“The Brown Bookshelf is a group of five authors and illustrators, brought together for the collective goal of showcasing the best and brightest voices in African-American children’s [and young adult] literature, with a special emphasis on new authors and books that are ‘flying under the radar.'” Read The Brown Bookshelf blog; visit The Brown Bookshelf at MySpace!
Paula Chase-Hyman: “I live in Maryland with my husband and two daughters. What time I’m not spending with my family is spent as a PR flack for a small city government, writing my novels and coaching my daughter’s competitive cheer squad. I’ve been writing all my professional life including stints as a freelancer for Girls Life, Sweet 16 and Upscale magazines.” Read Paula’s blog; visit Paula at MySpace!
Varian Johnson: “I currently live in Austin, Texas, where in addition to writing, I design bridges. I’m also pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.” Read Varian’s blog; visit Varian at MySpace!
Don Tate: “I’m the award-winning illustrator of more than 25 trade and educational books for children. As a writer, I’m also a recipient of Lee & Low Books New Voices Honor. The Austin Chronicle describes my writing like this: ‘…an articulate and funny voice…with more insight and humor than any commentator in town.’ I’m also Des Moines, Iowa, native, currently residing in Austin, Texas, where I work as a graphics reporter for the Austin American-Statesman.” Read Don’s blog, and visit Don at MySpace!
Kelly Starling Lyons: “I’m a children’s book author and freelance writer whose mission is to transform moments, memories and history into stories of discovery. My books include picture book, One Million Men and Me, illustrated by Peter Ambush (Just Us Books, 2007), and chapter book, NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal (Just Us Books, 2007)(excerpt). My articles and essays have appeared in publications such as Ebony magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, The News & Observer and books in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. I’m a native of Pittsburgh who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I facilitate a book club for African-American girls.” Read Kelly’s blog!
Carla Sarratt: “I’m a native of Cleveland, Ohio, and earned my bachelor’s degree in psychology and English from Wittenberg University. After college, I taught high school English for five years, which is where I was first introduced to several great young adult titles, which rekindled my love for young adult fiction. Currently, I am a reimbursement counselor for a health care consulting firm where I verify patient’s insurance benefits for a chemotherapy tablet and provide patients with resources to help pay for their medication.” Read Carla’s blog, and visit Carla at MySpace!
Congratulations on founding The Brown Bookshelf: United in Story! Could you tell us more about it? What are its goals?
Paula Chase-Hyman: It’s funny because BBS came about based on a very informal, casual conversation between Varian and myself. He said how he wished something on par with ReaderGirlz existed to bring attention to books by African-American children’s authors. And he said, “I wonder who we could approach about doing something like that?” And I wrote back, “Why not us?” And the rest, as they say, is hysterical.
Our goal is to bring attention to the African-American talent writing for children, because many of them are unknown by parents seeking books for their kids and aren’t even necessarily always recognized by librarians and teachers.
Don Tate: Many times I considered doing something that would help promote African-American children’s book creators, however, I really had no idea what to do, and I was overwhelmed at the thought of doing it by myself. So I was absolutely thrilled when Varian and Paula approached me with their concept of The Brown Bookshelf. My goal, as is everyone’s, is very simple: To help raise awareness.
Kelly Starling Lyons: For me, The Brown Bookshelf is about giving people hope. I’ve seen the sad looks on parents’ faces when they find few books in their local bookstores or libraries that reflect the faces and voices of African-American children. I’ve heard the frustration in parents’ voices when they’re told the stories they are searching for aren’t out there. Part of what we’re doing is opening a door to knowledge. We’re building on a strong tradition of using education as a passageway to freedom. Through shining a light on African-American children’s book authors and illustrators, we’re empowering parents, librarians, teachers and young people.
Carla Sarratt: If The Brown Bookshelf is able to increase the number of African-American authors who write children’s literature that are named by librarians and teachers, the number read by (more of) their target audience, and able to increase the diversity of those being recognized with literary awards, then we have succeeded as a group.
What was your initial inspiration for establishing this organization?
Varian Johnson: The idea for starting an community similar to The Brown Bookshelf had been bouncing around in my head for a while, but it wasn’t until I took note of the statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center that I truly took steps to start the initiative.
According to the CCBC, out of the approximately 5000 trade children’s books published in the United States in 2006, 87 were written by African Americans–2 percent, if you’re generous with the rounding.
Based on those statistics, and subsequent conversations with Paula, I concluded that if we started the Brown Bookshelf, we would have two main responsibilities: 1) to increase the number of African-American children’s lit authors; and 2) to find a way to highlight the 2 percent that are being published now.
Carla Sarratt: Since I didn’t establish The Brown Bookshelf, my response is from the standpoint of why I said yes to the invitation to join. It didn’t take convincing on Paula’s part to get me on board. As she and Varian state, there is a need to actively collaborate and promote African-American children’s authors. There are a lot of talented authors and illustrators who are overlooked and are under the radar from their target audience and librarians. To be a part of the vehicle that will change that is a huge opportunity and an awesome privilege.
What was the timeline from spark to launch, and what were the major events along the way? How did you come together?
Paula Chase-Hyman: As soon as we agreed to give it a try, we listed the authors we wanted on board as BBS members. That was a few days work. Lucky for us, none of them had enough time to know what they were getting into because once they said yes, we only had six weeks until launch.
Key milestones for us were inviting Kelly, Don and Carla on board. Then as a committee determining some of the finer nuances on author selection. Setting up the website. We did all of this in the six weeks prior to our November 1st launch.
I was shocked at how easily the five of us came together. Hands down, this has been the smoothest group initiative I’ve been involved in. So much of what we do is done via email and there were lots of little details to work out. But it’s been relative smooth sailing.
Don Tate: There wasn’t much of a timeline, maybe a few weeks from the time I was contacted in early October, until our launch in early November. Once the idea took root, it didn’t take long to sprout into what it has become today. My first task–being the visual person that I am–was to create a logo and banner to display on the website. I’m more illustrator and less designer, so I struggled through a few ideas. I presented some ideas them to the group and then we voted.
I have been so impressed with this group, each person bringing a unique set of talents to the table. Varian is our technical guru; Paula is our publicist and communications professional; she keeps us organized; Kelly is our knowledge base and fact checker; and Carla is such a hard worker! Whenever I think I can’t do anything more, Carla is there volunteering for more work!
Kelly Starling Lyons: When Paula invited me to participate, I felt really blessed. The idea of The Brown Bookshelf was right on time. So many people want recommendations of children’s books by African-American authors. Through being part of The Brown Bookshelf, I had the chance to make a difference in a special, enduring way.
Paula and Varian did important groundwork before we came together. Then Carla, Don and I joined the team. Having the five of us commit to the mission of raising awareness of Black children’s authors was a major milestone. Then it was time to get down to work: launching and creating content for the site, spreading the word, researching nominees, choosing finalists and interviewing our featured authors and illustrators. From the start, The Brown Bookshelf has been a wonderful collaboration that has drawn on all our strengths.
Carla Sarratt: In September, I received an e-mail invitation from Paula who I know from various author listserves. We share a kinship as our debut titles came out close together. I also know Kelly and Varian from author listservs. I imagine that she and Varian discussed strategy and created a basic foundation before inviting Don, Kelly, and me to join the team. From September to November, we planned for the launch by coming up with a basic list of authors and illustrators who were contenders for 28 Days Later. We defined what was meant by a “Vanguard author” as well as those who are “under the radar.” We researched self-published authors and compiled contact information of outlets to send the press release announcing The Brown Bookshelf.
I agree with Paula that we work well together and come together with the intention of promoting children’s literature. There are no egos with this project, so it makes it so much easier to work and get things done.
What were the challenges of bringing it to life?
Paula Chase-Hyman: Normally, I’d say working with a group–different personalities and all that. But that hasn’t really been the case with us, in my opinion.
A tangible challenge, for me, time or lack thereof. Trying to handle the administrative logistics of the group, plus manage submissions and research in addition to my own author promo and novel writing has been tough. I feel like I’ve been on a treadmill since October.
Don Tate: For me, the biggest challenge was time. My schedule was already over-committed. Keeping up with the blog is a big challenge. Each person strives to write one post per week, and for me, that’s in addition to keeping my personal blog(s) updated. Researching the authors for our 28 Days Later campaign, writing the interview questions, contacting publishers and emailing publicists was also a time challenge–that, and keeping up with our constantly growing email communication among the group.
In the beginning, I worried a little. I was excited about the Brown Bookshelf and the goals we’d set, but I worried about what others might think/say. I wanted to be a part of something that would be viewed as positive, proactive. But I feared people would murmur. I mean, it’s okay to promote books for girls, or books for boys, YA books, non-fiction books, books by first-time YA novelists. But throw in race? I wasn’t sure how well that would be received by the children’s book community. I made up my mind not to worry; I knew The Brown Bookshelf had solid, well-intentioned goals. Then I was off to a good start.
Kelly Starling Lyons: My greatest challenge is the same my team members have mentioned: carving out time. Managing the demands of motherhood and writing is tough. Throw in a big project like The Brown Bookshelf, and you’re talking about serious overtime. But every minute spent working on our project is a labor of love. My pride in Black children’s book authors swells with each author bio and book I read. It’s a gift to be able to share the creative genius of our people in this way.
Carla Sarratt: I wholeheartedly agree with Paula. I enjoy working with Varian, Don, Kelly, and Paula. I really don’t view it as work because I get a lot out of what we do. But time is a challenge. There aren’t enough hours in the day so I’ve learned to stay up later and burn more of the midnight oil. I can sacrifice some sleep to make sure that 28 Days Later is a success.
Why is The Brown Bookshelf needed?
Paula Chase-Hyman: Because until we launched the initiative I hadn’t heard of M. Sindy Felin or Troy Cle. Now, granted, they’re both relatively new authors. But they’re YA authors, peers of mine in the industry, and it shocked me that I hadn’t heard of them. Not saying I’m the most well-read person in the world, but I run in cyber circles with other children’s authors–so I thought I knew a good number of Black authors by name, if nothing else.
It made me realize that if I’m a member of the literary community and didn’t know them, then there were probably plenty of teen readers, parents or other influencers who didn’t either.
The void we’re filling is that of a resource that increases people’s awareness to the diversity out there among African-American children’s writers. Most people are probably very familiar with our vanguard authors. But how many know Allison Whittenberg or Sherri L. Smith?
Varian Johnson: Right now, I feel that most children’s books by African-Americans live and die in the library market–a market which is greatly influenced by budgets, journal reviews, and the need to shelf books with “educational” content.
My hope is that by highlighting a wide array of children’s and young adult books by African-American authors, The Brown Bookshelf can draw attention to both literary and commercial works–works that can thrive in both the library market and the bookstore market. My hope is that if we can help readers to see all the good books by good authors out there, perhaps the publishing and book selling industry would take notice. Perhaps that 2 percent could grow to 3 percent. And then to 4 percent. And so on and so on.
Don Tate: I think it’s needed because there’s nothing else like it. I mean, once per year, thank goodness, the Coretta Scott King awards shine a spotlight on a handful of African-American authors and illustrators. But what about the other 11 months in a year? And what about those who might never receive a CSK nod? Initiatives like the Brown Bookshelf are needed to expand that spotlight throughout the year. And to piggy-back off of Paula’s comments, until my involvement in the Brown Bookshelf, I’d never heard of many of the people we are highlighting. Hopefully, in the small time since we’ve been live, we’ve had the same affect on others.
Kelly Starling Lyons: The Brown Bookshelf is needed, because so many books by African-American children’s book authors never make it into major school systems and libraries. We’re needed because we’re committed to this mission. We know what’s at stake. We’re needed because if we don’t celebrate work by African-American children’s book authors and illustrators, how can we expect others to do the same?
Carla Sarratt: As an adult who still loves YA, I was surprised to learn about so many authors who write for our children over the past three months. I want to expose others to Troy Cle, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, Karen English, and all of the others. Their stories need to be championed just as much as our Vanguard authors.
There is a lack of awareness about so many Black authors who write for children and the Brown Bookshelf aims to increase that awareness. As we prepared for the 28 Days Later initiative, we researched the nominated authors and talked to librarians and teachers who had not heard of many of the authors as well. We want to showcase the diversity found within children’s literature as it relates to the storytellers and the stories being told. We want to give the readers a full spectrum of authors to read.
Is your emphasis: (a) books by African-American authors and illustrators in a variety of genres, age categories, and themes; (b) books by African-American authors and illustrators that feature African-American characters and themes; (c) books that feature African-American characters and themes, regardless of the background of the author/illustrator; (d) some combination of the above? How did you arrive at this approach, and what considerations came into play?
Paula Chase-Hyman: The emphasis of 28 Days Later is authors of color, with a special–though not sole–focus on African American. However, The Brown Bookshelf as an entity has potential to be so much more. We want to celebrate books out there that reach beyond the traditional fare usually given attention when it comes to books by and about people of color.
We’ve talked about future initiatives and those initiatives cover all those things you’ve mentioned above and a possible expansion of the definition of brown authors.
In the end, if the existence of The Brown Bookshelf can make the difference in books being recommended to young readers and books up for consideration for various awards–broadening the choices among consumers and critics, then I’d consider our initiative a success.
Don Tate: All of the above! We’ve had many conversations. For the most part, we want to have a positive impact on books that are written and/or illustrated by African Americans. Many of those books, of course, will be about African Americans. Our 28 Days initiative is specifically focused on the African American author and/or illustrator, but that doesn’t mean we’d exclude non-Blacks from future initiatives or from our daily blog. In fact, I plan to do a series of posts that feature picture books written by non-Blacks, but are about Black characters. When a Black child holds a picture book, they love to see images that look like them. They could care less about the color of the author. That’s a grown-people thing.
Carla Sarratt: Currently our emphasis is as Paula mentioned and can certainly be expanded as we advance in the future.
Are you open to highlighting authors/illustrators of African heritage from outside the U.S., or is this initial effort really geared to the U.S. market?
Paula Chase-Hyman: I’m hoping someone else can give a more articulate answer here. Because, in all honesty, it was a personal movement on my part. I thought to myself–you know I’d love to be recognized by a group like this. I’d love that little extra hand it may give me among influencers and gatekeepers in children’s lit. So in that respect, I was looking to authors “like me” meaning Black and writing for the children’s market. I didn’t really think much beyond that until we launched and the question of “how do you define brown?” was broached.
It was then that I thought about the broader reach a program like ours can have.
Varian Johnson: Yes, I think we are open to highlighting authors of African heritage from other countries, but for the initial launch of the program, we felt that it would be better if we limited the pool of authors we were looking at.
Don Tate: Personally, at least on the blog, I would highlight a book written by an African author, if it hit my radar. It’s not anything we’ve ever discussed as a group, though. The Brown Bookshelf will evolve as we grow and learn, so who knows what we’ll look like down the road. For the most part, this is an Internet initiative. The Internet provides an instant connection with our African counterparts. I would imagine that an African and an African American would share some of the same challenges in the American market.
Kelly Starling Lyons: The authors we’re featuring in our 28 Days Later campaign include Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, whose parents are immigrants from Nigeria, and M. Sindy Felin, who has Haitian roots. That’s in keeping with our mission. In the future, I’d love if we could help raise awareness of Black children’s book authors and illustrators who come from all parts of the African diaspora.
Carla Sarratt: I think that is a possibility in the future, but I think it is critical in the first few years of our existence to establish a strong presence in America before we expand to include authors in other countries. We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew. And maybe like the Readergirlz triggered the Brown Bookshelf, the Brown Bookshelf can trigger another group that will focus on children’s authors in other countries.
Could you offer us an overview of the history of the books by African-American children’s and young adult authors? What are the landmark titles?
Paula Chase-Hyman: I’ve always viewed Mildred Taylor‘s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Dial) as a landmark title. It came out in 1976. I consider it landmark because it was the first book I read, with a Black protagonist, for pleasure. I was about eight when I read it.
Sounder won the Newbery and Roll Of Thunder also won critical acclaim. And very quickly, books like them became the absolute norm for books about African-American characters, right down to covering the same time period (1930s-1950s).
If you look back on the past Coretta Scot King award winners, you’ll see most of the books were either non-fiction or very much aligned with stories like Mildred Taylor and Armstrong’s. What’s interesting is that if you look back on past or present Newberys or Caldecott winners, they aren’t a sole reflection of what books were out there for children. But if you look at the past CSK winners, those books pretty much do reflect the only books out there featuring Black characters.
Dana Davidson‘s, Jason and Kyra (Jump at the Sun, 2004) marks the first book, that I know of, that featured a contemporary telling revolved around Black characters that was not depression era, during slavery, or with a focus on inner-city dynamics. It’s exactly why BBS is necessary. To let people know that there are other types of books featuring African Americans out there.
Varian Johnson: In addition to Mildred Taylor, Walter Dean Myers and Virginia Hamilton also had a lasting impact on the current generation of African-American authors. To my knowledge, Hamilton’s M.C. Higgins the Great (Macmillan, 1974; Aladdin, 2006) is the only book to be awarded the Newbery Medal, the National Book Award, and the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award. More recently, Myers’ Monster (Amistad 1999, 2001) was awarded the first ALA Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature in 2000, and Myers was selected to deliver the 2009 May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture–a lecture intended to make a significant scholarly contribution to the field of children’s literature.
Don Tate: Wow, big question, and I think the answer will vary greatly from person to person. If I had to use one word to describe the history of African-American children’s authors, the word would be “rich.”
The African-American contribution to the world of children’s literature is rich and growing richer. Manchild in a Promised Land (Claude Brown), The Learning Tree (Gordon Parks) are no doubt landmark titles. And Richard Wright is probably not known as a YA author, per se, but he is unarguably one of the most powerful voices in American literature, period. His books Black Boy, Native Son, Rite of Passage, are written from the point of view of young African-American males. As a young child, I wasn’t much of a reader of books, and in high school, I refused to read books. When my high school English teacher required me to read The Grapes of Wrath, that was just enough to keep me from reading it at all. I didn’t start reading books until I was in my early 20s, and that was only after I found books that spoke to me, voices like Richard Wright, Gordon Parks, Claude Brown. I’ve been an avid reader ever since.
Kelly Starling Lyons: Tough question. The African-American tradition of children’s storytelling goes back generations–to the tales for young people published during the Harlem Renaissance, to wonderful stories of hope and survival woven by enslaved Blacks on Southern plantations, to the histories and lessons griots passed on in Africa. Our contemporary children’s literature springs from that rich well.
I agree that the stand-out titles will vary for each person. For me, like Paula and Carla, it was Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (Dial, 1976). I ordered that novel from Troll book club and devoured it as soon as I got it home. To read a story about a girl whose skin color was the same as mine made a profound impact on me. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered other pioneering titles like M.C. Higgins the Great by Virginia Hamilton (Simon & Schuster, 1974) and The Hundred Penny Box by Sharon Bell Mathis (Viking, 1975). All of those incredible books contributed to the treasures we have today.
Carla Sarratt: When I think of landmark titles written by young adult authors, Mildred Taylor’s series involving the Logan family immediately comes to mind from my years as a preteen through present day. Most readers are familiar with Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Dial 1976) or Let the Circle Be Unbroken (Scholastic 1981).
But I still have my copy of Sharon Bell Mathis’ Teacup Full of Roses (Avon Books, 1972) that I remember reading in junior high along with Rosa Guy‘s The Friends (1973), Edith Jackson (1978), and Ruby (1976). I believe my mother placed these titles in my hands, so these are other landmark titles that I think get overlooked.
In elementary school, our librarian read Sharon Bell Mathis’ Hundred Penny Box (1975) to us. I also remember encountering Virginia Hamilton during that time. I was a library helper in the fourth grade at my elementary school so I had a great relationship with books.
What are the current trends?
Paula Chase-Hyman: I’ve been told that in general terms, series books may experience a hit in the market. But I’m not certain I believe that mainstream trends in children’s literature apply to those books for young Black readers. Or at least they shouldn’t.
Series books (i.e. contemporary, commercial books) revolving around African-American characters have only been offered for maybe two years. And minus Troy Cle’s book, how many adventure books are out there that revolve around African-American characters?
In other words, Black characters are still missing from a lot of the niches that are popular. Niches that may now be on the downtrend. But it’s the responsibility of publishers to look for paranormal, adventure, fantasy and yes, even Gossip Girl type books for African-American readers. There’s still a long way to go when you talk about how underrepresented people of color are within the many sub-genres.
Don Tate: The picture book is struggling. It pains me to say that because it is the picture book that I fell in love with early in my career. I loved going to the library or bookstore, seeing all the new titles. Picture books lined entire walls of bookstores and spilled out into the center aisles.
But have you visited your neighborhood bookstore lately? You’d be lucky to find more than a handful of new picture book titles. And that wall that used to be packed with picture books is now shelved with YA titles. On a good year, books by and about African-Americans make up only about 2 percent of the publishing pie, can you imagine how this overall cutback in picture books must have affected the African-American picture book?
As a part of this initiative, however, I’ve learned something encouraging: African-American picture book illustrators are busy. There might not be a lot of us, but those of us who have committed ourselves to this trade are finding work. Speaking for myself, I have four books on the horizon. And every other illustrator I spoke with has about the same–four books or more in the works. So whenever I get worried about the future of picture books, I try to remember that.
Carla Sarratt: I don’t think we’ve established any trends yet within African-American children’s literature other than historical fiction. We’re missing in action on the trendy list, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not trying to get there. I’m eager to see where we go with fantasy, adventure and science fiction as a result of Troy Cle and Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu in addition to the growth of series by Valerie Wilson Wesley, Stephanie Perry Moore, and L. Divine.
What are the still largely unexplored territories?
Paula Chase-Hyman: Pretty much everything. I’d say a territory isn’t considered explored until we can name at least 10 authors who are writing that sort of book. And that’s a wildly oversimplification.
Even if we could pin point one author of color who fit those generic examples we definitely wouldn’t be able to name ten. That says to me that there’s lots more territory to explore.
Don Tate: Paula took the words from my mouth, “Pretty much everything.” Where are the Black vampire stories? Where are the fantasy novels featuring African-American characters. Where is the Diary of a Wimpy Black Kid? Kidding, but you get my point.
Kelly Starling Lyons: I’d love to see a commercial YA series succeed like the wildly popular middle-grade series Cheetah Girls by Deborah Gregory (Hyperion). We also need more tween books by Black authors, more picture books that feature African-American boys and more stories that explore the challenges of Black middle-class young people.
Carla Sarratt: I think we have a wide gamut of unexplored territory as it relates to Black children’s literature. Recently I was asked are there any picture book or middle grade titles where a Black protagonist expresses a desire to be president one day. And I honestly had no clue because I don’t think there is. Surely someone has written it, but is it published yet and being recommended to young readers.
I’m excited to see what happens in the next five years with Black authors creating fantasy, science fiction and graphic novels along the lines of what Troy Cle and Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu are doing.
Another unexplored territory that comes to mind is taking the books out there that are already written and making them into movies, mini-series, or even television shows. There are so many great books that would translate well into movies. All of the Coretta Scott King winning titles are certainly viable contenders. Instead of remaking Nick at Nite TV shows into movies, let’s make books like Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Draper, Like Sisters on the Homefront by Rita Williams-Garcia, Tyrell by Coe Booth, and Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers into movies.
In my own efforts to share great books from/reflecting historically underrepresented communities in the body of literature, it seems that a few of the same mental roadblocks appear now and then. What do you say to a teacher, librarian, or parent who explains that your book is not a fit for their patrons/students/child because they’re of some other background? Why is it important that all children and young adults read the work of African-American authors and illustrators?
Paula Chase-Hyman: Because our world is far too diverse. It’s narrow minded for an influencer to think that their students/patrons can’t learn from a story simply because the main character is of color. Since when did the race of the person dictate how they overcame a challenge?
But I know too well, it’s really a Catch-22. I wrote my book so that a young Black reader could identify with a character that looked like them. But the experiences I write about are universal to any teen reader. Many times I feel caught between wanting to promote my book based on the story but having to shout from the roof tops that its cast is multi-racial.
We need to get back to selling stories based on the story.
Don Tate: Because ignorance about other people, races or cultures leads to fear, and fear is what keeps people apart. When a community is made up of mostly one racial group, one of the best ways for that group to learn about others is through books. Take a white child in a mostly white community, if the only images that child sees of Black families are through the television, that child is going to grow up with a distorted view of who Black people are.
In all honesty, and in my opinion, the color of the author is less important than the story that’s being told. There are many wonderful stories about Black people that are written by non-Blacks–Martin’s Big Words, When Marian Sang, Wilma Unlimited. It’s more important, for example, that the story of Martin Luther King be told to children. It’s not important that the author who writes the story be Black. It is important, however, that Blacks not be excluded from the opportunity to have their stories published. And when you consider that only about 2-percent of the books being published in one year are by or about African Americans, it makes you wonder.
Kelly Starling Lyons: We have more commonalities than differences. Reading across cultures can teach us that and how to appreciate the beauty of each other’s worlds. When I read Chachaji’s Cup by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Soumya Sitaraman (Children’s Book Press, 2003)(author interview) for instance, I learned a lot about India, but the story also made me think about my relationship with my grandma. Same when I read Mama’s Saris by Pooja Makhijani, illustrated by Elena Gomez (Little, Brown, 2007)(author interview); I got a peek into her culture but also saw my daughter and me. There’s a thread of universal experience in African-American stories too.
Carla Sarratt: I grew up reading Sweet Valley High, Beezus and Ramona, Anastasia and several other books that did not feature or contain Black characters. I loved those titles and considered them great reads. A good story should outweigh the ethnicity of the characters in contrast to the readers. Good stories connect with people not with the skin color.
When I first published my Native American powwow book, Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000), an educator said to me: “This is lovely, but you know, we already have Joseph Bruchac.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Joe (and, though, she didn’t realize it, he wasn’t the only Native youth author at the time, though it’s a tiny community)! But I was flabbergasted. Do you face a parallel dynamic in the industry? If so, how does it manifest itself?
And, by the way, I laughed so hard at your example, Cyn. But, where I like to remain optimistic, is there is still so much unexplored territory out there. So much room for growth.
The day I can walk into a bookstore or library and see at least one or two authors of color among the other sub-genres, I’d at least feel we’ve made a start. Better yet, the day I pick up one of my local library’s book marks promoting African-American authors and see names beyond the vanguard authors, I’ll know we’re making some progress.
Varian Johnson: I do think that this ideology sometimes manifests itself in contemporary young adult and middle grade fiction, which I imagine is probably the largest sub-genre of writing by African-American authors. In order to overcome this misconception, I think we constantly need to reinforce the idea that the African-American experience of teens from 145th Street in Harlem is not the same as the experience of African-American teens in Florence, South Carolina. Or San Diego, California. Or Austin, Texas.
Don Tate: I’ve sensed the attitude, however I can’t think of an instance off hand. A few times when I’ve spoken at schools, I’ve been introduced to children as a Coretta Scott King illustrator. Oftentimes, people identify all Black children’s book creators as somehow affiliated with the CSK award, and I don’t understand that. CSK is an award, not some kind of workers’ union that all Black authors and illustrators belong to.
Carla Sarratt: The dynamic definitely exists as well as comments like “these authors don’t sound Black enough.” So as we continue to write and tell out stories, hopefully we won’t be pigeonholed to a checklist of story lines and character motifs.
Though my Native-themed books are used widely in schools, I’ve been urged by some to make my contemporary stories of everyday Native kids more “teachy.” Across the board, though, I’ve noticed that there’s more openness to a wider array of novels, especially at the YA level. Do you find–in particular when looking at picture books–that it’s more difficult to place manuscripts that don’t relate to historical figures, events, or other more obvious curriculum tie-ins?
Varian Johnson: While I’m not an expert on picture books, I would argue that non-contemporary picture books–for example, biographies, historical books, folktales, and spirituals–are more popular with publishers and libraries. The most recent Coretta Scott King Illustration Awards support this—since 2000, only one “contemporary” picture book has won the award.
Don Tate: Hard question for me to answer as I’m primarily am an illustrator. My first written book will publish in 2009, and it is a historical biography about an African American, former slave. Relative to other author experiences I’ve heard about, it was an easier sell. But I have written other kinds of stories, too. When I’ve shared those other stories with editors and agents, what I hear back is “Yes, but do you have any African-American interest stories?” They seem to be less interested in my Dodo bird book and more interested in what I might write about African-American history.
Kelly Starling Lyons: I think the picture book market is a tough one right now regardless of one’s race. But I see some encouraging signs for African-American children’s book authors. There’s such a diversity in the work being created and published. Consider Angela Johnson‘s Lily Brown’s Paintings, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Orchard, 2007), Jerdine Nolen‘s Raising Dragons, illustrated by Elise Primavera (Voyager, 2002), Jabari Asim‘s Daddy Goes to Work, illustrated by Aaron Boyd (Little, Brown, 2006) and Michelle Meadows‘ The Way the Storm Stops, illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger (Henry Holt, 2003)(author interview). These are books that explore the wonder of childhood and the magic of imagination.
We need stories about history and tradition, but we need stories about every-day life too. The presence of books like theirs means there’s room for all of our stories.
Carla Sarratt: My experience varies somewhat from Paula, Varian, Don and Kelly since I am self-published. I think that we need to get the gatekeepers to see that kids shouldn’t just read for school, but should read for pleasure as well. With that being the case, everything that is written does not need to be “teach-y” or have an obvious connection to the school curriculum, but can be fun and lighthearted as well. Readers will still learn from or take something away from the story with less obvious teachable moments.
What are the other challenges to raising awareness of African-American children’s and young adult authors?
Paula Chase-Hyman: Sometimes I feel like a raindrop in the ocean. I want this initiative to reach so many. But that takes baby steps. There are many key outlets and individuals The Brown Bookshelf should be in front of, to ensure we’re spreading the word to our primary audience. Every time I feel like we’re doing that, I’ll discover a new entity we should introduce ourselves to.
I’m so grateful to you, the ReaderGirlz and others who have championed our mission, inviting us to speak about our group on your blogs and websites. We’re reaching our goal one person at a time.
Don Tate: Expanding upon what I said earlier, one challenge for us will be in our promoting African-American children’s books and creators, without alienating ourselves from others in the children’s literature community.
Many people like to pretend that racial issues no longer exist. “We live in the 21st century,” they say. And that by our promoting African-American children’s authors and illustrators, we are a part of any problem, perpetuating racial divide.
Recently, we were approached by the divas at ReaderGirlz, to participate in some of their Black History Month observations, and I thought, “Yes! They got it! They got it!” And I appreciated that.
Kelly Starling Lyons: A challenge is in getting people to see that our books have meaning not just for African-American children, but all young people. I am proud of Black History Month, but it shouldn’t become the only time schools and libraries feature books by Black authors. Our stories should be part of the fabric of curriculums and collections.
Who are your greatest allies?
Paula Chase-Hyman: Our sponsors are exactly who we need behind us. Groups like the Black Caucus of ALA, NCTE, RawSistaz and AACBWI are all important portals to parents, librarians and other people who have influence when it comes to recommending books for young readers.
Because we’re trying to reach such a broad base of folks, connecting with groups who have a built-in connection with so many is the only way an initiative like ours has any chance of having an impact.
Don Tate: People like you, Cynthia. People who reach out to us, people who’ll help to spread our message. And the many, many librarians, teachers, bloggers and authors who’ve stopped by and offered support.
Kelly Starling Lyons: Teachers, librarians, parents, caring and committed authors like you. Some of our strongest allies are people who understand why it’s so important to raise the profile of books by Black authors and help us spread the word.
Carla Sarratt: I agree with Paula and Don. Our allies are so diverse from the big groups like AACBWI and RAWsistaz to fellow authors and bloggers who mention us in a blog to their readers and fan base. People who offer tidbits on how to spread the word about The Brown Bookshelf. Our allies understand what we are doing and what we are trying to accomplish.
What is 28 Days Later? Who are the sponsors?
Paula Chase-Hyman: 28 Days Later is our group’s inaugural initiative. During Black History Month we’re highlighting 28 authors and four illustrators of color. Each spotlight will include a question-and-answer interview with that author as well a run down of that person’s body of work. Our goal is to arm people with information. On Feb 29th, anyone who visits our site will walk away educated about 28 more authors. That’s thrilling to me.
What inspired this particular initiative?
Paula Chase-Hyman: ReaderGirlz. It’s funny because when Varian approached me I’d been following Reader Girlz since they launched. And I was thinking the same exact thing he was–wow, how nice would it be to have something similar for underrepresented children’s authors of color. Great minds think alike, but only the truly passionate go beyond thinking.
How did you identify the youth literature book creators to be featured?
Varian Johnson: I think we each had our own specific criteria for researching possible authors to highlight. I focused a lot on book reviews from the major trade journals. In addition, I strove to find authors that were either actively getting work published, or authors that produce work in genres in which African-American are generally unknown.
Don Tate: I began with my own knowledge. I honestly try to keep up with what’s going on in the industry, so I’m at least familiar with names and who’s doing what (the Cynsations blog and others go a long way in helping me there). Beyond that, I did a lot of research. Many people stopped by the blog and offered names and books, so looked up each author, visited the library a few times, had conversations with librarians.
Carla Sarratt: We created a list from our own resources (the Internet, library websites, bookstore shelves) of authors and then asked for nominations from anyone who visited our site. We received the names of many authors and illustrators that we didn’t know existed, and it affirmed the importance of our work.
In addition to creators of books for children, will you also be featuring authors of resource books about African-American youth literature (i.e., books by university professors of, say, library science or education about the field more broadly)?
Paula Chase-Hyman: Our focus is primarily on fiction, right now. There are so many ways it can grow. But for now, to keep it manageable, we’re trying to keep the focus relatively narrow.
Don Tate: I’d prefer to keep it to what I (we) love, children’s books. If we break into other areas, for me, it will become work. Once it becomes work, it won’t be as much fun. But again, The Brown Bookshelf is much more than about me, and hopefully in the future, it’ll grow into something beyond us five people. Who knows where it could go from there.
Carla Sarratt: Definitely, we hope to expand in the future, but there is a lot of fiction that is being overlooked and that is a larger component. So it is fitting that fiction is our foundation and we expand from there.
What were the other challenges of structuring the program?
Paula Chase-Hyman: Knowing how vast the initiative can be and trying to keep our focus. It would be so easy to be everything to everybody and then end up being nothing to anyone. So staying focused and on task has been a challenge.
Don Tate: Technical. There are many things we’d like to do, but that are beyond our technical expertise. As far as I’m concerned, “Java” is a nickname for coffee and “widget” is completely a new concept for me. Maybe at some point, it would be nice if we could hire a webmaster.
Carla Sarratt: I agree that it was challenging to stay true to our focus as we initially identified it before we presented it to the masses. We’re committed to being dynamic and relevant, but we don’t want to overextend ourselves and lose our audience.
What are additional great resources for finding out more about African-American youth literature?
Paula Chase-Hyman: Our partners’ websites are a great place to start. These are organizations dedicated to children’s literature and/or exposing people to literature.
Varian Johnson: A few resources that I suggest are The African-American Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators, The African American Literature Book Club, and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.
Kelly Starling Lyons: There are wonderful resource books like Black Authors and Illustrators of Books for Children and Young Adults by Barbara Thrash Murphy and Deborah Murphy (Routledge, 2006) and the Black Books Galore’s Guide to Great African American Children’s Books by Donna Rand, Toni Trent Parker and Sheila Foster (Jossey-Bass, 1998). You can also visit sites like www.blackbooksgalore.com, www.gritskidz.com and www.justusbooks.com for great recommendations of books.
Could you each briefly tell us about your own books?
Paula Chase-Hyman: I write the Del Rio Bay Clique series. It’s published by Kensington Books Dafina imprint. Right now there are five books in the series. The first two, So Not The Drama and Don’t Get It Twisted are in stores now. The third, That’s What’s Up! will be released July of this year, the fourth, Who You Wit’? November of this year. The last in May ’09. It’s keeping me very busy but in a great way.
Varian Johnson: My latest novel, My Life as a Rhombus (Flux/Llewelyn, 2008), was just released this January. So far, we’ve received some really positive reviews from Booklist, the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, and TeensReadToo.com.
Don Tate: A few of the books I’ve illustrated are Sure as Sunrise by Alice McGill (Houghton Mifflin), Summer Sun Risin’ by W. Nikola-Lisa (Lee & Low Books), Say Hey! A Song of Willie Mays by Peter Mandel (Jump At The Sun). Currently, I’m illustrating a book called Little Ron on a Big Mission by Rose Blue and Corinne J. Naden (Dutton, 2009).
Kelly Starling Lyons: One Million Men and Me, illustrated by Peter Ambush (Just Us Books, 2007) is a picture book that explores the Million Man March through the eyes of little girl who was with her daddy the day Black men made history. NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal (Just Us Books, 2004), is book #4 in the NEATE series created by Just Us Books. My story takes readers inside the relationship between Eddie, a 13-year-old student-athlete, and his civil rights veteran father. I also have a picture book coming out spring 2010 from Penguin/G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Carla Sarratt: My first novel Freshman Focus (Outskirts Press, 2007) will soon be joined by the sequel, Just Be, later this year. They are the first two titles in the Carter G. Woodson High School series.
Who are your favorite African-American authors and illustrators for children and teens? Why?
Paula Chase-Hyman: Mildred Taylor will always be my favorite author. Her stories are so vivid. They opened my imagination to what could be and educated me about the past in a way a history class never did.
Varian Johnson: Wow, that’s a hard question. Right now, I’d have to say Jacqueline Woodson, just because of how beautiful and powerful her work is. From picture books to young adult novels, poetry to prose, she can write it all. And, she writes it very, very well.
Don Tate: My list of illustrators is long, but includes names like James Ransome, Brian Pinkney, Jerry Pinkney, Floyd Cooper, Kadir Nelson, Christopher Myers, Shane Evans, Frank Morrison…um, can I keep going?…Bryan Collier, Leo and Diane Dillon, Ashley Bryan, Sean Qualls. And now that I’ve been introduced to a newer name on the horizon, Nancy Devard.
All of these people have inspired me in some way, some have even helped me along in my career. I’ve had conversations with Brian Pinkney, Floyd Cooper and James Ransome, at different points in my career, and they’ve all given me sound advice and encouragement. The others, they just make me feel so proud that they are doing so well, getting published and winning prominent awards.
Kelly Starling Lyons: One of my favorite contemporary authors is Jacqueline Woodson. Her stories move and inspire me. Some of my favorite books of hers are Coming On Home Soon, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Putnam, 2004) and Locomotion (Puffin, 2003). One of my favorite pioneering authors is Virginia Hamilton. I marvel at the genius of her books like M.C. Higgins the Great (Simon & Schuster, 1974) and The Planet of Junior Brown (Simon & Schuster, 1971).
Carla Sarratt: Before joining The Brown Bookshelf, I would have named Sharon Draper (Tears of a Tiger (Simon Pulse, 1996)), Sharon Flake (The Skin I’m In (Hyperion Books 1998)), and Rita Williams Garcia (Like Sisters on the Homefront, (Penguin, 1998)) at the top of my favorites list along with Mildred Taylor (Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry). I was introduced to the other three authors as a teacher and loved their storytelling as well as the appeal their books held for my students and me.
But now after researching for 28 Days Later, I add Valerie Wilson Wesley, author of Willimena Rules series (Jump at the Sun). Willimena reminds me of Ramona Quimby, who I loved as a kid and as a grown up, too.
There are several other 28 Days Later authors that I have not read before but I look forward to curling up with their books and making them a favorite too.
What advice do you have for beginning writers and/or illustrators? How about for beginners who’re African American?
Paula Chase-Hyman: Be persistent. Being a writer is a creative journey with many many paths. There are no short cuts. For African-American writers, I encourage you to become a part of the children’s writers community at-large. It’s such a supportive group.
There will be times when you’ll experience something that perhaps only a fellow African-American writer can truly understand, but, most times, any trial and tribulation will be something your children’s writing peers can see you through.
Don Tate: Well, Cynthia, with the recent acquisition of my first written work, this is my first opportunity to answer this question as an author! And my advice to beginning authors is to write every day; partner with other published and non-published writers so that you can give and receive that constructive criticism you’ll need to make your manuscript better; revise, revise, revise; read, read, read; and be patient because it’s not gonna happen tomorrow.
For illustrators: Polish your craft, because, with illustrators out there like Kadir Nelson and Christopher Myers, shabby isn’t good enough.
Specific advice for beginner writers or illustrators who are African American: Just know and accept that your entry into publishing may be by filling that niche, writing and/or illustrating for the African-American market. If you don’t have a problem with that, good, keep creating. If you have a desire to write or illustrate other subject matter, get you foot in the door first, show them what you can do. Book sales speak volumes.
Kelly Starling Lyons: I’d like to pass along advice that was given to me: Start by reading. Read quality books in your genre with a writer’s eye. Figure out how the author put the story together: What makes the story sing? What makes the characters memorable? What stands out about the beginning? Ending? I’ve learned so much from reading the work of writers I admire.
For African-American aspiring authors, I would say believe that your dream will happen. Write from your heart. I would also share advice an editor offered at the Writers Workshop at Chautauqua a couple years ago: “Write the story only you can tell.”
Carla Sarratt: Pursue the craft of writing and illustrating wholeheartedly. I fervently believe that writers are readers. Read fiction, non-fiction, poetry, the classics, contemporary fiction. Join writing/critique groups. Network with other writers. Believe in the story that you’re telling.
What else does the future hold for The Brown Bookshelf?
Paula Chase-Hyman: If my fellow Brown Bookshelfers don’t reign me in, I’ll have them on tour somewhere. The PR chick in me gets restive when a good idea hits. Spreading the word about your peers really does something for your heart. Some days my mind races with the activities we could undertake. Then I remember I have books to write and that the Brown Bookshelf has no revenue stream–we run purely on volunteer labor. That’s when I slow myself down and focus on the things we can realistically undertake, which at this point are cyber-based initiatives that can be managed from a distance.
Don Tate: Well, it really depends upon time. Our team is made up of hard-working professionals. For most of us, creating children’s books come after working full-time jobs and in between balancing family responsibilities. Pile on top of all that, The Brown Bookshelf. That said, I hope the future holds more people willing to step in and help out our cause.
I think there’s a need for a list of some kind, you know, something that librarians can use alongside the Coretta Scott King list.
Kelly Starling Lyons: I’d love to see us keeping building and raising awareness. Choosing our featured authors was tough because there were so many amazing nominees. It would be wonderful to continue shining the spotlight on the many unsung jewels of the children’s literary world.
Carla Sarratt: I would like to see The Brown Bookshelf being panelists at various author, librarian, teacher conferences as well as conferences that focus on children’s literature. And maybe down the line, The Brown Bookshelf will have its own awards to recognize authors and illustrators who are shining stars.