Talkin’ about Bessie, Part II

Posted September 25th, 2012

Talkin’ About Bessie, my biography of aviator, Elizabeth Coleman, was an exercise in extreme patience and perseverance. If you’ve read Part I of this blog post, you already know how taxing this project was from the start! The entire saga was a bit too long for one blog post, though, so I decided to break it up. Here, then, is Part II.

Talkin' about BessieSigning on E.B. Lewis as the illustrator for Talkin’ About Bessie should have been the end of the long saga of bringing this book to market. It wasn’t.

As mentioned in Part I, after Bessie’s original editor moved on to another publishing house, a round-robin of editors temporarily filled the spot over the course of a few years. With all that coming and going, some important details of book production fell through the cracks. For example, no one was sharing early sketches with me. That was proven to be a huge mistake. When I saw the F&Gs, I realized that one character, who was supposed to be African-American, had instead been portrayed as a white person. More egregious than that, however, was the fact that a female character had been portrayed as a man. This was a biography, after all, and that character represented an actual, not a fictional, person. A change in gender goes far beyond the bounds of poetic license! To say I was aghast when I realized this error is to understate the fact.

Both paintings had to be redone. The good news, I suppose, is that I caught the errors in time!

Whew! That was close. Yes. But that’s not the end of the story.

Unseen Illustration

You’ll never find this painting in Talkin’ About Bessie. Why? It was supposed to be a woman! Her first name was Willie, and that was the confusion! The final book features a portrait of a woman.

As I flipped through the F&Gs a few more times, looking for additional mistakes or omissions, I realized the bibliography was nowhere to be found. But surely I was wrong, I thought. Perhaps it had simply fallen out of this particular copy of the F&G. So, I checked a second copy. Nope. No bibliography there, either. Frantic, I called the editor.

“Where is the bibliography?” I asked.

“Bibliography?” she repeated, as if I were speaking another language. “Was there a bibliography?”

I ground my teeth and did a slow burn.

“Yes. I. Gave. You. A. Bibliography.”

“Oh!” she said. “Wait a minute. I think I do remember seeing one. Let me go back and find it.”

“You do that,” I said.

I won’t tell you what I was thinking in that moment. I try not to use that kind of language.

Eventually, the bibliography was found. However, since space allocation had already been set, the challenge of the art director was to find some space in which to include it. In the end, the bibliography was reduced to the smallest possible font, and the whole was shoe-horned into the book.

While all this was going on, I begged the publisher not to release the F&Gs to reviewers until the bibliography could be added. I was told not to worry. You know where this is going.

The first reviews were released, and critics noted that no bibliography was available. The publisher tried to keep my head from exploding by assuring me that an errata sheet would go out to reviewers to let them know a bibliography was, in fact, in existence. I could not be mollified.

By the time the finished book hit store shelves, I remember thinking, “This damn book better win something, after all this!”

Total time invested? Six years. Payoff? Coretta Scott King Honor for text, Coretta Scott King Award for illustration, and many, many fans. I hope you’ll become one, if you haven’t already.

I’ll close with a favorite poem from the book, “School Teacher.”

When it came to knowledge, Bessie was a miser,
hoarding facts and figures like gold coins she was
saving up to spend on something special. 

I’d watch her sometimes,
poring over her lessons,
lips pursed in concentration.
Often, when the subject turned to math,
she’d glance up at me and, I’d swear,
she’d get a sort of greedy look in her eyes.
But maybe it was just my imagination. 

I did not imagine her persistence, though.
Come rain or shine, if work allowed,
Bessie would attend the hot-in-summer,
cold-in-winter, one-room Colored schoolhouse
where I taught in Waxahachie.
Not even the four-mile walk it took to get there
discouraged her from making her way to class. 

Still, bright as she was, I worried that her fine mind
 would soon be sacrificed to a life spent picking cotton
 or working in the mills, like so many others had before. 

But, after each harvest, she’d return to class,
determined as ever to snatch up and pocket
 every tidbit of knowledge I could offer.
“Teacher,” she’d say, “one day, I’m going
 to amount to something.” 

                        Bless God! I need not have
                        fretted in the least.

Talkin’ about Bessie, Part I

Posted September 18th, 2012

Talkin' about BessieThe Book that Almost Wasn’t: That could be the title of this book. The journey from concept to bookshelves is a bit of a saga. Some books are harder to birth than others, and Bessie was a book-baby in breach! I’ll explain.

It seems like forever ago that then Orchard editor Melanie Kroupa asked me to think about writing a black biography. I told her not to get her hopes up, because historical books were not my forté. As far as I was concerned, when it came to biographies of black historical figures, the McKissacks had that subject matter sewn up. I didn’t feel I could really contribute anything of value to the genre. But I agreed to do a little research to see if there were a historical figure of particular interest to me. Enter Bessie Coleman.

Thumbing through an encyclopedia of African American History, I came across a paragraph or two about pilot and aerialist Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman. A pilot from the barnstorming era, and the first licensed African American woman pilot at that, Bessie had my full attention.

My initial excitement was tempered, though. Surely there was already a book about her for young readers, right? Wrong. At that time, the only in-depth book about Bessie on the market was Queen Bess, an adult biography by Doris Rich. Once I knew that, I was off and running.

I told Melanie about my discovery and got the green light to write the book.

My first draft was a straight prose treatment of her story. It might have remained so, but as I dug in to work on the second draft, I got wind of two other Bessie manuscripts for young readers being shopped around. I didn’t know who had written them, but that was almost unimportant. My concern was that my own would no longer be the only children’s book about Bessie hitting store shelves.

I went to my editor and voiced my concern. “Do you still want me to write this book?” I asked her. “Yes,” she said. “Our book doesn’t have to be the only one, it just needs to be the best.”

Great. No pressure there!

I sat down for a long think. How could I write a biography that could potentially compete with at least two others on the same subject? What unique treatment could I offer that would make my book stand out? The answer was as simple as simile: poetry. I would write a biography in verse. But what shape would such a treatment take? This could not merely be a lose collection of poems. As a biography, it required more structure than that. I had no easy solutions, so I set aside the manuscript for a few weeks.

In recent years, I’d attend a few (too many) memorials. Each service was, of course unique in its own way. However, they all had something in common: with each, I was struck by the fact that I left the memorial with a much more rounded sense of the departed than I had when I walked in the door. And it made perfect sense. Every person who spoke shared stories about the loved one from a time or perspective to which I hadn’t been privy. Each knew the departed in a way no else had, and to hear each story was to receive another piece of that person’s puzzle. Taken together, the individual anecdotes spun the larger story of his or her life.

I’m not quite sure why the memory of those memorials surfaced when they did, but I realized the idea of a memorial would be a perfect jumping off place for my story about Bessie Coleman. With that in mind, I rolled up my proverbial sleeves and began the manuscript anew.

I identified the key figures in Bessie’s life through whom I would tell her story and dug in for a second round of research. Among other things, I studied flight manuals, interviewed female pilots, and sat in the cockpit of a replica of the plane Bessie flew to get the feel of it.

I’m not wild about research, per se, but Bessie’s story was so exhilarating, that I felt driven. I mean, here’s a woman who began life working in the cotton fields, and ended it as the first licensed African American pilot in the world. Then you throw in the birth of aviation, air circuses, and wing-walking—come on! How could I not be intrigued?

So, I pounded out manuscript number two, and turned it in. There were the usual round of edits and revisions, of course. Beyond these, there was a tug of war between my editor and myself. Her vision of the book was one of scant text, maybe four or five lines of text per spread, with lots of space for glorious illustrations. I, on the other hand, was driven by the needs of the story. I argued that the length of the text had to be determined by the number of words it took to tell that story. We went back and forth on this for awhile. Eventually, I went back through the manuscript and made a few judicious cuts, eliminating only those words that were not specifically germane to the story. Neither of us got entirely what we wanted, but we settled.

Then it was on to the selection of the illustrator. We found one fairly quickly (for us!) and we were set to go. Finally, I thought. This book is moving forward!

Not so much.

Melanie Kroupa and two other editors at Orchard announced they were leaving the company to set up shop elsewhere. The plan, as I understand it, was to take their projects with them. However, Orchard put the breaks on and took the trio to court. What did that mean for me? My story on Bessie was held captive for the next year while the legal wrangling ensued.

When the dust finally settled, my manuscript was still at Orchard and I had to wait until a new editor was assigned to the project. In other words, Bessie was still in limbo. The project remained that way for a while.

Nikki Grimes and EB Lewis

E.B. Lewis and I join to sign books.

Three editors came and went rather quickly, though one stayed long enough to cancel the contract of the illustrator we’d originally signed. Two editors later, someone came on board and discussed possible illustrators with me. The name E.B. Lewis was raised and I jumped on it. “Yes! Yes!” I said. “Get him.” I knew he would be perfect for this project. His historical detail was impeccable and that would serve Bessie well. The downside was that he would not be available to begin for two years. More than three years had already passed since I began work on this story, and the idea of waiting two more years was grueling. Even so, I knew E.B. would get the story right, so I felt he was worth the wait. And he was.

Now, you’d think, at this point in the story, the future would be smooth sailing. But you would be wrong …

Stay tuned for Part II of Bessie’s story next week …

When Gorilla Goes Walking

Posted September 11th, 2012

Gorilla Goes WalkingGodzilla. That was the original name of my feline character. I chose the name because it expressed the size and ferocity of her personality. It was also a bit of a joke, of course, because she was very small and, well, kittenish. But don’t tell her that!

As perfect as her chosen name was, I had to change it. I did so under duress, mind you. When the manuscript made its way into copyediting, I was informed that that the name Godzilla was owned by Warner Bros. and that I did not have the right to use it. Excuse me? I was miffed, to say the least. But what can you do? So, I set about trying to come up with another name that could convey similar attributes. The spelling of the name also needed to work, syllabically (is that a word?) with the meter of all the already-written poems. Gorilla came as close as I could get to satisfying those needs.

As for Gorilla’s (nee Godzilla’s) pedigree, she is a Manx.

Hanging with Debra Jackson and Gail Broadnax, my buds back in the day. Debra’s the one styling with the hat.

My best friend, Debra, had a Manx when she was growing up. That cat had personality and attitude to spare, and I loved her for it! In fact, she was the first feline to ever win my heart. She was very much her own person, and a natural born character. I’d no idea I’d end up writing a book inspired by her, though.

Still BFFs! Here, we’re on our way to the IMAGE Awards the year I won for Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope.

I’ve owned a few cats in my time, but I haven’t had one in years. Still, on my school visits, I’m frequently asked what my favorite pet is. I always say cats. Technically, though, that’s incorrect. Cats are not pets. Anyone who lives with a cat knows that, in the feline-human relationship, the human belongs to the cat, not the other way around! Anyway, the constant questions about my favorite pet brought back memories of my first close feline encounter. In other words, they reminded me of that Manx.

The scenarios in When Gorilla Goes Walking are imaginary, but I wouldn’t call them fictional. After all, cats do hiss at dogs, battle with houseplants, and curl up with their humans when a little love is needed, don’t they? And like Gorilla, all cats rule. Anyone who’s ever been owned by a feline can tell you that!

I’ve got a few favorite poems in this collection, but you’ll have to find your own. I’ll close with one of mine.

Learning the Rules

At first it wasn’t easy
remembering who was boss,
whose turn it was to catch the ball,
whose turn it was to toss.
But now I’ve got the hang of it.
(Housebreaking was a snap.)
I scratch Gorilla’s belly when
she commandeers my lap.
I switch the sunlamp on for her
if it’s a cloudy day.
I run, I jump, I fetch, unless
my master turns away
and stretches ‘cross the carpet,
reclining still as stone,
ignoring me until I see
she wants to be alone.

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Jazmin’s Notebook

Posted September 4th, 2012

Jazmin's NotebookJazmin’s Notebook, a Coretta Scott King Award Honor Book, was the first novel in which I featured a character who’d been in foster care. Unlike The Road to Paris, which came later, this novel didn’t focus on the foster care experience itself, but did illuminate some of the emotional effects of a child impacted by it.

Reviews talked about the book being hard-edged, yet hopeful. It’s a combination I prefer for most of my work, but I think Jazmin’s Notebook was the first time I struck exactly the right balance. Writing the book wasn’t easy though, not even a little bit.

Early in my writing career, prose was my staple. I wrote countless articles and editorials for magazines like Ms., Essence, and Today’s Christian Woman, as well as for newspapers like Soho Weekly, The Voice, and The Amsterdam News. But, by the time I set pen to paper to write Jazmin’s Notebook, I’d been writing poetry exclusively for several years. As a result, writing work that went all the way across the page felt awkward, strange, and ultimately paralyzing.

The stories themselves came easily enough. I’d left my mother’s home, once and for all, when I was sixteen and moved in with my older sister. I lived with her until I graduated from high school, and my stories were drawn from those years. No problem there. The format, however, was another story altogether. I had to figure out a way to get unstuck.

Nikki Teacher

My high school teacher, Mrs. Evelyn Wexler, was the model for the kind Mrs. Vogel in Jazmin’s Notebook. I was thrilled to meet her again, later in life. After all, she was my favorite teacher!

The problem was clearly prose-centered, so I asked myself, why not write the text in poetry, just to get the story down?  I could always reformat it as prose later. And that’s precisely what I did. I wrote the first two-thirds of the novel as if each chapter were a very long poem, then reformatted the text afterwards. By the time I was that far into the novel, I was once again comfortable enough with prose to drop the artifice.

What this exercise taught me is there is no right way or wrong way to write a novel. There is only what works. Whatever works for you, run with that. Period.

Many, though by no means all, of the stories in Jazmin’s Notebook are drawn from memory. As such, some of the characters were composites of real people from one of my old neighborhoods in New York City. I enjoy the process of spinning fictional characters from real ones. The single person for which that is difficult, though, is my mother.

Nikki at 16

Here’s what I looked like at 16 when I lived with my sister, Carol—CeCe in the book.

As I delved deep into the story of Jazmin and her complicated relationship with, and feelings for, her mother, I began to cross the line between the personal and the fictional, and didn’t even realize it. My editor, who was somewhat familiar with my personal history, realized what was happening, though. I’d stopped writing about Jazmin and her mother, and had started writing about my own! Once my editor brought it to my attention, I stepped back from the manuscript to get some perspective. In the end, I had to scrap nearly two chapters, climb back into Jazmin’s skin, and write them again. It was a good lesson for me.

I love poetry, as everyone knows, so I especially enjoyed creating the poems that open each chapter of the book. The poem “For Sale” is one of my favorites. When you read Jazmin’s Notebook, perhaps you’ll find a favorite of your own.

I pass the used-goods store
peek at
the bronzed baby shoes
useless and dusty
in the window.
It’s legal
to sell such things,
I know.
But it feels wrong
to me,
someone selling
someone else’s