Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category


duboisOn Thursday I was sitting at my desk listening to NPR when they announced Attorney General Eric Holder’s resignation. I felt my eyes filling with tears and immediately thought of W.E.B. DuBois’ decision to surrender his U.S. passport and move to Ghana after a lifetime of fighting for social justice. Holder insists he hasn’t been pushed out by Republicans who have been calling for his resignation for years; it seems his wife was worried about his health and God knows his body must be weary from fighting the good fight for 6 years in D.C. Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time inside my head and when I return to the real world I see or hear an echo—a ghost. Holder conjures DuBois, Viola Davis fights back when the NY Times calls her ugly and I think about Audre Lorde’s important reminder: “For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call america, we have had to learn this first and most vital lesson––that we were never meant to survive. Not as human beings.” Yesterday I met a friend and her mother to tour the beautiful new center at Weeksville. The corner lot that was once a stretch of grass has been completely transformed and yet I remembered my former self standing outside the old chain link fence, gazing at the Hunterfly Road houses and dreaming up A Wish After Midnight back in 2001. I remembered taking the very first printed copy of the novel to the women who worked there and never getting a response; sending more copies in the years that followed and still nothing. Yesterday we took a tour and our graduate student guide was so warm and enthusiastic, engaged in her own study of textiles from the 19th century. Then we went over to the new building and the new executive director came up to us and asked, “Are you all teachers?” She gave us educational material, offered us some cookies, and seemed genuinely excited when I offered to send her a copy of Wish. In November I’ll be on an Afrofuturism panel, which has me thinking about the blues motif of “repetition with variation.” We do seem to be trapped in a cycle…another Black teenager was shot dead by cops in Louisiana. The cops who shot a Black man holding a toy gun in Walmart won’t face charges. Two young Black women were killed in Florida—left bound and naked on the side of the road—and no one’s rallying or rioting. But these ghosts and echoes aren’t only proof of repetition (the more things change…). They’re opportunities for variation, for creating a different outcome or a different response to a recurring event. If you face rejection over and over again, you can choose/try not to internalize the implied message of worthlessness. As Viola Davis explains,

I’ve heard that statement [less classically beautiful] my entire life. Being a dark-skinned black woman, you heard it from the womb. And “classically not beautiful” is a fancy term for saying ugly. And denouncing you. And erasing you. Now … it worked when I was younger. It no longer works for me now. It’s about teaching a culture how to treat you. Because at the end of the day, you define you.

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indexIt’s the first full day of fall and I’m in hibernation mode. I finished a grant application yesterday, which means I woke up today with nothing pressing to do. I decided to see a matinee of The Skeleton Twins and loved it, but found myself wondering whether people from functional families would appreciate it, too. The film is about two siblings who haven’t spoken in 10 years; just as the sister is about to commit suicide she gets a call from a hospital in LA—her brother tried to slit his wrists. We learn that their father took his own life, too, and their mother is a narcissistic hippie who blows in and out of their lives whenever it suits her. When I read the summary this morning, I knew it was my kind of film. It’s fairly accurate to say I’m estranged from my siblings and we haven’t really spent time together since my father died in 2004. Last weekend my cousin came to town and I spent a wonderful afternoon in Brooklyn with him and his girlfriend. At one point he told me about our thirteen-year-old cousin who’s just starting to play football in Toronto. I said, “It’s too bad I’m not in touch with my brother—he plays for the CFL.” And my cousin (who’s much younger than me) didn’t even know who I was talking about. He’s not alone—there are plenty of people in my life today who have no idea that I have a younger brother and sister. I have an older brother and sister, too, and most of my friends know about them, though some people assume I’m an only child because I pretty much operate that way. When I went through all my unpublished manuscripts this summer I was struck by how family-centered the stories are; my father shows up again and again, and there are almost always grandparents there to comfort and guide the child narrator. Not a lot of stories about mothers, though the one I’m readying for publication now (Billie’s Blues) starts with a single mother heading off to night school, which was my experience as a child. I write about familial dysfunction in my novels but not in the picture books; when you’re young, you need to believe that your family is your sanctuary. While my cousin was in town we reminisced about our large extended family and in The Skeleton Twins the siblings do the same—they laugh about the past, even the therapist they had to see after their father’s suicide. But there’s a lot of sadness in their lives, too. That’s what I miss most about having siblings—the way they served as witnesses to the major and minor events of our shared life. I have such vivid memories of my childhood and can’t really share (or verify) them because my older siblings are either out of touch or forward-looking only. My younger siblings weren’t even born until I was a teenager and though we were close when they were young, they feel like strangers now. I came home from the film and found a message on Facebook from my little brother. He’s in Hong Kong and wanted my mailing address. I’ve stopped asking or even hoping for a “normal” relationship with him. If one email a year is what I get, that’s what I get. I want to talk to him about Ferguson and everything that’s going on in the NFL, but my brother doesn’t want to have those kinds of conversations with me. It’s strange to be bound to people who are so distant. But someday they may need a witness and turn back to me, though my siblings tend not to trust my version of events…

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Fantasy vs. Reality

coloring-pages4-231x300Yesterday was a big day! Print copies of The Girl Who Swallowed the Sun finally arrived, we launched Kid Lit EQUALITY, and my latest Huffington Post essay went up. First things first: head over to the KLE website and click on DOWNLOADS; Maya Gonzalez has created the most beautiful posters that you can print out and share with kids and/or adults. I’m tempted to send the link to those white women teachers in Staten Island who wore NYPD t-shirts on the first day of school…

For now I’ll just share some of my HuffPo article—I hope you’ll read the whole essay and share with others:

Lots of people clamor for greater diversity in kid lit but remain silent whenever another Black teenager is shot down — Ramarley, Trayvon, Jordan, Renisha, and now Michael Brown. They cling to the fantasy that white supremacy has shaped every US institution except the publishing industry. They look at the reality of racial dominance in children’s literature and pretend that the innocence ascribed to white children extends equally to Black children. At a moment when 75 percent of whites have no minority friends, the need for diverse children’s literature (which can foster cross-cultural understanding at an early age) is greater than ever.

The Kid Lit Equality movement asks people to stand up and speak out about the ways our community serves — or could better serve — youth who are marginalized in our society and then under- and/or misrepresented in children’s literature. Some of us are traditionally published authors and some of us have started our own presses in order to create a wider range of stories that reflect these kids’ diverse realities.

Have you seen Maya’s video? It’s powerful:

Have you seen Elizabeth Bluemle’s latest article over at Shelftalker? How can she best help emerging writers of color? Add your ideas in the comments section…

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Black Youth Matter!

black-youth-matter-featuredScorpios aren’t keen on collaboration, but I feel so honored to be partnering with Maya Gonzalez on a new project: Kid Lit EQUALITY. This was a very stressful summer, and it was frustrating to hear silence from so-called allies in the kid lit community as the crisis unfolded in Ferguson, MO after the police shooting of Black teen Michael Brown. In August Maya asked me to join her in starting a conversation about police brutality and we decided to launch a video campaign. Maya’s partner, Matthew, has set up this great website and you can also find the videos on our Youtube channel. But the best part is that Maya has created 8 10 stunning illustrations that you can DOWNLOAD and distribute to kids (or color them in yourself!). We’re still sending out invitations so stay tuned—more testimonials will be added to the website in the days to come.

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The anniversary of 9/11 is a difficult day for many people who lost loved ones 13 years ago. I’ve been sharing illustrations from The Girl Who Swallowed the Sun on Facebook this week but thought I’d share one here on the blog today.

‘You’re my sunshine and I’ll always love you, Daddy,’ said Zoe.

Then she opened her heart and Zoe put the sun back in the sky where it belonged.


Illustration by Bek Millhouse

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Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000419_00052]When you make a book, you expose yourself because all stories reveal something intimate about the writer. The two books I published recently were written in 2001, and when I read them now I remember just who I was at that point in time. I’m protective of that younger self but I also need to know that my stories resonate with readers today. The initial reviews are coming in and I was so touched to read this thoughtful review at Omphaloskepsis:

The Magic Mirror is the first person narrative of Kamara’s struggle, journey and discovery, but I get the feeling hers is one that can be shared. The Magic Mirror, like the most precious of books, can be a safe, empowering, loving home to inspire one to become hopeful and courageous–to know they are beautiful.

Then this morning I heard from a friend who had taken her copy of The Magic Mirror to her son’s soccer game when this happened:

…a mother of a girl the age of the protagonist saw me and said she HAD to borrow it and will return it at this weekend’s game. I agreed, with condition we could get a quote and photo if she and her daughter like it. They both started reading it at the game and could not put it down, so I don’t doubt that the testimonial will be forthcoming.

So, clearly the cover of the book and the opening pages work to engage and hook readers.

THAT is the goal–to engage and hook readers! I’m very grateful to the readers/bloggers/reviewers who have agreed to take a look at my books. I heard from someone at the teachers union yesterday and would love to reach more educators. Onward!

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hot off the press!

They’re here! Two new illustrated books from Rosetta Press. Please share with the kids in your life and with the adults in your social networks. This has been a difficult summer, and I’m proud to share these beautiful books, which celebrate our strength and honor our ancestors.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000420_00048]The Girl Who Swallowed the Sun

On the outside, Zoe looks like an ordinary little girl, but her father knows just how special she is inside. On cloudy days, they pretend that she has swallowed the sun, and then together Zoe and her father put it back up in the sky. After the terrible events of September 11th, Zoe decides she must secretly swallow the sun both to keep it safe, and to fill the void left by her missing father. As the days pass, however, the sun inside Zoe becomes too heavy a burden to bear. With her mother’s help, Zoe learns to accept her father’s death, and she puts the sun back in the sky where it belongs.

$10.00 book/$3.99 ebook    


Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000419_00052]The Magic Mirror

When a boy at school hurts Kamara’s feelings, she goes home and asks her grandmother if the mean words are really true. Gramma tells Kamara to go upstairs and clean the old mirror in the guest room. But when Kamara starts to rub the glass, she discovers that the mirror is magical! Kamara sees brave women from the past who faced many challenges yet never gave up hope. When the historical journey ends in the twenty-first century, the mirror once again shows Kamara her own reflection. She sheds her self-doubt and instead draws strength from the courage of the women she met in the magic mirror.

$10.00 book/$3.99 ebook          

Rosetta Press titles can be ordered online, from Baker & Taylor/Ingram, and at bookstores. Learn more at www.rosettapress.wordpress.com/for-kids/


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I’ve got two new books coming out this week and so I’m thinking about how to connect with readers. A friend let me know that some bloggers were disappointed that I hadn’t reached out last spring, but my decision was based on the widespread policy of many bloggers: indie authors need not apply. If you’re a book reviewer and you would like copies of The Girl Who Swallowed the Sun and/or The Magic Mirror, feel free to leave a comment or email me at info at zettaelliott dot com. Below is a “pitch” I made to a kidlit review journal a few months back—it was warmly received so maybe a change is gonna come after all…trying to keep hope alive!
Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000420_00048]   Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000419_00052]
Treasure or Trash? The Argument for Reviewing Self-Published Books
     The bias against self-published books is not unjustified; many are poorly written and shoddily produced but when the traditional publishing industry excludes so many talented writers of color, self-publishing is often their only recourse. If we all agree that the traditional publishing industry is not as inclusive as it needs to be, is it fair punish those writers who have sought out alternative ways to tell their stories? There is a large pool of talent in this country, yet the publishing industry is only giving certain individuals the opportunity to shine.
     The marginalization of writers of color is the result of barriers placed along the path to publication for far too many talented writers. Some Black organizations recognize this reality: awards like the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the NAACP Image Award, and QBR’s Phillis Wheatley Award accept nominations of self-published books. Respected bloggers at The Pirate Tree and The Book Smugglers don’t discriminate against self-published books, and their reviews prove that indie authors can contribute a lot to the field of children’s and YA literature—if they’re given a chance.
     Members of the children’s literature community are paying close attention to the diversity debate but the industry will not change overnight. If the most trusted review outlets exclude self-published books, then they are upholding the status quo by privileging a system that clearly disadvantages writers of color. They are also denying their followers access to titles that might help to fill the “diversity gap.”
     The Brown Bookshelf recently published a series called “Making Our Own Market.” They note that although many African American authors have been publishing independently for decades, “self-publishing still brings a stigma. The books are less likely to be reviewed, considered for school and library collections, and seen as on par with traditionally published titles. At The Brown Bookshelf, we grapple with covering them too. We receive a range of work from outstanding to less than professional. But if we want to change the face of publishing, we need to welcome self-published treasures too.”

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another way forward

A while back I wrote a post about “queering kidlit” in which I critiqued the attempt to prove that books by/about people of color are “just like” books by/about whites. I later asked my friend for some further reading and she pointed me to this article by Cathy Cohen. This was JUST the quote I needed:

transformational politics…a politics that does not search for opportunities to integrate into dominant institutions and normative social relationships, but instead pursues a political agenda that seeks to change values, definitions, and laws which make these institutions and relationships oppressive.” ~Cathy J. Cohen, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens

I plan to cite this article in my Kidlitcon presentation in October. It looks like a really great line-up; if you’ll be attending, please let me know. Right now I’m trying to prepare a short video statement about the relationship between the crisis in Ferguson and the crisis within the children’s publishing industry. I’m struggling because I don’t know what language to use—can’t be too angry or bitter (and lose the softness that makes me a woman people will listen to) but I’m not feeling optimistic these days. Yet to write for kids, you do have to have hope—and all artists do, right? Otherwise why create? So my bit of sunshine for today is the cover for my 9/11 story The Girl Who Swallowed the Sun. When systems fail, you have to find another way forward…

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000420_00048]


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thin skin


©2013-2014 Nemki

I’ve been thinking lately about this essay by Marita Bonner, “On Being a Young—a Woman—and Colored” (1925). Black women have been trying to hold onto their humanity for such a long time, and it makes one so very, very tired. I think I wrote my latest story about a bunny because that’s one way of staying “soft”—same with all the cat videos I post on Facebook. I don’t have a whole lot of faith in human beings these days, and I am working on that. But it’s hard… 

Every part of you becomes bitter.

But—“In Heaven’s name, do not grow bitter. Be bigger than they are”—exhort white friends who have never had to draw breath in a Jim-Crow train. Who have never had petty putrid insult dragged over them—drawing blood—like pebbled sand on your body where the skin is tenderest. On your body where the skin is thinnest and tenderest.

You long to explode and hurt everything white; friendly; unfriendly. But you know that you cannot live with a chip on your shoulder even if you can manage a smile around your eyes—without getting steely and brittle and losing the softness that makes you a woman.

For chips make you bend your body to balance them. And once you bend, you lose your poise, your balance, and the chip gets into you. The real you. You get hard.

…And many things in you can ossify…

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