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Archive for the ‘self-publishing’ Category

IMG_1767There’s a reading tonight hosted by the Pan-African Writers Association (PAWA) but I was simply too tired to attend; I think jet lag is finally setting in so I opted to stay at the hotel, order room service, and work on my presentation on “configuring the past and present.” I can hear a preacher screaming “Hallelujah!” outside—there must be a church nearby. I’m watching Ghana TV and a women’s show, The Standpoint, just ended—the Oprah equivalent Dr. Gifty had guests and experts on to discuss life after your husband’s death. This has been a day of death, in a way—today’s program ended with an emotional tribute to Jayne Cortez, OWWA co-founder who passed suddenly last December. I only met Jayne twice but it was clear to me that she was a formidable woman. I was surprised to find myself shedding a few tears during the tribute; I watched Ama Ata Aidoo being helped to her feet—someone holding her cane, someone else holding the mic so her hands were free to hold the bowl—and then she spoke in Fante because she knew Jayne wouldn’t want a libation prayer to be said in English. She had to pause midway to pull a kerchief from her blouse and it was very moving to see this elder weeping for her lost friend. They met in the 1970s so that’s a friendship that lasted nearly fifty years, and I couldn’t help but think to myself, “That will be us someday.” I feel so blessed to be here with my close friends—my life has been enriched and enlarged because of these incredible black women who don’t have the anxiety issues that make me too risk-averse and too content to stay at home. Would I have come to Ghana without them? Maybe, but I’m grateful that they continue to “lift me as they climb.”

IMG_1753I don’t think I can do justice to the four panels I attended today. The first was on getting your work out into the world, and moderator Tara Betts (right, with Camille Dungy) drew rich insights from the three panelists. Latasha Diggs (below right, with Gabrielle Civil)reminded us that it’s not *always* about the book—having one doesn’t make you legitimate, doing the WORK and getting it out there (by yourself, if necessary) is what matters most along with building community. How can you ward off competition between you and your fellow writers? Hang with musicians and other artists working in different media. Kadija George Sesay, publisher of Sable magazine, urged self-publishers to register their publications and get an ISBN/ISSN; that means your work can be catalogued, archived, and then you can be certain that you’re IMG_1754leaving a record behind.

IMG_1759During the brief break Michelle Martin and I went down to the book vendors and did a bit of shopping. No more books! I think I’ve bought ten so far, mostly for my nieces and nephew, though I got a couple of novels for myself today. It’s so wonderful to have the authors sign their books, too. I had lunch with Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro and was thrilled to get an English translation of her novel, Carapace. She and her partner Zulma also wrote out a list of Afro-Latino women writers whose work is available in English. I want to add more Latina content to my Black Women in the Americas class. I was disturbed to learn that Yolanda and Zulma were harassed and threatened in the Osu market earlier this week, but it was wonderful to learn that their homeland of Puerto Rico recently passed legislation protecting the rights of LGBT people. Maybe the jetlag is making me emotional or maybe it’s just being in the presence of so many amazing women—I feel protective of everyone! Protective and powerless at the same time. I should switch gears and go work on my talk because these are the issues I want to address: is it enough to rewrite history, to write black women back into the historical record through art and/or scholarship, or must we MAKE history ourselves? I feel like history is made by women who are bolder than me, but maybe that’s just what I want to believe…

IMG_1745The afternoon panel on Africa, the diaspora, and children’s literature was great. One Ghanaian panelist talked about the need to ensure that girls on the continent have access to education—whether it’s in a traditional school, via cell phone, or on the radio. Another Nigerian panelist, Akachi Ezeigbo, talked about her decision to write girls as heroines in her books for young readers, and Michelle Martin captivated the audience with her slideshow and talk on hair politics in children’s picture books. Deborah Ahenkorah doubled as panelist and moderator and had a chance to share her innovative strategies for getting books into the hands of Ghanaian kids. “If we can send a man to Mars, we can ensure that Ghanaian children have culturally relevant, quality books!” Stay tuned for an interview with Deborah in the next day or two…

The fourth panel was intense; four writers talked about their activism and the ways they channel the ancestors in order to better serve their community around issues like environmental justice and domestic violence. You can learn more about the important, community-based projects coordinated by Angelique Nixon’s nonprofit Ayiti Resurrect. Moderator (and friend!) Ira Dworkin moderated and gave us all an update on the challenges facing women writers in Egypt. You can learn more about the threats facing Mona Prince here.

Ok, time to turn in. I haven’t actually left the hotel compound yet so I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s lineup, which includes a performance by Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Rosamond S. King, and Gabrielle Civil. We start here and then finish at the seashore…

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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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untitledKelbian Noel was born on a warm June night in Moncton, New Brunswick. From a very young age, she loved to read. She found herself engulfed in novels by Janette Oke and L.M. Montgomery, but never seemed to find herself in the pages. At the age of 11 she declared she would simply have to rewrite them and become the youngest author in history. Decades later, having studied writing in college and pursued it as a career, she rediscovered her hobby. She is excited to introduce The Witchbound Series to the world with hopes readers will love the beginning of this saga as much as she does.

Kelbian lives in Toronto, Ontario with her two children. She is the founder of Diverse Pages and blogs there often in the company of some pretty cool people.

Kelbian’s first two novels are available *now* under special pricing. On April 1, Sprung will be available for $0.99, and Roots will continue to be free until the end of the day! Visit the author’s website for more information.

1. Your Witchbound Series is quite ambitious—can you tell us about the first two books and what we can expect from the other three?
untitledWitchbound tells the story of four very different girls. The five-book series follows each character as she discovers the truth about her magical destiny, how it affects her and the people around her. What I love most about writing this series is that it focuses on people with very different backgrounds and outlines how, despite those variances, they’re exactly the same.

Re-released on March 15, 2013, ROOTS (book one) introduces Baltimore Land, a biracial (African American and Native American) girl who, for the past two years, has lived in Utah with her Wiccan parents. She’s deeply averse to her parents’ religion and believes the only purpose Wicca serves is to make her life miserable.

After she receives a message from her twin brother, who disappeared prior to the move, she runs off to find and ultimately rescue him. But she soon discovers her exile to that small Utah town was the direct result of who she is, what she can do, and the danger it could bring to her and the lives of her family and friends. Baltimore must learn to embrace her identity in order to keep herself safe, but it may mean letting her brother go for good.

untitledSPRUNG (book two) will be released on April 1, 2013. In Solana Beach, California we meet Skye Jackson, a seventeen-year-old girl who believes everything Baltimore never did. Ever since she was introduced to it, magic has come easily to Skye. She uses it for everything from extending her curfew to her personal GPS. But when she decides to teach a guy a lesson in order to avenge her friend, she comes to the realization that there’s a lot more to her powers than she bargained for.

In a race to fix her mistakes, Skye stumbles across a family secret which reveals a twisted destiny that may mean giving up magic forever.

SMOLDER (book three) is set for release this coming August. At least that’s my hope! Currently, there is a contest taking place on my website. Readers can take a stab at guessing the name of the next Elemental. So I won’t reveal it here, but I will tell you a little bit about Elemental #3.

She’s a Latino orphan from Brooklyn, New York. After graduating from high school, she decides to spend the summer learning more about her family. Her magical journey leads her to a historical building, a long-lost family member, and a destiny that makes her more than she ever believed she could be.

The fourth book in the series is entitled SURFACE, and takes place in Hawaii. The fourth Elemental is a bit of a know-it-all. Well versed in the girls’ destiny and purpose, she leads them to their final battle.

The fifth book is still untitled but recaps the first four stories from the point of view of Ramon, a character readers will come to know well throughout the series.

2. Tell us about your childhood in the Maritimes. How did you evolve into the writer you are today?

I like to think of the story of my life as both unusual and interesting. I was born in Moncton, New Brunswick to Guyanese immigrants. My father was a Baptist minister who first settled in New Brunswick to study at St. Thomas University and what is now known as Crandall University. We lived there for the first few years of my life.

I fondly remember, and still visit, the tiny town of McKee’s Mills, but vaguely remember time spent in Turtle Creek, New Brunswick and then on Ben Jackson Road in Nova Scotia. One of my earliest memories is when we lived in Scot’s Bay, Nova Scotia. I can still recall that little house on the hill, with a mile long driveway, tire swing, and cows in the pasture beside it. I was four or five when we moved.

LockeportWe ended up in Lockeport, Nova Scotia after that, where Dad was called to serve at the Baptist church in the middle of town. We were the only black family in Lockeport, as far as I knew. Those were some formidable years, but still filled with great memories. Our house overlooked the harbor and had a huge forest of bamboo-like plants we called Roman Sailors in the back yard. We’d go crashing through those in the summertime, playing “scouts” after hours of riding our bikes around town. It was that time (mid-eighties) and that kind of town where kids could pretty much roam free.

Memories of Lockeport are still firmly engrained in my mind: the “haunted” house just up the street, my first teacher (Ms. Nickerson), first best friends (Sarah and Gina), the beach, the waves, the smell of the salt water. Of course,those are accompanied with some less desirable ones. Like the first time I was told I was different from the other kids. My lips were bigger, my skin darker, and my parents talked funny. I was called the “N” word on the first day of school. I was five and didn’t even know what it meant.

Like most ministers’ kids, I had to learn to adjust and adapt to new surroundings very quickly. The years from age eight to fifteen were spent in rural Nova Scotia. In the small town of Morristown in the Annapolis Valley we were again the only black family around for miles. And there were still formidable experiences to be had. But, for the most part, the people in that town were accepting and I felt like I belonged. This is where I first discovered my love of writing. I spent hours in a cow pasture adjacent to our house, behind the church and right next to a graveyard. There was an oak tree in the middle of the field and I’d sit under it with a blue writing folder, loose leaf paper, and a pen.

untitledMy mother had been selling Christian books through one of those mail order companies. That’s when I discovered Janette Oke “Christian” romance novels. My sister introduced me to L.M. Montgomery. Every Anne of Green Gables book she brought home, I read too. I also read The Babysitter’s Club and R.L. Stine (my first intro to Speculative Fiction). But in all of those series, except for one (thank you for Jessi, Ann M. Martin!), there was no one who looked like me. I decided I’d just have to write those kinds of stories myself.

After we moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, I was excited to finally be around people like me. Only after years of living like and amongst “the other half,” I didn’t fit in. I was the Black girl who acted like she was white. That was fun. But I didn’t let it get me down. I was who I was and I liked it.

My first job was in the Halifax North Memorial Public Library where my love of books was fed on a weekly basis. I couldn’t get enough. But for years I forgot about my writing endeavors until I started studying it in college. In my first year, I was introduced to the works of Octavia E. Butler (who quickly became my favorite author) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Still, it wasn’t until my final year during a Literary Theory class that I picked up a pen again and started writing a story, based on a dream, about werewolves in San Francisco. Since then, I’ve never stopped.

ABOUT KELBIAN

Name: Kelbian Noel

Hometown: Toronto, Ontario

Education: B.A. Professional Writing & Communications Studies

School: York University

Major: Professional Writing

Minor: Communications

Occupation: Author & Freelance Writer/Editor

FAVORITE THINGS

Books: Kindred, Blood and Chocolate

Writers: Octavia E. Butler

Quote: There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” ~ Maya Angelou

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It actually feels like spring here in Toronto—for once I’m not shivering through my visit, though I am wearing a hoodie I borrowed from my cousin. She’s out having Easter dinner with her in-laws so I thought I’d take a moment to blog. I’ve got way too much sugar in my system; in addition to Easter chocolate we’ve been snacking on English toffee and vintage candy from our youth, and yesterday I had the ultimate butter tart (no raisins!) at a cafe where I met African Canadian author Kelbian Noel. I’ll be posting an interview with Kelbian tomorrow to coincide with the release date of her second speculative YA novel, Sprung. Despite my sugar consumption, right now I’m feeling bitter and here’s why: Kelbian and I spent most of our time together bemoaning the difficulty of getting published while black in Canada. We also tried to develop some strategies for breaking through the color barrier, and one idea was to propose a panel to the coordinators of an established literary event. There’s an annual book festival in Toronto called Word on the Street and these are the stats they proudly share in their brochure.

images2012 Festival Demographics

  • 65% Female, 34% Male
  • 63% of our visitors have an annual household income of $50,000 and greater
  • 28.3% of our visitors have an annual household income of $100,000 and greater
  • Our visitors come from a range of age demographics (total number of visitors 215,000):

Under 17 – 18% of visitors

18-24 years – 14% of visitors

25-34 years – 20% of visitors

35-44 years – 16% of visitors

45-54 years – 13% of visitors

55+ years – 20% of visitors

  • 72% of our visitors have completed college/university
  • 33% of our visitors have completed postgraduate studies (This is up from 30.9% in 2011)
  • 73% of our visitors are from Metropolitan Toronto
  • 27% of our visitors are tourists from outside the GTA
  • 80% of our visitors describe themselves as avid readers
  • 85% of our visitors consider The Word On The Street a key cultural event

Now, close your eyes and imagine what this book festival looks like. A third of the visitors are middle-aged; the vast majority of visitors are college-educated and a third have advanced degrees; nearly two-thirds are middle class and one third of their visitors make more than a hundred grand a year. Kids account for a fifth of the visitors, but if they’re brought by these highly educated, wealthy adults, chances are they aren’t struggling with literacy. In case you don’t know the city of Toronto, let me share some other stats:

Toronto is one of the world’s most multicultural cities. In 2004, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) ranked Toronto second, behind Miami, Florida, in its list of the world’s cities with the largest percentage of foreign-born population. Miami’s foreign-born population is dominated by those of Cuban and Latin American descent, unlike Toronto’s foreign-born population, which is not dominated by any particular ethnic group.

The 2006 census indicates 46.9% of Toronto’s population is composed of visible minorities; 1,162,630 non-Whites, or 23% of Canada’s visible minority population, live in Toronto; of this, approximately 70% are of Asian ancestry. Annually, almost half of all immigrants to Canada settle in the Greater Toronto Area. In March 2005, Statistics Canada projected that the combined visible minority proportion will comprise a majority in both Toronto and Vancouver by 2012.

  • 2006: 46.9% (South Asian: 12.0%, Chinese: 11.4%, Black 8.4%, Filipino 4.1%, Arab/West Asian: 2.6%, Latin American 2.6%, Southeast Asian 1.5%, Korean 1.4%, multiple 1.3%, not included elsewhere 1.0%, Japanese 0.5%)

Poverty is also on the rise in Toronto, with almost 25% of the population living hand to mouth:

Toronto’s poverty rates are higher than the provincial and national average. Overall, recent immigrants fare the worse with nearly half (46 per cent) in poverty. One in three children (under age 15) is living in poverty and 31 per cent of youths (15 to 24). Housing costs is the big driver, with almost 47 per cent of all tenants paying more than 30 per cent of their income on rent. Another 23 per cent pay an astonishing 50 per cent or more on rent.

So. Let’s revisit the stats for Word on the Street. I’ve never attended or presented at this event, but feedback from attendees seems overwhelmingly positive. Yet does this literary event accurately reflect the 21st-century city of Toronto? Are they actually achieving their objectives if their attendees represent such a small (and privileged) slice of the population? Do you think their featured authors reflect and/or are likely to appeal to people of color (who make up 50% of the city’s population)?

Mission

The Word On The Street Toronto is a non-profit organization that celebrates Canadian reading and writing, and champions literacy, primarily through a free, annual outdoor festival.

Objectives

  • To ensure that the people of Toronto know about the annual festival, and value it as having the best and broadest offerings within the Canadian publishing industry.
  • To ensure that The Word On The Street helps Toronto become 100% literate through its effective support for literacy awareness and programs.
  • To ensure that The Word On The Street Toronto is a valuable and vital event for the Canadian publishing industry and a top choice for Canadian authors, publishers and booksellers.

Right now I’m thinking it’s not worth my time to approach the organizers of this event. I may send them an email, however, and hip them to Pop Up—a nonprofit in the UK that brings literature to communities that are too often ignored by big splashy book festivals…

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cv041968My grandmother was an ardent admirer of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A “colored” woman raised in Canada to pass for white, my grandmother proudly displayed a framed copy of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the wall of her home. As a teenager in Toronto I took a class on American history in order to learn more about the “Negro” ancestors my grandmother so often discussed, and I was devastated when she made a gift of the speech to my frivolous older sister. I was the one teaching the Civil Rights Movement to my high school classmates; I was the one who could recite portions of the speech by heart. My grandmother did give me her carefully preserved copy of Life magazine and though I admired Mrs. King’s sorrowful yet elegant profile, I still harbored resentment over the allocation of the speech. That piece of parchment went from a place of honor in my grandparents’ manse to the wall of my sister’s apartment; it hung next to the stereo, which blared lyrics by Jay-Z that would have made Mrs. King blanch. It took years for me to realize that my grandmother gave Dr. King’s speech to the granddaughter who needed it most. I wrongly thought that my investment in social justice entitled me to inherit the framed speech, but my grandmother knew that I was ready for something more and she was right—by my last year of college I was critiquing the “I Have a Dream” speech in the campus newspaper.

BirdwinnerSince penning that editorial twenty years ago I have worked to develop my skills as a black feminist cultural critic. In 1994 I reversed the migration that brought my African American ancestors to Canada in 1820. Unfortunately my grandmother passed in 2002, months before I earned my PhD in American Studies from NYU; my dissertation, which focused on representations of racial violence in African American literature, was dedicated to her. I currently teach courses on race, gender, and sexuality in the Center for Ethnic Studies at BMCC, a community college in lower Manhattan that serves mostly immigrant and working-class students of color. Many are reluctant readers and so I’ve had to develop innovative ways of introducing them to black literature, which they wrongly expect to be irrelevant, outdated, and uninteresting. In addition to my teaching I’ve published scholarly essays, short fiction, and poetry in various anthologies, and my plays have been staged in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland. I’ve also published three books for young readers—one of which, BIRD, won numerous awards after its publication in 2008, including a Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent for the illustrator, Shadra Strickland. Though she hoped at least one of her grandchildren would follow in her footsteps and become a preacher, overall I think my grandmother would approve.

imagesI speak to hundreds of school children every year and my author presentation always begins with the shiny stickers on the cover of BIRD. Here in the US, children always know who Coretta Scott King was and they know that, like her husband, she believed in justice and equality for all. We talk about the way awards draw attention to a particular book and often ensure that it won’t go out of print. Then I ask the children to guess how many books are published in the US each year. Once we settle on the figure (about 5,000), I ask the children to guess what percentage of those books have black authors. They’re natural optimists, children. Most of the students I meet attend majority-black schools—urban schools that are just as segregated as those that predate the Civil Rights Movement—and it’s not uncommon for them to have black-authored books in the classroom. So there are always gasps of amazement when I hold up three fingers and inform them that less than 3% of all the children’s books published each year are written by authors who look like them. I add that Asian American, Latino, and Native American authors each represent less than 1% of the total, leaving 95% of all books for children written by members of one racial group. “Does that sound fair to you?” I ask and invariably I hear a chorus of indignant NOs in response.

todd-duncan-coretta-scott-king-and-rosa-parks_i-G-65-6570-AZ82100ZWhen I saw the list of CSK Award recipients on Monday, I wondered what Coretta Scott King would think. I never had the privilege of meeting Mrs. King and all I know about the award is what I’ve read on the ALA website. I know that in 2009 the CSK Book Award celebrated its fortieth anniversary, and I do believe that black authors and illustrators are better off today than they were in the “all-white world of children’s books” of the 1970s. But when we look at the small number of authors and illustrators who seem to win a CSK Award year after year after year, are we looking at a picture of real diversity? Is the award helping to increase the overall pool of black authors and illustrators, or is it merely upholding the status quo by feeding a few big fish in a very small pond? Publishers no doubt realize the committee’s seeming preference for books about Dr. King and Rosa Parks and (a few) other historical figures. Does an editor’s desire to win yet another shiny sticker deter her from publishing other authors of other kinds of books that also “demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values?”

The soft-minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.

Self-published author and quilter Kyra Hicks has conducted an analysis of the award recipients and her findings indicate that the past four decades have produced a sort of winners club, an African American artistic elite whose insider status affords them creative opportunities too often denied their emerging and/or aspiring peers. It would seem as if the John Steptoe Award for New Talent, “occasionally given for young authors or illustrators who demonstrate outstanding promise at the beginning of their careers,” was developed to help remedy this situation and yet it was not given out in 2011 or 2012, which puzzles me. The African American authors and illustrators at The Brown Bookshelf annually publish a list of 28 contributors to the field of black children’s literature. Is it possible that the CSK Book Awards Committee found no one worthy of recognition for two consecutive years?

Perhaps it is easier to look backward at the past, which is familiar and safe, than it is to look forward where new possibilities—frightening to some—extend across the shifting terrain of the future. Yet the recent presidential election revealed the danger (and ultimate futility) of holding onto a romanticized version of the past, and the 2008 election of Barack Obama demonstrated that eventually the old guard must yield to the new. The publishing world is gripped by upheaval right now and many steadfastly cling to old models for fear of embracing innovation and developing new traditions that will respond to and reflect the realities of the twenty-first century. With so-called minorities expected to make up the majority of the US population in thirty years (minority babies already constitute the majority), what can the CSK Book Awards Committee do to ensure that equity—an ideal cherished by Dr. and Mrs. King—is not undermined by the children’s publishing industry? If 95% of children’s book authors were men, white women across the country would mobilize to create change. But where is the outrage over racial dominance in the children’s literature community?

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

In the past I have defended the CSK Award against claims that writers of all races should be eligible. With less than 3% of the publishing pie, though we constitute 13% of the US population, I felt that black authors and illustrators deserved something to call their own. Today I am less convinced of the relevance of the CSK Awards and wonder if I ought to revise the portion of my author presentation that claims the award reflects the values of Dr. and Mrs. King. The award-granting process is often controversial and generally shrouded in secrecy, though a 2010 article in School Library Journal lifted the veil on the Caldecott Medal. The CSK Book Awards Committee considers all genres, I believe, but the Caldecott focuses on one genre illustrated books only and still jury members can expect to review more than 700 titles each year. I am not entirely convinced of the link between quantity and quality in books, but there is something to be said for competition and I think creativity truly flourishes when more (and more kinds of) people are invited to the drawing table. As television’s numerous talent competitions demonstrate, the US has a deep pool of gifted individuals who are simply waiting for an opportunity to shine.

Last year I received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to write a family memoir about my African American ancestors; I am anxious to explore the social pressures that first led them to flee slavery in the US only to further escape into whiteness in order to avoid racism in Canada. In my country of origin, an average of two black authors manage to publish a book for children each year, making a race-based award like the CSK impossible. Things are better here in the US, which is why I chose to relocate, but after more than a decade trying to publish my twenty manuscripts for young readers, I’m ready to throw in the towel and move on. I am close to completing two young adult novels, both speculative fiction, and once they’re done I plan to leave the world of children’s literature behind. I am disappointed by the complacency of so many individuals and institutions that claim to have children’s best interest at heart, yet I am encouraged by the fact that a small group of activists is currently in the process of reviving/reinventing the Council on Interracial Books for Children. I will do what I can to assist with the launch of this endeavor, and I hope its emphasis on social justice will truly honor the transformative vision of Dr. and Mrs. King.

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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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This past summer I had the chance to share my beloved Brooklyn with the amazing educator/blogger/author Ed Spicer. Filming in Prospect Park was a bit of a challenge (we’re in the flight path of 2 major airports) but Ed still managed to make a great short film—take a look!

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That’s how I feel. Not because I attended church at 8:30 this morning for the first time in…ages. Not because my aunt keeps the TV tuned to a Christian station, so while eating the delicious black-eyed peas and rice she made especially for me, I actually heard 3 additional sermons. Not because I slept through the night without being woken by a barking dog or crowing rooster. I feel blessed because when I went for a run yesterday morning and wasn’t sure just where I was, I saw a sign that said Craddock Road and instantly oriented myself because I knew that was where my step-grandmother grew up. I feel blessed because when I step out on my terrace, I have a stunning view of Nevis Peak (and a flamboyant tree)—but am not overcome with guilt when I choose to spend the afternoon indoors working on a novel set in Brooklyn. I don’t feel rushed this time around; nothing feels as urgent (because I know I’ll be back soon) and more things seem possible. Last night, after I facilitated an informal workshop for parents at the Prospect Community Center, one of the participants thanked me for coming and concluded her remarks with, “Welcome home!” And I blurted out that this trip has truly made me feel at home here in Nevis—I’m still an outsider, I’m still learning the history and the culture and the customs. But I’m also being myself. And when you can be who you are—your true self—and feel that you are accepted by others, that’s when you know you’re home. In that community center, when I was surrounded by mothers who formed a book club in order to learn how to develop a love of books in their children, I felt like I had something to offer. I brought the books I purchased in NYC and spread them out on two tables; then I asked each person to take no more than one minute to look the books over and select one that jumped out at her. It was so interesting to see their selections—and flattering, too, since three of them selected books I’d written and self-published! We talked about how to extract meaning from a book cover or title in order to attract a child’s attention, and we talked about how to read so that the child’s curiosity is piqued. Then I handed out copies of Ship of Souls and read part of a chapter aloud. The women then voted to make SoS their first book club selection (bumping The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to September)! I think I’m going to start a book drive. I’m hoping all my author-friends out there will be willing to donate a copy of their book to the fledgling children’s library at Prospect Community Center. We need art up on the walls, and shelves installed, and books to put on the shelves…and a few computers couldn’t hurt. Sunday is a day of rest but tomorrow there will be work to do! I’m giving three presentations at the credit union across the street from my guesthouse. Even if only a couple of kids show up, I’ll still feel blessed because I’ve found a way to be useful to my new community. [Photograph of the Nevis Book Fair by Ryan D. Maynard/ Refined Digital Media]

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ImageI try to avoid crowds as much as possible but it’s hard to stay away from a book festival—especially when it’s in Harlem and the street is filled with black folks who love to read, write, and talk about literature! I watched some of the Schomburg panels on C-Span before hopping on the train to give my own presentation at the Young Readers Pavilion, which was once again expertly run by the Hudsons. I read from Ship of Souls and took some questions from the young readers in the audience, and then had time to catch the second half of the panel on getting black boys to read, which was moderated by Wade Hudson. I don’t like crowds, but large gatherings do increase the likelihood of meeting folks you haven’t seen in a while. It was great to catch up with Carol-Ann Hoyte, poet, librarian, and editor/publisher of the forthcoming anthology, And the Crowd Goes Wild! Carol-Ann shared some of the sports poems with kids at the Young Readers Pavilion and she’ll be back in NYC this fall for an official launch party so stay tuned. I also met Donald Peebles, author and librarian-in-training; we talked about the importance of male role models, the need for more black male voices in YA lit, and the many different family configurations that make black boys LOVE to read. That was an issue that came up in the panel: what’s the link between fathers and better literacy among boys? I’m not a fan of the “just add MAN” remedy to what ails the black community, though I absolutely believe that fathers are important to boys and girls. But the mere presence of men doesn’t solve any problem—it’s their involvement in the family that matters and their commitment to promoting literacy by reading with and around their kids.

Later that night I had a Skype conversation with my cousin and we realized that our “fun” summer reads actually reflect our scholarship…I just finished a novel on racial violence in the post-Emancipation South, and she was reading a novel about the body’s memory of trauma. I’d been planning to self-publish my novella about black children and AIDS this fall, but somehow that conversation gave me a sharp nudge. I worked on it past midnight and ordered a proof this morning. There is a major AIDS conference in D.C. right now, and a Canadian friend sent a team from her Toronto clinic, Women’s Health in Women’s Hands. When I visited that clinic a couple of years ago, one of the researchers asked me why I didn’t write about the impact of HIV/AIDS on the black community. I assured her that I *had* written about it but couldn’t find a publisher. Well, what am I waiting for? The community is still in crisis and waiting ten years hasn’t helped matters any. I hope to have An Angel for Mariqua out by my birthday in late October. This is just a demo cover I made with the CreateSpace template.

Christmas is coming, but nine-year-old Mariqua Thatcher isn’t looking forward to the holidays. Mama’s gone and Gramma doesn’t know what to do with her feisty granddaughter. Almost every day Mariqua gets into a fight at school and no one seems to understand how she feels inside. But things start to change when a mysterious street vendor gives Mariqua a beautifully carved wooden angel as a gift. Each night Mariqua whispers in the angel’s ear and soon her wishes start to come true! Mariqua begins to do better at school and she even wins an important role in the church pageant. But best of all, Mariqua becomes friends with Valina Patterson, a teenager who lives in Mariqua’s building. Valina helps Mariqua learn how to control her anger, and reminds her pretend little sister that “everyone has a story to tell.” Their friendship is tested, however, when Mariqua discovers that Valina has been keeping a secret about her own mother. Can the magic angel make things better?

A touching story about love, compassion, and the gift within every heart.
For children age 8+.

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I need to reboot my brain. On Thursday morning I submitted my chapter on magic in NYC parks—it still needs work, but it was time to let go so that I could turn my attention to the five other projects I hope to complete this summer. On Thursday afternoon I ordered a final proof of One Eye Open and started the e-book conversion process. I’ve had “coming soon!” on the Rosetta Press blog for over a year now, and I think it’s finally time to let the book live, warts and all. That night I started working on my slideshow for The Hummingbird’s Tongue; I’ve been invited to attend the inaugural Nevis Book Fair on July 27, and this time I’ll be presenting before children and adults. The director of library services kindly helped me find a guesthouse in town, so I’ll be spending another week in Nevis at the end of the month. That got the wheels turning—I’m supposed to be working on The Deep (Nyla’s story), but instead I’ve been designing a logo and blog for Black Dog Arts. Ultimately I hope to open an arts center in Nevis, but for now I think maybe I’ll start a nonprofit and try to collaborate with existing institutions on the island. Yesterday I heard from the SKN Culture office and my request to participate in the UNESCO Slave Route Project has been forwarded to the minister of education. Maybe I can meet some administrators while I’m in Nevis later this month. Once I get my letter of good conduct from the NYPD next week, my citizenship application will be complete—another thing I can do while I’m there. And since my friend Rosa will be in Antigua at the same time, I may be able to fly over from Nevis and inquire about my grandmother’s alleged institutionalization there. More digging…

Now I think I’m ready to turn my attention back to The Deep. Though I just started reading Leonard Pitts Jr.’s Freeman, so maybe it makes more sense to work on Judah’s Tale. The summer ends in six weeks! I was fussing and fuming about that fact yesterday, but it makes more sense to just get busy and make the most of the time that’s left. And accept that everything I hoped to accomplish this summer may get done later rather than sooner.

 

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