Ellen Oh: Taking Diversity in Literature from Fantasy to Reality

Ellen Oh is an author, but oh so much more. She not only has a professional background in law and in education, but she is also the co-founder, president, and CEO of We Need Diverse Books. Her passion for helping kids see themselves in literature is second to none. Here she shares her experiences with reading, and her hopes for the future of the publishing industry.

“I was a kid of the public library system … the public library meant I could read all the books I could put my hands on.”

What was your introduction to literacy as a young person? What are your earliest memories of reading and writing?
I was a kid of the public library system. Owning books was a luxury we couldn’t really afford in our house, but the public library meant I could read all the books I could put my hands on. My earliest memories of reading are sitting with my mom and dad reading all my books to them. I also remember going to the library for hours as a young child, even closing it down. My parents would often use the library as a babysitter and I didn’t care because I would just read until the librarians would kick me out.

As the co-founder of We Need Diverse Books, you clearly saw the need for authors and illustrators whose work is more inclusive. When do you first remember coming to that realization?

It isn’t a realization that really hit me until I was a new mom. I remembered how much I hated The Five Chinese Brothers (Coward-McCann, 1938) and its racist depictions of Asian people, and it wasn’t until I was in college that I found myself in the pages of a book with the Joy Luck Club (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989). But it didn’t really hit me hard until I was looking for books in the children’s section when my oldest daughter was just a baby, and I realized the shelves didn’t look any different than from when I was a kid. It made me determined to write a hero of my own that my kids could read about.

Is that how you choose which characters you write about and which stories you tell—ones you want your children to read?
I write characters that I wish I’d been able to read when I was young. I write stories that I want to share with all readers. And when I can share my culture and my heritage with them, it is even more meaningful. For example, even my children didn’t know about all the Asian mythology and legends that were in my first series, the Prophecy series (HarperTeen). And it was a great learning experience for me as a writer. When I was first researching Asian history and mythology, I thought it was so fascinating and I just wanted to share it with the American audience because it was so different from anything that was out there.

Do you include elements of yourself in your books?
Yeah, so the joke in my family is that I have a bloodhound’s nose. It is both a curse and a blessing. I have an extreme sense of smell and I suffer from it a lot. That’s why I gave Kira the ability to smell demons. And that came about on a hot August day in NYC when I was visiting my parents and working on Prophecy (HarperTeens, 2013). I was trying to figure out what a demon might smell like when I walked over a subway grate right as a train passed underneath. That malodorous wave of toxic fumes mixed with urine and death hit me hard and just like that I thought “Ah, so that’s what a demon would smell like.”

You left your career in law to pursue writing. Do you ever doubt that decision? Did your family support your leap into literature?
Funny thing is my mother is still mad at me about not being a practicing lawyer and asks me constantly when I’m going to go back. Maybe that’s why she still has me do all her legal review for her. To be honest, I still review and draft contracts on a regular basis but I don’t “practice law” anymore. I’m quite happy with the decision to change careers. I’ve always been a good writer but legal writing and fiction writing is so different that I wondered if I’d made a big mistake when I was first starting to write. But luckily a lot of practice and a lot of reading have helped me become better at it. Having a fabulous editor has been key to my development and I have been extraordinarily lucky to have only the best editors in my career.

Speaking of editors, you have worn the editor cap when compiling and editing anthologies featuring diverse authors. What is appealing to you about these projects, and will you pursue more anthologies that spotlight people of color?

“I hope that one day we won’t ever have to describe a book as diverse. I hope that one day diversity becomes a given.”

I love working on anthologies because I get to work with some of the most talented writers in our industry. And yes, I have so many ideas for more anthologies!

Let’s talk diversity. What makes a book diverse?
A book that is about a character of color or a character that is from the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual) or disabilities community.

How did you launch the movement that is now known as We Need Diverse Books (WNDB)?
We were a group of authors, illustrators, editors, librarians, and people who cared about kid lit and were tired of the lack of diversity in children’s literature. So we started a hashtag campaign and urged people of all ages to tweet about why diverse books were so important to them. The hashtag was #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and the response was enormous.

Why did you transform the movement into a nonprofit organization, and what does the organization do?
It wasn’t enough just to talk about why we needed diverse books. It was vital that we actually tried to do something to make lasting change happen. And that’s how we became a nonprofit organization that gives grants to writers and illustrators of diverse backgrounds and also to college students interested in entering the publishing industry. We also give thousands of books a year to underserved schools across the country. And our proudest accomplishment is upholding the legacy of the great Walter Dean Myers by establishing the Walter Award for Outstanding Literature.

Do you foresee a time when intentional discussions about diversity in literature will be unnecessary?
I hope that one day we won’t ever have to describe a book as diverse. I hope that one day diversity becomes a given.

What can readers look forward to seeing from you next?
The sequel to Spirit Hunters (HarperCollins, 2017), The Island of Monsters (HarperCollins, 2018), will be out this summer and I’m currently working on a new fantasy project that I’m very excited about.

Do you respond to fan mail?
I love fan mail! I love fan art! Readers send me emails or messages via Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram, and I just love hearing from all of them! They really make writing worthwhile.

Margarita Engle: Award-Winning Author and Young People’s Poet Laureate

Miguel y su valiente caballero: El joven Cervantes sueña a don Quijote coming March 2018. Translated by Teresa Mlawer and Georgina Lázaro

Margarita Engle has received multiple Pura Belpré Awards, a Newbery Honor, and several other accolades; and she is currently serving a two-year term as The Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate—the first Latino to do so.

“Being chosen as the national Young People’s Poet Laureate was such an astonishing honor that at first I felt a bit uncertain of how to proceed. All I knew was that I wanted to choose a theme of peace, in every sense of that word. I’m working with that theme whenever I speak to adults, children, or teens, and I’m in the process of developing a poetry workshop based on the image of bridges as a metaphor for building peace. We need to offer young readers an alternative to all the destructive ranting about walls between nations, between cultures, between genders. We need bridges of words to cross barriers of all sorts, including international borders. We need a way to embrace the whole world, instead of being haters.”

Engle, a Cuban American, is passionate about creating stories and characters authentic to the culture she loves in both her poetry and her prose. In some of her work, she even includes bits and pieces of her family’s own experience.

“My deep attachment to Cuba grew from childhood summers spent with my abuelita and extended family. My memoir, Enchanted Air (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2015), tells how this happened, and how profoundly traumatic it was to lose travel rights after the Missile Crisis. I have included family history in The Wild Book (Harcourt, 2012), which is based on stories my grandmother told me about her childhood. In general, I write about subjects that inspire me because people in a certain time and place were independent thinkers, persevering, and kind.”

Receiving Young People’s Poet Laureate Pegasus Award, Chicago, June, 2017

Engle’s path to publishing all started when, as a young child, she began writing poetry. And she never stopped. “For decades, I published separate poems, articles, essays, and short stories. My adult novels were in prose, but when I switched to children’s literature, I also returned to poetry.”

Cuba, 1960

Many of Engle’s novels and picture books are written in free verse. Miguel’s Brave Knight (Peachtree Publishers, 2017) is a fictionalized first-person biography told in a series of free verse poems imagining the life of famous author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra who finds refuge from his difficult childhood by daydreaming about the adventures of a brave but clumsy knight. He is inspired by storytellers and wandering actors who perform at festivals, and grows up to write poetry and pen Don Quixote, the first modern novel. “It’s a tribute to the comforting power of the imagination, which cannot be defeated even by a force as intimidating as the Spanish Inquisition.”

Her writing style has attracted a devoted audience of readers representing all age groups, and impressed awards committees; and these feats, in turn, have caught the attention of publishers.

“When The Poet Slave of Cuba (Henry Holt and Co., 2005) received a Pura Belpré Award, followed by a Newbery Honor for The Surrender Tree (Henry Holt, 2008), doors opened that allowed me to continue getting published. Without those awards, I’m afraid that my verse novels might have been regarded as too unusual. At the time, poetry was marginalized, but today, thanks to the inspiring works by Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander, and Jason Reynolds, verse novels are flourishing. I am so grateful to poets who pave a pathway for others! With respect to picture books, Drum Dream Girl’s (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2015) Charlotte Zolotow Award opened the gate for future biographical stories, as well as family ones like All The Way to Havana (Henry Holt, 2017). Of course, a great deal of the credit for any picture book’s success must go to the illustrator!”

Recent visit to a reforestation project in Cuba

Engle’s poems and stories are also welcomed in classrooms and libraries across the country, and she makes it easy for educators to utilize her titles with Latino and non-Latino students by offering a wealth of resources on her website. “Fortunately, my publishers usually produce wonderful teaching guides written by people like Sylvia Vardell, who specializes in advocating for poetry. I’ve also been able to produce some bilingual videos with the help of the Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. A few of the ways that my poetry can be used in classrooms are as reader’s theater for the verse novels, as puppet shows using Cuban music in the case of Drum Dream Girl, by making a cardboard car for an All the Way to Havana road trip, etc. Teachers can set their imaginations free to imagine all sorts of interactive ways to use poetry.”

In addition to her responsibilities as the Poet Laureate, Engle keeps busy with promotional activities and writing new material. “My love of biographical picture books and historical verse novels continues! I’m working on a sequel to Bravo! (Holt, 2017), two biographical verse novels, and a collaborative picture book of science poems, co-authored with Padma Venkatraman, who is an oceanographer as well as one of my favorite poets.”

“I love the rhythm and flow of language in free verse, and it feels very natural to link shorter poems in a way that tells a longer story. By using multiple voices, all in first person, I am able to distill complex situations down to their emotional essence. Basically, poetry is satisfying, and it makes me happy.”

In early 2018, readers will also see The Flying Girl: How Aída de Acosta Learned to Soar (Atheneum Books for Young Readers) and Jazz Owls, a Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots (Atheneum). In the fall, Haku Finds a Home (Lerner) will be published. (“It is quite different, because it’s about a dog-feeding festival in Kathmandu, co-authored with my Nepali son-in-law and my daughter.”) In 2019, Soaring Earth (Atheneum), a high school/college sequel to Enchanted Air, will debut as well as another biographical picture book illustrated by Rafael López. Finally, Dreams From Many Rivers (Holt) will be published in the fall of 2019.

Don’t Spread the Virus!

“I rarely hear young people say that they dislike poetry. Children love rhymes and rhythms! When I hear adults repeat negative stereotypes about poetry, I think of it as a virus that they’re spreading to children. Here’s a true-life parable: I’m afraid of water. I learned my fear from my mother, who learned it from her mother. In Cuba, there were sharks, moray eels, and crocodiles in the ocean and estuaries. Those are not dangers in a California swimming pool, but my fear extends to pools. In order to make sure that my children did not copy my fear, I let my husband teach them to swim. They are wonderful swimmers. In a similar manner, I think adults who are afraid of poetry should step back and let children learn directly from poets, just enjoying the experience instead of having to dissect and analyze.”

Contact Margarita Engle

“I do answer letters. Both adults and children can write to me by going to my website and clicking ‘contact.’ If teachers want to send batches of snail mail letters, they can email me to ask for my P.O. Box.”

Chris Harris Strikes Comedy Gold On and Off Screen

Chris Harris has built a successful comedy career as a writer and producer for the television shows How I Met Your Mother and The Late Show with David Letterman. Though it took years to achieve success in television broadcasting, his first foray into children’s publishing was an instant hit. Harris’ book I’m Just No Good at Rhyming: And Other Nonsense for Mischievous Kids and Immature Grown-Ups (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2017) was a New York Times bestseller and garnered him comparisons to Shel Silverstein and even Dr. Seuss.

So who is this comedic phenomenon? Well, it all started when he was a youngster.

“My parents are not authors, but they read to me constantly when I was a toddler. Our house was full of books to the point of being a fire hazard. I learned to read on my own by making my parents read me the same book over and over (and over and over…) again until I memorized it, then slowly connecting the words they were saying to the words on the page. The book I most vividly recall memorizing from repeated readings like this was The Diary of Anaïs Nin (Mariner Books, 1969). No, wait. My mistake. It was Hamilton Duck (Golden Press, 1972).”

“I was never a reluctant reader, but sometimes I was reluctant to stretch myself – I’d get stuck in an ‘easy’ genre that I enjoyed (science fiction short stories, The Three Investigators series, the backs of cereal boxes during breakfast), and it would take a parent or teacher to push me into trying something more challenging.”

From an early age, Harris understood that words were magical. “My favorite ‘aha’ moments while reading books as a kid were the ones that made me sit up and see something about words or the world that I’d never even imagined was possible before. The Phantom Tollbooth (Random House, 1961) did that for me in fourth grade (thanks for the rec, Mr. Lesh). Before that, a book called Arm in Arm (Parents’ Magazine Press, 1969) by Remy Charlip. And of course Shel Silverstein. Later on, Douglas Adams and Catch-22 (Dell, 1968) gave me that same feeling. Those were all books that took joy in exploring the boundaries of what words could convey, and even played with the idea of what a book itself could be.”

Though I’m Just No Good at Rhyming is his first book written for kids, he actually wrote his first book as a kid. In first grade, Harris created his first book by stapling paper towels together and then writing a story about a monster that causes earthquakes. “Ms. Perksin had me go read it to the kindergarten class next door. As it turns out, that would be my last book reading for over 40 years. I don’t even remember it going that poorly…”

“When I visit schools, I always talk about the importance of looking around one’s own life for inspiration; if something made you laugh (or sad, or angry, or pensive) in real life, then there’s a good chance that sharing that moment in writing will make the reader feel a similar way.”

Just a few years later, Harris found his life’s purpose: using words to make people laugh. “In fifth grade, Mrs. Gozzi gave us an assignment to write ‘updated’ versions of nursery rhymes. With that assignment, I remember having that … feeling of having discovered what I was born to do—that same feeling Jackson Pollack probably had when he started flinging paint everywhere. I dashed off about 15 of them that night and read a bunch to the class the next day. That’s the first time I combined verse and humor, shared the results to a classroom, and got huge laughs. One of them went:

Little Jack Horner
Sat in a corner
Looking up at the sky.
But when he looked down
His face showed a frown
He’d forgotten to zip up his fly.

Harris went on to establish himself as a go-to guy for top-notch humor, becoming an Emmy-nominated writer and producer. And now with the successful debut of his collaboration with illustrator Lane Smith, it definitely seems like Harris has the Midas touch.

“The back cover of my book asks something like, ‘Do you (think you) hate poetry? Then this is the book for you!’ But from what I’ve seen, very few grade-schoolers hate or even (think they) hate poetry–they’re still attracted to the rhythms and rhyming patterns of simple poems. Ask a fourth-grader to parse John Berryman and sure, their opinion might change. But sometimes I wonder if we do poetry a disservice by even suggesting to kids that hating poetry is in any way a typical opinion for them to have.”

“I’m grateful to have found a career in comedy – both on television and now in children’s books – but I’m still not sure that I see myself as someone with any special gift for humor. I see myself more as a fraud who’s consistently gotten lucky enough to think up one more decent idea, but whose luck is bound to run out at any moment.”

Harris readily admits that he did not expect the positive reaction the book has received. “It’s on so many best-of-the-year lists. Half of me wants to soak in the positivity; the other half of me wants to shake the list compilers and scream ‘Are you mad?! There were so many other great books out this year!’”

Because of the book’s reception and his encouraging entry into children’s publishing, Harris is eager to begin his next book project in between writing for television and doing school visits. “My family and I are constantly collecting ideas, both inspired by real-life incidents and born from our own imaginations. I hope I can turn it into another collection within the next several years. And if Lane can forgive me for saying in the first book that I don’t like him, then I’d love nothing more than for him to join me for another collaboration.”

Illustrator Lane Smith

Chris Harris on his book “I’m Just No Good at Rhyming”

“Our faux-antagonistic relationship throughout I’m Just No Good at Rhyming is my favorite runner in the whole book. I’d already written the finale – the poem titled ‘I Don’t Like My Illustrator’–but when Lane signed on, our rivalry became an even bigger part of the book, even spreading into the dedication page (I dedicate the book to my lovely wife and wonderful children; he also dedicates the book to my lovely wife and wonderful children; things go downhill from there).

“My favorite illustration of Lane’s is probably the one he did for the more serious poem ‘I’m Shy on the Outside.’ The way he depicts an externally quiet child who has a whirlwind of thoughts going on inside his head is, to me, magnificent.

Harris’s children

“My favorite serious poem in the book is one called, ‘You’ll Never Feel as Tall as When You’re Ten.’ I remember writing that one really quickly after a particularly tough year, as a reminder (to myself, really) to hold on to that wide-eyed perspective of youth even though one’s biggest dreams rarely ever turn out the way one had hoped for. My favorite surprise about that poem has been discovering that even though adults see it as tinged with sadness, kids seem to read it as an inspiring, uplifting validation of their own viewpoint.

“My favorite humorous poem changes with the weather. Today it may be ‘The Good Child Test,’ the entirety of which reads, ‘I used special ink on this poem’s last line / That some children see and some don’t. / If you’re a good child, then you’ll read it just fine — ‘ And that’s the end of the poem. I like that it’s (I hope) instantly funny to adults, but a little bit of a puzzle to figure out for younger kids.

“In a way, short-form poetry is like bite-size literature. A child only needs to invest in a few lines’ worth of reading in order to get a payoff in the form of a laugh, or a surprise twist, or something to think about. It provides something close to instant gratification.”

“Also, I have a soft spot for any poem that’s inspired by a real-life event with my own kids, of which there are many. There’s a poem about ‘the sweetest lullaby ever’ that ends with the parent shouting into the former baby’s face, which was a running joke we had together for years. Another poem is based on an incident that happened with my daughter one morning when she was three. I told her to eat up because ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day.’ Without skipping a beat she looked up at me and said, in a deeply serious voice, ‘That’s not very nice to lunch.’ So I turned that moment into a poem about how hurt lunch feels about people saying that cliche about breakfast.

“I was lucky enough to have teachers who encouraged me to write as well as to read.”

“I first wrote all these poems as a way of sharing with my own kids some things that made us all laugh, and to show them what a playground the English language can be once you start thinking about all the different ways to place words on a page. Now I hope other children are inspired by the book to see what they can do with words, based on their own unique perspectives.”

Adam Rex: Finding Success in Comics, Picture Books, and Novels

Rex (Darth Vader) and his brother (Yoda) from Halloween, 1980.

It was his brother’s whining that motivated young Adam Rex to become an artist. Rex could really draw and paint. He knew it; his brother knew it.

“I was five when I overheard my eight-year-old brother complaining to our mom how unfair it was that I was already better at it. I didn’t know that was true until he said so. And so I sort of decided then and there that I was going to be an artist when I grew up—if only because it seemed to upset my brother.”

Though Rex’s parents had never met another artist, they did what they could to support and encourage his artistic endeavors. They bought art supplies and paid for drawing and painting classes after school. “They never let me know how worried they were about my future. In retrospect, I realize that they tried to nudge me toward being an architect at one point; but they backed off when it became clear all I really wanted to do was draw D & D stuff all day.”

In high school, Rex discovered the magical world of picture books through his part-time job at Waldenbooks. He knew that this was his niche, so he began pursuing his BFA in illustration at the University of Arizona. But children’s literature was his only passion.

“I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing, but that’s not so unusual in and of itself—all kids draw. We all start out as illustrators, telling stories with pictures.”

“I was interested in comics as well, so as an undergrad I started taking a portfolio every year to Comic-Con in San Diego, looking for work. I showed it to anyone who would look at it. So, in this way, I got sidetracked into illustration jobs for D & D and other games for a lot of years. But it was nice getting paid to draw and paint while working on a separate children’s portfolio in my spare time, because it turns out you can’t show illustration samples of blood-spattered orcs if you want to break into picture books. There’s less overlap than you’d expect. At one point, I was actually paid to paint a picture of a zombie vomiting up a smaller zombie.”

Rex’s studio

Though he had moved up the ranks at Waldenbooks, with enough freelance work to support his modest lifestyle, Rex left his job and focused on his illustration work full time. For the most part, he never looked back; well, sort of. “That’s not exactly true. A few years later, the work dried up a little. I taught about five semesters worth of community college classes.”

For several years, Rex continued to show his portfolio to publishers and meet editors while doing freelance work. He would send samples to contacts in Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books). Any positive feedback would trigger a follow-up by Rex asking the editor if s/he would like to see the picture book dummy he’d just finished. Finally, he got his big break.

“An editor at FSG had been particularly encouraging, so when my future wife was planning a trip to look at grad schools in New York, I told him I’d be in town and asked if I could drop in. I think the threat of having me in his office convinced him to find something for me to work on, so he handed over the manuscript for The Dirty Cowboy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) and asked if I’d like to audition for it.”

Rex nailed his audition and made his debut as a picture book illustrator with The Dirty Cowboy. Reactions to the book were mixed, and it soon found its way to lists of banned books. “When your book gets banned, a certain kind of person pats you on the back and tells you what good company you’re in—the Bible, To Kill a Mockingbird (J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1960), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Charles L. Webster and Company, 1885), and so on. It’s like when people tell you it’s good luck to be pooped on by a bird. You just got POOPED on—what else are they going to say?”

“It hurts me when my books are challenged. I love kids and I’ve decided it will be my life’s work to make good books for them. A book banning instead tells me that certain people think some of my work is dangerous and detrimental, and I’m neither strong nor self-assured enough to brush that off.”

Since his first book, Rex has illustrated titles by picture book greats like Mac Barnett, Katy Kelly, and Neil Gaiman. He has also successfully ventured into writing picture books and novels such as Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich (Harcourt, 2006), Fat Vampire: A Never Coming of Age Story (Balzer + Bray, 2010), and Nothing Rhymes with Orange (Chronicle Books, 2017). Interestingly, Rex has chosen, at times, to let other artists illustrate his books.

“It’s exciting to work with illustrators I admire, and from a practical standpoint, I seem to write more than I can illustrate myself. When I wrote School’s First Day of School (Roaring Brook Press, 2016), a first-day story told from the perspective of the school itself, I didn’t feel like it played to my own visual strengths. Every time I imagined how I might render it, I saw myself trying to rip off Christian Robinson’s style. So, instead, we went about seeing if we could get Christian to agree to do it. Since then, I’ve just been asking myself, ‘Does this manuscript need me to illustrate it?’ If not, I’d rather collaborate with one of my illustrator heroes and leave myself available for opportunities like my recent collaboration, The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors (Balzer + Bray, 2017), with Drew Daywalt.”

Rex’s books have been very well-received. Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich was named a New York Times bestseller, and his first novel, The True Meaning of Smekday (Disney Hyperion, 2007), was adapted into the 2015 DreamWorks animated film, Home. “DreamWorks flew me out a lot to see what they were up to, and it was such a lengthy process that I came, eventually, to see the movie as a separate organism that needed its own room to breathe.”

Rex, himself, hasn’t taken much time to breathe. He has been busy working on book projects, responding to fan mail, and following Twitter. Next up on the publishing schedule is Are You Scared, Darth Vader? (Disney-LucasFilm Press) debuting July 2018 where readers will learn the types of things Darth Vader fears.

“Young artists and authors need to give themselves permission to make terrible stuff. Really awful first drafts and sketches. Art comes less from sudden inspiration than it does from revision.”

Rex is also busy answering fan mail. “If a kid emails me, they’ll get an email back. If they write me a physical letter, they’ll at least get a postcard. And I’m on Twitter (@mradamrex) a lot more than I ought to be.”

Kelly Barnhill: Eclectic Fantasy Writer Wins 2017 Newbery Medal

Former Walker Library in Minneapolis, MN

It was one of her first jobs: leading her siblings and cousins down the road five blocks to the former Walker Library in Minneapolis. She was eight years old, and the oldest in a house with lots of kids and lots of books.

“I was not at that time, nor would I be for a while, much of a reader,” confesses Newbery Award-winner Kelly Barnhill, “but I was a listener. I loved curling up with my mom and dad as they read to us. I loved listening to the dramatic readings of books on LP records—The Hobbit and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Treasure Island and The Happy Prince. In addition to being a listener, I was a teller, too. Since I was often put in charge of younger kids, I often held the line against misbehavior by telling stories about wood gnomes and water witches and flowers with malevolent intent and the fact that there was a magic sword somewhere in the back yard, and if we found it, we would be king.”

The fascination with telling stories never left Barnhill—especially those that involved fantasy and magic such as the award-winning The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Algonquin, 2016), The Witch’s Boy (Algonquin Young Readers, 2014), and The Unlicensed Magician (PS Publishing, 2015). “I think about that line from one of Emily Dickinson’s poems: ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant.’ I think, for me, that is the draw of fantasy. Because it allows us to be in that space of awe and wonder, and it allows us to think about the world as it isn’t so that we may think about it as it is.”

“Fantasy allows us to think about the world as it isn’t so that we may think about it as it is.”

Barnhill’s storytelling took the form of poetry while she was in college. But when her studies came to an end, so did her creative ideas. “Once I graduated, I found that I didn’t have a whole lot to say. I wrote some short stories during my twenties—few and far between, and never with any kind of tenacity. Still, I called myself a writer a lot back then. I liked the idea of being a writer far more than I loved the work of it.”

Photo Credit, Joe Treleven

While dabbling in the art of writing, Barnhill explored other careers and vocations. She worked as a bartender, a janitor, and a park ranger before being a teacher. “I taught high school and middle school for a while, and I was a GED teacher at a drop-in center for homeless youth for a while as well.” All of these experiences were essential stepping stones in Barnhill’s journey to where she is today.

“I can see now that my restlessness at that time—my need to explore, my need to connect myself to other people, my need to feel deeply, my need to learn as many things as I possibly could—was all laying the groundwork for the work that I do now. I don’t call myself a writer anymore. I don’t call myself anything, really. I just work.”

And that seems to be working for Barnhill. She now has to her credit essays, short stories, children’s nonfiction, novels, and even a novella. She has written for young readers, middle-grade readers, and young adult/adult readers. But in all of her writing, Barnhill’s main goal is to show how her characters work through emotions and dilemmas as their stories unfold.

“For me, I will always be pulled to the page to wrestle with Big Questions and Big Ideas: the problem of power; the miracle of human love; the perversion of greed; the disconnect between good intentions and actions; the fundamental ability for all manner of things to transform. I often have no idea what a story wants to be when I start—and for me, that scramble through the utter dark, trying to feel my way towards the surface, is important. I have to trust my instincts and remove any external structure or preconceived notion. It’s just me and my senses and my wits trying to move towards the light.”

Fans of Barnhill’s work have long recognized and appreciated her storytelling style; the way she weaves intricate details to create a finely crafted tale, and the depth of emotion her characters bring to each story. Barnhill has received recognition and awards for many of her works, but this year, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, a New York Times bestseller, was named the winner of the 2017 Newbery Medal.

Barnhill and family

“This is what happens when you win a Newbery: you get woken out of a dead sleep at five in the morning by a room full of SUPER CHEERFUL LIBRARIANS, and they all try to explain to you how they’ve just changed your life.”

So did winning the Newbery really change her life? “Sort of. In some ways, nothing has changed at all—my first priority is, always, to my family, and my writing will forever be second. I do feel quite a lot of pressure regarding the next book—not from my publisher, but from myself. Because I care about the story and I care about the characters, and I know that they will be in the shadow of Luna and her family, and that’s not a comfortable place to be.

“Prior to winning, I certainly didn’t believe it was at all possible, and that belief was unchanged by actually winning the dang medal. I still don’t believe it was possible. It’s still hard for me to grasp. After all this time. Maybe this will always be so. Which means that the rest of my work will still come out of that same place of trepidation and care and worry and hope. Hope that I managed to do right by my characters. Hope that I was able to be true to the story. Hope that just one reader—just one—manages to find my book and find meaning in it. That’s all I really want: just one reader.”

Dreadful Young Ladies to be published February 20, 2018 by Algonquin Books

On Building Readers

If we want our kids to be readers then we, the parents, need to be readers, too. And this doesn’t just mean the books that we read out loud to our kids, although those are important. Our kids need to bear witness to us reading our own books, as well. And talking about books with other people.

If we want books to be a central part of our kids’ lives, then books need to play a central role in our lives too—not our phones, not the television, not video games. Books. Parents really like to wring their hands about their kids’ reading habits and don’t do nearly enough self-reflection on their own. This needs to change.

Also, building readers means building relationships, which means that parents need to pay close attention to what draws our children to books, and to have a wide variety of books available. So this means weekly trips to the library. It also means getting access to lots of books and bringing them home.

Coming Soon…

“I have a collection of grownup short stories coming out called Dreadful Young Ladies (Algonquin Books, 2018). Also, I am in the midst of re-writing (again!) a book called The Sugar House—a weird retelling of Hansel and Gretel (with a bit of Mother Hulda and some heartless giants thrown in for good measure), set in South Minneapolis. I’m pretty excited about it. Also, I’m working on a book called Dispatch from the Hideous Laboratories of Dr. Otto van Drecht, which has required me to learn a lot about shipbuilding, piracy, the Holy Roman Empire, alchemy, palmistry, cryptobiology, and poisons. I’m having an excellent time.”

Nikki Grimes: From Foster Child to Famous Author and Poet

Nikki's childhood photoNikki Grimes may now be a New York Times bestselling author and noteworthy poet held in high regard, but as a child, she faced significant family challenges and was in and out of foster care for years. Quite a rough beginning for such an accomplished author, but she found solace in books, pen, and paper.

“I could no more stop writing than breathing, so I knew I had to figure out a way to make a living as a writer.”

“I often say that reading and writing were my survival tools,” shares Grimes, “and the library was my sanctuary. I needed a safe place because my childhood was rife with challenges. Reading and writing were my preferred techniques for coping, and so I became an avid reader early on.”

Though an ardent reader, Grimes did not have ready access to books outside of the library or school. “As for homes full of books, that’s another story. I grew up in and out of foster homes, and I didn’t have access to books of my own until high school. By then, I was already an avid reader, having made excellent use of school and public libraries.”

Grimes at 16

Grimes at 16

When she was just six, Grimes began composing her own poetry. A few years later, she was giving public poetry readings. “I was 13 when I gave my first public reading, but I don’t remember the first poem I recited. The Countee Cullen Library was holding a reading of young poets, and my father signed me up. I was the youngest, by far. You might say I was a little nervous. I thought the entire universe could hear my knees knocking as I approached the microphone! My father, though, had told me to focus on him alone, and I did precisely that. I think he believed this experience would be confidence-building for me, and it was.”

Grimes with foster brother Kendall Buchanan

Grimes with foster brother Kendall Buchanan

Grimes’ father has long served as her cheerleader. In fact, it was he who encouraged her not only in poetry but in other creative pursuits and interests, including singing, dancing, photography, painting, and mixed-media creations. “I was very lucky when I was young. Rather than worry about me becoming distracted, my father told me, no matter what creative field I explored, nothing I learned along the way would be wasted. Once I finally settled on my medium of choice, he assured me I would be able to incorporate all that I’d learned in that chosen specialty, and he was right.


“Every artistic discipline, every medium, impacts my writing in some way.”

“My exploration of music formed the basis of the lyrical quality of my poetry. My dive into theater laid the groundwork for my understanding of character development, dialogue and voice—elements reviewers have most often remarked upon in works like One Last Word (Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 2017), Jazmin’s Notebook (Puffin Books, 2000), and Dark Sons (Jump at the Sun, 2005). My more recent forays into visual art helped me to see in new ways and led me to try my hand at illustration for the first time. Every artistic discipline, every medium, impacts my writing in some way. Like I said, Daddy was right!”

Grownin'For Grimes, writing is about communication, so she is always writing for an audience. To reach that audience, she sought out opportunities for publication early on. “I began publishing in high school journals and went on from there. As far as a career goal, I thought in terms of writing and—writing and teaching, writing and photography, writing and acting. Writing was always in the mix. I could no more stop writing than breathing, so I knew I had to figure out a way to make a living as a writer, whether part time or full time.”

Grimes admits the road to seeing her books published was lengthy and bumpy. In fact, her debut novel, Growin’ (Dial Books, 1977) wasn’t published until she was 27 and her first book of poetry, Something on My Mind (Dial Books, 1978), was published a year later. “I could have easily papered a room with all of the rejection slips I received before I got that first ‘yes.’ I pressed on, though, because I knew I had genuine talent. James Baldwin saw promise in me, Julius Lester saw promise in me, and later Toni Morrison saw promise in me. Their faith kept me going.”

Nikki with Katherine Paterson

Grimes with Katherine Paterson

With a goal to form an emotional connection with her readers, Grimes is very deliberate about including real-life feelings in her books. “We are all human, no matter our station in life, or our race, culture, or religion. What we have to offer one another exists at the deepest level of our emotions. It is at the intersection of our emotions that we are able to share joy, impart hope, and help heal. The heart is where we meet, and so I am always chasing that point of connection in my work. And yes, that means allowing myself to feel the feelings I wish to convey—shame in A Girl Named Mister (Zondervan, 2010); Jazmin’s fear of mental illness in Jazmin’s Notebook (Puffin Books); Ishmael’s sense of abandonment in Dark Sons (Jump at the Sun); laughter in Planet Middle School (Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 2011); and loneliness in The Road to Paris (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2006). It’s not about self-therapy, though. Ultimately, it’s about art. It’s about making art to stimulate thought and to stir the heart.”

Books3Readers and critics agree Grimes easily hits her target; they feel connected through her work. With more than 50 books published for children and adults, Grimes has a large and still growing fan base of readers in every age bracket. She has also received many prestigious honors and awards.

“Awards always bring welcome attention to the titles connected with them,” says Grimes, “and that’s always appreciated. An award can mean that a book stays in print longer, or that it enjoys added sales, or that it goes to paperback, or that a teacher or librarian finds a book he or she might not have, otherwise. Or it can mean all of the above. More than anything, though, it means that more children or young adults will have an opportunity to read our work.”Awards

Nikki at Wilder Awards Ceremony

Grimes at Wilder Awards Ceremony

Of all the awards Grimes has received, she places the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal at the top because it honors her entire body of work. “It confirms for me, personally, that I have made the substantial contributions to children’s literature that I had hoped for. Second on that list of top awards would certainly be the Coretta Scott King Award for Bronx Masquerade (Dial Books, 2001). It was the first major award I ever won for my work. Both awards confirmed and challenged me to continue to raise the bar, as I write, and to keep striving for excellence. I was also pleased to receive the Armin R. Shultz Literacy Award because its focus is on books that promote social justice.” Grimes is not one to rest on her laurels. She continues to write and has several books that will be available within the next few months. The Watcher (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2017), Grimes’ latest book, will be published this month. It is illustrated by Brian Collier and inspired by Psalm 121. February 2018 is the publish date for her young adult novel, Between the Lines (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2018). It is a companion to Bronx Masquerade (Dial Books). And later, Bedtime for Sweet Creatures, featuring illustrations by Elizabeth Zunon will be available.BronxMasq_PB_CVR_release.indd

Creating a Love of Poetry in Kids

“Most people believe they dislike poetry because the genre was introduced to them in a way that was distasteful. If you present poetry as if it were caster oil, no one will like it. That’s what happens when the entire focus is on dissection and memorization, and the poems chosen for study come from a short list of ‘shoulds,’ as in poetry one should learn.

“Children and teens simply want good stories, characters to whom they can relate, and adventures that will have them laughing, crying, or even scared out of their wits from cover to cover.”

“Given this approach, there’s zero chance that readers will fall in love with the genre. They haven’t been given the opportunity. But if, on the other hand, you begin with poetry that speaks to them, poetry on topics of interest, written in a way that’s accessible, if you offer poetry that you, yourself, like first of all—because your young charges will pick up on the attitude you bring to the work you’re presenting—then there’s an excellent chance the students will love that poetry, too.

Garveys Choice“Today’s book market offers a variety of poetry. There are poetry collections on virtually any theme you can imagine. Do you have children who love sports? There are baseball poems and poems about soccer. Are your readers into history or geography? There are poetry collections that address those subjects. School supplies? Yes. Nature? Of course. Astronomy? Absolutely. Math? You bet! Science? Oh, yeah! Presidents or First Ladies? Yep. In other words, there are poems out there that speak to the interests of nearly every child, poems that tug on the heart, and others that are laugh-out-loud funny.

“And there are wonderful novels-in-verse, to boot. By the way, nothing will pull a reluctant reader in like a novel-in-verse. They see all that white space, and they immediately feel less intimidated by the prospect of reading an entire novel. For many, a novel like Garvey’s Choice (WordSong, 2016), or Words With Wings (WordSong, 2013), or Planet Middle School (Bloomsbury) is the first novel they’ve ever completed.

“When it comes to teaching poetry, begin with what interests the reader. Allow them to get hooked on the genre, itself, before you launch into dissection and memorization and the like. My fan mail is full of letters from young converts to poetry!”

The Benefits of Diverse Books

“I’ve been a voice for diverse literature from back when the terminology was ‘multicultural books for children.’ The movement is not only warranted, but critical. We live, after all, in a multicultural society and it behooves us to know one another if we’re serious about communicating in meaningful ways, and if we truly intend to move beyond our preconceived notions of ‘the other.’ We are more alike than we are different, and diverse literature can help us understand that.

“My goal, first and foremost, is always to make an emotional connection with my readers.”

“Books by and about each ethnic group need to be read by every other ethnic group. We need to meet on the page so that our heads and hearts have a chance to open up to one another, and books offer us the safest, least intimidating environment in which to do that. A story can puncture a mental or emotional barrier like nothing else. While we’re caught up in the web of a story’s wonder or adventure, we’re most likely to open up to someone different for the first time.

Words with Wings“That’s how diverse literature can help to heal our nation’s divide. Seeds of empathy and compassion are embedded in the stories we tell. If we’re not giving all children access to all of these stories, that enormous benefit is lost.”

Writing From Experience for Everyone

“Because I am Black, no matter what I write, the assumption is that I’m writing about the Black experience. That’s neither good nor bad. It’s simply an incomplete description of my work.

“Daydreaming, the theme of Words With Wings (WordSong), is not a uniquely Black experience. Puberty, the subjectPlanet MS of Planet Middle School (Bloomsbury), is not a uniquely Black experience. The foster child story in The Road to Paris (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) is not uniquely a Black experience. That said, I do often write from the Black experience because it is mine, and I understand the importance of creating literature in which children of color can see themselves authentically, and in a positive light.

“I take issue with the notion of writing books that are only intended for Black readers. A book should be chosen because it is well written, its story is one to which children can relate, and because it is age-appropriate. Period.

“You would think it absurd if someone were to suggest that Charlotte’s Web (Harper & Brothers, 1952) was only to be read by white children, especially those who lived on farms, or that The Diary of Anne Frank (Doubleday & Company, 1952) should be read exclusively by those who are Jewish, or that Arabian Nights (1706) should only be read by Arabs. These books should be read by all children, because they are good books, they are good stories, they have something of light and hope and beauty to impart to all readers, no matter their ethnicity. The same needs to be true for books featuring characters of color.

Nikki in Office“I write stories that are emotionally true and, as such, my stories speak to a wide audience, a human audience of readers who are Asian and Latino, Native and Caucasian, African and African American. I spent the balance of my childhood in New York City, but my readers live on farms, in suburbia, in mining towns, in the South and the Midwest, in hamlets from New York to California, and all points in between. Some of my readers even live beyond the borders of the U.S. But that should come as no surprise. Emotions are universal, and all of my stories have that emotional component in common.”

Remembering 9/11 with Author Jewell Parker Rhodes

For those living when the Twin Towers fell, it was a day that will never be forgotten. Yet, as difficult as it may be to believe, there is now a generation that is unfamiliar with the horror and tragedy of that event. Award-winning author Jewell Parker Rhodes decided to address that lack of knowledge with her 2016 novel Towers Falling (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers). Here she discusses why she wrote the book and why she felt it was time.

“Kindness, compassion, empathy and joyful living honors all those who died.”

It has been 16 years since the Twin Towers fell, yet it still seems like a fresh wound for many. Do you remember where you were when you first heard about the horrific events of September 11?

When the Twin Towers were attacked, I was sleeping at home in Arizona. My husband woke me and the two of us were shocked and distraught watching the television images. I felt so vulnerable, sad, and outraged by the attack and the enormous loss of life. Months afterward, my depression still hadn’t lifted. Reading stories and viewing pictures of the victims who had all been unique, vibrant people with families, dreams, and hopes, made me feel an even greater obligation to live my life well. How dare I take living for granted? Kindness, compassion, empathy and joyful living honors all those who died. Writing diverse stories, teaching about humanity is an expression of my Americanness.Towers_Falling

While some still are unready or unable to talk about the tragedy and trauma of that day, you chose to write Towers Falling. Why do you believe it is important to tell the story? Why tell it now? And why tell it through fiction to a middle-grade audience?

I think if I had witnessed the 9/11 horror firsthand, I may not have been able to write about it. When my editor suggested the subject, I immediately said, “No, no way. Too hard emotionally, too hard narratively.” Yet, for months afterward, I kept thinking about the children born post-9/11 who didn’t know how our country had been impacted and changed by that day.

It has always been my highest ambition to be a children’s author. I felt I had a responsibility to try and write a novel that wouldn’t patronize kids but would also serve as an antidote to Internet images that will forever show the towers being attacked and falling. Fiction and three-dimensional characters can express how friendship, family, love of country, and commitment to America’s founding principles can help move our nation forward.

I love fifth graders! In eight years these young people will be old enough to vote and defend our country. They need to know America’s history, past and recent. Because adults are traumatized by 9/11 memories, we have steered conversations away from this pain. But we need to be strong and engage children. Kids need to be nurtured and educated as citizens—the world depends on informed generations. Teachers are my heroes. I feel they are my secret weapon, the lead explorers helping to make 9/11 understood emotionally, historically, and intellectually for our youth.

“Kids need to be nurtured and educated as citizens—the world depends on informed generations. Teachers are my heroes. I feel they are my secret weapon, the lead explorers helping to make 9/11 understood emotionally, historically, and intellectually for our youth.”

Towers Falling has had an incredible reception. Readers rave about it, and the book has received numerous honors and awards in such a short time. What were your hopes for this book when writing it and when taking it through the publishing process? Did you expect this level of success?

I felt terrified, hurt, and challenged while writing Towers Falling. My editors, Alvina Ling and Allison Moore, were important touchstones. We all felt the obligation to get the story right. If I failed, we agreed, the novel would never be published. I also wanted to honor the multi-disciplinary teaching of P.S. 146. This school inspired me to write the story as recent history. The novel isn’t just about the day of the attack but about the response, the lessons to be learned, and how every American is connected to every other American. For me, teachers teaching my book is the highest honor. Visiting and Skyping with schools, [and] meeting Castleton Elementary students, teachers, and parents at the 9/11 Memorial are all heartfelt memories.

Towers Falling’s success helped me say “yes” to another hard project—the killing of young black children. Ghost Boys will be published in April 2018. I love all the books I’ve written for adults and children. But these last two novels—Towers Falling and Ghost Boys (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)—felt more like a calling. An obligation.

In addition to September 11 and your Ghost Boys project, you have also written about Hurricane Katrina. What is it about these terrible events that draws your attention and makes you want to write?

I love Louisiana—the people, the food, and the landscape. Ironically, the day Katrina hit, I was celebrating the publication of my Louisiana adult novel, Season(Washington Square Press, 2011). Two weeks later, my publisher sent me to New Orleans and I got to see some of the devastation firsthand. I immediately thought: What about the children?

Ninth WardMy family experienced the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. Our two-year-old son stopped speaking, our five-year-old daughter trembled during aftershocks. Family love and warmth kept us all together. As adults, we sometimes discount how children have to be resilient during disasters, too. My love of Louisiana and my experience as a young mom merged. I was inspired to write my first children’s book. Smart, spiritual, and strong, my character, Lanesha in Ninth Ward (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2010), heralds the glory I see in today’s children. As adults, we know bad things happen. Kids know it, too. I mirror for children how they are called upon to stand up, spread love, survive, and be resilient.

In your books you seem to weave a lot of issues into the storylines. For example, in Towers Falling alone, I saw issues of diversity, racism, poverty and homelessness, terrorism, family relationships, and friendship. Is this something you intentionally do? Why?

Capturing the complexity of life has always been my goal as a novelist. I write in layers—one draft, then another, adding layer after layer to make what I hope will be a novel worthy of kids and for study in the classroom.

I’ve experienced many hardships—the worst of them happened during infancy, elementary, and middle school. Having said that, I did think Ninth Ward was a YA novel but my publisher convinced me I was writing middle grade. Certainly, I’m writing books I wish I could have read when I was a kid.

“School was where I soared…Librarians and teachers empowered me. Is it any wonder I became a professor?”

When you were a middle-grade young person, what were you reading and what issues were you facing? When you write to that age group now, are you writing from personal experience or writing to current issues and interests?

Thanks to school librarians and teachers, I read constantly as a child. Though there weren’t characters of color in my books, I, nonetheless, learned through character-driven fiction about empathy and common humanity.

SugarMy mother abandoned me as an infant and I was raised by my grandmother in an impoverished Pittsburgh neighborhood. I read Heidi (1881), Black Beauty (Jarrold & Sons, 1877), The Borrowers (J.M. Dent, 1952)—lots of classic stories. What I loved most were the Classics Illustrated comics. Books were too expensive to own but if I collected pop bottles and redeemed them for pennies, I could buy comics to keep. My favorite was about Prince Valiant. From this comic, I adopted a life mantra: “I want to be valiant. To live valiantly.”

I was a shy, sad child and when my mother returned for me at eight, my life went from bad to worse. By 14, my mother had kicked me out of her California home; by 15, I’d figured out how to graduate high school and leave my father’s and stepmother’s inhospitable home.

My books express some of my childhood struggles, but I try to stay aware of young people’s struggles today and I write for them, their future. I consciously honor children from diverse backgrounds. Not seeing myself in books, made me think only white people could write books! Celebrating uniqueness and common humanity is our key to the future.

While I felt isolated and lonely as a child, my characters are not based on me but inspired by the beauty I see in today’s youth. Perhaps it’s the teacher in me, the parent and grandmother in me, but I am very aware that the child today will shape tomorrow.

Because of my childhood, I think my skill as writer is, in fact, to write about the harshness of life. Embedded in my words though is the promise that I will guide the reader through the tale safely and soundly, and shower them with love and triumph.

With such a difficult childhood, where were you exposed to books and literacy on a regular basis?

School was where I soared. My grandmother never finished third grade; my parents never graduated high school. All my relatives struggled to make a living. Librarians and teachers empowered me. Is it any wonder I became a professor? “Teaching through dramatic stories” is how I write. Historical fiction offers a rich landscape to explore.

Bayou MagicWhen did you know you wanted to be a writer? And when did you know you were a writer?

I always wrote stories, poems throughout my childhood. But it wasn’t until I was a junior in college that I realized black women wrote books. It was a revelation. I switched my major to English. It took 10 years to write my first adult novel, Voodoo Dreams (St. Martins Press, 1993). (Louisiana had already captured my imagination!) Finishing that novel made me feel successful. Writing helped me heal so many childhood wounds. I had survived. It took three years for Voodoo Dreams to be published, but I had already learned that it’s not publishing per se that matters. It matters more to accomplish what is meaningful and hard. It was this lesson that prepared me for writing Towers Falling and Ghost Boys. Yes, the stories are hard but worth being told and risking failure. I’m glad I wrote these two books, in particular, even though, at times, the psychic and emotional cost was high.

What are you working on currently and what can readers look forward to seeing from you soon?

Here is the description for Ghost Boys:
Twelve-year-old Jerome is shot by a police officer who mistakes his toy gun for a real
threat. As a ghost, he observes the devastation that’s been unleashed on his family and community in the wake of what they see as an unjust and brutal killing. Soon Jerome meets another ghost: Emmett Till, a boy from a very different time but similar circumstances. Emmett helps Jerome process what has happened, on a journey toward recognizing how historical racism may have led to the events that ended his life. Jerome also meets Sarah, the daughter of the police officer, who grapples with her father’s actions.

This story sounds bleak. But in a poem, the ghost boy, Jerome, writes:
Only the living can make
the world better.

Live and make it better.

Wow! It just occurred to me that this is my personal call—another way of expressing my desire to be “valiant.” Maybe this is why it took so long for me to fulfill my dream to be a children’s author? I had to survive my childhood pain. By living, loving, I’ve made my life better. My writing seeks to remind everyone—but especially children—that no matter how hard life seems to be, they can and should “live and make it better.”

Jason Reynolds: From Reluctant Reader to Award-Winning Author


Jason’s childhood photo

Jason Reynolds has been deemed one of the most promising young adult novelists today. He has received prestigious accolades and awards including several Coretta Scott King Awards and Honors, the Kirkus Award, being named a National Book Award finalist, and becoming a New York Times bestselling author. Additionally, he is on the faculty at Lesley University for the Writing for Young People MFA program. Yet, he was not always interested in books. Here Mackin’s Amy Meythaler asks Reynolds to share insights into his background and how he discovered his love for poetry and prose.

Where did you grow up and what was your home life like?
I grew up just outside of Washington, D.C., with mainly my mother and older brother, though my house was the house everyone lived in at one point or another. Aunts, cousins, my father. Always people there.

GhostWere books, libraries, reading, and writing important in your family?

It’s weird to look back on it all now, only because books were everywhere in our house, though I don’t recall seeing anyone actually reading. They were there, though. And the collection of books—at least my collection—was growing. Every year for Christmas my aunt would give me a classic. And every year I tossed it aside. I mean, seriously, who wants books for Christmas? Especially the classics?!

Apparently you gave up reading books when you were quite young. What happened?

“I wish teachers back then let us read anything. I wish they understood that my life, my personhood, would be strengthened by literacy, not just literature. So had I been allowed to read rap lyrics in school, or video game cheat code books, or whatever I was interested in, I would’ve been better off.”

The entire medium was something I was uninterested in. Well, I take that back. It wasn’t that I was uninterested as much as it was that I felt disconnected from it. School, back then, discouraged whatever relationship I could have had with books by not providing me, and kids like me, with options. All I needed was something familiar. A family like mine. A neighborhood like mine. Language like mine. But it’s unfair for me to just say teachers didn’t try. Some of them, I’m sure, were working to figure out how to crack the code. But it’s hard to do when the options for the books I needed were so scarce. Today, fortunately, there are more options. There are contemporary stories, layered and authentic. There’s a creativity, an irreverence, and a growing inclusivity that makes reading more palatable. More accessible. More fun!


Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

I wish teachers back then let us read anything. I wish they understood that my life, my personhood, would be strengthened by literacy, not just literature. So had I been allowed to read rap lyrics in school, or video game cheat code books, or whatever I was interested in, I would’ve been better off. I know being a teacher is difficult because of all the red tape and bureaucracy, so I don’t want to pretend that implementing this kind of thing is easy. But it’s worth trying.

About the same time you lost interest in books, you discovered poetry. What inspired you to take up reading and writing poetry? And how do you suggest educators help the young people they work with find an appreciation for poetry as well?

I found poetry through rap music. I think it’s MUCH easier to get kids interested in poetry if you break down the barrier between the poets in their textbooks and the poets in their ear buds, which immediately gives credence to some of the poets in the classroom. There are always kids who rap. Who sing. They’re poets. Dissect Kendrick Lamar lyrics. Dissect Tupac. Lorde. Taylor Swift. Whoever.

“School, back then, discouraged whatever relationship I could’ve had with books by not providing me, and kids like me, with options. All I needed was something familiar. A family like mine. A neighborhood like mine. Language like mine.”

I know there are some poetry snobs out there turning their noses up at this idea, and that is precisely the issue. Shakespeare was brilliant, but not because he was over people’s heads. He was brilliant because he could bring raucous stories to everyday people, and its sophistication had everything to do with his ability to connect and poke fun using metaphor and entendre. That’s rap music. That’s poetry.

The other thing about poetry, for me, was that it was short. It was punchy and immediate and far less daunting than prose. Less words on a page was enough for me to try to write it and read it.

All American Boy As Brave as You Boy in the Black Suit When I Was the Greatest

Obtaining a degree in English seems highly unlikely for someone who gave up reading. How did your choice of a college major come about? And did your lack of a rich reading background hinder you at all?

“It’s much easier to get kids interested in poetry if you break down the barrier between the poets in their textbooks and the poets in their ear buds.”

It was a struggle. I loved to write poetry and was determined to be a successful (read: famous) poet since I was a kid. So the English degree didn’t seem that far-fetched for me. But I was completely unprepared because I hadn’t read anything. As a matter of fact, I started as an English major but changed it several times to Education, Journalism, Communications, and eventually landing back on English. But I also started reading, and, therefore, played catch up. But I never wavered from what I wanted—to be a poet. That’s it. Not a teacher. Not a lawyer. Not even a novelist. A poet.

Reynolds Reflects on the Power of Literacy and Story

Jason Reading to Kids

Reading to students

“I never wavered from what I wanted—to be a poet. That’s it. Not a teacher. Not a lawyer. Not even a novelist. A poet.”

“We all need to know how to read. Our children need to know how to navigate language because with words we can bolster self-confidence and cut down on violence and almost every other interpersonal conflict. For example, when I was young and I would get upset but couldn’t find the words to express my anger, I would break things. That’s human. Had I been able to wrangle my language and articulate my feelings, I would’ve, perhaps, been able to let some of the air out before bursting. And in terms of the importance of stories…well, imagine if I had never known that I wasn’t the only kid on earth who got mad enough to break his own toys? Imagine the loneliness and insecurity that might set in. Stories are the imaginary friends that do real things. That actually throw the ball back.”

Jason speaking at Twin Cities TLC

Keynote address at Twin Cities Teen Lit Con

To what do you attribute your success today? Having received so many honors and awards so early in your career, do you now feel pressure to keep being successful?
You know, when it all comes down to it, I attribute my success to my intuition, my work ethic, and an incredible support system. I write from the gut. I put it on the page in a way that feels good to me, even if that means I have to break a few rules. And I’m relentless. Obsessive, even. Every book is treated like the first. And I’m super lucky to have an agent and an editor to push me and tell me it’s okay when I’m falling apart. And I do fall apart sometimes.

Do I feel pressure? Sure. But not because of the awards. I’m just always in competition with myself to make sure that everything with my name on it is as good as I could’ve possibly gotten it at the time. I put the pressure there to keep me grounded, to keep me focused. Shiny things can shatter thoughts. I have to remind myself everyday what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. That’s what keeps me driven.

Speaking of driven, you will have three books published this year: Patina (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2017), Long Way Down (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2017), and Miles Morales: Spider-Man (Marvel Press, 2017). In addition to being an author, you are also a speaker and a teacher. How do you find time to do everything?
I don’t sleep. I write on planes and in airports. I edit the manuscripts of my students in hotels. I do whatever needs to be done. Like I said, obsession. It’s tough but it ain’t boring, so I’ll take it!


Milo Morales_ Reynolds


Miles Morales is a bit of a departure from your usual writing subjects. Was it a challenge to write a Spider-Man novel?
The books all come out of me, out of my experiences, so I have an equal connection to all of them. But, of course, writing about a superhero was different. But only in the sense that I didn’t want to write a “superhero” book, but instead, a book about a kid who happens to also be a superhero. It was a nice stretch, and a lot of fun, and still me.

“I have to remind myself everyday what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. That’s what keeps me driven.”

Miles Morales aside, your other characters and stories focus on the black experience. Are you writing for black people or for everyone?
I write about black people. But the misconception is that stories of black people aren’t for everyone, when the truth is, the stories of black people are the stories of America. My stories are contemporary, but there is nothing about today that is not about yesterday. My stories are also human, therefore, at the core of each are the things that connect us. But yes, I write about black people. And I’m unashamed and unafraid to do so. As a matter of fact, I’m honored to do so.

Jason with Faith Erin Hicks and Neal Shusterman

Panel discussion with Faith Erin Hicks and Neal Shusterman

The We Need Diverse Books movement is very active. As a younger writer and someone who writes for a young adult audience, how long do you think we will need formal structures to increase diversity in publishing? Do you think this will ever be a non-issue because there will be so much variety available?
I’d like to believe so. But I also think that would display a bit of naïveté and even some hubris on behalf of us all. There is never a time where things aren’t changing, and with change comes discomfort, dissent, pushback, and ultimately, if we have the necessary channels in place, growth. But I think those channels have to be there.

It seems that our country is going through a time of growing discomfort, dissent, and pushback, especially in regard to race. How do you feel your books and other diverse literature can help?
Books are empathy machines. Art, in general, has a way of tearing our egos down. Chipping at our walls. There has never been a time of unrest in this country when literature hasn’t been a valuable weapon against oppression. It allows us to see the landscape as it is as well as imagine a better world. It also creates capsules for posterity. James Baldwin said that he knew he wouldn’t be the marcher. He knew he didn’t have it in him to take up a sign and chant in the streets. But he still believed he had a role. He knew there would have to be someone to document these moments—that there would have to be a scribe so that generations to come could know of the shoulders on which they stand.

As a scribe for this generation, what can readers look forward to seeing from you soon?
Let’s just say, lots of things!

The Curriculum Guide to The Boy in the Black Suit

The Curriculum Guide for When I Was the Greatest

A Reading Group Guide to All American Boys

A Reading Group Guide to
As Brave As You

A Reading Group Guide to
Track, Book One: Ghost