shut in/shut out

tumblr_m27x3nG6dD1r83fyio1_4001I always take a selfie on my birthday but this year I’ve been taking pictures all month long. Every time I’m out with friends, I ask someone to snap a photo with their phone so that there’s proof of our outing. I’ve just started writing again—850 words yesterday, 300 the day before. I’m hoping to get back up to a thousand words a day, which should allow me to finish The Return by Xmas. I have my first BPL-sponsored school visit in a few days and since I’m no longer teaching, I have plenty of days when I don’t have to leave the house. Which is good when I’m writing, but not so good when I’m not. Yesterday I went up to the Society of Illustrators to see The Original Art show and the Leo & Diane Dillon retrospective. The Original Art exhibit took up two floors and the artwork was just stunning. I was counting, of course—how many of these illustrators are people of color? How many are women of color? How many artists had multiple submissions? I barely noticed who won the gold and silver medals, perhaps because I was thinking about this article: “If you’re lucky enough to earn a living from your art, you’re probably white.” Which isn’t surprising but is nonetheless frustrating, and I found myself wondering as I wandered through the exhibit, “Who’s never had a chance to shine?” It’s an honor to be included in the show, but if you aren’t being asked to illustrate picture books, then there’s no chance your art will be deemed “good enough.” The outing soured further when I went up to the third floor and discovered that the Dillon exhibit was IN THE RESTAURANT. So it was hard to get close to the art since there were diners, and waiters, and Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000419_00052]tables, and steaming pans of food in the way. I guess I could have asked to speak to the curator, but instead I left thinking to myself, “Of course. Of course the art I really want to see is treated that way.” I can remember visiting Black-owned A&B Books when I first came to NYC and marveling at all the book covers that featured art by the Dillons. I’d never seen Black folks depicted so beautifully—and magically. I may print out a bunch of Dillon illustrations from the web and pin them to my bulletin board to inspire me as I write. Their art is the stuff of dreams…

My birthday is tomorrow but this email I received on Thursday is the best possible gift:

Ms. Elliott,

My daughter recently received The Magic Mirror for a gift a few weeks ago and it’s amazing. All I kept saying was ‘I have to find this author and say thank you, I have to.’ This has become my daughter’s favorite book and she takes it everywhere with us. Thank you for writing and publishing a book like that and all the others that you have, it means a lot to us.

I have to believe that even when we’re marginalized, our work will find a way to those who need it most. I’ve decided to draft an open letter to the We Need Diverse Books committee. They’re doing important work but lasting change won’t happen unless they address the source of the problem. I’m glad that Brown Girl Collective posted this quote from Audre Lorde on Facebook yesterday:

When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.

~ Audre Lorde (1934-1992), poet, author and activist

be radical

87286100228580LWhile I was in Sacramento I met Kate Schatz, Chair of the School of Literary Arts at Oakland School for the Arts and author of Rad American Women A-Z. Laura Atkins introduced us (of course) and persuaded Kate to take a look at my books (of course). Today I woke up and found this awesome photo on Twitter; Kate wrote, “This is my student Amaya, who looooooooooved The Deep! I knew she’d dig it.” With her awesome sense of style, Amaya could BE Nyla, and I hope the novel served as a “mirror” for her. Yesterday I said I was going to work on Judah’s Tale next but now I feel like Nyla’s got something more pressing to say…

This morning I also found out that I will *not* be getting fully reimbursed for my Senegal trip back in July. And you know what? As annoying as that is, it’s ok. Because the research I conducted on that trip will enable me to write the final (?) book in the “freaks & geeks” trilogy. And if Amaya’s the only Black girl who reads The Return, that will be ok, too. As Nyla learns in Book 3, sometimes being radical means being on your own…


medieval mix

Hudson Just Us Books (February 1, 1997)

Cover art by the Dillons for In Praise of Our Mothers & Fathers, Just Us Books (1997)

I’ve started planning my annual low-key birthday celebration. This Brooklyn photography exhibit is on the list along with the Dillons’ retrospective at the Society of Illustrators. Then on the actual day I think I’ll visit the Cloisters and maybe have Ethiopian food with friends. The best gift would be to start writing again…tired of editing and the endless administrative tasks that go into publishing a book. I’m prepping An Angel for Mariqua and Fox & Crow: a Christmas Tale for a Thanksgiving release; if I can then start working on Judah’s Tale, I’ll publish that YA novel and Billie’s Blues (a picture book) in early 2015. Happy Birthday…get busy!


seed & source

img213My website’s getting an overdue overhaul and it’s been challenging to find a “look” that represents who I am as a writer. There will be purple, of course, but I originally wanted a “plantation ruins” aesthetic that proved hard to achieve. My designer asked for a quote for the site and I was initially stumped but finally went with a line uttered by Genna in A Wish After Midnight: “I don’t know which matters more—where the seed comes from, or where it takes root and grows.” I realized that I wanted my ancestor photos to appear on the site because they are my source—folks from Canada, Nevis, and the US. I just tidied up the ancestor wall in my apartment and framed a “new” photo that my uncle gave me a couple of years ago; Ellen Gowland (above) married my great-great-grandfather James Henry Allen, and one of her sisters married one of his brothers. Ellen’s white family was so appalled at her marriage to a Black man that they moved and changed their surname (to Golden, I think). Unreal. James wouldn’t allow himself to be photographed because he didn’t want his descendants to be jpg619ashamed…what I wouldn’t give to see his face! That tells you just how racist Canada was (is); it was so hard being Black that he decided the family would gradually leave their blackness behind and “pass” for white. Some of James’ and Ellen’s kids could pass for white but some could not; my great-grandfather Richard Allen fell into the latter category. I don’t know if he’d be proud of me—I don’t know if he hated blackness or just the way Blacks were disadvantaged throughout Canadian society. I wish I had more photographs of my Caribbean family. My mother took me and my sister to a professional portrait studio when I was about 6 months old; apparently I was sensitive to bright light even back then because the photographer’s flash left me wide-eyed for hours…

In other news, here’s the cover for my latest book:


not nice

10690062_10205196202807090_2295473730961045619_nI’m not sure when I stopped caring whether people thought of me as “nice.” I’ve known for a long time that I’m not “sweet,” and I know some people find me intimidating because I’ve learned from so many Black feminists before me that “your silence will not protect you.” Yesterday morning I got back from Sacramento and despite jet lag went out in the evening to celebrate a friend’s 40th birthday. On the train ride home we were acting very silly and laughing hard and loud. I asked her why she doesn’t want to call herself middle-aged as I proudly do, and she replied that unlike me, she hadn’t always been invested in seeming older. I skipped a grade when I was 6 so I did spend much of my early academic life thinking a lot about my age; I knew I could compete academically, but I was afraid of doing socially inappropriate things that might lead people to realize I was younger than my peers. In college age only mattered because I stayed underage longer than my friends, but since I didn’t drink anyway, it wasn’t such a big deal. Somewhere in my thirties I started wishing I looked older; almost all of my friends have very visible grey hair and I’ve got just two white strands that can hardly be seen amidst my copious curls. I don’t like being underestimated and I think if I looked my age, perhaps people would stop referring to me as “a young woman,” which is what people call me right before they dismiss me or express amazement over my abilities. I should be articulate. I should be forthright. I should call out b.s. when I see it. I should speak up when something appears unjust. Why do people expect anything less?

I haven’t read any of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, but I read an interview with him recently where he summed up his latest theory about people who are disruptive in the best possible way. This is the gist of his theory: 1) be completely indifferent to what people say about you (disruptors “are what psychologists call disagreeable—they do not require the approval of their peers in order to do what they think is correct.” 2) develop an active imagination—reimagine the world by reframing the problem in a way no one has framed it before. 3) reframe the problem to remove constraints so that you can act with urgency.

10687037_10205196220847541_5181498902616874030_nIt can be challenging when you’re surrounded by people who don’t share your sense of urgency. Day 1 of Kidlitcon was fabulous because right from the start I found attendees who seemed like potential disruptors. After years of chatting online, I finally got to meet Multiculturalism Rocks! blogger Nathalie Mvondo (on right with librarian/blogger Edith Campbell) and her opening panel was fantastic. Unlike traditional conferences, Kidlitcon had a very open format—presenters often started by asking for audience input and the code of conduct probably wasn’t necessary because almost all the attendees were women, which means conversations were conducted with courtesy and consideration. By Day 2, I noticed more attendees expressing a desire not to be “too negative,” which is unfortunate because sometimes rigor demands that we abandon the (socialized) urge to be pleasant and positive all the time. After the We Need Diverse Books panel, my friend and fellow publishing industry disruptor Laura Atkins and I had to take a walk around the block to blow off some steam. The night before zetta-laura-edithwe’d had dinner with Edi, Maya Gonzalez, and her beautiful family; we scarfed down tasty vegetarian food and lingered over apple spice cake drizzled with cider syrup…it felt very indulgent and yet also very necessary. So few people truly embrace change and aren’t afraid to be disruptive. I forget that sometimes because I’ve been a “troublemaker” within my family for decades and most of my friends are outspoken feminists of color. We tend not to wait. We don’t “go slow.” We try to build the reality we see in our dreams. Of course, everyone has to follow her own path and I left Sacramento reminding myself that what’s urgent to me won’t ever be urgent to everyone else. But we did meet new allies and I’m especially encouraged by the 20-somethings at Kidlitcon who seem poised to turn their anger into action. Watch out for the Twinjas’ Diverse Blog Tour and brace yourself for the unfiltered reflections of Sarah Hannah Gómez. And don’t count out we middle-aged mamas who are still plotting revolution offline…


Kidlitcon is just a few days away and I’m working on my panel presentation, which means I’m gathering up all the bits and 01t/25/arve/g2237/059pieces that explain why I do what I do. I’m a bit of a mess these days. On Sunday the protestors singing a “Requiem for Mike Brown” brought me to tears; the night before I pulled out my Sarah Vaughan CD and got misty while writing about my father in the introduction to an article I later scrapped. Late last week there was quite a dust up over at the Horn Book blog when Roger Sutton decided to explain why there’s no place for self-published books in his elite review journal. He subsequently offered a “Selfie Sweepstakes,” which I won’t be entering, but the debate at least made me clarify my point of view and connected me with some sympathetic folks online. And yesterday I heard from Amy Martin at the Oakland Public Library; last spring she and other librarians explained the importance of shelving books, which prompted me to resize three of my recently published titles. As Amy explains on the OPL blog, Max Loves Muñecas! now meets their formatting standards and will hopefully be on the shelves soon…

I just read an article about a study that shows whites are becoming less supportive of diversity initiatives as people of color shift from minority to majority status in the US. This piece will definitely become part of my Kidlitcon talk:

The researchers say the results are related to whites feeling threatened in a way that is distinct from their concerns about economic competition or clashing cultural values. They concluded that the demographic changes are threatening whites’ sense that they best represent the American identity.

“Whites have long benefited from being seen as the ethnic group that best represents what it means to be American,” said Huo, a faculty member in the UCLA College. “Thinking about a future in which whites are no longer a numerical majority threatens this claim to the American identity and, we have found, results in a reluctance to embrace diversity and greater support for newcomers to assimilate to American society.”

The “threat to identity,” Danbold said, is often overlooked in discussions about why whites are uneasy about changing demographics.


duboisOn Thursday I was sitting at my desk listening to NPR when they announced Attorney General Eric Holder’s resignation. I felt my eyes filling with tears and immediately thought of W.E.B. DuBois’ decision to surrender his U.S. passport and move to Ghana after a lifetime of fighting for social justice. Holder insists he hasn’t been pushed out by Republicans who have been calling for his resignation for years; it seems his wife was worried about his health and God knows his body must be weary from fighting the good fight for 6 years in D.C. Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time inside my head and when I return to the real world I see or hear an echo—a ghost. Holder conjures DuBois, Viola Davis fights back when the NY Times calls her ugly and I think about Audre Lorde’s important reminder: “For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call america, we have had to learn this first and most vital lesson––that we were never meant to survive. Not as human beings.” Yesterday I met a friend and her mother to tour the beautiful new center at Weeksville. The corner lot that was once a stretch of grass has been completely transformed and yet I remembered my former self standing outside the old chain link fence, gazing at the Hunterfly Road houses and dreaming up A Wish After Midnight back in 2001. I remembered taking the very first printed copy of the novel to the women who worked there and never getting a response; sending more copies in the years that followed and still nothing. Yesterday we took a tour and our graduate student guide was so warm and enthusiastic, engaged in her own study of textiles from the 19th century. Then we went over to the new building and the new executive director came up to us and asked, “Are you all teachers?” She gave us educational material, offered us some cookies, and seemed genuinely excited when I offered to send her a copy of Wish. In November I’ll be on an Afrofuturism panel, which has me thinking about the blues motif of “repetition with variation.” We do seem to be trapped in a cycle…another Black teenager was shot dead by cops in Louisiana. The cops who shot a Black man holding a toy gun in Walmart won’t face charges. Two young Black women were killed in Florida—left bound and naked on the side of the road—and no one’s rallying or rioting. But these ghosts and echoes aren’t only proof of repetition (the more things change…). They’re opportunities for variation, for creating a different outcome or a different response to a recurring event. If you face rejection over and over again, you can choose/try not to internalize the implied message of worthlessness. As Viola Davis explains,

I’ve heard that statement [less classically beautiful] my entire life. Being a dark-skinned black woman, you heard it from the womb. And “classically not beautiful” is a fancy term for saying ugly. And denouncing you. And erasing you. Now … it worked when I was younger. It no longer works for me now. It’s about teaching a culture how to treat you. Because at the end of the day, you define you.


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