Day 2: Kheryn Callender

February 2, 2018

As a Trinidadian-American writer, it’s particularly thrilling to see children’s books set in the Caribbean. The moment I saw the cover for HURRICANE CHILD, I was excited. Then the starred reviews started coming in. Kirkus wrote, “Callender draws readers in and makes them identify with Caroline’s angst and sorrow and joy and pain,” and School Library Journal called the story “an excellent and nuanced coming-of-age tale.”

Kheryn’s post about their process and their particular take on the industry from the inside–they are an associate editor at Hachette–gives you the full scoop on where African-American kidlit is now and where Kheryn thinks it needs to go in the future.

Below, Kheryn talks about their journey to publication, gives us a taste of what we can expect from HURRICANE CHILD, touts one of their own authors, and has helpful information about the industry.

THE JOURNEY

KC author photoMy mother has had poetry published and was an English teacher for over fifteen years, before she became an assistant principal, so I’ve always been surrounded by books. Reading together at night (RAMONA, HARRY POTTER, ANIMORPHS) was our favorite pastime. But I, like many marginalized authors, had difficulty finding myself in stories. Cassie from the Animorphs series was the first I’d seen a black main character.

I started my personal mission to create more diversity in children’s books in college, and my mom was supportive of my many years of attempting to write manuscripts and attempting to find an agent. I queried two full novels before I attended The New School’s MFA Writing for Children program, which helped me find an internship at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, which became a full-time job. Somehow, the added stress of a 9-5 sparked even more motivation in me, and I began a rigorous schedule of waking up in the early hours to write. My busiest and most productive months were when I woke up at 4am to write. (I’m trying to return to that schedule!)

I queried Beth Phelan (now of Gallt & Zacker) with an MG sci-fi, and she offered me representation. The novel didn’t sell, but I’d already begun working on the beginnings of what would be HURRICANE CHILD, looking to pieces of many of the old manuscripts that will never see the light of day, pulling the strongest writing to build Caroline’s story.

THE BACKSTORY

HCHurricane Child is about twelve-year-old Caroline Murphy’s search for her missing mother in the US Virgin Islands. Caroline thinks that her mother has been taken away to the spirit world by a spirit called “the woman in black.” In Caroline’s search to find her mother, she meets a new classmate named Kalinda, and begins to develop feelings for her. Together they set out to search for Caroline’s mother while a hurricane bears down on the islands.

Hurricane Child was written out of my experiences growing up in St. Thomas of the US Virgin Islands. Like Caroline, I’m also a hurricane child—someone who was born within a week or so of a hurricane—and I grew up hearing the same teasing idea that Caroline does: being a hurricane child is unlucky. It felt that way as a child. The islands are paradise, but I’d been lonely and isolated for many years. I decided to write Hurricane Child for anyone else who might be in the islands, lonely and different, so that they would know they’re not alone. Hurricane Child is available for pre-order now and comes out on March 27th.

THIS IS KIND OF AN EPIC LOVE STORY, my debut YA, is about sixteen-year-old Nathan Bird, an aspiring screenwriter who has seen the demise of too many real-life relationships to believe in happy endings (including his own with his best friend and ex-girlfriend), but must confront feelings for his childhood friend, Oliver James Hernández, when Ollie moves back to their neighborhood.

EPIC LOVE STORY is the rom-com I would’ve wanted (and still want to see more of) as a queer teen of color. There will always be a need for coming out stories and difficult stories of adversity because of identity, like HURRICANE CHILD—but especially now, with so much real adversity queer people of color already struggle with, I think there’s now an equal need for reminders that happiness and epic love stories are possible and do exist for people like us as well. THIS IS KIND OF AN EPIC LOVE STORY is available in fall of this year. (Check out the cover reveal on February 14th on Pop! Goes the Reader!)

UNDER THE RADAR

Tyler Johnson Was HereJay Coles isn’t exactly under the radar these days, but I’m so proud to have acquired and edited his important and necessary novel, TYLER JOHNSON WAS HERE, and want to make sure everyone knows his name, and to look out for his book, which comes out March 20th. Here’s a description:

When Marvin Johnson’s twin, Tyler, goes to a party, Marvin decides to tag along to keep an eye on his brother. But what starts as harmless fun turns into a shooting, followed by a police raid.

The next day, Tyler has gone missing, and it’s up to Marvin to find him. But when Tyler is found dead, a video leaked online tells an even more chilling story: Tyler has been shot and killed by a police officer. Terrified as his mother unravels and mourning a brother who is now a hashtag, Marvin must learn what justice and freedom really mean.

The novel is heartbreaking and wholly captures what it feels like as a Black American—the anger, the sadness, and the hope for a better tomorrow.

THE STATE OF THE INDUSTRY

The state of the industry in regards to African-American kidlit is the best it’s ever been, thanks to incredible writers and activists like Angie Thomas, Dhonielle Clayton, and more—but there’s still work to be done. There need to be more people of color working in publishing, applying for internships and assistant positions, to help acquire stories that might not otherwise be acquired. Just this past weekend, I and another editor realized that, in all of the kidlit publishing industry in the United States, there are only eight black acquiring editors, myself included. This is horrible, and needs to change—but it can only change with your help!

I really encourage people of color hoping to break into the industry to apply for as many publishing internships as possible, to continue adding onto your resume as you apply for assistant positions. If living in a place that is not NYC, I know that this can be difficult, but there are also a lot of remote internships, especially for literary agencies. We Need Diverse Books also features a wonderful Internship Grant—you can learn more about that here: https://diversebooks.org/our-programs/internship-grants/.

I would also encourage you to reach out to editors for informational interviews, even if it’s only over the phone. I am always happy to give advice to anyone hoping to break into the industry—feel free to contact me at Kheryn.Callender@hbgusa.com, and we can set up a phone call, or meet for coffee. I know that most editors are happy to help as well, so please reach out to us—it never hurts to ask!

There also needs to be more intersectionality—more queer and disabled people of color of different economic statuses and different religions, gender identities, and more. There isn’t just one way to be black, and as long as we’re working for more diversity, these intersectional identities and stories need to be found and told.

TB: Thank you so much for all of this information, Kheryn! It’s very generous of you to share your story, and offer your help to up and coming authors. You can find Kheryn online on Twitter @kheryncasey, on Instagram as kheryncasey, or on their website: https://www.kheryncallender.com/.


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.

Sources:

Fox Margalit. “Rosa Guy, 89, Author of Forthight Novels for Young People, Dies,” The New York Times, June 7, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/07/books/rosa-guy-89-author-of-forthright-novels-for-young-people.html

“Rosa Guy American Author.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 17, 2017, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Rosa-Guy#ref1047496

Review of Children of Longing by Rosa Guy, Kirkus, October 28, 1971, https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/rosa-ed-guy/children-of-longing/

Viagas, Robert. “Once on this Island Revival Aiming for Broadway, Directed by Michael Arden.” Playbill, August 30, 2016, http://www.playbill.com/article/once-on-this-island-revival-aiming-for-broadway