Grading. Grading on the subway. Grading while on line at the burrito place. Grading before going to bed and again first thing in the morning. Sigh. I took a stack of papers with me to France but didn’t make much progress, in part because I got off the plane with a cold. The south of France is lovely but French culture doesn’t really work for me: I don’t drink or smoke, I hate baguette, I’m not crazy about little dogs, and I can’t eat cheese. Sitting at a packed outdoor cafe doesn’t appeal to this solitary Scorpio, and so when I first arrived on Wednesday, I actually wished I could speed up the clock. I don’t like to travel alone, and as a woman—and a woman of color—with only limited French, I felt insecure in Aix-en-Provence (though I generally found the people to be friendlier than Parisians). It’s a pretty town (photo above is Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur d’Aix) but it seems people mostly go there to shop, and that was the last thing I wanted to do. I got some ibuprofen and vitamin C from the pharmacy and spent the first couple of nights recuperating at the hotel. Then Laura arrived on Friday and everything changed—I had a running buddy! A sounding board. A friend. I’m not a big talker but whenever Laura and I get together, we find endless issues to discuss: teaching, grading, the pros and cons of being in the academy, the pros and cons of US & UK publishing, immigration, ambition, relationships. And the conference itself, of course, which was interesting and really well organized. I think both our papers were well received, and we met some interesting people, including American graphic artist/illustrator/professor John Jennings whose hotel room was right across from ours. We ate at Chez Grandmere Friday night and had “authentic Provencale cuisine.” The next day we checked out the local bookstores, ambled through the outdoor market, and had pizza in a candlelit, cobble-stoned corner of Aix. We shared our family histories and projected where we’d be in five years. John requires students in his hip hop visuals class to come up with a tag—”What would yours be?” I woke up this morning trying to answer that question. I think I’ve settled on “bittersweet” or “bittasweet,” though it’s probably not wise to pick a tag that can be reduced to “b.s.” This morning I was at the central branch of the BPL listening to the amazing poetry my two middle school classes created. During our second workshop I asked them to circle ten words that represented the essence of a special memory. A tag is sort of like your essence—if you had to reduce yourself to ONE word, what would it be? I thought about “scribe” but that seemed too one-dimensional. I like bittersweet because it represents contradiction but also balance. In my third workshop with the students I asked them to make two lists: words others would use to describe them, and words they would use to describe themselves. “Sweet” isn’t a word that would appear on either of my lists, but I like “bittasweet” because there’s at least a little sugar in me…though these days I’m so stressed out that I’m consuming more sugar than I really need. While I was in France I got thirty emails a day, including two stressful surprises: the book I plan to write about African American YA speculative fiction is going to be announced later this spring at another conference (never mind that I haven’t actually finished the proposal), and the editors of an anthology on urban children’s literature asked me to contribute a chapter (by June). Trouble is, I haven’t had any time just to write for myself and that’s why the “bitter” is threatening to overwhelm the “sweet” in me. I don’t even have time to record all the details of my time in France. I made a dozen mental notes but can’t remember half of them now: sugar cubes in the shape of hearts, Lionel Richie’s “Hello” and the theme from Flashdance playing on the shuttle bus radio, a thin sliver of a moon in a starless sky. On the flight back to NYC I watched Puss ‘n Boots and (when I wasn’t laughing my head off) nearly wept at some of the coloring—I remember seeing a Maxfield Parrish exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum and having a similar reaction. How do you capture the color of a child’s dream? Do illustrations teach us how to dream? I need to write but can’t afford to let myself drift. Not until spring break. I had tea with a friend this afternoon and she reminded me that there is a time to “frolic” and a time to work. What matters most is that you apply yourself fully to every task, trusting that you will be changed by the experience. I think that’s what worries me…
Archive for the ‘book culture’ Category
What’s your platform for the next two years?
“Reading is not an Option!” is my platform. The value of reading has escalated in my lifetime. As a young man, I saw families prosper without reading because there were always sufficient opportunities for willing workers who could follow simple instructions. This is no longer the case. Children who don’t read are, in the main, destined for lesser lives. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to change this.
The Birthday Party Pledge team couldn’t agree more! We’re almost ready to launch our site…
Did you hear about the stampedes that took place all around the country over the release of $180 “retro” Air Jordans? I was already thinking about launching a new literacy initiative but this news prompted me to act sooner rather than later. According to a recent article in The Root, African American buying power is approaching $1.1 trillion. Target Market News breaks down the consumer data to show that in 2009, African Americans spent $321 million on books—that’s a lot of money, but it’s clear that a lot more money was spent on other goods and services (including $2.8 billion on non-alcoholic beverages). So how do we get people to invest more money in books? I’d love to poll all those people who lined up for sneakers last night and find out just how many books they have in their home. Because we know that having a home library increases a child’s chance of succeeding in school. Buying sneakers is not an investment—buying books IS. But I’m not trying to guilt parents into surrendering their sneakers and video games or any of the other things on which they spend their disposable income. Instead I think we should take a “village” approach. If you know a child who’s growing up without books, do something about it when that child’s birthday rolls around. If you want to buy toys for your child, then ask your family and friends to buy books so that your child gets the best of both worlds. I’m hoping people will take the Birthday Party Pledge and commit to giving books as gifts for at least ONE year. I’ve set up a new site and we hope to do an official launch in 2012. Do you think we can convince people to take the pledge?
I’m thoroughly enjoying my low-consumption Christmas and hope you’re enjoying the holidays, too!
Posted in African American Literature, book culture, bookstores, Brooklyn, Canada, children's literature, equity, racism in publishing, self-publishing, speculative fiction on December 8, 2011 | 16 Comments »
This is our second day of December rain but I’m still trying to feel festive—right now I’m baking cookies for my students and last night I hung my wreath on the front door. I also got a special delivery today—advance reader copies of my next novel! So far I’ve been presented with two covers and neither one fully captured the essence of Ship of Souls. It’s an urban ghost story so the cover needs to be gritty yet magical…they’re still working on it. In the meantime, this plain cover doesn’t thrill me but I’ll now be able to share the book with family and friends. If you’re an educator or librarian or book blogger and you’re already on my list, you should be getting your ARC in the next week or so (directly from the publisher). If we haven’t met but you’d like to check the book out, just leave me a comment.
Amazon made a big announcement this week and the reactions have been interesting. If you like my writing and want to check out Ship of Souls, you should know that some booksellers are vowing never to sell any book published by Amazon. I respect the right of others to stand up for what they believe is right—I just wish we could generate as much outrage over the racism that excludes so many unique voices from the traditional publishing industry. I also can’t help but wonder how many of those indie booksellers stock children’s books by black authors. How many stock books by Lee & Low—can you find Bird in those stores? And how many are open to self-published authors? I want a publishing industry where readers and writers have options. When one door closes, you’re not completely shut out because you can always try another. As I said in my acknowledgments:
I want to thank my agent, Faith Childs, who read the manuscript and responded with enthusiasm and encouragement. I also thank her for persisting in an industry where doors and minds are so often closed to writers like me.
Lastly I thank the AmazonEncore team for keeping their door open.
Posted in activism, African American Literature, book culture, children's literature, equity, minority issues in publishing, multicultural literature, racism in publishing on November 23, 2011 | 9 Comments »
I’m thankful for many things this evening. I’m thankful for the medication that relieved my 4am migraine. And I’m so glad I dragged myself to work today because my students really lifted my spirits. We were discussing colorism and we took turns acting out Yellowman by Dael Orlandersmith. We shared stories of our own experiences with privilege and prejudice; we reflected on the messages we get from the media and from our families. We talked about body image and eating disorders, and the impulse too many black women have to diminish ourselves in order to please or placate others. Why do so many of us fear that we “take up too much space?” I’m so thankful for the opportunity to teach and learn from my students—and I truly needed to be in the classroom this week because things got a little heated on the blog. When I posted the publishers responsible for the 47 black-authored books that came out in 2011, one editor left an anonymous comment that rubbed me the wrong way. In part because it was the same old, same old (“I don’t consider race when judging a manuscript”) and in part because s/he claimed my methodology was flawed. I responded to her comment and then rallied the troops (thanks to everyone who shared their opinion!), and my good friend Laura Atkins wrote a brilliant response that she has since posted on her own blog. Laura was much more diplomatic than I was and asked the anonymous editor to consider a few things:
…have you considered how you respond to manuscripts based on your own background (not knowing what that background is)? And if this idea is extended, considering that the publishing industry is dominated by people from a white middle-class background (and generally female), then isn’t this going to shape the reactions editors and sales people are having to submissions? Again, Neesha’s post on aesthetics is helpful to read here. As is Cynthia Leitich Smiths’ article, “A Different Drum: Native American Writing” (“Field Notes,” The Horn Book Magazine, July 2002, p. 407). She gives examples of responses she had to her writing, including the use of humor which non-native readers didn’t get, and how she was told that repeating four times was incorrect – it should be three (drawing on fairy tale tropes rather than Cynthia’s cultural traditions). This is a lot of what I wrote about in my essay, “White Privilege in Children’s Publishing,” and I think gets to the heart of the issues with the publishing industry. As long as the people working there don’t reflect the people who live in the country (demographics are shifting, ethnic minorities becoming majorities in some places) – then how can the books published really reflect and speak to children from truly diverse backgrounds?
Laura also posted links to my stats and her response on the Child_Lit list, and one member (thank you, Melynda Huskey) shared a link to an interesting Implicit Association Test that YOU can take to reveal your unconscious assumptions about groups of people who are different than you (race, religion, gender, sexuality, etc.). Academics certainly have their issues, but maybe we need more professors in publishing! I withdrew from the Child_Lit list after hearing crickets whenever I broached the subject of racism in publishing, but I’m grateful that at least some people on the list were willing to respond so thoughtfully to Laura’s post.
I will be grading over Thanksgiving, but I have vowed *not* to grumble as I grade. There’s way too much to be thankful for…
We still don’t have a cover for Ship of Souls, which is frustrating, but I just went through the line edits and really appreciated how thorough yet practical “Emily” was. Here are some of the remarks from her editorial letter, which was only a page and a half:
This manuscript contains a lot of value within a relatively small number of pages. There are adventure, budding romance, history, and messages about religious and racial tolerance and healing, as well as true friendship. The only edits necessary were consistency of format or punctuation, which I have detailed below.
The scope of this book is incredible. It not only informs readers about the history of the Revolutionary War but also about the African Burial Ground, and it ties in the tragedy at Ground Zero.
The characters in this book are quite unique—real people, each with his or her complexities. The characters convey important messages in a way that readers understand: how teamwork and sticking together can change the outcome of a difficult situation, and that everyone wants respect, compassion, and friendship. The fact that D, Keem, and Nyla are young but capable of accomplishing so much is sure to be inspiring to readers.
You also introduce elements of everyone’s home life that are not resolved when the book ends: Keem’s strict father, Nyla’s stepmother’s gambling issues, and D’s difficulty being himself with Mrs. Martin and the challenge of a new baby. This is true of real life, where problems and conflicts do not go away overnight, and it also suggests the possibility of a sequel.
I hope these edits and comments are valuable in helping the manuscript achieve your publishing goals. Good luck in your revision, and I wish you all the best for this manuscript and future books.
Emily, you’re my kind of editor…
It’s been that kind of month. Today there’s rain, I can feel a migraine lingering around the edges of my eyes, and I turned two sets of papers back only to collect two more sets of midterm exams. In the midst of all this grading, I’ve also been working on revisions for my next novel. This time around, I was assigned an external editor and I *thought* the process was rather painless. But I just had some unpleasantness with my acquisitions editor, and that’s got me thinking—again—about the role of an editor. Did you see that piece in The New York Times on how Amazon is transforming the publishing process? This is the quote I extracted to post on Facebook—it comes from an Amazon executive:
“The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader,” he said. “Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.”
Hm. There’s obviously something very appealing about that kind of direct connection between reader and writer. But I’m extremely grateful to have an agent, and it does still take a team of people to successfully launch a new book. I’ve worked with half a dozen editors at this point, and my last experience (writing a short story for an anthology on bullying) set the bar VERY high. It was my first time working with an editor who was a woman of color and I can’t say whether or not that made the difference (though I suspect it did!)—what I know for sure is that she was clear about her ideas and expectations AND she respected my intelligence. She pushed me, but she also let me push back.
With Wish, I wasn’t pushed. They took it “as is,” and I felt proud to offer readers “organic writing.” Not perfect, but genuinely my work. I guess some people find it odd that I’d be willing to offer imperfect writing to the world—arrogant, even. Personally, I find it odd (arrogant, even) that anyone would expect me to change my work “just because” an alternative was suggested. Or because someone was paid to look for flaws and point them out to me. What’s a flaw to you isn’t necessarily a flaw to me. And if reviewers tear the book to shreds, then I will still own my work. It’s mine, and I’m responsible for it. No one else. AmazonEncore’s motto is “author first,” so we’ve moved past the unpleasantness. And when the reviews start coming in, you can remind me that I said I could take the heat…
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Do you have kids in your life? Would you be willing, for one year, to give ONLY multicultural books as birthday presents? Last week I wrote a guest post for my favorite literacy org, Behind the Book. If you’re looking for a way to encourage reading in children, I hope you’ll consider making a donation to this wonderful program that brings authors into urban schools AND provides each child with a signed book. In my post I consider “The Real Value of Free Books,” noting that books in the home make a huge impact on a child’s academic success, yet the habit of book-buying isn’t always present in low-income areas. We need to find ways to develop that habit, and the BPP is one idea. Do you have any others? Does giving away books diminish their actual value, or can a free book still be a prized possession?
No publisher’s perfect, but I find there’s a lot to love about my relationship with AmazonEncore. Now that we’re ready to move forward with Ship of Souls, I’ve been asked to complete a questionnaire that will help them edit, promote, and design the book. Here’s a sampling of the questions:
Describe the target audience, by factors such as age group, interests, education, gender, etc.
Teens (12+), all genders, African Americans, New Yorkers, Revolutionary War enthusiasts, urban fantasy fans
Please provide a brief summary of the book.
When 11-year-old Dmitri (“D”) loses his mother to breast cancer, he finds himself taken in by an elderly white woman, Mrs. Martin. Fighting against a feeling of invisibility at home and at school, D finds his situation improving when he is asked to tutor a basketball star in the 8th grade. Hakeem (Keem) wants to impress a beautiful girl, Nyla, who’s somewhat on the fringe, and her interest in D draws the three together.
D loves to watch birds and, while in the park, is amazed to find an injured bird that can talk. He takes it home and soon learns there are malevolent forces inhabiting the region beneath Prospect Park and they are hunting for the bird; Nuru is a life force that has been kept hostage by the earthbound spirits who are ghosts of soldiers that died in the Revolutionary War. Nuru’s mission is to guide the ship that will carry the souls of the dead back to her realm. D has been chosen as Nuru’s host, and must carry the bird from Brooklyn to the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan where the dead await deliverance.
What was the inspiration for this book?
For years I’ve passed a boulder in Prospect Park that marks the site of historic Battle Pass; I often wondered what would happen if a boy discovered that after midnight, the plaque on the boulder opened like a door and led him underground. This past fall I found two cowrie shells on the sidewalk near my home and around the same time I learned that an 18th-century ship had been found at Ground Zero. While walking past the park one day, I heard a rustling in the leaves on the ground and suddenly saw three teens battling against a force that was trying to drag one of them underground…and Ship of Souls was born.
How is this book different from others of the same genre?
It’s an urban fantasy that features three black teens—one is Muslim, one’s an orphan, and one is an Afro-punk girl who was raised on a military base in Germany. It’s contemporary but also incorporates NYC history.
Describe ideas that should be captured on the book’s cover. Please be as specific as possible, including elements such as any particular color(s) or types of imagery.
A group of teens in an underground tunnel; the youngest is in front with his upheld hand radiating light. The white ghost teen should be close, but turned away from the light. I like the idea of a comic book/superhero look, but dark (not cartoonish) to match the mood of the story.