Archive for the ‘writing life’ Category

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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Ah…a day of rest! On Friday I wrapped up my last Harlem workshop with Behind the Book. The students had finished reading Ship of Souls, and when I asked if they had any questions, it turned out most of them wanted to know what would happen in the sequel! I should have recorded my answers to all those questions because I actually sounded like I’ve got a clear sense of the narrative. Now I just have to make time to write it! The students did a great job developing outlines for their own magical stories and, as usual, several of them asked me whether Ship of Souls would be made into a film. I could have shown them the audio version of the book, which came out last week. I received my copies in the mail but have only listened to a couple of minutes so far. I think of an audio book being a lot like a radio play, but I don’t think there are any sound effects in the reading of my novel.

Yesterday I spent most of the day in the Bronx with four other Lee & Low authors and illustrators: Tony Medina, Katie Yamasaki, Mark Weston, and G. Neri (via Skype). We had a small group of kids, parents, and educators for Family Literacy Day, but they were amazingly attentive considering our presentations lasted from 10:30am to 1pm. Then each participant got a signed copy of Bird, Honda: the Boy Who Dreamed of Cars, I & I Bob Marley, and Yummy. Lee & Low’s sales manager, Abe, did a great job organizing the event and it was nice to see families resisting the lure of a sunny Saturday in order to focus on books and art. I like meeting other authors, but meeting artists is a totally different experience—it’s a blend of awe and envy because I can write a decent story, but I can NOT paint a beautiful picture. You should see the incredible murals that Katie has made all over the world—and she’s working on another with women prisoners at Rikers Island right now. After the event ended, Katie, Tony, and I talked about the publishing industry and how easy it is for some to divorce multiculturalism from social justice. We discussed the Trayvon Martin case and the news that “minority babies” now make up the majority of births in the US. Ten years from now, will those children be able to find their mirrors in books? Not unless we continue to press for change in the publishing industry. I connected with a few allies this past week, which is just what the doctor ordered—it’s too easy to feel isolated and discouraged…

Today: rest, read (I’m halfway through Toni Morrison’s Home), write out a summary of The Deep, and then prepare for tomorrow’s school visit. Just five more to go…

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Today I reached out to the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society—I’m planning to spend some time there during my week-long visit, and asked for help with my two writing projects: a memoir about my family, and a historical novel about life on an 18th-century sugar plantation. I understand the pride Nevisians feel when it comes to being the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, but I’m more interested in writing about the people who didn’t go on to fame and fortune. Still, I can’t pretend the man didn’t exist, nor can I pretend it doesn’t matter that he and I share links to the islands of Nevis and Manhattan. Barbara Christian once said you have to know the facts of history in order to be freed from them, so this afternoon I visited The Grange, the only house owned and built by Hamilton in what was once the country (it took him an hour and a half to reach NYC, which was 9 miles south). The impressive house was moved to St. Nicholas Park in 2008 (the video showing that engineering feat is a must see), and now you can learn more about this founding father by watching a short film, touring the gallery, and taking a guided tour led by a National Park Ranger. It was great to show up and see a familiar face—Ranger Sean was transferred from the African Burial Ground to The Grange, and we speculated on the possibility that Hamilton might have African ancestry (though there’s no evidence of this). As I watched the film about his role in the American Revolution, I found myself wondering about Hamilton’s early life in Nevis—who were his friends? Did he become an abolitionist in later years in the US because of his affection for free or enslaved blacks in the Caribbean? Believe it or not, I already have a YA novel sketched out in my head. NOT that I have time or energy to take on yet another book project, but still. So far I’ve only found one novel about Hamilton’s childhood, and I doubt it privileges the perspective of Afro-Caribbean kids…

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I’m not a big fan of musical theater and I’ve never actually seen West Side Story, but I caught a glimpse of the film version last month on PBS. And that song just came to mind because today when I was signing books at the BPL, a young woman wearing the hijab came up to me and said, “I really loved this book because everything that Hakeem feels is just what I feel, too! Because he’s Muslim and so am I.” I told her how much that meant to me, but I’m not sure I was able to fully convey my meaning and there was a long line of kids behind her waiting to have their books signed. I won’t start gushing about the Brooklyn Public Library, but this is yet another program that serves the kids in my community—50 kids got a copy of Ship of Souls, and then they came in to hear my author talk and have their books signed. And they were SO ready to talk about the book! I started off with Bird and they kept finding connections to Ship of Souls. There were dozens of hands up in the air by the time I finished my talk, but we only had time for three or four questions. The teachers told me that the entire sixth grade had read the book, and I’ll be going to their school next month to meet everyone else. There’s nothing like seeing kids excited about reading! And, of course, one girl raised her hand and asked, “Will you write a book about us?” I told her that I wrote about Brooklyn and my own neighborhood so that kids like her would see themselves on the page. And half a dozen boys asked when the book will be made into a film. I told them that I had sent the book to Spike Lee (no response so far) and assured them that Nyla’s book was underway…


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Last night before leaving work I checked my email and found an unpleasant message from across the border. I didn’t bother to respond and instead headed straight to the bakery where I bought a slice of banana cake. I could have done grading on the train ride home, but instead I mused over that email and the neverending drama that is my relationship with my sister. I’m heading to Toronto next week and my mother arranged a little get-together but now I’m pulling out. What’s the point? If you can’t be genuine in your relationships, then you might as well keep your real self to yourself. I got home and found my mailbox crammed full of books–I ordered 25 of Ruth Chew’s 29 books and three or four arrive every day. When I’ll find time to read them all, I don’t know, but the semester wraps up in three weeks and I’m already trying to make a work plan for the summer. I’ve got *18* school visits lined up for the month of May. And I should find out soon whether or not I got the grant to finish Judah’s Tale; that will involve spending a week in South Carolina in July studying maroon communities and rice plantations. I’ve booked my flight and hotel and will be heading to Nevis in June; I’m *really* looking forward to that trip, even though I’ll have to work on a conference paper while I’m there since I’m presenting at ChLA the day after I get back. Then I have a chapter to write on black magic in NYC parks. And then there’s Nyla’s story…

But as I sifted through all the packages I found in my mailbox, I noticed a plain envelope from the Canada Arts Council. Ever since I applied for a grant last fall, the CAC has been sending me stuff; my grant proposal was rejected in March, so I don’t generally bother to read the promotional material they send out. But before chucking this envelope into the recycling bin, I opened it and read the opening lines:

You recently received a letter from the Canada Council for the Arts advising you that your grant application for the Grants to Professional Writers – Creative Writing program was highly recommended. We are now pleased to advise you that your request will be funded.

I read it two or three times before finally moving AWAY from the recycling bin. I don’t understand how this happened, and I plan to call them today to double check, but I am thrilled! And humbled. I don’t have a particularly good history with my homeland, and I try to keep my expectations low to avoid further disappointment. But this grant will enable me to spend a month or so in Ontario researching my ancestors—those who passed for white and those who stayed black. As I scraped the icing off my banana cake last night, I thought about my sister and our ongoing feud—maybe my relationship with her will teach me something about my ancestors. They chose different paths, disowned one another, and—it seems—never looked back. But there had to be moments along the way when those siblings had doubts or wanted to reconcile. I’d like to believe that, at least, though I know that “passing” requires the fair-skinned family member to cut ties completely. I want to write a book about Nevis—two books, actually. And then there’s my academic proposal to write about black magic in YA lit. Something’s gotta give. I love cake but sometimes you have to take a few bites and push the plate away…

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I’m listening to NPR right now and they’re talking about Comic-Con—the “safe space” it creates for comic book lovers who, as children and teens, were ostracized as nerds and geeks. Last week a Facebook friend posted this graphic, which addressed the same issue, and then there was a photo of President Obama with Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) making the Star Trek sign giving the Vulcan salute (sorry, Trekkies). I’m thinking about getting one of those t-shirts that reads: Black Geek. It might be important for me to wear a shirt like that when I do my author visits. School principals always want to stress that I have a PhD but I didn’t start out wanting to be a professor—I started out dreaming of gnomes and castles and magic beans. So when I sat down to develop an abstract for this book chapter, I reached back into the past for a book that left a lasting impression on my imagination: The Hidden Cave by Ruth Chew. I thought it was about a pair of kids who found Merlin encased in a tree in Central Park, but it turns out the book is set in Brooklyn! So now my paper is


on the significance of urban parks as sites of discovery and recovery in speculative fiction for kids. Chew actually wrote (and illustrated) 29 novels, and almost all of them feature some kind of magic and are set in Brooklyn (where she lived). So as a child in Canada, I read a book about Merlin (because I’m an Arthurian geek, hence my current irrational devotion to Game of Thrones) and as an adult now living in Brooklyn, I’m producing scholarship on that same book (and its relationship to my own novels, which are also set in NYC parks—the African Burial Ground, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Prospect Park). Which is why I’m a proud black geek!


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Grading. Grading on the subway. Grading while on line at the burrito place. Grading before going to bed and again first thing in the morning. Sigh. I took a stack of papers with me to France but didn’t make much progress, in part because I got off the plane with a cold. The south of France is lovely but French culture doesn’t really work for me: I don’t drink or smoke, I hate baguette, I’m not crazy about little dogs, and I can’t eat cheese. Sitting at a packed outdoor cafe doesn’t appeal to this solitary Scorpio, and so when I first arrived on Wednesday, I actually wished I could speed up the clock. I don’t like to travel alone, and as a woman—and a woman of color—with only limited French, I felt insecure in Aix-en-Provence (though I generally found the people to be friendlier than Parisians). It’s a pretty town (photo above is Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur d’Aix) but it seems people mostly go there to shop, and that was the last thing I wanted to do. I got some ibuprofen and vitamin C from the pharmacy and spent the first couple of nights recuperating at the hotel. Then Laura arrived on Friday and everything changed—I had a running buddy! A sounding board. A friend. I’m not a big talker but whenever Laura and I get together, we find endless issues to discuss: teaching, grading, the pros and cons of being in the academy, the pros and cons of US & UK publishing, immigration, ambition, relationships. And the conference itself, of course, which was interesting and really well organized. I think both our papers were well received, and we met some interesting people, including American graphic artist/illustrator/professor John Jennings whose hotel room was right across from ours. We ate at Chez Grandmere Friday night and had “authentic Provencale cuisine.” The next day we checked out the local bookstores, ambled through the outdoor market, and had pizza in a candlelit, cobble-stoned corner of Aix. We shared our family histories and projected where we’d be in five years. John requires students in his hip hop visuals class to come up with a tag—“What would yours be?” I woke up this morning trying to answer that question. I think I’ve settled on “bittersweet” or “bittasweet,” though it’s probably not wise to pick a tag that can be reduced to “b.s.” This morning I was at the central branch of the BPL listening to the amazing poetry my two middle school classes created. During our second workshop I asked them to circle ten words that represented the essence of a special memory. A tag is sort of like your essence—if you had to reduce yourself to ONE word, what would it be? I thought about “scribe” but that seemed too one-dimensional. I like bittersweet because it represents contradiction but also balance. In my third workshop with the students I asked them to make two lists: words others would use to describe them, and words they would use to describe themselves. “Sweet” isn’t a word that would appear on either of my lists, but I like “bittasweet” because there’s at least a little sugar in me…though these days I’m so stressed out that I’m consuming more sugar than I really need. While I was in France I got thirty emails a day, including two stressful surprises: the book I plan to write about African American YA speculative fiction is going to be announced later this spring at another conference (never mind that I haven’t actually finished the proposal), and the editors of an anthology on urban children’s literature asked me to contribute a chapter (by June). Trouble is, I haven’t had any time just to write for myself and that’s why the “bitter” is threatening to overwhelm the “sweet” in me. I don’t even have time to record all the details of my time in France. I made a dozen mental notes but can’t remember half of them now: sugar cubes in the shape of hearts, Lionel Richie’s “Hello” and the theme from Flashdance playing on the shuttle bus radio, a thin sliver of a moon in a starless sky. On the flight back to NYC I watched Puss ‘n Boots and (when I wasn’t laughing my head off) nearly wept at some of the coloring—I remember seeing a Maxfield Parrish exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum and having a similar reaction. How do you capture the color of a child’s dream? Do illustrations teach us how to dream? I need to write but can’t afford to let myself drift. Not until spring break. I had tea with a friend this afternoon and she reminded me that there is a time to “frolic” and a time to work. What matters most is that you apply yourself fully to every task, trusting that you will be changed by the experience. I think that’s what worries me…

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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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This introvert is taking a much-needed day of silence…yet as I walked around the park this morning, baseball cap tipped against the blowing snow, I marveled at the kindness of others. I did three “meet the author” presentations this week, and every time I left a school, I said a prayer of thanks for the Brooklyn Public Library. I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to share my work with so many students and educators—eight schools altogether, with one hundred students in the audience each time. On Monday the assistant principal in Sunset Park worked tirelessly to get me the equipment I needed for my powerpoint presentation, and then sat at the laptop herself and advanced the slides so I was free to interact with the students. On Wednesday I arrived at the school in Spring Creek and two members of the book club were waiting at the door, cameras poised to capture the moment. After my talk the librarian and parent coordinators hosted a nice reception that included *quite* a spread—and I got a call later asking me about how to order books for the school. Yesterday I was in a new school with a stunning auditorium, and the librarian filled it with a range of students—some top performing classes, some special ed. classes, some kids with special needs–and she, too, sat at the laptop so I was free to move around. Afterward as many teachers as students came up to thank me for my talk and to express interest in Ship of Souls. Those kind of moments always make me thankful for my early years in Canada—the warmth and openness of Americans wouldn’t mean so much to me if I didn’t come from a culture that’s markedly different.

Back at my job, my students were understanding when I had to rearrange our class schedule on Tuesday to accommodate a radio interview with Pia Lindstrom; I’m not sure whether we taped a twenty- or thirty-minute segment because the time flew by and I got to talk about SoS, my belief in magic, my love of history, and I even squeezed in a quote by Audre Lorde (whose essay I’d taught earlier that morning).

Now I have to turn my attention back to my conference paper for France. I found a grant that might help to pay for some of the expenses, but I need to submit the conference program and I can’t ask for that when the organizers are still waiting on my overdue paper…time to make the most of this day of silence—time to write.

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Sometimes when it’s cold outside you don’t really notice. By the time my walking tour ended yesterday, my imagination was ablaze—and my feet were frozen. But I didn’t become aware of that fact until I headed back to Brooklyn; I was too busy scheming and dreaming up another book! Cyrus Forman, park ranger at the African Burial Ground National Monument, gave a fantastic presentation yesterday that included a powerpoint presentation at the visitor center followed by a guided tour of the sites in lower Manhattan that were part of Maritcha Lyons’ world. Cyrus stopped traffic and led us through the streets surrounding the African Burial Ground; Maritcha was born where the ugly Manhattan Detention Center now stands; her grandmother had a home and a bakery there, and once welcomed Frederick Douglass as a guest; Maritcha’s father, Albro Lyons, ran the Colored Seamen’s Home at 330 Pearl Street (picture here), which was attacked in the New York City Draft Riots of 1863 (he also once lived in Seneca Village, the mostly black community destroyed to make way for Central Park). Carla L Peterson joined us for the tour (pictured with Cyrus above); she’s the author of Black Gotham and the great-grand-niece of Maritcha Lyons! There are lots of other great events planned for the rest of February, including another walking tour on 2/25. Check out the AFBG’s new social media site, and you can find a list of their Black History Month events on the CES blog.

I gave my first presentation on Ship of Souls last Friday. The students and staff at the North Star Academy were wonderful, and the kids were definitely intrigued by the chapter I read aloud. This morning I’m heading over to Prospect Park to take photos for my powerpoint presentation. Then it’s back to work on my conference paper. No one can stop time, but it’s so easy to lose yourself in the past when you’re walking around this city—the parks, the schools, the brownstones—all serve as reminders of another time, other generations who walked these same streets and dreamed their own dreams…I came home from the walking tour yesterday and found an email from my father’s cousin; I had searched for her unsuccessfully online, but found someone on Facebook that I thought was her brother…I sent him a message, he forwarded it to his sister, and she emailed me to offer the assistance I need to piece together my father’s family history. It’s hard to set the shovel aside once you start digging, but time doesn’t stop just because you’re caught up in the past. The semester’s off to a good start, I’ve got a radio interview on Tuesday, and three more school visits this week. Sometimes I feel like the sankofa bird—facing forward but always looking back over my shoulder…

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