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I never have to wonder why I write what I write…here’s a recent review posted by a teacher on Amazon:

1.0 out of 5 stars Just the Thing to Stir Up Racial Tension
June 30, 2012
By Biblically Informed Reader
This review is from: A Wish After Midnight (Paperback)

I won this book as part of a prize in a drawing for teachers. Frankly, I am appalled. I would never use it with my students. It’s nothing but poorly written, mind-in-the-gutter, depressing trash destined to incite racial tensions, rather than to encourage unifying discussion. Surely there is something better than this to offer the youth of our nation.

I read seven more Ruth Chew novels yesterday and continue to find striking similarities between her books and mine—except I’m sure the above teacher would *love* Chew’s sanitized version of historical events…

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Actually, it’s pouring. Good thing I went out early to get some groceries: two apples, soy milk, juice, and a mini Toblerone bar. I needed some little treat since today I plan to get ALL my grading done. I’ve got one exam left and about ten book reviews. Once grades are in I can turn my attention to my conference paper for ChLA, which is starting to take shape (in my mind, at least). I wake up visualizing the slides I plan to share, and then I sit down at the computer and my mind is filled with ideas for a new novel set in Nevis circa 1765…it’s about the two siblings who befriended Alexander Hamilton when he was a boy. The brother is thirteen, mixed-race, the emancipated son of a successful white trader; his younger half-sister is black, enslaved, and on the verge of being initiated into a secret society…

I learned yesterday that Horn Book will run a review of Ship of Souls in its summer issue. They chose a Canadian reviewer, which is interesting. She didn’t share the exuberance of The Book Smugglers, but that doesn’t really surprise me:

Elliott’s story is quick, clean, and briskly paced. Although the elements of the fantasy adventure wobble, Elliott engages some interesting content—the historic dead who lie beneath Brooklyn and Manhattan, and the three African American teens, all from different backgrounds.

It’s cold in Canada. Good thing I’m heading south…

Tomorrow I meet with Terry Boddie, a Nevisian artist who’s been giving me advice on conducting research and making art in Nevis. This morning I emailed the local radio station—there was an address specifically for “requests,” and I’m sure that meant song requests, but instead I asked for help locating listeners who might know something about my paternal grandmother. I could put an ad in the paper, too, I guess. This is new territory for me and I know I should show some restraint, but there’s been so much silence for so long…I feel like I don’t have time to ease into the past. It’s like a ship pulling away from shore. She who hesitates is lost…

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I did my 16th school visit this morning and got soaked coming and going…came home, put on some dry, comfy clothes, and made a cup of ginger tea. Checked my email and found a Google alert that led me to The Book Smugglers fabulous joint review of Ship of Souls! Here’s a peek:

WOW. D’s journey in Ship of Souls is breathtaking in its gravity and heartache. While, from a plotting perspective, the actual story proper is a rather small, contained thing, it is not without its taste of the fantastic, drawing a portal between the current world and the ghosts of the past through the magic of a very special park and its historical significance. Do you know what I love the most about Zetta Elliott’s work? In both A Wish After Midnight and in Ship of Souls, Elliott effortlessly weaves history – a painful, grim, but true history – with fantasy. In this novel, she explores one of the first major battles of the British-American Revolutionary war. In 1776, Prospect Park (along Flatbush Ave) was the battleground for British and Hessian soldiers as they fought the Continental Army (led by George Washington) – and this iconic battle serves as a key point for the story. To do this, to add on top of the historical commentary also one that explores the issues of race, gender, and religion in contemporary Brooklyn, this is no small feat. But Zetta Elliott does it all without making the story didactic or dry, by making these threads more than just a Message or underlying theme – each of these facets of identity are a part of our main characters (D, Keem and Nyla).

You can read the entire review here. It’s one thing to have kids tell you they love your book, but it’s something else entirely to have two experts in the field of YA SFF give your book a rave review! I was in such a good mood that I didn’t even fuss when I went back out into the rain to keep an appointment I’d made with a student and he didn’t bother to show up…

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I learned today that Ship of Souls has been selected as a Booklist Magazine top ten Sci-Fi/Fantasy Youth title and will be featured in the May 15th issue! I’m told that this is the issue of Booklist that will be distributed at BookExpo America, so if you’re planning to attend BEA, pick up a copy! I’ve been thinking lately about systems and how many of them are closed—if you’re not in the loop, you’re out of luck. And even if you manage to fight your way in, obstacles will still be placed in your way (have you seen that animated video about white privilege? The Unequal Opportunity Race). Booklist is the only major kidlit review outlet that reviewed Ship of Souls (Daniel Kraus gave it a starred review). So THANK YOU, Booklist, for giving my book the chance to compete on a level playing field.

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I have finally got my conference paper down to 12 pages! Unfortunately, in my effort to include as many quotes from my interviewees as possible, I cut a really strong passage and *forgot* to paste it into the footnotes. Crap. In that passage I analyzed a troubling review Ship of Souls received from a Canadian bookseller—and one of her critiques was the “unnecessary” inclusion of crude language (“crap” and “pissed off”). I use crap in order to avoid using “sh**”—which is what lots of kids use every day. But that was a minor issue for me. I had more of a problem with her description of Hakeem as “a stereotypical black jock.” She did note that he was Muslim, but made no mention of the fact that he’s biracial (Senegalese father, Bangladeshi mother), that he’s determined to graduate from high school AND college despite his athletic ability, and that he dreams of becoming a chef and opening his own restaurant someday. If he really is a stereotype, I’d love for this reviewer to list the other books that feature a kid like Keem. She couldn’t, of course, (especially not in Canada, where there are NO books about contemporary black boys) which was the point I was trying to make in my paper. Bad reviews are part of life for an author; generally we read them, fume a bit, and move on. But when there are only two review journals for children’s literature in the country, you really need those reviewers to be on point.

I wanted to say something in my conference paper about the competency of reviewers—cultural competency, which for the most part has nothing to do with race. As I tried to explain to the editor of the journal that ran the review, I’m not qualified to teach Black Studies because I’m black—I’m qualified b/c I’ve been trained in the field. And several other reviewers—white and black—have noted that the cast of kids in SoS is remarkably diverse. They note that, I think, because they’ve read enough speculative fiction and African American kidlit to know just what’s stereotypical and what’s not. Queer kids of color don’t often see themselves reflected in MG/YA lit, so my choice to have Nyla question her sexuality was deliberate; this particular reviewer felt the “odd reference to lesbianism” was “unnecessary to the story.” But this was the comment that stunned me:

…Canadian children will have to do some quick double think to incorporate the views of the American Revolution presented here in which their ancestors are clearly portrayed as the enemy of the brave Americans.

I still don’t know how to process this remark. Is the reviewer saying that Canadian children will feel conflicted because they’ll conjure British loyalists while reading the book? There are no references to the British in my novel—in fact, the patriot ghosts recount fending off German soldiers (Hessians). So what’s the problem? And I have to wonder which Canadian children she’s worried about. I seriously doubt that black children in Canada would read this story and experience anxiety around their loyalty to the Crown. There were black loyalists, of course, but I doubt that’s what she’s talking about. I suspect this reviewer worries that WHITE Canadian children will be unable to identify with the African American protagonists, and will therefore align themselves with the whites who aren’t even present in the novel—the British. Good grief. This reviewer gave Ship of Souls two stars out of four, yet still declared it “recommended.” Thanks.

Other African Canadian authors made more concise statements about the issue of race and reviews, so I’ll focus on them in my paper. Which it’s time to get back to…

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Today I gave my last Black History Month presentation for the Brooklyn Public Library. An auditorium full of 8th graders! Each class was named for an ivy league college, and one boy from Dartmouth came up to talk to me afterward—he had developed a sequel for SoS! “What if the netherbeings pursue Nuru into her realm, and in order to fight back, Nuru turns D and Nyla and Keem into supernatural beings, too! Then, once the netherbeings are defeated, the three kids can return to their own world but they get to keep some of their supernatural abilities!” I urged Steven to write that story himself and he said, “But that’s plagiarism.” (love this kid) “Actually, it’s called fan fiction, and it’s ok to write about other people’s characters so long as you take credit for writing it.” A writer is born!

I was quite surprised when I got home last night and found that the AmazonEncore team had sent me a bonsai tree to celebrate the publication of SoS—I know very little about bonsai trees, but figured out that this one is a braided money tree from Central America! It even came with a gold dollar coin wrapped around the trunk…

Ship of Souls has gotten two more great reviews. Our first Canadian review is up at Amy Reads and Em at Love YA Lit had this to say:

At just 132 pages, Elliott does an impressive job creating a cast of complex and amiable characters, weaving in history, and conjuring up some magic like I’ve never seen before. I would gladly spend more time with D, Keem, and Nyla. Each are interesting, distinct characters, but even more so their chemistry and their growing camaraderie were enchanting. Elliott does a fabulous job of creating believable characters in realistic settings. In both of her urban fantasy novels, I’ve found myself intensely connected to the contemporary/realistic sections of the stories, before diving headfirst with the characters into the fantasy. In Ship of Souls, what starts off feeling like a contemporary fiction novel, eventually turns into an all-out fantasy adventure. The story is fast-paced, with short chapters and lots of action, making it a great choice for struggling readers or those craving a quick read that doesn’t lack in quality and depth. While Ship of Souls is a bit more MG than YA, with it’s complex character development, strong sense of place, beautifully imagined fantasy, and unique feel, it should find a home with many ages of reader.

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Ship of Souls has been getting some great reviews! We have a five-star review from the Vine program on Amazon.com, and Edi over at Crazy Quilts has paired her wonderful review with the top ten songs on the German pop chart!

Some authors are writers while others are storytellers. I think this short novel attests to Elliott’s skills as both. The events flow flawlessly, without contradictions or miscues. Historic elements are woven into the story from the American Revolution to 9/11 which speak to the presence of so many ethnic groups in the creation of America and the historic misinterpretation of their contribution. Water, trees and birds are magical elements of nature that serve as portals between the physical world and other dimensions. And then there’s Nyla and Keem, two supporting characters who are developed so well that we cannot help but wonder what more will happen to them, alone and/or together.

We also got a thoughtful review from Lyn Miller-Lachmann over at The Pirate Tree:

In contrast to many works of urban fantasy, Elliott concentrates less on world building and more on building the reader’s emotional attachment to her characters, particularly her protagonist, D. If more authors of fantasy did the same, I would read more fantasy…This story will appeal especially to middle grade boys, who’ll appreciate both the fast-paced adventure and the fact that the author has created a safe space to explore emotional issues experienced by many of her target readers.

The Pirate Tree will also run an interview with me later in the week. There was one 3-star review on Amazon from a teacher who said her reluctant reader couldn’t get into it—and she didn’t care for the book herself. Makes you wonder about the connection between a teacher’s impression of a book and its chances in the hands of her students…

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