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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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