Illustrating Poems in the Attic

Posted March 31st, 2015

Poems in the AtticA picture book is not complete without the art, and I’ve been fortunate to have my books illustrated by some of the finest artists in the children’s book business.

My newest picture book, Poems in the Attic, was illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon. Recently, I asked her a few questions about this project, and why she chose it. She responded by giving me a peek into her process! Enjoy.

Q: What made you want to illustrate this book?

A: I really identified with the theme of travel during childhood! I was born in Albany, NY, but my father is from the Ivory Coast, West Africa. My family and I lived there until I was twelve years old but came back to the States almost every summer, so it seems like we were always hopping on a plane to go somewhere! I also identified with the daughter learning about her mother’s life through her childhood poems. When I was in college, I was given a box of letters written by my mother to her parents while she was in college. I discovered that my mother and I had a lot of the same thoughts and feelings about life!

Elizabeth Zunon

Elizabeth Zunon, illustrator

Q: What were your primary challenges in creating the art for Poems in the Attic?

Making sure that the mother looked like herself, slowly aging from childhood to teenage-hood to adult-hood on the last page took a lot of little tweaks. Also, keeping the two stories separate on each page was a very interesting design challenge to solve. But it was great fun! Illustrating each page was like trying to put together a puzzle.

Q: Do you find poetry easier or harder to illustrate than prose?  Why/why not?

Yes, I do find poetry a little easier to illustrate than prose. I find that my mind’s eye wanders a bit further while reading poetry, giving me more freedom when I’m making the corresponding art.

Q: What was your process for creating the art for Poems in the Attic?

I first looked at many reference photos of the places in the book, as I’d never been to most of them. ( I did go to New Mexico and visit the White Sands National Monument after finishing the book, though!) Next, I drew little thumbnail sketches (with very simple shapes) of each page to figure out the design and composition of each image. I then took photographs of myself posing as the characters in each illustration so I would have realistic reference images to work from. I drew detailed sketches for each page, then transferred my sketches to special paper and proceeded to paint the illustrations. Lastly, when all of the oil paint was dry, I added cut paper collage elements to the illustrations featuring the little girl reading her mother’s poems.

Elizabeth Zunon

Elizabeth Zunon in the midst of an illustration for Poems in the Attic, featured here with the permission of Elizabeth Zunon.

Q: What do you have coming up next?

I’m working on a book about a little girl spending time with her great-grandmother, who is very prickly and a little scary on the outside. The girl learns that great-grandmother is this way because of all of the history she has lived through as an African-American growing up in the United States. It will be published by Lerner in 2016.

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.


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 …

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.

A Pocketful of Poems

Posted October 9th, 2012

Pocketful of PoemsTrue confessions: I have an obsessive-compulsive personality. Fortunately, I channel in mostly healthy ways. A Pocketful of Poems is a prime example.

Back in the 1990’s (was it that long ago?) I came across The Essential Haiku, edited by Robert Hass. Once I planted my face in this collection of poems by Basho, Buson, and Issa, I barely came up for air. I was in Haiku heaven!

I’d fallen in love with this form of poetry as a child. I was forever challenging myself to paint a picture or tell a story using as few words as possible, so haiku was right up my alley. But I hadn’t read much haiku as an adult, so this collection was a special treat.

After I read this book, I became absolutely obsessed with writing haiku. I couldn’t help myself. Before I knew it, I had a collection of nearly 100 poems! (If I were the Batman’s sidekick Robin, of television fame, I’d say Holy Haiku, Batman! And yes, I’m showing my age. Whatever.)

The focus of my collection was contemporary-urban, rather than traditional, giving it my own twist. I wanted to use this ancient form to create poetry that contemporary children, especially those living in the inner city—an important audience for me—could embrace as their own.

I was happy with the manuscript, and was convinced some lucky publisher was going to snap it up.

Not even.

One publisher after another returned the manuscript with some version of the question, “Why are you writing haiku?”

First, I was dumbfounded. Then, I was irritated. What kind of question was that? (I used lots of colorful language in the moment.) No one was forthcoming in explaining what he or she meant by that, which only annoyed me further. But I had a few wild guesses.

As an author of African American descent, I am routinely put in a certain box. I am expected to write either African folktales, or books featuring African American historical figures, or “problem” books about contemporary African American life. On a more personal level, as Nikki Grimes, I am expected to write character driven, narrative poetry, primarily because that’s what I’ve published in the past. If I dare veer off into themed collections, or such exotic forms as sonnet or haiku, well, off with my head! That’s not supposed to be in my wheel-house, right? Wrong.

Be that as it may, no publisher was biting, and I felt deflated.

I sat down to think about what kinds of manuscripts I’d been most successful at selling, and realized the narrative thread was the key that might make even a collection of haiku by me more palatable to publishers. So, I pulled out my hefty manuscript, chose a small number of haiku to work with, and settled in for a brand new draft.

I opened my file folder of names, and chose one for a character who would lightly narrate my picture book collection of haiku. I decided to shape this book as a collection of paired poems, writing free verse poems from the character’s P.O.V., and pairing each with a haiku on the same theme. I organized the collection seasonally, and added a simple author’s note about haiku. Once the new version of my haiku manuscript was complete, I sent it out again.

I hit pay-dirt almost immediately, but the publisher’s offer was too lowball for me to consider. So I was on to the next house. And the next. And the next. And the next.

Had I made a mistake by rejecting that first offer? I was beginning to wonder.


I was thrilled for this opportunity to grab a photo with six of my wonderful illustrators. Javaka Steptoe, who illustrated A Pocketful of Poems, is to the far right of me in this shot.

About one year later—yes, I said one entire, bone-crushing, ego-deflating, twelve-month period—I received contract offer number two! This time the amount suggested was roughly eight times that of the first publisher! I screamed yes over the phone. I think my agent has finally gotten her hearing back!

It took a few years to bring A Pocketful of Poems to the marketplace, but it went on to make the Bank Street College Best Book of the Year, and the CCBC Choices list. More importantly, it continues to be a staple in classrooms across the country. Call this another lesson in the old saying, “good things come to those who wait.”

If you haven’t read A Pocketful of Poems yet, I hope you will. Besides my poetry, I know you’ll enjoy the extraordinary illustrations by Javaka Steptoe.

I’ll close with one of my favorite pairs of poems from the book.


Pumpkin is an orange word.
I set its roundness out
where others can enjoy it.
I help Mama carve
a crooked smile on its face.
Come Thanksgiving,
we bake others like it for dessert.
But first we have to wait
for them to arrive.

Pumpkins catch a bus
to town. How else could they get
here by Thanksgiving?

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 …

Dark Sons

Posted August 21st, 2012

Dark SonsWhenever I’d sit in church listening to yet another sermon about Abraham and Isaac, I’d always think to myself, “Yeah, but what about Ishmael?” I’ve heard maybe three sermons about Ishmael in the last two years, but before then, I can’t remember ever having heard a single one, which, of course, made me curious. What was the deal with Ishmael? With every year that passed, my curiosity grew until finally, I grabbed a literary shovel and dug into the story myself.

What did I find? A racially and culturally diverse teen, jealous of his half-brother, estranged from his stepmother, abandoned by his father, and wrestling with his faith. This was all so familiar. I knew scores of boys like that. They’d walked the streets of every neighborhood I’d ever lived in. As Ishmael’s story got its hooks into me, I felt compelled to tell it.

Dark Sons is a novel-in-verse that tells two parallel stories. One is about Ishmael, son of Abraham, and the second is about Sam, a contemporary teen living in New York City, who is wrestling with similar issues. 

When I began working on the book, my intention was simply to tell Ishmael’s story. However, halfway through, I decided to create a parallel story that would underscore just how timely and relevant Ishmael’s thousands-of-years-old story really is.

Library of Congress

Signing books and posters at the Library of Congress. Definitely, one of my favorite things!

Dark Sons, as you might imagine, was a research-heavy book. I’m always extra careful whenever handling scriptural material and so, in addition to studying the Bible, concordances, atlases, various texts about daily life in ancient Israel, and the like, I traveled to New York to do additional research at Hebrew Union College, where I interviewed several Old Testament scholars and Genesis experts.

It’s always amazing to me what tiny bits of information can bring a story to life. Of course, I never know which bits I’ll end up using. For this book, those bits included the months of the Jewish calendar, feast days, weather patterns, and foods, among other things.

Besides the obvious task of painting the world of the story, I also had to work on staying in voice as I moved from Ishmael to Sam and back again. Call me crazy, but I relish the mental and emotional gymnastics of moving back and forth from one voice to another. I suppose it’s because I’m a sucker for a challenge!

I love the way writing stories gives me the opportunity to blend my own, sometimes pivotal experiences into the lives of the characters in my books. For example, in Dark Sons, on a day when Sam feels especially isolated and in despair, he catches sight of a sign trailed across the sky by an airplane, a sign that read “I am with you always —Matthew 28:20.” That’s something that actually happened to me, once. I was feeling particularly distressed and alone one day as I was wondering through Central Park, and something told me to look up. My breath caught, then I let out a long, slow sigh. I remember feeling comforted, not by the sign itself, but because it showed up, as it did, at exactly the moment I needed it most. In drafting Dark Sons, I got to pass that experience on, in a way. I love that.

I’ll close with the poem in question, titled “Signs.”

Looking to lengthen the distance
between me and home,
I train it to 59th Street,
jet through the subway doors
and run around Central Park
in no particular direction,
trying to leave my anger in the wind.
What’s it get you, anyway,
being mad at God?
“It’s not like You listen!”
I scream at him.
My dad’s gone,
my mom is a holy mess.
So where does that leave me, huh?
Alone. Like You care.”
Out of air
I collapse on the new grass,
blind to the explosion of spring green.
I blink up at the Etch A Sketch
of skyscrapers, gray on gray,
just the way I feel.
I rub the wetness from my eyes
and let them rest on the sky.
Then I see it.
A lane passing overhead
trailing a sign that says,
I AM WITH YOU ALWAYS.—Matthew 28:20
My heart rate slows.
I close my eyes,
whisper the familiar verse
In its entirety:
“‘I am with you always,
even to the end of the age.'”
I let the truth of it in,
feel my thoughts stop spinning
and calmly head back
to the subway.

Meet Danitra Brown

Posted August 14th, 2012

Meet Danitra BrownIn 1991, I left my job as an editor for Disney Publications to work on my own books, full time. One of the first books I wrote after my exit was a story of friendship titled Meet Danitra Brown.

When I sat down to write this book, I was very clear about the small stories I wanted to tell, many of them drawn from my own childhood. I was equally clear about my characters, namely the spunky, self-possessed Danitra Brown, and the smart and sensitive Zuri Jackson. You would think, then, that the book would have been a snap to write, yes? But it wasn’t. I poured over the manuscript for weeks, writing and rewriting chapters that didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and I couldn’t figure out why. Finally, I grabbed a highlighter and went though the manuscript, marking those passages that were working, in the hopes that the exercise would give me a clue.  And it did.

I carefully reviewed my work-in-progress and noted that each and every one of the passages that were working read like poetry. Ding, ding, ding! This story wanted to be told as a collection of poems! I’m a little slow, but I’m no dummy. I obliged! I’ve been telling stories in suites of poetry ever since.

Strangely, I never stopped to ask myself if one could, or should,  write a story in poetry. Was that even a thing? I didn’t know, but I wrote one anyway. Years later, of course, I realized there was, in fact, a very long tradition of storytelling through poetry. I, however, had never read The Iliad or The Odyssey. Instead, I’d stumbled upon the idea of the form—as simplistic as mine may be—out of necessity. I had a story to tell, and my story refused to be told in any other way.

Meet Danitra Brown, which won a Coretta Scott King Honor Award for Illustration, has been a popular title for poetry lovers, and a staple in poetry units, for more than a decade. It was followed by Danitra Brown Leaves Town and Danitra Brown Class Clown.

Fans of the books hold Danitra Brown close to their hearts, and I especially love how real she’s become to young readers. I’ve explained to countless students, over the years, that Danitra is a fictional, composite character. They all nod their heads as if they understand, and then they turn right around and ask, “So, when was the last time you saw Danitra?”

One of my favorite stories to share, in that regard, comes from a young woman who wrote to tell me how special Danitra was in her life.

As a young girl, she’d suffered the loss of her mother. Her grandmother, who took her in, gave her a copy of Meet Danitra Brown. The young girl was convinced this book had been written specifically for her, as the names of the characters in the book and its sequels, matched the names of her own relatives.

The girl grew up, of course, and began to realize her mistake. Nevertheless, she continued to treasure her connection to this character. She thanked me for writing the book, told me how it helped her through a difficult time in her life, and singed the letter “Sincerely, Danitra Brown.”

Well kids, turns out the joke was on me. There really is a Danitra Brown! Love it.

Debra and Nikki

Meet the model for Zuri, my friend Debra Jackson! And yes, we’re still BFFs.

The story of the art is interesting, as well. The book, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, features characters loosely based on myself and my childhood best friend, Debra. When her mother saw the F&G’s, she said, “Oh!  I see you sent the illustrators photos of the two of you.” In fact, I hadn’t! Yet, somehow, through an alchemy I don’t quite understand, Floyd had chosen models to represent the characters who closely resembled me and my friend at the ages of those characters. Spooky, huh? That’s happened to me with several different books, and several different illustrators. Weird, but wonderful!

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite poems from Meet Danitra Brown. This is titledSweet Blackberry.”

Danitra says my skin’s like double chocolate fudge
’cause I’m so dark.
The kids at school say it another way.
“You so black, girl,” they say,
“at night, people might thin
you ain’t nothin’ but a piece o’ sky.”

I never cry, but inside there’s a hurting place.
I make sure no one sees it on my face.
Then mama tells me, “Next time, honey, you just say
The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.”

Now that’s just what I do.
I sure wish I had told them that before.
Those kids don’t bother teasin’ me no more.

Tai Chi Morning: Snapshots of China

Posted August 8th, 2012
Tai Chi Morning

Tai Chi Morning

“Where do you get your ideas?” is a common question authors hear, and I’m no exception. Starting this month, I’ll be offering a weekly blog called “Backstory,” in which I’ll share the origins of each of my books, as well as the funny, quirky things that happened during the process of creating them.

In 1988, I joined a team lead by visual artists Gene and Marylou Totten on a performance tour of China. Originally, I was only intending to write some of the dramatic monologues members of the team would perform on the planned tour.  However, several times during the course of working on the scripts, the director encouraged me to audition for the team that would make the trip. I pooh-poohed the idea, but eventually decided to audition on a lark, never expecting to make the cut. In fact, I invited several friends who were actually performing artists to audition themselves. I figured I’d tag along, for fun, and maybe one of them would make the team. As it happened, none of my friends made the team, but I did! Somewhere, God was laughing. Before I knew it, I was packing my bags for Beijing.

Years later, I drafted a collection of poems from my reminiscences of that journey. When I sent the manuscript to my agent, I included photographs I’d taken, as well as maps and an itinerary of the tour, thinking they might be useful as inspiration for the illustrator, whomever that might be. (I never expected the publisher to use a photograph of me on the cover. I cringe every time I see it!  Ugh.)

I sold the manuscript and the search for an illustrator began. I had an artist in mind, but I had no real hope of securing him. I suspected he was incredibly busy, knew that he would be expensive for the publisher in question, and wasn’t certain he would even be interested.  I mean, what were the chances that I would get the great, Caldecott-winning Ed Young on board?

Tianenmen Square

Me and friend Carol Tammen in Tianamen Square

I needn’t have worried. Some things are simply meant to be.

I ran into Ed at a conference, told him I would love to work with him, someday, and learned that—gasp!—the feeling was mutual! I wasted no time in telling him that I had a particular project in mind, though I didn’t specify what it was. “I’ll have my publisher send it to you, if that’s okay,” I told him. “We’ll see where it leads.”

It led to something pretty special. Ed signed on to illustrate Tai Chi Morning and took on the job of designing it as well. Incorporating the photographs I’d taken, and adding his own sketches, Ed designed the book as a travel journal. How perfect was that? As it turned out, Ed was in China about the same time I was, and many of his sketches matched or complemented the scenes in my photographs. Can you say serendipity?

Oh, and did I mention that Ed is a Tai Chi master? I think I had him at the title!

God has a great sense of humor.

On the plane to Beijing, we were treated to the movie The Last Emperor. It was a perfect introduction to the ancient land we were about to explore, first hand.

The poems in Tai Chi Morning are my attempt to capture some of the once-in-a-lifetime experiences I had in the land of the Forbidden City. In fact, one of my favorite poems in this collection was inspired by my visit to that very place.  I’ll close with that.  If you’d like to read more, I hope you’ll find this title and share it with the young people in your life.

“The Forbidden City”

Golden Lion

the bronze figure in the poem

The Forbidden City
where royalty was once

hidden from view
is a place to tiptoe.
I follow the buzz of bodies
swarming over acres
of paved walkway
and greet a bronze lion
guarding the ancient temple.
I pat his burnished head,
close my eyes and hear
the footfalls of the last emperor
echoing through the courtyard.
His ghostly shape
waltzes in front of me.
He lifts a wavy finger
to his royal lips
and whispers