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


February 4, 2017


While working with this talented author on her 28 Days Later spotlight, I asked if there was something she would like for people to know about her.  The email I received made me have one of those constant blinking moments. I’ll let you read it for yourself.  Pay specific attention to her question at the end.

…I organized my own “Malaika’s Costume” tour of book presentations and signings at schools, festivals, libraries, and bookstores in Toronto, Brampton, Ottawa, Kingston, Montreal (all in Canada) as well as New York City, Boston, Detroit, and Atlanta (in the United States).  I popped in to sign copies of my book in New Orleans and Miami all in 2016.  I have recently moved to Abu Dhabi to teach and have done a few presentations so far.  I am in the line-up of presenters for the Emirates Air Festival of Literature (EAFOL) in Dubai this March 2017. 

Is this stuff worth mentioning?

 Yes.  It is worth mentioning.  It gives all of us an idea of her amazing determination, and how passionate she is about her work.  It is with great pleasure that on this, the 4th Day of our 28 Days Later Program, we present to you:


The Journey

My earliest memories of writing and book making were around the age of 6. I remember having this excited feeling that I could make a book about anything.  At age 7, it was all about the Miss Universe and Miss World pageants.  Each page featured a contestant from a different country, speaking a different language.  I also made books for school assignments and then a few on my own.  I started writing my first novel around the time I turned twelve.  I never finished it though. I wrote to The Toronto Sunday Sun newspaper hoping that my letter would be printed in the kids’ section of the comics.  It never was but the first time I was ever published was for a Black Canadian women’s magazine called “Ember (?)” in which I wrote a letter to the editor thanking them for their feature on Cree Summer-Francks (a Canadian actress who played “Freddie” on the sitcom a Different World”).  I believe I was thirteen when it was published.  That was the first time I saw my name in print and I loved it.  I think I was hooked from then on.  In the ninth grade, I began to write for my high school newspaper everything from poetry to articles to the advice column and features.  I continued this writing for student newspapers even through my university years.  At the time, I considered journalism and starting a Christian youth magazine so I completed my degree in psychology and while working at Serve Canada, a non-profit, completed a required internship.  I went out on my own and found an internship at Psychology Today magazine in New York City.  Since then, I continued to write articles off and on over the years and started a few blogs in my thirties. I was invited to submit a poem to T-Dot Griots: A Tribute to Toronto’s Black Storytellers which was published in 2005.  At that time, I was so involved with starting my teaching career, graduate school, and wrapping up ICED IN BLACK: Canadian Black Experiences on Film, a touring film festival that I started, that I did not make the connection that I should be writing books.  I even took a course in Multicutural Children’s Literature back in 2001 which I loved but the of becoming a writer still seemed lofty to me.malaikas-costume-cover-version-1-nadia-holm

How did I meet my publisher for Malaika’s Costume? In 2011, I attended a workshop on Writing and Getting Published in Children’s Literature in the backyard of A Different Booklist, a Black-owned bookseller of diverse books in Toronto. The workshop featured a few panelists including Sheila Barry who was then a publisher at Kid’s Can Press.  I took Sheila’s e-mail address and stayed in touch.  I let her know I was working on something but the truth is I didn’t feel ready nor that it was good enough to submit.  By that time, I had taken a few night courses in writing for children and later children’s illustration at George Brown College Continuing Education in Toronto.  There, I wrote the manuscript for Malaika’s Costume, for a picture book assignment in Writing for Children 1 with educator/author/musician, Ted Staunton.

In 2013, I finally had the nerves to send Sheila my manuscript for Malaika’s Costume after I had submitted it to a children’s literature contest.  By then, Sheila was a publisher at Groundwood Books (House of Anansi.)  That year, this manuscript lost the literature contest but on the up side, Sheila offered me a publishing contract after she made some suggestions… and I followed them.  (I resubmitted Malaika’s Costume to the contest the next year and then it won.)  The rest, as you say, is history.  Coincidentally, the week prior to Sheila sending me the offer, I had received an e-mail from Rubicon Publishing seeking writers-for-hire for its non-fiction series Sankofa Black history collection.  I agreed to write 2 of the titles in the series, Music and Media, both subjects I have taught and hold qualifications in.  These were my very first two titles.

Until a few years ago, I did not equate my writing as a way to make a livelihood. Not that I didn’t want to or wouldn’t want to.  I wanted to writing to be solely for my pleasure and I was afraid that if I made writing my job, it would suck the joy out of it.  I wasn’t willing to sacrifice that.  In the meantime, I just continued writing all sorts of things and attend workshops, courses, conferences, retreats, and anything children’s literature related.  I chose to be a teacher as there are many benefits to working with children as well as time off, however I’ve been learning the many ways one can teach through books.  As there has been some success with the first few books, I am seeing ways to make this writing career work.  My teaching experience has greatly benefited me for finding the voice of my characters, storytelling in a way that children like and understand, getting exposed to a variety of children’s literature, and a test focus group.  There! I said it!  In addition to reading my Malaika’s Costume manuscript to my writing critique group, I read it to my students from kindergarten to grade 1 or 2.  It helped me to see what they enjoyed hearing.

The Back Story

As I mentioned, I used to write stories and make books as a child. The Greatest Carnival Ever is one of the few books I still have that I both wrote and illustrated for a project in fifth grade, almost 30 years ago.  (Wow!)  The book was about a boy named Georgie Clemington showcasing his island and his love of Carnival, describing the whole process of getting ready for the big event.

I feel like that book was my first foray into describing my love for Carnival.  When I was given the picture book assignment in my Writing for Children class, I was so excited about the details of the story and I knew it would be about a girl and her grandmother.  As I have also played Mas’– which means I wore a costume and danced– in the Caribana parade, Toronto’s annual summer Caribbean Carnival, and loved the experience.  It’s magical, it’s tribal, it’s beautiful,…


After MALAIKA’S COSTUME was published I read a review of my book, and what readers often saw was the story of immigration and globalization.  Only then, did I realize how much I was influenced by what had occurred in the generations of my own family history— patterns of migration to the US, UK, Canada, Cuba, and Panama—in which members left Jamaica for work in order to send money back home to help “make a better life”.  This theme of immigration and separation is Malaika’s story and is part of my family history as it is also the case for many people of Caribbean descent.  The story is also largely influenced by Trinidad’s Carnival tradition with all of its characters and by the backdrop of rural Jamaica, where my parents come from and which I have visited.  I have still yet to visit Trinidad.

The Buzz

The Inspiration

I used to write stories and make books as a child.  One of the few books I still have that I wrote and illustrated for a Grade 5 project is called “The Greatest Carnival Ever”.  So I always loved the idea of a book culminating with a Carnival.  Years later in the winter of 2010, I took a writing course at George Brown College with author Ted Staunton.  He gave us a picture book assignment and this is when I wrote Malaika’s Costume.   I remember getting very excited as I worked on the details of the story.  I have also played Mas’– which means I wore a costume and danced– in the Caribana parade a few times, Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival and loved the experience.

I look up to “triple threats”, multi-talented artists like, Erykah Badu, Oprah, Issa Rae, and Janelle Monae who are entrepreneurial as well as creative and amazing at what they do.  They are so committed and principled.  I like Janelle Monae especially because she is so multi-talented and she is not stuck in one arts discipline—she acts, sings, dances, produces, etc.  I relate to the multi-faceted nature of my own life and journey.

I am inspired by many Black women writers who I call my writing sheroes– Chimamanda Adichie, Alice Walker, Nnedi Okorafor, Edwidge Danticat, Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison, Jacqueline Woodson, Sharon Flake, Coe Booth, Rita Williams-Garcia, Zora Neale Hurston, etc.  I feel because these women are and have been, I can too.  I feel like my writing has wings and that it can take flight.  I feel like I want to tell my stories again and again especially for young people.

The State of the Industry

Over the years, I was so excited to learn about the work happening in the United States with the We Need Diverse Books initiative and the statistics being put about the current state of children’s books.  If these issues about disparity between what gets published in the United Sates based on race, just imagine the state in Canada where race-based statistics are not normally kept and the numbers of visible minorities is much smaller.  As a child, I grew up reading mostly African-American writers.  Naturally as a young Black bibliophile, I was looking for characters and books I can relate to.  I am proud to say that my publisher, Groundwood Books, is possibly the most diverse publisher of children’s books in Canada.  Often, I find the conversation about diversity or rather the “non-existing conversations” to be quite frustrating.  Many feel that there is no problem and that Canada is doing something that the US is not.  (Please see this article in the School Library Journal  My colleague and fellow African-Canadian of Caribbean descent now living in the United States, Zetta Elliott writes extensively about this topic on her blogs as well.  The diversity of the books published is not as much a challenge.  The challenge is that there are fewer authors and publishing industry professionals of colour.  My experience being an author in Canada, and often at conferences in the US, is I am one of very few of colour.  I feel like a unicorn at times.

Although, I wish that I was one of many authors of colour like when I attended the Kweli Conference in New York City and the Voices of Our Nationa (VONA) Voices Workshop in Miami both in 2016, I get it.  Being an author is challenging to persist in the face of rejection, to wait 3-5 years for your book to be published, to side-hustle and work multiple jobs in the meantime, to raise a family, and keep everything else running.  I think part of the reason why I am not seeing a lot of authors of colour, especially in Canada, is because many of my colleagues of colour feel shut out of the publishing industry and many go it on their own and self-publish.  In 2014, I started Sankofa’s Pen, formerly the African-Canadian Writers for Children and Young Adults- ACWCYA, because I wanted to find other Black authors who also focused on writing for children.  Such a community did not exist at that time, so I created it.  For the first two years, e met monthly, shared our resources, and networked but now we have a great Facebook group and I have expanded it to include multi-genre writers and those from outside of Canada.

The Brown Bookshelf is honored to provide a cover reveal for Nadia Hohn’s next book, Groundwood Logos SpineMALAIKA’S WINTER CARNIVAL, set for publication in Fall, 2017!

You can keep up with Nadia by visiting her website at

Congratuations Nadia, and thank you for your contributions to children’s literacy.


Day 3: Nikkolas Smith

February 3, 2017

Nikkolas pic.jpgSome people score book deals through agents. Some get them by submitting work directly to a publisher. Nikkolas Smith, a concept artist and imagineer, landed his first children’s book contract by posting a painting online. His rendering of Olympian Simone Biles right after she won gold went viral and inspired him to create a painting of the 11 golden girls who won at Rio. That made Internet magic too and caught the eye of journalist Shaun King whose post helped it gain the attention of Sky Pony Press. Days later, Nikkolas had his first picture book deal.

“Our story begins with two future champions, born three days apart,” his story opens with a spread focusing on Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky. It’s a sweet book that explores the paths to greatness for the young women who would win Olympic gold and America’s hearts.

We are proud to salute Nikkolas’ inspiring work on Day 3.

The Journey

I was always drawing growing up, but I never knew that I wanted to be a professional artist, so I decided to go to school for Architecture, at Hampton University in Virginia. After receiving my Master of Architecture, and becoming a finalist in the Disney ImagiNations design competition, I accepted an internship at Walt Disney Imagineering, and moved straight to Los Angeles. The most incredible artists work here. Not only that, they also gave me free digital painting and sketch lessons, which rejuvenated my passion for art, and helped inspire me to crate my own personal art/design firm on the side, Nikkolas Design.

The Backstory

For all of 2016, leading up to the Olympics, I was working hard to get my children’s book ideas developed and submitted to the nation’s top literary agent. However, once the Olympics came during summer 2016, the kids book opportunity of a lifetime presented itself without the help of any agents; only social media. I grew up in Spring, TX and went to school with Simone Biles’ big brothers, so I told them I’d make some fan art of Simone nikkolas-golden-girls-book‘when’ she won a gold medal. I created that piece when she won, and then a “Simones” piece that included Simone Manuel. As those art pieces began to go viral, I decided to make a mock children’s book cover featuring the full gymnastics team, swim team, and shot-put winner Michelle Carter, and called them the “Golden Girls”. This became my most viral art piece of the summer, and within a couple days, I received an email from Skyhorse Publishing, with an offer to publish my first children’s book!

The Process

For over 3 years now, I’ve taken a couple hours every Sunday to create a digital painting, known as my “Sunday Sketch” series. These are art pieces that come out of whatever I’m feeling that week, or whatever is going on in the world that needs to be reflected, as Nina Simone suggested an artist should do. I then use my Wacom tablet (Bamboo Fun) and sketch with the stylus in Photoshop, creating portraits, landscapes, political cartoons, InfoGraphics, etc. 

The Buzz



My Golden Girls of Rio book having started as a viral social media art piece, was a popular seller when it was published, and I was honored to find out that it had been nominated for an NAACP Image Award in the children’s literature category. I was also fortunate to connect with Simone Biles when she was in Los Angeles for her book tour, and we had a nice Tweetable moment of sharing our photo together with our two books. Dozens of young boys and girls have shared their photos of themselves reading the book, and I couldn’t be more overjoyed to see the gold medal excitement spreading across the country.


Learn more about Nikkolas here