Posted in African American Literature, African Burial Ground, children's literature, conferences, education, equity, fantasy, historical fiction, history, libraries, multicultural literature, racism in publishing, schools, sci-fi, self-publishing, slavery, speculative fiction, teachers, young adult novels on November 9, 2012 |
Leave a Comment »
…and you’ll never work a day in your life.” I first heard this years ago, back when I was an avid NBA fan. Marc Jackson told a reporter that his father had given him that advice when he was young, and it made absolute sense to me at the time. I turned 40 a couple of weeks ago, however, and I now know that loving what you do doesn’t mean that you don’t work hard—it just means that at the end of a busy day you don’t feel defeated. You DO get tired, and some days you DO dread getting out of bed. But for the most part, having a job you love means you feel the time and energy you spend are an investment in something important. I spent last weekend in Columbia, South Carolina and was impressed over and over by the enthusiasm and dedication of the librarians and educators I met. On Friday I had dinner with three black women academics (Rachelle Washington, Michelle Martin, and Dianne Johnson) and a recent grad just starting her career in communications. It was an interesting moment—Jasmine laid out her plans for work/life/family and we elders talked about the need for self-care. Rachelle runs a “Sistah Doctah retreat” at Clemson University that provides mentoring and support for black women scholars and graduate students. There have been a lot of articles online lately about the specific challenges black women face in the academy. After my mid-week migraine I had to admit that self-care has not been high on my list of priorities this semester (I just had leftover cake for breakfast). I felt guilty lounging in a hotel room last weekend (I did grade midterms for a couple of hours) but I know that if I don’t slow down, eventually I’ll crash. The semester gets going and you try to “hold on” and “push through,” but that’s not healthy. I haven’t gotten any writing done lately, either, and that just makes me mean…
On Saturday I got some books at the Robert Mills Museum and then walked over to the Richland County Public Library to meet Michelle’s graduate students. They had compiled a list of more than *fifty* questions after reading Wish and we had a wide-ranging conversation about the novel, my writing process, and the challenges of getting published. I also got to learn about their literacy projects, which include books clubs, book drives, and puppetry! The library has its own puppet theater and I melted a little when I saw all their puppets hanging on the wall. I immediately recalled the raggedy old monkey puppet my mother saved for me when she retired from teaching. I need to figure out how to be the kind of professor who gets to play with puppets now and then. Or maybe I should’ve become a librarian! The ones I met in Columbia were so energetic—especially when talking to or about their teenage patrons. The best part of my author presentation was the Q&A and the two young women who talked about their own struggles with writing. “Did your parents support your decision to become a writer?” Uh—no! Not at all. They eventually came to tolerate my writing but you can’t expect *your* passion to mean as much to other people. I often say that being around teachers is like being around family, but the difference is that the teachers and librarians I meet *now* truly value my work. Having dinner with RCPL librarians Heather, Sherry, and Jennifer was a lot fun—we talked about Game of Thrones, trauma in picture books, having immigrant parents, and (of course) the election. Sunday was a day of rest and then I spent Monday at Westwood High School—a beautiful, brand new school just north of Columbia. My librarian host, Marti Brown, is also a student of Michelle Martin so she was familiar with my work and planned an amazing visit for me with her co-librarian Cathy. How often do you show up at a public school and find hot biscuits, grits, scrambled eggs, and bacon?! I ate my fill and then gave a short talk to a nice group of teachers—as long as their day is, they still showed up early to hear about my books. Then I gave a presentation to about three hundred students in the school’s state of the art auditorium—complete with cordless mic and remote so that I was able to roam around and still advance my slides (all tech stuff was handled by members of the broadcasting club!). I told the students later that I wished the kids in Brooklyn could see Westwood High—*every* child should be able to attend a school like that. Before leaving for the airport I had a pizza lunch with the book club and heard a powerful poetry performance by Marshay, the Miss Westwood pageant-winner. They sent me off with a portable Redhawk blanket that kept me warm on the chilly flight home…one of my best school visits ever.
It was lovely to be spoiled like that but it was also good to come home. Getting out of NYC wasn’t easy—we’re still recovering from “Superstorm Sandy” and it was hard to hail a cab since most of them were taken and/or were in line waiting for gas. I got gouged by the cabbie (and lectured on why I should have kids) but I made it to the airport on time and even made my connecting flight despite a one-hour delay leaving JFK. I stepped off the plane in Columbia and looked up at a clear, blue sky—there was sunshine and a strong breeze—and I felt a mixture of relief and guilt. Everyone I met asked how I had weathered the storm and I shared how blessed I felt not to have experienced any flooding or power loss. So many New Yorkers are still homeless, still without power and heat—and it’s FREEZING right now. We had a snowstorm yesterday and there are plenty of empty seats in my classroom because my students are struggling to recover from the storms. I woke up on Monday morning and there was no hot water in the hotel; I immediately went on Facebook and typed up a complaint to post on my feed and then had a reality check. This week has been rather overwhelming but I don’t have the additional challenges faced by those who live along the coast. I have heat, power, internet access, and food. I’m busy, but I’m also blessed. Trying to focus on that fact as I do what I can for those in need.
Read Full Post »
Posted in African American Literature, book festival, Brooklyn, Canada, children's literature, conferences, fantasy, historical fiction, libraries, middle grade novels, minority issues in publishing, multicultural literature, schools, sci-fi, slavery, speculative fiction, young adult novels on October 24, 2012 |
5 Comments »
It’s another rainy day and I’ll be giving my last midterm later this morning but I thought I’d take a moment to list some upcoming events:
On November 3rd I’ll be presenting at the Richland County Public Library in Columbia, SC. Dr. Michelle Martin of USC is teaching Wish so I’ll have a chance to meet with her graduate students, and then I’ll give a public talk with members of the library’s Teen Advisory Board. If you’re in the vicinity, stop by! Before I return to NYC I’ll have a chance to meet students at Westwood HS. Hopefully being in the South will help me finish up Judah’s Tale–I’m nearing 74K words and hope to wrap up at 80. I’ve already made a list of plantations I hope to visit while I’m in the midlands…
On November 9-10th I’ll be attending the second A Is for Anansi conference at NYU. I’m moderating the SFF panel on Saturday morning but am really looking forward to hearing Michelle Martin’s keynote address the night before. If you’re in NYC you definitely don’t want to miss this! I will miss some of the afternoon sessions because I’ve been invited to speak at Girls Write Now, a fantastic nonprofit that’s celebrating its 15th year of pairing teenage girls with professional writer-mentors. I’ll be speaking about historical fiction and can’t wait to meet these amazing young women writers.
On November 17th I’ll be at the Brooklyn Museum Book Fair—one of my favorite kidlit events! Come out with your kids and enjoy an afternoon of books, authors, readings, and fun activities. The next weekend is Thanksgiving and I’ll be heading up to Toronto. If you’re in the city and would like to book a visit, let me know! Though I may be ready for a break by then…
Read Full Post »
We’re five weeks into the semester and I’ve already caught my first cold. Stress weakens your immune system, so I suspect that the confrontation I had with two students last week probably contributed to my health breakdown. Or rather, not the incident itself but the fact that I dwelt on it for days afterward. Someone just posted this article on Facebook: “Why I Quit Teaching.” That struck a chord with me. This is the most challenging semester I can remember, and even though the vast majority of my students are following the rules and making progress, I still have a couple who are raising hell. And somehow that makes me want to leave the classroom, which is irrational. On Saturday night To Sir, With Love was on PBS—Sidney Poitier always reminds me of my father: the pencil tie, the fitted suit, the handsome smile. My father taught for more than 30 years, and he taught special ed students here in NYC. He fussed about his students (like I do) but loved them (like I do) and definitely saw himself as a father figure (I certainly don’t). In the film, the students give “Sir” a hard time until he cracks the code and figures out how to connect with them despite the difference in race, class, and culture. He finally gets the dream job offer he’s been waiting for, but then realizes that teaching is his true calling and so tears up the letter. Hollywood still makes those kind of films but the reality is that teachers aren’t meant to SAVE students—we’re there to SERVE students because that’s what professionals do:
A professional is a certified expert who is afforded prestige and autonomy in return for performing at a high level, which includes making complex and disinterested judgments under conditions of uncertainty. Professionals deserve to live comfortably, but they do not enter the ranks of a profession in order obtain wealth or power; they do it out of a calling to serve.
But what do you do with the ones who don’t want to be served? Or think of you as a servant to be given orders? And of course this is about gender because female students never challenge my authority the way some male students do. And perhaps this is a “hypercritical woman thing” where I expect perfection of myself and so continue to focus on the ones who aren’t really trying to grow or learn. I applied for a fellowship today that would give me one full year without teaching. That prospect used to scare me, but these days…it’s looking pretty good! If that acceptance letter comes in the mail some day, I will definitely NOT tear it up.
Read Full Post »
Posted in Africa, African Burial Ground, children's literature, historical fiction, history, interview, middle grade novels, multicultural literature, schools, slavery, speculative fiction on August 31, 2012 |
2 Comments »
In June I was filmed at the African Burial Ground National Monument for an episode of CUNY TV’s Study with the Best. The show aired on channel 75 here in NYC last Sunday and will air again this Saturday at 7pm. You can also watch it on You Tube or below (my 5-minute segment starts at 7:30 min.):
Read Full Post »
After spending a little over an hour at the Slave Mart Museum here in Charleston, I was ready to come home. It wasn’t so much a case of information overload as it was a readiness to write…what did I say about timing? It’s everything, so having PMS and listening to the voices of formerly enslaved people can lead to more than a few tears and some rather dramatic ideas for the novel. I highly recommend the Slave Mart Museum; the young women working there are extremely helpful—within minutes of asking for help I was given a list of African American tour guides and walking directions to the Avery Research Center, where I spent the afternoon. As soon as I walked in, I met two interpreters from the Middleton Plantation, which I’ll be touring tomorrow morning. Unfortunately, the shuttle service taking me out there is called “Gone With the Wind, More Than Just a Memory”…but I’m hoping that the black interpreters will balance whatever romanticized (a)historical nonsense I may have to endure. Charleston reminds me of Louisiana—same architecture, same aesthetic, same strange segregation. I walked around this afternoon and felt like I was in the Garden District of New Orleans…kept wondering when I was going to see some black folks. The Avery Research Center shed light on the determination of African Americans to uplift the race through education. On the top floor there was an impressive exhibit of sculpture, quilts, and textile art by Bernice Mitchell Tate. The second floor displayed sweetgrass baskets woven in the Gullah community, and there was a recreation of a 19th-century classroom that tugged at my school marm heartstrings. The Avery Normal Institute was founded in 1865 by the American Missionary Association, and I recalled writing a play back in 2006 about a free black woman from New England who moved to the Sea Islands before the Civil War ended to teach in an AMA school for emancipated slaves. Don’t think I ever finished that play, but I’ve already got the AMA in Judah’s Tale. In a way, I could easily write about South Carolina without being here—after touring the Slave Mart I had to come home because my bag was bulging with all the books I’d purchased. I could just hide away in this hotel room, with the windows that face an opposing brick wall, and slip into the past by plowing through those books. But being here gives me the chance to add certain details that might not appear in a book. Just standing in that slave market conjured scenes and introduced me to characters I’d never have “met” in Brooklyn. Tomorrow morning I tour the rice plantation and then in the afternoon I’m doing the Sea Island/African American history tour. I hope my head doesn’t explode before I get a chance to write some of this into the book. Part of me wanted to pull out my laptop and set myself up in the recreated classroom at Avery…sometimes I think I was born in the wrong century!
Read Full Post »
On Thursday I ordered my new bookcase from Gothic Cabinet and then went to the new visitor center at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with my cousin and purchased this little pin…we then went next door to the Brooklyn Museum and saw the Question Bridge exhibit—I will definitely be going back to watch more of this expertly integrated video installation (you can watch excerpts on the website *and* there’s an educator guide). Black men ask and answer questions of themselves and one another, and though their answers are interesting, it’s almost more fascinating to simply watch them processing and articulating their values and beliefs…and they’re beautiful! I joked with my cousin that they need to put names and numbers in captions, but really it’s quite moving just to hear so many thoughtful black men reflecting on issues that matter. I wish I heard those voices more often…it’s somewhat sad that it takes technology and a degree of manipulation to create/simulate this kind of dialogue among men. Still, it’s very creative…I’ll be teaching two sections of The Black Male this fall, and will definitely use this in the classroom.
On Friday morning I went up to East Harlem to join the party—my Behind the Book students at JHS 13 were celebrating the publication of their full-color short story anthology, Remembering Our Loved Ones. These are stories they wrote after completing my “Postcards from Far Away” workshop. It was really gratifying to listen as each student went to the front of the classroom and read part or all of her/his story, which was a tribute to someone s/he loved and lost. At the end I asked the students to autograph my copy of their book…I felt really lucky to be able to share that moment with them. Chris from Behind the Book then gave me a packet of letters written by a group of 6th graders I’d worked with at Thurgood Marshall Academy. Their teacher already sent me a moving email, but there’s nothing like hearing from the kids themselves:
Read Full Post »
I know I fussed about all those school visits last month, but I miss working with kids. Yesterday I caught the bus (van) back to the hotel and it was full of uniformed school children. I sat alone at the back until we pulled up to another school and half a dozen little boys piled in and filled the back seat. The littlest one accidentally stepped on my toe and looked up at me with a blend of awe and fear—I managed to keep a straight face as he softly apologized. I wanted to ask them what they do for fun once school is out, which books they love to read, but I don’t know these kids that way. Yet. Today I head over to my cousin’s school where I’ll speak to her mixed class of 1st–4th graders. I won’t have my powerpoint presentation to fall back on, so will answer their questions and ask a few of my own. Yesterday I received a lovely email from a teacher in Harlem:
I just wanted to say a huge thank you to you for coming and visiting with my 6th grade class at **** Academy. My students had so much fun working with you, and even more fun working on their speculative fiction stories (which we hope to complete this week). You had such a huge impact on my kids. I’m watching my students push themselves to improve as writers in ways they haven’t tried before. Some students who have stumbled to find points of entry into class activities this year have finally found success and enjoyment as a result of the work you did with them in the classroom, and for that I am forever grateful.
That particular collaboration worked so well because Behind the Book knows how to select the very best teachers…
This is my last full day here in Nevis. I have a lot more work to do, but I think I’ve absorbed about as much as I can for now. It will take months for me to fully “unpack” everything I’m bringing back. Yesterday I stopped at the police station but no one had any idea of how to find a record of my grandmother’s institutionalization; I’ll try the hospital later today. I went to the registrar’s office and flipped through two big books of birth records but didn’t find my great-grandparents. Many babies born before 1900 weren’t named at birth, it seems—or not at the time of registration. So I scanned the column that listed the name of the mother…interesting to see how certain names appeared over and over, sometimes because women had multiple children and other times because certain names were clearly popular: Keziah, Eliza Jane, Dorcas, Rosetta. Just not the Jane and Eliza I was looking for.
I spent the morning at the Alexander Hamilton House Museum. They had a small section on slavery, which was interesting, and I had a great conversation with the museum attendant. She confirmed what I had suspected: that Alexander Hamilton was an octoroon! His maternal grandfather, a doctor, lost his wife and so remarried a creole woman who was mixed race (mulatto). They had a daughter, Rachel, who would have been a quadroon (one quarter black) and she in turn had Alexander! Everything’s mixed here, and everyone’s connected it seems. This plaque (right) explains that John Smith, before founding Jamestown, VA, stopped at Nevis for 6 days back in 1607…we’re all migrants and have been for centuries.
I walked over to the alley—a narrow drive with high stone walls that marks all that remains of the original slave depot. Then I met Amba and Dianne for lunch at a nearby cafe that’s on the site of Amba’s former family home. We talked for more than two hours and could have kept on going—it was great to get the perspective of other “returnees,” people who have ties to Nevis but lived most of their lives abroad. We discussed the cost of living, the artist’s need for community, and the challenge of learning new ways of doing things to shift from “outsider” to “insider.” Dianne also shared *her* family research, which indicates that our shared Hood ancestors were of Portuguese Jewish descent. My cousin in Canada confirmed this, and added that her great-aunt moved to Panama at some point. It’s dizzying, all this information! But it’s also another point of entry, another open door…
Read Full Post »
Posted in art, bookstores, Brooklyn, children's literature, conferences, education, multicultural literature, religion & spirituality, schools, speculative fiction, teachers on May 30, 2012 |
Leave a Comment »
I will never again book 20 school visits for one month! but I’m grateful for each and every opportunity to meet students and educators across the city. Yesterday I spent the morning at a school in Park Slope and after my presentation on Ship of Souls, I was treated to a feast—the parents put out *quite* a spread, and I was seated in a virtual throne with the kids ringed around me. Overhead dangled the names of their ancestors and loved ones who had passed on—the kids *and* their teacher were so serious about the concept of life after death. We shared ghosts stories and no one was freaked out; they fully accepted that the realm of spirits and the realm of the living sometimes merge…amazing! That particular class was remarkable in another way: every month their teacher walks them over to Barnes & Noble and they BUY a book to read as a class! You know I have issues with books being given away for free to low-income kids; I think it’s important to develop book-buying habits, and this teacher has found the way! When I asked if she encountered any resistance from the mainly black and Latino parents, she laughed. “One child was sent with $100!” Where there’s a will, there’s a way…
Speaking of ancestors, another luminary from the kidlit community has sadly passed on. Leo Dillon, illustrator extraordinaire and partner to fellow illustrator Diane Dillon, made his transition a few days ago. I got to meet the Dillons at the 2010 A Is for Anansi conference at NYU. His legacy will live on in all the breathtakingly beautiful images he created with his wife over his lifetime. Rest in peace…
Read Full Post »
Posted in African American Literature, art, children's literature, equity, family, middle grade novels, multicultural literature, poetry, schools, speculative fiction, writing life, young adult novels on May 20, 2012 |
2 Comments »
Ah…a day of rest! On Friday I wrapped up my last Harlem workshop with Behind the Book. The students had finished reading Ship of Souls, and when I asked if they had any questions, it turned out most of them wanted to know what would happen in the sequel! I should have recorded my answers to all those questions because I actually sounded like I’ve got a clear sense of the narrative. Now I just have to make time to write it! The students did a great job developing outlines for their own magical stories and, as usual, several of them asked me whether Ship of Souls would be made into a film. I could have shown them the audio version of the book, which came out last week. I received my copies in the mail but have only listened to a couple of minutes so far. I think of an audio book being a lot like a radio play, but I don’t think there are any sound effects in the reading of my novel.
Yesterday I spent most of the day in the Bronx with four other Lee & Low authors and illustrators: Tony Medina, Katie Yamasaki, Mark Weston, and G. Neri (via Skype). We had a small group of kids, parents, and educators for Family Literacy Day, but they were amazingly attentive considering our presentations lasted from 10:30am to 1pm. Then each participant got a signed copy of Bird, Honda: the Boy Who Dreamed of Cars, I & I Bob Marley, and Yummy. Lee & Low’s sales manager, Abe, did a great job organizing the event and it was nice to see families resisting the lure of a sunny Saturday in order to focus on books and art. I like meeting other authors, but meeting artists is a totally different experience—it’s a blend of awe and envy because I can write a decent story, but I can NOT paint a beautiful picture. You should see the incredible murals that Katie has made all over the world—and she’s working on another with women prisoners at Rikers Island right now. After the event ended, Katie, Tony, and I talked about the publishing industry and how easy it is for some to divorce multiculturalism from social justice. We discussed the Trayvon Martin case and the news that “minority babies” now make up the majority of births in the US. Ten years from now, will those children be able to find their mirrors in books? Not unless we continue to press for change in the publishing industry. I connected with a few allies this past week, which is just what the doctor ordered—it’s too easy to feel isolated and discouraged…
Today: rest, read (I’m halfway through Toni Morrison’s Home), write out a summary of The Deep, and then prepare for tomorrow’s school visit. Just five more to go…
Read Full Post »
After my presentation up in Harlem this morning, the students actually begged their teacher for more homework—they wanted permission to read ahead in Ship of Souls! This class was selected by Behind the Book to receive copies of my novel, but they’d only read the first two chapters by the time I arrived today. Their teacher assigned the next few chapters, but the kids wanted to read up to Chapter 10 so they could find out what happened to D, Nyla, and Keem (I read from Chapter 9). By the time I finished my presentation, the kids were so excited I could barely hear myself think! And my voice was giving out…doing five school visits a week in addition to teaching my own courses is just too much, I think. On Thursday, by the time I got to my third and final class of the day, I actually taught sitting down. I never do that! It reduces the overall energy level of the class, but I was simply too tired to stand. I gave my students an in-class writing assignment and then graded some of their papers until it was time to reconvene. I don’t have the energy to teach public school—nor the patience. Last Monday I had a small class of about a dozen students, but two of the boys just wouldn’t stop talking—one even cursed while reciting a rap. I was waiting for their TWO teachers to rein the boys in, but it didn’t happen. If they’re disruptive again next Monday, I might ask for the students to be removed from the room. It’s not a long-term solution, but I’m only there for 40 minutes—I can’t help the kids who actually want to write poetry if the two that don’t are raising hell. Then today I was just starting my presentation when a boy raised his hand and asked to see the copy of BIRD I was holding in my hand. I gave it to him but asked that he not read it during my presentation. He ignored my request, of course, but I later learned from the teacher that that particular boy has *never* expressed interest in a book before. HE is the reluctant reader I’m hoping to reach with my writing. Maybe on Monday I better arrive at that other school armed with more copies of my books. If those two boys don’t want to write, maybe I can get them to read…
Read Full Post »