We Are Here: Announcing The Honorees

January 17, 2017

28dayslogo“Where can I find black children’s books?” It’s a question asked by kids, parents, teachers, librarians and other readers. The Brown Bookshelf was founded a decade ago to advocate for more visibility and support and to be a go-to resource. Through our signature campaign, 28 Days Later,  we’ve featured more than 200 black children’s book creators. Today, we are proud to announce our 10th class of honorees.

For this milestone, we’re using a special format. Each week of our Black History Month celebration will showcase a different theme. We’ll kick off the party with creators of books for younger readers. Next, we’ll highlight ones with titles for older children and teens, those with outstanding social justice books and end with authors and illustrators who have inspired us on our personal journeys.

Stay tuned for exciting news, resources and partnerships throughout our anniversary year. Our first surprise . . . Drum roll please  . . . TeachingBooks.net has created this free link full of multimedia resources by each our 2017 honorees. Thank you to Nick Glass, Carin Bringelson and their staff for partnering with us to offer this treasure trove of information.

Please spread the word and join us in saluting these outstanding authors and illustrators:

New Voices Younger:
Feb. 1 – Andrea J. Loney
Feb. 2 – Ron Husband
Feb. 3 – Nikkolas Smith
Feb. 4 – Nadia Hohn
Feb. 5 – Olive Senior
Feb. 6 – Latisha Redding
Feb. 7 – Jeffery Weatherford

New Voices Older:
Feb. 8 – Leah Henderson
Feb. 9 – Sarah Everett
Feb. 10 – Linda Williams Jackson
Feb. 11 – Michael Cottman
Feb. 12 – Margot Lee Shetterly
Feb. 13 – Ibi Zoboi
Feb. 14 – Christine Kendall

Social Justice:
Feb. 15 – Maya Penn
Feb. 16 – Alix Delinois
Feb. 17 – Angie Thomas
Feb. 18 – Benjamin Zephaniah
Feb. 19 – Anaya Lee Willabus
Feb. 20 – Michael S. Bandy

Feb. 21 – Rita Williams Garcia
Feb. 22 – Salva Dut
Feb. 23 – Jason Reynolds & Javaka Steptoe
Feb. 24 – Andrea Davis Pinkney
Feb. 25 – Rosa Guy and Jacqueline Woodson
Feb. 26 – Eloise Greenfield
Feb. 27 – Vanessa Brantley Newton
Feb. 28 – Eric Velasquez

Carla Sarratt: Looking Back, Looking Forward

January 16, 2017


In honor of our 10th anniversary, we are proud to share this reflection by Carla Sarratt, one of our founding members.  Carla, an invaluable member of our team, worked diligently to help The Brown Bookshelf connect with teachers, librarians and kids. Today, she has a special view of two sides of the publishing world – children’s book creator and librarian. Welcome back, Carla.

Ten years ago on a Saturday morning in January, I held a copy of my first book in my hand. It was a private yet triumphant moment, just me and Freshman Focus in its purple colored cover glory. In a way, it was the birth of my first child. The book began as a dream in 2002 and slowly came to life until its birth, its publication in 2007 and I was proud to repeat it when the second book was published in 2008.

It was an honor to be invited to join The Brown Bookshelf in 2007 and to represent self-published children’s authors. I learned a lot about the publishing community and life as an author and illustrator from the inaugural group as well as the authors we spotlighted from the 28 Days Later campaigns. We were inspired by the work of readergirlz who were promoting strong girls in books in addition to other initiatives. It was great to unite with a group of authors to promote the writing and illustrating of African Americans.

Today I visit The Brown Bookshelf not as an author, but as a librarian. When I wrote about Charlemae Hill Rollins in 2007 lauding her as a Brown Bookshelf trailblazer, who knew that I would take strides to join the profession? While I am not a children’s librarian like Mrs. Rollins, I frequently interact with younger patrons and get excited when I see them checking out and requesting Derrick Barnes’ Ruby Booker series or Carole Boston Weatherford’s titles.

collage1Since I left The Brown Bookshelf in 2009, I have remained an avid reader, of course, but I stopped writing. Occasionally I have story ideas come to mind because of things I read, wondered, or learned about from various outlets, including Pinterest. I adore Pinterest! I keep the words of Toni Morrison in the back of my mind — “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” — and they occasionally call to me when I encounter possible story ideas. I recently visited the Smithsonian quotetoniNational Museum of African American History and Culture and was filled with so many possible stories to tell and people to laud.

While working on my Master of Library Science degree at North Carolina Central University, I was able to hear Kadir Nelson speak about his journey as an illustrator and author at Quail Ridge Books. I attended Kelly Starling Lyons’ launch party for Ellen’s Broom and met Eleanora E. Tate over dinner where she gifted copies of The Minstrel’s Melody.   I also interned at the State Library of North Carolina in Raleigh and later worked as a librarian with the African American Cultural Center at NC State University. While working at NC State, I finally met Brown Bookshelf member Don Tate when he came to the area to promote Hope’s Gift at area libraries and schools. We were able to host him on campus for a group of middle school students and campus faculty where he gave an engaging presentation about his career as well and impressed us with early drawings.

collage2The Brown Bookshelf remains a part of my life. I smile when I see books in my library written by Brown Bookshelf members as well as the authors and illustrators who have been spotlighted in the past. I feel a sense of pride when I see mention of The Brown Bookshelf around social media. I was psyched to sit in the audience of a workshop led by The Brown Bookshelf at the 2016 American Library Association’s annual conference in Orlando and listen to them discuss the importance of The Brown Bookshelf, their writing, and the legacies of those who paved the way for today’s African American children’s authors and illustrators.

Part of what made my experience in Orlando so special was seeing the members of The Brown Bookshelf gathered, leading workshops, and signing books. How gratifying to know that more librarians will know of their work as authors and a collective group and share their books with their patrons. It was great to finally meet Varian Johnson and tell him that The Great Greene Heist was a selection for the North Carolina Middle School Battle of the Books during the previous school year.

Years ago, when I finished writing Freshman Focus, I sought out traditional publishing and sent out query letters to prospective agents. I remember being told that it was not realistic that Black people were so educated in my books (referring to the parents of my main characters who were all college educated) and that Black people don’t speak that well. It felt like a slap in the face that in 2003, Black people were seen as lacking good education nor did they have the ability to speak the English language well. Those words came back to me this summer listening to presentations from Lee & Low Books as well as the panel discussions led by The Brown Bookshelf and other minority authors. They resonated with me when the conversation mentioned how books should be more than a mirror, but a window. The window allows us to see more than just a reflection of our own lives and experiences, but to see and experience the lives of those who are different from us in a myriad of ways. When we read those window books, we learn, we grow, and we are able to better appreciate those who are different from us, be it their racial ethnicity, sexuality, faith, or language. America is frequently touted as a melting pot, but how can that be when people who are in leadership positions lack the insight into basic ways of life for its minority citizens?

Those misconceptions are what make We Need Diverse Books and The Brown Bookshelf as well as its recent Declaration in Support of Children so vital. Children’s literature is a great way to teach young children about the world and the diversity of its people and their experiences. Diverse children’s literature shows that it is possible and quite common for African Americans to have college educations, speak well, take vacations, and so much more. Diversity in literature reduces the mirrors and increases the windows, increases respect and empathy for other people, their faith, their abilities, their special needs, their culture, and their sexuality. We have so much to learn about each other and well-written literature aids in that education.

The Brown Bookshelf and its supporters must continue to champion the cause to create more diverse literature, but we must also have more opportunities for authors to create and share those stories.

In my role as a librarian, I work with aspiring and self-published authors in my community. I plan events for NaNoWriMo as well as Indie Author Day. I connect patrons who aspire to write and publish with various library resources for them. My work has reawakened a latent desire to write again and join the ranks of published authors. To paraphrase the Declaration in Support of Children, it is my goal to sow seeds of wisdom and possibility, to move and inspire, to encourage, and to entertain.

Throwback: London Ladd

January 12, 2017

We last highlighted London Ladd during our 2009 28 Days Later campaign. Since that time, Ladd went on to illustrate many more award-winning picture books including Under the Freedom Tree, written by Susan VanHecke, Lend a Hand: Poems About Giving, written by John Frank, and Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass, written by Doreen Rappaport. Here is a throwback to our original post.n

londonladdEvery now and then, a new artist sneaks onto the children’s literary stage and dazzles us with such unbridled talent, that we’re left standing on our tippy-toes begging for an encore. Last year, one of those artists was London Ladd.

Ladd made his debut illustrating the book March On!, written by the sister of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Christine King Farris. With this book, Farris offered her account of the day Dr. King delivered his historic I Have a Dream speech. The book published last month, on the 45th anniversary of King’s march on Washington.

In a video, Ladd talked about living his dream illustrating children’s books, and about the day when March On! published. The excitement in his eyes sparkled as he recalled the day he gathered up his family and headed for the book store to take pictures.

When he’s not illustrating, you’ll find him teaching art at the Kuumba Project, an after school program that introduces visual and performing arts to inner city kids.

Here’s my chat with London Ladd:

Don: How did you become involved in the March On! project?

28593667London: Andrea Davis Pinkney hired me after a mutual acquaintance of ours referred her to my website. She liked my work and thought it would be perfect for this project.

How did you become interested in illustrating for children?

London: I wanted to bring words to life for children with my artwork. My first love was comic books, especially graphic novels. I loved the imagery and storytelling that came across in these books.

What kind of training have you received to prepare for your career as an artist?

London: I graduated at Syracuse University where I received my degree in illustration. I was lucky enough to study with great illustrators like James Ransome, Bob Dacey, Yvonne Buchanan, John Thompson and Roger DeMuth who taught various aspects of not only illustration but design and painting.

mlk-with-leaders What is your mission as an artist?

London: That’s a great question, I think my mission is to tell a story with beautiful vivid illustrations that children will enjoy.

What is your primary medium?

London: Acrylic paint on Bristol board because it doesn’t rip, buckle or bend, when I’m painting on it. I also love painting in my sketchbook. The Earthbound recycled paper is the best at handling thin washes and/or heavy opaque layers.

Tell us about your process of illustrating a children’s book.

London: After I except the project I read the manuscript over and over so I can understand what’s being said by the author. I really try to find myself in the story because then it becomes more personal to me, like a form of “method illustrating.” This gives me a better understanding of the projects composition, design and color choices. I quickly sketch down ideas and keep sketching then I put the drawings away for a few days and do some research. When I return I combine my research and refined sketches to compose the dummy book. I send the dummy book to the publisher and after they review and make suggestions I begin the paintings for the final art work. When art work is completed I package it and send to the publisher.

What inspires you as an illustrator? Are there certain topics/stories you enjoy more than others?

London: I love history so anything historical fascinates me because it allows me to learn while working. African American history especially interests me because there are so many untold stories.

mlk What were the biggest challenges in illustrating March On!

London: I wanted to create an MLK that conveys an intimate feeling, a behind the scenes perspective without making him too iconic. Christine’s story is a personal first hand account so I wanted to show him as an ordinary man who happened to do something extraordinary. There are so many books, magazine articles, photos, documentaries, etc, about Martin Luther King Jr., I wanted my vision to be unique.

How long does it typically take you to illustrate a children’s book, and how do you balance work, family, and other?

London: The entire process from first call to handing in finished work takes 7-9 months depending on the subject matter. Sometimes it’s difficult to juggle everything with my families various schedules. But we make an effort to really spend quality time together.

Do you visit schools, and can you speak a bit about your program?

London: Yes, I started visiting schools recently. During these visits I talk about my personal journey from student to illustrator. I explain the career of an illustrator and I try to inspire the kids to persistently reach for their dreams no matter their circumstance. I share with them the struggles that I experienced and how it built my character. I want kids to know that they can achieve any level of success if they put their mind and heart to it.

What are your interest/hobbies beyond art?

London: I love to travel and enjoy being around my extended family. In the summers I like visiting state parks around the State of New York.

What were some of your favorite books as a child?

London: I don’t remember any children’s books as a child only comic books but I know the first children’s book I gave to my daughter, Goodnight Moon. I love that book, not just because of the sentimental value but also the simplicity of everything about it, from the words to the illustrations.

Who are some of your favorite children’s book authors and illustrators today? And why.

London: There are so many illustrators whom I admire because they blazed the path and are successful and so amazingly talented.

Jerry Pinkney, Ashley Brian, Floyd Copper, Leo and Diane Dillon, James Ransome, Brian Collier, Kadir Nelson, Shane Evans, Ezra Jack Keats, E. B. Lewis, Greg Manchess, John Thompson, Bob Dacey, Yvonne Buchanan, James Garney, N.C. Wyeth.

the-long-night-thumbAs an illustrator who is African American, do you ever feel the pressured to illustrate certain types of manuscripts?

London: To be honest with you as an artist just entering the field I am grateful to illustrate books regardless of the subject. As long as they are good quality projects that are interesting and challenging I am open to them. If these projects happen to be African-American themed I’m fine with it. Maybe after a few years I’ll feel differently and want to do other types of projects.

Who are your cheerleaders, those who cheer loudest for you along the way?

London: My wife, daughter and mother, they’ve been there with me from the beginning through the good and the bad that’s why I dedicated the book to them.

What advice can you offer to aspiring illustrators of children’s books.

London: Passion, Perseverance and Patience. Passion in what you do, perseverance to fight through tough times and patience in knowing that you will reach your goal.

What can your fans look forward to in the future?

London: I’m currently working on my second children’s book which is about a well-known African American. I’m excited and blessed to have an opportunity to do what I love.

Buzz about March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World

Ladd, in his first picture book, demonstrates a rare talent for portraiture-even the faces in his crowd scenes are individuated. Like Farris, he resists the temptation to lionize his subject: instead of looking iconic, his King looks human-in other words, capable of inspiring the reader.

–Publisher’s Weekly

Ladd’s acrylic paintings are an excellent accompaniment to the text. His use of color and varying perspectives creates a great deal of visual energy, extending the excitement of the event.

–School Library Journal

Ladd, a talented figure painter and first-time picture-book illustrator, offers his own fresh and affecting take on these now familiar events; his images expand and enliven the well-known facts and ably expand on Farris’s powerful family story.

–Kirkus Reviews


January 5, 2017

sundee3There is a Maya Angelo quote on Sundee Frazier’s website.  It reads “You cannot use up creativity.  The more you use, the more you have.”

This is the perfect quote for Sundee.  Since her first spotlight on The Brown Bookshelf’s 28 Days later program back in 2008, she has published three more wonderful books:  THE OTHER HALF OF MY HEART, BRENDAN BUCKLEY’S SIX-GRADE EXPERIMENT, and CLEO EDISON OLIVER – PLAYGROUND MILLIONAIRE, for which she received a starred review from Kirkus!

It is our honor, on this Throwback Thursday, to spotlight:


Steptoe’s and Coretta Scott King’s…oh my.

In a blink of an eye publishing time (so more like a slow droop) Sundee Frazier went from debut author to award-winning author. It’s the honor of an elite few, but the dream of many.

With Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in it snug on shelves with its new shiny Steptoe Award Winner sticker, I caught up with Sundee during a most perfect time – that window between the wonder of it all and the reality.

BBS: How did you find out you’d won the John Steptoe award? Describe the moment. What were you doing?

Sundee: I opened my email inbox that morning to several messages titled, “Congratulations!” The first one I read was from MT Anderson because I thought, “Why in the world is this children’s literature giant writing little ol’ me?”

He said that Vermont College (he was the faculty chair there when I earned my MFA) was very proud but didn’t tell me for what.

The second email I opened was from my agent, Regina Brooks. She had heard through the grapevine I’d won the award, but needed to confirm.

After my husband got on the Internet and found the ALA press release, I realized I should probably check my voicemail. Sure enough, there were messages from the Coretta Scott King committee chair and my editor, and I knew it had really happened. I was ecstatic.

BBS: How has the landscape changed for the book? Has there been a jump in orders from stores/libraries or sales? Are you seeing or hearing about it being in bookstores, across the nation, that it wasn’t before?

Sundee: Well, the day of the announcement my book’s Amazon.com ranking rocketed from around 700,000 to 4,500! So that says something.

It has continued to do well on various sub-category lists on Amazon. And my publisher immediately ordered a second printing of the book, so there are double the copies out there now.

My husband was in Milwaukee for business in early February and found three copies at Barnes & Noble (as far as I know, the chain didn’t originally pick up my book on any widespread basis) – and they already had the medallions on the covers! That was exciting to hear. So, yes, I’d say the exposure was very helpful for getting the book into more libraries and stores.

BBS: Brendan Buckley tells the tale of a bi-racial boy. You’re filling two literary voids with one story. Why this story? Why now?

Sundee: As for why now, some people may think I strategically picked this topic because of the rising numbers of biracial children or the increasing interest in the biracial experience or even the dialogue around a certain presidential candidate’s ethnic identity.

In truth, I had no idea what this story would turn out to be when I started. I knew the main character was biracial, with a black dad and a white mom, but the character actually started as a girl. Yes, Brendan Buckley was originally Brenda Buckley!

I changed the character to a boy, again, not out of some strategic marketing choice, but because I woke up one morning and realized the character was supposed to be a boy. The change actually helped free up my imagination – I was able to let Brendan be who he was instead of continually seeing myself as a kid as I wrote.

The farther I got into the story, I realized I was really asking the question, “What if my white grandparents, who were initially against my parents’ interracial relationship, had never turned around?”

As it was, I grew up knowing both sides of my family and had close relationships with all of my grandparents, but I thought it would be interesting to explore a family that has splintered because of a white parent’s inability to accept his daughter’s choice and the effect of that on the grandchild. Unfortunately, families are still torn apart to this day over this kind of racial and ethnic intolerance and rejection.

BBS: Writers like to playfully debate, if given a choice, whether they’d choose critical or commercial success? Assuming your Steptoe award leads to greater commercial success, what would your answer have been prior to the win? And what’s your feeling on the topic now that you’re in the midst of it? Has it impacted your writing process or writing at all?

Sundee: I have always been more interested in critical success, but if I’m honest, I figured if I achieved critical success, my books would sell well, too!

My feeling on the topic now (as well as before the award) is that I always want to write the best story I can. “Best” to me means moving readers, broadening their understanding of themselves and others, and most of all, helping kids know they’re not alone in the things they think and feel.

BBS: I’ve often said that I’ve felt “invisible” because there were so few books that portrayed my own teen upbringing and my daughter’s (suburban, middle class African Americans). Talk a bit about that “invisible” feeling as it relates to literature and being bi-racial.

Sundee: I’m so glad you’ve brought this up. People tend to think of racial groups (racial minority groups, in particular) as being monolithic, when in fact there is a wealth of diversity and a broad range of experiences even within our groups. I certainly didn’t have any books growing up that portrayed biracial kids. I don’t think the term “biracial” even existed!

Obviously that is changing, and I’m glad to be able to contribute stories that validate the existence of kids growing up in interracial families or who are conscious of their mixed racial heritage.

I’ve often said that being biracial can feel like being a “minority within a minority,” so it can be a lonely experience, but on the other hand, the more I accept myself and my particular experience of being African American, the more I find people who accept me, as well. And the fact that Brendan Buckley’s Universe was chosen for the John Steptoe award tells me there’s a growing acceptance of our diversity as African Americans. That’s encouraging to me.

BBS: Often we’re forced to either focus on the race of characters or we tell ourselves, race shouldn’t matter to a story. But why do you think it’s important that there be portrayals of mixed race characters?

Sundee: Race has been a significant shaping factor in my life, so it’s going to play a role in the stories I tell. There’s just no way around that, and I don’t want to get around it because I believe it’s a big part of what will become my unique contribution to the field of children’s literature.

I want mixed race kids to know they’re not alone in their experience, and I want to expose other kids to the reality of interracial families.

I also think that what I’ve experienced as a biracial African American is not that different from what many people experience, regardless of race. We all have questions about where we fit, whether we belong, if we’re okay the way we are – adolescents, especially – and these are the kinds of questions my characters are usually asking.

Brendan Buckley knows he’s okay, but his grandfather’s views and past rejection confront him with the reality that not everyone will always think so and propel him forward in his evolving view of himself.

BBS: What’s next for you after Brendan Buckley?

Sundee: Brendan Buckley was sold to Delacorte as a part of a two-book deal. The second book is in process. It’s not a sequel or companion book to Brendan, although I’ve had several requests for one!

I’m working on another middle grade novel – this one about twin biracial girls, one black-appearing, the other white-appearing, who go to stay with their Southern black grandmother when their parents’ marriage falters. The grandmother enters them in a pageant for black pre-teen girls. I’m very interested to see what happens!

The Buzz on…Brendan Buckley’s Universe

“Frazier delivers her messages without using an overly heavy hand.” – Booklist

“This is an absorbing look at a 10-year-old boy who has never had to deal with race and prejudice, who collides into years of anger and hurt in his family and must create a new identity for himself.” – School Library Journal

“A good, accessible selection to inspire discussion of racism and prejudice.” – Kirkus Reviews

Reflections: The Tiny Bigness of Ten Years

January 2, 2017

Do you know what can happen over a span of 10 years?

Let me help you…

Personally, my oldest daughter has grown from a thirteen-year-old into a young woman with a college degree and a full time job (my pockets cry amen).

My youngest has gone from a toddler to a middle-schooler with aspirations to be a professional ballerina. A goal I’ll do whatever I can to help her reach – to the dismay of my wallet.

I’ve gone from a debut author to, dare I say, a veteran with five books under my name and a sixth soon to come.

And that’s to say nothing of the world itself having traveled from a place of hope, as our first Black president came to the end of his first term onto his second, to one of abject confusion as we face the consequences of electing a President supported by bigots and hate groups.

Yes, a lot can happen in ten years. But what hasn’t changed is my passion for the world to embrace a wider variety of books that feature and include characters of color by authors of color. Sure, my absence from The Brown Bookshelf as a contributor might make you wonder about that.  No need to.  I’m as committed to that cause as I was, ten long years ago, when I approached an author I knew only from a message board.  When I think back on it now, I wonder where I got the nerve to think that he and I, me a brand new author and he a relatively new one, could start a movement designed to bring attention to our voices.

Had Varian and I had given any real thought to it, we would have both said no.  It would have made more sense.  We were both WWW – working while writing. In other words, writing was not our full time job. It was something we did on our lunch hours, after our family’s had gone to bed, or on scraps of paper while sitting at a stop light commuting to work. Neither of us had the time, to be truthful. And we were essentially strangers to one another.  All we knew about one another was what we purported to be on the message boards. And yet, he said yes when I said – Hey…maybe we should join forces.

I shouldn’t speak for him, but I believe we did so out of instinct (it was just right) and survival.  We knew we couldn’t entrench ourselves in a bubble of only authors of color. The world is bigger than any one circle you belong to. But we also knew if we didn’t advocate for voices like ours – who would?

Along the way, that instinct led us to invite Kelly and Don into our vision. And they have carried the torch the last five years, inviting new authors to sustain this very important site. I remain in awe of it. Of what it stands for, a beacon for librarians, parents and other gatekeepers of children literature. And of what it is – a strong voice that will never be silenced despite those wishing to dilute the importance of diverse books.

Over the years, I’d sometimes get frustrated. I so badly wanted The Brown Bookshelf to be validated by traditional publishers and traditional news outlets that guided folks to books. I wanted us to be THE voice to help folks find good books featuring our stories.

And early on, we faced mild criticism wanting us to be more inclusive beyond African American authors. After all “brown” encompasses a great many people.

But every good fight starts with a step.  And no war can be waged alone.

The Brown Bookshelf was started to help brown authors – those primarily of African American descent. Along the way, we have made many allies to ensure the message supports inclusion of all types. So it’s doing what we hoped it would.  And while some days I still feel like we’re at the start line of the race to diversify publishing, our Open Declaration in Support of Children is exactly why BBS exists – to galvanize our voices so that inclusion of our stories, by us, is understood to be a right not a privilege.

Happy Anniversary to a warrior in the fight for inclusion. A luta continua*!


*The struggle continues!

Throwback Thursday: Cheryl Willis Hudson

December 29, 2016

For our last Throwback Thursday post of 2016, I’m honored to shine the spotlight on children’s book pioneer Cheryl Willis Hudson once again.

Cheryl Willis Hudson

The Brown Bookshelf is honored to present Cheryl Willis Hudson to our readers. Not only is she an author, she is also a executive in a publishing company she built with her husband. You will be inspired and uplifted by her amazing story of dedication and passion for African American children’s literature.

The Journey
My path in publishing has been one that emerged from my adventures as a grade school doodler and teacher’s helper to that of professional children’s book publisher. As a child, I loved doing book reports where I could embellish book summaries by adding my own drawings, speech balloons and illustrated book jackets. I also helped my mom, who was a teacher, create bulletin boards and posters and correct her students’ homework. I loved making my own greeting cards for friends, cutting and pasting photographs in scrapbooks, reading poetry and nonfiction and doing things with my hands, so finding a career in publishing—specifically children’s book publishing, was a natural progression for me.

I’m basically self-taught. My first job was art-editor trainee at a textbook company. The discipline and structure I experienced through that job actually helped me find my own creative voice and express my own vision of what books for children should be. I had a lot of help along the way in terms of personal mentors and some formal classes in typography, graphic design, printmaking and life drawing, and I advanced in my career via a series of jobs in textbook publishing, encyclopedia publishing, trade book packaging and an extended stint as a freelance designer. Years of working in the industry equipped me with the skills to recognize talents in others and to merge them through creative editorial and design direction. Doodling and storyboarding via thumbnails helped to visualize concepts and stories in picture book form for young readers.

The Inspiration

JUB Name Plates...JAMALA powerful awareness of what was missing in books was the impetus for Just Us Books, the publishing company my husband Wade and I started together. When we were unsuccessful and frustrated by not getting our African-American centered stories accepted by major commercial publishers, we had an epiphany. Why not publish the work ourselves? We had voice, a vision, skills and a little bit of savings. I had done dozens of line drawings of African-American kids spelling out their names by bending their bodies in the shapes of letters. We had already made t-shirts and posters featuring these drawings and sold hundreds of them to parents and daycare centers. So in 1987, we took a leap of faith, and self-published my doodle-inspired AFRO-BETS ABC Book. This was followed by AFRO-BETS 123 Book and Book of Black Heroes from A to Z. The rest is history!

Kaylan & stephan_afro-bets kids_1985.crop or 1986
AFRO-BETS-Kids---ABC-Book__08883_1304903543_1280_500Wade and I came of age during the volatile and fertile period of the 60s and 70s. Many of our friends were writers and artists and musicians. During our college years in the late 60s, the Black Arts movement informed our perspective of literature. I met Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal and was inspired by their work as writers and critics. I listened to the poetry of Sonia Sanchez and Haki Madhubuti and was inspired by his cultural work and collaborative publishing via Third World Press with Pulitzer-prize winning poet, Gwendolyn Brooks. Wade had worked in SCLC and SNCC with southern voter registration drives and had written plays performed by Black theaters. He had worked as a sports writer during his college years. During the late 60s activist-scholar Barbara Smith and I forged a decades-long friendship through our love of books. When she co-founded Kitchen Table Press, it was a validation that we could do it too.

During the summer of 1970, I connected with a few other Black women via the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Program. That fall, in my first job as a novice art editor, in Boston I met Jerry Pinkney, whose incredible illustrations absolutely floored me. Soon after, Wade and I met in Cambridge, we began to collaborate on children’s story ideas where I designed graphics for poems and stories that Wade wrote. In New York, I took a class with Bank Street educator, Beryl Banfield, a member of the Council on Interracial Books for Children who was looking critically at the lack of diversity in textbooks and actively seeking Black writers to author authentic stories for and about Black children.

By 1976, Caldecott illustrator Tom Feelings, Coretta Scott King Award Illustrator George Ford, Watoto_1Golden Books editor Bernette Goldsen Ford and others were great influences through their organization, Black Creators for Children. When I joined them, they had established and printed issues of WATOTO, a newsletter for children and had established guidelines/criteria for art and articles by African-American book creators who were just starting to be published by a few commercial presses. At the same time, through another professional organization, Black Women in Publishing, I connected with other peers who were attempting similar goals.

Ebony Jr!_1976_6a32b8c672342266a52526914baf8094 copySeveral of my poems, stories and doodles were published by EBONY JR! Magazine and Wee Wisdom Magazine during the late 70s and this kind of encouragement fueled my desire to have more of my work published in trade book form for a larger audience.

As a new parent, I loved the work of Virginia Hamilton (Zeely was profound), Eloise Greenfield (Honey I Love), Lucille Clifton (Everett Anderson), Tom Feelings (Jambo Means Hello and Mojo Means One), Walter Dean Myers (Fast Clyde, Cool Sam and Stuff), Leo and Diane Dillon (Ashanti to Zulu), John Steptoe (Stevie) and of course, Langston Hughes (The Big Sea). There just wasn’t enough of it! There needed to be much, much more!

Moving from “Inspiration” to “Mission”
The birth of our children, Katura and Stephan fueled our desire to create and produce more books with positive Black children at their core. We wanted vibrant, stories for them that we had never had when we were children. Wade and I realized that in our work we had embraced the philosophy of Black newspaper editors John Russworm and Samuel Cornish who in the inaugural 1827 issue of Freedom’s Journal stated:

“We wish to plead our own cause…Too long have others spoken for us, too long has the publick been deceived by misrepresentations, in the things that concern us dearly….”
When we established Just Us Books in 1988, we made it our policy to hire Black authors and illustrators and editors and designers. We did this to establish a solid, unified, authentic voice and vision. The philosophy of our personal work extended into a corporate mission similar to the creators of The Brownies Book, which was published during the Harlem Renaissance, over 60 years before.

early counting graphic design

Early conceptual graphic for a counting book.

While we published a number of other individual authors and illustrators, Wade and I collaborated on a few titles as editors, including Kids Book of Wisdom and an anthology, In Praise of Our Fathers and Our Mothers, a tribute to the many Black authors and illustrators whose work we respected and admired. This volume was truly a labor of love and it fulfilled a continuing mission of showcasing wonderful work of African-American book creators all in one volume.

EPSON scanner Image

Being a Black Creator for Children
Although I’ve written over two dozen books for children that have been published over the past 30 years, some of my personal creative work has necessarily taken second place to the business of publishing other authors’ works via Just Us Books and later Marimba Books, our multicultural, sister imprint. Dual roles as “Author” and “Creative Director/Publisher” sometimes do battle and fight for attention with one another. As “Author” most of my stories are simply slices of Black life—realistic depictions of children simply going about their daily activities, at school, during play time, or just day dreaming. Some stories have been published by Just Us Books and Marimba Books, which we founded with our children Katura and Stephan, but Wade and I have also partnered with larger publishing companies such as Scholastic and Zondervan/HarperCollins to package other projects.

Perhaps my most popular book is Bright Eyes, Brown Skin, a collaboration between myself, Bernette G. Ford and her husband, George Ford, who illustrated the text. This book was published in 1991, but it has become a favorite read aloud book and one of Just Us Books’ best sellers.

Bright-Eyes-Brown-Skin__61941_1304420290_1280_500Pre-School visit with CWH_Little Rock 2014
Hands Can, published by Candlewick Press and illustrated with photos by John-Francis Bourke, is also very popular with pre-schoolers. My most recent book, Songs I Love to Sing, illustrated by Laura Freeman, is the fourth title in the “I Love to…” series, which Wade and I created and via a joint venture with our children Katura and Stephan via Marimba Books. My Friend Maya Loves to Dance, published in 2010 by Abrams and illustrated by Eric Velasquez, continues to gain larger and larger audiences of readers who love seeing expressions of that art form.

Pages from COVER_Songs I love To Sing (INGRASPARK)_no cropshands can do all kinds
One of my personal favorites is the text I wrote for Construction Zone, because it is nonfiction—a departure from my normal work. It involved quite a bit of research (which I loved) and required a tremendous focus to create a storyline from hundreds and hundreds of images taken by award-winning photographer, Richard Sobol. Distilling simple and informational text from a complex subject into picture book form was a real challenge!

As “Creative Director/Publisher” my role is to nurture talent and guide that talent through the publication process, ultimately helping to inspire, engage and empower young readers through final published books.

construction zone workers

So going full circle, my “doodler” self continues to inform and have conversations with my “director” self and vice versa. I continue to enjoy the process of putting words and pictures together and seeing the creative process emerge in a final concrete product. During recent years, I have been making art and telling stories via my new passion, quilt-making. In the future, I would love to create a book for children using quilts as the illustrations. So I have started translating some of my doodles into larger fabric based story quilts.

sketch_get on board lil children

Vernacular - Quilts

The State of the Industry

Although there has been some good progress during the 45 plus years I’ve worked in publishing and the almost 30 years of Just Us Books’ existence, there is still so much work to do. (See statistics on diversity in publishing from CCBC in Madison, WI) Just Us Books is one of the few Black-owned and operated publishing companies publishing for children. We need more independent presses like Just Us Books, Lee and Low and Cinco Puntos Press — that prioritize diversity and inclusion. Larger commercial houses can do a much better job acquiring and publishing works by people of color. They can do a much better job hiring diverse staff on the editorial and creative sides, but also in marketing and sales and in all areas of the business including distribution. Reviewers, journals, bloggers, scholars, schools, libraries, literacy organizations, book fairs and educators also need to be more inclusive and expansive.


I am encouraged by the recent attention “We Need Diverse Books” has focused on the important work that we all need to do. Authors like Zetta Elliott have added greatly to the canon and conversation concerning equity. Book fair organizers such as Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati and her African American Children’s Book Fair in Philadelphia have successfully demonstrated and addressed the need and hunger parents and children have for books that are not readily available in many bookstores. Librarian-educators like Debbie Reese have been diligent in lifting up authentic American Indian stories and dispelling “historical” lies and stereotypes about Native American history. “Reading While White” bloggers have engaged audiences in a paradigm shift. Individual authors and illustrators consistently present their work to audiences of children and young adults who are affirmed by seeing themselves reflected in the literature. Just Us Books, in cooperation with other authors, educators and librarians have created lists of outstanding multicultural books that often are missed on the radar of traditional “best books lists.” (see Multicultural Gems of 2015 and Multicultural Books to Make Your Season Bright) and Wade and I always advocate for inclusion and diversity whenever we speak at schools, libraries and literary conferences. And of course, The Brown Bookshelf has brought tremendous awareness to readers and the industry about the wealth of talented contemporary Black book creators working today.
All children have a right to see themselves positively reflected in children’s literature—in all their diversity—free from harmful stereotypes and marginalization. This is not a new concept but one that needs to be recognized and actualized.

My hope is that authors, illustrators, book creators and members of the children’s book community will find more collaborative ways of supporting each other and create alternate avenues for publishing diverse stories and voices that need to be heard.

Contact information for Cheryl Willis Hudson

Just Us Books

Just Us Books Facebook

Cheryl Willis Hudson’s website


Throwback Thursday: Jason Reynolds

December 15, 2016

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


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

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



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

photo courtesy of the author and Simon and Schuster

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

The Back Story

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

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

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

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

My Inspiration

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

My Process:

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

Others under the Radar:

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