Chasing Freedom: the Story Behind the Story

Posted January 12th, 2015

It all started in China. Yes, you read that right. The origins of my book about Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony has everything to do with China.

Trip to ChinaLet me explain.

In 1988, I was asked to write a few monologues for theater pieces on American History that would be performed in a series of theaters in China. Later, after the scripts were complete, I invited several friends to join me in auditioning for the cast. I had no aspirations to join the cast myself, but my friends, who were all performing artists, certainly did. As for me, I simply thought the audition process would be a lark and I looked forward to spending a fun day with a few friends. And it was fun. And funny. As it turned out, the joke was on me. None of my friends made the final cut for the cast, but I did! As a result, I ended up going to China later that year. But, back to this story.


The historical figures I chose to develop monologues about for the show were Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Susan B. Anthony.

I was working in library acquisitions at USC at the time and was able to take advantage of the seemingly endless collection of books to be found in the Doheny Library Stacks. I dove into my research with gusto, and was excited to learn that my chosen subjects were contemporaries, and that their lives frequently intersected. I found that bit of information fascinating, and wondered just how deeply interconnected they were. In any event, I had no time to satisfy my curiosity, and so I limited my research to the biographical information I needed to know about each in order to write my short monologues. However, I did have occasion to mull over certain questions that occurred to me: I wondered what it would be like if Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony had a conversation. What would they talk about? What would it sound like?

After a time, I tucked those questions away and, eventually, forgot all about them.

Talkin' about BessieIn the intervening years, I wrote a book about aviator Bessie Coleman, the first African American licensed pilot. This is a biography written in verse, and told from multiple perspectives. While the information about Coleman was factual, the format I created to tell her story was a work of fiction. Talkin’ About Bessie has enjoyed considerable success, winning the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration and an Author Honor for the text.

Not surprisingly, the editor began asking me to consider writing another book about a historical figure. I told him thanks, but no thanks. Every year or so, he’d raise the subject again.

Finally, in 2008, he asked if I would consider writing a book about Harriet Tubman. I laughed, thinking to myself that everyone and his mother has written a book about Harriet Tubman. Why would I write yet another? And so, again, I found myself saying thanks, but no thanks.

Chasing FreedomTwo weeks later, however, the idea I’d had way back in 1988 resurfaced. What about creating a conversation between Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony? That would be a new and unique treatment of Harriet’s story. Would my editor be interested in that idea? The answer, of course, was yes. And so, with that, I got busy.

I began gathering research materials in Cincinnati, Ohio, with a visit to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the most extensive collection of memorabilia from that period. I spent several days hunched over rare suffragette meeting notes by Susan B. Anthony, slave narratives, and other valuable literature relevant to the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, and the suffrage movement.

Nikki Grimes, John Parker HouseLater, I traveled to Ripley, Ohio, to search out some of the original homes that served as stations of the Underground Railroad, including the John P. Parker House. After a week of research, I headed back to California to begin the long process of poring over thousands of pages of biographies, histories, and other reference work on my subjects, and the historical period against which their stories played out. Bit by bit, the manuscript came together. And now, finally, this story has gone out into the world!

I hope Chasing Freedom brings this time in history alive for my readers, and that they realize we are all part of one another’s story.

To Blurb or Not to Blurb

Posted July 17th, 2014

Nikki GrimesI love a good read. As for a free book, that gets me salivating as quickly as the offer of dark chocolate. Well, almost! So when a publisher sends me a book to blurb, my initial response is elation. After all, a new book promises the potential of a new literary adventure. Or it may be introducing me to a new author (Yay!). Or it may give me the opportunity to support an author that I already know and love. What could be bad about that? Well, hold on there, a minute.

To blurb or not to blurb is not as elementary a question as you might suppose. At least, it hasn’t been for me.

First, let me say that I’m always honored to be asked to write a blurb. However, writing one invariably comes at the expense of my own work. It takes time to read a book critically, which is what I feel I must do if I’m going to say something intelligent about it. That’s time taken away from my own writing and, trust me, there are already a host of other things that do that. Then, once I’ve read the book, I may decide not to blurb it, after all, for a number of reasons: I object to the language; I don’t find the story hopeful (for me, a required element of children’s or YA lit); I object to sexual elements (feel free to call me a prude. You wouldn’t be the first!); I believe the book would benefit from another revision; or I just plain don’t think the book is all that good. No matter what reason I have for ultimately deciding not to pen said blurb, the author—often, though not always a friend—is disappointed. I hate that. And it doesn’t much matter that I warned the author and editor going in that there’s no guarantee I’ll write a blurb. Everyone is still disappointed, and I feel bad about that.

But, say the book checks all of my boxes, and I do write a blurb. While it may be used for marketing purposes, it may never show up on the book’s cover. And, even if it does, how important was that blurb, anyway? I honestly don’t know.

At the end of the day, I don’t want to be responsible for hurt feelings. And if I could offer something useful in the way of critique, it’s already too late. Besides, I really need to concentrate on writing my own books. What with the demands that go along with maintaining a career in literature, as well as the ordinary demands of everyday life, I find precious little time to write as it is.

To blurb or not to blurb? I’ve finally landed on the only answer that makes sense for me: Not.

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The Writing Process Blog Tour

Posted June 9th, 2014

Have you ever been on a blog tour? This is my first time being part of one. Blame Children’s Poet Laureate, Kenn Nesbitt. He’s the one who roped me into this! Seriously, though, I’m happy to join the My Writing Process Blog Tour. I hope you can take something meaningful from my responses to the four questions posed.


bk_bronxAs always, I’m juggling projects. I seem to be allergic to working on one manuscript at a time.

First, I’m waist-deep into a Bronx Masquerade sequel, which means I’m too far in to turn back, but not so far that I’ve ceased shaking in my boots for fear I won’t be able to live up to my own expectations, let alone the expectations of my fans. Yikes! But I press on.

I’m also working on a novel-in-verse for Boyds Mills, publisher of Words With Wings.

Planet Middle SchoolLastly, I’m writing a middle-grade collection of poetry inspired by poems/poets of the Harlem renaissance. This last is for Bloomsbury, publisher of my novel-in-verse Planet Middle School.


First of all, I work in more than one genre, so there’s that! Besides that, I’m not sure this question is answerable, at least not by me. I know that my work is distinct, perhaps in part because it is character-driven. Or perhaps it is that my poetry is compact, yet always delivers an emotional punch. Yes. That’s it. In any case, it is this aspect of my work that is most often commented on, so let’s go with that.


In general, I look for subject matter that allows me to address those issues I feel affect the lives of young readers, and that I believe need to be discussed and explored. I wrote The Road to Paris because I didn’t find many books tackling the often-difficult experiences of children caught up in the foster-care system.

Road to Paris Almost Zero Words with Wings

I wrote Almost Zero: A Dyamonde Daniel Book to address the subject of entitlement because I see this trend everywhere, and it disturbs me. I felt compelled to speak into it.

I wrote Words With Wings because I fear this generation has forgotten the value of daydreaming and I’m hoping my book will spark discussion of this topic, and perhaps inspire a bit of daydreaming, along the way.

Chasing FreedomSometimes, of course, I write a book simply because a certain story captures my imagination or curiosity. Chasing Freedom, a book coming out next year with Orchard Books, is one such title. It’s an imagined conversation between Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony, inspired by my fascination with both women, and the fact that their extraordinary lives happened to have intersected, a fact which still gives me tingles!


Every book is different. Since I write across genres, and age ranges, there is no one, consistent pattern to the way I work. However, I suppose there are a few commonalities.

Let’s see: I focus on writing a complete draft before I do any editing. In fact, I muzzle my internal editor during that original draft. She is not invited to the party, nor is she allowed to speak until I begin work on the second draft! From then on, I’m in revision mode.

With each draft, I try to focus on something specific throughout, whether that’s tense agreement, converting plain prose into more lyrical language, or transforming informational passages into more dynamic dialogue, and so on. With each pass, I’m honing in on one particular element.

I revise and tweak an annoying amount—just ask my editors! As a rule, I know I’m done when I find myself making changes that are no longer improvements.

What else? Hmmm. As a rule, I don’t try to write sequentially. I approach my stories like jigsaw puzzles. I concentrate on developing the individual pieces of a story, then figure out how those pieces best fit together. This approach keeps me from feeling overwhelmed, especially if the story I’m working on is quite complex, with lots of moving parts. (This saved me from losing my mind when I wrote Bronx Masquerade, a novel in 18 voices!) In fact, this approach helps me when writing picture book texts, as well. It certainly aided me while I worked on Poems in the Attic, a Lee & Low title that comes out this fall. Okay! I think that’s it for process. If you want to get any more out of me, you’ll have to attend one of my workshop intensives!

I hope you’ll read Kenn Nesbitt’s article, my predecessor in this Writing Process Blog Tour.


Halfway to Perfect

Posted March 6th, 2013

Halfway to PerfectThe notion of physical perfection is nothing new, despite the fact that no such thing exists. Most of us girls grew up on teen magazines that spoon-fed us the idea of striving for body types they told us were beautiful, desirable, “perfect.” What has this led to? In case you haven’t noticed, the obese among us are not the only ones driving the ever-burgeoning diet industry. Lots of average-sized, barely voluptuous, and even skinny-minnies have fallen into the trap, too.

What’s all this got to do with kids? Plenty, I’m sorry to say. I’ve had friends, who parent 7- and 8-year-old girls, tell me their little ones bemoan the fact that they are “fatter” than someone in their class.  These girls, these children, have already made the dreaded “D” word part of their regular vocabulary. Even the skinniest among them become despondent when they realize they are not as skinny as the girl next door. Conversation on the playground, these days, includes discussions of which girl in class weighs the least!

I don’t know about you, but this frightens me. I decided it was time to address this subject. I did so in a chapter book titled Halfway to Perfect: A Dyamonde Daniel Book. In it, my characters tackle the twin topics of body image and healthy eating.

Damaris, Dyamonde’s friend, succumbs to the peer pressure of her classmates, and begins a self-prescribed diet which essentially involves cutting out almost every food put in front of her. (Carrot sticks, anyone?)

Worried for her friend, Dyamonde looks for ways to help Damaris see that, far from being fat, she is practically perfect.

As I developed the storyline, I realized this would be a wonderful opportunity to teach young readers a little something about diabetes, a disease that increasing numbers of children are wrestling with. My own knowledge of the disease was somewhat limited, so it was time to put on my research hat!

In addition to the information I found in books like Juvenile Diabetes for Dummies, I was fortunate to know a veteran school nurse with whom I could consult. Her assistance proved invaluable. Besides giving me information about the disease and some of its treatments, relative to my storyline, she also apprised me of the privacy laws governing the handling of a child’s medical information within the school system. As a thank-you to my friend for all her help, I named the nurse in my story after her!

During the course of the story, Dyamonde and Damaris get to know a classmate with diabetes. Through this new relationship, both girls learn that a healthy diet is the only diet they should worry about, because a healthy body is the most perfect body of all.

In case you’re thinking this story is all work, and no play, not to worry! This is Dyamonde Daniel, after all. There are laughs along the way, and Free adds his own brand of comic relief, as always.

Here’s how the story starts off.  Here’s hoping you’ll want to grab a copy and read the rest!

You’d never know it to look at her skinny little self, but Dyamonde loves food. If there were a class in eating, she’d get an A+ every time.

Dyamonde treats all food fairly. She likes Mexican tacos, Chinese egg rolls, and Cuban beans and rice. She eats beef hot dogs, turkey burgers, and fried chicken. Actually, she likes just about anything that has chicken in it: noodle soup, potpie, even chicken salad sandwiches. 

Dyamonde doesn’t have much use for vegetables, but she loves broccoli, mostly because each spear looks like a tree. And she loves fruit—especially peaches, cherries, and grapes, of any size or color. Dyamonde also loves some foods that other people don’t, like cottage cheese and applesauce mixed together.

“Yuck!” said Free, the first time he saw her eat some. 

“Oh, puleeze!” said Dyamonde, stirring in a little more applesauce. “You just wish you had a bowlful!”

Yes. Dyamonde loved all sorts of food, but her absolute favorite food in the whole wide world was spaghetti and meatballs with garlic bread. And guess what Mrs. Daniel had made the last time Free and Damaris came over?

Welcome Precious

Posted December 4th, 2012

Welcome PreciousWhere do ideas come from? It’s not always easy to say. Take Welcome Precious. One day, someone—I don’t remember who—said “You should write a baby book.” I snickered. I had exactly zero interest in writing another baby book. Years earlier, I’d done one for Essence Magazine. That one was a work-for-hire, but still. Surely one baby book was enough, right?

Ideas are stubborn things. Like seeds, once planted, they tend to grow and take root. In no time, I found myself thinking about nursery rhymes, and lullabies, and goodnight books. Soon thereafter, I was asking myself, “Well, if I were to write a new baby book, what would my focus be?” I mulled that one over (for days? for weeks?), then hit upon an idea that held some appeal: I could write a text welcoming a newborn into the world of sensory delights.

childOnce that was decided, I needed a name for my book’s baby, and Precious sprung to mind. After all, every newborn that comes into the world, without respect of race, culture, or gender, is precious. That idea was important to me because I was not crafting a book specifically for black babies, although obviously women of color would find it especially appealing. Rather, this was intended as a book celebrating the sensory experiences of all babies. Of course, if you’re going to feature a black baby in a book, who better to bring on board than artist Bryan Collier?

I was so excited when Bryan agreed to be the illustrator. As it happened, right about the time he signed the contract, he had just learned that he and his lovely wife, Christine, were about to have their first child. Soon, Bryan would have his very own personal frame of reference to guide him as he worked on the paintings for Welcome Precious!

Timing, as they say, is everything.

babyIn most of my story told through poetry, I write a series of individual poems, woven together by plot or theme. In this case, however, I wanted to create the feeling of, well, not a lullaby exactly, but something of a lyrical text. A book-length poem seemed to be the way to go this time around. As I wrote the piece, I imagined myself holding a newborn, and reading this book to him or her, enjoying the taste and feel of the words in my mouth. I heard myself singing, rather than saying, each line. With that in mind, the text very nearly wrote itself.

This book has become a popular baby shower gift in my circle, and perhaps in other circles, as well. Have you read it, yet? I’ll leave you with one of my favorite passages.

Welcome Precious …
ChinaWelcome to sun-sparkle and moonlight.
Welcome to the cool delight
of ice cream,
the sticky joy of peanut butter,
and the hint of honey
in chocolate fudge.

Welcome to the warm circle
of your daddy’s arms,
the slippery kisses
of your giddy grandmother,
and the cool tickle
of Mommy’s nose
rubbing against your
belly button …
Welcome, Precious …

Barack Obama

Posted November 8th, 2012

Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of HopeYou know how I’m always saying I’m up for a challenge? Well, with this book, God called me on it.

Everything about this book was impossible.

In 2008, I was going along, minding my own business, writing my books and sweating the latest deadline. I’d instructed my agent to restrain herself from offering me any new projects. My plate was full, and my cup had long since runneth over. “No problem,” she said. “I understand.” Then, barely two weeks later, she sent me the email: “I know you’re busy,” it began, “and I know you said you didn’t want to consider any new projects, but I really think you should scroll down and read this email from Simon & Schuster.” Breathing heavily, and letting fly a few words I can’t repeat here, I scrolled down the page. It was a letter from Justin Chandra asking if I’d consider writing a picture book biography of then-Senator Barack Obama who, as it happened, was running for the Democratic nomination for president.

If you think I jumped at the chance, you’d lose the bet. I didn’t know much about Mr. Obama. (That’s a strange name, I thought.) And I’m not particularly interested in politics. I did, however, realize the offer was substantial, and that I should at least appear to be giving it serious consideration. With that in mind, I decided to wait two weeks before turning it down.

During that two months, I did a little research on Senator Obama, and noticed that there seemed to be a growing degree of excitement about him. And it began to dawn o me that a book about him would probably be a high profile project. In other words, this could potentially be a very big book. What were the odds, I wondered, that I would ever again be offered such a high profile project? Not very good, I decided, and so I called my agent and said, “Let’s go for it.”

I had no idea what I was in for.

Bryan Collier and Nikki GrimesSimon & Schuster had set their book release to coincide with the Democratic National Convention in August. Counting back from that date, and considering the least amount of time illustrator Bryan Collier would need to complete the artwork, I had roughly three weeks to research and turn around a polished first draft. I’ve written biographies and works of historical fiction before, and I can tell you I usually spend months just doing the research.

Job number one became not to panic! As it happened, a friend had recently mentioned having a love for research, so I gave her a call and put her to work culling material for me to pour over. She sent me articles, book titles, and various interviews with Obama. I felt like I was back at college, cramming for an exam only, this time, the results would be read by thousands of people, not just my professor!

This project was unusual in another respect. Writing in a normal time-frame, I would consider several possible approaches to telling the story, and I’d try a couple until I figured out which approach worked best. In this case, however, there was no time for that. I had to come up with an idea and just run with it, hoping it was the right one.

The publisher wanted this book to capture some of the energy of the race for the nomination, as well as tell the back-story of Obama’s life and what led him to decide to run for president. That meant the book needed to be both informative and engaging. But how do you engage the littlest readers in a book about a political leader? I decided to view this story though the eyes of a young child, and to incorporate that point-of-view throughout the text. That way, even the youngest readers would have a character with whom they could relate. It felt like a bit of a gamble, but I believed it could work, so I went with it.

I experienced the tyranny of the clock during every step of this project. I knew how extremely challenging it would be for Bryan to create the art for this text, given the insane schedule, so to give him a leg up, I started secretly funneling him pages, so that he could get going on his own research for artistic reference. My editor would probably have had a cow, if she’d known.

At three weeks, I sent off my first draft, then spent the next month or so in revisions. Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope released the day before the DNC. Bryan and I were in attendance to sign copies of the book.

What a rush!

I wasn’t quite done with the book after its release, though. Once Obama was nominated, I had to update the Author’s Note. When he was elected, I had to update it yet again. When he won the Noble Prize, it was updated. And once he began campaigning for a second term—you get the picture!

Three years after it reached #1 on the New York Times Bestsellers list, a special edition, with a CD of me reading the book, was released. And the book that proved to be a challenge with a capitol C is still going strong. And to think: I almost turned this project down.


It’s Raining Laughter

Posted October 16th, 2012

It's Raining LaughterIf there’s such a thing as a backwards approach to creating a picture book, I’m something of an expert. On three separate occasions, I’ve crafted books in precisely that way. First, there was Something On My Mind, with art by Tom Feelings. Next came From a Child’s Heart, with art by Brenda Joysmith. And last was It’s Raining Laughter, with photographs by Myles Pinkney (yes, that’s right, of the Pinkney clan, a dynasty in the children’s book world). The latter is the subject of this week’s blog.

It’s Raining Laughter is a collection of color photographs and poetry, organized around the theme of joy. Mind you, when I first began work on this project, there was no theme. There were no poems. There was not even the hint of an idea for a book, as far as I could see. It’s Raining Laughter began with the visuals.

An editor at Dial Books, with whom I’d published previously, sent me a binder of photographs by Myles Pinkney and asked me to consider creating a storyline to turn these loose photographs into a book for young readers. I liked the photos I saw, but didn’t find any connecting theme that I could work with. Was it possible, I wondered, if Myles could send me additional photos? The answer was yes. The problem, though, was knowing what kinds of photos to ask for. I wasn’t at all sure since I had, as yet, no theme. “Just start sending me photos of children,” I said to Myles, “and I’ll tell you when to stop, all right?” This was a very unorthodox way to work, but Myles graciously agreed.

As the photos came in, I taped them to a wall of my apartment, eventually covering the wall completely. I probably had close to a hundred photos by the time a germ of an idea began to form.

Day and night, I studied the photos, and I found myself drawn to the images that were happiest, images of children playing, running through sprinklers, climbing, exploring, and laughing. It suddenly came to me that joy was the element that connected them all, and so that became my theme.

That decided, I culled the photos I most wanted to use, then focused on creating a narrative about the child, or children, captured in each photo. I drafted the narrative in paragraph form, at first, then worked to craft each narrative into a poem.

Once I had the polished draft, I sent it to my editor. She and the art director made the final selection of photos, but they did end up using roughly 85-90% of the photos I’d chosen.

What a fun project! I love the idea of marrying poetry to art or photographs. I look forward to doing so again.

Have you ever read It’s Raining Laughter? Here’s one of my favorite poems from the collection.

The Laughing Bug

I caught the laughing bug
the other day.
Who spread the germ to me
it’s hard to say.

My brother told
a yucky monster story,
and had to laugh himself
it was so gory.

My sister squealed
with joy, and giggled when
Dad tickled her. Did I
start laughing then?

Someone infected me
with glee that day.
I wonder if God’s love
could spread that way.

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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