Posts Tagged ‘Ship of Souls’

VO-1551-p4-black_child-300x225Last night I had the privilege of talking about my books with Basir Mchawi, host of WBAI’s Education at the Crossroads. The podcast is already available if you want to listen to our half hour conversation about decolonizing the imagination and honoring the ancestors in our daily lives. Basir responded immediately when I reached out to him last fall about the release of The Deep; he even took the time to read Ship of Souls and The Deep. New York’s other public radio station has shown no interest, so I’m very grateful for this opportunity to talk about my work. WBAI is just entering their winter fundraising campaign, so if you appreciate their commitment to diversity and social justice, please make a donation here.

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downloadYesterday I spent the day at Brooklyn Excelsior Charter School. This was my fourth annual visit to the school and as always, I was made to feel welcome the moment I stepped through the door. There was a new receptionist at the front desk but she greeted me by name before I even opened my mouth; she’d learned all about me from the librarian, Mrs. Robinson, who might be my most ardent fan! Her passion for A Wish After Midnight has spread throughout the entire seventh grade and within minutes of my arrival I was asked—yet again—when the sequel would be coming out. Even at my aunt’s funeral last November my mother’s friend offered her condolences and then asked me about Judah’s Tale. I MUST FINISH THAT BOOK! I’m hoping 12 Years a Slave will clean up at the Oscars in March and it would be good to ride that wave of interest in the slavery era, especially since I used Solomon Northup’s kidnapping case to map Judah’s journey from north to south. I just bought my ticket to the premiere of Belle, which looks amazing. For once, people aren’t trying to avoid the subject of slavery.

It’s not easy doing five back-to-back presentations; by the third one my voice was starting to go, but the students and staff at Brooklyn Excelsior were so wonderful—attentive, engaged, excited. Mrs. Robinson plied me with snacks in between presentations and then ordered lunch for me; I spent the sixth period in the principal’s office talking about literacy and ways to engage reluctant readers. Another principal was visiting the school from upstate and she asked for a copy of Bird for her son. As I headed back to the library the receptionist slipped me a few pages of her memoir, which she hopes to publish soon. I stepped out into the hallway and a teacher rushed up to tell me how much she loved Bird, which she shared with her 5th-grade students a few years earlier. I did my last presentation and then went back into the hallway and another teacher rushed up to shake my hand and tell me how much she loved A Wish After Midnight. An author couldn’t ask for a better day! I hope to continue partnering with this school and others like it in the future.

One of my goals for 2014 is to make connections with people in the film industry. It breaks my heart to have kids ask over and over, “When is the movie coming out?” When I finish presenting on Ship of Souls—especially if I end with a reading—boys rush up and ask where they can get the book. But when I talk about The Deep or A Wish After Midnight, it’s mostly girls who crowd around me, casting themselves in the starring role of films that may never be made:

“I could play Genna!”

“I could be Nyla, right? I want to be Nyla.”

They look at me with such complete confidence—like they truly believe I can snap my fingers and make it happen. Can I? I barely know how to use Twitter but it might be time to reach out to Jada Pinkett Smith and Alicia Keys and Ava DuVernay…women who really DO make movies.

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indexYesterday I went to work for the first time since winter break began. I had lunch with several colleagues and, as usual, we shared stories about our students—the best and the worst. One student I’ll always remember told me at the end of the semester that he had never finished reading a book until he took my class on Black Women in the Americas. He had to be close to 25 years old and he was very bright (despite admitting he only took the class to meet women). He later decided to write a novel himself, which was the ultimate reward for me. As an educator, it’s heartbreaking to stand at the front of a classroom and see no hands raised when I ask, “How many people finished a novel in the past week? The past month?” The vast majority of my students (who are mostly Black and Latino, working class) don’t read recreationally. Reading isn’t fun and they don’t understand that reading truly is fundamental. Many of my students don’t know what Standard English looks like because they don’t hear it in their homes or communities and they‘ve never seen don’t regularly see it printed on a page; as a result, they write based on oral/aural knowledge—“would of been” instead of “would have been.” I taught a writing intensive class for the first time last fall and it was incredibly demoralizing. At one point I actually told my students that I felt like I’d missed the bus—trying to develop a love of literature in 20-year-olds is extremely challenging. If you don’t hook kids when they’re young, it’s hard to develop new habits later on. I took the advice of my senior colleagues and removed Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man from my syllabus. They still had to read Richard Wright’s Native Son and out of 20 students, only 3 made it to the end. But at the end of the semester, many said the novel was their favorite assigned reading. So there’s hope—IF you can hook them on a narrative that’s exciting, fast-paced, and not too long.

deep_comp_layout.inddOne reason I didn’t send The Deep out to bloggers for review is because I’m trying to reach reluctant readers. And if you’re blogging about books or following a book blog, you’re probably already an avid reader and less likely to be satisfied with a short page-turner. If I gave The Deep to my community college students, I doubt anyone would complain that it’s too short. I go into dozens of Brooklyn middle schools every year, and students most often say, “When is the next book coming out?” In one special education class, a boy proudly raised his hand and said, “I read your book—twice!” And for me, that’s a sign that I’m building stamina in kids who have seen all the Harry Potter films but would never even try to read the novels. When I send a manuscript to an editor and she starts talking about Divergent, I know we’re not on the same page. I’m not trying to write hi-lo fiction (books for teens reading far below grade level), but I’m glad there are people out there making sure those teens DO have something to read. I think it was my librarian friend Vanessa Irvin Morris who introduced me to this quote: “For every reader, a book.” It’s one of the 5 Laws of Library Science developed by S. Ranganathan. I don’t mean to suggest that all Black teens are reluctant readers—I certainly wasn’t, and the two or three college students who tell me they love to read have been in love with books since they were children. And just because I write for reluctant readers doesn’t mean my books are flawless—the goal isn’t “any ol’ book for every reader” but really good books for readers of all kinds. So I appreciate The Book Smugglers‘ review of The Deep—no one knows more about YA fantasy fiction and they were impressed by Ship of Souls:

For such a short novel, The Deep, an Urban Fantasy with contemporary YA trappings packs a lot: from the introduction to a whole new, hidden underground world and a secret group that keeps evil at bay to the idea that what said group might be doing is not entirely that black and white; from expanding on the previous book by continuing Dmitri’s story but also focusing on Nyla’s own including her past, her present, her parent’s own struggles, her love life, her developing magical powers, etc. Although it is true that a person’s life is a complex mixture of different threads and the book speaks to this, I am not sure that everything combines seamlessly here.

The book greatest strengths are Zetta Elliott’s (always) beautiful writing and the careful, powerful characterisation of Nyla and of those who surround her. Zetta Elliott is at her best when writing about characters’ emotional make-up and Nyla’s relationship with her family, her stepmother, her boyfriend (and his family) are beautifully portrayed.

I’m sorry it fell short for them in the end, but self-published books often don’t get reviewed at all so I truly appreciate that these expert bloggers gave my book a serious critique. I’m gearing up for the next round of school visits here in Brooklyn and look forward to hearing what teens think about The Deep. As an educator, I’m supposed to teach students how to analyze the texts they consume but as an author, I have to say I’m happy just to get swarmed by eager young readers at the end of my presentation. Seeing kids of color clamoring for books makes my heart soar…

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I have a new essay up on The Huffington Post: “5 Things You Can Do to Promote Literacy over the Holidays.” I notice their editing team made some small changes but the message is clear—GIVE BOOKS! Here are a couple of suggested actions:

1. Give books as gifts!

All children need books that can serve as “mirrors and windows.” Books that reflect a child’s identity can boost self-esteem, and books about people who are different can teach a child to respect diversity. If your local bookstore doesn’t have what you want, ask them to order titles for you so they know there is demand for diverse books. You can also find dozens of multicultural titles at The Birthday Party Pledge.

2. Make room in your home for books.

Books are valuable, and should be treated with care. Assembling and decorating a bookcase can be a fun family activity. Whether your shelves are made of wood or milk crates, creating a place to grow your home library ensures that books will be treated with the respect they deserve. A bookcase also signals to visitors that books are a welcome gift in your home!

finalcoverWe’re also in the middle of updating the BPP site, so stay tuned for more great ideas and activities. Last night I was honored to attend the birthday celebration of Summit Academy Charter School. The student winners of their readathon were honored and the school presented the Red Hook library staff with a check for $1000! The library was closed after sustaining damage from Superstorm Sandy, and the students wanted to show their support. Heart-warming! As was the young man who came up right after my presentation and asked for a copy of Ship of Souls. Black and brown boys DO read. When I left the Crispus Attucks school yesterday morning, a 5th-grade student was reciting my summary of The Deep to the rest of his classmates. The librarian there sent me off with swag: a t-shirt, pen, and cap! More love…

It’s snowing this morning. I have a 9am school visit and my first final exam is scheduled for this afternoon. No cancellations!

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D was the narrator of Ship of Souls; The Deep is told from Nyla’s point of view but D still has a chance to share his unique perspective. He’s abandoned all hope of winning Nyla away from Keem, but they still have his back…

D final sketch(Illustration by Ian Moore)


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