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.


Throwback Thursday: Brandy Colbert

December 22, 2016

As a teen I studied ballet, but it was already too late for me to be a professional dancer. (I was no Misty Copeland.) I loved going to the ballet, but there were no black or brown ballerinas on stage at New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theater. If there were, maybe I might have pushed a little harder. Maybe this profession might not have seemed too out of reach. Little bunheads like me would have loved books like Brandy Colbert’s POINTE, or the young reader’s edition of LIFE IN MOTION which she co-authored with Copeland. In this throwback post, Colbert talks about the path to getting her first book published, and the state of diversity in Kidlit.



Pointe may be Brandy’s first published novel, but it is not her first attempt at writing. She is a magazine journalist. Add that to her tap and jazz dance training and you have the perfect person to write about ballet. Her life story is riveting and so is Pointe. After learning about Brandy, you will not be able to resist the urge to read her first novel. The Brown Bookshelf is honored to feature Brandy on 28 Days Later 2015.

The Journey

I’ve wanted to be an author since I was seven years old (at least that’s the first time I documented my aspiration), and have been writing stories since then. I took a bit of a break in college and afterward, while I earned a journalism degree and moved out to Los Angeles to start my career in magazine publishing. Of course I never stopped reading, and I would write sporadically, but I had a hard time finishing projects that I’d started. At the time, I also found it hard to come home and work on my own manuscripts after writing and editing all day at my full-time job.

In 2006, I decided to get serious about pursuing publication. I completed a novel during NaNoWriMo and also signed up for a writing class, as I realized I’d have to start sharing my work with others and get feedback (terrifying!) if I wanted to get published. That project was the first book I’d finished writing since I was a child. It started out as an adult book, but I soon realized the voice wasn’t right. After I switched to teenage characters, I felt like I was on the right track—exploring the issues and lives of teens, as well as writing in their voice.

The Inspiration
I think inspiration can (and should) come from various and unexpected sources. I’m inspired by honest writers, those who aren’t afraid to tackle messy subjects (and even messier characters). Some of my favorites are Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Courtney Summers, Colson Whitehead, Aimee Bender, Sarah McCarry, ZZ Packer, and Toni Morrison.


The Back Story
Pointe is the fourth book I’d written since I began actively working toward publication, and it’s strange to look back
on this now, but I was just about ready to give up if I hadn’t found representation with that book. It was easily the most honest book I’d written to date, and the one I’d put the most work into. I ended up working on it with an agent who was interested in signing me, but unfortunately, once I turned in the final book, we saw that our visions for it were quite different. After that, I queried a few other agents at the top of my list, not expecting to get very far. But much to my surprise, Tina Wexler of ICM requested a full manuscript just a few hours after I’d queried her! She asked for a fairly big revision, which I turned in around six weeks later. She offered representation shortly after that, and just three days after I’d been laid off from my job as a business writer in Chicago.

After three books and four years of rejection from agents, I also didn’t anticipate interest from editors, though I believed in the book and finally had someone else in my corner who did, too. I’d decided to move back to Los Angeles after being laid off, and at the end of my first day driving cross-country, I stopped in Missouri to see my parents and recharge for a few days. And the morning after arriving in my hometown, Tina called to tell me we had an offer from Ari Lewin at Putnam! I was happy to have an offer, but more important, I was thrilled that Ari believed in my book and had some wonderful ideas on how to improve it while staying true to my vision.

The Buzz
Pointe received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start, is a Cybils Awards finalist, and was named a best book of 2014 by Publishers Weekly, Book Riot, BuzzFeed, the Los Angeles Public Library, and the Chicago Public Library.

The State of the Industry
I think 2014 was a turning point for the children’s books industry in that the conversation on diversity really began to make waves. Many people had noted prior to last year that diversity was an important (and often overlooked) initiative in children’s books, but We Need Diverse Books catapulted it to the forefront, turning a hashtag campaign into a pledge into a nonprofit. I’m so impressed by the group’s commitment to implementing change in the industry, including the provision of publishing internships and grants and awards to writers and authors of color.

When I was growing up, I didn’t need two hands to count the number of black kids in contemporary stories, and it’s sad to me that things aren’t much better so many years later. But I believe the conversation is a great start. And in addition to books that reflect the world around us, we also need diverse authors and agents and editors and publicists and marketing departments—people of color, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTQ. I truly believe that if diversity is championed from within the industry, there will be a greater chance of seeing these stories published. And they are stories that desperately need to be told.

For more about Brandy, please check out her website Brandy Colbert. Brandy’s twitter handle is @BrandyColbert.

Throwback Thursday: Walter Dean Myers

November 3, 2016


Very recently, a nephew came to live with me.  He’s quiet, stays in his room, and basically comes downstairs to eat and hang out in the backyard.  Most of the time, his earbuds are in, and therefore I believed he didn’t want to have a face-to-face conversation.  One day, he was sitting at the counter in my kitchen, eating lunch, when I noticed him staring at something.  He took his earbuds out, picked up a book and asked,

“You read Walter Dean Myers?”

I just shrugged, stuck in stupid, totally surprised on so many levels.

He grinned, “I’ve read all the books in my school library written by him.  SLAM, FALLEN ANGELS, SCORPIONS.  Have you read MONSTER?  Everybody says that’s really good.  I can’t believe he’s gone.  You have any more of his books?”

And so, our conversations began.  Thank you, Walter Dean Myers.

He has reached thousands of young people through his writings and teachings.  And in honor of his contributions to children’s literature, I would like to kick off our “Throwback Thursday” with The Brown Bookshelf’s 2008  28 Days Later spotlight of one of the most prolific writers of all time. — C.A.

*         *         *

Walter Dean Myers has had the type of career that most authors can only dream of. Since becoming first published in 1969, Myers has won five Coretta Scott King Awards, two Newbery Honors, and was awarded the first American Library Association Michael L. Printz Award for Monster. In 1994, Myers received the Margaret A. Edwards Award for “lifetime contribution to young adult literature,” and in 2008, the American Library Association chose Myers to present the 2009 May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture–an honor given yearly to an individual of distinction in the field of children’s literature.

Street LoveNot one to limit himself to strictly novels, Myers has also excelled at both short stories and poetry. His novel  Lovein verse, Street Love (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2006), was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a Kirkus Editor’s Choice, and was named to the Horn Book Fanfare List for 2006. Likewise, his most recent collection of short stories, What They Found: Love on 145th Street (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, 2007), was also hailed by critics, receiving starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, School Library Journal, and the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

Known for capturing the emotional and physical heart of Harlem in his novels, Myers returns to a familiar topic, basketball, in his new novel Game (HarperTeen, 2008). From the HarperTeen website: “Drew Lawson knows basketball is taking him places. It has to, because his grades certainly aren’t. But lately his plan has run squarely into a pick. Coach’s new offense has made another player a star, and Drew won’t let anyone disrespect his game. Just as his team makes the playoffs, Drew must come up with something big to save his fading college prospects. It’s all up to Drew to find out just how deep his game really is.”

GameKLIATT gave Game a starred review, saying, “Myers…clearly knows basketball, and he nails the court action… A great choice for sports fans.” School Library Journal adds, “As always, Myers eschews easy answers, and readers are left with the question of whether or not Drew is prepared to deal with the challenges that life will inevitably hand him.”

Nominations Now Open for 28 Days Later!

September 1, 2014


Happy Labor Day!

As today is the day our nation has set aside for celebrating the myriad social and economic contributions of our American labor force (which all too often tends to go unlauded the rest of the year), it is more than fitting that we’ve chosen today to open up nominations for 28 Days Later-2015!

28 Days Later is The Brown Bookshelf’s flagship initiative, a month-long showcase of the best in Picture Books, Early Readers, Chapter Books, Middle Grade and Young Adult novels written and illustrated by African Americans. Each day in February, we will profile a different children’s/young adult author or illustrator, hard-working African American artists who we’ve identified as creators of quality literature for young people!

The nominations we seek should be for authors, illustrators, or books that meet the following criteria:

*New Children’s or Young Adult book releases

*Children’s or Young Adult books that have “flown under the radar”

*African-American authors or illustrators

*Titles published by a traditional publisher for the trade market.


Nominations will be accepted beginning today, September 1, through October 31, 2014. To nominate an author or illustrator, simply post a comment here, or email us at Feel free to nominate as many individuals (or books) as you like!

Note: To avoid nominating individuals who have already been honored, please check out our previous honorees at the following links:

28 DAYS LATER – 2014

28 DAYS LATER – 2013

28 DAYS LATER – 2012

28 DAYS LATER – 2011

28 DAYS LATER – 2010

28 DAYS LATER – 2009

28 DAYS LATER – 2008


Thanks in advance for your participation in this year’s campaign. We can’t wait to see who you nominate!

Marilyn Nelson

February 18, 2009

marilynnelsonThree-Time National Book Award Finalist. Two-Time Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Winner. Former Poet Laureate of the State of Connecticut. Those are just a handful of the ways to describe Marilyn Nelson.

Nelson is the author or translator of twelve books and three chapbooks. carverHer first book for young people, Carver: A Life In Poems (Front Street, 2001) won the 2001 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award, was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award, a Newbery Honor Book, and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Nelson was also awarded her second Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and Coretta Scott King Honor for A Wreath For Emmett Till (Houghton Mifflin, 2005); the book was also recognized as a 2006 Michael L. Printz Honor Book, and a 2006 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor Book.

Her latest book, The Freedom Business (Wordsong, 2008), has received starred review from both Booklist and Kirkus, with Kirkus calling Nelson’s work, “An astonishing, heartbreaking cycle of poems…”

The recipient of three honorary doctorates, Nelson is a professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut and serves as founder and director of Soul Mountain Retreat, a small writers’ colony.

Please welcome Marilyn Nelson to Day 18 of 28 Days Later:

emmett_tillMost of your collections of poetry for young people, such as Carver, A Life in Poems (Front Street, 2001) and A Wreath for Emmitt Till (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), focus on biographies and true events. What draws you to non-fiction?

I’m interested in the stories contained in US history. It’s not so much history that draws me; it’s more the personal stories of actual people, and what can be learned from them.

Do you find that you approach poetry for young people differently that do you would poetry for adults?

Not really, except that I wouldn’t write about sex in a collection for young people. But I don’t write about sex, anyway!

Your latest book of poetry, The Freedom Businessfreedombusiness, chronicles the life of Venture Smith, an African sold into slavery that eventually purchased his and his family’s freedom. What attracted you to this project?

Venture Smith spent much of his adult life, and is buried, in East Haddam, CT, the little town in which I live. He is something of a “local hero.” When I moved to town, pretty much everyone I met asked whether I was planning to write about him. I had never heard of him before that.

The layout of the The Freedom Business features the text from Venture Smith’s narrative of his life on one page, and your poetry on the opposite page. How did this unique layout come about?

This decision was made by my publisher. So I give a shout-out to Stephen Roxburgh and Helen Robinson, and WordSong, an imprint of Boyds Mills Press.

You are also the founder and director of Soul Mountain Retreat, an organization established to “encourage and support emerging and established poets – especially those belonging to traditionally underrepresented racial or cultural groups.” What inspired you to found this program?

The experience of being “the only one” at several larger artists’ colonies, and the experience of being on the faculty of Cave Canem, the wonderful organization which exists to encourage and support African American poets. I’m especially interested in fostering community for ethnic writers at Soul Mountain, in offering, albeit on a much smaller scale, an opportunity for them to share some of the spirit of camaraderie which Cave Canem poets share.

Can you tell us a little about any upcoming projects?

Several books are forthcoming:

Sweethearts of Rhythm (Dial, 2009), a book of poems about an integrated all-girls swing band which toured the country during WWII.

Beautiful Ballerina (Scholastic, 2009), a picture-book about ballet, featuring African American dancers.

Snook Alone (Candlewick, forthcoming), an allegory about a dog marooned on a desert island.

Seneca Village (Dial, forthcoming), a book of poems about a nineteenth century African American village in Manhattan.

The Baobab Room (Candlewick, forthcoming), an allegory about a boy playing inside a baobab tree.


Learn more about Marilyn Nelson at the following locations:

Soul Mountain Retreat

CCBC Interview

Blue Flower Arts

Celise Downs

February 26, 2008

Celise DownsCelise Downs was born, and currently makes her home, in Phoenix, AZ. Her love of writing began in the 7th grade as a way to dispel recess boredom. Her talent was further encouraged by a high school English teacher. She considers her novels to be about the high school experience with a dash of intrigue.

“There’s the normal stuff that teenagers go through, like acne, peer pressure, and angst over the opposite sex,” she says. “Then there’s the not-so-normal, unexpected stuff. I happen to like writing about both.”

Her first book, Secrets and Kisses (Gemini Mojo Press), came out in March 2004 and was quickly followed up with Dance Jam Productions (Gemini Mojo Press) in September 2004. Her current project is Draven Atreides, Teenage FBI, a series about a 16-yr-old African-American girl who gets recruited by the FBI as an informant. You can find out more about more about Celise at her website ( or on MySpace (

For this installment of 28 Days Later, the Brown Bookshelf is happy to present author Celise Downs!

While Dance Jam Productions is clearly suitable for the young adult market, a large portion of the novel would have been suitable for the adult market as well. Why did you decide to become a young adult author, as opposed to an adult author?

I have a lot of high school memories and even though I’m in my late 30’s, I’ve unconsciously immersed myself in teen culture. My favorite shows are “Smallville”, “Supernatural” and “Kyle XY”. I go see the teeny-bopper flicks and subscribe to some of the teen magazines. I still think in a teenage mentality. I would like to eventually go into adult romance (since I’m addicted to Harlequin Blaze), but right now I don’t think I could effectively write for an adult audience. I’m a huge believer in signs when it comes to my writing and right now the sign are telling me to stay with YA.  For now.

Dance Jam ProductionsIn Dance Jam Productions, Mataya Black Hawk is hiding a very dark secret from her friends. Are there any issues that you feel are “taboo” in young adult fiction?

No. A lot of YA authors are “crossing the line” so to speak and covering topics like drug addiction, alcoholism, abuse (of any kind), suicide, homosexuality, etc.  For those that address those issues in a non-preaching type of way, I say more power to them.

Is there any message or theme that you want readers to get from your novels?

Would it be terrible of me to say ‘not really’? I’m all about the entertainment factor. As I mentioned above, some authors write about “real” issues. But when teens read my books, I want them to escape. I don’t think they should have to deal with real life in “real life” and when they pick up a book, too.

You speak a little on your website about how your childhood inspired both Dance Jam Productions and Secrets and Kisses. Which character are you like more, Mataya or Skylar?

If I had to choose, I would say Mattie. Dancing was a big thing for me during high school and college. Several years ago, I took a hip-hop dance class and had a blast. I’d like to get back into it eventually. I also have two best friends—both whom I’ve known for over twenty years each—and tell them just about everything. I don’t trust easily, but when I do, I’m loyal for life.

Secrets and KissesThere are very few African-American authors that write contemporary fiction from the point of view of a character that isn’t African-American, yet you did this with Skylar Knight, the protagonist of Secrets and Kisses. Can you talk a little about why you chose to create this character as you did?

I also did it for DJP; Mataya is Hawaiian. All my life, I’ve lived in two places: Phoenix, AZ and Reno, Nevada. I had the best childhood in Reno (that’s where I met one of the BF’s I mentioned above). In the neighborhoods we lived in, we were the only African-American family. In the schools my older sister and I attended, we were always the minority. Even though that was the case, my parents were very good about teaching us about prejudice and seeing the world in “color”.

There’s the old adage of “write what you know” and I know about being black in a sea of white. I truly am a product of my environment and I think writing from that aspect is very unique. However, my next character, Draven Atreides, will be African-American. She’s light-skinned (light enough to pass for white, in fact), but African-American all the same. She’s the main character in my upcoming 6-book (maybe more) YA series, Draven Atreides: Teenage FBI, about a 16-yr-old girl who’s been recruited by the FBI as an informant. Book One, A Royale Pain, should be coming out in Winter 2008 or early 2009. You can get to know her a little bit by checking out her blog at

You’re a non-traditionally published author, which has both positives and negatives. Can you speak a little about the pros and cons of self-publishing?

No royalty advance and marketing/promoting. Those are the two main cons for me. When I was younger, I had a lisp and a mild stuttering problem. I was very shy and would rather stuff my face in a book than talk to anyone. I’ve since outgrown the lisp, but the stuttering still emerges on rare occasions. If I could just do the writing and leave the marketing/promoting to someone else, I would do it in a heartbeat. It shouldn’t be hard to talk about something you love, but for me, it can be a little difficult. I’m slowly but surely getting used to public speaking.

As for the pros, it’s all about control. I have complete control over the price, the design, the release date…everything. For a long time, I was on the fence about going the traditional route with the YA series. I even went so far as starting the agent search last year. I got a lot of rejections, some of which had great criticism, and some requests, too. But I keep having this nightmare about the book covers: I’m afraid they’re going to put a white girl on the cover when my character is black. In traditional publishing, when you’re a newbie author, you have so little control. I have an idea of how the covers should look, so I’m going to continue to do it my way.

Non-traditional publishing, aka “self-publishing”, has gotten a bad rap from day one. Manuscripts published as-is, mistakes and all; shoddy cover designs…basically it looked like you published it yourself. At home. But it’s gotten a lot better in the past several years. We know more now than when it first started, and advances have been made. While there are still companies out there that require authors to pay upfront, others require the author only pay a portion of the cost. And then there are companies like mine that I refer to as “independently traditional”: the advances may be very small or nothing at all (but the percentage of royalties are bigger) and publishing is at no cost to the author.

When I started my company, it was with the future intent to publish not only my own material, but that of young adults and authors writing for young adults as well. In the four years that I’ve been in business, I’ve never taken on other authors. This year, I’ve decided to become an independently traditional publisher for young adults only. I hope to be re-designed, operational, and taking on teen authors by June 2008.

People are going to write books that may not fit into the traditional “hole”. People are not going to want to wait 1-2 years to see their work published. People are going to create something just for family, friends, organizations, associations, etc and not want to take it to a copy shop. Publishing non-traditionally gives them a choice. It’s not going to be right for everyone, but they’ll have the right to choose. They know now that traditional publishing isn’t the only way they have to go.

Who were some of your favorite authors growing up?

I didn’t have any. I started reading adult romance books when I was in high school and have yet to stop. However, I still have my copy of Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. The poems are amazing.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Edit, edit, edit…and then get someone to do it professionally; it’s always better to have a second pair (or third, fourth and fifth pair) of eyes, well, eyeball your work. Surround yourself with a positive support system and kick negativity to the curb. Be open to your surroundings and your environment because every day, every thing, is potential story material.

Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

February 13, 2008

NnediFor the longest time, whenever anyone mentioned “Science Fiction Author” and “African-American” in the same sentence, the only author that came to mind was the late, great Octavia Butler. However, times are a-changing.

Author Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu was born in the United States to two Igbo (Nigerian) immigrant parents, and currently resides in the suburbs of Chicago. She is the author of numerous novels, shorts stories and essays. Booklist calls her first novel, Zahrah the Windseeker, “A welcome addition to a genre sorely in need of more heroes and heroines of color.” VOYA adds additional praise, saying, “Okorafor-Mbachu creates an outstanding science fiction/fantasy novel complete with exotic creatures, a magical forest, and children with superhuman abilities. The author describes the country of Ooni, its creatures, and people as if she has seen them all firsthand.” Zahrah the Windseeker was shortlisted for a number of awards, including the 2005 Parallax Award and 2005  Kindred Award .

Likewise, critics and fans heaped praise upon her second novel, The Shadow Speaker. The novel, set in Niger, Africa in 2070, has been listed as a Winter 2007/2008 Booksense Pick, and has been a named a finalist for the Andre Norton Award, the 39th Annual NAACP Image Awards, and the 2008 Essence Magazine Literary Award. Okorafor-Mbachu has also received praise from overseas–her children’s book, Long Juju Man, was recently awarded the MacMillan Writer’s Prize for Africa.

For the 13th day of 28 Days Later, the Brown Bookshelf is happy to present Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu!

Shadow SpeakerVarian: Congratulations on your recent selection as a finalist for the 2008 Essence Magazine Literary Award for Children’s Books, the Andre Norton Award, and NAACP Image Award. If you could use only three words to describe your nominated title, The Shadow Speaker, what would you use?

Nnedi: Thanks you! It’s a great honor. Three words? Ambitious, vibrant and Green (with a capital “G”).

Varian: On your website, you state that Nigeria is your muse. Is there anything specific about the country—sights, smells, images, history, etc—that helped to spark the initial idea for The Shadow Speaker?

Nnedi: The Shadow Speaker came from so many different places. The novel is actually my doctoral dissertation (I earned my PhD in English in May) and I’ve been working on it for several years. But I think the first spark came from a trip to Nigeria several years ago. Usually, during the plane ride, we’d fly over the Sahara during the night. The Sahara sky looks amazing at night. So so alive. Shooting Stars left and right, billions of bright twinkling stars. I’d always stay awake on the plane to witness this.

Nonetheless, this one trip, we traveled over the Nigérien (as in Niger) part of the Sahara during the day. The uniform ridges of sand dunes, dry cracked earth, and NOTHING else. For miles and miles. It was beautiful and terrifying. It looked like another planet. This stayed with me. I began to obsess about it. I’ve got this thing about places untouched by man. My first novel, Zahrah the Windseeker, was about a teenager who goes into a forbidden jungle. The Shadow Speaker ended up being about a teenager who ventures into the Sahara desert.

I also draw a lot from people I’ve met and the cultures I have encountered. For example, in The Shadow Speaker, you’ll meet a powerful chief who embodies all of the most sexist, problematic qualities of traditional Nigerian male leadership. I took certain…individuals I’ve met, combined them together and blew them up to create this particular character. And because this character is larger than life, he’s one of my favorites.

The foods, the spirituality, historical and mythical elements, culture, it’s all woven into the story. Sometimes it’s so seamless, that readers may not notice that something is based on an actual historical element. For example, the country of Niger really is one of the world’s top producers of uranium. And there’s an elaborate outfit that the chief is wearing that is actually based on a real West African king’s royal outfit.

Lastly, there are the creatures. I love animals. I love plants. I love the natural world. Wherever I go, I notice it. I can be in downtown Chicago and it’ll be the pigeons that catch my eye or a glimpse of a bat streaking by. Whenever I visit Nigeria, you can bet that I will witness wonders. Spiders flat as paper or huge as a king crab. Indestructible wasps. A monkey sitting on the side of the road like an old woman. Rainbow colored grasshoppers. Immortal cockroaches. Disappearing wall geckos. I can go on and on. These things always hiding in the nooks and crannies of my novels.

Varian: Your writing career transcends standard industry categories, resulting in a seamless blending of historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy and folklore. Is there any specific type or genre of story that you enjoy writing the most?

Nnedi: I am a blend of so many things, many of which don’t make sense when put against each other. I’m Nigerian, Igbo, American, a feminist, a humanist, a womanist, an environmentalist, an athlete, a book worm, a writer, a PhD holder, an awful awful speller, an academic, an agnostic, a huge fan of Stephan King, almost six feet tall, the shortest of my sisters and brother. I take from so many things and I’m used to existing simultaneously in different groups and never fully in any group.

ZahrahI didn’t set out to write The Shadow Speaker and Zahrah the Windseeker specially as YA novels. I didn’t set out to write them as fantasy with elements of science fiction. I just wrote them and they happened to have teenage main characters and magical, sometimes science-based, things just happened. I’ve written adult fiction, YA fiction, mainstream realistic fiction, magical realism, fantasy, science fiction, memoir, screenplays, scripts for plays, journalistic essays, book reviews, and scholarly papers.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I let the publishers decide what I write. In my head, I rarely consider genres and categories.

Varian: Speaking of essays…one essay in particular has brought you quite a bit of notoriety–“Stephen King’s Super Duper Magical Negroes.” Did you receive any criticism from anyone in the writing industry or any science fiction fans concerning the essay?

Nnedi: The issues people had with my Magical Negro essay have been minimal at best. At least from what I’ve been told and what I’ve heard. Some people tried to explain away the phenomenon of the Magical Negro as a series of coincidences. These were typically the folks who also claimed that racism doesn’t exist any more. Others claimed that the Magical Negroes that I pointed out actually did have power and agency…again, I felt like yawning. I know what I see, as I think many people do. Magical Negroes are Magical Negroes. The majority of responses were mainly ecstatic agreement and puzzled realization.

Varian: Can you tell us a little about any current works in progress?

Nnedi: I’m always working on something. :-). Over the summer, I finished yet another rewrite of a novel called Who Fears Death. It’s an adult fantasy novel inspired by some of the atrocities in Darfur. It’s very, very heavy and I’m really pleased and excited about it. Right after that I finished a novel called Black Locusts, also an adult fantasy novel. Its set in the oil-rich but troubled part of Nigeria called the Niger Delta. I’m currently working on The Shadow Speaker Part 2. I just started it a month ago and have got a couple hundred very sloppy ugly pages.

Varian: Are there any specific authors or books that inspired you to become an author?

Nnedi: I have several favorite authors. However, authors who inspired me to become an author? That’s a different question. I’d have to cite Stephen King as one of them. Novels like The Talisman, The Dark Tower series, It, The Eyes of the Dragon, they were just so delicious. And they cultivated a joy of story inside me that eventually bloomed when I was in college.

Octavia Butler showed me that the kind of stories I wanted to write were possible. I remember feeling such shock when I read Wild Seed, the first Butler novel I read. Seeing something is so important to imagining and creating something further–if that makes sense.

Lastly, Tove Jansson, the author of the Moomin books, was a great influence on me. These were remote books from Finland about these polite, witty, bipedal hippo-like beings. They fed my imagination and I think I’d be a different person if I hadn’t read her books as a kid.

Varian: Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?

Nnedi: Write and read as much as possible. Give yourself plenty of time to nurture your skills before seeking to get published. Travel as much as possible. Sacrifice if you must. Work out. Eat well. Allow yourself to write really bad stuff (the good stuff tends to come afterwards). Don’t procrastinate. And do not give up.