Day 27: Vanessa Brantley-Newton

February 27, 2017


Over the past 13 years, award-winner Vanessa Brantley-Newton has illustrated  (or illustrated and authored) approximately 80 books for children, including titles such as Every Little Thing, We Shall Overcome, Mary Had a Little Glam, and The Hula Hoopin’ Queen. Her most recent release is The Youngest Marcher (written by Cynthia Levinson, Simon & Schuster, 1/2017) and later this year, two new series illustrated by Vanessa will debut: a picture book series, Hannah Sparkles (written by Robin Mellom, HarperCollins) and a chapter book series, Jada Jones (written by Kelly Starling-Lyons, Penguin Workshop). A new picture book project with author Derrick Barnes called The King of Kindergarten  with Nancy Paulsen Books was recently announced…and Vanessa is currently working on two picture book projects she will both write and illustrate: Grandma’s Purse and Jewels.

That’s her bio. It’s a phenomenal bio. But it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of who Vanessa Brantley-Newton truly is, or what she means to so many of us who are in the children’s publishing industry. Below is a letter that describes the inspiration she has been to me.



Dear Vanessa,

By the time you read this, we will have just had another one of our sister-friend outings. We’ll have shared a meal while talking about life, family, and kidlit—encouraging, commiserating, laughing, possibly even shedding a few tears with one another. It’s what we do, and I’ve grown to value these times we share immensely.

But have I ever told you how much you inspire me? I mean, literally said those words to you? If not….

You inspire me, Vanessa Brantley Newton. A lot.


We first “e-met” on Facebook in September of 2011. I sent you a message complimenting your artwork, which I was first introduced to through your 28 Days Later feature earlier that year.  I was (and still am) enamored with your artistic style, which is vibrant and inclusive and never fails to make me feel.  You responded to my message and, to my disbelief, I found out you had recently relocated from Jersey to Charlotte…WHERE I LIVE!

It was a full year before we would meet face to face, over a meal at The Cheesecake Factory (I think), along with my mother and daughters and your hilarious sister.  We all had a ball! In fact, my mother (who stills asks about you to this day even though she only met you that one time) said to me on the way home, “They felt like old friends.” I thought our connection was about chance chemistry. In hindsight, it was about who you are as a human being:  warm, generous, authentic…



It’s inspiring to hear you speak about your purpose as a children’s book creator. I have heard you say many times that you want every child to be able to see themselves within your body of work; that you want them to feel valued, empowered, and worthy of self-love  as they experience your books and illustrations. I’d add the word joyful to that list also, because that’s how your pictures often make me screen-shot-2016-02-03-at-9-37-36-amfeel. To know that you are basically self-taught is mind-blowing to me, given how skilled you are in your craft and how replete with emotion each one of your creations is. I guess that’s the kind of thing that can’t be taught anyway. Emotion. The difference between craft and art.

You are a genuine artist, Vanessa; I am striving to create work as genuine as yours.


No matter the expression—illustration or fine art, makeup or hair, writing, singing, or speaking to crowds large and small—the totality of your existence seems geared toward creativity, conveyed in a way that motivates and brings people together. You have a positive effect on everyone, and not in a superficial way either.  I think it’s because you believe in the power of truth. Whether sharing your own, or speaking it to others in love, the truth in your hands always feels like encouragement and exhortation as opposed to judgment. How do you do that? My kids would like for me to know. :)

every-little-thing_interior-1-300x297V, I want to thank you for the support you have been to me over these past five-plus years. Along the way you have publicly celebrated my successes, privately consoled me in moments of despair, and consistently encouraged me to reach beyond my expectations for myself. You even gave me an art lesson, for goodness sake, because you want me to be able to illustrate my own books someday! In the face of life you model class and grace, and your actions speak every bit as loudly as your words.

Even though I don’t remember for sure where we dined at our first meeting, I do remember clearly your genuineness, your wisdom, and the immediate gift of sisterhood you bestowed on me that day…and none of those things has ever wavered or diminished. Since then, we’ve shared numerous meals at some pretty cool places, and have taken a couple of business-related road trips together. You’ve prayed with, for, and over me. Your mentorship and friendship have been steadfast and true, and I am eternally thankful for the blessing of you.





All illustrations courtesy Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Enjoy more of Vanessa’s artwork at Painted Words.

Watch the New York Times “Live Illustration with Vanessa Brantley-Newton” below:

Day 25: Rosa Guy

February 25, 2017

Most people have never heard of Rosa Guy (rhymes with “key”), but she has been influential in developing the careers of many writers despite her relative obscurity. Guy was born in Trinidad & Tobago and raised in Harlem from age 7. After the death of her father, and because her older sister was ill, Guy left school at age 14 to take on factory work. She studied acting at the American Negro Theater in the 1940s before she turned to writing.

In 1950, she was one of the founders (the only woman) of the Harlem Writer’s Guild. Their mission to develop works by writers of the African diaspora helped literary greats including Ossie Davis, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, Sidney Poitier, and Walter Dean Myers. In 1977, the group was honored by the United Nations Society of Writers, and by 1986, founder John Oliver Killens estimated that their members “had produced over 300 published works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, and screen plays.”

Guy’s writing career began with a novel for adults, BIRD AT MY WINDOW (1966). It is “set in Harlem and examines the relationship between black mothers and their children, as well as the social forces that foster the demoralization of black men.” It was one of the first novels to be published by a Harlem Writers Guild member. Guy next turned to a work of nonfiction, editing CHILDREN OF LONGING (1970), a compilation of essays by black teens and young adults which “graphically depict the experiences of growing up in a hostile world.”

the-friendsThen came her best-known work, THE FRIENDS (1973), the first of a trilogy followed by RUBY (1976), and EDITH JACKSON (1978), all dealing with the lives of adolescent Black girls in New York, the first two from the perspective of Black Caribbean girls adjusting to American culture. Alice Walker called THE FRIENDS a “heart-slammer.” Both the series, and Guy herself garnered praise from critics and her peers. “She’s never afraid of the truth,” Maya Angelou once said. “Some writers dress the truth in a kind of elegant language, so it doesn’t seem quite so blatant, so harsh, so raw. But Rosa was not afraid of that.”

Another trilogy, THE DISAPPEARANCE (1979), NEW GUYS AROUND THE BLOCK (1983), and AND I HEARD A BIRD SING (1987) also called THE IMAMU JONES MYSTERIES, are about a Harlem teen who finds himself in and out of trouble—and jail—in an emotional and social landscape that still resonates today.

new-guysStandalone young adult novels include MIRROR OF HER OWN (1981), a coming of age story about eighteen-year-old Mary Abbot and THE MUSIC OF SUMMER (1992) which dealt with colorism viewed from the perspective of the darkest-skinned girl in a group of teens during a summer on Cape Cod. For younger readers, Guy wrote PARIS, PEE WEE AND BIG DOG (1984) about ten-year-old Paris and his friends on one adventurous and unsupervised day in New York City, and THE UPS AND DOWNS OF CARL DAVIS III (1992) about a Harlem boy who moves to live with his grandmother in South Carolina.

Guy also wrote picture books. In MOTHER CROCODILE: “MAMAN-CAIMAN” (1988), Guy retold a series of African folktales. The book won a Coretta Scott King Award for the illustrations by John Steptoe. BILLY THE GREAT (1992) explored what happens when parents have different plans for a kid’s future than the kid himself.

my-loveIn between, Guy continued to write for adults. A MEASURE OF TIME (1983) once again delved into her personal experiences living in Harlem, and MY LOVE, MY LOVE, OR THE PEASANT GIRL (1985), which has been described as The Little Mermaid meets Romeo and Juliet, was adapted for stage. It was nominated for eight Tony Awards, a Drama Desk Award, and won the Theatre World Award, as well as the Olivier Award for Best New Musical for the UK production. A Broadway revival was in the works as of 2016.

Guy’s influence on me goes back to my arrival in New York City at age 15, feeling awkward and terrified, and then happening on a copy of THE FRIENDS in the Brooklyn Public Library. The main character Phylissia was literally me in print. The book changed several things for me: first, I didn’t feel like I was alone in my attempts to fit in as a Caribbean immigrant. Second, though I had always wanted to be a writer, I had not considered writing for children. THE FRIENDS changed the trajectory of my writing career.

Guy died in 2012 of cancer. While her work never became as popular as Walter Dean Myers in the kidlit industry, it was certainly as important, and she herself may have been more influential in the number of writers she helped to develop.


Fox Margalit. “Rosa Guy, 89, Author of Forthight Novels for Young People, Dies,” The New York Times, June 7, 2012,

“Rosa Guy American Author.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 17, 2017,

Review of Children of Longing by Rosa Guy, Kirkus, October 28, 1971,

Viagas, Robert. “Once on this Island Revival Aiming for Broadway, Directed by Michael Arden.” Playbill, August 30, 2016,

Day 15: Maya Penn

February 15, 2017

Maya Penn headshot 16 year-old Maya Penn is a CEO, activist, author, illustrator, animator, coder, and so much more. She started her first company at eight years old, has TEDtalked to millions of people across the globe (as the youngest female in history to deliver two back-to back official TED Talks–her 2013 TEDWomen Talk is ranked as one of top 15 TEDWomen talks of all time), and is now sharing her inspirational message with young people around the world with her recent release: YOU GOT THIS!. I’m thrilled to welcome this dynamic young woman to The Brown Bookshelf.

The Journey

I’m a eco-designer, artist, philanthropist, activist, entrepreneur, animated filmmaker, coder, illustrator, writer and author. I’m the author of 3 books, 2 fictional children’s books that I wrote, illustrated, and self published, and 1 nonfiction book which is my latest book called “You Got This! Unleash Your Awesomeness, Find Your Path, and Change Your World”. It is published by Simon & Schuster. I’ve given three TEDTalks and, my latest TEDWomen Talk has gone viral worldwide and with almost 2 million views and growing. It was because of this TEDTalk that I decided to write You Got This!, as I began to receive a multitude of emails and messages from people of all ages who have been inspired to follow their passion because of my TEDTalk and want to know the best place to start.

The Inspiration:

Maya Angelou, my grandfather (he is also a children’s book author), and bell hooks (I read her book Happy to Be Nappy when I was little and it really reinforced my belief in being proud of who I am, and embracing my natural hair).

The Process

Writing tends to be very spontaneous for me. When writing my latest book “You Got This!” I approached it like a journal (no really, I kept a journal). I wrote it over the course of about a year, and since the general theme was my journey as a young CEO, artist, activist, etc. and how others can put their passion into action, I just took a topic or two each day pertaining to that theme and wrote about it. Whether it be a story I lived through and what I took away from it, or just a brain-dump on the topic, I wrote it down. I just kind of let it happen. In terms of a choice location, when it comes to any form of exercising my creativity (writing, animating, designing), I love being outside. Nature always creates a kind of sanctuary for my ideas to flourish. Of course this doesn’t always permit so my second choice is my studio.
The Buzz

It has been incredible to see the huge impact my book has made in such a short amount of time. I’m so happy and blessed to have received such a flood of emails and messages from teens and people of all ages who have been inspired by my book. There have been a multitude of libraries, schools, workshops, conferences (such as the ALA/American Library Association Conference where I was a keynote speaker in 2016) etc. that have invited me to speak about my book. It’s been so exciting to also see organizations such as Donors Choose have been providing copies of my book to schools.

Under The Radar

Taylor Moxey is an incredible 10 year old entrepreneur, activist and author of color! Her book The Adventures of Taylor The Chef is inspiring and encouraging for all youth.

Where Do We Go From Here?

More and more young people have a chance to use their voice to make a positive impact on the world and fight for the causes they’re passionate about. This is why it’s so important for us not to take this chance for granted as more platforms are available to create awareness and be the change you want to see in the world, online and offline. This current generation of young people will be the future leaders in our world and we have to make sure our world and society will be in good hands. As for my next projects, I will launch a bigger animation and film studio in Atlanta called Penn Point Studios and the first project I will be releasing is an animated series called The Pollinators.

I will also continue my project with my nonprofit organization Maya’s Ideas 4 The Planet where I designed and have now created eco-friendly sanitary pads for women and girls in developing countries in need. They’re being shipped out to girls and women all over the world and our most recent shipment was sent to women at the St. Joseph Health Care Center of Baback in Senegal.

Now this year I’m launching an initiative through my nonprofit to provide seed grants to young female entrepreneurs that aspire to start their own businesses. I am also putting into action a girl’s empowerment event and a STEM/STEAM workshop for girls where my book You Got This! will be used during the workshop to guide and inspire the girls. It’s been so exciting to also see organizations such as Donors Choose have been providing copies of my book to schools.

Thank you, Maya!

For more about Maya and her work, visit her online, and check out her 2013 TED Talk.


Day 12: Margot Lee Shetterly

February 12, 2017


The world knows Margot Lee Shetterly‘s work. Hidden Figures, the $125 million-grossing movie starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, was based on her New York Times bestselling book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (William Morrow/HC, September 2016). The book pays homage to four trailblazing African American human computers–Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden–who served as an integral part of NASA/NACA at the height of the Space Race between America and Russia. In November 2016, HarperCollins released the Young Readers’ version of Hidden Figures for middle grade readers. It too, of course, became a NYT bestseller.

We are honored to feature Margot Lee Shetterly on Day 12 of 28 Days Later…and we thank her for bringing this essential piece of our collective history to glorious light.


*    *   *   MARGOT LEE SHETTERLY   *   *   *


The Journey:

I remember writing poetry, a play and even a “book” during elementary and junior high school, but it never occurred to me that being a writer was something that one could actually do for a living. My mother was an English professor at Hampton University, my father a research scientist at the NASA Langley Research Center. Many of my parents’ friends, or my friends’ parents, also worked at NASA, or as teachers, or shipyard workers or served in the military. I was good at English, but also good at math and science; I studied finance in college and my first job was as an investment banker in New York.

That first job was not to be my last job, however: I pulled several stints in internet startups and even moved to Mexico to start an English-language magazine with my husband before walking down the path to becoming a professional writer. I started researching Hidden Figures in 2010, after a conversation between my father, a retired NASA-Langley research scientist, and my husband, made me curious about some of the women he worked with, women I had known since I was a little girl. Why were there so many black women at NASA, and how had they come to work there? I did three years of research before finding my agent, Mackenzie Brady Watson. The two of us worked on the book proposal that sold to HarperCollins in 2014, and the adult version of the book was published in September 2016.


The Back Story:

No sooner had I submitted the manuscript for the adult version of Hidden Figures than I sat down to work on the Young Readers Edition, which came out in November. I had no experience writing for children, but then again, I had no experience writing a book for adults either. I learned a lot and I’m excited that schoolchildren will also get a chance to learn this important history.


The Process:

Hidden Figures faded in like a Polaroid photo. The story started with Katherine Johnson, the best known of NASA’s human computers. She was the first person I heard speak the name Dorothy Vaughan. From there it was a quest to turn up any possible lead that could help me understand where these women came from, what they were working on, and what being a mathematician meant to them. The book also required learning quite a bit of aeronautical engineering, which I loved, and World War II and Virginia history, which completely absorbed me.

I knew from the beginning that the story would start in World War II and go at least through the Moon landing: this was the same adventure that had captivated readers in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and James Michener’s fictionalized Space, but told from the point of view of the black women. I started with a detailed outline and started filling it in. I’m a slow writer, and an obsessive rewriter. I think I revised the manuscript three times in the six weeks before I turned it in. I wish I were the kind of writer who sits down at the desk and starts writing in an orderly fashion first thing in the morning but the truth is I’m at my best from midnight to 4 AM.


The Buzz:

Hidden Figures: Young Readers’ Edition is a #1 NY Times Bestseller

Prior to the release of the Young Readers’ version, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (also a #1 NY Times Bestseller) received the following starred reviews:

“Shetterly’s highly recommended work offers up a crucial history that had previously and unforgivably been lost.” – Library Journal, starred review

“This is an incredibly powerful and complex story, and Shetterly has it down cold. The breadth of her well-documented research is immense, and her narrative compels on every level.” – Booklist, starred review

“Exploring the intimate relationships among blackness, womanhood, and 20th-century American technological development, Shetterly crafts a narrative that is crucial to understanding subsequent movements for civil rights.” – Publishers Weekly, starred review


Learn more about Margot Lee Shetterly here and HIDDEN FIGURES here.

Day 7: Jeffery B. Weatherford

February 7, 2017

From the website of Jeffery Boston Weatherford

As a child, Jeffery B. Weatherford had “large hands.” It was a fact that prompted a prediction from his grandmother: someday Jeffery would do something great with those hands. She was right. Jeffery Weatherford grew up to become a multi-talented fine artist and illustrator, who studied computer graphics and animation at Winston-Salem State University, on a full-ride scholarship.

Fresh out of college, Weatherford went on to illustrate “You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen“(Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016), his debut as a children’s book illustrator. Weatherford’s bold scratchboard art stands well enough on it’s own merits, but we’d be remiss not to mention the author of the book is his much celebrated mother, Carole Boston Weatherford (featured here in 2008). But today is all about Jeffery, so without further ado, we’re proud to host him here today.
Guest post by Jeffery B. Weatherford

The Journey:
By design, it seems I have always had a foot set towards the path of children’s book illustration as a direct result of being the son of Carole Boston Weatherford.  As I was growing up, I frequently accompanied my mother to school engagements and was fascinated by her ability to captivate crowds with her words and her unique way of giving new perspectives through words.
The Back Story: Typically, authors do not get to choose their illustrators, that is something that makes this book very special to us.  My mother approached me with the “You Can Fly” manuscript and let me know that she would like to submit the manuscript with me as a package.  It was because we submitted as a package that this joint project was born.  It took about two years for the final product to be officially released and every second was worth the wait.
you-can-fly-9781481449380_hr.jpgThe Inspiration: Growing up, I ALWAYS aspired to be a famous artist.  The first piece that I can remember creating was a self portrait in kindergarten.  When I took the piece home, my mother put it on the wall in a giant, (at least to a five year old) golden frame. I felt like I was a famous artist from very young age and aspired to be just that.  I was always drawing in class instead of taking notes and it actually got me in trouble.
I first heard about the Tuskegee Airmen when I was a young boy.  Perhaps it was during a visit to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington. Later, I saw an exhibit about the airmen during a family vacation to Tuskegee, Institute Alabama.  I also brought to this project a lifetime fascination with flight. I have always had dreams of flying where I was flying like a bird. On my first airplane ride at around four or five, I had a window seat and was looking outside. As the plane sped down the runway and lifted its nose from the ground, I said, “We’re blasting off!”
I doodled my way through elementary and middle school, creating drawings of aircraft and weapons in my notebooks.  My mother had to come in for a parent – teacher conference because I refused to take notes and was doodling in class.  As a direct result of this meeting, my mother decided to put me in to art classes and cultivate my artistic ability.  In high school I had the opportunity for private art lessons with my assistant principal, Mr. Joseph Johnson, who is a phenomenal artist and gave me the attention that I needed to blossom as a young artist.  I also played scores of video games that featuring aircraft in futuristic, intergalactic battles.
As for the inspiration and historical accuracy for my book illustrations, I looked to documentary photographs from the Library of Congress, National Archives and military museums. I also watched the movie “Red Tails.”

The Process: I begin my process by reading through the manuscript.  As I’m reading, my mind works like a movie reel with the words and creates images for me in my minds eye.  I record all thoughts that I have as I’m reading and underline all lines, stanzas, and key points that stand out to me.  After I did my picture research and chose the subject matter of a piece, I drew a graphite study to layout the composition. Once that was completed and approved by the publisher, I refined the image and transferred it to scratchboard. I used various nibs for different effects. I believe that scratchboard creates a graphic novel feel.  Once I sit down with a scratchboard, I don’t like to get up again until it is finished.  One of the scratchboard images took 17 hours to complete.  It is a very meticulous process and I achieve quite the meditative state while I am completing my work.  It’s almost like the rest of the world just fades away.
The Buzz
New York Public Library 100 Books for Reading & Sharing
Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices
Under The Radar
I most certainly would say my friend, Jason Reynolds, is a shooting star right now.  He has become a huge inspiration for me in the industry.  I also recently met Christian Robinson and he is also a source of inspiration and someone I consider to be rising fast in the industry.
The State of the Industry  
I believe children are the future and it is our jobs as illustrators (and authors) to paint a vivid picture for the child’s mind to hold on to and be inspired by.  Books are the keys to imagination and every one opens up a different door.  I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Day 6: LaTisha Redding

February 6, 2017

latisha-reddings-author-picture-2Today we shine the spotlight on another debut picture book author, LaTisha Redding. Her first title, Calling the Water Drum (Lee & Low, December 2016, Aaron Boyd) is the story of Henri, a young immigrant from Haiti who loses his parents as they attempt to make their way “across the great waters” to America. As a result of the tragedy, Henri “retreats into himself and is no longer able to speak.” Through a series of events, Henri takes up the practice of drumming, which he uses to deal with his grief. In the words of the publisher, Redding’s book is “a tender and beautiful tribute to the resiliency of children and the human spirit.”

For penning a tale that will no doubt be a comfort and a beacon for children experiencing their own situations of heartache and sorrow, we celebrate LaTisha Redding on Day 6 of 28 Days Later.


*   *   *   LATISHA REDDING   *   *   *

The Journey: 

I’ve always loved reading. It is clichéd, but reading really does opens doors to other worlds, other possibilities. The tagline of my website is, ‘Imagination is Just the Beginning’ and it’s true. What I observe, hear, experience and read in my daily life inspires me. I gather ideas from everywhere. I had been writing for several years before I wrote Calling the Water Drum. This story came to me after a trip to New York City, which is where I grew up.

New York remains familiar to me and I slip back into the city’s rhythms with ease. Of course much of that rhythm stems from crisscrossing the city on the subway. I had just gotten off the train and wasn’t thinking about writing at that particular moment. When I climbed the subway stairs and arrived at street level, the sight of a man and little boy playing music captivated me. These impromptu ‘subway concerts’ are not unusual in New York—but this ordinary moment—and memories from my childhood synched in an unexpected way.

After I returned home to Florida, the story tumbled around in my mind for several weeks before I sat down to write it. I realized that this was the story of a young boy named Henri, dealing with permanent changes in his life. Henri is dealing with loss and over the course of the story, we discover how he expresses that sense of loss relative to those changes.


The Back Story: 

Calling the Water Drum is the first story I’ve ever had published. The sweetest part is that my first published story is a bona fide book!  After I wrote the first draft, I had no clue what to do with the story, so I mentally filed it away. Several months later I saw Lee & Low’s New Voices Award contest, which is a contest for children’s picture book writers of color.  When I remembered my story, the opportunity to enter the contest just sang to me. The deadline was fast approaching and I had a couple of weeks to revise the story, which I did.

Now, I didn’t win the contest, however, one of the editors at Lee & Low contacted me.  It was wonderful because she saw the spark in the story and we worked to shape it further. Because there’s a musicality to Henri’s story, I was sensitive to the language I used to describe his experience.  The editor and I were careful to preserve that musicality during the revision process. Afterwards, Lee & Low wanted to publish Calling the Water Drum, which of course, I accepted!

It was published in December 2016 and I’m amazed to see my name on the cover. I knew this picture book was coming–but to hold it, read it, and look at those breathtaking illustrations? It’s incredible.  This entire experience has been a gift.


The Buzz: 

“A powerful story of loss and survival, human connection and hope.

Henri plays his red bucket like a drum. It’s his only physical tie to his parents, who perished while attempting to cross the sea from Haiti to Florida in a small rowboat. He survived and was rescued by refugees in a larger boat…Redding’s distinguished text sensitively portrays the tragedies young Henri and Karrine have faced, and Boyd’s watercolor illustrations expressively convey the love of Henri’s family, the perils of their sea crossing, and the range of emotions he experiences as he finds his way in New York with his uncle and friends.” — Starred Review, Kirkus

“Redding tells the heartbreaking story of one Haitian boy’s survival and adaptation to life in the U.S. in this picture-book immigration tale. Henri arrives in New York City traumatized and unable to speak. He has only a plastic bucket to call his own. His friend Karrine teaches him to thump on it once for yes and twice for no, and so his bucket becomes a drum…”– Booklist


The State of the Industry: 

I am new to children’s publishing, so my understanding of the industry is limited. However, I’m a frequent patron of libraries and bookstores, and naturally I’ve observed what’s on the shelves: vampires, wizards, zombies, coming-of-age stories, dystopian worlds and fresh spins on mythology. I am a reader first and foremost and these are stories that I devour.

I’ve also observed what’s lacking on the bookstore shelves and that’s an old story. The libraries I’ve visited don’t appear as stringent; they tend to group by category.  This is not the case in bookstores. African-American writers are lumped onto one shelf no matter what genre the book. This is the entry point into the marketplace. If the books were classified by genre, it would increase our exposure to readers. We’re writing in a number of genres: children’s, contemporary, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, YA…and anything and everything in between.

For decades I’m sure it was easier for bookstores to shelve African-American writers into one space. However, with the internet, many barriers to publishing have fallen.  Shouldn’t this barrier be one of them?


February 5, 2017

Olive SeniorOlive Senior’s work has been broadcast on both sides of the Atlantic, including the BBC Book at Bedtime and the CBC Festival of Fiction.  Her work has been included in the Best Poems on the Underground published by London Transport, and she is a featured poet on The Poetry Archive. Senior’s work often addresses questions of Caribbean identity in terms of gender and ethnicity. She has said: “I’ve had to deal with race because of who I am and how I look. In that process, I’ve had to determine who I am. I do not think you can be all things to all people. As part of that process, I decided I was a Jamaican. I represent many different races and I’m not rejecting any of them to please anybody. I’m just who I am and you have to accept me or not.”

The Journey

The Caribbean remains the focus of her work, starting with her prize-winning collection of stories, Summer Lightning (1986) which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and has been a literature textbook in Caribbean schools. This was followed by Arrival of the Snake Woman (1989, 2009) and Discerner of Hearts (1995). Her first novel, Dancing Lessons (Cormorant Books, 2011), was shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize in the Canada.

dancing lessons

Her most recent collection of stories, The Pain Tree (2015), is a collection of stories wide-ranging in scope, time period, theme, locale, and voice. There is,  along with her characteristic “gossipy voice,”  reverence, wit and wisdom, satire, humor, and even farce. The stories range over, at most a hundred years, from around the time of the second world war to the present. It was the overall winner of the 2016 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. Like her earlier stories, Jamaica is the setting, but the range of characters presented are universally recognizable as people in crisis or on the cusp of transformation.

Olive’s work has been widely taught in schools and universities internationally,  is represented in numerous anthologies worldwide, and has been translated into several languages.

Her poetry books include Shell (2007), Over the Roofs of the World (2005),  Gardening in the Tropics (1994), and Talking of Trees (1985).  Her illustrated children’s books are Birthday Suit (Annick Press, 2012) and Anna Carries Water (Tradewind Books, 2013).
Olive Senior’s non-fiction works on Caribbean culture include Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal (2015 OCM Bocas Literary Prize for Non-Fiction), the A-Z of Jamaican Heritage, Working Miracles: Women’s Lives in the English-Speaking Caribbean and The Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage.

dancing lessons

The Back Story

Born in rural Jamaica in Trelawny, Cockpit Country, the seventh of 10 children, Olive attended Montego Bay High School For Girls. At the age of 19 she joined the staff of the Jamaica Gleaner in Kingston and later worked with the Jamaica Information Service. Senior later won a scholarship to study journalism at the Thomson Foundation in Cardiff, Wales. As a Commonwealth scholar she attended Carleton University School of Journalism in Ottawa, Canada, where she earned a degree in 1967.

While at university she began writing fiction and poetry. On her return to Jamaica, she worked as a freelancer in public relations, publishing and speech writing before joining the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of the West Indies, where she edited the journal Social and Economic Studies (1972–77). In 1982 she joined the Institute of Jamaica as editor of the Jamaica Journal. As the managing director of Institute of Jamaica Publications, Senior oversaw the publication of a number of books on Jamaican history and culture.

Birthday Suit

In 1987 Senior won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for her first collection of stories, and after Hurricane Gilbert hit Jamaica in 1988, she moved to Europe, where she lived for short periods in Portugal, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, before settling in Toronto, Canada, in the early 1990s.


Credits: Caroline Forbes and Olive Senior