The Gift of Story

Posted October 21st, 2014

A recent blog by Sally Lloyd-Jones got me thinking about a question we authors hear some version all the time: Where do you get your ideas, or how do you come up with ideas for your stories? The question would suggest that there’s a treasure trove, somewhere, packed with stories ready for the taking. Or that there’s a place one could go, a repository one can simply dip into, at will. But, the truth is, story ideas are more elusive than that. Their source is far less predictable, more a matter of magic, or of serendipity. An idea might spring from a period of fasting, or flash of insight during a meditative state, or result from literally tripping over an object that brings that idea to mind. No matter the origin of an idea, or the vehicle that brought it to you, that idea, that story, is a gift.

Chasing FreedomI’ve been thinking about my newest title, Chasing Freedom, releasing in January 2015, and trying to trace it’s origins. The initial idea came to me while I was busy working on something else. The something else was a series of dramatic monologues for a theater production to be performed in China, in 1988. The theme of the show was American History, and so I chose as my subjects Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Susan B. Anthony. In the midst of researching their stories, and crafting their monologues, I became excited to learn that they not only lived at the same time, but all knew each other. One day, while thumbing through these histories in the stacks of the Doheny Library at USC, I suddenly thought, “I wonder what it would be like if Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony sat down for a talk.” That notion was the seed that eventually led to my writing Chasing Freedom. I wasn’t looking for an idea, mind you. It simply arrived of its own! A gift.

Words with WingsI turned my thoughts to Words With Wings, a novel-in-verse about daydreaming, and I tried to trace the origins of that story. This task was more difficult, because the genesis of the idea was much less straightforward. Over the years, I’d read or heard comments by teachers about the importance of nurturing the imagination; read or heard Steve Jobs bemoan the fact that children are no longer encouraged to daydream; read or heard nameless others comment on this subject, in one way or another. Somewhere along the line, this train of thought stuck, and I began thinking about my own childhood, and how important daydreaming had been in my own formation, and later success, and I realized how much I wanted that for the children I serve through my work. Out of this thick soup of essays, articles, off-hand commentary, and personal memories grew the idea for a novel about a daydreamer. So there.

The origin of the idea for my next book, Poems in the Attic, out next spring, is a bit clearer, but not much. I watch the nightly news as much as anyone, and I’ve noticed a barrage of stories about our military over the recent years. With troops in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, especially, this last decade has produced miles of videotape about soldiers. I especially noticed the preponderance, of late, of images on television of soldiers returning home, snuggling with their children after long tours away, images of both fathers and mothers in uniform, nearly wrestled to the ground by children so excited to have them home, again. These images stuck. Then, there was the show Army Wives, which brought these themes into my living room weekly. Besides the above, there’s the fact that several of my friends regularly share childhood stories of growing up as military brats. At some point, a couple of years ago, I started thinking about the increasing number of children who have to negotiate the uncertainty of life with a parent in the military, and I wondered if I might offer some small collection of poetry that would speak into that. Hence, the story-in-verse book, Poems in the Attic.

The answer to the question of where stories come from is rather random, isn’t it? It’s mysterious. It’s magical. It’s simple: a story, and the idea that gives birth to it, is—a gift. Yeah. That sounds about right.

Mister Cellophane

Posted September 11th, 2014

A Good Long WayI recently read a blog post by author René Saldaña, Jr., that got me wondering—and not for the first time—how much effort teachers and librarians, especially, go to when searching for books by authors of color. It is a question worth asking.

The other day, out of curiosity, I Googled myself. I found a whopping 1, 470,000 results listed under my name. These include bios, videos, interviews, periodical features, photos, and, of course, books and audio-books. Wow. And yet, I regularly meet teachers and librarians who are wholly unfamiliar with my work. How is that possible?

Talkin' About BessieNow, I’m not saying my work is the greatest thing since sliced bread, because there are writers out there whose wordsmithing I envy. What I’m saying is that my titles are not exactly in hiding. In fact, throughout the course of my career, I have worked diligently to make sure they’re not. From seeking out bookstore signings, in my early days; to doing school visits; to producing postcards and bookmarks; to creating a comprehensive website; to investing in teacher guides for my books; to developing an online presence via Facebook, and now Twitter—in these ways, and more, I have made a concerted effort to put my work out there. How is it, then, that many people still manage to miss it?

Pocketful of PoemsBefore I go any further, let me say that I am extremely grateful for those teachers and librarians who have sought out and found my work, over the years, and then went on to share it with the students they serve. Obviously, I wouldn’t have much of a career without these literature-loving professionals. They have kept a goodly percentage of my 46 trade, and 20-odd mass-market books in print. I’m hoping they receive to my next two titles with equal kindness. However, after 30+ years in the business, I still routinely hear people say, “I’ve looked for your work everywhere and can’t find it,” to which I respond, “Huh?”

Almost ZeroI have a website featuring all of my titles, awards, audio-clips, and select reviews, with posted links to IndieBound.org and Amazon.com. In addition, I have a Wikipedia page, as well as an Amazon.com page. How hard have you been looking, exactly? I’m confused.

Sylvia Vardell’s must-view Poetry for Children website lists many of my poetry titles. TeachingBooks.net features my Coretta Scott King Award and Honor winners (six in total). I, thankfully, have books on any number of Best Book lists. Tell me again how hard it is to find my work.

Bronx MasqueradeClearly, there’s more to the lack of diversity in children’s books than whether or not POC are creating and publishing them. Could it be that some lack the motivation to seek out the books that are already there? That’s what René Saldaña, Jr., is asking. Now, I am, too.

Mind you, I’m not saying that we don’t need more books by people of color, because we most certainly do. The numbers show that we are woefully off the mark in producing diverse books in numbers commensurate with the proportion of our ever-increasingly diverse population. But that said, I am suggesting that we, perhaps, look at the issue a little more closely, that we ask a few more uncomfortable, but necessary, questions.

René Saldaña, Jr., spoke to this issue from the point of view of an author with a little less visibility than mine. And yet I have to agree with so much of what he has to say.

The juggernaut that is #WeNeedDiverseBooks is hard at work to raise the visibility of books by, and for, people of color. This is great and important work. Still, I can’t help but wonder if there’s more going on beneath the surface that would explain why the gatekeepers in this business continue to miss the POC books—including Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpré, Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, and National Book Award Winners—that are already out in the marketplace.

Where, exactly, is the disconnect? Is it the want-to that’s missing? If so, how do we begin to address it?

Let’s talk.

Under the Gun

Posted August 28th, 2014
Nikki's friends

My friends come in many sizes, shapes, and colors. I am open to each one because I judge according to character, not color.

So the argument goes something like this: Policemen come into contact with any number of violent, criminal black men during the course of their careers, and so it is only reasonable that they should view all black men as potential threats, and should have their loaded guns at the ready, whenever, wherever, and ph_nikki_groupunder whatever circumstances they happen to encounter a black male, no matter his age, size, appearance, or demeanor.

To the above, I respond thus: As Negro, Colored, Black, African-American peoples, we individually, and collectively, carry in our hearts, minds, and souls, the memories of countless lashings, lynchings, cross-burnings, cattle prodding, water-hosing, hangings, bombings, whippings, rapes, mutilations, tarring, feathering, and police-baton beatings at the hands of people with white skin. In addition, we have in the past, and continue to suffer in the present, acts of discrimination at the hands of people clothed in white skin, some of whom hurt, harm, mistreat and misjudge us every day. (For those of you who think otherwise, racial discrimination is, sadly, very much alive in America. We wish it weren’t.)

Having said that, it’s important for you to know that I do not spend my days enraged or even angry. Life is too short to walk through the world with a permanent chip on one’s shoulder, no matter the rationale. The truth is, I’ve got better things to do. So have most of my friends. Besides, we prefer to interact with, and judge, each person we encounter based on the

content of their character, not the color of their skin. Most African Americans will tell you the same.

Now, re-read the earlier paragraph, and note that none of the aforementioned atrocities lead black people to leave our homes, armed to the teeth, and ready, without a moment’s hesitation, to mow down every white person we encounter, in whom we see the shadow of other whites who may have hurt or harmed us or threatened our very lives.

What, ultimately, is the key difference between a black person who refuses to see every white person he encounters as a threat, and a white person, policeman or otherwise, who refuses to see a black person, particularly a male, as anything but? Choice. It really boils down to choice.

Here's a novel that explores the complexities of the issue of race and gun violence in an even-handed way.

Here’s a novel that explores the complexities of the issue of race and gun violence in an even-handed way.

Shooting to kill is not an accident. It’s a choice. It’s a choice in Ferguson, in Florida, in Chicago, in New York, in Anywhere, USA.

The arguments put forward by police and private citizens, for shooting to kill any and every black man or boy they see in the street, day or night, does not pass muster. A refusal to holster hate, or unprovoked fear, is a choice. Not bothering to tell the difference between a burgundy car and a tan car is a choice. Not taking care to distinguish between a car full of school children, and one full of potential adult male suspects, is a choice. Failing to differentiate between a boy, or a man, on the attack, and a boy or a man with his hands in the air, is a choice. And, by the way, punching, or pummeling an unarmed, middle-aged woman on the side of a freeway is a choice.

A choice is a decision, not a cause for making excuses. Any mature, mentally healthy adult can tell the difference between the two.