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a place inside of me

IMG_2312I’m back on Facebook, but I’m limiting myself to 30 minutes per day. This week I’ve felt a lot better, and I’m extremely grateful for my friends who can help me think and talk critically about the crises facing Black people in this country while still remembering to count our blessings. In some ways it feels strange focusing on children’s books when there’s so much chaos in the world. I’ve spent the summer preparing two new titles for publication—The Girl Who Swallowed the Sun and The Magic Mirror—and I’ve resized three of the four titles I released last spring. Next week I’ll develop my strategy for getting these books into kids’ hands. Even the children of Ferguson are heading back to school, and children’s literature always has a role to play in helping kids to better understand their world and their emotions. When I first started writing for kids I kept a chronology so I’d know how my stories evolved. Right after I wrote The Magic Mirror I wrote a long poem called “A Place Inside of Me.” I can’t remember what prompted me to write it—the shooting of Amadou Diallo? The brutalization of Abner Louima? The lynching of Laura Nelson? This is one of the many manuscripts I will have to self-publish because white editors would be too scared to touch it. There are ten stanzas altogether but here are a few:

A Place Inside of Me

there is a place inside of me

a space deep down inside of me

where all my feelings go…

there is joy inside of me

a happiness deep down inside of me

that glows as bright and warm as the sun

and shines delight on everything I see

there is sorrow inside of me

a sadness deep down inside of me

that is cold and dark

as a watery grave

at the bottom of the sea

there is hunger inside of me

a yearning deep down inside of me

that refuses to be silenced or bound with chains

and insists on being


there is pride inside of me

no shame deep down inside of me

for I know how long and hard we have struggled

and against all odds my people have emerged



& beautiful…

© Zetta Elliott

How do Black children process the endless killing of members of their community/family/race? How should artists and authors help these kids? Why does the kidlit community so often remain silent on subjects that matter to Black people?

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comfort zone

IMG_20140815_122404_837I took a peek at Facebook today and think I may need to take another week off. I missed it at first and I have some beautiful artwork I’d really like to share, but I can’t tie together all the angry, sorrowful threads that stem from the situation in Ferguson. Last week someone posted a graphic on Facebook that read, “The more you stay in your comfort zone, the smaller it gets. The more you leave your comfort zone, the bigger it gets.” Right now I’m stepping out of my comfort zone by filling an order for 250 books. I’m an organized person, but I don’t have much experience as a book distributor, and after lugging 300 books home from my office in a broken suitcase, I have no real desire to haul boxes of books to the post office. But I did it today, and I’ll take another box tomorrow until my new hand cart arrives later this week. I don’t want to be a publisher; I’m doing this because I feel I have no other choice. But if I’m going to do it, I’m going to try to do it right. That means making mistakes and learning as quickly as I can so I can keep moving forward. I’m negotiating a contract right now for a picture book and it feels *so* good to be treated with respect by this publisher. I have a tendency to withdraw and I can live in the world inside my head for days on end. That’s why I consume so many hours of television and radio news—I know I need to stay connected to what’s happening in the real world. And as an artist, I need to bear witness. PBS just aired a segment on perceptions of racial bias in the Ferguson situation; not surprisingly, most whites feel race isn’t an issue and most Blacks feel that it is. My impulse is to pull back, to avoid all those who refuse to face reality—including those Facebook friends who post pictures of cupcakes and nothing about Gaza or Ferguson. But if I practice avoidance then I can’t be too hard on others who do it too. Maybe art is the bridge between us…

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imagesFinding Fela is a (long) cautionary tale: be original, be defiant, build knowledge, but don’t be an egomaniac. There were a few too many gratuitous booty/crotch shots in the film, and I found myself saying over and over in my mind, “Lord, don’t ever let me be a prop in someone else’s play.” Someone really needs to make a movie about Fela’s wives. His daughter by his first wife, Yeni, provided some insight into her father’s chaotic household/lifestyle, and his African American lover, Sandra Izsadore, got to share her point of view. But the only funeral they covered was Fela’s; he died of AIDS and refused to practice safe sex, so what did that mean for the dozens of women fighting each other to have sex with him each night? The footage in the film shows his wives endlessly applying makeup, smoking joints, styling their hair, and sitting silently behind Fela during interviews when they aren’t gyrating on stage. Much of the film focuses on Bill T. Jones’ experience bringing the musical Fela to Broadway, and it helped that he expressed his discomfort around Fela’s treatment of women. He also insisted on Fela’s “madness,” which I found interesting because those who were close to Fela only wanted to focus on his greatness. He was a genius but does that make his destructive behavior inevitable?

I left the theater trying to think of an ending for “The Last Bunny in Brooklyn.” It’s an allegory about race and dislocation. Every time another Black person is killed and it makes the news I think to myself, “It won’t be long now.” But as my wise pigeon explains in the story, “Extinction is a lengthy process.” When angry outbursts occurred following the murder of Mike Brown, I thought of the well-known passage anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells once wrote in her diary:

I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things for my people generally. I have firmly believed that the law was on our side and would, when we appealed to it, give us justice. I feel shorn of that belief and utterly discouraged, and just now, if it were possible, would gather my race in my arms and fly away with them.

In the 19th century, Ida advocated for migration—if they’re lynching your people in the South, go west. But today, in the 21st century, where should Black people go to avoid “gradual extermination?” If it were possible for me to “gather my race in my arms,” there are a few fools I might leave behind. I’m listening to R&B on Pandora as I write and half the time I have to click on the album cover to see whether the person singing is Black. Whites have learned to sing like Blacks, white writers win acclaim for writing about experiences not their own. Chloe, the last bunny in Brooklyn, asks the wise pigeon, “What’s an artifact?” And he explains, “an artifact is something or someone that is no longer of use to anyone.” Allegories are meant to be subtle and subtlety isn’t a strength of mine…but I’ll see if I can find a way to wrap this story up. Maybe another trip to the garden is in order.

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IMG_20140815_121941_730I’m almost done with this new story, “The Last Bunny in Brooklyn.” The idea came to me a few years ago when I first noticed the absence of bunnies in the botanic garden. Yesterday I decided to do some research and found two helpful women gardeners who answered some of my questions. Turns out rabbits aren’t the main problem in the vegetable garden—that would be rats and raccoons! I never imagined scavengers feasting on fruits and vegetables but I guess it makes sense. Who wouldn’t prefer fresh food to the moldy stuff you find in the trash? And the gardener in the rose garden said she uses cages for young bushes since they’re most vulnerable to rabbits—which are plentiful if you’re around at dawn or dusk when they come out to eat. This story is meant to be an allegory; I’m not sure it works but it felt good to be writing steadily yesterday. No Facebook, a few hours of news consumption, lots of music, 1-Signature-Image_428Wa bit of time in nature, and an amazing discovery at the Brooklyn Museum. If you haven’t yet gone to see Swoon’s exhibit, Submerged Motherlands, you need to go NOW. It closes on August 24th and I suspect I’ll be going back again next week. If only Swoon had made Beasts of the Southern Wild

If I can finish this story in the next couple of hours I think I’ll go see Finding Fela. Keep on feeding the spirit…

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no reprieve

2012-02-10-slj0912_Letter_Nov09CVI’m taking a break from Facebook. I start each day by turning on the computer, turning on NPR, and checking my email and updates online. But yesterday there were so many posts about police brutality in Ferguson, MO and all over the country—I just had to stop. I went to the park and had to cross the street to avoid the lech in the liquor store and the construction workers at the end of my block. An ambulance slowly wove its way through traffic and the blaring siren brought tears to my eyes. I’ve had enough. Going to the garden today and maybe the museum. Had lunch with a friend yesterday and she encouraged me to add something “light” to my life. I haven’t figured out just what that will be. Right now I’m listening to the radio and Ta-Nehisi Coates is discussing his article on plunder and reparations. It’s not news to me, but many whites in this country—if they bothered to read the article—were no doubt shocked. Whites and Blacks view things so differently—the former seem unwilling, despite overwhelming evidence, to admit that white supremacy shapes our society: the police force, the courts, the banks, the schools, the publishing industry—and the blogosphere (alcohol is not the problem I have with that SLJ cover). A white “friend” on Facebook recently suggested that self-publishing was like “eating at a local place” rather than holding a sit-in to desegregate a Jim Crow lunch counter. In other words, choosing to self-publish is cowardly and less noble than subjecting myself to abuse and rejection at the hands of racist whites. Which prompted me to repost my 2011 essay on women in publishing.

…when I reflect upon my involvement in the literary world, I find that little of my time and energy has gone toward addressing “the fundamental wrongness of gender disparities.” When everyone in your world is female, gender tends not to be the focus. For me, the main problem isn’t that men are impeding my progress as a writer. The truth is, behind every door that has been closed in my face…there’s another woman.


Sometimes that woman looks like me, but more often than not, she doesn’t. She belongs to a different race, a different class, and a different culture…

I don’t mean to suggest that publishing is a white women’s club, nor is it my intent to diminish the very real obstacles faced by women writers. I do feel, however, that when we talk about women in publishing, it’s important to consider who’s climbing, who’s lifting, and who’s being left behind.

Allies are out there and they are valuable to me, but against the overwhelming ignorance and denial, I don’t have much hope these days.

I’m working on a new website and my designer asked me to think of songs, colors, and images that define my visual style. We talked for an hour and then hours later I woke up thinking about plantation ruins. I don’t want to romanticize the plantation; for me, it is a symbol of dominance, exploitation, and brutality. But I like the idea of nature overtaking that symbol. My designer asked me to start a board on Pinterest and so now I’m digging through photos from my four trips to Nevis. The one below was taken at Golden Rock Plantation back in 2003. I was a more hopeful person then, even though I had just finished writing my dissertation on lynching. I wonder how I’ll feel about this country ten years from now…


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queering kidlit

imagesTonight I watched a Frontline special about Facebook and today’s teens’ quest to accumulate as many “likes” as possible. It’s a big business, of course, because corporations are closely monitoring internet trends and they’re eager to exploit those who have thousands if not millions of followers. I’m not a Luddite and I spend a fair amount of time on Facebook, but watching this report made me ill. The content that goes viral has little if any value to me and I certainly don’t blog about provocative issues in order to gain subscribers. I use blogging as a way of organizing and sharing my thoughts, and I use Facebook as a way of staying connected to the world even when I’m indulging in an introvert episode of silence and/or seclusion. Last week a friend, author Olumide Popoola, posted this quote by the late José Muñoz and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I had the chance to take a course with José while I was in grad school at NYU but didn’t. I missed a few important opportunities in those days and still regret that I gave up a chance to “study with the best.” I never took a course on queer theory but I think it’s time I took a closer look.

“Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future.”
– José Ésteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia

Lately on Facebook I’ve seen a lot of shared posts from WeNeedDiverseBooks in which popular books about white kids are placed alongside similarly-themed books that feature kids of color: “If You Liked X, Read Y Next.” One person posted so many of these that I nearly unfollowed her. The more I saw these “comps,” the angrier I got. It’s a clever idea, but one that seems designed to attract white readers. That’s always troubling to me but I was more concerned by the way in which “comps” end up reaffirming the status quo. I think again of that article on relatability—do you really need to be lured across the color line by the promise of sameness? Amazon uses this sales strategy quite effectively on its site and I am often interested in seeing which other books people buy when they purchase one of mine. But what happens when you write a book that doesn’t have a white comp? If you can’t say, “It’s just like Divergent!” does that mean no one will find value in your particular narrative? My publisher listed A Wrinkle in Time on the back cover of A Wish After Midnight, which is a ridiculous comparison. I insisted they add Octavia Butler’s Kindred, but of course, many (if not most) white readers don’t even know about Octavia…

A friend of mine is a scholar who focuses on transgressive sexuality and we’ve often talked about the impact of the marriage rights campaign. Like many others, it bothers her that so much time, energy, and resources are going into this single issue when the LGBTQ  community (and queer youth in particular) have other pressing needs to address. Like me, she’s single, child-free, and uninterested in marriage. She wishes that the LGBTQ community had pushed for something far greater than marriage, which in some ways reduces the message of equality to, “See? We (homosexuals) are just like you (heterosexuals). We just want what you want.” Marriage across the developing world is on the decline, so why invest so much in a ship that’s sinking? Of course, I support marriage equality and want that right to exist for anyone who wishes to claim it. But I don’t want a nuclear family. And I won’t have access to the benefits that are reserved only for married people. Queerness, it seems to me, is about what else is possible when we stop clinging to the status quo.

So what would that look like in the children’s literature community? It might mean taking a course with Maya Gonzalez’ School of the Free Mind instead of being the only person of color in an MFA program. It might mean self-publishing uncomfortable or unusual books instead of pruning our stories until they conform to “mainstream” standards. My black feminist advisor in grad school used to insist: “There’s always a third way.” That’s what’s on my mind tonight…

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lost heroes

indexFor class on Tuesday I asked my BookUP kids to read half of The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan. I’ve never read anything by Riordan, but I know of the Percy Jackson films and my students were very excited by his Heroes of Olympus book covers. In The Lost Hero there are several characters of color and as I read, I’m thinking of how to continue our discussion of stereotypes, hybridity, and non-Western mythologies. A friend posted a provocative article on Facebook yesterday about the problem of “relatability;” there was no mention of race but the author suspects that more consumers are rejecting art that does not mirror their exact experience. Of course, this rejection is a function of privilege; people of color (and other marginalized groups) have always had to learn how to identify with white protagonists whose experiences rarely mirror our own. If, as a child, I had insisted on reading only books about Black girls, I would have had no books to read. And if I insisted the protagonist was mixed-race or Canadian—forget about it. There were no movies, no plays, no television shows that exactly mirrored my life. So I made do, and it was hard sometimes (and damaging), but ultimately I learned to look for similarities between myself and people who didn’t live or look like me.

The crisis in Gaza is never far from my mind these days and I talked a little bit about Islamophobia with my students last week. Can you eliminate prejudice by writing a novel that exposes its roots and consequences? Maybe. But nothing is possible if a reader won’t even pick up the book because they want a mirror instead of a window…

I hope to address some of these issues when I present at KidlitCon in October. The registration form asked, “What do you hope to learn at the conference?” I should have taken more time to think about that. I feel like I withdrew from the kidlit blogosphere a while back because I found it too insular. No one in my community here in Brooklyn reads book blogs—maybe the occasional parent or librarian tunes in, but talking about kids books online isn’t a top priority for most. I look at the news these days—the murder of Eric Garner by NYPD officers, in particular—and I wonder how we get past the idea that literacy is a luxury, or less of a priority than the battle against gun violence, and police brutality, and Nicki Minaj. Looking forward to a day of silence as I try to think these things through…

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let there be flowers

IMG_2300A friend on Facebook recently posted an article about the summer blues, and it was reassuring to know I’m not the only one who feels guilty about staying in when the sun is out. I’m an introvert and I need to turn inward when I’m getting ready to write, but staying inside that bubble too long can have unintended consequences. My health hasn’t been great lately, though I’ve only had one migraine so far this summer. I know what I need to do—fix my diet, keep running in the park, make sure I leave the house *every* day. I’m thinking about going off gluten and spent some time at Whole Foods this afternoon after packing books at my office. Last week I brought home a bag of office items that included a vase; I put it away but thought to myself, “Now you can start buying flowers again.” And today I did—a lovely purple bouquet was waiting for me at the store but when I got it home, it wouldn’t fit in the vase! So I used a regular glass instead. The moral? I could have been buying myself flowers all this time—it was never about having a vase. I’m too set in my ways. Routine creates a sense of security but sometimes it’s better to do things differently even if the outcome is disastrous. Yesterday I went to Pandora and set up an Emeli Sande channel—I don’t listen to music on the radio (I listen to the news, which is another reason I’ve been blue lately; time to tune OUT—or scale back my consumption, at least) and I don’t have an iPod. I’m still mourning the fact that my laptop no longer has a CD drive and can’t bring myself to trash the teetering stack of CDs in the corner of my apartment. But as I listened to Emeli and Adele and Lauryn and Beyonce yesterday, I realized how much I’ve missed R&B! I’d forgotten how good it feels to just sit and sing along to your favorite songs (“Halo” is on a loop right now) without having to deal with a corny rap interlude or raunchy lyrics. My friend helped me install a new air conditioner in the bedroom yesterday; I painted last month, I’ve got a lovely bouquet to wake up to, and this week I’ll bring home the portable stereo that sits on my desk at work—then I’ll be able to play my CDs! There has been a LOT of bad news lately and I need to balance my consumption with some cute cat and/or goat videos, some good music, and some interesting art. The summer feels like it’s slipping away; I’ve got 4 or 5 projects on the go right now, but haven’t managed to write as much as I’d like. My illustrator is producing beautiful artwork for The Girl Who Swallowed the Sun and we’re finalizing edits on The Magic Mirror. Next step will be developing a catalog to send out to schools and librarians. The To Do list never ends but I’m keeping an eye on the future. I’d like to spend my birthday in London and the IBBY UK conference on belonging just happens to be around that time; sent off my abstract yesterday and will see if I can connect with some folks across the pond. I think October is Black History Month in the UK so maybe I can arrange a few school visits while I’m over there. All I need is a good playlist to keep me going…

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TowersGriffin2The first thing I noticed when I reached my BookUP site in Queens last week was that there were two griffins guarding a gate on the other side of the street. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about those griffins, and so now I’m working on my second “City Kids” book (my new chapter book series) tentatively titled The Griffins at the Gate. I meet with my students tomorrow and will see how they feel about a time travel story set in their neighborhood. They’re excited about reading Rick Riordan’s hefty Olympus books so I think we’ll try writing about mythological creatures. We’re also going to make some art tomorrow, so I need to brush off my pencil and make sure I’m up for the challenge. Then I need to spend some time wandering around Jackson Heights. It’s an incredibly beautiful neighborhood but I bet there’s all kinds of magic waiting inside those gated courtyards…

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deep_comp_layout.inddI’ve had a few conversations lately with folks who are tired of the neverending diversity in publishing campaign. We’ve all decided it’s just not worthwhile to invest our valuable time and energy in an industry that truly does not WANT to change. As I say more and more these days, “It’s not a question of merit or money. It’s about POWER.” And when folks are accustomed to being dominant, they aren’t likely to share power willingly. Yesterday I met with my BookUP students out in Queens for the first time—how wonderful to walk into a classroom at 9am and find all the students reading at their desks! And most of them were boys, which is why I push back whenever folks claim that boys don’t read. Many are reluctant readers, but not all. I introduced myself as Kristin and then let them examine the dozen assigned books with my three novels mixed in. When I asked which book they wanted to read most, two boys named Ship of Souls and The Deep. Unfortunately my books aren’t part of the First Book marketplace; they don’t accept self-published submissions and my publisher, Amazon/Skyscape, is looking into submitting Wish and Ship of Souls. In the meantime, I offered to photocopy chapters and bring them in for us to read aloud.By any means necessary, right? Find a way around the obstacle.

This morning I woke up with a migraine but was so grateful to find on Facebook this speech given by Toni Morrison in 1975. She perfectly articulates what I’ve been feeling for the past few months. We do need to push for justice in publishing but we also need to keep our eyes on the prize:

Racism was always a con game that sucked all the strength of the victim. It’s the red flag that is danced before the head of a bull. It’s purpose is only to distract. To keep the bull’s mind away from his power and his energy. Keep it focused on anything but his own business. It’s hoped for consequence is to define black people as reaction to white presence…

It’s important to know who the real enemy is and to know the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing YOUR WORK. It keeps you explaining over and over your reason for being.

It may very well be left to artists to grapple with th‎is fact (the distraction). For art focuses on the single grain of rice, the tree-shaped scar and the names of people shipped not only the number. And to the artist one can only say: not to be confused. You don’t waste your energy fighting the fever. You must only fight the disease. And the disease is not racism. It is greed and the struggle for power.

And I urge you to be careful for there is a deadly prison. A prison that is erected when one spends one’s life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths and explaining over and over to the conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your history, your habits. And you don’t have to do it anymore. You can go ahead and talk straight to me.

Wise words. After the speech Morrison took questions and made these remarks about audience:

…you write for all those people in the book who don’t even pick up the book. Those are the people who justify it. Those are the people who make it authentic. Those are the people you have to please. All those non-readers…They are the ones to whom one speaks. Not to the NY Times. Not to the editors. Not to media. Not to anything. It is a very private thing. They are the ones who say, “yea, uh huh that’s right.” And when THAT happens, very strangely or actually very naturally what also happens is that you speak to everybody. And even though it begins as very inward and private, the end result is its communication with the world at large.

I don’t really care about that control. Life is short. Freedom is in my mind. That’s where one is free. There’s always some other constriction. But the very important point is to do the work that one respects and do it well. And to make no compromises in its authenticity. And to do it better next time.

And the key – the artist’s role is to bear witness, to contribute to the record, the real record of life as he or she knows it. Perceptions that are one’s own… You exercise control only when you assert control.

indexI just hired an illustrator to work on my picture book about blues women, the Great Migration, and lynching. I remember telling my students about this story while teaching a course on lynching at Ohio University. More than a dozen years have passed and I’m finally putting it out into the world. Because as Morrison explains, “the very important point is to do the work that one respects and do it well. And to make no compromises in its authenticity.” I haven’t given up on the traditional publishing industry but I am going ahead with the stories I know they will never print. “You exercise control only when you assert control.”

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