To be a person of color is to be marked in a peculiar kind of way. You are at once highly visible—obvious, conspicuous, apparent. Yet at the same time you are virtually invisible—unseen, overlooked, transparent. Children, I think, share this strange experience—they are to be seen and not heard, they are spoken of, and spoken for, but not often spoken to. As a child of color, I experienced this silencing effect while also enduring racial slights and slurs from strangers and family members alike. By the time I reached my teen years, I knew how to disappear in order to avoid unwanted attention, and I knew how to de-race myself in order to make “the majority” feel more at ease. I might have learned these lessons from the steady flow of books in which I immersed myself; certainly, young black women were almost never featured in these narratives, and those who did appear were relegated to the margins or permitted to fill only the most demeaning roles.
I began reading at an early age; I began writing stories shortly thereafter, and my grade school teachers attested to my “delightful and active imagination” in the annual report cards which my mother carefully preserved. She, too, was in love with books—my mother was a kindergarten teacher and read to her students on a daily basis; she then came home and went to her room after dinner to continue reading the historical romance novels that helped erase the contemporary reality of her own failed marriage. My parents divorced when I was eight years old; this was not the first disruption in my life (my adopted brother was returned to his birth parents when I was six), but it was without question the most devastating. I learned to cope with the pain and confusion by following my mother’s model; I read constantly, devouring stories about foreign countries and distant eras—I disappeared into worlds that remained intact or miraculously self-repaired. I fulfilled my wish of becoming someone else, of living a life other than my own.
My writing for children reflects and responds to all of these experiences. I write predominantly about black children because I grew up believing I was invisible in the real world, and it hurt just as much to discover that I was also invisible in the realm of the imaginary. I write about families because the disintegration of my own family unit had a lasting impact on me; writing for children is actually therapeutic because it allows me to correct situations that were never “fixed” during my own childhood. I believe a writer can make a profound intervention in a child’s understanding and experience of the world—and the world for children is often a very small sphere, occupied only by their family, friends, and neighbors. Yet I also believe that children feel things deeply, and are sensitive to changes in the relationships that connect them to the world. Too often, however, they lack the language and/or the opportunity to articulate their wide range of emotions and keen observations: I see my work as a chance to fill that void.
I write about the texture of children’s lives—the gritty realities of poverty, racism, and addiction, the glittering delight of snow, stars, and sunshine, and the gentle comfort that only a grandparent can provide. I was very close to my own grandparents, and I use elders in my stories in order to emphasize the importance of the oral tradition in black culture—elders are our link to the past, a past that has been erased, devalued, and distorted. Grandparents also help bridge the gap that sometimes develops between children and their parents; I began to confide in my own grandparents shortly after the divorce when I felt I could no longer trust my parents to keep safe the things that I held dear. My grandparents were the first to learn of my ambition of becoming a writer; they encouraged and supported me in ways my overworked single mother could not.
Ultimately, I try to tell stories that give voice to the diverse realities of children. I write as much for parents as I do for their children because sometimes adults need the simple instruction a picture book can provide. I write books my parents never had the chance to read to me. I write the books I wish I had had as a child.