Sweet Blackberry: Karyn Parsons Is Sharing Stories We All Need Now

June 29, 2017

It seems like Karyn Parsons was born to start Sweet Blackberry, the non-profit organization dedicated to bringing little known stories of African American achievement to light. Her mother was a librarian, and “I did grow up in libraries,” says the star of the long-running hit show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. “The advantage of having a mother who worked there was that you could check books out way over the limit. I grew up with books around the house too, and with a strong love of books and reading.” Parsons mother also made sure to share with her the stories and information about African American culture that she’d been told as a child growing up in the South. “From time to time she was surprised by the things that I wasn’t being taught in school,” says Parsons.

Parsons began dreaming of Sweet Blackberry while her mother worked at the Black Resource Center in South Central Los Angeles. She was playing Hilary Banks on the Fresh Prince and her mother would call to share stories of people she found fascinating. “She told me stories in ways that made them come alive.” And one of the first was the story of Henry Box Brown.
“I had never heard his story before,” she remembers. “I was fascinated! I wasn’t a big history person in school — I couldn’t stand history! It was always presented to me in this very dry and abstract way… ‘Memorize these dates, do a report.’ Nobody was bringing it to you where you lived.” The tale of the enslaved man who literally mailed himself to freedom in a box “still feels like a fable, it’s amazing! Such a magnificent story,” she says. Parsons in turn shared Brown’s story with friends.

“I would tell my friends about it and no one had heard this story, it was so incredible. I became so determined that I was going to share this story with kids.”

But starring on a television show took precedence for a while. Parsons kept Henry Brown’s story in the back of her mind and heart, and would occasionally scribble notes, etc. It was when she was pregnant with her first child that she started thinking about ways to supplement her daughter’s education. “What do they teach the kids in schools these days? What can I expect her to learn? What can I give her?” Motherhood brought with it new responsibilities and opportunities. “My daughter’s watching.” And Sweet Blackberry was born.

Parsons points out that it’s important that we go beyond the usual MLK and Harriet Tubman stories, as important and beautiful as they are. “There’s so much more…I have to get these out.” As she wondered how she’d go about sharing stories like Brown’s, her husband, an independent filmmaker, encouraged her to “just do it.”

Parsons started with the idea to write books, but indie publishing was not as accessible as it is now. She had studied filmmaking, and knew the industry. “I knew I could make a film. And I could press it, make DVDs.” Parsons started talking to friends and acquaintances in the business, and the positive response was encouraging. “There was so much goodwill,” she remembers.

As Sweet Blackberry kicks off a Kickstarter campaign that will bring the story of aviator Bessie Coleman to the screen, Parsons says that she’s more than ready to share Coleman’s story with kids and families. “I love the way Bessie Coleman’s life can show kids that all of us have opportunities for greatness despite the obstacles in our lives,” she says.

And Sweet Blackberry has had its challenges – bringing high-quality animated stories to the screen is not easy work. Some are surprised that a television star is using a crowdfunding campaign. “Everybody thinks you have money because of Fresh Prince,” she says, laughing. “It’s hard to get people to understand that we really need your help,” points out Parsons. “We have this short window of time to raise all of this money or else we don’t keep any of it. We need people to respond now, any way they can – even a dollar. Every little bit matters.”

Choosing and crafting the stories is no easy feat either. “When you sit down to write the story, and consider your young audience, you really have to consider the story you’re trying to tell,” says Parsons.

“It’s not just a person and their achievements, but how you’ll bring this story to young people in a way that they can understand it.”

Though she’d dreamed of sharing the story of Henry “Box” Brown for years, sitting down to write a children’s story of a family that was broken up by this country’s brutal system of slavery was difficult. “The narrative was heart-wrenching…but I didn’t want to sugarcoat things.” Parsons saw that using animals to ask questions in The Journey of Henry Box Brown, narrated by Alfre Woodard, offered a child with some distance from the experience of slavery “An opportunity to understand why one might go to such lengths to escape it.”

Sweet Blackberry went on to tell the story of accomplished inventor Garrett Morgan in Garrett’s Gift, narrated by Queen Latifah. She started looking for an angle that children could connect with. “As I researched, I tapped into his young life, his having so much energy, and how he had a creative mind and how children can get labeled negatively because of that.”

Parsons always knew that she’d tell prima ballerina Janet Collins’ extraordinary story of refusing to dance in whiteface then finding success on her own terms — the result is the powerful Dancing in the Light, illustrated by award-winning artist R. Gregory Christie. While there are an abundance of under-the radar stories to tell Parsons remains thoughtful about her work. “There are some I’ve had to shelve for now because I’m not sure yet how to tell those stories to children…I have to figure out the way in.” All three of the Sweet Blackberry award-winning productions were screened on HBO, and are currently streaming on Netflix.

And now, Bessie Coleman. “I’m so inspired by her…envious of her having that spirit, to be such a badass…She was so ahead of her time. If she was happening right now, she’d be all over Facebook. And this was 100 years ago!”

Children get these messages that “Once in a while, a Black person comes along and does something.” It’s important to Parsons that Sweet Blackberry share the stories of all of the African Americans “who were such a part of the building of this country, such a part of the fabric of this country…These stories are for all children. These are American stories that every child should know.”

Parsons is focused on the Bessie Coleman project, and plans to use other media, including books, to share these vital stories. While she can’t tell us what’s after Coleman, she can promise that “It’s gonna be good!”

But first, the campaign must be fully funded for the production to happen. Parsons believes that not only is Coleman’s story exciting and groundbreaking and remarkable in many ways, it’s especially necessary for the times we’re in right now.

“So many children are feeling helpless, and challenged. Bessie Coleman’s story empowers them and reminds them of what they’re capable of.”

To make a donation of any amount to help bring the Bessie Coleman story to the screen, visit the campaign page now. There are only a few days left, and Sweet Blackberry’s work is more important than ever.

Sweet Blackberry Sizzle from karyn parsons on Vimeo.

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Throwback Thursday: Martin Mordecai

June 22, 2017

Martin Mordecai

The gorgeous novel BLUE MOUNTAIN TROUBLE from Martin Mordecai debuted to rave reviews last year. Kirkus gave it a starred review, Booklist called it “rich in characterization with a beautifully realized setting”. Publishers Weekly noted that “the author captures the rhythm of the children’s daily life and effectively conveys their hopes, fears and family love as they look toward the future and learn secrets about the past.” BLUE MOUNTAIN TROUBLE was just recently named an Ontario Library Association (OLA) Best Bet — one of their top 10 Canadian novels for children. Mr. Mordecai was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, far from Top Valley, where his novel is set. Martin’s professions have included television, radio, journalism, and the foreign service, but he has written all his life. Martin now lives in Toronto, Canada, with his wife, Pamela.

In BLUE MOUNTAIN TROUBLE, intrigue and a sense of romance are intertwined with the daily realities of the twins lives, and the life of their community. Do you consider your book a fantasy tale? How do you see the concept of ‘magic’ playing a part in your work? In readers’ lives? How have you seen the ‘magic’ of literature in your own reading life? In your readers’ today?

I think perhaps that the ‘romance’ is in the tone of the writing, which is deliberate — BMT started life as a bedtime story told to a child. And it’s a fantasy only insofar as there is the element of the ‘duppy Goat’. I think the ‘magic’ is really just the goat and the sense of wonder it brings to the lives of the twins. Much of the rest is very reality-based.

For me there is definitely magic to be found in literature, and it saddens me to see and hear people who do not read or “have no time” for books. The magic in books, even in non-fiction, is a shared magic between the author and the reader,— it’s interactive. You bring yourself to the author’s and character’s selves, and something quite alchemical can happen. When you watch television you’re merely observing someone else’s magic — and in many cases there’s no magic at all!

How and why did you choose twin characters? You’ve mentioned that Pollyread was ‘hogging the best lines” — how did you uncover Jackson’s voice and story? How much do the twins’ external and/or internal lives reflect your own at age 11?

As I said, this started as a bedtime story to a child. Unless I’m sitting in front of a keyboard I’m not very imaginative, so after I began the usual way, Once upon a time…I said, there were twins . . . figuring two characters gave me more options than one. Likewise the duppy goat. Pollyread got all the best lines because once I started actually writing the story I had a ready template for her: our daughter, who’s bright and lippy and has been known to be devious. Jackson took more thought and effort. I took some of him – his gift with mathematics and plants – from our eldest son, but otherwise he is, I think, himself, and I kinda like him.

I can’t remember what I was thinking and feeling when I was 11! But I know I wasn’t as smart or as confident as either of the twins.


You’re a very descriptive writer — how does your photography influence your work as an author? What were the stories that transformed your childhood? Are there any contemporary authors or works of children’s literature that are particularly powerful to you?

The photography: Probably a lot. I have to ‘see’ a scene, usually with a line or two of dialogue, before I can start writing. And it was a photograph I took one morning in the mountains that solidified Top Valley for me, the physical aspects of it.

Our house, when I was a child, was full of books and records, of all kinds, so reading was not a remarkable activity for any of us – or music for that matter, most of us learnt an instrument at some time or another. There were fewer books for children at that time, so you read whatever was to hand. I remember some of the stories of Mark Twain, which were fantastic in all meanings of that word, and those of Damon Runyon — my father had lived briefly in New York and loved Runyon, as do I. And from quite young I loved history, historical stories, and still do. It was perhaps fated that I would try to write a historical novel myself.

Among contemporary writers for children, I’ve really only started reading them (a bit) since BMT was accepted for publication. There are some fine ones I’ve found, but what’s enjoyable about them brings pleasure to me as an adult. Which confirms my wife’s conviction that BMT is not really ‘a children’s book’.


You were born in Jamaica, and now live in Canada, where you’ve said that you arrived and “did many different things, as immigrants have to”. What were some of those many things? Can you elaborate on your observations of immigrant lives in North America?

I can’t generalize, each immigrant has a unique experience. I will say, however, that immigrants, especially those from the so-called Third World, bring to their host countries, particularly the U.S. and Canada, a toughness of will and a breadth of vision and experience that those mainstream societies can only benefit from, and ignore at peril to their own future vitality.

For myself, and my wife, Pam, what we did had to do with books in one way or another. My wife’s a well-published author, and without her royalties my own trajectory would probably have been the more archetypal one of the PhD driving a cab — except that I don’t have a PhD; I do however know the streets of Toronto pretty well. But we imported and exported books, published books, edited books, and in the early years did a little consulting.


How did this story come to you? How did your plot evolve? Are you more of a character- or plot-focused writer? Or neither?

I’m not bad with plot ideas for other people’s stories, but hopeless with my own. I follow the words. I make discoveries about the people I’m writing about, and derive plot-points or whatever, from listening to the words in my head or that appear on the screen, and letting the ideas sparked by the words lead me into the light. That’s one reason why I’m a very slow writer. Because the words can lead you into blind alleys, and you have to go back and find the word(s) that point in a new direction.


A review of BMT mentions your use of patois, adding that “Mordecai pays us the compliment of respecting that readers have more than one way of understanding a word and a concept.” How did you make decisions about what to define or not define in the process of telling your story? Why was it important to you to tell your story in the way you did?

I think that review, in a Canadian journal, is the most gratifying of those from North America, and that comment typifies it. I didn’t make any decisions about ‘defining’ or ‘explaining’ words. I’m not a speaker of deep Jamaican Creole, so that language wasn’t available to me, so I just wrote what I heard in my head. Fortunately, Rachel Griffiths, my editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, took the decision against a glossary; I appreciated that.

Tell us a bit about your path to Arthur A. Levine Books, and the factors that made this pairing a success. What was your debut year like? Were there any surprises along the way? What was most gratifying for you? What do you wish you had been told? What would you tell new authors today? Do you have any best/worst moments to share?

I’m embarrassed to say that I’d never heard of Arthur A. Levine Books before my agent, Margaret Hart, told me about Arthur. And Margaret was absolutely convinced that AAL was the ‘right’ place for BMT. She was correct. (She sent it to other publishers, but wasn’t too upset when they turned it down.) What was most gratifying was the respect with which Rachel and Arthur treated the manuscript, and their conviction (far stronger than my own) that it was a worthwhile project to publish.

The best moment for me was when they called one day shortly after publication last year to tell me that BMT had received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. They were so very pleased for me. That was nice.

Another great moment was a ‘review’ from my 9-year-old grandniece, whose mother reported that she had to wrestle the book away from her in the shower! All the words of praise in journals can’t match that.


There have been numerous discussions of the value of ‘multicultural literature’ — what does that term mean to you? How has the Caribbean literary tradition played a role in your reading and writing life?

I’m not sure what the term means at all; I’m not familiar with it in Canada, though we pride ourselves on being ‘the most multicultural country’ in the world. In Canada it’s pretty much all ‘Canadian literature’.

The Caribbean Literary tradition, such as it is, is only, for English-speakers anyway, about 100 years old. For me what it means is that we have stories to tell that people want to hear, and that we are the best people to tell them. People like CLR James, Sam Selvon, John Hearne, VS Naipaul, Sylvia Wynter, Vic Reid – these people gave scribblers of my generation and later ones the confidence to dream about writing books. For myself, the excitement has been more in the use of language, by writers like Reid, Louise Bennett, Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Olive Senior, and my wife, Pam. Younger writers are building on this and taking the ‘tradition’ in new directions.

In the area which BMT occupies, literature for children, the ‘tradition’ is less old. There were stories from the forties by Eddie Burke, a social worker who became a clergyman and established the rural setting as the ‘heart place’ of childhood; Vic Reid, who gave our history the clarity and resonance of childhood; then books written and edited by Jean D’Costa and others, meant for schools but with much original writing. And always, giving delight to children and adults, the poetry and stories of Louise Bennett. BMT is a modest addition to that venerable library.

In a post on Geoffrey Philp’s Blog Spot, you talk about your online critique and support group. Why do you think it worked so well? What were its benefits in comparison to an in-person group? What advice do you have for other authors considering the same?

I think the online writer’s group worked for two reasons. First, all of us knew at least one, maybe two other members of the group. Only Nalo Hopkinson, a marvelous Caribbean-Canadian writer, knew everybody, all six of us (seven eventually). So there was a certain shyness, but also an element of discovery and anticipation about the exchanges. And, like all the best friendships – because we were not just mostly strangers but also writing totally different stuff – it started slowly.

The second reason was that it was non-judgmental. The only thing required of you, so to speak, was a word-count for that day. You didn’t have to ‘show’ anything if you didn’t want to, and when you did there was no obligation for anyone else to comment And if you didn’t write anything for that day you didn’t have to explain why, unless you wanted to. When you’re meeting relative strangers – which is what we were – in the flesh, at a coffee shop or someone’s home, there’s often an unspoken obligation/anticipation dynamic at work: ‘What have you got to show? Why don’t you?’ And you feel you have to make some comment, preferably enthusiastic, about your colleague’s work.

Writing is such a personal thing, so much of your personhood is invested in it, that you are instinctively careful about exposure. Online – ironically, because we hear so much about the nakedness of the online person – provides a filter, a firewall.

But that’s me. Pam is more relaxed about showing her work to other people for their assessment – people whose judgment she trusts, of course. But I don’t. She and my children are the only people who saw any of BMT, until the online writing group started. Different strokes for different folks. But BMT would not have been written without them. And without the grants provided by various arts funding agencies here in Canada. Give thanks for new friends and taxpayers.


What do you do for fun? What do you wish people knew about you? What do you wish an interviewer would just ask already?

Fun? Writers aren’t allowed to have fun – except when they’re writing. The blood, sweat and tears constitute fun, the delete button is our rubber ball!

But I listen to music, talk to my wife, my children and our grandchild, and read a lot, mostly, at the moment, history.

I don’t wish people to know anything about me except what’s in my books or in the author’s profile. That’s why I’m not on Facebook, I don’t Twitter, Buzz, or any of those things. I’m developing a website, but I don’t intend to go further than that. My life is pretty boring anyway — and nobody’s business.

Thank you so much, Mr. Mordecai — this interview has inspired me in many ways.


Leah Henderson and the Release of Her Debut Novel

June 12, 2017

 

On February 8, 2017, Brown Bookshelf member, Tracey Baptiste interviewed Leah Henderson about her upcoming novel, One Shadow on the Wall. Leah discussed the spark that led to the idea, her writing process that led to an agent, an editor and a book soon to be published. Her story was fascinating. Read it here Day 8, 2017 Leah Henderson.

 

Now our readers want to know, what is it like to hold your first book  and share it with readers? One Shadow on the Wall was released on June 8, 2017. Now that she has had time to reflect, Leah is ready to share her feelings.

“When people ask how I’m feeling now that my book is out in the world, they generally assume my first response will be excitement, but right now I am truly in awe. Not just because I have hoped, dreamed, prayed, and wished for this day, but because of the outpouring of love, support, and encouragement I’ve received from the moment I started this project. Today, I am beyond grateful for that.

I am grateful to my family for always striving to show me my possibilities. I am grateful to a young boy in Senegal that through just one glance showed me strength and the makings of a story. I am grateful to my grad school professor for seeing the possibilities in a few short pages when it took me a year to believe and see them myself. I am grateful to my next grad school professor for giving his time to read “more pages of Mor” above and beyond the other work he was already reading from me. 

I am grateful to the amazing writer who stepped on my path the day of my grad school graduation and after asking “What is next for Mor?” offered to help me figure out just that through pages and pages of dead ends and detours. I am grateful to an agent who believed in Mor (and me) when others said they weren’t sure where a story like his would fit in the market. I am grateful to my wonderful editors and for my publisher for bringing Mor’s story into their family. I am grateful to friends and strangers who have kept me going with phone calls, emails, texts, kind words, smiles, hugs and oh yes . . . plenty of chocolate. I am grateful for so much today and every day!
So that is exactly how I am feeling right now.”  

Leah is enjoying life with One Shadow on the Wall. Check out the pictures from her release party and book signings. If you don’t have your copy yet, get it soon! Don’t forget to recommend it to your local library.

Visit Leah’s website for more information. 

 

 


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.


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.