Archive for the ‘interview’ Category

Roots & Blues, Part 2! It’s been a long time coming, but I guarantee you this interview with illustrator R. Gregory Christie is worth the wait! If you missed Part 1 of this series, do take time to read poet Arnold Adoff’s thoughtful responses regarding the inspiration for his latest book of poetry.

ZE: It has been argued that “trauma resists representation.” How did you approach the illustrations depicting the horrors of the Middle Passage? As a children’s book illustrator are you expected to make every subject “beautiful”?

It’s all about nuances and the experience a painter has gained in order to shout things softly to his audience. The metaphorical poems in Roots and Blues masterfully intermixed historical names and events into a continuous flow. I feel that the words have a similar sentiment to Blues music, by the way the atrocities and triumphs are a continuous poetic flow.  To paraphrase Tom Feelings, any subject matter can be presented to people of all ages, one has only to hear the blues to know something horrible can be told in a beautiful way.

I also believe that if you present a trauma with a melody, metaphorical words, or with attractively arranged pigments you can at least get the public’s attention, but it’s the artist’s experience and ability to use nuance that will get people to care. If done carefully, I believe that the art will be embraced as something beautiful, at least for some of the people. The poems from Roots and Blues mimicked the essence of the Blues and the history of brown folks’ “American” journey. So I, in turn, mimicked Arnold’s words in a visual form, which I suppose is the purpose of an illustration.

The visuals are muted grays and blues that I hope are in tandem with the dull pain to those words that were intermixed with pockets of joy. This is the first time I used a glazing technique for an entire book. I chose to knock the colors down a bit, kind of a bluish gray pallor cast over what was once vibrant colors. I was able to wipe away and rebuild certain places in the painting so that the glaze would in fact brighten certain areas within the images. This was done to have pockets of vibrant colors in cool and distant images.

Yes, I’m often expected to make my art beautiful (if not cute) but I tip the balance towards images that will challenge our children. Foremost I paint for myself and do this with the hope that other people will “get it.” I keep it fun and interesting but also honor myself as an artist.

ZE: In the blues tradition there’s a fine line between ecstasy and agony; talk about your strategies for capturing both emotions in your illustrations.

I am all about balance, in my life and in my art. The artwork for this book was my best attempt to capture Arnold’s flow of opposites, colorful moments as a contrast within a long, painful journey.

He has an ability to give historical facts, capture the emotion of the times, and barrage my mind with a stream of visuals. Nothing was sugarcoated in the writing; perhaps that would be a disservice to the people that went through that pain and to the young people that need to be prepared for the world’s realities. It seems to me that Arnold danced between these two conflicting emotions all the time (ecstasy and agony) while not being too nostalgic. The poems and the times they comment upon are raw. He put himself out there as an artist and I wanted to keep up with him visually.

But Poetry is one of the most difficult things to illustrate for me, because you have to be decisive when interpreting the meaning of a series of meanings. I always think that such a work can be read so many different ways and too quick of a decision towards the meaning can kill the audience’s growth. On the other hand, indecision in the illustrator can often produce a visual incongruity. In illustration I think the major point is to be able to process the mix into an interesting visual summation. Poetry seems to be a mix within a mix, an art form capable of having many tentacles. I think that it takes a delicate heart and advanced mind to embrace something that can be so mercurial, definitively stated and so personal to the reader. I feel as though such a listener wants to create his own relationship to those words, so being told what’s definitive as the meaning (visually) can come off as a killjoy.

I respected his art by approaching the series of poems as one steam of ideas. In some cases I focused on the idea of something literal…a piano player or image of a jook joint etc., and other times I attempted to comment on the spiritual side of things. One of the first pieces shows three figures connecting with land and water; eyes are closed and bodies contorted.  On one hand, it would have been easy to define the words near it as a piano player image, but I took the harder road and commented on the metaphorical aspect. I wanted to introduce the reader to the origins of it all: the respect for the land and the process of life, it’s circular direction between death and life. We come from the earth only to go back within it, so this first painting is about impossibilities and how something that doesn’t make sense sometimes has an order to it. Time must pass in order to sometimes understand that disorder. The land, people and gestures are my way of introducing the readers to what they might expect for the other parts of this book. To expect that the impossible will make sense and to take the subject matter with solemnity and inspiration. I had to pace myself and pace the imagery for the book. At times you will see the agony in the lack of facial expressions—simply eyes closed or the gesture of the hands and body—and other times the figures will be directly looking at you, engaging you as the viewer. It’s art that shows itself but invites you to find your own meaning based upon your own life experiences and whatever you can project into the historical and artistic experience.

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I know I spend a lot of time moaning about my time in Canada, but there are *many* black people who chose to tough it out and managed to excel in their chosen fields.  Who’s Who in Black Canada is a fantastic project that highlights the contributions of African Canadians, and today they’ve put the spotlight on me!  You can see my complete profile here, and this is an example of the questions they ask:

Favourite book? It’s impossible to pick just one, but Ezra Jack Keats’ Snowy Day was important for me; it was the first book I read as a child that featured a Black protagonist, and Keats’ books continue to inform my scholarship on multicultural children’s literature.

Favourite quote? “Bear but a touch of my hand and you shall be upheld in more than this.” – from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

Given the chance, what would you love to do that you haven’t done yet? Publish books for children IN Canada! I’m working on developing a conference to discuss the lack of diversity in Canada’s publishing industry.

Colleagues at York University have since taken on that conference, so all I have to do now is find a Canadian press willing to give my work a chance…

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I’m so pleased to share this interview with you!  Arnold Adoff has been a friend and mentor to me for some time now, and we can all benefit from his wisdom, insight, and experience in the publishing industry.  Stay tuned because illustrator R. Greg Christie will be featured soon.  Arnold’s words and Greg’s images are perfectly paired in this beautiful book—a wonderful gift for a child, teen, or adult.

I once had another children’s book author mock the reference to Charlie Parker in my picture book, Bird.  His point was that kids listen to hip hop, not jazz.  Talk about your decision to write about the blues—a musical genre, a time, and place (the rural South) seemingly far removed from today’s youth.

the blues is the foundation stone for all of our “popular” music(s)….
and think of that solid rock so powerful it can propel into the air and float and spin
through decades and geographies:
from robert johnson and itta bena, mississippi …
to nina simone and tupak and (even) the beatles….
this is always known and always understood….

is more difficult to discern…to have registered on developing sensibilities…
is that sense of history…the movements from the rural south(s) to the town and cities
of the north…
(and my riff on the george santaya philosophical line: those who not study their histories
are inevitably doomed to repeat and repeat the mistakes (and meaningless
mediocrities) which weaken into self-destruction and marginalization….)

a people grows and moves and reaches beyond itself/selves
in all forms of communication…all forms of art….
if we are aware…if we teach our young…
if we remain rooted in this moment and are able
to also trace backwards….

all the trails remain:
from baraka to langston backwards to blues….
from clapton to big joe turner and backwards…to blues….
from malcolm and martin backwards to garvey and tubman to blues….
from fifty cents to muddy waters to bessie smith to the blues….

these geographies should be part of required curriculum in every school (black and white and

and yes, it is always a continuing struggle…to go backwards when vast media machines
pull us forward into something new to buy….
so blues and jazz always require the active energies of one generation onto/into the next….

the blues lifts the listeners and heightens feelings and thought(s)
the blues is a s u r v i v a l  music…a tool…a weapon of self and self love(s)….

Technology is changing the way many people write.  As a poet, tell me what you think of Twitter and other platforms that require concise communication.  Is this a promising moment for poetry?
my thumbs are too old to (even) text…let alone tweet….but i remain open to all forms
of communication from all generations of readers and listeners and friends….
personally: i have been poeting “seriously” since around 1946…and the math tells me
thats almost 65 years…or loving language and respecting the music as well as the meaning of the language made into the pieces of poems and “poet’s prose….” i work out an idiosyncratic “shaped colloquial
speech” style which requires the space and spaces on a page…to mean something…and to sing….

this is a time of wonderful poetry… and performing crap…as in all  art forms…and in all times….
marketing and promotion and self-promotion strategies like facebook and twitter do what they were designed to do….barely communicating the bare bones of thought or piece of information…all the juice of language removed…the nuances…the conflicting and parallel meanings….
and in the end…there is only convenience…a taco in the car…moving forward again…but to w h e r e….

and in my darker moments…i can’t help wondering what will be left of the tree when the bark (and bite) is gone…and the juice is gone…and shaving down humane human communication to its thinnest
stalk…leaves only the vulnerabilities….
be controlled or be destroyed….

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Good morning!  Spring is on its way, and there are new books sprouting from the minds of creative, persistent people!  Meet Karen Simpson and learn more about her debut novel, Act of Grace.  Welcome, Karen!

First I would like to say thank you Zetta for this opportunity to talk about my novel. I truly appreciate it.
In some ways, this is an exciting time to be an emerging author. Can you give us your take on the publishing industry and your path to publication?

It has been a long, interesting journey. I had considered myself a writer since I was twelve, but I didn’t get serious until about ten years ago when I started Act of Grace. In some ways I’m glad I’ve arrived now because the past ten years weren’t particularly great for writers of color seeking a foothold at traditional publishing houses. Now e-publishing and social media have, in some ways, leveled the playing field for all writers who want to get their work into readers’ hands. Strong small presses are springing up and self-publishing has become a more viable option. I find it heartening that a very small press published this year’s National Book Award Winner in Fiction. I’m happy I’m being published and championed by Plenary Publishing, a small multicultural press that has an exciting vision for the future of African American fiction.

Tell us about Act of Grace. Why did you choose to represent racial violence in the north?

Act of Grace is the story of Grace Johnson, a bright, perceptive African American high school senior who saves the life of a Klansman named Jonathan Gilmore. Everyone in her hometown of Vigilant, Michigan wants to know why. Few people, black or white, understand her act of sacrifice especially since rumor holds that years ago a member of the Gilmore family murdered several African-Americans, including Grace’s father. Grace wants to remain silent on the matter but Ancestor spirits emerge in visions and insist she fulfill her shamanic duties by bearing witness to her town’s violent racial history so that all involved might transcend it.

Grace begins a journal, but she warns readers upfront that if they are looking for a simple or rational explanation for her actions then they need to look elsewhere. She knows that her accounts of her ability to speak to the dead, along with her connections to a trickster spirit name Oba, will be hard for most people to believe. With insight shaped by the wisdom found in African American mythology and the book, The Velveteen Rabbit, Grace recounts a story of eye-for-an-eye vengeance that has blinded entire generations in her hometown.

Grace is loosely based on a violent incident that erupted during a Klan rally held in my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan some 15 years ago. Ann Arbor is a very liberal and diverse town and yet the Klan showed up and a near riot broke out. Northerners tend to want to believe that overt racism and intolerance are just southern problems. However, these problems were and still are deeply woven into the fabric of the rest of the nation. Lynchings, racial cleansing of towns, as well as overt and covert racism were also a part of northern life and history. The numbers of hate groups are increasing all over our nation, not just in the south. For example, my own home state of Michigan is ranked about fifth on the Southern Poverty Law Center list for numbers of hate groups. If we were to ask most people I don’t think they wouldn’t place Michigan that high because it’s in the north, but the facts speak for themselves.

My students and I are currently considering the legacy of slavery and the potential for redemption through storytelling/testifying. What do you hope readers will take away from your novel?

Ah…there is great power in testifying. In my novel, Grace is told by the ancestors that she must write about why she saved Johnston Gilmore’s life. She doesn’t want to say anything about her experience but she is made to speak because the ancestors know that only by relating her story can she and others heal.

I write speculative fiction, in part, because it offers innovative avenues for looking at the world’s problems. It is my hope that my novel Act of Grace leaves readers thinking about justice, community, tolerance, love, family, struggle, and healing in new and different ways. I also hope my novel will enable readers to have more honest and hope-filled conversations about these universal issues.

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Of course, we celebrate women’s contributions all year round but the blogosphere’s abuzz with special features you won’t want to miss:

  • at Crazy Quilts, media specialist Edi is posting non-fiction titles about remarkable women of color
  • Doret at The Happy Nappy Bookseller joins the team of bloggers and authors at Kidlit Celebrates Women’s History Month
  • Nathalie at Multiculturalism Rocks! has interviewed yours truly about my feminist role models and fascination with the past…
  • later this month I’ll be giving a talk at Bard High School Early College; I’m their Visiting Scholar and will give the inaugural Peterson Lecture in the Humanities—if you’re in NYC, come out!

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Thanks to Nathalie at Multiculturalism Rocks! for posting this great review of Wish; this was my favorite part:

If I were to walk by a fountain after midnight and to throw a penny in it, here’s the wish I’d make: For A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT to be adapted on the big screen. I can’t wait for it!

While you’re there, make sure you read Nathalie’s interview with Writers Against Racism founder Amy Bodden Bowllan.

Next stop: Shveta’s “3 Days of Fey” feature at her LiveJournal blog.  There’s a fabulous interview with Karen Lord (author of Redemption in Indigo) and links to Con or Bust, the important fundraising initiative that helps to send PoC writers to speculative fiction conferences.

Last but not least, check out Dia Reeves’ guest post on black speculative fiction authors at Diversity in YA Fiction:

The reason I think there are so few of us is because, for black authors, if you want to be taken seriously, you gotta write issue novels. If you write a story about slavery or civil rights or being oppressed in the ghetto or (if you’re really daring) being oppressed in the suburbs, then people will love you and give you prestigious awards and breakdance when you walk down the street.

But if you’re crazy like me and write about girls who don’t feel that being black is particularly difficult, who don’t at some point compare themselves to a white person and feel like they got the short end of the stick, who are in fact quite comfy their own skins and just want to kill monsters or bad guys and then find the nearest, hottest boy and make out with him, well … let’s just say that people won’t love you. They certainly won’t give you prizes or do breakdances in your honor.

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After being up all night sneezing, it was nice to sit down with a cup of tea and read this interview with Jacqueline Woodson over at Rhapsody in Books:

RIB: As author Neesha Meminger recently wrote, “there is a vast plethora of novels showing the full gamut of the white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle/upper-middle class teen experience. In terms of racial representation, there are white characters in horror, fantasy, romance, historical, and whatever other genres exist on bookshelves, while teens of colour are offered a limited array of options.” Given that whiteness and heterosexuality are apparently considered “the norm” for marketing purposes, what is your opinion of publishing opportunities for authors of color? Do you see much commitment to diversity?

JW: I actually don’t think of whiteness and heterosexuality as ‘the norm’. Maybe there are people who still do but none of them are close friends of mine. I think the endeavor toward diversity is everywhere – but ‘commitment’ – I don’t know. Because it is a commitment and while I think a lot of people have their hearts in the right place, the work is hard and long and some people give up. I was in the big bookstore here in Park Slope today – (just looking, not buying) and I was surprised to see this tiny Black History Month table –(with books like The Souls Of Black Folks – ‘hello, we’ve written other books since then!!” and a few newer ones on it. Then I went to the teen section and none of the books turned out were by people of color. It was quite a bummer – We can give this situation a thousand reasons, a thousand excuses, but the truth is – something is ‘not’ happening and it would be great to work toward changing that.

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That’s the philosophy of award-winning author Kekla Magoon—wouldn’t you love to be in her creative writing class?  I’m so happy to host her here at my blog—Kekla’s a *very* busy woman so I’m very grateful she took the time to answer a few questions about her writing life.

1.  Most people know about your award-winning debut novel, The Rock and the River, but you’ve written a number of non-fiction books as well.  Can you tell us about your writing history and how you select and/or develop new projects?

The first books I published, back in 2007, were non-fiction books for the educational market. I contributed about eight titles to a series published by ABDO for middle school libraries. The series had three categories: Essential Lives (biographies), Essential Events (a study of important world history moments), and Essential Viewpoints (a balanced introduction to controversial issues). The publisher developed a list of titles that would be included in each series, so I didn’t choose the topics for these books, but sometimes I was offered a choice of which titles I wanted to write. I tended to choose topics related to civil rights (NELSON MANDELA), women’s issues (SALEM WITCH TRIALS), and arts or writing (MEDIA CENSORSHIP). All the books had a history component to them, too, which is right up my alley. These for-hire projects were very helpful for me financially for several years as I made the transition from traditional employment to being a full-time author and speaker.

I also am grateful to have had that structured experience writing non-fiction, because I am now looking to do more non-fiction titles of my own creation. I am particularly interested in history, and what I know best is Black History, so I have turned my attention to that for now. This spring, my first royalty-based non-fiction project is coming out from Lerner Publishing. It’s called TODAY THE WORLD IS WATCHING YOU and is about the Little Rock Nine, the first black students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. It was shortly after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision ruled school segregation unconstitutional. The Little Rock Nine faced a year of violent torment in school and strong community backlash, and they helped pave the way for generations of black students to be educated alongside white students. It’s an amazing story!

Next, I am developing a proposal for a non-fiction book on the Black Panther Party for teenagers. It will connect well with THE ROCK AND THE RIVER, and my forthcoming companion novel, FIRE IN THE STREETS. It is very important to me to have such untold narratives from history begin to be shared more with young people.
2.  Ella’s biracial identity isn’t necessarily central to the story in Camo Girl.  Talk about your decision as a biracial woman to write about a biracial girl and how your novel “fits” (or not) with other narratives about mixed-race women. 

I’m not sure I have a good answer to how CAMO GIRL fits with other mixed-race narratives. Sometimes it’s hard to analyze one’s own work in those terms, although I do give thought to the place my books might take in the canon of children’s literature. I feel it’s important for many of my characters to be women of color, but I didn’t want to write a story about a girl torn between two races, or heavily struggling with identity on racial grounds. I was hoping to paint a more nuanced picture of what it can mean to be a mixed-race person. In the end, I believe I made her biracial because I am biracial.
Even though CAMO GIRL is only my second published novel, it’s about the sixth novel manuscript that I’ve personally worked on (some are forthcoming, others are unfinished).  Not all the characters in those projects are black or biracial. I’m sharing that because I want to be clear that I’ve written a fair amount, so it will make more sense when I say that Ella is the character who seems most like me of all the characters I’ve created. She is NOT me, of course, but I did make a conscious effort to place some of my experiences and perspectives into her. I’m a reasonably self-confident person and I never suffered the extreme social exclusion that Ella faces in the novel. However, her sense of being different and her longing for new friendships are part of my memory of myself in middle school. For those reasons, this novel touches me more personally, and I hope that as such it can let some young struggling girls (of any race) know that there is something beautiful to see when they look in the mirror.
3.  I know you’re passionate about writing and love being in the classroom.  How do you teach someone to become a better writer?

Yes, I do enjoy teaching writing, both to children and adults. With very young children, it’s mostly a matter of encouraging them to keep writing and to celebrate their ability to pour creativity into everything. All their writing has energy and honesty and voice. At that point, all they need is time to develop vocabulary, gain life experience, and make observations about it. What I fear happens as kids get older is they begin to doubt their individual voice, which causes them to suppress some of those creative urges. They learn to self-edit in a way that is sometimes too extreme. Teen years are already a vulnerable time, even if you do nothing to explicitly expose yourself; creative expression only compounds that sensitivity. So I think positive reinforcement is key with teenagers, and can be the foundation that will help them grow into successful lifelong writers, if they choose to follow that route. I believe that a person who is confident in her/his voice and who believes s/he has something important to say will be able to develop far better writing skills over time.
Why? Because a confident writer will learn to accept criticism without taking it personally.
I see writing as a two-fold process: it is simultaneously a personal creative act, and an attempt to communicate. On one side, an author has something to say that s/he feels passionate about. On the other, s/he wants someone to understand that idea and embrace it. I believe the best critical feedback is targeted solely at the second half of that equation. A good teacher won’t try to change or criticize what the student writer’s core message or story is, but simply provide tools by which the student can improve how s/he communicates. This is why a writer who believes in her/his voice will grow more than one who is insecure, because (perhaps subconsciously) s/he will be able to separate criticism of style vs. substance.
How do I personally strive to make confidence happen for my students? Well, it’s a work in progress. As I’m often a guest author, I see my role as inspirer, uplifter. I only give positive feedback. There are no wrong answers in my workshops, ever. Most kids write mostly for school, where there are a lot of rules to writing, like spelling, grammar, and sentence structure. This is necessary training for life but it can get restrictive, and it makes kids feel like there’s a right way to write. One of my favorite writing workshops that I offer is called WordPLAY! because I encourage my students to try writing without rules, without purpose, just for fun. The idea is to loosen them up and shake them out of the structures of school writing–the five paragraph paper, the book report, the essay exam, and so on. Spelling errors? Bring them on. Made up words? Why not? They get very creative, and then later we talk about how professional writers do a lot of editing of their work after the first draft. I still try to emphasize that “Nothing you write can be wrong!” (my workshop slogan), but that doesn’t mean you can’t look for a way to say what you want to say a little bit better.

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What luck!  In my mailbox today I found a copy of Arnold Adoff’s latest book, Roots and Blues—then in my inbox, I found his son (with author Virginia Hamilton), Jaime Adoff, had sent me these answers for today’s author interview!  If you don’t know Jaime’s work already, here’s an excerpt from his bio:

Jaime’s latest young adult novel The Death of Jayson Porter received the 2010 BuckeyeTeen Book Award. It received *starred reviews from *Booklist*, *Library Media Connection*, and *VOYA* magazine,(5Q). It was also selected for the ’09 “Choose to read Ohio program,” a project of the State Library of Ohio to promote reading across Ohio. As well as an Ohioana Book Award finalist in the Juvenile category.

1. How would you describe your contribution to the field of children’s literature?

Well that’s a story that’s still being told. I gauge my contribution by how children and teens have been affected by my work. Having talked to literally thousands of kids over the course of the last almost ten years, I feel that I am helping. Helping to at least get a dialogue going on some of the life-changing and life-threatening issues facing young people today, issues such as bullying, suicide, abuse. The emails I receive from young people tell me that I have made a positive contribution thus far. Reviews and awards? Those are a chasing after the wind. It’s the kids that count, and that’s something I can never forget.

2. You come from a prominent literary family; how does your parents’ legacy impact your own writing for young readers?

It has impacted me, generally speaking, in a very positive way. I think I hold myself to extremely high standards—some might say impossibly high—due to the bar that was set by my parents. I never feel as though I am in competition, but I do feel a sense of responsibility to carry on the family tradition of creating great books that can stand the test of time. It is a legacy, a legacy that I have embraced. It is a living legacy from which I am constantly drawing from. Sometimes I might write something and it instantly reminds me of my mother or my father. A turn of a phrase, a line here or there. It always makes me smile when that happens. I am blessed to come from such a family and thankful that they were both such loving and supportive parents. I only wish my mother would have lived to see me write professionally. She would have gotten such a kick out of it all!

3. Can you tell us about your current project(s)?  How do you develop such original ideas for your books?

Currently I have multiple projects going. Multiple projects out there in the publishing world looking for homes; multiple projects on my desk waiting to be completed. I have ideas that I’ve gotten years ago that are still cooking, still trying to make their way to the printed page. Some ideas come over time; some can come in an instant. All take months and years to truly come to fruition, and yes, as you know, many never see the light of day. I have two novels that I am working on that are a bit of a departure for me, incorporating some spiritual and magic realism elements that I haven’t used in my prior works. I still maintain the “realism,” which I feel is of utmost importance in the work that I do. Real kids—present day teens from diverse backgrounds—going through universal challenges, their voices ringing true to who they are and the lives they lead. I am quite excited about these projects.

4. As a second-generation children’s book author, how optimistic are you about the future of publishing?  Do you have any advice for the next generation of writers?

That’s a loaded question. Like all fields, publishing is going through some changes now, some growing pains, trying to find its footing in an ever-changing landscape (how was that for politically correct). From my experience, generally speaking, big corporations are slow to act, to react, and to change. They’re slow to want to change, but in this instance I think the choices have already been made. The brave new world of publishing is coming at us like a fast approaching train; they’ve either got to climb aboard or get out of the way. And as we know, since the bottom line is making money, publishers are already figuring out how to get onboard.

As for the second part of the question: I think a good story is a good story, a good poem is a good poem, a good novel, poetic or otherwise, is a good novel. Regardless of the format, digital, app, paper, carrier pigeon, those are constants that will always be. Now, there are times when those characteristics are not paramount in the decision-making processes of these companies, and some may say we’re in those times right now. Be that as it may, the focus for the next generation of writers should be substance, not delivery method.

5. There is a lot of concern for black boys–their literacy skills, the availability of books featuring black male protagonists.  As a biracial/black male writer (and the father of a daughter), how do you feel about the issue of “boys and books”?

I’ve done quite of few literacy talks and events, many focusing on the issue of boys and books, and specifically African American males and literacy. I think matching the right book with the right kid is one of the keys. Exposing these kids to a wide variety of literature, exposing them to worlds sometimes similar and sometimes different from their own. Having them be able to see themselves in the books that they read is crucial in hooking them, and keeping them hooked on reading. With budget cuts hitting everyone hard, especially those populations that can least afford them, we as educators, writers, and publishers have to work that much harder to make sure we write, publish, and promote these books so that they are getting into the hands of these young people.

There are never enough books featuring black male protagonists. And that is not for a lack of trying. There are even fewer with biracial protagonists, or Chinese American protagonists or Latinos, etc . . . There are many fine writers of color, many more than most people would think or know about. This lack of knowing goes side by side with the minuscule amount of books being published with diverse protagonists as compared to their white counterparts. It is still a largely white run business, from bottom to top, floor to ceiling. Children’s and YA publishing, in my opinion, is still decades behind the rest of the country, and sadly, it’s the children and teens of this country who must suffer. Inroads have been made but not nearly enough. It’s a struggle, and as my father’s tag line states at the end of each of his emails: “The struggle continues . . .”

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Yesterday was the official release date for Neesha Meminger‘s latest novel, Jazz in Love.  It’s been getting RAVE reviews all over the blogosphere—check out Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s review at readergirlz, Ari’s take at Reading in Color, and The Rejectionist has only praise to offer as well.  So what are you waiting for?!  You can find a list of booksellers that carry Jazz here.  And don’t forget to enter Edi’s giveaway to win your own copy of Jazz in Love.  Busy as she is, Neesha graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the publishing process.
Q:  You named your new imprint “Ignite,” which suggests this is the start of something big!  Can you tell us about your decision to self-publish–did you have reservations, and what are some of the risks and/or rewards?

A: Yes! I love the word “ignite,” don’t you? I won’t say it was an easy decision to put JAZZ IN LOVE out on my own. I’d been mulling it over (as you know) for at least a year or so, going back and forth. When it became clear that JAZZ would not make it into the world unless I put it out there, I decided to stop waiting. So far, it has been exhausting (because I do everything myself), fun (because I have more control), humbling (because of all the warmth and support I’ve received from readers, friends, teachers, librarians, bloggers and the kidlit/YA community at large), revealing (because I would never know about this step in the creative/growth process if I hadn’t taken this leap), and extremely rewarding (because my readers–the reason I decided to put JAZZ out on my own to begin with–now have access to another novel – something I would still be waiting for if I had not taken this step.
There are lots of upsides and downsides to being both published with a large house and going it on my own, and I’ve enjoyed both experiences in different ways. Not sure how I’ll move forward after this, but for now, the exchange between author and reader can continue without being blocked, or left to wither on the vine. It’s the exchange of ideas that’s important to me; putting a work out and then participating in dialogue around it, seeing people reflect on their experiences in a new light, reframing things…this is what’s rewarding, and what would have remained stalled had I continued to wait. The creative process needs to continue its flow in order to survive, and I was feeling all the creative energy within begin to wane. It’s hard (at least for me) to continue to produce creative work without that feedback loop that’s so important to creative expression. And I think that was what gave me the final push that I needed – that need to connect with my readers and complete a creative cycle. 

Q: In a guest post for The Rejectionist, you discussed the changes in the publishing industry.  You’ve also written extensively about the need for greater equity when it comes to marginalized voices.  When you look into the future, what do you see for yourself as an author/publisher and what does the literary landscape look like?

A: This is a good question, and it’s one I think a lot of publishers and authors are asking. The landscape is shifting and changing at such a rapid pace that everyone is stumbling along, trying to keep up. My hope is that the changes will help level the playing field somewhat, that access to resources will allow new voices to emerge and empower authors to take more control over their voices and expressions. More and more quality work is coming out in ebook form and through independently published authors, more readers are buying e-readers like the Kindle, the iPad, and many people are reading books on their handheld devices now. It’s an *entirely* different reading landscape than when I sold my first book. At that time, we didn’t even think to fight for ebook rights. But we’re not just looking at paperback vs. hardcover anymore. We’re now dealing with things like DRM, digital rights, and audiobooks in addition to print.
In the past, authors self-published because their work was seen to have no readership – this translates, of course, to their work being of lesser value. W.E.B. Dubois, Terry McMillan, Tyler Perry, Virginia Woolf . . . all these authors self-published at some point in their careers because no one believed their work would sell, in other words, that no one would want to buy it. Who is this “no one,” then? Women initially self-published in an industry controlled and dominated by men because women’s writing was seen as being too “emotional” by the mostly-male publishers at the time. Again, the perception was that “no one” would want to read such emotional, insubstantial work. The issue is simply that there are certain markets that have never been noticed, acknowledged, or recognized. One of those markets is South Asian teens, and I happen to know it quite well. But if all my books were marketed only to the narrowly-defined markets some publishers are aware of, the books, of course, would perform poorly. It’s not the right market for *these* books. It’s like the “flesh-coloured bandage.” So many publishers use the one-market-demographic-fits-all approach to give books a push. But when authors who know their audience go out and speak directly *to* that audience, there is a rapport. And *that*, to me, is the entire purpose of what I do.
I liken it a lot to independent film and music. (The artist formerly known as) Prince was a real inspiration for me when I was younger, because he produced his own first album. No one wanted to touch his music because he was doing stuff that was unusual, innovative, that hadn’t been done, and he didn’t fit neatly into any predefined niche. So, he just did it on his own. I remember when I first heard that story and, not fully understanding it, admired his chutzpah anyway. But that story is so common in film and music because there are established resources and outlets for independent artists. I think what we’re about to see is the de-stigmatization of independent authorship. And that, to me, is very exciting.
Q: You show real daring in Jazz in Love, specifically around issues of sexuality.  Now that YOU are calling the shots as editor-in-chief, do you find you’re more emboldened/empowered to take risks?

A: It was definitely very different this time around when final say rested on my shoulders. I still struggled with the internal editor in my head, and I did do a round of revisions with an editor, but ultimately, I made the final decision on what would go into the book, what the cover would look like, what the interior design and layout would be. I also knew exactly where review copies would be sent, if and where I submitted to certain awards, which formats I wanted the book released in. And now I know exactly how many copies have sold in each format. I can also make changes if I want to, at any point in the process.
The biggest risk, I would say, has been to write a book that was funny, light (mostly) with romance elements that placed characters of colour at its center, without apology or explanation. I felt very strongly about this. I wanted to write a book that teens could read and enjoy, without worrying incessantly about earning out an advance, without having such a focus on needing to make sales–without that pressure of knowing that if this book didn’t sell well I might not get another book deal (and even if it *did* sell well, there would be no guarantee). I wanted to think only about my readers and the story I wanted to share with them – the teens who needed to see themselves as they are on an everyday basis. Struggling with racism and misogyny and the socio-economic scaffolding of their lives, but also just being teens and navigating the landmine territory that comes with adolescence.
It has been an empowering process that has left me with even less sleep hours than I’m used to (and I was already sleep-deprived!), but I’ve loved every minute of it. I’m looking forward to whatever the next adventure will be on this roller coaster of a ride :).

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