Day 14: Tiffany D. Jackson

February 14, 2018

Tiffany D JacksonLast winter, Tiffany D. Jackson’s debut YA novel ALLEGEDLY had a lot of people talking with it’s emotionally charged story literally ripped from the courtroom. Kirkus called the novel “searing and true,” adding it “effectively joins Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th and Michelle Alexander’s THE NEW JIM CROW (2010) to become another indictment of the penal system’s decimating power beyond its bars.” In June, we’ll be treated to a second novel, also based on a real life court case.

THE JOURNEY

TB: When did you start your writing journey?

allegedly coverTJ: My journey started when I was four! I wrote short stories for my mom, lumping random letters together to make them look like real words, and always grew frustrated when she couldn’t read them back to me. Fast forward to college, where I majored in Film and Television but still dreamed of becoming an author, working on stories during summer and winter breaks. Then in 2012, about a decade into my television career, I read of a case involving a nine-year-old being charged with murder. Fascinated, I began crafting a story that would ultimately become my debut novel, ALLEGEDLY. It took two years to polish the story, but I found an agent and landed a deal within a year and finally published in January of 2017.

TB: How do you think your background in film and television comes to play in your writing?

TJ: My background plays a crucial part in my creative process. I tend to write cinematically, meaning I treat each chapter as scenes or acts in a movie, painting pictures that can be clearly visualized. For structure, I follow Syd Field’s famous script writing “Paradigm” formula, which helps with plotting, pacing and tension building. Also, I’m used to cutting shows down to time in order to fit specific programming clocks for broadcast. This makes me a ruthless self-editor when it comes to my novels. If a scene doesn’t help to move the story forward, I trash it, no matter how pretty it is.

THE BACKSTORY

 

MondaysNotComing HCTB: Tell us about your upcoming title.

TJ: MONDAY’S NOT COMING is similar to ALLEGEDLY in that the story is loosely inspired by a real case that occurred in 2009, requiring extensive research. The story takes place in Southeast Washington D.C and deals with gentrification, mental health in the black community, and the biases of missing children. Coincidentally, I turned in my first draft a week before the story on the missing black teen girls in D.C went viral (#missingDCgirls).

But the REAL backstory I attribute to my best friend Tara. When we were in the third grade, Tara sprained her ankle and was out of school for a week. One of the worst weeks of my life! I never realized how connected we were and experienced how it felt to live without my better half. I poured those memories and feelings into every page of MNC.

THE INSPIRATION

TB: What inspired you to write?

TJ: Growing up, I was the type of girl who wanted stories that were relatable to my surroundings in Brooklyn and turned to adult novels at an early age. This inspired me to write for the type of kid that I was, in search of raw, gritty tales.

TB: Is this need for gritty tales the catalyst for choosing stories based on actual legal cases?

TJ: These two particular cases stood out and reminded me of so many unanswered questions I had as a teen. For example, I often wondered why a kid snatched and thrown in the back of a van near my elementary school was barely spoken of yet girls like Elizabeth Smart had weeks of national coverage.

I am hoping using cases will drive home the point to kids that these situations are really happening to their fellow peers. It’s not always about spoon-feeding kids lessons, it’s about putting them in another person’s shoes and letting them walk on their own, ultimately helping them to develop compassion and empathy by seeing injustice through a wider lens.

TB: What other “under the radar” African-American book creators do you want to shout out?

TJ: Liara Tamani’s CALLING MY NAME is SO stunning, poetic and beautiful. I gave five copies of it away for Christmas to friends.

TB: Liara is another one of our honorees this year, you’ll see her post on Day 20!

THE STATE OF KIDLIT

TB: What is your take on the state of the industry especially as regards African-American Kidlit?

TJ: I still consider myself quite the newbie, learning something new everyday about this industry. The good and the bad. But one thing I love about the African-American Kidlit community is the quality of the books we’re publishing, the risks and beautiful ingenuity. So although we still have a lot of work to do in order for publishing giants to respect our stories and journey, it gives me great hope that we have so much beauty to share and readers eager to receive it.

You can find Tiffany at her website, on twitter,  and Instagram.

 


Day 13: Fracaswell Hyman

February 13, 2018

fracaswellA veteran TV writer and producer, the talents of Fracaswell Hyman have brought you shows like Ghostwriter, Gullah Gullah, Island, The Famous Jett Jackson, Taina and Romeo. He never planned on writing children’s television programs, Fracaswell’s dream was to be in front of the camera. The lesson: Dream Big. He did it all. As an actor, he appeared in Malcolm X, Ghostwriter, Separate But Equal and Law and Order. He’s in an upcoming stage production of Fences in Wilmington, NC where he lives. His latest leap? Becoming a middle-grade author. His acclaimed novel, Mango Delight, has won a starred review from Booklist and earned praise for its originality, complexity and understanding of the friendship issues tweens face. We look forward to more great work from him.

Please join us in celebrating Fracaswell Hyman on Day 13 of our campaign:

The Journey

I began my career as an actor. Having spent many years touring the country in regional theater productions, I was happy to get a steady job working with the Living Stage Theater Company, the community outreach arm of the Arena Stage of Washington, D.C. Living Stage was mainly an improvisational company that did performances and theater workshops for diverse groups. We performed for kids from preschool to high school, PINS (Persons In Need of Supervision), children with disabilities, and incarcerated men and women, senior citizens and others. I was with the company for five years, and I believe getting up close and personal with such diverse audiences opened my eyes, ears and heart to people from all walks of life.

Returning to New York, I volunteered to work with The 52nd Street Project, where we wrote plays starring the children of the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan. A producer from PBS saw my work and thought I had an ear for the way kids speak and think. This lead to my first job writing for television on the literary series, Ghostwriter. From there I went on to create, produce, write and direct television shows for Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and Sesame Workshop.

Finding a child’s voice and seeing their point of view has always come naturally to me. I don’t actually look at it as though I have to write down to this audience. I write to them as I would an adult or senior citizen. For me, it’s all about allowing myself to take on the skin of whatever character is before me and striving to understand the world through their experience, emotions and actions. I guess its kind of like being an actor, except this way, I use a keyboard to perform.

The Back Story

When my daughter was in elementary school, I volunteered to work in the school mangodelightlibrary/media center. It was a good way to see what kids were reading and get to know some of her schoolmates. Each year when the book fair would come around, I’d notice how few books there were with characters that looked like my daughter on the covers. Now, my daughter loved Junie B. Jones and the Babysitters Club and other books about girls her age, but it disturbed me that the books with girls that looked like her on the covers were always connected to slavery, the Underground Railroad, civil rights, etc. Believe me, there is nothing wrong with these books, they are important, but the fact that books about contemporary Black girls like my daughter were few to none disturbed me. So, I set out to write one.

I opened myself up to the possibility of creating a character that looked like my daughter, had a diverse group of friends and dealt with the issues, problems and challenges faced by contemporary girls regardless of race. As often happens, one morning, between being asleep and coming awake, a name appeared before me, “Mango Delight.” I was immediately intrigued. Having to contend with an “odd” name my entire life, I felt an quick connection with this girl. As I lie there yawning and stretching, I began to see her, her friends and her family and what kind of dilemmas she might face. It’s not magic, it takes a lot of work to bring it all together, but when a character presents herself to you the best thing you can do is welcome her and be grateful that she’s giving you the opportunity to bring her to the world.

Full circle moment: Mango Delight, has been picked up by Scholastic and will be featured in their Book Clubs and Book Fairs across the country and various territories. Yes!

The Process

Although there are no absolutes for me when it comes to process, most of the time I start with the character. Who is s/he? What does s/he want? What is s/he willing to do to get it? What would make him/her go too far…and how do I chart a course for him/her to get to the place where they “cross the line”? I attempt to put my characters in situations that would cause them to make uncomfortable or maybe even unjustifiable choices that they have to find a way to justify to themselves and others.

I don’t concern myself with how likable a character is in the moment, because I’m not looking to create a role model. First and foremost, I’m looking to create and explore characters that are human, not perfect. Characters that make mistakes that the reader can identify with, understand, and hopefully forgive. I trust that these characters will help us all learn to forgive ourselves and others when needed.

I “try” to put myself on a schedule. (I don’t always succeed, but I set out with the best intentions and it works most of the time.) Fifteen hundred to two thousand words a day, six days a week, whether I feel inspired or not. Normally, I begin by going over what I wrote the day before and then continuing on from there. By the time I finish editing work from the day before I’m all warmed up, back in character and ready to move forward.

I have a nice, private office in my home. Sometimes I work there or sometimes I’ll go to a library or coffee shop to get away from distractions. Right now, I’m seated at the kitchen table, which I’ve taken over for months. Why? I don’t know…I just go with the flow and see where I land.

My process is born from trial and error. What works for me may not work for you at all. Trust yourself, you will find your own way. At some point, my process may shift, evolve and morph into something else. That’s fine. I relish the freedom of the journey and the mystery along the way.

The State of the Industry

First and foremost, I am grateful that my novel, Mango Delight, was picked up by Sterling Publishing. I’m very happy that they chose an illustrator of color, Frank Morrison, to create a cover that is authentic and attractive. With my editor and his team, I have been extremely lucky. Of course, I believe “luck” is at the intersection where opportunity and preparation meet, so I’m proud that I was ready for the opportunity.

That said, I’ve come across some disturbing statistics of late.

–          White authors and illustrators create 88% of all children’s literature.

–          Last year, only 2% of the 3,400 children’s books that were published featured Black characters written by Black authors.

–          In 2013, before the #weneeddiversebooks movement started, 75% of books featuring Black characters were written by Black authors. Now, only 30% of books featuring Black characters are written by Black authors.

[Data Source: Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s Publishing Statistics on Children’s Books about People of Color and First/Native Nations.]

I’ve seen this phenomenon time and time again while working in television. A white writer will create a character/show about a child very much like their own. A network will offer to pick up the show if they make the main character a Latina. They do. The show goes on to huge popularity, makes millions of dollars and has absolutely no connection to the culture they have appropriated whatsoever. There is no compunction to bring in producers, writers or consultants with any real power or influence. And ninety-nine percent of the millions of dollars generated never reach the communities of the children they’ve exploited to make their show relevant.

Illustrators/writers will draw a character, give him a little Afro and an ethnic name with a vowel on the end, and suddenly he’s the darling of the industry. The fact that this character or his experiences have absolutely nothing to do with his culture is irrelevant to those who are making money by diving into the #weneeddiversebooks pool.

Then we have to “tastemakers.” Bloggers, critics, teachers and librarians who’ve spent years getting advance copies of books so that they can gush over stories that warm their hearts. Stories where characters who look like them come to some great understanding about “the other,” or visa versa. These “tastemakers” may only come in contact with children of color in their classrooms, libraries or what they see on TV and the movies, but they have the gall to insist on whether characters sound “authentic” to them or not. Trust and believe, the image your students represent to you in the classroom can be very different from the image they find comfort in at home on in the streets.

Solutions? Let’s begin with;  #weneeddiverseeditors #weneeddiverseceos #weneeddiversetastemakers! We need diversity in the offices where decisions are made. We need to open our minds and question our own tastes when it comes to what is a valid character or credible way to tell a story. I believe some of the best intentioned people are blind to their own notions of what is authentic as opposed to what they are used to or find culturally palatable.

Sometimes it is not advisable to speak out, or speak truth to power. Throughout my career,  I’ve been warned by well-meaning friends not to let myself get painted by the “angry black man” brush. But I’ve come to believe that there is nothing wrong with anger, as long as it is channeled to bring about positive results–not to hurt. The overwhelming majority of people I’ve worked with throughout my long career have had the best of intentions. Now, it’s time for those intentions to be infused with purpose. We’ve got to be able to step out of our own comfort zones and broaden our own ways of looking at the world as we seek to not only make more room at the table, but build better, larger, sturdier, and more effective tables for the future. 

The Buzz

“Hyman marries traditional tween elements with a fresh and original plot, and his multicultural cast sparkles with individuality and authenticity. Hailey Joanne is much more complex than she originally seems, and Hyman’s supporting characters, both kids and adults, are vivid and dynamic. Mango is as delightful as her middle name indicates, and middle-grade readers will easily recognize their own experiences in her friendship struggles. This is Hyman’s first novel; here’s hoping it’s not his last.”

– Booklist, Starred Review

“The writing is accessible without being trite, and Mango’s inner struggle to be a better person is presented in an interesting and relatable fashion. VERDICT: An appealing addition, featuring an African American protagonist, for all middle grade collections; hand to reader who enjoy friendship drama and gentle realism.”

– School Library Journal

Learn more at https://fracaswellhyman.com/.


Day 12: Ebony Glenn

February 12, 2018

EbonyGlennEdit Ebony Glenn is an illustrator and artist living on the quiet outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia. With an arts degree in Drawing and Painting from UNG , she aspires to bring stories to life with fanciful illustrations that are filled with whimsy and charm.

While looking through her website,  I was captivated by her  bright colorful illustrations. And somehow everything she draws seems to have a warm childlike innocence. Even the adults!  It’s no wonder that her new book, Mommy’s Khimar, has received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist!

While we anxiously await its release date of April 3, 2018, I was lucky enough to pick her brain on a few things. Here are her comments.

THE JOURNEY

JC: When did you start your writing journey?

EG: Ever since I was a girl, I’ve always known that I wanted to make art for a living.  Illustration has always been my solace, my way of escaping reality to an imaginary world.  Yet it wasn’t until after college that I began to explore the idea of turning this passion into a career. 

While working a part-time job in the day, I worked on my portfolio at night.   I believed in my ability to create compelling imagery for children’s books, so I sought out ways to improve my skills and gain knowledge of the publishing industry.  I studied the artwork of many successful illustrators, experimented with different artistic mediums, read plenty of books on the subject, and joined the organization SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) to help me meet other like-minded folk. 

In 2016, I was fortunate enough to be approached by the Bright Agency for artistic representation, and it’s been a blessing ever since.

mommys-khimar-9781534400597_LR

THE BACKSTORY

 

JC: Tell us a little about Mommy’s Khimar.

EG: Simply put, my wonderful agents at Bright were instrumental in helping me obtain the opportunity to illustrate Mommy’s Khimar, a picture book written by the talented Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow.  It’s a story of a sweet, little Muslim girl who loves to wear her mother’s headscarves.

THE INSPIRATION

JC: What are some of the things that inspire you?

EG: I believe a story that can captivate the mind and transport the reader to another world, time, or place is a very inspirational feat. Be it a movie, a play, or a great book, a story that is told masterfully fuels my imagination.  I’m also inspired by the artwork of many illustrators from the past as well as our modern age.  For example, the illustrations of Bernie Fuchs, Kadir Nelson and Annette Marnat are just a few whose artwork currently inspire me; my favorites always differ.

 I also believe that Life is great source of inspiration.  Sometimes it’s the simplest events in my day that can inspire me to draw something new.

26910691_10210803275494301_5275466459641175483_o

THE PROCESS

JC: And finally, what’s your artistic process like?

EG: Like many artists, I work best alone in the comforts of my home.  I always begin my illustration process by brainstorming ideas and and getting them on paper.  Depending on the project, I may visit the library or scour the internet for research material, and if feasible, I may even travel to ensure that my illustrations are as authentic as possible.  I also find it helpful to post my artwork on a large corkboard.  This way I can track my progress and make sure that my illustrations are working well together.

Thank you, Ebony. To learn more about her, and see more of her wonderful illustrations, please visit her Website atwww.ebonyglenn.com

Follow her on Facebook and Twitter: @artsyebby

 

 

 


Day 11: Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl

February 11, 2018

photo credit: Paige Louw


“My goal is to focus on crafting stories for global audiences inspired by my Ugandan heritage. Set primarily in East and Southern Africa, my stories aim to illuminate the everyday and diverse experiences of African children, while celebrating human universality.” says Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl on Mater Mea. And with its celebration of both the unique and the universal, SLEEP WELL, SIBA AND SABA reads like a loving literary hug. Please join us in welcoming Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl and her children’s literature debut!

The Journey:
I think like many writers, my path to publishing started long ago…as a reader. I read quite a bit as a child and as a young adult, and at some point (about 15 years ago), I recognized that stories that featured an African perspective were missing along the spectrum of fiction from children’s literature to adult literary fiction.  I noticed an even larger absence of African stories written by African writers but wasn’t sure what role I could play. My career path eventually led to work in international development as a writer and editor for specialized UN agencies and international NGOs. I write about a broad range of topics from public health to social protection, education, and other rights-based issues for projects in East and Southern Africa. My family is from Uganda so working in the development context had always been an aspiration.
Over the last decade of working and living in East and Southern Africa, and more recently while living in Johannesburg when I was pregnant with my daughter, I returned to this idea that brown, and more specifically African faces, were missing from the books that I would want to share with her. At the same time, I couldn’t find a children’s book about Uganda that captured how I felt about the country. I also vividly remember so many people struggling to pronounce my Ugandan name while growing up in the US, and very much wanted my daughter to see her own Ugandan name reflected on the bookshelf (Saba is short for Nsaba, which is my daughter’s name).
With all of this as fuel, I decided to take a leap and write a story for my daughter that captured my love of Uganda and that portrayed the many beautiful things that I love about the country. That story was Sleep Well, Siba and Saba and my husband insisted that I try to publish it. Since then, I have not looked back.

The Back Story:
Once I conceived of Siba and Saba, I had to think about where the best literary home for the story would be. Not knowing any published authors personally, or anything about the publishing world for that matter, I reached out to some friends for their contacts and did quite a bit of research online. I also realized that with my story, the illustrations the way in which Uganda would be represented mattered just as much as the story. Through the book, I wanted to create a space for the beauty of Uganda to be celebrated in the world, and by global audiences. From my research, however, it seemed that an author had very little input on the selection of an illustrator or the illustration style at larger publishing houses. Based on that alone, I thought it would be a good idea to focus on a smaller, independent publisher. I spent several months searching online for publishers that focused on diverse stories, and when I found Lantana, I had a gut feeling that they were the one. I sent my story out once, only to them as an exclusive submission, and the rest is………

The Inspiration:
My first inspiration can be found very close to home from my family. I am internally motivated to honor my lineage and culture, as I believe my grandfather would have wanted it. I have witnessed such unsung nobility and grace in African families. I feel obligated to share these storiesif even through the lens of a story for children.
I also draw a lot of inspiration these days from contemporary African visual artists, like Njideka Akunyili Crosby (Nigeria) and Billy Zangewa (Malawi/South Africa). I’m also a fan of the British-born, Ghanaian Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. All three of these women have an amazing, textured brilliance to their artworks that inspires me to create their works are worlds and stories unto themselves. I am also currently absolutely inspired by the prolific Japanese author-illustrator Tarō Gomi, who has written hundreds of books for readers of all ages. I find the simplicity of his illustrations stunning.

The Process:
I usually start with a concept or an idea, a niggling feeling really, that turns into an idea. And then I take it from there. I write it out, as bad as it may be. And then I refine and refine over months (and sometimes years). I just write…and re-write.
* Where Do We Go From Here? (What are your ideas for next steps, for artists, young people — toward a more just world. And: what projects do you have coming up next?)
I have set my personal sights on Africa. Many efforts from business and development to art and storytelling have emerged in recent years to help shift the African narrative. I include myself in that process largely through African-inspired children’s books, but also as a champion of contemporary African art and other projects that focus on the beauty that is black and African culture. I think given the current climate, this has considerable value if we want to raise children that are considerate, empathetic, and have a more global outlook.
In terms of upcoming projects, I have another children’s book coming out with Lantana in the fall and several more stories in progress. I also recently launched an art consultancy, Africa Facing Art, with my husband. Africa Facing Art’s mission is to connect U.S. public and private spaces, and collections, with the contemporary art of Africa.
For any author, artist, or young person looking to make a change, start in any way you can. Just start. I deferred so many dreams when I was younger. I encourage everyone to take that leap. Now.


Day 10: L.L. McKinney

February 10, 2018

BladeSoBlack_CVRThere have been days where I’ve literally felt like grabbing my favorite snack and watch L.L. McKinney go after folks on Twitter who seem to have made it a part-time job to come for her and her views.  I was excited to talk about how much the Twitterverse has changed since she joined the platform in 2009.  Specifically related to books and  publishing industry talk.

BBS: How different is ElleonWords 2017 than ElleonWords 2009?

She is less naïve about what it takes to be a writer in this world and this industry that, to be frank, doesn’t want to see Black Women succeed at anything. Not really. She is more outspoken, she goes after what she wants, she lets nothing stand in her way. She’s honestly a bit angrier, but it’s more a fire that drives her than some unwieldy emotion that makes her irrational.

Contrary to popular belief—and what the stereotypes would like you to think—this rightful, valid, vindicated anger makes her more focused, on the bigger picture and her place in it, her goals, her dreams, and her willingness to do what it takes to reach them and bring along whoever else she can.

She is older, wiser, a bit more weary and battle-worn, but far more experienced and ready. But even with all that, she’s no match for ElleOnWords 2025, can’t wait to meet that woman.

BBS: Are you ever concerned that being outspoken will adversely affect your publishing path?

No. Not anymore. I mean, I was. I think a lot of people start off that way. We’re fed this lie that standing up for ourselves, for our humanity and that of others, will somehow damage us, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Of course there are instances where speaking up and speaking out does result in pushback or being exiled from certain circles, kept from reaching certain plateaus, but in the age of social media, things are changing.

There are people who would certainly like to see my outspokenness have a negative impact on my career, who have tried to facilitate that impact themselves, but I’ve surrounded myself with people who’ve got my back the same way I have theirs. And my Granny instilled in all of her grandchildren the understanding that we don’t have to fight our own battles. Woe to those who unjustly and unfairly attack a child of the most high, and I stand on that and other aspects of my faith.

BBS: Can authors be their authentic self on social media (standing by their causes) and separate that from their work? Should they expect librarians, teachers, and parents to compartmentalize and separate the author’s views from the books?

I don’t think so, no, because who you are influences your work. It comes out on the page, whether you mean to or not, that’s just a part of the creative process. And not just for writing, but also for music, for visual art. You can hear, feel, see the differences in an artist’s energy from when they were composing whatever piece you’re interacting with. An author’s racism, phobia, sexism, etc., will be present. Whether people will be aware enough to pick up on it is a different story.

And that segues into another issue with trying to separate the art from the artist in such a way. I’m not saying that if a writer creates a bigot as a main or side character that they themselves are automatically one as well, but that we all have our biases, some more apparent than others. Say you do have an author who is racist, based on their personal statements and opinions, but they are continually rewarded just because they can write a “good” book. We as individuals and as a society need to decide our limits on what is or isn’t acceptable. By separating the racist writer’s work from their actions in order to support said work, you’re still supporting a racist. There’s no way around that, try as people might.

It’s like with everything happening in the Me Too movement, I don’t give a damn about the “positive contributions” these abusers have made, it doesn’t make them less of an abuser and they should be held accountable as such. Full stop.

BBS: What motivates you to implement initiatives like PitchSlam and WCNV? Do you believe remaining active in uplifting other authors and/or helping future writers hone their craft is simply part of the package, these days? 

I didn’t get to where I am without help from others, that is fact. For all my ability and hard work—and I’d like say I’m not light on either—there were still people in place, people who I’m blessed to know, who helped guide my path to lead to this point. There are people who’ve been with me since the beginning, people who were there but aren’t now, and people who are here now but weren’t before. I owe them, and I’m thankful to God for putting them in my life to help shape all of this. They gave to me when they didn’t have to. They didn’t get anything for helping me, but they did anyway. It’s helped open doors that, otherwise, would’ve remained closed because, again, Black Women.

If I can help someone similarly, I want to. I need to. It’s my duty. Lift as you climb, you know. Not everyone sees it that way, not everyone works for this. Some folk end up afflicted with Highlander syndrome, there can be only one, and the systems in place help facilitate this. That’s one of the reasons I push these types of initiatives because One is a lie, but it’s also boring as hell.

I like to think I’ll remain active in enterprises like PitchSlam and WCNV. I certainly aim to, but life has a way of being life. I will continuing helping future writers no matter what, though. If these particular avenues cease to provide those opportunities I’ll look for them or create them elsewhere.

BBS: There is a lot of excitement for A Blade So Black. It’s been promoted as a re-telling of Alice in Wonderland. Tell me more about it.

Alice is the first time I dared to write myself, to write what I’d been looking for in books my whole life. I love science fiction and fantasy. Love, love, love, it’s my escape. Other worlds and realms or secret ones parallel to ours are great for escaping. But I never saw myself in those stories. I was starved of that representation, so malnourished that, even when presented with the opportunity to feed myself, I didn’t. The first books I wrote were about white boys. I loved those stories, still do, I’ll probably revisit them, but Alice . . . I awakened in her narrative in a way I never was able to before.

As far as inspiration, it literally started with a What If. What if Buffy fell down the rabbit hole instead of Alice? Well, she’d killed shit, right? So that’s where it all began. I loved slayer type characters, monster hunters, vanquishing evil in the veiled corners of our world. Alice was everything I wanted to be but never saw for myself in the books that peppered my childhood. And she was in my head, it was exciting. And I looked at my niece, she was barely one at the time, and I promised her with my whole heart that if she grew up to be a geek like her aunty—who dreamed of dragons and far away lands, who hunted for magic in the shadows, who wanted to be the fierce warrior saving the day—she wouldn’t go wanting of seeing herself in what she loved.


The Buzz on A Blade So Black

See an excerpt from Entertainment Weekly


The journey 

It’s been a long one. If I remember correctly, I first started writing A BLADE SO BLACK maybe five to six years ago. It took roughly a year to finish the story and polish it. Then it was another year of querying. I’d queried two other books prior, one having received an offer of representation then some interest from editors but that went no where. I want to say it was just under three years after starting that Alice was repped. A few months of polishing and then she was off on submission. It would be two years before she found a home.

There were a few almosts, editors who really enjoyed my writing but didn’t connect with the character, some requests for revisions and resubmissions. It was difficult, people saying they loved the story, they thought it was great, but they didn’t want her. That connecting thing really bothered me, because I’d heard the same thing while querying. In fact, I’d watered down Alice as a result. She was too . . . I was gonna say niche, but I’ll just tell it like it is, she was too Black, but not in a stereotypical way media likes to portray Blackness. It wasn’t “marketable” Blackness. Ridiculous, I know.

It wasn’t until the story landed in the hands of a woman of color, my now editor Rhoda Belleza, that things clicked. We talked about a lot of things in that first phone call, but there’s one thing I remember clearly. She said something to the affect of she didn’t know how much of Alice’s essence I had taken out of the story, but she could sort of tell there’s was more at one point. She didn’t know how political I was ready to be, because simply being Black in America and telling my story is a political act, and she was ready to go as far into that as I wanted, or didn’t want. It was up to me and she wanted to support my narrative.

A Blade So Black in the author’s words: 

A BLADE SO BLACK is about dealing with trauma of all types, about finding yourself again and how you go about that, and about literally slaying what scares you. Alice fights Nightmares, which are physical manifestations of humanity’s fears. She’s for real out here killing creatures that grow out of what scares us. The story is about a girl who’s hurt and angry about various circumstances, both in her personal life struggles and in the world around her, and her coping mechanism just happens to be saving that very world that frightens her, that doesn’t seem to give a damn about her sometimes. Most of the time. It’s about standing up for yourself and being there for others. It’s about making mistakes and being okay with that. It’s about a lot more, you can find out in September.

State of the Industry

Has there been progress? Yes. Absolutely, there are women of color and Indigenous Women, Black Women especially, who’ve been doing this work and pushing this industry forward for decades. We stand on the shoulders of giants. Titans who shaped the landscape. They’ve done so much, and the only thing that could even begin to measure how much they put into this is how much pushback they and their ideals received. The strides the industry has made as a result are present, but they’re not enough. They don’t even come close to being halfway to even beginning to start to be enough.

I mentioned Highlander syndrome earlier, and it stretches beyond writers to stories. The industry is still very clearly invested in Black stories that satisfy the white gaze and it’s demand to be entertained by our collective anguish. It’s like you said, we don’t get to have the Gossip Girl, the Harry Potter, the romance, the happily ever after. Black narratives are equated with the struggle, as if our pain is the only vessel through which we can be empathized with. We’re denied pretty much every other type of narrative. We can’t be Buffy, but we can be Buffy’s magical negro for a few episodes before getting killed off. We can’t do the saving, but boy can we be saved. They can save us so good.

There is progress, but it is slow. Too slow. And I’m not interested in hearing the tired excuses about discussions happening behind the scenes and back channel talks. I’m done listening to “publishing is slow.” That slowness is out of tradition and by choice, not any sort of necessity. Have patience, we’re told. Change takes time. Time was given by those who came before is. The cost was presented and has been met. Now it’s time for publishing to pay what you owe.

 


Day 9: Vashti Harrison

February 9, 2018

Vashti HarrisonChances are you’re already familiar with Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, given it had already earned best-seller status before its official release date. But how familiar are you with its creator, Vashti Harrison? In today’s 28 Days Later spotlight, Harrison shares her path from art student to New York Times instant bestselling author-illustrator—a path paved by intentionality, industry, and determination. Read her spotlight below and join us as we celebrate her wonderful work and success story!

 

The Journey:

Children’s books were never a part of my plan. Even though I loved drawing as a child, I would never have guessed this is where I would end up. Only a few years ago, my only goal was to make films. I studied Studio Art and Media Studies at the University of Virginia (c/o 2010), where I had a focus in cinematography. I later went to CalArts to get my MFA in Film (c/o 2014). CalArts is pretty famous for being the “Disney School” of animation, but I was in an entirely different department.

While I was finishing my thesis film in my final year, I decided to take a drawing class for fun. I drew a lot as a child, through high school and into college, but once I started making films, I stopped entirely. I was so frustrated that I couldn’t keep up with the harrison cover little leadersundergrads in that program that I made it a personal goal to draw every day. I continued making films, showing them at film festivals, and I got a job in television. But everything changed when I got laid-off and I couldn’t find more work.

Illustration, weirdly, was the only thing bringing me any income; a few commissions here and there. Even though it was terrifying and I was super insecure, I was desperate for a creative job. I made a decision to move back home with my parents and give illustrating a real shot. I joined SCBWI so I would have some guidance in the world of publishing. I submitted an illustration in their #DrawThis competition and it won. It was placed in the monthly newsletter which caught the eye of an art director and I got my first offer to illustrate a book. It was equal parts validating and terrifying. Even though I was scared, I had no option but to work as hard as possible! Things really snowballed from there. Later in 2016, I went to the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Conference where I met my agent. She helped me sign a couple more picture book deals, and in Dec 2016 I moved to New York. Just two months later I had the idea for Little Leaders.

 

The Backstory:

During Black History Month 2017 I started a drawing project for myself. I wanted to illustrate one black woman from American history every day for the month of February and to post a short biography about her life. I was inspired by other art challenges like Screen Shot 2017-08-01 at 10.47.32 AMMerMay and InkTober, but I wanted to be very intentional with this project. When Carter G. Woodson started Negro History Week in 1926, he wanted to celebrate the stories that are often neglected. I felt inspired to use it as an opportunity to focus on black women specifically, whose stories have been doubly neglected through history.

I didn’t expect when I started the project how deeply connected I would feel to their stories—stories of hard work, dedication, courage through adversity, love for craft and love for family. By the first one, I knew it was project that would mean a lot to me and other people. The posts became very popular on Instagram, so I asked my agent if she thought there was potential for a book here. We pitched the idea to several publishers, and ended up with a deal from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. It all happened very quickly and in order to have it ready for Black History Month 2018 we had to hit the ground running. I finished writing the bios during the summer of 2017 and turned in all of the final artwork in late September! Around then we got an offer to do a UK edition—where we would switch out seven Americans for Brits. That was finished around the end of October and will be released March 1, 2018—in time for Women’s History Month.

 

9780316475112_LittleLeaders_Interior_4 (1)9780316475112_LittleLeaders_Interior_7 (1)

 

The Inspiration

I get inspired by a lot of things. I walk around with an active eye—perhaps a holdover from cinematography—to find magical moments anywhere. I either make mental notes of how the light is falling or about certain colors on the sidewalk, or I take photos to create a visual library. But since I didn’t study illustration, I look to other artists for inspiration as well. There are a lot of contemporary artists that I love: Pascal Campion and Brittney Lee. Classic Disney artists like Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle. Storybook illustrators Gyo Fujikawa and Miroslav Sasek. I am an active consumer of content, so I’m constantly looking and reading. I especially love going to film festivals to see what’s new on the horizon. One of my favorite things from college would be coming up with ideas for my films while I was in my film history screenings. Melies and German Expressionism will do that to you!

 

The Buzz

It’s been very exciting to see how much buzz has been stirring around my book. Posts going viral, strangers posting about it, media outlets chatting—it’s so wild! People are very, very supportive and write to me every day thanking me for creating work like this. It’s been an incredible and humbling experience.

 

Media News

The Daily Show with Trevor Noah

NAACP Image Awards

Kirkus Reviews

 

Author Social Media Links

Vashtiharrison.com

instagram.com/vashtiharrison

twitter.com/vashtiharrison

 


Day 8: Doreen Spicer-Dannelly

February 8, 2018

doreenspicerDoreen Spicer-Dannelly may be a new name in children’s literature, but for a long time she has created wonderful programs for kids. The Proud Family. Her. Jump In! Her again. The Wannabes. You got it.  It’s exciting that she’s now a middle-grade author.

Her debut, Love Double Dutch, is a fast-paced story of sisterhood, collaboration and competition, empowerment, faith and finding your inner shine. It follows Brooklyn girl MaKayla to a summer in Charlotte that becomes a journey of self-discovery. This sweet read hits shelves on April 3 and has already landed on School Library Journal’s list of   18 2018 Middle Grade Books to Have on Your Radar.

The launch of Love Double Dutch will kick off a national tour. Along with having readings, photo ops and signings, Doreen has teamed up with the National Double Dutch League:  “Kids will learn social skills, teamwork and yes, they will learn how to jump Dutch,” she says in a video promo for the kick off at her alma mater, Morgan State University.

Please join us in honoring the great work of Doreen Spicer-Dannelly on Day 8 of our campaign:

The Journey

When I set out to become a writer in entertainment, I thought television and possibly film would be the extent of it.  Never did I fathom becoming an author.  Now, I couldn’t be more excited to see the reception and future of Love Double Dutch.

The idea to pen a middle-grade novel came about when an author friend of mine, L. Divine, Drama High series, introduced me to Regina Brooks, Serendipity Lit Agency.  Regina asked me if I had any stories to which I told her I had a thought to make my favorite childhood past time, Double Dutch, into a feature film one day but it can easily be turned into a novel.  Once I pitched her the story, she liked it and immediately thought of publishers who might be interested since it filled a void of stories about, and for young African American girls.  She had me at “I like it,” then said, “But you’ll have to get me a manuscript before I pitch to anyone.” Ugh.

Having written for television, I’m used to nothing happening over night so I puttered around with the idea because I wasn’t sure I was ready for the manuscript process since I had never written a novel, nor did I fancy myself an author. However adding “author” to my list of accomplishments sounded kind of nice.  And I thought there’s no more profound impact or way of inspiring a child’s imagination than through a cherished novel.  Regina was kind enough to call me off and on for months to gently remind me she was waiting for a completed manuscript.  Even though writing a middle-grade novel was right on purpose for me, I shunned the idea of toiling over a manuscript and moreover, possible rejection.  But once I got start, I couldn’t stop.

The manuscript took about six months to get to ‘the end’ and that was really ‘the

doreen.png

Check out the Love Double Dutch book tour promo, https://youtu.be/q-7F_fnCvds. It was made specifically for her alma mater Morgan State University, but is a window into her vision. Love Double Dutch is not just a book, it’s a movement.

beginning.’  After many rounds of rewrites and several months later, Regina finally felt we were ready to release the baby to publishers. I received two or three rejections, which made me sad until she said, “Random House made an offer!”  I was ecstatic.  More so, because I quickly envisioned girls and boy curled up with the book absorbing the wisdom I tucked in between the lines.

With Random House, it was another few rounds of rewrites and I am so happy for it.  As I was encouraged to finesse the story more and more, I could only feel the novel becoming that much more special, if I may.  And to top it off, the award-winning artist, Vanessa Brantley Newton agreed to grace the cover!  Now with a fully completed middle-grade novel about MaKayla, a young girl who uses Double Dutch as her vice to cope with family issues, has galvanized a community ready to promote the book.  Thus far, it’s exceeding my dreams of becoming a bona fide author of a middle grade novel. My hope is that Love Double Dutch will go down in history as a story the encouraged kids to face their fears with confidence knowing they have the power to grow through any challenge.

The Inspiration

When I think back to the books that influenced my character and psyche, I realized how reading is truly an intimate experience.  I automatically recall several novel for different reasons.  My first introduction to the joy of reading was through the Peanuts gang collection.  Charles Schulz’s stories taught me the importance of friendship and how personalities relate or clash. (Sidebar: My collection was stolen during a move in the 80’s and although I was in high school I was devastated.) I credit Judy Blume for validating that having a spiritual relationship with God was not weird, but very okay in Are You There God It’s Me Margaret.  And The Alchemist further interested me ideologies of universal law and self-discovery. And last but not least, Omar Tyree brought nostalgia regarding my teenage years with Flyy Girl, which I absolutely love to this day.

The Process

As an artist, I only share stories, a slice of life, a script, or a short film based on what I truly feel passionate about or that’s bursting inside of me in hopes that it might resonate and possibly help someone in their journey.  Artistry can be selfish or self-serving, but as an entertainment writer I also create with the audience in mind.  Not trying to please them but to encourage or challenge their point of view.  Once I’ve finally made a decision to realize this idea, to birth this baby, I begin writing a skeleton of the story, a ‘beat sheet’ is what we call in TV writing.  Then, a full outline highlighting the real memorable nuggets, the take-aways if you will.  Sometimes, I mull the story in mind for days maybe even years before I even put it on paper.  And I’ll write when I feel it.

I’ll write in my office, bedroom, at the kitchen table, living room but I love going to coffee shops because there’s life there and great energy in some.  Writing can be a very solitary occupation so being in the mix with strangers does wonders for my spirit.  Then I’ll write and rewrite and be open to the criticisms from others.  All opinions are welcome because it lets me know if I’ve struck a chord or not with readers.  If writers finds themselves on the defensive end too much then either they’re not telling their story clearly or the readers just don’t like what they’re conveying.  It’s the writer’s choice to rethink the story or leave it as is.  The beauty of writing is you can write whatever you want.  What isn’t pretty is when no one cares for your story.  Then you have to ask the question:  Do you want a career in writing or is this a hobby that you don’t care to share?  I want to keep my career so I write from the heart of past and present experiences with the belief that my stories might strike a social or personal chord with many.

The Buzz

…Spicer-Dannelly’s ultimate message—that nobody’s perfect, and that’s more than OK—is important and unimpeachable. Kayla gets all of her great energy by channeling her frustrations and pouring it into her jumping, which is another great lesson for readers of any age. Keep this on the shelf next to other fierce sports novels, like Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl (2015) or Thatcher Heldring’s The Football Girl (2017).”

Booklist

“…Spicer-Dannelly’s debut novel is a fun, well-paced read bubbling with energy and charming, diverse characters. MaKayla’s frustrations and tomboy-tough attitude generate the friction necessary to spark interesting conversations on bullying and self-esteem. Although the brief and singular mention of MaKayla’s faith sounds an odd note, it does not hinder the plot. A sincere story of friendship, camaraderie, and family.”

Kirkus

I equate success with how I’ve positively changed someone’s life.  So when I get fan mail, an email, an Instagram pic, a Facebook message, a tweet from someone who loved one of my projects because it brought them joy or it made them believe in themselves or stopped them from dropping out of school, THAT makes me feel success.  I believe God gave me talent for just that purpose, to inspire and entertain others to create positive change.  So yes, I am very proud of my television career and shows I’ve developed and created and I am super excited about all of my projects going forth.  Love Double Dutch was such an unexpected work that I had no idea would ever happen.  I do have to admit that I always kind of want to make this film idea into a book.  Now, my hope is that some young girl or boy will say some of the same things I’ve said about the author who inspired me.  I’m also crazy excited about my book tour because I’ve teamed up with the National Double Dutch League to introduce kids to the joy of jumping.

I am, of course, very proud to be recognized by Brown Bookshelf especially since I never fancied myself to become an author and to finally have a book, as an African American and Puerto Rican woman, I am happy to be a part of the campaign with Love Double Dutch.  This means the world to me, to be recognized by this force of an organization.

Under The Radar

Author, Kamichi Jackson (K, My Name is Kendall) is an author who I believe is a rising star.  She leads her reader down a subtle yet interesting path luring you into the den of story explosiveness.  Kamichi is a bright individual with a zest for reading and creating.  I am excited about her future as an author.

The State of the Industry

First, when I heard that African American kids aren’t as avid readers as their counterparts, I wasn’t shocked because they don’t have books that speak to them, about their everyday heroes, or some can’t sometimes imagine themselves as the heroes of most of the stories.  Secondly, when I learned there are far less books written for black boys (with black boys on the cover) then even black girls, there’s no wonder there’s low self-esteem and the bar for role models is mostly that of sport players and entertainers. That’s too limiting.  Thirdly, when I learned that the majority of the books for black children are written by white authors again, I was shocked. I am grateful to the white writers who tried to make a difference but I’m happy the secret is out.  Now, other talented writers of color can also contribute to making a difference.  I believe a balance is what is truly needed.  We authors need to speak to the consciousness of today’s child from white to black and every race in between, while keeping inclusiveness in mind.  It is the best way for all children to achieve a healthy moral and social compass, which can only be good for everyone.  That’s my humble opinion.

Learn more at www.ilovedoubledutch.com.