaining more knowledge or formal education. The desire to be one’s true, independent self is a human right issue and works that dig deeply into the subtlety and challenges of gaining such freedom is arresting to me. In so many parts of the world the right to an education – especially for girls – is still aspirational.

John Wood at Room to Read really inspires me. What he has done – certainly with a lot of help – for people in the developing world by building libraries is nothing sort of astounding. He is passionate and relentless and I admire his work ethic tremendously. Likewise, Bill and Melinda Gates with their foundation.

While this is not tied to education, the staff and volunteers at Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have my tremendous respect and admiration. Their bravery and selflessness is truly inspirational.

As a teenager and young adult on the cusp of deep social consciousness, I was – and still am – quite drawn to the works of Claude McKay, Samuel Selvon, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and more recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates. They are my go to readers even as a roborant during quiet reading time. More recently, I am attempting to read from Book Riot’s, “Around the World in 80 Books,” including works by Ondjaki, Margaret Atwood, Marcela Serrano and Gabriel García Márquez, all phenomenal writers.
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Why do you think it’s important for children to see themselves in literature?

All the research shows that children relate better to books when they are able to see themselves and their experiences in the literature they read. There has been much talk recently – especially with the explosion on the scene in 2014 of We Need Diverse Books – that children need windows and mirrors, to view themselves and to see the rest of the world.

At Reading Owls, we view it as a critical component of the curating we do before sending books to Jamaica. We have an even more difficult task as we are attempting in many cases to get kids immersed or hooked on reading. All children have to be able to relate to some of the books they read and the characters and experiences in them. We stress a great deal that our books need to be high quality and culturally relevant. It is hard work finding a significant amount of books that are relevant for Jamaica as there is a dearth of Caribbean (and persons of color) writers who get published. I am aware that many of the books published annually do not have minority characters as the protagonist. While I continue to be encouraged by the uptick in diversity, children’s literature needs to better reflect diversity across the spectrum.

I still vividly recall the introduction of books that reflected me and experiences that I could relate to both at the primary (elementary) level in Jamaica as well as at the college level in the US. For someone who grew up reading lots of Shakespeare, Bronte, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Louis L’Amour (the latter my father had gotten as a gift and I was hooked), finally reading books written by and about Black people was a watershed moment. Green Days by the River by Michael Anthony, The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon, Miguel Street by V.S. Naipaul, No Telephone to Heaven by Michelle Cliff, Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid, The Children of Sisyphus by Orlando Patterson and the poems of the late Louise Bennett Coverley and Claude McKay totally altered my perception of self and Blacks in general. I began to see us as amazing writers and storytellers whose writing is just as beautiful and arresting, but lacking in exposure.

Be sure to come back tomorrow for Part Two with Elaine Dickson! Learn more about her work, and how you can help.


Throwback Thursday: Elizabeth Zunon

March 2, 2017

zunonIn 2012, we featured artist Elizabeth Zunon and her acclaimed second picture book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. A Junior Library selection, that title won accolades and raves about her style. Since then, Liz has created many treasures including Don’t Call Me Grlegendandma by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and The Legendary Miss Lena Horne by Carole Boston Weatherford which debuted in January. You can learn more about her amazing work on her website and blog. Here’s our 2012 spotlight on Liz whose first authored picture book, Grandpa Cacao, will debut in 2019:

Elizabeth Zunon was born in Albany, NY and grew up in the Ivory Coast in West Africa (Cote d’Ivoire). Her artwork reflects the people, places, and things from the cultures of her childhood.

A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Elizabeth has illustrated four picture books for children with several more on the horizon.

Today Zunon talks about her journey. And this is a treat!

By Elizabeth Zunon

The Journey 

Picture books have always been a feature throughout my life. I grew up in French-speaking Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) West Africa. Being a product of a bi-lingual family, my mother often read English-language bedtime stories to my little brother and me, and our bookshelves were filled with African, French, and American picture books. The excitement I felt (as a child and as an adult), finding a book in an American bookstore or library that I had been read or owned while living in Africa was (and still is)  exhilarating!

It was no surprise then, as I realized that making pictures could be something one could do for a living, that I decided to pursue children’s book illustration when I attended the Rhode Island School of Design. I toiled in my studio for hours on end, creating stories and projects that drew from memories of my childhood in the Ivory Coast. Obsessed with depicting scenes from home, trying to relay to my classmates and professors foreign and familiar ideas about the world which I grew up in.

zunonsketchesAfter graduating from Rhode Island School of Design in 2006, I moved to Jersey City, NJ and started working in a flower kiosk in Bryant Park in New York. It was a green oasis in the middle of a busy, crowded, noisy city where people could take the time to sit, rest and contemplate. I had a lot of time alone in the flower kiosk among the potted orchids, hydrangeas and irises, to sit and contemplate myself. I filled up my sketchbook with drawings of people in the park, notes about clandestine conversations I overheard, and story ideas for potential books I could create. I met a lot of people and had many unexpected conversations with passers-by that I probably wouldn’t have just walking down the street.

The park was a great space for an artist’s mind to absorb sights, smells, sounds… and to generally be inspired.

During my time in New York City, I attended various Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) meetings and events where I met authors, illustrators, editors, publishers and agents. I spent my evenings after work researching publishing houses and their portfolio submissions, worked on my own painting projects on the weekends to add new pieces to my portfolio and did some portfolio drop-offs at various houses in New York (collecting rejection letters along the way). I met my agent, Lori Nowicki (Painted Words) during an illustrator-agent critique session at the Society of Illustrators. She offered to work with me and help me get “real” (paid!)  illustration jobs. Soon after she took me on, the contract for My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey came along! It was my first illustration contract, and it was published in September 2010.

The Inspiration 

zunoninspireMy favorite author/illustrator is Ezra Jack Keats. I loved the book The Snowy Day as a little girl; mostly because the idea of putting on a snowsuit and playing outside in mounds of snow was very exotic to me at the time, living in tropical Africa (I took the palm trees swaying in the hot sun for granted until I was a teenager living in upstate New York). The various textures and colors that Keats used in his books inspired my way of working when I graduated from design school. A seamless combination of printed paper, colored paper and painting is what I strive to create today. I love pattern. I’ve started experimenting recently with stamping and silkscreening – so much fun! And addictive!

Vera B. Williams is another one of my favorite author/illustrators. As a child, I saw aspects of myself in Bidemmi, the main character in her book Cherries and Cherry Pits: “… Bidemmi loves to draw… She always tries a new marker right away… The green, the pink, the red, the purple, the brown, the black, and all the others.” She was just like me! I love the carefree  marker and watercolor style of Williams’ illustrations. I also think that this book got my mind simmering on the idea of “drawing stories” and the importance of the reader identifying with a character.

In the last illustration for My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey, I painted a little Bearden running across the page, leaving blue footprints in his own painting. This is a nod to my favorite Keats and Williams book characters.

zunonchildI also love the work of illustrator Kadir Nelson. The gracefulness and sumptuousness of  his oil painted portraits is unparallelled. There is a mature quality in his paintings that I think should be seen more in children’s books. Why shouldn’t books we buy for our children consist of exquisitely executed oil paintings? They deserve it! The symmetry and balance in his illustrations makes them seem majestic- and you just can’t stop staring! Nelson’s use of light, especially highlights on dark skin, make his figures glow, sing, live.

All of the books and stories I most identify with feature characters of different colors and origins. This reflects the world we live in, which I think is very important to represent to children.

Outside of the children’s book world, I would have to say that the lyrics of Bill Withers’ songs are a great inspiration to me. The beautiful simplicity with which he communicates feelings and describes imagery is something I look to often when thinking about writing my own stories.

The Back Story 

I was lucky enough to be considered as the illustrator for The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind last year. The manuscript arrived on my desk just as I was finishing up the paintings for Lala Salama: A Tanzanian Lullaby. I felt very proud, as an African, to actually be illustrating a true-life story of innovation and ambition by another African. As the deadlines for his book were very tight, I immediately set to work researching the boy; William Kamkwamba, and his life.

zunonwindOne of my favorite parts of exploring a new story is posing as the characters  and taking lots of reference photos that I will draw and paint from to create the final illustrations.

William collected odds and ends of metal, rubber, rope and such from his local scrapyard and from around his home to build a working windmill. This windmill changed wind into electricity, which William  then used to light his house and ultimately help irrigate his family’s fields during a horrible drought.

I wanted to emulate William’s process of searching and gathering, so I scrounged my house for odds and ends that I could use in the illustrations for his book.

Photos I took of bottle-caps, nails, screws and lightbulbs I found all made it into the illustrations, as well as lots of pieces of paper from my (always growing) collection. Gathering and putting all these different pieces together was a thrill!zunoncovers

The Buzz for The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

The true story of a Malawian teenager who leveraged need and library research into a windmill constructed from found materials.

Forced by drought and famine to drop out of school, William dreams of “building things and taking them apart.” Inspired by science books in an American-built library near his village, his dreams turn to creating “electric wind.” Despite the doubts of others he begins—assembling discarded bicycle parts and other junk into a rickety tower, triumphantly powering an electric light and going on to dream of windmill-driven wells to water the land. Kamkwamba tells this version (another, for adult readers, was published with the same title in 2009) of his tale of inspiration meeting perspiration in terse, stately third person: “He closed his eyes and saw a windmill outside his home, pulling electricity from the breeze and bringing light to the dark valley.” Zunon illustrates it handsomely, with contrasting cut-paper-collage details arranged on brown figures, and broad, sere landscapes painted in visibly textured oils.

A plainspoken but inspiring tale of homespun ingenuity. (afterword) (Picture book/biography. 7-9)

-Kirkus Review

Zunon’s (My Hands Sing the Blues) oil paint and cut-paper collages amplify the entwined themes of science and magic in this adaptation of the authors’ 2009 adult book. Kamkwamba was born in Malawi in 1987, and when he was 14, drought was ravaging his country. Forced to leave school to save money, Kamkwamba studied science books at the library, learning about windmills—and their potential. “He closed his eyes and saw a windmill outside his home, pulling electricity from the breeze and bringing light to the dark valley.” Gathering materials from the junkyard, he assembles a windmill that creates “electric wind” and even lights a light bulb. Tradition and “tales of magic” combine with the promise of technology in this inspiring story of curiosity and ingenuity. Zunon’s artwork combines naturalistic and more whimsical elements; the African sun beats down on Zunon’s villagers, ribbony “ghost dancers” encircle Kamkwamba’s bed while he sleeps, and blue cut-paper swirls sweep toward the windmill. While the narrative simplifies Kamkwamba’s creative process, an afterword provides additional detail for readers who share his mechanical inclinations. Ages 6–8. Agent: ICM. Illustrator’s agent: Painted Words. (Jan.)

– Publisher’s Weekly

Based on the best seller of the same title, this picture-book biography chronicles Kamkwamba’s teen years in a Malawian village. As he tills the soil, his mind teems with a mix of mechanical questions and the magical stories relayed by his elders. When a drought destroys the crops, his education fund dries up as well. Kamkwamba seeks refuge in the American-built library, where, dictionary in hand, he decodes the function of a windmill that has captured his interest. Despite the murmurings of incredulous villagers, the young man assembles junkyard scraps to build “electric wind.” The third-person descriptions and dialogue are flavored with African phrases. Zunon’s compositions, rendered in cut paper and oils, create a variety of moods. Colorfully garbed ghost dancers populate the boy’s dreams, while crumpled tan rice paper, arranged to depict a high horizon line just beneath a blazing sun, forms a parched landscape, overwhelming in scale. Swirls of patterned blue and green paper portray the wind that propels the blades of his creation. While an extensive author’s note explains that it took several years to achieve the ability to irrigate, the lack of clear visuals to show how wind becomes electricity (and ultimately pumps water) may frustrate young children. That caveat aside, this is a dynamic portrait of a young person whose connection to the land, concern for his community, and drive to solve problems offer an inspiring model. It would pair well with one of the recent titles about Wangari Maathai.-Wendy Lukehart, Washington DC Public Library.

– School Library Journal

http://www.wegivebooks.org/campaigns/harnessing-the-power-of-reading

 


Day 28: Eric Velasquez

February 28, 2017

ericvelasquez42ndnaacpimageawardsredwyi8pkrnfbul It’s 2 o’clock in the morning and I’ve been working all day on a spread from my upcoming graphic novel. If I can just finish this one last panel, I can go to sleep. I look at the hand on one of the characters, it’s not great, but it’ll do. As I get ready to turn off my monitor, I hear a voice, much like Luke Skywalker did in the original Star Wars. But my voice isn’t telling me to “use the force,”  nor is it coming from Obi Wan Kenobi. The voice belongs to Eric Velasquez.

“Luke. Stop being so lazy and fix that hand!”

Sigh … So I do.

That’s why, when we chose to do our inspiration for the final week of 28 Day Later, he was the first person who I thought of.

Eric Velasquez, the son of Afro-Puerto Rican parents, was born in Spanish Harlem and grew up in Harlem. His dual heritage coupled with the experience of living in dual cultures in New York City gives Eric a rich and unique cultural perspective. He did his first picture book, “The Piano Man,” in 1997 and has completed more than 30 others in the two decades that have followed. He has won many awards including the Coretta Scott King / John Steptoe New Talent Award and is the only person ever to win both an NAACP Image Award and a Pura Belpre Award.

But to find out even more about my friend of 20 years, I decided to have a conversation the way that most of them have been over the years. Over burgers.

Jerry Craft: Okay, let’s start with the project that you’re working on now, a biography of Arturo Schomburg. Tell us about it.

Eric Velasquez: Sure, the title is “Schomburg The Man Who Built a Library,” by Carole Boston Weatherford. I first became intrigued by  this amazing individual in the 3rd grade.  Not only did he look like me, but he also came from the same part of Puerto Rico as my grandmother. He was a superior intellectual who is single-handedly responsible for the African/ African-American artifacts in the collection at the Schomburg Library and Research Center located in Harlem. I pitched the idea to Carole about 10 years ago, and asked her to write the  manuscript. It has been a long process but I am ecstatic that it will finally see the light of day. I just completed the last painting for the project about a month ago and it will be published by Candlewick in the fall of 2017.

schomburg_hj_us_revfinalartJC: Okay, so here’s why I brought that up, specifically the painting you did for the cover of Mr. Schomburg carrying the stack of books. When you showed it to me, it was great.

EV: Yeah, but there was something about his stride that bothered me.

JC: I remember, I think we decided that it should be a little wider. But instead of just fixing that, what did you do?

EV: I started from scratch and did the whole thing over. Even though I had already spent eight hours on the original. And I was much more pleased with the results.

JC: I’ve always thought that one of my strengths is the ability to focus on a project, but you make me feel like a slacker. How do you maintain that?

EV: When I’m working on a book,  everything I’m about relates to that book. Even if I’m watching TV, I’ll pause a movie to examine how a shot or a camera angle will help to improve my work.

JC: I always use the Obi Wan analogy when I talk about you. Who is your Obi Wan Kenobi?

EV:  Tom Feelings is my own Obi Wan. He’s the one who changed the paradigm for me. I remember having a conversation with him and he asked me if I had ever done a drawing and, for seemingly no reason, erased it; or painted over a picture and started from scratch. I told him yes.

pianoman“How did the next version turn out?, he asked. “Usually 10 times better,” I responded.

“Exactly! Whenever that happens, it’s the voice of the ancestors telling you what to do,” he said. “All you have to do is just listen!”

I never forgot that.

JC: Do you have another story when  you started from scratch?

EV: Hundreds! I remember when I was asked by a publisher to send them a painting for them to display at a conference  — and somehow it went missing. All I had was a copy of the original pencil under-drawing that I had used to create it. But although the painting was lost, what I had inside of me that I used to create that painting, was not lost. That was all me. So I recreated it.

JC: Weren’t you afraid that it wouldn’t come out as good?

EV: Fear is a construct. It’s just a hurdle to leap over, and I chose to do it. What artists have to realize is if you do something good once,  it’s not a lucky shot. If you did it once, you can do it again.

JC: So one of the things, or I should say ANOTHER of the reasons why you inspire me to be better is that you never let me off easy with anything. I think that every artist or writer should have someone who is not afraid to tell them the truth. Remember when I told you that I never liked drawing cars? What did you tell me?

velasquez-eric-looking-for-bongoEV: To draw a hundred of them until you liked the result.

JC: Once again, the answer got on my nerves, BUT I’m already seeing the results.

EV: See? One of the things that I always ask my students is, “Why not make yourself into the artist that you like?

JC: By students, you mean from your Book Illustration class at FIT (The Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC). How long have you taught there?

EV: 14 years.

JC: Now elaborate on the message that you shared with them.

EV: Well, my students come into class all the time showing me work from artists they admire. “Professor, look at how he paints trees,” or “Professor, look at how she does faces, I could never do that.” But I tell them, if that’s what you like, then strive to become that person. My goal as an artist has always been, that if I didn’t know who I was, and I saw one of my paintings, what would I think? If I can step back and look at my work and say “wow!” then I know I’ve done my job.

And isn’t that what we’re all striving for?

JC: Yes it is. Thank you, Professor Velasquez.

EV: My pleasure, Jerry Craft.

JC: Speaking of pleasure, it’s time to finish our burgers!

To learn more about Eric Velasquez, visit his website at http://www.ericvelasquez.com/

jerrycraftericvelasquez


Day 26: Eloise Greenfield

February 26, 2017

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I knew that Eloise Greenfield loved me. As a child, I pored over HONEY, I LOVE over and over again, and could hear the words of her poems just as if she were right next to me, speaking to me, chatting with my mother and grandmother, reminding me that I was special, powerful, beautiful, and fully LOVED.

We featured Ms. Greenfield back in 2008; she was born in 1929, in segregated North Carolina. She studied piano as a child, trained as a teacher and worked in civil service at the U.S. Patent Office. She had her first poem published in the Hartford Times in 1962 and her first book (a biography of Rosa Parks) was published in 1972. Her bio notes that she’s won the Coretta Scott King Award for Africa Dream, and a CSK Honor for The Great Migration: Journey to the North (which was also an ALA 2012 Notable Children’s Book.) honeyilove“She received the Carter G. Woodson Award for Rosa Parks. For Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems, she received the 1990 Recognition of Merit Award, presented by the George G. Stone Center for Children’s Books. She received the Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor Award for Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir, written with her mother, Lessie Jones Little….On February 23, 2013, she was one of twenty African American women who received the Living Legacy Award from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), an organization founded by Carter G. Woodson…the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, given for a body of work to a living American poet; the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award; the Hurston/Wright Foundation’s North Star Award for lifetime achievement…In 1999, Ms Greenfield was inducted into the National Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent. For her body of work, she also received the 2007 Wheatley Book Award, sponsored by Quarterly Black Books Review as part of the Harlem Book Fair.”


(And yes, the ellipses mean more awards.)

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The author of more than 40 books of poetry, fiction, and biography, Ms. Greenfield’s work celebrates “love and the simple joys of everyday life”, the rich heritage of the African Diaspora, family, and childhood. In her 1979 biographical work Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir, she wrote:

“People are a part of their time. They are affected, during the time that they live by the things that happen in their world. Big things and small things. A war, an invention such as radio or television, a birthday party, a kiss. All of these help to shape the present and the future. If we could know more about our ancestors, about the experiences they had when they were children, and after they had grown up, too, we would know much more about what has shaped us and our world.”

Eloise Greenfield’s loving work nurtured me and my creative self; my mother read the poems aloud, I finger-traced Leo and Diane Dillon’s illustrations of cornrows and braids like mine and my sister’s. I read her words and they helped teach me that language was music, rich with flavour and history and hope. Though she often wrote about an African American experience that was not quite my own, I read her mentions of cousins who lived “down South” and a way of life that resonated with this child of immigrants. “I want to make them laugh, I want to give them ideas, I want them to see how beautiful they are,” says Greenfield in this talk at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 40th Annual Legislative Conference in 2010. When I occupied spaces that made me feel as though I did not belong, Ms. Greenfield whispered to me that I did. “I relate to the human experience, whenever and wherever it occurs. Over the many years of my life, I have witnessed the strength of children and I am inspired by it,” she said in an interview.

Thank you, Ms. Greenfield. I remain inspired by you.

For more about Eloise Greenfield:

On TeachingBooks.net

The Poetry Foundation

Balkin Buddies profile


Day 26: Jacqueline Woodson

February 26, 2017

jackiejpegI remember the first time I read Jacqueline Woodson’s Visiting Day. Early in my publishing journey, I was exploring the magic of picture books when I spotted one with a black father and daughter embracing on the cover. James Ransome’s beautiful illustration and the title called to me, saying, “This is something special.” The opening  delivered on that promise: “Only on Visiting Day is there chicken frying in the kitchen at 6 a.m. and Grandma, humming soft and low, smiling her secret just-for-Daddy-and-me smile . . . ”

I was there.

Jackie’s words transported me into the world of a little girl who loved and missed her father. I felt her longing, her anticipation. I rode the bus with her and Grandma to visitingdayvisit Daddy. Then I learned he was away because he was “doing a little time.” The page became blurry as I blinked away tears. This. Was. A. Story. I felt the child’s joy at being reunited with her father. I felt the pride Daddy showed in seeing his baby girl. I felt their love that knows no bounds. Real. Resonant. Rich. What a gift to create a masterpiece like that.

After Visiting Day, I read everything I could by Jackie, eagerly awaiting her next release. I longed to make music on the page, breathe life into characters and make readers feel like she did. Books like Sweet, Sweet Memory, The Other Side, Coming On Home Soon and Show Way became my friends, my teachers.

Wade and Cheryl Hudson of Just Us Books published my first two books, lovingly guidingcomingonhomejpeg me and welcoming me to the world of writing for kids. Then, Ellen’s Broom was acquired by Nancy Paulsen, Jackie’s editor. I marveled at how God moves. I kept growing, helped by brilliant editors like Stacey Barney, Nancy and Wade and Cheryl. And though I hadn’t met Jackie, her work kept teaching me too. I devoured her moving middle-grade and YA novels like Locomotion, Feathers, After Tupac and D Foster and Miracle’s Boys, celebrated as she won award after award.

Then Daniel Minter won the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for Ellen’s Broom. My editor Stacey invited me to attend the ALA events and who did I meet – Jackie – just as wonderful ankellyandjackied encouraging as I imagined. At the CSK breakfast, Jackie’s speech, steeped in activism, spoke to me, reminding me to always use my gifts to give back.

Since then, Jackie has become a friend. Along with the countless kids she inspires, she shows authors like me how to dig deep, put our hearts on the page and tell stories of children who are too often unsung. She shows us how to stand for justice through our books and actions. She shows us what it means to be humble.

Jackie has won the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement, National Book Award, Coretta Scott browngirljpegKing Book Awards, Newbery Honor Medals and she’s still beautifully, authentically herself. She’s that sister who gives you hugs that make you feel seen and loved, offers words that build you up and challenge you to rise even higher and quietly helps you get there.

Thank you, Jackie, for showing me the kind of author I can be.

Love, Kelly


Day 24: Andrea Davis Pinkney

February 24, 2017

adp-photoIn the 1990s, I was new to the art and business of writing. I dappled in adult magazine articles, then articles for young readers. I discovered early readers and found editors who thought they were worthy of publication. Then, I decided to write something else, something different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it or the words on paper even if I knew what I wanted to write. Not until I discovered picture book biographies. Not until I discovered Andrea Davis Pinkney’s BILL PICKET: RODEO – RIDIN’ COWBOY at my local library.

 

 

I live in Oklahoma and knew about bulldogging Bill Pickett and the 101 Ranch. I never saw his story presented quite like hers. Reading it gave me permission to try something new with fun words like yip-yapping. It showed me how to tell a fascinating story with words and pictures. Pinkney’s book opened a world of possibilities.                                                                                             bill-picket

 

Of course, the path from discovering picture book biographies to writing and publishing one was not fast or easy for me. I kept studying, especially Pinkney’s work.

 

 

 

 

 

I followed her career with books like Martin & Mahalia. It was like a home study course on how to write about the relationship between two iconic people.

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One day as I read how two other people collaborated throughout their careers, I thought back on her book. Maybe, because Andrea Davis Pinkney showed me the way, their story will become a picture book biography.

 

 

 

 

A Poem for Peter

A Poem for Peter

 

 

 

For more information about her books including her latest, A Poem for Peter, visit her website: Andrea Davis Pinkney.

In an interview on the blog Understood Pinkney shares how she writes to motivate kids to read.

By Gwendolyn Hooks