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IMG_1850I’m here—in a pretty little bungalow that’s a virtual replica of the one I stayed in last year! I set my alarm for 5am but woke at 3 this morning; felt a headache coming on so got up and got ready to head to the airport. My driver was a lovely man from Guinea and we made it ALMOST the whole way to the airport before he asked—as all taxi drivers in NYC do–”Are you married or single?” We discussed the political crisis in Egypt, the violence in Syria, the instability in neighboring Mali (which he fears will spread to Guinea). We talked about the importance of education and the high cost of travel between countries in West Africa and the Caribbean. But just as the airport came into view, he asked about my marital status.

HIM: Are you married or single?

ME: Single.

HIM: It’s better to be married.

ME: Maybe for men it’s better. I’m not so sure it’s better for women. Not for me, anyway.

HIM: You just have to choose the right person. Women today want to be independent but they choose the wrong person. God will choose the right person for you.

I didn’t bother to respond to that. Still, we parted on good terms and I gave him a nice tip because I thought of my students when he revealed that he could barely write his own name when he arrived in the US fifteen years ago. “Education is everything.” It certainly is. I hauled my book-filled bag into the terminal and onto the scale—I had my wallet open because I knew there would be a surcharge for the extra weight. But the attendant just put the sticker on my suitcase and told me to drop it on the conveyor belt. Security was a breeze…it was amazing. We landed on time and since I was seated at the back of the plane, I was one of the first people to exit via the rear stairway. I was the FIRST person to clear customs, I got my bags, and had plenty of time to spare before the 1pm ferry left St. Kitts for Nevis. The sea was choppy, perhaps as residual effect of Hurricane Chantal, but I just closed my eyes and focused on my breathing. Somehow lurching back and forth doesn’t affect me if I can’t actually see the boat bobbing up and down. When i got off the ferry, Marva Roberts from the Nevis Library Service was there to meet me and she and her daughter drove me to my hotel—all the while filling me in on the many exciting literacy events they’ve held in the past year. I don’t know what it is about librarians, but they’re just awesome. I think it’s that they love books and want others to love books, too. Later this week I’ll meet with the librarians at Charlestown Secondary School to give them the forty books I brought from New York. I actually broke my suitcase hauling those books off the ferry but now that they’re here in my room, they seem rather inadequate. I wish I had 100 books to give…

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAMy 3am headache has hung around all day but I’m hoping a good meal and a good night’s rest will clear it up. I flopped on the lovely four-poster bed this afternoon and got annoyed when a bird started chirping RIGHT outside my window. This little bungalow has 5 windows, including one right behind the bed and I swear that bird was deliberately sitting on the window ledge so she couldn’t be ignored. I finally dragged myself up and put my glasses back on only to find…a hummingbird! It wasn’t doing all the chirping, it was too busy feeding from the flowering tree outside my window. I watched it for almost a minute before it flew away. So thank you, little squeaky bird, for annoying me enough to draw my attention to the very bird that has led me on this journey.(It was a Green-Throated Carib, I think)

On the plane I sat next to a young woman who looked very familiar. She offered me a piece of gum as the plane took off, and then draped a blanket over her head and slept the rest of the way. We chatted a little at the airport and it turns out she’s a student at Hunter College! I gave her my card when we got off the ferry (she gave me a hug!) and asked her to email me so I could possibly interview her for the book. I’m going to interview my cousin tonight after dinner (if we can stay awake). And my aunt is making me soup for lunch tomorrow, which I desperately need since neither my inhaler nor the cough syrup I’m taking seems to have much effect…

I’m here–can’t say “I’m home,” but I did feel something like pride when the ferry pulled up and I could see Nevis Peak stretching up into the clouds. Plus the man who sat next to me on the ferry had a chuckle just like my Dad’s! I’ve never heard *anyone* laugh that way. It must be a Nevis thing…

 

 

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Last week I interviewed Kelbian Noel, a YA spec fic author that I met while I was up in Toronto. Yesterday Kelbian returned the favor by featuring me on her blog, Diverse Pages. Here’s one of the questions I was asked to consider:

DP: Have you always written about characters of color? What challenges (if any) have you faced in doing so?

ZETTA: When I took a creative writing class in high school, I wrote a picture book that featured white characters. Fortunately, I was failing that class and so wound up dropping it. In college I had my first black professor and he introduced me to the work of Jamaica Kincaid; that changed my academic focus and as I discovered more black authors, I began to write about people of color. I went through a process of “decolonizing my imagination” and it did take some time for me to develop authentic characters that came from the community where I lived. For a while I worried that readers would feel my characters weren’t “black enough,” but the more I traveled and the more widely I read, the easier it became to create credible, diverse black characters.

On Monday I met with a group of amazing young poets at the Brooklyn Public Library and one young writer showed me a picture book she had self-published–all her illustrations showed white children. I hope she finds a “mirror” for her black female self in my books. You can read the entire interview here.

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imagesIf you were at the NYPL yesterday for Betsy Bird’s Children’s Literature Salon then you know that we had a full house (all 80 seats were filled!) and people came ready to both listen and share their insights and experiences. Betsy is an expert moderator, which made it easy for those of us on the panel to share our thoughts on diversity in children’s literature. I met editor Connie Hsu for the first time, and learned about how her experience growing up in Alabama continues to influence her decisions as an editor. Connie’s aware of the importance of tradition but she’s also looking for what’s new, which is encouraging. I was *so* excited to finally meet Sofia Quintero, fierce author/filmmaker/activist and cancer survivor—I had to stop myself from reaching over to high-five her every time she made a brilliant point about the coded terms (“mainstream,” “cross-over”) used to conceal racialized power dynamics in publishing. Sofia works with Book Up and she told us about an experience taking a group of kids from the Bronx into the Barnes & Noble in Tribeca. “Why are there more pictures of zombies on book covers than people of color?” After the panel ended, I met Allie Jane Bruce, a children’s librarian at Bankstreet College of Education who let me know that she works with children who are just as outraged about the lack of diversity in publishing. I’m hoping to meet those young people and hear about their strategies for creating change. During the Q&A session we revisited the issue of David Levithan’s Teen Author Festival, which continues to be overwhelmingly white despite repeated complaints. So how DO we create change?

makers_women640_mediumI watched Makers: Women Who Make America last week and at the end of the 3-hour documentary on the women’s movement found myself feeling rather blue. A couple of black feminists were included in the film and one Latina, but no Asian Americans and no American Indians. It was basically white middle-class women talking about white middle-class women. One scholar was asked to identify the movement’s limitations and she said that the feminist movement had failed to address the needs of working-class women, which has only increased the suffering of women and children living in poverty. White middle-class women have a long history of working with people of color to create change (abolition, the civil rights movement), but there have also been times when white women chose to throw people of color under the bus in order to preserve their own privilege. White middle-class women seem to dominate the children’s publishing industry, and so it was heartening to have several white women approach me after the panel to share their activism and/or to ask about where to start. When white women rise up, they’re a formidable force so I do hope we can stir them out of complacency and into action. We need more allies!

Speaking of allies, it was great to see Lyn Miller-Lachmann at yesterday’s event. Lyn is an award-winning YA author and core committee member of See What We See, the social justice advocacy group that generated a lot of interest during the panel. She’s got a new book, Rogue, coming out next month and I was thrilled to get a copy yesterday. Please support the writers who are fighting for change!

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This afternoon I will be on a diversity panel at the NYPL. I thought I’d post some of my slides for those of you who are unable to attend. A full report will be posted tomorrow…

The US Children’s Publishing Industry:

Is the door open or closed?

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My thoroughly unscientific, simplified representation of diversity in publishing in 2013 (based on observation and anecdotal evidence):

img506I believe there’s a direct link between limited diversity in the publishing profession and the lack of diversity in books for young readers. Although it is important for white authors to learn how to accurately represent people of color in their work, that alone will NOT change the status quo. I’m wary of groups whose goal is to “celebrate diversity” without also promoting equity.

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What IS the difference between diversity and equity? Diversity focuses on difference but equity focuses on fairness. These definitions come from the UC Berkeley website:

Diversity includes all the ways in which people differ, and it encompasses all the different characteristics that make one individual or group different from another. It is all-inclusive and recognizes everyone and every group as part of the diversity that should be valued. A broad definition includes not only race, ethnicity, and gender — the groups that most often come to mind when the term “diversity” is used — but also age, national origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, marital status, language, and physical appearance. It also involves different ideas, perspectives, and values.

Equity is the guarantee of fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all…while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups. The principle of equity acknowledges that there are historically underserved and underrepresented populations and that fairness regarding these unbalanced conditions is needed to assist equality in the provision of effective opportunities to all groups.

The first step in creating greater diversity and equity in the publishing industry involves developing a vision of progress. Here’s what I hope the industry will look like in 2020:

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What would YOUR ideal children’s literature community look like?

The UK Publishing Equalities Charter offers specific actions groups can take to promote equality and diversity. Learn more at equalityinpublishing.org

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imagesIf you’re a member of the children’s literature community then you know Betsy Bird, Fuse8 blogger and Youth Materials Specialist at the NYPL. You probably also know that Betsy runs a monthly Children’s Literature Salon and on March 2nd the focus will be on diversity (learn more here). I hope you’ll join me, Betsy, Sofia Quintero, Connie Hsu, and Jacqueline Woodson as we discuss the challenge of creating equity in the children’s publishing industry. I’ve just joined the diversity committee at my job and it’s fascinating to see firsthand how the college gathers data in order to assess the progress it has or hasn’t made in meeting its diversity goals. Why can’t the publishing industry do the same?

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osiris god of the underworldI’m 1200 words away from reaching my 10K-word goal for this month. I was a little worried that this novel, unlike Wish and Ship of Souls, didn’t have any connection to African American history. The Deep feels much more contemporary—it picks up a few months after Ship of Souls ended (in March 2011) and so I’m writing about the tsunami that devastated Japan and the mass shooting in Norway. Yesterday I worked on a scene that takes place at the Central Library here in Brooklyn; Nyla has been chosen to join The League but she resists her guide’s efforts to lead her underground. I was somewhat obsessed with ancient Egypt as a child so I don’t know why it took me so long to make the connection between the deep and the underworld. I’ve decided to name the guide Cyrus/Siris/Osiris, Egyptian god of the afterlife. Far better than Alistair, which is the name of the annoying, yappy dog in my building. My theory of Afro-urban magic requires me to incorporate African spiritual practices into contemporary urban fantasy. There isn’t much room for that in The Deep but maybe I can tweak the plot. That’s the good thing about having a third of the novel still to write—there’s plenty of room for improvement…

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imagesI often share that piece of advice when signing books—”Feed your imagination: read every day.” Right now I’m reading A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette Edwards, and I got quite a few pages read while returning from Baltimore by train earlier today. I don’t have an iPod; I read on the subway and I *try* to turn the TV off so I can read at home, too. I’ve mentioned before that I now write with the TV on, but it was *so* nice these past two days to NOT watch 3 hours of news reports every evening. I didn’t miss my 4-hour diet of NPR morning programming either because I was too busy hanging out with my dear friend Shadra Strickland! At the last minute I decided NOT to pack my laptop, which meant I couldn’t work on The Deep for a couple of days. Instead of writing I filled up on art and movies and excellent conversation (we also admired the historic Peabody Library). Shadra picked me up from the train station late Tuesday night and we went to an all-nite diner for a bite to eat. It was great to have another artist/professor to swap stories with—how was your semester? who were your best/worst students? are you getting your REAL work done? On the train ride home today I made a plan for 2013. Shadra usually makes a one-year and a five-year plan; I find it really hard to think that far ahead, but it was imageshelpful to make a list of the trips I plan to take, the books I want to finish, and the articles I hope to have published this year. The last item on my list is: “consume more art!” On Wednesday Shadra got up early and made a lovely breakfast for me and Deborah Taylor, librarian at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, who stopped by on her way to work. We talked about children’s books and US presidents and the legacy of Emancipation. As much as I love waking up to silence and solitude, that can’t really compare to freshly baked biscuits and *great* conversation with friends! Later that day (after a midday nap) we went to the Walters Art Museum and saw the exhibit “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe.” We didn’t get to see the response of contemporary artists at Galerie Myrtis but I managed to find my favorite painting in the exhibit by Jules Arthur. It’s amazing how beauty feeds the soul…this morning Shadra insisted that I watch one scene from Hero and next thing you know, we were watching the entire film in our pajamas and I was practically sobbing as Broken Sword died…I ate way too much sugar in Baltimore (they have great cake!) and we didn’t wind up going for a run, but we laughed a lot and there’s always tomorrow…

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…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.

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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…

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Woke up early to go for a run but we have stormy weather here today. So instead I uploaded about 30 photos to my Facebook account. Here are some of my favorites:

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