Author Interview with Gayle Pitman

Why do you write books for children?

I have a friend who is a children’s book author and illustrator, and several years ago she decided to quit her job as a tenured professor in order to pursue a more creative life. She started teaching classes about writing and illustrating children’s books, and she encouraged (well, pressured, really) me to sign up. I said I would – I have a hard time saying “no” – and then thought “oh wow, what did I just get myself into?” But it turned out to be one of the best things I ever did. I also had no idea how hard it is to write a high-quality story for children! It’s much harder than it looks. Taking that class showed me how to be creative in an entirely new way, and writing for children fuels me in ways that I can’t really put into words.  

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There’s another reason why I do this, though. Not long after I took that class, I started playing with the idea of writing a story about an LGBTQ+ Pride celebration. When I was researching comps, I was stunned to find that not only were there very few picture books featuring LGBTQ+ themes, but only one had ever been written about a Pride parade (and it was published almost thirty years ago). That was so disturbing to me – that LGBTQ+ people were virtually invisible in children’s books. And I see on a daily basis what that invisibility does to a community. Most of my college students (including those who are LGBTQ+ identified) have never heard of the Pink Scare, or the Stonewall Riots, or the AIDS crisis, for that matter. They know about HIV, but they don’t know how the gay community was decimated by it. That lack of knowledge is terrifying to me, and I want children AND adults to know about our history, our culture, and how we got here. That’s why I wrote books like This Day in June, When You Look Out the Window (a book about Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin), and Sewing the Rainbow (my latest book about Gilbert Baker and the creation of the rainbow flag).

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Industry Q&A with Trisha de Guzman, Associate Editor at Farrar, Straus, Giroux BFYR

Please tell us about the most recent diverse book you published.

I’m still at the very early stages of building my list, but I was fortunate enough to edit two books with diverse characters recently:

The Fantastic Body is a nonfiction, illustrated guide to the human body for kids. Because the book would be so heavily illustrated, we wanted the children depicted to be multifaceted and diverse. The book is nonfiction and prescriptive, so the text doesn’t actually address race in a direct way. It’s important to address serious issues of race, culture, and identity in diverse books, but it’s also important to show that children are children, no matter their background, and that there are more things that unite them than divide them. I firmly believe in publishing books featuring diverse characters without making race the main issue, so I’m proud of that book.  

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I was also the developmental editor for a middle grade series of novels called Shred Girls. The first book, Lindsay’s Joyride, is about young girls who befriend each other through their shared love of BMX. What I loved about the book was how multifaceted every main character was. Lindsay likes comic books, but she also, it turned out, loves riding bikes. And she likes many other things: her new friends. Her Mexican grandmother’s cooking. The cute boy who rides at the same park. Kombucha. Mariana Pajón, Colombian cyclist and two-time Olympic gold medalist and BMX World Champion. No one thing defined her, nor any other character. While Lindsay is Latina and proud, her heritage informs the novel but isn’t its sole focus.

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Finding Your Way Out of the Margins

By Caleb Roehrig

From the outside, it probably seems a self-evident choice when an author from a marginalized group chooses to write a protagonist that shares their lived experience. If “write what you know” is sound advice, then choosing to speak from a personal and underrepresented point of view would seem obvious. But for me and many other “own voices” writers, the decision was not obvious at all.

When I was a teenager, just discovering my love of writing, there was no such thing as It Gets Better, and no gay characters in fiction for young adults; if a gay person appeared on a television show, it was advertised as a stunt, aired at a special time, and came with a content warning; and if gay characters appeared in the movies, they were cruelly drawn caricatures, tragic victims or offensive comic relief. Back then, it never even occurred to me that a gay person could anchor a piece of mainstream art or entertainment.

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My very first attempt at a full-length manuscript was a YA horror novel about a teenage girl and her smart-mouthed pals. One of her friends was implicitly gay (not out, not on the page, but the subtext was there,) which was about as close as I dared come to representing myself in my own work. My second manuscript featured a straight male protagonist who, in a running gag, was frequently assumed to be gay by others—resulting in funny protests of the “not that there’s anything wrong with that” variety. My third attempt: straight girl MC with a gay friend. My fourth: straight girl MC with a gay friend.

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The Bronx is Reading

Interview with Saraciea Fennell, organizer of the first ever Bronx Book Festival (May 18-19, 2018).

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How do you self identify?

My family is a wonderful mix of many things. I identify as Afro-Latina/indigenous (Garifuna) from Honduras/Jamaica, and black and Native American.

Tell us about the Bronx Book Festival?

I’m bringing the first book festival featuring traditionally published bestselling and award-winning authors to the Bronx. This project has been years in the making. The idea was seeded years ago after I attended my first book festival as an adult. This festival will go a long way to make the literary community of the Bronx visible and viable. I’m excited for Bronxites of all ages to attend the festival and engage with authors/illustrators and industry professionals. Representation is everything, and who knows, maybe folks attending will find themselves aspiring to be the next bestselling author or editor or marketing in the industry.

Who are some of the authors attending?

We have an amazing line up including our keynote speakers Daniel José Older (Shadowshaper Cypher) and Elizabeth Acevedo (The Poet X), featured panelists include Heidi Heilig (The Ship Beyond Time), the Bronx’s very own, Adam Silvera (They Both Die at the End), Lilliam Rivera (The Education of Margo Sanchez), and Kem Joy Ukwu (Locked Gray / Linked Blue).

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Why did you decide to take on this initiative?

The Bronx has a long tradition of literary culture including Edgar Allan Poe, James Baldwin, Bronx Writers Center, and Bronx Loaf. Many contemporary authors and other book folk have come from the borough. But because the Bronx is New York City’s poorest borough, this vibrant, book-loving community has often been overshadowed and underserved. I want to get people who look like me reading. I want Bronxites living in a borough without a bookstore to see that traditionally published authors are willing to come engage with the community. My hope is that this festival will ignite passions for reading and maybe this will be the seed that helps plant the roots for people to become editors, marketers, authors and create a more diverse publishing industry.

You’ve been working in the industry for years as a publicist. How did you get your start? 

I have, it’s been a bit over 6 years now. I got my start working as a publicity assistant at Simon & Schuster at an adult imprint. It didn’t take long for me to realize that kidlit publishing was the place for me! I love the work that I do and am amazed at the kidlit publishing community.

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Where can people learn more about the festival?

People can learn more about the festival by visiting wwww.thebronxisreading.com and they can also checkout the Kickstarter campaign https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1895431533/bronx-book-festival-the-bronx-is-reading?ref=dje9sh and follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @thebronxisreading.

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Saraciea J. Fennell is a publicist in the publishing industry. She’s worked with many award winning and New York Times bestselling authors like Daniel José Older, Tui T. Sutherland, Peter Sís, Jennifer A. Nielsen, Chris Colfer, Julie Andrews, Malala Yousafzai, Mike Jung, Deborah Wiles, Javaka Steptoe, Jerry Pinkney, and many, many more. She is passionate about books, and devours anything sci-fi/fantasy-related in books, TV and movies. Fennell grew up in the Bronx and spent four years in the foster care system. If it weren’t for books she’s not sure where she would be today. Follow her on Twitter @sj_fennell and visit www.TheBronxisReading.com for more information on the festival.

In Conversation with Author JaNay Brown-Wood

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!

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MCCBD Feature: 10 Native Books to Inspire the Young Ones and Young at Heart!

Sandy Tharp-Thee, author of The Apple Tree, shares her book list “​10 Native Books to Inspire the Young Ones and Young at Heart!” Check out the preview below and the full list & 25 book giveaway on the Multicultural Children’s Book Day website.

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1. Buffalo Song by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth

The story of how the buffalo nearly became extinct, but because people cared enough and worked together we can still enjoy the American buffalo today. It offers insight to the meaning and importance of the buffalo to Native people from yesteryear to today. Based on true events, it reveals the consequences of one small buffalo being rescued by a boy and his father.

I believe the author said he spent sixteen years researching this true story.  When I read it, I like to have the children sing with me.  As a tribal librarian, this story allowed me to share the past, present, and future of buffalo.  Today, the buffalo are no longer in danger, and we can enjoy them in the wild but also purchase the healthier bison meat.  It is because of people coming together that this is possible.

Before reading this story with the children, I would share:  Imagine if I could give you a gift and that gift gave you the shoes that you are wearing.  Now imagine if that same gift provided your clothes, food, and even your shelter or home.  What might you say to the creator that gave you such a gift?  How would you care for such a gift? [picture book, ages 7 and up]


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2. The Story of Jumping Mouse by John Steptoe

One of the smallest creatures—the mouse—is drawn to the sound of the river and the idea of reaching the top of a mountain.  His journey gives him a new name, “Jumping Mouse.” Along the way he discovers that he can help those in great need.  The sacrifice is huge, but he freely gives, and his award in the end is life changing.

This story is precious to me because the mouse while being so small is nonetheless unafraid.  Even when a buffalo and a wolf cross his path, the mouse doesn’t let his feelings of awe overcome him; instead, he humbly revels in the realization that a little mouse like he might be able to help them.  Indeed, he helps the two strangers freely without question.  If only we could be like the tiny mouse.  One of my favorite sayings is to remember whatever we do is not wasted, and, of, course everything we do does come back. [picture book, ages 7 and up]


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3. Welcome Song for Baby by Richard Van Camp

This board book is true to its title—a song to welcome a baby.  Every child deserves to hear how dear, loved, cherished, and beautiful they are and how they are making the world a better place.   A promise and thank you sung to the gift: the baby.

This book is a song, and I have found that babies will stop crying to listen to it sung softly.  But more than that, babies need to hear the sweet words of welcome that are in this book.  Siblings could easily learn the words to sing to a new brother or sister. The photographs are excellent, and I found even the youngest of children enjoy looking at real photographs.  (One of my younger patrons with autism especially enjoyed books that included photographs with faces.) [picture book, ages infant and up]


Read the full list & enter the giveaway here.

MCCBD Feature: Diverse Books about Inclusion that Make the World a Better Place

Jo Meserve Mach, Vera Lynne Stroup-Rentier, and Mary Birdsell, authors of Claire Wants a Boxing Name, share their book list “​Books Making the World Better Through Inclusion.” Check out the preview below and the full list on the Multicultural Children’s Book Day website.

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1. Emanuel’s Dream by Lauri Ann Thompson, illustrated by Sean Qualls

I love true stories and this true story of Emmanual Ofos Yeboah is so inspiring! Because his mother believes he can teach himself how to gain the skills he does just that. The fact he is missing part of one leg doesn’t limit him.  Emmanuels quote at the end of the book says it all: “In this world, we are not perfect. We can only do our best.” [picture book, ages 4 and up]

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2. My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay by Cari Best, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

This is a fun story that takes place at school. It portrays inclusion in a wonderful way.  Zulay becomes just another child participating in Field Day. At first she seems different because she is blind but then she is like every other child competing at school. [picture book, ages 4 and up]

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3. Max the Champion by Sean Stockdale and Alexandra Strick, illustrated by Ros Asquith

I like this story because it’s about following your passion. Max loves sports and he and other children with all types of abilities enjoy playing together. The fact that Max has a hearing aid doesn’t interfere with his inclusion in the sports he loves. [picture book, ages 4 and up]

Read the full list here.

MCCBD Feature: Books for Teens Featuring African-American Protagonists

Mike Mullin, author of Surface Tension, shares his book list “​Books for Teens Featuring African-American Protagonists.” Check out the preview below and the full list & 5 book giveaway on the Multicultural Children’s Book Day website.

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1. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

I first read this novel the same year I first saw Star Wars, when I was ten or eleven. Both experiences linger in my memory nearly 40 years later. It wasn’t the first time I’d read books with Black protagonists (that would be Ezra Jack Keats’ brilliant picture books), but it was the first time I’d read about the brutality of racism. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry is set in 1930’s Mississippi—Taylor sets the scene so well that by the time you’re done reading you’ll be able to taste the rust-colored dust of the dirt roads.

Cassie is an indomitable heroine. Every time I read her story, I alternate between feeling terror and elation as she confronts everything from racist insults to horrific threats against her person. But the true brilliance of the novel is the theme of fire running throughout it, beginning with the horribly burnt body of Mr. Berry and ending with a forest fire—it serves as a stark metaphor for the all-consuming nature of racism. [chapter book, ages 11 and up]


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2. M.C. Higgins the Great by Virginia Hamilton

I think I loved this book because I identified so strongly with the protagonist: Mayo Cornelius Higgins, a brainy, disaffected young man who watches the world from atop a 40’ steel pole. Like M.C., I climbed everything in sight. (Trees, buildings… I never had a 40’ pole, but I have no doubt I would have tried to climb it. My favorite place was a tree covered in vines—I could climb up, stick my head out the top, and gaze over what looked like a leafy meadow suspended 60’ above the ground.) I also identified with the alliance M.C. builds with his neighbors, the light-skinned, red-headed Killburns. I never tried to build a wall with the Black kids who lived next door to me—Mark, Todd, and Glen—but we did build some wicked BMX ramps together! Years after I first read M.C. Higgins the Great, I met Virginia Hamilton and she signed a copy for me. I wish I’d bought a hardcover, but at that point I was in college and nearly broke. I also wish my handwriting were half as lovely as hers:

If you enjoy M.C. Higgins the Great, don’t miss The Planet of Junior Brown and The House of Dies Drear, my other favorite Hamilton novels. [chapter book, ages 11 and up]


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3. Monster by Walter Dean Myers

I could have put lots of Myers books on this list, but this is the one that haunted my dreams for months after I read it. The protagonist, Steve, is facing 25-years to life for a crime he didn’t commit. Myers tells the story entirely through diary entries and a screenplay Steve is writing. But the real story here is Steve’s inner battle, as he struggles to reject the label society has already branded him with: Monster. [young adult, ages 13 and up]


Read the full list and enter the giveaway here.

MCCBD Feature: 8 Picture Books About Feeling Different But Finding Your Place

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, author of Splatypus shares her book list “8 Picture Books About Feeling Different But Finding Your Place.” Check out the preview below and the full list & 5 book giveaway on the Multicultural Children’s Book Day website.

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1. Flight School by Lita Judge

Little Penguin wants to fly — no matter what anyone says about aeronautical deficiencies of the penguin body. He perseveres, relying more on willpower than talent. Eventually, adding an encouraging teacher and a dash of teamwork allows Little Penguin to soar to new heights. I love how this story makes you believe in miracles — even if they need a little assistance. [picture book, ages 4 and up]


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2. Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes

Chrysanthemum loves the uniqueness of her name until she realizes at school that unique means different and that different isn’t always accepted. Her self-esteem is deeply affected by her classmates making her feel out of place. But Chrysanthemum finds a kindred spirit and learns a lesson I myself have struggled with often — that even things (and people) that don’t seem to belong do actually belong somewhere. [picture book, ages 4 and up]


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3. Unlike Other Monsters by Audrey Vernick,‎ illustrated by Colin Jack

Everyone knows monsters don’t have friends, so Zander (himself a monster) isn’t surprised by his friendless state. But while he is unsurprised, he is also disappointed. Unlike other monsters, Zander longs for friendship — which he thinks he may have found in the form of a little red bird. Before Zander can truly bond with his new friend he has to learn to let go of other people’s (or other monsters’) expectations and give himself permission to be himself. A sweet story of finding new friends and also of finding yourself. [picture book, ages 5 and up]


Read the full list and enter the giveaway here.

MCCBD Feature: Eight Picture Books with Diverse Family Constellations

Megan Dowd Lambert, author of Real Sisters Pretend, shares her book list “Eight Picture Books with Diverse Family Constellations.” Check out the preview below and the full list on the Multicultural Children’s Book Day website.

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1. Fred Stays with Me by Nancy Coffelt, illustrated by Tricia Tusa

A little girl whose parents are divorced splits her time between her mom’s house and her dad’s. Her dog, the eponymous Fred, also moves between homes, which gives her a sense of stability and consistency in her co-parenting, joint-custody family arrangement. [picture book, ages 3 and up]


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2. Stella Brings the Family by Miriam Schiffer Baker, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown

Stella has two dads and isn’t quite sure what to do for her class’s Mother’s Day celebration. Ultimately, she decides to bring both of her parents, as well as other family members who nurture her, and they are all affirmed and welcomed by everyone at school. [picture book, ages 5 and up]


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3. Real Sisters Pretend by Megan Dowd Lambert, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell

Inspired by two of the author’s daughters, this is a story about adoptive sisters, Mia (who is multiracial) and Tayja (who is Back), who affirm their bonds with one another after a stranger questions whether they are “real sisters” since they don’t look alike. They punctuate their pretend play with conversation about their adoption stories, and it all culminates in a warm family hug with their two moms. [picture book, ages 4 and up]


Read the full list here.