Nicola Yoon on #BlackGirlMagic, How Love Changes Everything, and Showing the Possibilities

June 6, 2017

credit: Sonya Sones

Nicola Yoon is the #1 NYT bestselling author of Everything, Everything, which is now a major motion picture, and The Sun Is Also a Star, a National Book Award finalist, Michael L. Printz Honor Book and a Coretta Scott King New Talent Award winner. She grew up in Jamaica and Brooklyn, and lives in Los Angeles with her family.

We featured Nicola back in 2016; a LOT has happened since. We caught up with her for an update. Welcome back, Nicola!

You’ve mentioned that you wrote Everything, Everything because you wanted your daughter to see herself reflected in media. Can you share some of the responses you’ve gotten from readers, and now from those who’ve seen the film?

The response from readers has just been incredible and, not gonna lie, some of them have made me cry. Every day — every single day — I get at least one email from a reader or a viewer telling me how much it means to them at Maddy is a person of color. When my little girl first met Amandla Stenberg on the set of the movie, the first thing she said to me is “she looks just like me.” She said it again when she saw the movie at the Los Angeles premiere. I’ll never be able to put into words how much those moments have meant to me.

In an interview about Everything, Everything, you said that “I didn’t want her to be in a prison as much as yearning for something more, something different.” Why was that important to you? What was the process of getting that concept on paper?

One of the themes I was exploring with the book was the ways in which love changes you. Love is a force. Sometimes it changes you for the better. Sometimes for the worse. In the book, Maddy is very happy with her life before she meets Olly. After she meets and falls in love Olly, she begins to look at the world anew. I think one of the things that love does is open you up to the world and make you more vulnerable. The ways in which we respond to that vulnerability is something I was interested in exploring.

What were some of the challenges for you in the process of seeing the story move from the page to the screen? What surprised you? And what was your cameo experience like?

In the beginning it’s a little hard to let go of your characters, but that went away quickly for me. One of the best moments I had was when I was reading a revision of the script that had a scene that wasn’t in the book. I loved the scene so much that I wished I’d written it. That moment made me happy because both the script and the movie are new pieces of art. Now there are more stories about Maddy and Olly out in the world.

The cameo experience was so great! We are “family on the beach” in one of the Hawaii scenes. It’s about three seconds of me, my husband, and my daughter splashing in the waves in the background. Funnily, the scene took 45 minutes to film because my daughter kept pointing at the drone camera that filmed it so we had to do take after take :)

Congratulations on the success of The Sun is Also A Star! Where did that story start? How was the writing process similar to or different from working on Everything, Everything? What did you feel that you learned and incorporated into Sun? Now that you’re a page-to-screen vet, what are you most looking forward to in the filmmaking process?

Thank you so much! It really started for me from the Carl Sagan quote -— “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” I wanted to tell a love story about two people, but I wanted to include the universe of things that made it possible for the two people to fall in love. I’m really looking forward to the adaptation process. Tracy Oliver is writing the script as we speak!

What does the phrase #BlackGirlMagic mean to you? Where do you see or use that idea in your own work?

It means that black girls are allowed the full range of the human experience. In our current media we see so many stereotyped notions what it means to be black. One of the things I want to do in my work is to push back against those ideas. Black girls can be anyone and love anyone. We are allowed to be the main character.

We are allowed to be smart and beautiful and funny and soft and strong and vulnerable and geeky. We are allowed to be.

In The Sun Is Also A Star, you incorporate issues surrounding immigration, and mentioned in an interview that you’d love to see the immigration conversation “start from a place of empathy.” How do you think your readers can make that happen? How do you think that reading can promote empathy?

I think that books promote empathy. It’s hard to spend 400 pages in the lives of characters without seeing their humanity and coming to a place of understanding.

Like those who’ve come before us, our children, our readers, we’re living in challenging times. Do you think that’s reflected in the work that you do? In the stories that you tell? In the way that you work? How?

I think the times have always been challenging. One of the most powerful things that books can do is give us hope show us what is possible not only for ourselves, but for other people.

What do you think are the keys to writing successful YA romance? What are some of your favorites?

I love when characters fall in love with each other’s ideas of the world. I love when you can see that they are making each other grow and think and explore the world in new ways. Also, a good kissing scene is not to be underestimated. :) One of my all time favorites is I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson.

Thanks so much, Nicola! We can’t wait to see what’s next. Visit Nicola Yoon online for news and updates.

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Throwback Thursday: Fredrick McKissack

May 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. McKissack died on April 28, 2013.


The “Hole” in KidLit

May 22, 2017

For years I worked as an anthology editor for McGraw-Hill and other educational publishing houses. My job was choosing literature for elementary schools, pairing fiction with nonfiction, commissioning new pieces to work with published works, and balancing a very long list of authors and illustrators to ensure that we had even numbers between sexes and ethnicities. Finding authors and illustrators of color was always a challenge as a result of a lack of diversity in the KidLit industry, but the one area that always remained a huge problem was finding science or technical texts written by authors of color.

For every educational publishing company I worked with as an in-house editor, or as a consultant/freelancer, this was a problem. It’s been a long time since I left school and library publishing, so I hadn’t thought about this problem in a while, but it all came back to me while having a conversation with Preeti Chhibber, who works for Scholastic on the Reading Club selections. When The Jumbies (my MG novel) was chosen as a Scholastic Reading Club book, it was featured in a We Need Diverse Books special edition flyer. As Pretti and I cooed over the pages of the flyer, she confessed that they had a very difficult time finding science books written by authors of color. There were plenty of biographies of scientists, but that’s not exactly what they were looking for. The writer they were able to feature was Neil deGrasse Tyson. A great choice, but surely he couldn’t be the only one.

I racked my brain trying to think of a nonwhite equivalent of someone like Seymour Simon, who was a go-to author for science nonfiction, and came up empty.

Hence, the hole in KidLit that authors of color need to fill. The school and library market is very interested in diversifying their offerings, and having a book selected for an anthology means kids all over the country will read your work. It’s a big deal. And I know there are authors of color who also like science topics. So, what are you waiting for? There’s a hole you need to plug.


Where Do We Go From Here? Continuing the Conversation With Pat Cummings

May 9, 2017

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

I’m especially honoured to share thoughts from award-winning author, artist, educator, and activist Pat Cummings. As a literacy educator and freshman college student, I carried JUST US WOMEN, illustrated by Ms. Cummings, on all of my summer home visits to families — it was a favourite in every one of the Harlem and Washington Heights homes I visited, as inspired young children and parents shared their own stories and photos of family road trips and vacations. Two of my own daughter’s ABSOLUTE first favourite books were Cummings’ MY AUNT CAME BACK and CLEAN YOUR ROOM, HARVEY MOON — even before she could read, she was enthralled by the wordplay and the joyful Brown faces on the pages.

I’m more than thrilled to welcome Pat Cummings back to The Brown Bookshelf.

Why did you sign the declaration?
A book is personal. Through words and pictures I have a chance to talk directly to more children than I’ll ever meet. Children who may take what’s in the pages of the book to heart. I’ve heard that personalities are formed by the time a child reaches six years of age. So, knowing that this is a window, an opportunity to express positive, open and humane ways of interacting with others on the planet, I feel children’s books can be more effective, more subversive even, than trying to get through to adults who are inexplicably locked in their prejudices, fears and arrogance. I signed the declaration because every point and sentiment in it aligns with my own beliefs.

How do you describe the intersection between art and activism? Who/what has influenced you in that area?
The arts, any art really, is an expression of your core beliefs. It’s like your handwriting or accent: your belief system is distinctly your own. And art provides an avenue for us to express what we think, love, believe. I’m not sure what would happen if we existed in an utopian society. But, faced with the disturbing attitudes and actions around us today and, knowing that vulnerable, open children are taking their cues from what they’re seeing, I think artists have to be activists. Who has influenced me? My mother and father. They are the ones who taught me to use critical thinking, to not only observe what is but to structure a pathway to what can be.

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

My goal is to ensure that readers find positive imagery and healthy relationships in the pages of my books.

In this business, we all try to suggest creative, positive resolutions to any situation. I’m committed to getting at the humaness of my characters…a colorless, genderless, ageless humanity that prevails regardless of nationalities, creeds or isms. Most of my characters are Black. And while that’s partially to address our underrepresentation in children’s literature, it’s also because I’m sick and disheartened about the widespread hostility and misunderstanding that has such negative effects. Walter Dean Myers once told me that he wanted to see his books in the hands of white kids who didn’t actually know anyone Black. And that’s been a big motivator for me: trying to remove the ignorance some readers have. Not ignorance in the sense of stupidity, but ignorance, literally: an ability to ignore anyone who looks, believes, or acts ‘different’. So, writing. Talking to kids. Working with college students and workshop attendees to encourage a more inclusive attitude. My plan is very much based on tossing a stone in the pond to create widening ripples.


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

I’ve seen improvements so I’m actually encouraged.

The Brown Bookshelf, We Need Diverse Books and even Black Lives Matter have had a significant impact on publishers.

Hiring editors, art directors, and marketing people of color will make a huge difference and I’ve seen initiatives to do just that. But one of the HUGEST things publishers could do is to widen the focus in their marketing. More authors, illustrators and publishing employees of color is a great start. But until books featuring diverse characters are actively marketed to mainstream audiences, diverse books will stay a niche section of the bookstore and a niche in publishers’ marketing plans. There still doesn’t seem to be a push to market books to EVERYONE, regardless of who is on the cover.


What’s New with The Brown Bookshelf

May 1, 2017

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The Brown Bookshelf presented at the Texas Library Association conference. Thank you to the Black Caucus of TLA who sponsored our session, Overlooked Books who hosted our signing and amazing librarians like the ones from Houston in the picture who showed us lots of love.

Thank you to everyone who supports the work we do. Completing our 10th 28 Days Later campaign was a special milestone for us. We appreciated the shares, comments and kudos. It’s an honor to raise awareness of the wonderful black children’s book creators that give kids stories that showcase their experiences, history, adventures and dreams.

Last month, we took our show on the road, presenting at the Texas Library Association conference. We received such a warm reception from librarians who said they plan to add books by authors and illustrators we highlighted to their collections. In November, we’ll present at the American Association of School Librarians conference in Phoenix. Our mission is to celebrate others, so we don’t often talk about ourselves. But so many exciting things are happening that we wanted to give you a peek into what’s new in our world. We are grateful for the commitment of people like you who help push for change. All kids deserve to see themselves as the stars of stories and as book creators.

TeachingBooks.net

Special thanks to Nick Glass and Carin Bringelson for helping our work reach more readers and creating such an important resource.

28dayslogoTeachingBooks.net has created a list that showcases our 10 years of 28 Days Later features and additional resources they’ve compiled for our honorees. Here’s the full list which is available without subscription to their service this year and will be accessible without subscription every February in perpetuity. In addition, each year they will make a list for our new class of 28 Days Later honorees with links to our spotlights and extra resources which will remain free until the end of that year. Here’s the list for the authors and illustrators celebrated in our 2017 campaign. Want resources for members of our team? TeachingBooks.net has a list for that too.

Note: Our 28 Days Later spotlights are always available on our blog. You can use the 28 Days Later tab on our menu bar for links to author and illustrators featured each year or the search box in the right column to find a post about a particular children’s book creator.

Highlights Foundation Scholarship

Special thanks to Kent Brown and Alison Myers for the chance to help make a difference. Here’s the announcement from Alison:

Congratulations, Andrea Loney! Andrea (and her sweet Bunnybear) were bunnybearpicnominated by The Brown Bookshelf to attend Crafting Successful Author Visits next month at the Highlights Foundation. During the workshop Andrea will present to a local school. To have Andrea visit your school please go to: http://andreajloney.com/school-visits/ 

The Brown Bookshelf will nominate a children’s book author or illustrator for a 2018 Highlights Foundation workshop of the honoree’s choosing. Look for details about this exciting opportunity in the near future.

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Here’s the skinny on members of our team:

Gwendolyn Hooks

civilrightsMy latest book is If You Were A Kid During The Civil Rights Movement illustrated by Kelly Kennedy (Scholastic Library). Later this spring, Music Time and Block Party will be released by Lee & Low Books. Both are illustrated by Shirley Ng-Benitez and Block Party is a Junior Library Guild Section. Tiny Stitches – The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas won the NAACP IMAGE Award for Outstanding Literary Work-Children. Illustrator, Colin Bootman and I are honored to have our collaboration recognized. Now, it’s a new year and I’m re-reading The Brown Bookshelf’s 28 Days Later 2017 campaign for inspiration. Those authors and illustrators inspire me to re-think some projects and move forward on others. A writer’s work is never done!

To learn more about Gwendolyn, visit http://www.gwendolynhooks.com.

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

I’m working on And Two Naomis Too (Balzer and Bray/HarperCollins) with Audrey TwoNaomis_jkt-193x300Vernick, which will be out in 2018. I’ll be appearing at nerdCampNJ in May, the Maplewood-South Orange Book Festival in June, and NCTE in November. This summer, I’ll be working on some new manuscripts; I’m looking forward to participating in Teachers Write again, meeting and working with the new class of WNDB Internship Grant Award recipients, and finishing some languishing craft projects.

To learn more about Olugbemisola, visit http://www.olugbemisolabooks.com.

Don Tate
My forthcoming project is a picture book biography about Victorian strongman Eugen Sandow, also known as the “Father of Bodybuilding.” STRONG AS SANDOW: HOW EUGEN SANDOW BECAME THE STRONGEST MAN ON EARTH (Charlesbridge, Aug. 2017).

sandowInspired by my own experiences in the sport of body-building, I tell the story of how Eugen Sandow changed the way people think about exercise and physical fitness. I will be signing STRONG AS SANDOW at BookExpo America on June 2nd, 2017, Booth 2905 from 2:00 to 3pm.

WHOOSH! LONNIE JOHNSON’S SUPER-SOAKING STREAM OF INVENTIONS (Charlesbridge, 2016), written by Chris Barton and illustrated by me is a 2017 Children’s and Teen Choice Book Award Finalist.  Children’s Choice winners will be announced at BookExpo America, and I will be in attendance to sign books.
To learn more about Don, visit http://www.dontate.com.

Kelly Starling Lyons

jadajonesrockstarI had a wonderful time sharing at TLA. In August, I present at the National Conference of African American Librarians in Atlanta. In September, I launch my Jada Jones chapter book series – Jada Jones: Rock Star and Jada Jones: Class Act, published by Penguin Workshop and illustrated by the amazing Vanessa Brantley Newton. We’re having launch parties in Raleigh and Charlotte. Here are  Quail Ridge Books party details and Park Road Books party details. We’ll have a virtual launch too so everyone can be part of the fun.
One More Dino on the Floor is still grooving strong. Illustrator Luke Flowers and I were delighted that it was chosen for Scholastic Book Club and called a great readaloud. I’m working on new projects and enjoying meeting amazing kids and educators during author visits. Thank you for supporting my work.

To learn more about Kelly, visit http://www.kellystarlinglyons.com.

Tracey Baptiste

riseofjumbiesI’m looking forward to the release of The Jumbies sequel, Rise of the Jumbies on September 19th. In the meantime I’m working on two new book projects that have not been announced yet and a group chapter book project with some really awesome authors. I’ve also just sent in a proposal for a new nonfiction history book. Unfortunately it’s the nature of the business that I can’t be specific until all deals are finalized, so I’m going to have to be cagey for a bit!
To learn more about Tracey, visit http://www.traceybaptiste.com.

Jerry Craft

livingcolorI recently visited Jackson, Mississippi to help promote literacy among boys. With the support of COSEBOC and The Kellogg Foundation, I was joined by fellow authors David Miller, Mark C Booker, Kenneth Braswell and Ronnie Sidney II as we provided 300 eager middle school boys with 900 free books!

From there, we spoke to kids at a juvenile detention facility and addressed a crowded room at a family literacy event.

It was one of the most powerful trips I’ve even done. I signed 350 copies of my new graphic novel, Mama’s Boyz: In Living Color!

To learn more about Jerry, visit http://www.jerrycraft.net.

Crystal Allen
fame.jpgI have been extremely busy with my new series, The Magnificent Mya Tibbs!  Book one The Magnificent Mya Tibbs – Spirit Week Showdown, is on the Texas Bluebonnet list, the Grand Canyon list, Chicago Libraries best books of 2016, and Kirkus’ Best Books of 2016.  Book two, The Magnificent Mya Tibbs – The Wall of Fame Game, launched in January of this year!  I am  already scheduling author visits for the next school year, while working on my next novel titled, Between Two Brothers.
To learn more about Crystal, visit http://www.crystalallenbooks.com.

 

Tameka Fryer Brown
tamekanewbookThis past year has been filled with new literary adventures! In addition to all of the wonderful happenings occuring with BBS in this, our 10th year, I signed on with Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency, to be represented by the fierce Marietta Zacker! Almost immediately, we sold a new picture book to Joy Peskin at FSG/Macmillan (BROWN BABY LULLABY, to published in early 2019 and illustrated by AG Ford), and I finally got to meet Gwendolyn Hooks and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich in person at ALA! And I’m expecting more good news to break over the coming months. Exclamation points are abounding in my world!
To learn more about Tameka, visit http://www.tamekafryerbrown.com.

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Paula Chase Hyman
Brown Bookshelf co-founder Paula has a two-book middle-grade deal with Greenwillow Books. Yay! The first is So Done which will debut summer 2018. She wrote this poignant post that gave an update on her writing life.

To learn more about Paula, visit http://www.paulachasehyman.com.

Varian Johnson
Brown Bookshelf co-founder Varian Johnson’s middle-grade series continue to soar. The first novel in the series, The Great Greene Heist, received two starred reviews and was named an cheatpicALA Notable Children’s Book Selection, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year, and a Texas Library Association Lonestar List selection among other accolades. His latest caper, To Catch A Cheat, was released last year. Kirkus praised the novel in a starred review, calling it, “A satisfying stand-alone sequel; new readers and old friends will be hoping for further adventures.” Varian has also written for the Spirit Animals middle-grade fantasy series as well as novels and short stories for YA audiences.
To learn more about Varian, visit http://www.varianjohnson.com.

Throwback Thursday: Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard

April 20, 2017

Not only is Ms. Howard a children’s book author with many beautiful picture books, according to the Pennsylvania Center for the Book she has worn many hats: professor, librarian, lecturer, and researche assistant. Read on for more about the author of Aunt Flossie’s Hats from 2010.

As a child, Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard loved to read. That her books showed a white world didn’t matter to her back then. She identified with treasured characters and didn’t question the lack of diversity. But when Howard grew up, and multicultural children’s books began to bloom, she realized she missed something important — reflections of her people and herself.

Howard set out to change that. She mined her family life for tales that spoke to the African-American experience, the American experience. Her book, Aunt Flossie’s Hats (and Crabcakes Later), illustrated by James Ransome, is a beautiful example of how a tale rooted in black culture speaks to people of all races. Howard said she’s delighted when people say to her Aunt Flossie reminds them of someone in their family. Next year, she’ll celebrate the 20th anniversary of that classic picture book. It’s one of her most acclaimed works.

Publisher’s Weekly called Aunt Flossie’s Hats ” . . . an affecting portrait of a black American family and of the ways in which shared memories can be a thread, invisible yet strong, that ties generations together.”

Howard’s books, often inspired by real-life family stories, follow the adage, “write what you know,” in a powerful way. Her characters bear the names of family members. She explores relationships and experiences in a black middle-class family. Howard hopes her books will show children that their stories are important.

“I want them to see themselves as part of America’s past and future,” she said.

Howard, a former librarian and professor, is a beloved author who lives in Pittsburgh, my hometown. So I’m particularly proud to share her work.

Please join us in celebrating vanguard author Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard on day 26 of our campaign:

Please tell us about the role storytelling played in your family. How did that experience help shape you as a writer?

Storytelling was definitely important in my family. My mom, dad, Cousin Chita, Aunt Flossie, Aunt Jo were all storytellers. Sunday dinner was the best time. We heard about Raw Head and Bloody Bones, Uncle Clem and the great train, great Baltimore fire, waffle man, Chita’s dad (Uncle Harry) and Cuba, etc. I learned the joy and necessity of family stories and their importance in African-American family life.

I read that you call yourself the “Grandma Moses” of children’s books because you began writing them later in your life. What inspired you to write for children?

I was a children’s librarian for five years at Boston Public Library. When I had my own kids, I became dedicated again (as when growing up) to books for kids. As a professor of library science, I taught mainly children’s literature and began meeting authors as I attended many conferences. I recognized forcefully the dearth of books about African-American experiences by African-American authors. I was inspired by the charm and simplicity of family stories by Cynthia Rylant such as When I was Young In the Mountains. I wondered if my experience as a 7-year-old riding with my 4-year-old sister all day on the train from Boston to Baltimore could get published. I did not know any family stories about just the every-day life of the regular middle-class, so in my mid 50s, I gave it a try.

How did your first picture book, Train to Lulu’s, come to be? Please share your path to publication. What were the toughest and most rewarding moments?

I joined the writers workshop at Marilyn Hollinshead’s wonderful Pinnochio, children’s book store. I sent my story off to good friend Trina Schart Hyman for comments. She was VERY helpful and said the story needed conflict which I added. I sent it off. It was rejected by several publishers. I accosted Richard Jackson, an editor at Bradbury, at ALA. I told him I had sent it to him and received no answer. He was chagrined. He grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me away from the hubbub around his booth and urged me “Send it again!” I did and he accepted it!!!! Happiness!

He soon left Bradbury leaving the book with editor Barbara Lalicki, one of the editors who had rejected the manuscript. Help! But she wrote to me: “I see it is my happy fate to be involved with TRAIN TO LULU’S after all and she saw it through to publication in spring 1988. Joy! My most rewarding moment was driving over to Pinnocchio Bookstore to a book party for ME! But I certainly didn’t think I was a children’s book author.

My family was ecstatic! My dad kept grinning and repeating: “I can’t stop reading this book!” My sister Babs loved it although she was a little unhappy that I had made her cry (in response to Trina Hyman’s advice regarding the story needing some conflict . . . (“I never cried!” she said.)  Lulu had left us at age 96 way back in 1966, but all of the named folks gathering at the train station in Baltimore raved! I was already a grandma when my first book was published.

What was the racial landscape like when you first entered the field? How has it changed? What gains make you proud? What do you hope the future brings?

Well, there were very few books about African American kids, very few black authors…hardly anything about contemporary families i.e. mid-20th century. So the field has changed exponentially!!! I am excited about Christopher Paul Curtis, Sharon Flake, Angela Johnson, etc..etc..etc.. Many distinguished authors. Starting in very late ’80s, ballooning in the ’90s , multicultural books were hot!! Every regular publisher and new one had to have a multicultural list. African-American books and authors got mixed in that madness. For a time, I had a sense that some teachers and school districts might have been thinking, ‘Maybe we’re getting too many “multicultural” books.’ For a while, it seemed interest in black authors and books was flagging.

You’ve been heralded for your portrayal of loving relationships in middle-class African-American families. I read that you love to show that African-American stories are true American stories. Could you please talk about that? Why is that important?

 I’ve always stressed to audiences that the African-American story/stories is/are the AMERICAN STORY. People forgot that we were here. We were not on the edge of the history. We were very much part of it. The picture books I’ve had published show family relationships… One of my speeches/ talks is titled: We All Have Our Aunt Flossie’s. I’ve been told that the stories about a
particular person (Aunt Flossie) and her role in a family mirrors people in any American family…listeners see themselves in Chita’s relationship with her dad…WE ARE CONNECTED beyond blood or ethnic heritage. We are human.

Your books have won many accolades and awards. What writing accomplishments make you most proud? How do you measure success?

Aunt Flossie’s Hats, illustrated by James Ransome, continues to get sizeable royalties every year. The illustrations were absolutely stunning. I’m proud of it for all of those reasons. I’m excited about Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, because it came about as a result of travel we did.

We knew my dad had said my grandfather had been born in Tennessee. The brothers had all gotten educated, but we didn’t know anything about their childhood. When I heard about the walk through the woods carrying their food for the week, I immediately thought picture book. I read that the Quakers had established a school after the Civil War and the building was still on Main Street in Jonesborough, TN. I got very excited. We stayed for a week and found out there were Fitzgeralds still there.

I read that you didn’t see black characters in the books you read as a child. How did this influence your work? Why it is important for children to see themselves in books? You’ve been a librarian and professor of library science. In what ways can authors and libraries work together to raise awareness of black children’s books?

 
I think when I was a young reader the race of the people in books didn’t matter . . . We lived in an African-American lady’s rooming house. The other dwellers were black grad students. The house was the biggest and best on the street. No one else on the street was black. All the kids at our schools were white.

The only black kid I saw was my sister. Sooo . . . if kids we played with were white, and the people I met in books were white, in my early years, I identified with them. Maybe I thought book people just happened to be white. And I grew up identifying with Heidi and the Five Little Peppers and the Bobbsey Twins and Understood Betsy and most of all with Jo and Beth March. And it didn’t matter what color they were.

But suppose I had had black book friends? I know now that I would have been delighted to see myself in a book. When our daughters were brownie scouts and saw that book about the little African-American brownie, I was so pleased. And of course, there was the SNOWY DAY. It was so exciting to have a Caldecott winner with a black main character. I belatedly began to miss reading books with me in them. So in the ’80s, publishers, librarians and teachers got “religion” and began sloooowly to realize the importance of books about black children and I recognized how important it truly was for NON-BLACK kids to have access to books showing how black kids were basically like them.

And still, in West Virginia, I heard from teachers: “We don’t have any black kids in our school so we don’t need to buy books about black kids” [or Mexican, Chinese, Indian, etc.] So when I began to visit schools and talk about multicultural books for kids, I stressed/shouted that if they didn’t have black kids , it was all the more essential to have books featuring African-American characters. I am convinced of the power of books in developing self worth. Librarians and teachers have a responsibility to work to foster this.

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of one of your most celebrated works, Aunt Flossie’s Hats (and Crabcakes Later). How has your career grown since its debut? What have been some of the most meaningful moments?

I am forever grateful to James Ransome and to Dorothy Briley, beloved late editor at Clarion (before Dinah Stevevson) for this book!  Nine-and-a-half years ago or so, I called the publicity director at Clarion reminding her that Aunt Flossie was coming up on 10  years. I said, “Shouldn’t we celebrate?” She said, “Oh yes, maybe an article in Horn Book or something.” And I think I also called Dinah. At any rate, Dinah called me and told me that Clarion would like some biographical material and they would publish a new edition!!!!!!!!!

My career sky-rocketed after Aunt Flossie’s Hats. It took off on its own. People have been so enthusiastic, because everybody has an Aunt Flossie… Aunt Flossie got me the invitation to South Africa where I gave a keynote address for the first international children’s literature conference in Africa on the topic: We All Have Our Aunt Flossie’s. I have been all sorts of places where when people realize I’m me, they say, “Oh, Aunt Flossie’s Hats!”

What’s your mission?

My mission broadly is to get kids connected to books. I want them to see themselves as part of America’s past and future. I want to tell stories of the African-American family. I want to have black kids meet black authors. I want to remind children that they have stories.

Aunt Flossie’s Hats (and Crabcakes Later) was brought to life in a special way last year as part of Pittsburgh’s Storywalk. What did that mean to you?

Storywalk was so much fun. They take a section of Frick Park and set up tents and have golf carts that take authors to one place or another. Aunt Flossie’s Hats was at the end. They had put up a sort of stage and the Park’s department had made models of Aunt Flossie and Sarah and Susan. It was totally delightful. I told Aunt Flossie’s Hats about twelve times. It was so much fun.

What advice would you give to writers just beginning their journey to write for children?

You need to know children’s books. Ideally, read a lot of children’s books. If you know you want to do an alphabet picture books,
you better look at a whole lot of alphabet books. Check out to see what’s already been done. Such a logical, almost no-brainer, first thing to do. I think that going back to one’s own childhood, trying to be a kid. When you’re young and have young children in your house, that’s ideal. If you can, be part of a writing group. It’s very encouraging and affirming. At Pinnochio bookstore, we would come and hear what anyone had to read. Maybe a half-dozen or so folks would be there and we would hear what someone was reading and offer suggestions. It’s good to join a local SCBWI, go to conferences, things like like that.

Your beautiful books have endured in libraries and classrooms around the country. What tips can you offer those who would like to become an author with staying power?

If you’re writing picture books, hope you’ll be paired with an illustrator who will be really helpful. I have been so fortunate with the illustrators – E.B. Lewis, James Ransome, Floyd Cooper. Ten books had nine illustrators.

You have to know if you’re trying to write a picture book that it’s a joint production with the illustrator. In writing the book, don’t over tell. The illustrator needs to be part of the whole story. His or her vision of the story can be quite different from yours. The illustrator does have freedom and you can be disappointed. But sometimes you’re lucky enough to have the right illustrator for your book.

People are doing much more school visiting today. If children’s book authors are trying to make money, it’s school visits that can really do it. Once upon a time, it was just the book itself.

What’s next for you as an author? 

I’m working on a novel about growing up in a rooming house in the Depression.


What’s your greatest joy?

Family. Seeing what our children turn into. And if you think children are fun, wait until you have grandchildren. It’s just a total delight. So many things that provide pleasure – a concert, reading a book, the snowstorm we just had was beautiful. The sun shining on snow-laden branches really is glorious.

The Buzz on Virgie Goes to School With Us Boys:

Howard (Chita’s Christmas Tree) plucks fruit from her family tree for this stellar story of an African-American girl determined to get an education just like her brothers. Narrated by the young C.C. (Howard’s grandfather), the tale is set during Reconstruction, when schools sprang up all over the South to help educate the children of freed slaves, and it is based on the particular school attended by the real-life C.C. and his siblings in Jonesborough, Tenn. Virgie, the youngest of the siblings and the only girl, is determined to attend the school, despite the protests of her family (“You scarcely big as a field mouse. And school’s seven miles from here!”). Finally, her parents acquiesce, sending her off with her five brothers with a week’s worth of food and clothing in a bucket. Undeterred by a slip in the creek and a scary trek through the woods (“Didn’t I tell you about Raw Head and Bloody Bones? Get you if you’re not good, folks said. Might get you anyway”), Virgie is a radiant heroine. The easy flow of vernacular effortlessly propels the story, and Howard proves herself adept at plucking a large-scale episode from history and adapting it to the scale of a picture book. Lewis’s (The Bat Boy and His Violin) luminous watercolors capture both the rhythms of C.C. and Virgie’s rural existence and the story’s emotional subtext, and his character studies fairly burst with life.

— Publisher’s Weekly

The youngest and the only girl in a family with five boys, Virgie works hard to convince everyone she is old enough, strong enough, and smart enough to attend the school set up by the Quakers for recently freed blacks in Jonesborough, TN. By the end of summer, she has convinced her family that she can make the seven-mile walk to board at school each week and willingly handle the job of “learning to be free.” The story is a superb tribute to the author’s great aunt, the inspiration for this book. Howard crystallizes each of the family members, setting the protagonist snugly in the midst of annoying but loving brothers and wise parents. A note provides more information about the school and family. Lewis’s watercolor illustrations capture the characters with warmth and dignity; the many double-page spreads evoke the vastness of both the land and the immensity of Virgie’s undertaking. There is a blush of dialect and two thrilling references to Raw Head and Bloody Bones waiting in the woods to catch the children on their way to school. Youngsters will enjoy Virgie but it will be years before they can harvest all that is planted in this gentle tale. A worthy choice for read-alouds and independent reading.


The Brown Bookshelf at TLA

April 19, 2017

We’ve taken our 10th anniversary celebration on the road. Please join us today at 2:45 p.m. for our Texas Library Association session, Celebrating Diversity: The Brown Bookshelf Salutes Great Books for Kids (Room 303ABC, Ballroom level). The presenters are Gwendolyn Hooks and Kelly Starling Lyons.

Here are the session hand-outs which include book lists and resources:

BBS Booklist TLA

TLA Handout – BBS

Our Brown Bookshelf signing will be at the Overlooked Books booth #1917 at 6 p.m. this evening. We’d love to see you. Come by and say hi to Don Tate, Crystal Allen, Gwendolyn Hooks and Kelly Starling Lyons and pick up a book or a few to share with kids back home.

Several of us will also be presenting other sessions throughout the conference and signing with our publishers. Our full schedule is below. Thanks so much for your support.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 19

12:15 p.m. Room 221CD, Panel: What’s New with Texas Children’s Authors and Illustrators?
Crystal Allen and Don Tate among featured authors.

2:45-3:45 p.m. Celebrating Diversity: The Brown Bookshelf Salutes Great Books for Kids. Presenters are Gwendolyn Hooks and Kelly Starling Lyons.
Room 303ABC, Ballroom level

3:00 p.m. Room 302AB Texas Bluebonnet Speed Dating
Crystal Allen and Don Tate  among featured authors

6:00 p.m. Brown Bookshelf signing at Overlooked Books booth #1917 , Exhibit Hall
Don Tate, Crystal Allen, Gwendolyn Hooks and Kelly Starling Lyons

THURSDAY, APRIL 20

10:30 a.m, Don Tate Signing STRONG AS SANDOW with Charlesbridge
Autographing Area Aisle 3

11:00 a.m. Gwendolyn Hooks signing TINY STITCHES, Lee & Low booth #2724 (Hall 4, Aisle 7)

11:00 a.m. Kelly Starling Lyons signing ONE MORE DINO ON THE FLOOR, Albert Whitman booth #2024

Noon Don Tate Signining WHOOSH! with Chris Barton, Charlesbridge
Autographing Area Aisle 3

1:00 p.m. Don Tate Signing AMAZING AGE OF JOHN ROY LYNCH with Chris Barton, Eerdmans
Booth #2722

2:00 p.m. Don Tate Signing WHOOSH! with Chris Barton, Mackin

3:30 p.m. Don Tate Signing POET, Peachtree
Booth #2716

FRIDAY, April 21

9:00 a.m., Don Tate Signing with Chris Barton, Jennifer Ziegler,
Author Area, Aisle 5

9:45 a.m. Room 301BC, Panel, Do Author Visits Make a Difference?
Don Tate is one of the featured authors. (Ballroom Level)

9:45-10:45 a.m. Discover the Spirit of Middle School Reading Program                          Crystal Allen is a featured author.

2:00 p.m. Crystal Allen Signing The Magnificent Mya Tibbs, HarperCollins booth