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indexPart 2 of “When You’re Strange” is up on the Media Diversified site now. Stuart Hall’s death in February sent me reeling and I found myself writing about him in my essay:

The recent death of Stuart Hall led me to revisit his work and reconsider its impact on my thinking about migration; I now see even more parallels between Hall’s journey and my own. I didn’t know it at the time, but in my senior year of high school I went through a serious depressive episode and have lived with depression ever since. In a 1992 interview with Kuan-Hsing Chen, Hall reflects on his years in Jamaica and admits:

“When I look at the snapshots of myself in childhood and early adolescence, I see a picture of a depressed person. I don’t want to be who they [his parents] want me to be, but I don’t know how to be somebody else. And I am depressed by that. All of that is the background to explain why I eventually migrated.”

When I was a teen, I hid from the camera; I believed messages I got from my family that said I was hideous, and so embraced the invisibility imposed upon me by Canadian society. I spent hours alone at home, curled up with a book (usually Dickens); I slept up to twelve hours a day, hoping to make time pass more quickly. My father had already moved to the US by then and my mother was mired in her own depression. My older sister—the only Black female role model I had at the time—dropped out of university to follow her boyfriend across the country. The disintegration of my family seemed complete and I clung to the hope that a scholarship to university would transform my sad reality.

Stuart Hall also sought escape from a dysfunctional (if intact) family. He, too, found “a huge gap” between the life he wanted for himself and his parents’ expectations of him. The “strange aspirations and identifications” of his upwardly mobile, color-conscious, and pro-colonial parents ultimately destroyed Hall’s sister Patricia. Her nervous breakdown and subsequent electroconvulsive therapy rendered her unable to leave home while propelling Hall out into the world. This traumatic experience, Hall explains,

“crystallized my feelings about the space I was called into by my family. I was not going to stay there. I was not going to be destroyed by it. I had to get out. I felt that I must never put myself back into it, because I would be destroyed. My decision to emigrate was to save myself.”

I left Canada with the same sense of desperation, and I now draw upon my migrant experience as I attempt to develop a mythology of displacement for Black teen readers.

All are welcome to join our Twitter chat later today at 4pm ET (8pm GMT).

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indexYesterday I learned that my niece finished reading The Deep. She turns ten in a couple of weeks and I’ve got P.S. Be Eleven wrapped and ready to send. M’s a voracious reader and my primary job as a long-distance aunty is to keep her supplied with multicultural books. At first I was horrified by the idea of M reading a novel I intended for teenagers. The Deep opens with a sexual assault that takes place during a school dance, and there is also brief mention of sexting and suicide—I recommend it for kids 13 and up. But then M’s mom told me that she’d already had to have a conversation with my niece about sexual assault; once when her classmate’s older sister was gang raped and subsequently committed suicide, and again when my niece wondered why her mother didn’t like the song “Blurred Lines.” A nine-year-old shouldn’t have to worry about rape, but I’m glad she’s got parents who choose to inform her rather than keep her ignorant. It’s an issue I choose to engage in my young adult novels because it is the sad reality for far too many teens, and fiction can sometimes make tough topics easier to discuss. At the very least, writing about rape ensures other assault survivors that they aren’t alone and since I write historical fiction, I can also demonstrate that Black women have been resisting and recovering from rape for centuries.

imagesI understand M plans to write me a letter about The Deep—I’m anxious to hear her impressions! I know she’s wondering when the next book will be done. Today I met Lyn Miller-Lachmann for breakfast and we talked about serializing young adult lit. We both have so many projects that are almost ready to go—but what’s the best way to connect with readers? Should an author give readers everything she’s got, or ration books in order to build anticipation? Would selling a novel chapter by chapter appeal to reluctant readers who are intimidated by lengthy books? I think of Netflix and their new model that allows viewers to watch all available episodes of a particular show. I do binge sometimes and if season 4 of Games of Thrones were available to view all at once, I’d probably get sucked in. Downton Abbey is so slow and boring that I don’t mind waiting a week for each new episode, but is it the same when you’re reading a book? I’m nearly done with Hild by Nicola Griffith (amazing!) and feel like I’ll be lost once I reach page 536 and finally have to leave that world behind. But it’s not the kind of book I’d want to read in pre-determined installments—I needed to be immersed even if it took me a week to reach the end. But that’s me—I wanted to hold the physical book in my hands and I needed to read long chunks of it in silence. Teens today are constantly multi-tasking and battling endless distractions—does that mean they’re wired for shorter stories and bite-size books? My niece reads up to five books at a time (and finishes them all)! I think I’m too much of a traditionalist to give up printed books but it’s important to consider all the options. If there’s a book for every reader, should there be a format for every reader, too?

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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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It’s that time of year again! Edi Campbell kindly gave me her list of 2013 books by PoC (people of color) and I pulled out the fiction books by Black authors (middle grade and young adult). As always, if you see that we’ve missed a title, please let us know. I have not added titles from Saddleback Educational Publishing, a press devoted to hi-lo fiction for teens. You can find Saddelback’s Black authors on our 2011 and 2012 lists. Two of the titles are reprints. Walter Dean Myers, outgoing National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, had a good year with 3 titles; Amar’e Stoudemire and Kelli London had 2 titles each, as did Ni-Ni Simone and Amir Abrams. How many of the remaining authors made their debut in 2013? Less than ten, by my count. According to a recent article in New York Magazine, there were over 10,000 young adult novels available in 2012. A YALSA source suggests 3,000 YA novels are published annually in the US. You can find our 2014 list here.index         index

MG=middle grade (8-12) YA=young adult (12-18)

  1. Bereft by Craig Laurance Gidney (Tiny Satchell Press; January) YA
  2. STAT #3: Slam Dunk by Amar’e Stoudemire (Scholastic Paperbacks; January) MG
  3. Sweet 16 to Life: A Langdon Prep Novel by Kimberly Reid (KTeen; January) YA
  4. Reality Check: Charly’s Epic Fiasco by Kelli London (KTeen; February) YA
  5. Drifting by Lisa R. Nelson (Tiny Satchel Press; February) YA
  6. Flowers in the Sky by Lynn Joseph (Harper Teen; March) YA
  7. Orleans by Sherri L. Smith (Putnam Juvenile; March) YA
  8. The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Arthur A. Levine Books; March) YA
  9. Twelve Days of New York by Tonya Bolden and Gilbert Ford (Abrams; March) MG
  10. Hollywood High: Get Ready for War by Ni-Ni Simone and Amir Abrams (Kensington; March) YA
  11. Panic by Sharon Draper (Atheneum; March) YA
  12. Revenge of a Not-So-Pretty Girl by Carolita Blythe (Delacorte; April) YA
  13. The Laura Line by Crystal Allen (Balzer + Bray; April) MG
  14. Darius and Twig by Walter Dean Myers (Harper; April) YA
  15. P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams Garcia (Amistad; May) MG
  16. Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; May) MG
  17. Get Over It by Nikki Carter (Dafina Press; May) YA
  18. The Girl of His Dreams by Amir Abrams (K-Teen/Dafina; June) YA
  19. Paparazzi Princesses by Bria Williams, Reginae Carter, and Karyn Folan (Cash Money Content; June) YA
  20. Dork Diaries 6: Tales from a Not-So-Happy-Heartbreaker by Rachel Renee Russell (Aladdin; June) MG
  21. Charm and Strangeby Stephanie Kuehn (St. Martin Press; June) YA
  22. Star Power (Charly’s Epic Fiasco)by Kelli London (Kensington; July) YA
  23. Way Too Much Drama by Earl Sewell (Kimani Tru; July) YA
  24. Sunday You Learn How to Box by Bil Wright (Scribner; August—reprint) YA
  25. The Cruisers: Oh, Snap! by Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic; August) MG
  26. STAT #4: Schooled by Amar’e Stoudemire (Scholastic Paperbacks; August) MG
  27. Goal Line by Tiki & Ronde Barber, with Paul Mantell (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books; August—reprint) MG
  28. Zero Fadeby Chris Terry (Curbside Splendor; September) YA
  29. You Don’t Know Me Like That by Reshonda Tate Billingsly (K-Teen/Dafina; September) YA
  30. Streetball Crew Book One: Sasquatch in the Paint by Kareem Abdul Jabar (Disney-Hyperion; September) MG
  31. Invasion by Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic; October) YA
  32. The Case of the Time Capsule Bandit by Octavia Spencer (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers; October) MG
  33. True Story by Ni-Ni Simone (KTeen/Dafina; November) YA
  34. Jump Shot by Tiki & Ronde Barber, with Paul Mantell (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books; November) MG
  35. He Said, She Said by Kwame Alexander (Amistad; November) YA
  36. Cy in Chains by David L. Dudley (Clarion Books; December) YA

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deep_comp_layout.inddFrom now until Xmas you can get the Kindle edition of THE DEEP for 99 cents! I hope you’ll also consider giving a copy of the paperback to the teens in your life. I received this heartwarming letter from a 6th-grade student whose school I visited last week:

“Dear Ms. Elliott, I went to your presentation. It was fun. I like the idea of your book and I can’t tell you how much happiness I felt when I found out your characters are African American. After the presentation me and my friend kept talking about getting your books. A segestion: Bring more copyies of your books to sell because I would have bought it. Please come back next time.” Sincerly, Asante

I just learned that A Wish After Midnight is part of the 12 Days of Christmas promotion on Amazon.co.uk. So if you’re across the pond, you can get the e-book for £0.99! It’s also on sale in Germany for EUR 0,99!

Give books for the holidays!

 

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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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indexI don’t do many school visits in the fall but this month I have quite a few lined up and today was my first. I returned from Toronto early Sunday morning and worried I might be too emotionally wound up to face this full week. But my aunt’s funeral on Saturday truly was a celebration of her life—complete with tambourines for the mourners!—and my short trip was full of love and laughter (and food). I came back to Brooklyn feeling tired but truly blessed to be part of such a loving family.

Today I spent the entire day at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School and was so impressed with the school, the staff, and the students. It’s definitely one of the MOST diverse schools I’ve ever visited and the building itself seemed to have a different kind of energy. Before each presentation the Humanities teacher, Ms. Beerman, asked for a student volunteer to lead the class in a simple breathing exercise—they opened their hands, took a deep breath, exhaled, and prepared to be strong communicators! Despite getting off to a rocky start (I said the US had 52 states) I soon felt at home with the 7th-grade students and truly enjoyed hearing about their historical fiction projects. I presented before 4 classes and led more intimate writing workshops with 3 small groups. Here are the day’s highlights:

  • During my second writing workshop, the black girl next to me saw my copy of Bird and said, “Oh! I read that book over and over at my aunt’s house. She writes for kids, too.” Me: “Really? What’s her name?” Her: “Jacqueline Woodson.”
  • In that same writing workshop a white student sat down across from me and set her copy of A Wish After Midnight on the table. Her: “I missed my stop this morning because I was reading your book.”
  • During the Q&A at the end of one of my presentations, a young man kept asking about Ship of Souls. Him: “But is D ever in mortal danger?” Me: “Are you sure you want me to answer that?” Teacher: “You can get the book at the library.” Him: “OUR library?” The period ended and within TWO MINUTES that boy was back in the classroom with the library’s copy of Ship of Souls. Him: “The librarian wants to know if you’ll sign this book before I check it out.”
  • I had a chance to play the trailer for The Deep and had to smile as the kids immediately recognized Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and started bobbing their heads and tapping their pencils to the beat.
  • On my way out I asked the friendly security guard how to find the F train and she walked me out to the street to give me directions. A tall, tenth-grade student overheard us and said, “I can take her to the train.” And so we walked there together and she told me about the books she liked and how her teacher took them to see The Hunger Games after they read the novel in class. Before parting ways I handed her one of my postcards and told her to check out some of my books. “You mean you wrote these?” she asked, clearly surprised. Fingers crossed she also makes a beeline for the library…

And now—back to grading…

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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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