Craft, Career & Cheer: Zetta Elliott

Learn more about Zetta Elliott, and visit her blog. Her books include Bird (Lee & Low, 2008) and A Wish After Midnight (CreateSpace, 2008).

Could you tell us about your writing community—your critique group or critique partner or other sources of creative support?

I don’t belong to a critique group, but I still rely quite heavily on my artistic community.

Most of my closest friends are writers who have branched out into other fields: performance art, fine art, film, theater. That means a lot to me, because I’m surrounded by women who are truly daring, and because we work in different fields, there tends to be very little competition.

I’m a solitary person and not very social, so my friends also draw me out–they get me “out of my head” (and out of my house!), yet they never stop me from sharing ideas. I never feel silenced or censored around them. I come from a family where open communication isn’t really valued, so having that with my artist friends is extremely valuable.

Also, because many of my friends are scholars, they understand the struggle to balance those professional demands with our personal ambition as artists. They’re sympathetic yet savvy about how to create opportunities for our art to flourish–often against all odds!

I see my friends as coaches, in a way—they’re more outgoing, more courageous, and they push me in ways I’d never push myself.

I’ve recently started to build an online community as well–women I’ve never actually met, but with whom I share a love of literature and an investment in youth literacy.

These women (who can be found online at Color Online, Crazy Quilts, A Wrung Sponge, and The Happy Nappy Bookseller) have worked tirelessly to promote my self-published young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight.

It’s not easy finding people who are open-minded enough to try something new, and most people instantly dismiss self-published books. But these women agreed to review the novel, and then used all their connections to spread the word.

Through one blogger I met Colleen Mondor who reviews YA novels for Bookslut; the day that review was published online, a senior editor at a major press contacted me about acquiring the rights to my self-published novel.

Whatever happens, I owe a huge debt to these amazing women. Together we’ve proven that ordinary people do have the power to stand up against a publishing industry that doesn’t always meet our needs.

What do you love most about being an author? Why?

First and foremost, I love to write. That’s the one constant since I’ve become a published children’s book author. I once heard Toni Morrison say that you don’t need anyone’s permission to be a writer, but you do need someone’s permission to be an author. That really resonated with me, because I was writing furiously and had had only a few poems accepted for publication at the time. I wasn’t sure I even had the right to call myself a writer!

Now, with an award-winning book, I feel somewhat vindicated, even though I still cringe at the idea of legitimacy coming from outside myself and outside my community.

What I love most about being an author is the opportunity to embody possibility. I love working with children again, which is very different than teaching college students, and I really enjoy hearing the children talk about my book–what the story means to them and how it relates to their own life.

It bothers me that so many children believe authors are these quasi-magical beings who exist somewhere else and only occasionally drop in to visit them at their school. It matters to me that the kids I work with know that a writer is a member of their community. Every community produces writers because everyone has a story to tell. Everyone!

I don’t think I ever met an author when I was a child, and I certainly didn’t know there were so many authors of color in the world! I didn’t have a diverse selection of books to choose from as a child, and that has changed somewhat for today’s youth. But they still need to know that their own stories matter and their own stories have value, even if they’re not published in a book.

It’s hard to explain the politics of publishing to children, but I can still spend an hour helping them to craft poems about whatever they’ve witnessed in their world. I can tell them about my life, and at times I know they look at me and there’s recognition–I’m no longer the distant author, I’m like a neighbor or a family member.

I’m often struck by the number of children who tell me I look like their relative or I sound like their cousin or guess what? I have asthma, too!

We connect on so many different levels, and I hope that that demystifies art and those of us who are determined to create it.

Principals often stress that I’m “Dr. Elliott,” and I understand why they want the children to know that I have a PhD.

But with or without an advanced degree, you can write. With or without anyone else’s permission, you can put your life in words. That’s the message I try to share as an author.

What can your fans look forward to next?

This summer I plan to finish the sequel to my YA novel, A Wish After Midnight. It’s called Judah’s Tale, and it’s set in Weeksville, a 19th-century African American community in (what was then) the city of Brooklyn.

I’m currently working on a story called “Munecas,” and I’m hoping to collaborate once more with Shadra Strickland (award-winning illustrator of Bird).

I also write plays, and after speaking with a class of ELA student-teachers, I’ve been thinking about self-publishing a collection of ten-minute plays for teens.

The beauty of self-publishing is that I can write something and make it available almost immediately. I think there are many issues our youth need to address now, but the publishing industry doesn’t seem to share that sense of urgency.

I’m hoping that the current economic crisis will lead to reform within the industry, and will reveal opportunities for more people to have their voices heard–we need more stories from more communities!

Cynsational Notes

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.