1981 was a big year for me. My parents were finalizing their divorce and my mother, sister, and I left our spacious home to settle in a much smaller townhouse in a new community. I entered the 5th grade at a school where I was not recognized as a TK (teacher’s kid), and despite the fact that I had already skipped a grade, I was not put in the gifted program. I remember a lot of things about that year including the novels we read in Ms. Wistow’s class. I can trace my fascination with all things medieval to our unit on the Middle Ages and the weeks we spent reading The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli. We also read E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet and I remember looking forward to the afternoons when my teacher would wheel the TV/VCR cart into our classroom so we could watch the BBC adaptation of Nesbit’s fantasy novel. My memories of the 5th grade are vivid, in part, because my first encounters with racism happened at that school on the outskirts of Toronto. For the first time in my life I understood what it meant to be an outsider; no matter how hard I tried to impress those around me, I couldn’t reclaim my status as “gifted and talented.” I look back at my childhood and see that the 5th grade was when I first realized I would have to fight for recognition of my abilities because no matter what I may have accomplished, to some I would always be invisible and insignificant.
More than three decades have passed and the painful lessons I learned the year I turned 9 are still guiding me as I prepare to release four “new” chapter books for young readers. I’ve decided to self-publish these titles because after 10+ years of rejection it seems unlikely that they will ever be acquired by an editor—regardless of the momentum generated by the recent social media campaign #weneeddiversebooks. I have more than twenty unpublished manuscripts; I’m not getting any younger and neither are the kids I serve, so I have decided to take matters into my own hands.
When I first started writing for kids in 2000, I drew inspiration from the books I had read and loved as a child. Though I have since revisited and reassessed Nesbit’s 1904 novel, I never lost my interest in that magical, mythical bird. I wrote The Phoenix on Barkley Street so that children of color could have an amazing adventure without leaving home. Room in My Heart addresses the anxiety children often experience when their divorced parents start to date someone new—another 5th grade experience I won’t forget. The Boy in the Bubble is a tale of friendship between two extraordinary children that was inspired by The Little Prince; I wrote it in the weeks following 9/11 when dreaming up stories for children served as a way to process the traumatic events that had devastated my adopted home of NYC. In 2009 I went to see Coraline and then came home and wrote Max Loves Muñecas!, a story that challenges gender stereotypes by having boys learn how to make dolls.
For years I submitted these stories to editors and over time the children I was teaching—the kids for whom I was writing—grew into young adults. The demand for these kinds of stories hasn’t diminished, however, and so now I am applying the wisdom I didn’t have in the 5th grade: never cast pearls before swine. You can’t make people want you, and sharing your gifts with those who can’t recognize their worth is a waste of time and talent. If you enjoyed reading Bird or any of my novels, I hope you’ll consider sharing these four new books with the young readers (age 7-10) in your life. You can learn more on the Rosetta Press blog.