By Julie Bliven
The first diversity question today is how do you self identify?
I am a black American woman.
How did your background influence your early reading and writing habits, if at all?
I grew up in a family where education was of utmost importance. Reading, writing, and all things academic were as normal and mandatory as breathing. I am thankful for how much my parents valued education. They read to us each night and exposed us to different texts ranging from poetry and children’s literature to newspapers and encyclopedias. I still remember when my dad ordered a collection of Encyclopedia Britannica that filled an entire bookshelf in our living room. I do admit that I initially didn’t like reading for fun, but I thoroughly enjoyed writing my own stories, poetry, and songs. Reading grew on me, and, to this day, both reading and writing are integral parts of my life.
Growing up, did you see and/or envision yourself in the stories you read?
I didn’t see myself in many stories that I read, but two do come to mind: Vera B. Williams’s Cherries and Cherry Pits and John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. I don’t remember loving those books, but they do stick out in my mind—possibly because they had black girls in them. As a teenager I remember reading Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and while the protagonist was black, I didn’t feel like I connected to her that much. I think I insulated myself from not being represented in books because I wrote my own stories where I was the main character. I wrote a bunch of stories starring Detective JaNay Brown where I’d go on adventures and solve mysteries. I also remember writing stories with black girls that were similar to me, even if they didn’t have my name. So although I didn’t really feel myself connecting to published books, I definitely connected to my own work since I was the one solving all the problems!
How did you get into writing for children?
I always knew I wanted to write for children. My love for writing started when I was very young. For a sixth-grade assignment I wrote and illustrated a picture book. My entire class sat and listened as I read it. When I was being promoted to seventh grade, my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Welch, predicted that I’d become a “best-selling author.” I still have the prediction she made, so it was such a powerful moment for me when my first picture book, Imani’s Moon, was published, and Mrs. Welch was right there at my book release party. I may not be a best-selling author (yet!), but it was still a magical moment. So yes, I always knew I wanted to write books, and my voice seemed to naturally connect to young readers. As for getting work published, that took lots of hard work, persistence, honing my craft, and support. It’s no easy feat to publish books, but I won’t let a challenge keep me from doing what I enjoy and find important.
What appeals most to you about the job of writing for children?
There’s so much that appeals to me about writing for children. I enjoy being creative—coming up with dynamic characters, interesting plotlines, or alliterative rhymes. I also like finding things from my own experience and capturing them on the page. For example, my latest picture book, Grandma’s Tiny House, was inspired by my family’s Thanksgiving celebrations. I also appreciate the big responsibility that comes with being an author. It is authors who help children get hooked on reading. When we write stories that children want to engage with, we are setting the foundation for a literate future. I take this responsibility very seriously! I also love when children connect with my characters. I can recall one of the times I read Imani’s Moon to a group of children. A little black girl flipped through the pages of her own copy, showing me the pages as we moved through the story. The huge smile on her face stays with me, especially since her middle name was Imani.
Can you tell me about Grandma’s Tiny House, your recent picture book that is referred to as a casual diversity title?
Grandma’s Tiny House is the book version of my family’s Thanksgiving gathering. I have a giant family (my dad had thirteen or fourteen siblings—I lost count) and we’d often go over to my grandma’s house for holiday celebrations, bringing food to share. Many of the foods depicted in the book are exactly what we ate, including turkey, collard greens, biscuits, cheesecakes, etc. It feels so good to see children enjoying my words that describe something that is so near and dear to my heart. And something that I’ve really enjoyed about the publication of Grandma’s Tiny House is that I’ve been told so many times by people of different races that my story is just like what happens at their grandma’s house.
Can you give an example of another recent diversity title that you would recommend and why?
There are so many to choose from. But I am a huge fan of Gaia Cornwall’s Jabari Jumps. It is a simple picture-book story that so many children can relate to. It’s about being afraid of jumping off the high dive but overcoming the fear and succeeding. I also love the beautiful artwork! Cornwall made such a deliberate choice to differ the skin tones of the dad, little sister, and Jabari. And it is the dad—rather than a mother figure—who takes them to the pool and talks Jabari through his fears. Such a great work! I am also a huge fan of Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give. I really saw myself in Starr, and I thought Thomas did such a superb job handling difficult subjects that are prominent in the black community today.
How did you feel when you heard about the new grassroots organization People of Color in Publishing?
I am beyond excited to hear about this new development within the realm of publishing. When I first heard about the organization, two things came to mind. I thought: 1) Finally! A comprehensive group that includes more than just authors aimed at combating the lack of diversity!; and 2) I want in! How can I help?
Diversity in children’s books is so important, and this expands beyond race. All kids should be able to find themselves in the books they read—so let’s continue to make that happen in a big way!
How do you feel about the future of children’s publishing and your future as an author, given the #OwnVoices Movement, We Need Diverse Books, and additional people and actions working to make our industry better reflect the world we live in?
This is an area I am incredibly passionate about. Diversity is paramount to a future where individuals embrace one another’s differences and work together as a whole to make a better, more compassionate world. I am in the process of determining what role I can play in moving diversity forward, beyond being an author. One thing I can share is I am currently working on my doctorate degree in education at the University of California, Davis. My research is aimed at looking into the impacts that diversity in books can have on children. I am in the process of analyzing some data I collected and am eager to see what my findings show. (I’m not sharing specifics quite yet.)
Because I believe in the importance of diversity in children’s books so much, I am trying to do my part in supporting this as an author in the books I write, as a educator in the classes I teach and workshops I give, and as a researcher in the studies I conduct and papers I write. I feel the future looks bright for children’s publishing, and I hope each of these movements and organizations continue to gain momentum as we push for a more representative body of literature that children can read from, learn from, and be inspired by.
JaNay Brown-Wood is a professor of early childhood and writes books for children. She is the author of Imani’s Moon and Grandma’s Tiny House. JaNay lives with her family in California.
Julie Bliven is editor at Charlesbridge, where she edits fiction and nonfiction board books, picture books, and middle-grade novels. She and JaNay Brown-Wood are currently collaborating on their third picture book together. Julie holds an M.A. in Children’s Literature from Simmons College, mentors writers in the college’s M.F.A. program, and has taught writing courses at the Jewish Community Center of Massachusetts. She is also a former member of the Children’s Book Council Diversity Initiative. @Julie_Bliven