Alliah L. Agostini- Big Tune
Today, on KidLit in Color we are celebrating award-winning author Alliah Agostini Livingstone and illustrator Shamar Knight-Justice on their picture book, BIG TUNE: Rise of the Dancehall Prince (Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux - BYR). BIG TUNE is an exuberant picture book about a Black boy with big dancing dreams who learns the meaning of courage and community.
BIG TUNE is set within a vibrant Caribbean American neighborhood and told to a rhythmic beat, Big Tune is a story of Black boy joy that touches on determination, confidence to express who you are, selflessness, and community gratitude.
Alyssa Reynoso-Morris talks with Alliah about her latest book on the blog.
ARM - First, thank you so much for writing this fun text Alliah. As someone who loves to sing and dance, I loved your book!! Tell me, what inspired you to write this book?
ALA - My mutual love of music and dance and community- something I was missing when it was written! This book, like many being released right now, was born during the height of the pandemic. We were largely isolated and celebrations were limited to drive-by celebrations and in-home dance parties with DJ Alexa.
ARM - Your love of music, dance and community definitely shine through. Some of the themes I picked up on are “community”, “generosity”, and “sharing” I love how you interwove such important themes into such a fun and heartfelt text. Can you talk about your writing process for this story? Did the idea come to you all at once with the themes and character or did it change and evolve through revisions?
ALA - Big Tune sprung out of another manuscript I was working on that wasn’t quite working. I was sharing it with critique partners when one asked a question - what if the protagonist was shy? The other story was about dance, and it triggered some memories of stories my husband would tell about the family parties his parents threw when he was growing up in a Jamaican household in Brooklyn.
While he loved the parties, everyone else would dance and some would sing along, but he was on the shy side! But he did like picking up the cans and bottles so he could keep the coin return money and spend it on whatever he wanted. Ironically, he is the best dancer I know - something a lot of his family members didn’t see until our wedding (the DJ was lit!). Once this connection hit, the rest of the story came to me like a flood.
I wound up spending time finessing the rhyme, and it ultimately wound up being the manuscript that helped me secure an agent. After that, I worked with my agent to tighten the rhythm and rhyme even more, so it would read cleanly when on submission. Fortunately, Janine O’Malley at FSG liked it enough to pre-empt it with a two-book deal. Aside from the addition of one spread and the author’s note, the book reads mostly as it did when it was submitted.
ARM - WOW THAT IS AMAZING! I love Shane’s character. I resonate with him so much as the shy one in the family. How did you develop such a relatable character?
ALA - I’m fortunate to live with a few inspirational folks- this was helpful while writing during lockdown! Like many writers, I used some of the best (and sometimes challenging!) attributes I see in the people I love to make characters that are a fusion of reality and fiction. I didn’t know my husband as a child, but knowing who he is now, I know that being generous, determined, enterprising, and family and community-minded are likely attributes that he had back then - so I thought about how those may manifest in a youthful, but imagined version of him.
ARM - Your debut book The Juneteenth Story: Celebrating the End of Slavery in the United States is informative and historical. When I read the BIG TUNE advanced readers copy, I literally felt like I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. The rhythm and rhyme make for a lyrical and poetic story. It is so different from your first book. And your third book is a biography, right? How do you manage to write in such different styles?
ALA - Big Tune was originally supposed to be my first book! When the opportunity to write The Juneteenth Story emerged, I hadn’t yet written any non-fiction, but I knew it was something I had to do, as my grandfather helped start my hometown’s Juneteenth celebration over 46 years ago! Frankly, I’m at the point in life where I’m less afraid to try new things, so I did my best and it worked out well. When the biography opportunity came along, I already had non-fiction under my belt and was working on another, so it has been helpful to build my skill set as I’ve worked on new projects.
I have an absurdly long spreadsheet of other works in progress - I find inspiration everywhere and kind of just go with whatever my gut tells me for a particular story. That typically is accompanied by endless revision, however.
ARM - Yes revision is key. Can you offer any tips for those that want to write in rhyme?
ALA - Think long and hard about your need to write in rhyme. When it’s executed well, it reads fun and effortlessly, but getting to this point is hard work. You’re trying to make sure you tell a cohesive story while also doing so within the limitations of maintaining a rhythm and rhyme scheme. My agent first put it in these terms for me- A rhyming manuscript is like giving someone a song to sing… without sheet music. Writing in rhyme also puts some limitations on the global marketability of your book because of the difficulty of translating it. A lot of editors aren’t into rhyming manuscripts, but obviously, some are.
All that being said, as much as I try, I can’t resist the urge to rhyme or write rhythmically - it’s just my natural inclination. It made sense for Big Tune, especially, as music is at the heart of the story!
I like to start with a concept and a hook. Sometimes I write rhythmically sans rhyme (I love to wisely use and evolve repetition). But as the story builds, sometimes it flows as more of a lyrical piece, and other times, rhyming.
Use a metronome to keep the beat while you read your work aloud. Google has a free one. If you feel yourself having to speed up or slow down to match the beat, then the rhythm needs to be reworked.
I like to use the AI read-aloud function on MS Word to read my rhyming or rhythmic work back to me. AI voices are the driest possible voices, and they don’t “lie”, or modify rhythm to make it sound better. If a robot reads your writing and sounds like it has some flow, you’ve got something good.
ARM - Not only are you an award-winning author, but you’re also a wife and mom. How do you make time to write?
ALA - I’m not an early morning person, but I try to be diligent about writing in the morning after I take the kids to school and use the afternoon for social media/admin/meetings. Doesn’t always work that way, but it’s nice when it does. I’m also a night owl, and I typically get struck with an idea at 11:30 pm as I’m trying to go to sleep (exactly what happened with Big Tune!)… then I’m up until about 1 am.
ARM - I am a night-owl too and I often do my best work at night. I know your debut book The Juneteenth Story: Celebrating the End of Slavery in the United States was sold out. Congratulations on that. How has your marketing background helped you promote your books?
ALA - Thanks, although honestly that problem can also be a double-edged sword, or a “good-bad problem” exacerbated by pandemic supply chain issues. I had book signings with a very limited number of books to sign! Fortunately, it did perform beyond expectations, and my publisher also wisely pivoted to create a paperback option in the absence of hardcover availability.
I’ve worked for huge multi-million dollar brands, and tiny tiny start-ups - frankly, my startup experience is what has been most helpful so far. I’ve learned how to market creatively (hustle) with basically no budget. Although budgets are very, very helpful!
ARM - What are the top 3 marketing tips you want to share with authors and readers?
ALA - Think hard about your book’s possible ‘Who’, or target - who will be the biggest champion for your book, and how can you reach them in a meaningful way? While stories can connect to people on a number of different levels, for books that may resonate with historically marginalized audiences, you may better understand them than your publisher does. Your publisher will likely have a better understanding of the levers for traditional literary publicity channels, but don’t be afraid to provide your insight on less traditional ways to reach your audience.
Talk to everybody about your book- fight through the urge to be shy or not self-promote. You never know who may find interest in your work or may know someone who could be helpful for pitching your book to press, securing a speaking engagement, or even a bulk order of your books.
Be authentic. If you are open to it, share your journey - the peaks and valleys. When people feel invested in your journey, your success feels like their success, so they are emotionally invested in helping you succeed! When you are genuine about your passion for your topic you’re the most magnetic. Do it in your own way. I love writing rhythmically, and I also love music, so I share a lot of playlists to help people connect with my topic and work musically, for instance.
ARM - What books are on your to-be-read list?
ALA - Where to begin?? There is a certain upcoming book about one of my favorite foods- plantain!… Platanos are Love by a certain author named Alyssa Reynoso-Morris (wink). I’m also looking forward to reading Locs not Dreads by Tonya Abari, and Grounded, an upcoming middle grade book by a coalition of incredible authors including Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow.
ARM - SUCH A GREAT LIST!!! What do you hope readers take away from BIG TUNE: Rise of the Dancehall Prince?
ALA - So much! Persevere, do what you love, and be yourself! It can be hard, but the resulting joy can truly be irreplaceable.
Although people don’t always read Author’s Notes, I hope they take a minute to read this one. It talks about how in immigrant (and other!) communities, parties and gatherings are more than parties - they can also be safe spaces. Places where you don’t have to explain yourself, a place where “everybody knows the words to the songs”, and an opportunity for muted accents to be amplified.
Separately, I hope people learn a little bit about the importance of Caribbean-descended artists to the emergence of hip-hop, a global phenomenon which is celebrating its 50th birthday this year!
ARM - Thank you so much for your time Alliah! You are incredible and deserve all the STARS and FLOWERS. To learn more about Alliah read her bio below and visit her website.
Buffalo, NY native Alliah L. Agostini has marketed everything from iconic brands to scrappy start-ups, but motherhood helped her return to her first love: children's literature. She writes to spread joy, truth, and to help more children see themselves reflected on the page.
Alliah is the author of The Juneteenth Story: Celebrating the End of Slavery in the United States, the upcoming Oprah Winfrey: A Little Golden Book Biography, and Junior Library Guild Selection BIG TUNE: Rise of the Dancehall Prince, which has received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly. A proud member of KidLit in Color, Black Creators HQ, the Picture Book Sunrays, and SCBWI, she and her work have been featured on CNN, the TODAY Show, GoodHousekeeping, and more.
Alliah resides in New Jersey where she enjoys impromptu dance parties, fossil hunting, and making up corny jokes with her husband and two children. She has an A.B. and an M.B.A. from Harvard.
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