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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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imagesWhen I look at the work of most comic book artists, I generally think to myself, “That’s not my peer group.” I followed the comic strips in the Saturday paper when I was a child, and I definitely bought my fair share of Archie comic books. My brother sometimes shared his Spiderman comics with me but for the most part, I read traditional books. And now, as an adult, that’s what I write. When collaborating with the illustrator who made the sketches for The Deep‘s trailer, I made it clear that I didn’t want Nyla to be hypersexualized as women so often are in comics. I wanted her to be beautiful and powerful without wearing skimpy clothes over bulging biceps and/or breasts.

I’m a fan of the X-Men films and I was far more anxious to see Thor than Best Man Holiday, but the feminist in me knows that women generally don’t fare well in the imagination of most men. But I do have black feminist friends who are comics scholars and the POC Zine Project gives me hope that women are creating their own images to counter the many distortions. Kids constantly ask me when my novels will be made into films and I know just what it would mean to them to see empowered Black girls on the silver screen—girls who overcame obstacles AND survived till the end of the movie! But I also realize that my idea of an empowered Black girl probably looks a lot different than most teenagers’ idea. Ask them to name a powerful Black woman and they say, “Beyonce.” Not Michelle Obama or Shonda Rhimes or Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

When I created the character of Nyla I definitely wanted her to be a blend of confidence, intelligence, and beauty. I felt she was a natural leader, attractive but also intimidating, deeply loyal but also deeply insecure. Lyn Miller-Lachmann just posted an amazing review of The Deep and it’s clear she totally “got” Nyla:

Elliott creates a strong female character with many talents and many difficult choices. Her contradictory feelings toward the mother who abandoned her ring true and leave readers with much to ponder, especially if those readers are missing important people in their lives as well. Nyla’s toughness masks a vulnerability that the author makes clear early on; in the preface that takes place eight months earlier at an Air Force base in Germany, Nyla is sexually assaulted by an older boy at her school whom she believed she could control. This assault is what motivates Nyla’s father and stepmother to bring her back to the States, and to dangers they never could have imagined.

Lyn is an unabashed comics fan, and her passion for superheroes informs her fantastic middle grade novel Rogue. If you don’t yet know about The Pirate Tree Social Justice and Children’s Literature blog, you should definitely check them out. Here’s part of their mission statement:

…we are interested in books and writers that question and rebel against the status quo, argue for peace and reconciliation, take the side of the marginalized and powerless, and use creative solutions to overcome obstacles.

Can comic books offer all of the above AND represent women realistically? I suspect not, which is why I’ll stick with novels…

line2-29-10-620x418(Illustration by Cynthia “Thea” Rodgers)

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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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deep_comp_layout.inddToday’s the day! You can get your copy of THE DEEP at Rosetta Press (Create Space) or Amazon. The e-book will be available in a couple of weeks. THE DEEP is the second book in what I like to call my “freaks & geeks” trilogy. I’ve already started writing the third book, THE RETURN, and will try to publish that next summer. In the meantime, please do share THE DEEP with the young readers in your life. As an educator I write with reluctant readers in mind; like SHIP OF SOULS, THE DEEP is short and fast-paced, covering a span of three or four days. Most of my community college students don’t read, which breaks my heart. We’ve got to get kids hooked on reading at an early age! And that isn’t likely to happen if we keep feeding them liver and Brussels sprouts—-books that are good for them but not much fun. It’s Thanksgiving today and I’m thankful that I was raised by an avid reader; no one had to convince me that reading was fun. I’m looking forward to visiting schools in December and sharing THE DEEP with teens. There’s nothing more gratifying than wrapping up a reading and hearing a student say, “I’ve GOT to read that book!”

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The trailer is done! As a Scorpio, I often find it hard to collaborate on projects but it was an absolute pleasure to work with Nadirah Iman. I really respect artists who honor deadlines and otherwise act like professionals…and quality shows, wouldn’t you say? Take a look:

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The cover art for The Deep is almost done—I can’t wait to share it! In the meantime, meet Osiris—the mysterious guide who leads Nyla underground and into the deep…

Osiris final sketch(Illustration by Ian Moore)

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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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Artist Ian Moore drew some great sketches for the forthcoming trailer for The Deep. Meet Nyla…

Nayla final sketch 2 copy

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IMG_2220This week I sent out my first ARC of The Deep! No one knows YA fantasy like The Book Smugglers, and I confess I was a little nervous letting this novel out into the world. The cover isn’t done yet so I’ve got this temporary template cover that shows Neptune from the fountain in Grand Army Plaza. Nadirah Iman is working on the trailer, which is exciting since she did such a great job with the trailer for Bird. I’ve got some school visits lined up so I’ll soon have a chance to test it out on teen readers. In the meantime I’m working on the back cover blurb. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

THE DEEP plunges readers into a dangerous, underground world policed by members of The League, a secret group of women and men who use their intuitive abilities to detect energy surges far below the earth’s surface. In the deep, ancient sources of malevolent energy are bubbling up through the bedrock, and only members of The League know how to detect and seal the leaks that allow evil to enter the world.

Nyla Evans knows nothing about the war being waged beneath the city. It has been almost a year since she moved from Ramstein Air Base in Germany to Brooklyn, and Nyla is still searching for a way to belong. It doesn’t help that she has started to hallucinate while walking the city streets, but things get even stranger when a man named Osiris approaches her and offers to introduce Nyla to others who have similar “gifts.” When Nyla refuses, her friend D is kidnapped and held in the deep until Nyla agrees to let Osiris guide her underground. There, miles beneath Brooklyn, Nyla meets Lada—the mother who abandoned her a decade ago.

Furious that Nyla is being recruited by The League, Lada tries to prevent her daughter from following in her footsteps. But Nyla feels at home in the deep and her training begins at an accelerated pace when The League discovers an earthquake will soon hit Brooklyn, releasing unprecedented levels of malevolent energy into the city.

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