Behind the Joke, There's a Story

I’ve struggled for some time to process my thoughts on Daniel “Lemony Snicket” Handler’s watermelon comment at last month’s National Book Awards. Part of me was and is unbothered. A dumb joke about a black person not liking watermelon is closer to the not-worth-my-energy end of the Racial Harm Spectrum. But part of me felt frustrated and tired for Jacqueline Woodson then, and feels exhausted right now. Are we really still in ‘black people love watermelon’ territory, in 2014?   Yes, sigh, we are.

A month being a millennium in internet years, here’s a reminder of what happened at the awards ceremony:

On November 19th, Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for her book Brown Girl Dreaming. Introducing her to the podium to receive the accolade, her friend and children’s book author, Handler, attempted a witty intro, revealing that Woodson doesn’t like watermelon. “Just let that sink in,” he said, eliciting (un/comfortable?) chuckles from the audience.

The punchline of the “joke” was supposed to be the revelation of Woodson’s aversion to the summer fruit — incongruous with the historic allusion that black people just love them some watermelon — but it was more of a sucker punch. In what should have been Woodson’s moment, a celebration of her memoir in verse about growing up in South Carolina and New York just as Jim Crow racial segregation laws were being forcibly and violently dismantled across the U.S., Handler “othered” her.  He simultaneously gave credence to the stale stereotype about watermelon-eating African-Americans, and cast Woodson as an oddity for deviating from the caricature.

Daniel Lemony Snicket Handler tweets apology for racially-tinged joke about Jacqueline Woodson's distaste of watermelon_peoplewhowrite

Handler’s off-color remarks went viral, were roundly castigated across the interwebs, and he followed a public apology with a pledge to match donations to an Indiegogo campaign for the group We Need Diverse Books. Woodson also wrote of “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke” in a New York Times Op-Ed, offering the context of America’s racialized history and her personal experience to explain why Handler’s wisecrack was profoundly unfunny:

I was a brown girl growing up in the United States. By that point in my life, I had seen the racist representations associated with African-Americans and watermelons, heard the terrifying stories of black men being lynched with watermelons hanging around them, watched black migrants from the South try to eke out a living in the big city by driving through neighborhoods like my own — Bushwick, in Brooklyn — with trucks loaded down with the fruit.

In a book I found at the library, a camp song about a watermelon vine was illustrated with caricatures of sleepy-looking black people sitting by trees, grinning and eating watermelon. Slowly, the hideousness of the stereotype began to sink in. In the eyes of those who told and repeated the jokes, we were shuffling, googly-eyed and lesser than.

Perhaps my allergy was actually a deep physical revulsion that came from the psychological impression and weight of the association. Whatever it was, I could no longer eat watermelon.

The watermelon incident played out in what has become a familiar three-act in the age of the news cycles that never sleeps: A racially-derisive comment/act opens, a righteous round of indignant castigation follows, and the pageant ends with a mea culpa via a statement apologizing “to anyone who may have been offended”, a pledge to learn from “the mistake”, and/or a meeting with/gesture toward a notable black personality or organization.

And, scene.

The micro news cycle moved on, and we could all go back to pondering the accusations chipping away at Bill Cosby’s model black man image — then shuttle forward to the decisions by the respective grand juries in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner deaths not to indict the police officers that killed them. But less than three weeks later, a new play opened.

A series of leaked emails exposed Sony Pictures Entertainment Co-Chairman Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin joke-guessing about President Obama’s taste in films. was one of many outlets that shared the racially-tinged exchange reportedly believed to have been hacked by a group called the Guardians of Peace, with the involvement of the North Korean government:

Pascal wrote Rudin: “What should I ask the president at this stupid Jeffrey breakfast?” She was referring to a breakfast hosted by DreamWorks Animation head and major Democratic donor Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Rudin, a top film producer responsible for films like No Country for Old Men and Moneyball, responded, “Would he like to finance some movies.” Pascal replied, “I doubt it. Should I ask him if he liked DJANGO?” Rudin responded: “12 YEARS.” Pascal quickly continued down the path of guessing Obama preferred movies by or starring African Americans. “Or the butler. Or think like a man? [sic]”

Rudin’s response: “Ride-along. I bet he likes Kevin Hart.”

Once the emails went public, the pageantry began. A week after releasing a statement — in which she made clear, “The content of my emails to Scott were insensitive and inappropriate but are not an accurate reflection of who I am.” — Pascal had a 90-minute meeting with Al Sharpton. According to Sharpton, Pascal “committed to” establishing “a basis to address the issues.”

She’s got her work cut out for her. Race is so deeply embedded in the American psyche, we will all need to be retrained before we can begin to address the issues. Pascal’s statement of her character could refer to race itself as  it is not an accurate reflection of who anyone is, not as far as science is concerned. Racial classifications have no biological basis — race is an idea that was created to justify American slavery; over time, we have imbued this constructed category with our own culturally-imposed and individually-formed meaning.

Racism has led to the creation of enduring caricatures that effectively reduce wide swaths of people into categories of propensity and preference. It has encouraged the cherry-picking of individuals and cultural elements, and attempted to make them emblems of the whole for commerce, convenience, or both. As a byproduct, it has separated specific experiences and cultural markers from their origins and meaning, and applied coded layers that give them new meaning.

It’s how we get from some Black people enjoying the refreshment of watermelon to all black people loving watermelon; and if one doesn’t, her blackness comes into question. The questions that follow become: What is black(ness)? What is white(ness)? Why do we care? Uncomfortable laughter.

Sharpton tweeted of his meeting with Pascal: “Her leaked e mails show a cultural blindness”. To be fair, we’re all guilty of othering people in one way or another (though the historic cultural power and legacy it bequeathes to people with white skin usually casts them in the “I’m sorry if I offended” role).

It’s more convenient, for example, to summarize fashion designs separately inspired by traditional Persian paisleys as loomed African textiles as “multi-culti”. Easier to chuckle at a stereotype about a gay / religious / rich / homeless person, than take the time to move past the shorthand we’ve created in our heads. It’s more comfortable to play our assigned roles and speak about or at one another, rather than to each other.

As writers, if we tell a story well it can open a window, a door, sometimes a heart, to an experience that once seemed so easy to codify or laugh at.  If it sinks in that we are all the same, though not in the same ways, then maybe we can get past the childish humor and get to the real story.


Children's & YA Books Dominate Amazon's Best Sellers of 2014

Top 6 Best Selling Books of 2014 via Amazon_peoplewhowrite2014 was a good year for publishers of classic children’s books and YA series. Of Amazon’s list of the best selling books of 2014, just 18 books intended for adult readers cracked the top 40. Of those that did, the bulk were SAT/ACT/college prep books and classics like To Kill A Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, and The Alchemist. Meanwhile a children’s reader inspired by the blockbuster film Frozen, John Green’s tender tearjerker The Fault in Our Stars, and installments of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series were among the titles Amazon customers couldn’t get enough of.

A months long standoff between Amazon and publisher Hachette that resulted in delayed delivery and unavailability did not seem to affect demand for print titles of Hachette’s Wimpy Kid, The Heroes of OlympusTo Kill A Mockingbird, Gone Girl, or Pulitzer winner The Goldfinch, which were among the e-tailer’s top 20 best sellers of the year. Proving recent findings that young people prefer print books to digital versions, 75% of Amazon’s list of Kindle best sellers featured books for adult audiences.

Interestingly, only three titles that made the books list’s top 20 were published in 2014: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul; The Heroes of Olympus Book Five; and Killing Patton which was co-written by Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. On the Kindle list, six of the top 20 were released this year, which may point to adult readers’ desire not to add more  books to their print collections, or bolster the theory that the e-book is the new paperback, with readers preferring to invest less in certain genres e.g. romance and detective dramas.

Goodreads, which Amazon now owns, has posted a list of the most popular books published in 2014. Cassandra Clare’s City of Heavenly Fire sits at the top, though it is #99 on Amazon’s books breakdown and #50 on the Kindle list.

Meshack Asare Wins 2015 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature

Meshack Asare wins 2015 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature - peoplewhowrite

Meshack Asare

Cited as one of Africa’s most influential children’s book authors, Ghana-born Meshack Asare has won the 2015 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature. Contenders of the prize must be nominated by an NSK juror with an international jury of children’s and young adult writers choosing the winner. The award comes with a literary festival hosted in his honor, a certificate of recognition, a silver medallion, and $25,000.

Ama Karikari Yawson Self-Published Her Book, So Why Isn't She Listed as the Publisher?

I met Ama Karikari Yawson at the inaugural Book Swap last weekend where she shared in frank detail her experience self-publishing the children’s book Sunne’s Gift: How Sunne Overcame Bullying to Reclaim God’s Gift. A lawyer by trade, Yawson was moved to write the self-esteem picture book after a barber used the “n” word to describe her three year old son’s hair. But after publishing the book with funds she raised in a 45-day Kickstarter Campaign, she discovered the book’s distributor was listed as the publisher.

Below, Yawson shares the lessons she’s learned in her first foray into self-publishing, her thoughts on Amazon’s discount pricing model, and the part independents can play in the shifting publishing industry landscape.

Ama Karikari Yawson-peoplewhowrite

Ama Karikari Yawson

What inspired you to write Sunne’s Gift?
I have always been a fan of children’s literature, but I did not actually begin to write, until a very terrible incident.

I went to a barbershop with my dad to get my son Jojo’s hair cut. Jojo was three years old at the time and the two other haircuts that he had consisted of a barber shaving his hair practically bald. That is the easiest hair cut for a fidgety child.

I wanted this time to be different and I told the barber not to shave off all of Jojo’s hair and to just make it shorter. He then proceeded to, in my view, shave Jojo’s head practically bald.

“Whoa, whoa, I told you that I did not want it bald, this is way too low!” I exclaimed. “How can I tell you this? You’ve got a real n****r here. He is a native boy. He is from the tribe. This ain’t pretty hair. This is the best cut for him,” said the barber with his clippers still in the front of Jojo’s hair. I forced a giggle and then entered a state of shock. I could not believe that the black barber demeaned my son and his hair.

The next day, I was watching “The Fashion Police” with Joan Rivers and [she and her co-hosts] were discussing Solange Knowles’ outfit to the [Great] Gatsby [film] premiere. Joan Rivers made a comment that an afro is not an appropriate hairstyle for a red carpet event. My head began to spin. I was just tired of all of the natural afro-textured hair hate from black people and white people alike.

I was reading a marketing book at the time which said that the best way to get a message across is through a story. I really wanted to write a story that would honor afro-textured hair. But I did not think of myself as a creative writer. Soon afterwards, I was watching “Super Soul Sunday” on OWN and a speaker said that art is no different from prayer.

I started praying on a story and God gave me the story of “Sunne’s Gift”…[It] is not just about afro-textured hair, it is about anything that makes you unique as individual or as an ethnicity.

Sunne's Gift-How Sunne Overcame Bullying to Reclaim God's Gift by Ama Karikari Yawson - peoplewhowrite

What factors went into your decision to self-publish Sunne’s Gift versus seeking a traditional publisher?
There were several factors. The first is speed. I had a dream and I wanted to manifest it quickly. I researched it and learned that it usually takes over a year for a publisher to be able to bring a book to market. I thought that I could [publish] it in less than a year and I did.

The second [factor] is control. Traditional publishers take a great deal of control with respect to editing the manuscript, choosing illustrators and choosing graphic designers. I had a unique vision and I wanted my vision to come to fruition. So I searched for illustrators, editors and designers myself.

The last factor is money. I believe in financial independence and when a person self-publishes that person can keep more of the financial pie. It is true that publishers generally promote the book so that the financial gains become larger, but when you are an unknown author, that marketing budget is very small and yet the traditional publishers continue to take the bulk of the proceeds.

How much did it cost to self-publish your book?
I spent all of the nearly $11,000 dollars that I received (after fees) from my Kickstarter [campaign]. I have added my own funds so the project was very expensive. But that budget is not for everyone.

First, my book is hardcover and fully illustrated so it is more expensive to produce. Second, because of the environmental theme of Sunne’s Gift, I really wanted it to be printed on environmentally-friendly paper. That costs a great deal more. Third, I wanted my book printed in the U.S. by an employee-owned printer so that I could be sure that no one was abused or exploited during the process. That costs more. Finally, I’m very bullish on the book and I printed 3,000 copies. That is a huge run for a self-published book.

All of these factors led to the high cost. Others would be able to self-publish their books for a very low fraction of what I spent.

Did you encounter any surprise or hidden fees during the process of self-publishing?
I would not say that any fees were “hidden”, but the budget kept on expanding. It expanded because I needed more graphic design work. It expanded because I increased the page count to accommodate some design elements. It expanded because I needed to ship the books to multiple places for fulfillment. There are always more fees that one comes across during the process.

Yawson's son Jojo before his first haircut - peoplewhowrite

Yawson’s son Jojo before his first haircut

Though you published your children’s picture book yourself using funds you raised from your Kickstarter campaign, you learned you would need a distributor if you wanted your book easily available to teachers ordering from school lists and in the Baker and Taylor system which librarians access to add books to their shelves. Did you know you would have to do this before you opted to self-publish and how did you decide on a distributor?
I did not know and it was an incremental expense that I had not budgeted. I really could not find many distributors to choose from. There are self-publishing services like Lulu and Createspace that distribute books, but I could not use those services because I wanted control over the printing process (the choice of printer and paper). That said, there were only two companies that I found that would allow me to control the entire process and then just hand over the books to be registered with Ingram, Baker and Taylor, Follett, etc. One company, charged 15% per distributed book and an upfront fee of about $1,000 and another charged 30% with no upfront fee. I am bullish on my sales so I went for 15% on each book and the upfront fee.

After you signed with your distributor, you were surprised to find the company listed as your publisher online. Why do they have the right to do this when you and the many who funded your Kickstarter campaign are the publishers?
I was horrified and I am working diligently to get this resolved. The distributor says that because it gives the books to Baker and Taylor et al. those companies just use the distributor as the publisher. In most cases the distributor and publisher are the same company, but that is unacceptable to me. I did not get an advance. The distributor did not give me money to print the books and to pay for illustration and graphic design. The listing of the distributor as the publisher is insulting to me and the 210 people who donated to my Kickstarter campaign. I’m working on getting it changed.

Mascot Books is listed as the publisher of Ama Yawson's Sunne's Gift on Barnes and Noble_peoplewhowrite

On Barnes and Noble, Mascot Books is listed as the publisher of Sunne’s Gift

In your contract with your distributor, you stipulated that they could not sell the book on Amazon, but before the release date of your book, you were locked out of your Amazon account for more than a week and could not get in for more than a week. What reason did Amazon give you for barring your access?
I printed the books at the end of March [2014] and started selling the book on Amazon through my seller account. My distributor said that it would take a month for the distributor to register the book with Baker and Taylor, Follett, Ingram etc. and that for those purposes the release date would be May 6th. Amazon works with Baker and Taylor, Follett, Ingram and other major wholesalers and so information from those wholesalers feeds into the Amazon system. In late April, Amazon’s system was fed the information that the release date for my ISBN was May 6th and so the Amazon system saw my information on my seller’s account as being incorrect information. It as if the Amazon system saw me as someone who was pirating the book, despite the fact that I’m the author and publisher. Therefore the system suppressed my listing and blocked me from selling the book. Amazon created its own listing and started accepting pre-orders.

How did you resolve the matter?
The problem was “resolved” a few days before the May 6th distributor release date. Amazon gave itself the buy box which still said that it was available only on a preorder basis at a steep 25% discount. At the left side, my small listing was there at full price. So my listing went from being the only listing to being the small listing on the left side.

About two days later on May 6th I was shocked to see that on day one over a dozen companies, including Amazon, were selling my book at deep discounts. There were over a dozen sellers on the left side and Amazon still kept the buy box. Out of solidarity to the wonderful independent bookstores that are carrying my book and can’t afford to give deep discounts, I kept my list price at the suggested retail price. Guess what? I have not sold a single book on Amazon since late April because I don’t have the buy box and my price is high.

The price competition is insane. At one point there were 36 sellers and some where selling the book for $10.01 which is the wholesale price plus 1 cent. A day after the release date, stores were listing the book as used. That is highly unlikely. They were probably selling new books as used knowing that some people prefer to buy used books for environmental reasons. I presume that these additional sellers get the book from my distributor or from Baker and Taylor, Follett, Ingram etc.

Milestones is listed as the publisher of Sunne's Gift - peoplewhowrite

On Amazon, Yawson’s company Milestales is listed as the publisher of Sunne’s Gift

How did the vendors, outside of your distributor, get access to your book?
I stipulated that my distributor can’t sell to Amazon, but my distributor can sell to “BookSnatchers” or some other company that will then list the book and sell it on Amazon.

Do you blame Amazon or your distributor for this snafu which cost you revenue for a book you invested time and resources in, and wrote for such a personal reason?
I believe that there is room for a great deal of improvement with respect to Amazon’s systems and its relationships with small independent publishers like myself. Amazon is not perfect and neither is my distributor. But I don’t really cast blame on anyone. I’m just learning from this, as with any new experience. Additionally, it is important to note that I will still get the wholesale price minus the 15% distribution fee from those sales that Amazon and “BookSnatchers” etc. made.

There has been growing sentiment in the publishing community that Amazon is undermining the marketplace for books because of its aggressively low pricing. Do you think Amazon is harmful to the book business, particularly writers seeking to earn a living from their work?
I think that Amazon is dangerous with its low pricing in a similar way that Walmart is dangerous due to low pricing. We need independent bookstores which we can visit and relax in and listen to authors and have our children attend storytime. We need independent publishers that bring new ideas to the population. We need boutiques that we can walk into and have a relationship with a salesperson.

Insofar as companies like Amazon or Walmart shut out independent bookstores, small publishers and boutiques, it is harmful. But the power lies with us. We have to diversify the places that we go for books, clothes, etc. We have to decrease our reliance on Amazon. We have to be willing to spend more to live better and to support the small businesses that are so dear to us.

Knowing what you know now, would you recommend other writers self-publish?
I would still recommend it because it is an opportunity to control your work, control your finances, control your creativity and control your life. It is easier to do it now than it has ever been before. Yes there are going to be challenges. Marketing is a major challenge. The issues I had with Amazon and my distributor disturbed my peace of mind. But there will also be rewards.

I’m so uplifted anytime that someone comments on the gorgeous illustration, fantastic design and amazing story that is Sunne’s Gift. I served as art director and design director and that gives me great pride because no one would have been able to execute my vision like me. The amazingly talented illustrator that I chose had just graduated from college, had no prior children’s book experience and would not have been picked by traditional publishers. That is the power that one has with self-publishing. Don’t cede that power easily.


Ama Karikari Yawson earned a BA cum laude in Social Studies from Harvard University, an MBA from the Wharton School and a JD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Her articles have been published in MSNBC’s The Grio, The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, Madame Noire and other publications. She has also appeared on the Today Show, Al Jazeera’s The Stream, The Nate Berkus Show and Fox Business. Follow her @amakywason.

UK Children's Laureate: Children's Books Get No Love, Despite Strong Sales

Outgoing Children's Laureate Julia Donaldson says media doesn't give children's books same attention as adult books - peoplewhowrite

Outgoing Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson

Children’s books reportedly represent 25% of UK book sales, yet “far less than a fortieth of review space in printed papers is dedicated to them” outgoing Waterstones Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson criticized in a piece in the Telegraph. Ending her two year stint as Children’s Laureate — author Marjorie Blackman succeeds her — Donaldson also pointed out a disparity in treatment of debut and emerging children’s authors versus those who write books for adults. “Whereas a new adult book with an unusual theme or concept might get a slot on radio or television, the same is not true of children’s fiction.”

In the US, at least three children’s book titles, including the wildly popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid are among the bestselling books of 2013 so far; and publishers are turning more attention and resources to the market. Christian Publisher Zondervan is launching a young adult imprint aimed at mainstream readers, while publisher Lizzie Skurnick will re-release out-of-print YA titles that were classics in the ’70s and ’80s. The industry has even created a bridge category for young adults transitioning into adult reads called (what else?) “new adult“.  Yet, in spite of the flurry of business activity, US press attention does seem to overwhelmingly favor adult titles while fellowships and literary awards juries often exclude children’s books from eligibility.

Reading Rainbow Partners with Nat Geo Kids to Release Digital Picture Books & Easy Readers

LeVar Burton, host and Executive Producer of the Reading Rainbow show, co-founded RRKidz - peoplewhowrite

LeVar Burton, host and Executive Producer of the Reading Rainbow show, co-founded RRKidz

As part of Reading Rainbow’s (now RRKidz) plan to partner with publishers to convert their titles into interactive digital works, the veteran PBS reading show is joining forces with National Geographic Kids. Together, Publishers Weekly reports, RRKidz and Nat Geo Kids will “offer a line of branded digital picture books and easy readers.” The piece adds,  “The Reading Rainbow book app will debut the National Geographic Kids’ digital content beginning in March 2013 with 30 titles.”

2013 is shaping up to be a fantastic year in children’s reading. McDonald’s has launched a promotion in the UK to give away children’s books with their Happy Meals.

Now, YA Authors Don’t Need An Agent to Submit to Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group

Macmillan Children's Publishing Group launches crowdsource YA Romance imprint Publishers Weekly reports Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group has launched a new crowdsourced imprint called Swoon Reads. The YA Romance imprint will create a community online allowing writers to submit their manuscripts directly to the publisher. Visitors to the site will be encouraged to read, rate, comment on submissions, and share feedback on cover design and marketing. The manuscripts achieving the highest ratings by readers and an in-house Swoon Reads editorial team will be published in paperback and e-book editions. The Swoon Reads website will launch in spring 2013; the first Swoon Reads novels will be released in 2014. Between this venture, Random House’s recent signing of a 17 year old YA novelist, and the New York Times’ distinction between YA and Middle Grade on their Children’s fiction bestseller list, 2013 is shaping up to be a good year for Children’s Book authors. Of course, with all eyes on the Children’s Book genre, backs will be turned to some other completely fresh book/author that will, like E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey did, completely take everyone by surprise.

Reflecting on Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein's "Reflection" on the Upside-Down Man - peoplewhowrite
I have a few boards on Pinterest where I pin books I’ve read over the last couple of decades and as I was pinning to my “What I read in the ’80s” board, I came across Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. I, honestly, couldn’t/can’t remember the story, but I remembered the cover, and subsequently, how it made me feel as a kid.

Many children’s books from my childhood featured either multiple children, children with animals, animals alone, or close-ups of the young protagonist so there was always this feeling that the main character had this brimming social life. Even when the story admitted the protagonist was socially awkward, the close-ups conveyed a connection the reader was supposed to find in the main character.

Where animals were involved, the pets became proxy for the ideas above — which all make sense. These are safe, tried and true tropes for children’s books.  But The Giving Tree cover was a wide shot of a kid alone. Just him, his backpack, and this (his?) tree. The crisp red apple about to tumble into his hands.

I’m sure I didn’t articulate it this way when I was a kid, but today I can say I connected with the image because it validated that, even though I was young, it was okay to be alone in my own head, and mull over the world around me (which I was and did).  So when I came across this image of Silverstein’s “Reflection” poem on Facebook (via Mike Geffner, Founder, Producer and Director of The Inspired Word), it leapt out at me. Gave me that same safe, thoughtful feeling.

Just read these incredibly fine lines. Just beautiful.

Getting Started: Children's Book Author Kwame Alexander on Sourcing Inspiration

Author Kwame Alexander - peoplewhowrite

Poet and children’s book author Kwame Alexander has written 14 books

Kwame Alexander is an NAACP Image Award-nominated  author, poet, and public speaker committed to fostering the love of reading and writing among children and adults. In 2006, he founded the Book-in-a-Day writing and publishing program which has created over 1000 student authors in more than 30 schools across the country, and in Canada; and in the summer of 2010, Alexander created the Book-in-a-Day International Fellowship, taking eight writer/educators on a creative journey to Tuscany. In 2012, the Fellowship took eleven writer/educators (including me!) to Salvador da Bahia.

The author of 14 books including Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band and Indigo Blume and the Garden City, Alexander shares his process for finding inspiration — and keeping it.

What are you currently working on ?
Aside from playing in doll houses, kicking soccer balls, and staging a marching band around the house with my four year old, I am stealing time to work on the following: I have a hilarious picture book called Kerplunk: A Tale of Two Frogs coming out this May. I am finishing up the final rewrites on a middle reader novel-in-verse that was due two days ago.

Also, I’m outlining the next YA and middle reader novels. I’m really excited about these because I’m trying some drastically new things for the first time in my literary career. It’s akin to dancing naked on the floor, and either it’s gonna come off like the new thing, or I’ll look ridiculous. Oh well.

Acoustic Rooster by Kwame Alexander

Acoustic Rooster‘s musical cast of characters includes “Thelonius Monkey”, “Mules Davis”, and “Ella Finchgerald”

How has the process of getting started on these projects differed from your previous projects (if at all)?
Well, let’s take the middle reader novel. This novel differed in that I really had to immerse myself in some serious research to really pull this off effectively. It’s a trilogy that begins in Ghana, a few years before the end of the slave trade. It was one thing to write about slavery from an American, Western perspective, but telling the horrific story of that experience through the eyes of an African boy, required me to be amongst the people, the culture, the land, to really feel it. I remember one day in Ghana, sitting under a tree for three hours batting away mosquitos and talking with some teachers about slavery and discovering how different our views were. Everything else I’ve written is pretty much based on, if only loosely, my personal dramas and challenges. This book required me to really fuse fact with imagination. Mind you, I ain’t written one line, but I know the story. LOL!

Kwame Alexander's book of love poems Crush

Kwame Alexander’s book of love poems, Crush

What is your process for starting a new project?
My process is I plan an elaborate, overseas trip, under the guise of a fellowship or residency, and then i take like six or seven of my writer friends and colleagues with me, and we rent a villa or get a hotel, and we hang out for like two weeks, and basically i sit back and watch, and listen, and instigate, and I get inspired by the goings-ons, and I steal ideas and whatnot, and then when I get back to the States I write a book or two about them jokers and they are none the wiser. LOL!

Okay, I’m joking (a little). I get ideas in my sleep, or while driving, or after meeting someone, and then I think about it/them for like days and weeks and months, and then at some point it hits me: a book about a rooster that plays jazz music. And once I have that, I just write it. So, the idea part can take hours or months, but once I have it, it’s one. Then I outline, draft, read out loud, share, rewrite, and move on to the next project.

In Kwame Alexander's children's book, nine year old Indigo Blume spearheads a clean-up campaign in her neighborhood.

Nine-year-old Indigo Blume spearheads a clean-up campaign in her neighborhood

Does the blank page/screen titillate or terrify you?
Titilate? I don’t know if I would describe it in those terms. Methinks you been watching too much HBO. I do not think of the blank page as a woman. I do see the possibility of a masterpiece in it though. That is not to say that a woman is not a masterpiece…Oh never mind. I like blank pages.

When you are getting started, are you already clear about who your reader will be?
Heck yeah. I’ve got this wild notion that I can appeal to everyone, everywhere, all the time. With the picture books, I try to make sure that parents and kids will enjoy it. With the novels, they are geared towards certain audiences, but I write so that everyone can pull something from it, can appreciate it. I thrive on moving in and out of vastly different circles and connecting, in my writing and my life.

How do you stay motivated past the euphoria of getting those first words on the page/screen?
I think it was Rumi who said “Travel brings power and love back into your life.” Well, I am motivated by love. And, I travel a lot. And I am full of ideas from these journeys. And I am in love with love. And that is some pretty powerful stuff… Onwards!

Diverse Children's Books to Put on Your List

Torrey Maldonado's Secret Saturdays_peoplewhowrite

Secret Saturday’s is a compelling chronicle of a Latino boy coming of age in Red Hook, Brooklyn

Latinos make up 16% of the U.S. population and almost 25% of public school students, but they are not adequately reflected in children‘s literature (one of the only growing sectors in the publishing industry) or on classroom reading lists, Motoko Rich pointed out in a New York Times article this week. Citing Diary of a Wimpy Kid and the Magic Treehouse series among his favorite reads, eight year old Mario Cortez-Pacheco is quoted in Rich’s article as saying “I see a lot of people that don’t have a lot of color.”

Not being able to personally identify with or relate to content has been linked to poor performance on standardized tests, which obviously has farther reaching ramifications on the future success of students. Writer Mona Se Queda gave a compelling example in a piece published in Persephone Magazine:

“I once saw an essay question asking children to write a persuasive essay about why fishing is fun. That seems at first glance to be a pretty innocuous question, as I was raised with a father who loves to fish.  However, how many children from the inner city go fishing? How would they know if it is fun or not? A student may be able to produce a well-thought-out essay in general, but if they are not familiar with the prompt, they will not succeed according to the exam.” 

There needs to be more balance. It’s not only important that kids like Mario see stories that reflect them and their experiences in the classroom setting; it’s crucial that all students be exposed to a diversity of stories. I’m not just talking race. Reading books that handle class, gender, geographical location, sexual orientation, and culture are just a few of the ways students can begin to understand and learn to empathize with experiences that are unfamiliar to their own.

NeonSeon's_Life of Shouty_peoplewhowrite

Shouty goes from “overweight and overwhelmed to fit and focused”

Understanding and empathy are a large part of why stories are so powerful. As writers, we strive to tell our stories — stories we hope will connect across race, gender, class, etc — because we ourselves will never forget the first time we connected with a story or character in a book.

That flutter of recognition and identification validated what we were feeling and who we were/are. Likewise, we’ve been consumed with stories we couldn’t put down even though, on the surface, we had nothing in common with the characters/no familiarity with the setting or subject matter because the story transcended all the barriers to capture the human experience we all share.

We need to advocate for inclusion of more diverse stories on kids’ school reading lists, and personally expand the reading selection of the kids in our lives. With the holidays upon us, this is a good opportunity to gift a book.

Bookseller Aurora Anaya-Cerda shares her recommendation of Latino children’s titles in a companion New York Times article on the topic.

In Kwame Alexander's children's book, nine year old Indigo Blume spearheads a clean-up campaign in her neighborhood.

Nine-year-old Indigo Blume spearheads a clean-up campaign in her neighborhood

She includes one of my faves, Torrey Maldonado’s middle-grade title Secret Saturdays about a young boy struggling to define what manhood is in the absence of his incarcerated father. I also recommend:

1. Sharon Draper’s award-winning Copper Sun about a young girl ripped from her village in Ghana and shipped to America as a slave,

2. Kwame Alexander’s Indigo Blume and the Garden City about an intrepid and poetic nine-year-old girl that spearheads her neighborhood’s clean-up campaign and rooftop garden,

3. Martin Wilson’s YA novel What They Always Tell Us about a gay teen struggling to come out to his family,

4. Liza Monroy’s Mexican High about an American teenage girl who starts her senior year of high school in Mexico when her mother, an employee of the State Department, gets reassigned,

5. NeonSeon’s charming Life of Shouty picture books that adults will enjoy too,

6. and my own book, Powder Necklace, about a teenage girl whose mom ships her off from London to boarding school in Cape Coast, Ghana after she catches her entertaining a boy at home unsupervised.