What’s Already Been Told
By Tonya Abari
The market is becoming oversaturated with diverse children’s books about hair.
In 2019, when I began querying Locs, Not Dreads for the second time since I first wrote the manuscript in 2013, much of the feedback that I received was that the market was becoming oversaturated with books about Black hair. With the success of Matthew A. Cherry’s Hair Love, Derrick Barnes’ Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, Natasha Tarpley’s I Love My Hair, author/illustrator Sharee Miller and independently published natural hair series by Crystal Swain Bates – and with growing national support for The Crown Act – traditional book publishing and mainstream media further showcased the special relationship that Black folks have with hair. I didn’t have one picture book about Black hair as a child, so I’m ecstatic to fill my daughters’ bookshelves with mirrors. In this house, there is no such thing as too many! We buy them all.
Growing up in salon culture (my mom was a career cosmetologist), I’ve been around hair all my life. At one point, after returning my hair from its relaxed state to its natural state, I even thought I wanted to open up a natural hair salon. Although I never took that route, I knew as a children’s author that hair would be one of the many topics I wanted to explore. I queried many agents, cold pitched editors, and participated in Twitter pitch events. I did receive some initial interest, but I also was told that in the coming years there would be way too many books about Black hair.
Was I too late?
At first, I took this advice with a grain of salt because how many anthropomorphic books are out there? How many books with unicorns and princesses and ladybugs? Yes, there are now more books than what I had growing up about Black hair – but I haven’t seen my book yet. I had to keep this energy alive in my soul. But as rejections rolled in one by one, I wondered if there was enough room for my story. I finally found a great home for the book – with an indie editor/publisher who understood its significance from the jump. And I now realize that if I would have taken those words “it’s already been told” to heart, there might not be a Locs, Not Dreads publishing on September 5, 2023.
While Locs, Not Dreads is based loosely on my niece and her mom, who loc’d their hair well over a decade ago, the manuscript is littered with familiarities that I’ve experienced as a girl, woman, mother, student, and educator who is unapologetic about rocking natural and/or loc’d hair. In fact, as a teacher, I taught many lessons on denotation and connotation relating to Black hair terminology – and those lessons are ones that I’ll never forget (they are now memorialized in the pages of my debut picture book). I knew that fact alone separated Locs, Not Dreads from the other picture books that were on the market even if no one else had picked up on these nuances.
This brings me back to my original point. There can never be too many stories that exist, especially for groups that have historically been marginalized in traditional publishing. My advice to new writers who have stories that have seemingly already been told: tell your story anyway. The spectrum of our experiences run so deep. Perhaps the topic has been written about before – but it definitely hasn’t been written by you.
Enjoying the Journey to Illustrating Children’s Books by Erika Jones
My road to becoming a professional kidlit illustrator was long and unpredictable. Sometimes it was hard, but I wouldn’t trade it. In fact, I still look at this as one big adventure with lots of good surprises ahead. And while I love sharing wisdom to help others fulfill their creative dreams, I’ve realized I can’t predict how another person’s path will unfold. I certainly could not have predicted my own journey - I sometimes feel like I am just following breadcrumbs like a character in a fairy tale.
For years I tried the approach of applying every piece of advice someone in the field said or wrote, and it wore me out. I learned it's best to go with what resonates and follow my intuition. So rather than write my “blueprint” to getting published, I’ve decided to share some things that helped me stay the course. And while they may not make your journey to publication faster, they could make the journey more fun and sustainable until your big breakthrough comes.
1. Draw things that make you happy and put them in your portfolio.
You’ve likely heard you need a professional portfolio - a website featuring your best body of work. You do! But trying to include everything in your portfolio that everyone you consult with suggests, is likely unnecessary. Simply include the art that represents the kind of art you’d like to make in the marketplace. And as a bonus, use the media you really enjoy using, because to quote illustration agent, Lilla Rogers, “People buy your joy!”
My first two picture books illustrate this point. I believe The Loud Librarian illustration opportunity came to me in part because my portfolio had a fun picture book scene featuring a library. My next book, Black Girls: A Celebration of You was likely offered to me because I had a number of adorable Black girl characters in my portfolio. I was also asked to work in cut paper - my favorite medium - because I had examples of this in my portfolio.
2. If you can get paid to level up your portfolio, do it!
As I’ve worked on professional projects in education and trade books, I’ve had the opportunity to get paid (and professionally art directed) to create an array of characters and scenes that weren’t previously in my portfolio such as characters of different ethnicities and abilities, animal characters, as well as children playing and doing things I might not have been inspired to draw without a manuscript prompting me.
Also, it is a game changer to have professional direction to help elevate your clarity, composition, and storytelling in a scene. Once I started working with art directors and book designers, I realized it is the only way I wish to work. Because illustration is best when it's collaborative.
3. Find learning environments and mentors you vibe with.
Before you can get paid, you will likely have to invest in training. This isn’t my first career and I didn’t attend traditional art school. I learned much of what I needed to know through virtual classes taught by working artists, agents and editors. When I started my journey (nine years ago) online education was just blossoming. Today there are a plethora of opportunities to learn from quality teachers. If you start and don’t quit (breaks are okay) you can absolutely become a professional illustrator.
I recommend taking classes with deadlines, because you’ll have to learn to manage them as a professional illustrator. I also enjoy classes with live interaction because they’ve allowed me to meet art buddies, critique partners, and friends.
In my courses I’ve also encountered wonderful teachers, and some have become mentors. Not only have they shared art skills, but also tips for what it’s like to work in the field and how to avoid pitfalls. This combination of wisdom and knowledge can be invaluable when you start picking an agent and trying to figure out which projects to accept, etc.
Illustration can be an isolating career. Unless you work full time for a corporation, or on collaborative projects, most work is done virtually and then uploaded for feedback. However, it doesn’t have to be lonely. As I said before, taking classes can be a great source of connection. But so can joining associations like SCBWI and attending conferences for artists and illustrators virtually or in person. Reaching out to people who are on a similar journey on social media and setting up a call can also be an effective way to connect and build your art village.
5. Stay in Your Lane.
By this, I mean focus on where you’re headed vs. on what others appear to be doing. In the beginning, I wasted lots of energy comparing myself to other artists. At times it would suck the joy right out of me and make me want to quit.
I’m not saying you can’t get inspiration from social media or cheer for fellow creatives, but the moment you start to think: “I’ll never be THAT good,” or “I wish I could have gotten to work on THAT project,” or “How can I get as many followers as them?” you likely need to unplug and take a break.
It’s time to reconnect with the fact that what’s for you is for you on this journey. When I find myself here, I remind myself that there are things only I can bring into this world, there are stories that only I can help tell, and my job is to be ready and receptive when those ideas and opportunities show up. My job is not to be the best at anything but being me. When I got clarity around this truth, my work and career started to flourish and I have no doubt yours will too.
Being a professional illustrator is a dream come true for most who do it, but you will likely hit rough patches on the way to publication and during your career. I hope some of these tips help you keep going when you need it most. “Enjoy the journey” became more than a cliche to me when I realized the part in between the big accomplishments is most of the life I’d be living. So my hope is that you find ways to love and enjoy the path that is uniquely yours on the road to success.
Erika Lynne Jones is the illustrator of The Loud Librarian by Jenna Beatrice (published by Simon Kids) and Black Girls: A Celebration of You (to be published by HarperCollins on September 26). Erika lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband and three children. Her author/Illustrator debut Zara In the Middle will be released in Summer 2025.
To learn more about Erika, visit her website here!
A Juneteenth Conversation
With Tonya Abari and Alliah L. Agostini
Are you looking for children's books about Juneteenth? Be sure to check out two titles from our very own Alliah L. Agostini, illus. by Sawyer Cloud (The Juneteenth Story) and Tonya Abari, illus. by Tabitha Brown (Let’s Celebrate Juneteenth). We sat down with these authors in a brief conversation about commemorating Juneteenth.
1. How did learning (or not learning) about Juneteenth as a child impact your knowledge of this history as an adult?
AA: I’ve always known about Juneteenth because my Buffalo, NY community has long celebrated it- but my knowledge of the depth of the history behind it and its evolution is something that eluded me until I started research for The Juneteenth Story. Juneteenth was never discussed in any of my history curriculums from elementary through graduate school.
TA: I did not learn about Juneteenth until my early twenties. That’s right. All of public K-12 and undergrad, and not a single mention of Juneteenth (*shaking my head emoji*). It wasn’t until a chance trip to Houston that I gained knowledge of Juneteenth by witnessing several local celebrations. I quickly began researching and knew that I’d devote more time incorporating additional education for myself and my (at the time) future family.
2. What Juneteenth traditions do you have/have you started with your own family?
AA: My grandfather helped start the Juneteenth Festival in Buffalo, NY in 1976, so I grew up going to and even helping out with the festival. It was celebrated annually in Martin Luther King Jr. Park on the east side of Buffalo, and it was huge - it has been touted as the third-largest Juneteenth festival in the world.
I fondly remember going to the festivals, watching the parades, and gorging on barbecue chicken, hot dogs, and sno-cones. After I left Buffalo for college, I remember not being able to find any large festivals in the other cities where I lived after, and I realized how special our celebration truly was. Now that the holiday has broader awareness, I’ve enjoyed barbecuing, blasting my Juneteenth playlist, making crafts, and going to local festivals with my family.
TA: Since we didn’t celebrate Juneteenth growing up, I’m the official tradition starter for my family. We begin the day with reflection and education — reading books, watching documentaries, whatever we can get our hands on. This year, we are participating in a walking tour where we’ll get to know more about Nashville’s Black history.
My oldest selects a Juneteenth recipe and we make it as a family with our midday tea (my husband is Nigerian, so jollof has made its way to every celebration including Juneteenth, ha!). In the past decade, we’ve attended citywide celebrations, barbecues, and enjoyed a nice spread at home. One of these years I’d like to make it back to a rodeo, just like the one I saw in Texas in my 20s.
3. What is your favorite dish associated with Juneteenth?
AA: Red sno-cones!! I love their crunchy, sweet, icy goodness. I occasionally even helped sell sno-cones at our festival, so they are very nostalgic to me.
TA: Hibiscus tea is a favorite in our household. The flower is bright red, flavorful, and native to Africa. The formerly enslaved also incorporated this tea in the first Juneteenth celebrations. We like to remix the teas, adding peppermint or lavender — and the tiny humans dress up for our “Noonteenth” tea parties (Alliah, can you dig the mashup?).
AA: Noonteenth?! I LOVE IT!
4. What do you most enjoy about Juneteenth celebrations beyond food?
AA: The vibe. The many sights, sounds, feels and smells of Juneteenth create a sensorial vibe like no other. From the multi-colored Afrocentric clothing worn by attendees and sold by vendors, to the many hair textures and styles, to the smell of barbeque smoke and incense, to the bass coming from speakers and shouts of drill teams and other paraders, there’s nothing like it.
TA: The keeping of our history is so important. Through these traditions, we celebrate and live in our joy. We have endured unimaginable circumstances, and still we thrive. It’s beautiful to see folks coming together to honor that.
5. What have you found most eye-opening in your conversations with others about Juneteenth since it became a national holiday?
AA: I’ve found the sense of guilt that so many people, especially African-American people, have about not knowing about the holiday, to be really sobering. So many of us feel almost deceived and willfully undereducated, but the reality is this lack of knowledge is the direct consequence of curricula that excluded so much of our [Black] history.
It’s not our fault- we didn’t know what we didn’t know! But now that we do know, we can use this as an opportunity to right these wrongs and teach ourselves and the next generation, and fight for continued access to books and curricula that tell our story- even when certain forces *a-hem* attempt to suppress access.
TA: I have to admit that I felt so guilty for not knowing about Juneteenth. And an even bigger secret is that I felt guilty writing a board book about it knowing that I did not commemorate Juneteenth until adulthood. But upon deep reflection, I knew I wanted to write a book that introduced babies and toddlers to the significance of Juneteenth — the same way that I was introduced to it.
You’re absolutely right. I felt deceived! But the untold and undertold [Black] history is not my fault. And now that I know better, I’m certainly doing better.
6. As the holiday becomes less ‘novel’, what message do you hope remains in the mind of those who celebrate?
AA: I hope people continue to keep the roots of Juneteenth at the forefront. This holiday celebrates the delayed emancipation of generations of enslaved African-descended people, the people who toiled and built this country under a brutal, racist, inhumane system. Holidays tend to be diluted, commercialized, and generalized with time. Let us not forget who and what is at the core of this celebration.
TA: You took the words right out of my mouth, Alliah. To add, I just saw a post online from a banner in SC that advertised Juneteenth with non-Black folks at the center and er um…no, no, no. It’s also cool that big corporations like Walmart now carry Juneteenth merch, but it’s important to remember to support Black-owned businesses, especially on Juneteenth. I’ll repeat: Let us not forget who and what is at the core of this celebration.
For additional Juneteenth reading recommendations for young readers, check out these lists:
KidLit in Color author Valerie Bolling is excited to reveal the cover for BING, BOP, BAM: TIME TO JAM! (illustrated by Sabrena Khadija and published by Abrams Appleseed). This picture book, which is a companion for 2022’s RIDE, ROLL, RUN: TIME FOR FUN!, will be released on August 8, 2023.
What does the cover say?
First of all, shout-out to Sabrena Khadija for the amazing illustrations! I continue to love Sab’s unique style of making magic with geometric shapes. This cover “jams” with music and joy, and it emanates the characters’ energy and excitement. It says, “Come join the party!”
Why should folks read this book?
Do you love music? Do you enjoy a party? Do you like spending time with friends? If any or all of these are your jam, then BING, BOP, BAM is for you! This rhyming book celebrates a neighborhood’s musical block party that features an intergenerational community, instruments and food from around the world, and, of course, fun.
On May 2, 2023 the first book, THE GRAY DAY, in my early reader series, RAINBOW DAYS (illustrated by Kai Robinson and published by Scholastic Acorn), will make its appearance, and the second book in the series, THE GOLD BOWL, arrives in September. TOGETHER WE SWIM (illustrated by Kaylani Juanita and published by Chronicle) will be released on August 15, 2023 – a week after BING, BOP, BAM. Looking ahead to 2024, I’ll welcome the third RAINBOW DAYS book, THE ORANGE WALL, as well as I SEE COLOR, a co-authored book with Kailei Pew (illustrated by Laylie Frazier and published by Harper Collins). I’m excited to get these books into schools, libraries, bookstores, and, ultimately, into the hands of young readers.
My name is Alyssa and I am a member of KidLit in Color. I am so excited to talk about the value of mentorship programs in this post because they were such an important aspect of my writing and publishing journey.
I was fortunate enough to win three mentorship programs: The Las Musas Mentorship, The Word’s Editor-Author Mentorship, and PB Chat’s mentorship. More information about those opportunities and more below.
First, I want to share WHY mentorship programs are so invaluable.
There are MANY more reasons why mentorship programs are invaluable. But now I will share some TIPS for applying for mentorship opportunities.
Please see below some mentorship programs to keep on your radar based on what genre/age group you write for.
The #PBChat Mentorship
Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program
AWP: Writer-to-Writer Mentorships
Write Team Mentorship Program
Diverse Voices DVMentor Program
Avengers of Colour
Author Mentor Match
All Levels PB-YA
SCBWI Mentor Programs
We Need Diverse Books Mentorship Program
Las Musas Hermanas
Editor-Writer Mentor Program
Children's Lit Fellows
#QueerKidLit Mentorship Program
Mentorship for Desi Writers
Write-Mentor Spark Mentorship
Latinx in Publishing Writers Mentorship Program
Be Your Own Mentor (a website providing resources on revising, industry, craft)
I hope you enjoyed this blog post and found it informative. If you have any questions please feel free to contact KidLit in Color at https://www.kidlitincolor.com/contact.html
Alyssa Reynoso-Morris is a queer Afro-Latinx Dominican and Puerto Rican writer, wife, mother, and community organizer. During the day she is a Chief of Staff working with community members, non-profit organizations, and government officials to make the world a better place.
Then she puts her writer’s hat on to craft heartfelt stories about home, family, food, and the fun places she has been. Alyssa was born and raised in The Bronx, New York, and currently lives in Philadelphia, PA with her partner and daughter.
If you have specific questions for me, please contact me via my website at www.alyssaauthor.com
As a Black Panamanian, I grew up confident and fully aware of who I am and my racial and cultural background. But it wasn’t until I was asked, “What are you?” that I realized I didn’t know how to explain what I’d always known.
When I asked my mother about it, she told me, “Tell them you are a Black Panamanian” (which I knew). But that response only worked when I was a child. The older I got, the people who asked that question wanted more, and I found myself also needing more-- in terms of understanding fully.
My debut novel, Sincerely Sicily, was born solely from this experience. Loosely based on many of my experiences growing up, the main character Sicily Jordan embarks on a self-discovery journey to fully understand, for herself, how she is Black with a Panamanian cultural background. In addition to her self-identity journey, Sicily experiences hair discrimination from an unexpected relative and deals with plenty of new experiences involving a new school, friendships, and her first crush.
As the publishing industry continues to push for diversity in children’s literature, I have seen a slight improvement. But there are still cultures and countries that lack representation, including Panama. With that, I felt compelled to tell my story and do my part by filling this void. Mainly because I think readers desire to read about something new and different. And readers of Panamanian descent can finally relate first-hand and enjoy seeing their culture displayed in fiction.
Overall, I hope all readers can take a few things away from Sicily’s story. The first is the difference between race and culture. This message is conveyed in a scene when Sicily is doing research and realizes that while her ancestors are from Africa and the Caribbean, her parents were born in Panama, and she was born in the US. The cultures changed, but the racial makeup of her family did not. Thus, displaying to the reader that race and culture are not dependent on each other; the two can mutually exist, as one has nothing to do with the other.
The next takeaway would be gaining the confidence to advocate and stand up for oneself. Through Sicily’s example of resolving a hair discrimination conflict with her abuela, my hope is for that interaction to be a blueprint for young readers on how they, too, can express their feelings to adults constructively and appropriately to gain resolution.
Sincerely Sicily was indeed a labor of love, written to appeal to the targeted audience, but people of all races, ages, genders, and cultures will be able to find a few relatable elements of the story that will entice them to keep on reading.
Born to parents who migrated from Panamá, Tamika has always taken a particular interest in writing themes that explore her Black Latina identity. Because of her passion for spreading knowledge of Black Panamanian culture, Tamika has been featured on various websites, podcasts, and panels.
When she is not writing, Tamika is somewhere cozy online shopping, sipping lemon ginger tea and reading, or listening to a podcast. Read more at TamikaBurgess.com
By Kirstie Myvett and Aya Khalil
KLIC featured over 30 BIPOC children and middle-grade authors and illustrators on our blog in 2022. We’ve had guest bloggers, cover reveals, and many giveaways to promote BIPOC books and stories near and far. Since starting our group in 2019, we’ve featured over 60 BIPOC authors on our website and countless more on our social media platforms, and look forward to reading and sharing more of your wonderful stories and illustrations.
Besides using our website and social media platforms, another way we’ve accomplished our mission of amplifying diverse voices is by participating in panels. In 2022, we led panels on the following topics: Brown Joy Matters: Elevating BIPOC Voice in Print, Writing and Modeling Anti Racism for Young Readers, and Banned Book Edition. Panels provide a great opportunity for learning, discussion, and sharing. We hope to participate in even more panels this year.
This was a busy year for our KLIC authors who published 10 books in 2022, including one middle-grade book. Our authors were featured in regional and national press and received several awards and recognition, including:
New England Book Award Finalist - Middle Grade
New England Independent Booksellers Association Fall 2022 Windows and Mirrors Selection
Outstanding Book Award 2022, National Association of Black Journalists
Today Show - Read with Jenna Jr. Summer Reading selection in June
NECN Women’s History Month story in March
2022 Horn Book Summer Reading Recommended Title
Booklist’s Best of 2022
Chicago Public Library’s Best of 2022 list
The Buffalo News, Buffalo Spree Magazine
WGRZ (NBC Affiliate, Buffalo)
Amazon Editor’s Picks
Greenwich Free Press
School Library Journal
New York Magazine
Wisconsin Muslim Journal
American Muslim Today
KLIC authors believe in giving back, especially to aspiring children’s authors. Several of our authors have taken part in mentorship programs to share their knowledge and pay it forward. Our members serve as mentors at the Highlights Muslim Storyteller Fellowship, We Need Diverse Books - Black Creators Fund, and We Need Diverse Books (general mentorship program).
Another way that we pay it forward is by participating in World Read Aloud Day (WRAD) and reading our books for free to students across the country. Thanks to a virtual platform, we can meet children and teachers all over. We have shared our books with children in Texas, Iowa, Florida, Indiana, New York, Louisiana, Connecticut, Michigan, Missouri, and Canada. If you haven’t booked us for WRAD in 2023, time is running out! Just click on our CONTACT button and someone will reach out to you asap!
We have many books coming out this year so keep an eye out for more information.
Last, we continue to support amazing and talented authors by reading their books. This year KLIC authors have read over 536 books!!! We are passionate readers and will continue to spread the love of books with you all.
Happy New Year!
You can learn about our books at our KidLitinColor.com.
Ramadan Mubarak! We spoke with several Muslim authors to discuss how they incorporate writing during the holy month of Ramadan. Please scroll through to read their thoughts.
KidLit in Color author Gabriele Davis Interviews Andrea Loney about her middle grade biography, VIP: Stacey Abrams, releasing January 18, 2022.
Hi, Andrea! I am thrilled to chat with you about your new—and very timely—middle grade biography. Can you give our readers a brief overview of your book and how you came to write it?
VIP: Stacey Abrams – Voting Visionary is a part of the HarperCollins VIP series of chapter book biographies about innovators and trailblazers throughout history. My book covers Stacey’s life from her childhood, to her educational pursuits and political career, and it ends with her triumphant victory in the 2020 election and its shocking aftermath. I also include information on the historical context of the book’s events including the history of civil rights, voting rights, and more.
This project came to me as a work-for-hire assignment from HarperCollins. They gave me the topic, a projected word count, and a very tight deadline, then they asked for a sample chapter. I gave myself a day or so to panic because as a picture book author, I’d never worked professionally on a project that long, and my previous biographies had taken me years to research and write. But my agent had faith in me, the editor had faith in me, and I’d always been dazzled by Stacey Abrams’ work. So I decided to take a chance and try it out.
Young readers might be surprised to learn that outspoken and indefatigable Stacey Abrams was once a shy, quiet child. Did you discover any other surprising things about her?
I think my favorite Stacey Abrams fact that wasn’t included in the book is this: her one and only school fight took place in the first grade and it was over her admiration for Jimmy Carter, one of the kindest and most conscientious presidents our country has ever elected. I love that Stacey was literally fighting for social justice before she’d even lost all her baby teeth.
What was your research process like?
Since my deadline was so tight on this project AND since we were in the pre-vaccine thick of the pandemic, I was unable to travel for research. I made great use of my library cards, digital archives, and Google.
I found every book, article, website, documentary, and video I could on Stacey Abrams, and other topics in civics, such as the voting process, voting rights, civil rights, the census, and more. I managed the information in OneNote, Scrivener, and a clipboard stacked with articles. Whenever possible, I downloaded the Kindle version of books so I could easily search for my notes and annotations
I created a timeline of the lives of Stacey and her family, and a parallel timeline of historical events. I also kept a spreadsheet of facts, quotes, events, and other important information with the citations, page numbers/urls/timecode of my source information.
Lastly, I followed Stacey Abrams on social media and checked the internet regularly for any news that might affect the book (for example, after the Capitol Building Insurrection took place on 1/6/21, I had to make changes to the book reflecting its significance in the history and future of voting rights in the United States).
Your book mostly highlights Stacey’s activism and political accomplishments; however, the first couple of chapters focus on her proud, close-knit family. Why was it important for you to include this information in the book?
In general, when writing biographies for kids, I think it’s important to start with the main character’s childhood. Kids might not always be able to relate to powerful politicians or charismatic media personalities, but they get what it means to be a little kid navigating the small world of their own home and the bigger world outside of it. The Abrams family history, values, and mission inform and drive Stacey’s life’s work. The whole idea that we’re not just individuals, but important parts of a greater community that works together for the common good? For Stacey, that mindset began in her family home, but it echoes through every chapter of her life as she grows up and establishes her place in the greater local, state, and national community.
You include a story about how Stacey learns to not be intimidated by people who are smarter or more accomplished than she is, but instead to be open to learning from them as a way to grow and improve. That’s such an important message to share. What else do you hope readers will take away from this biography?
As a teacher, I meet many awesome young teens who are quiet, shy, and nervous about being judged by others – and with cell phones, social media, and everything else out there, I do understand. But I really want kids to see that Stacey’s confidence did not come instantly, and that even though she’s an extremely intelligent individual, she knew she’d still need to learn from others if she wanted to progress in the world. Sometimes she was scared, sometimes she was confused, and sometimes she was even embarrassed, but she took a chance and tried anyway. I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from Stacey Abrams’ journey is that even if you feel like an outsider, you can accomplish astounding things in this world just by being yourself. In fact, the more you lean on your individual strengths and passions, the more powerful you can become.
Illustrator Shelley Rodney does an excellent job of capturing Stacey’s passion and determination as well as the strong foundation provided by her family. Did you have a chance to offer input or to work with her directly? If so, what did that process look like?
Isn’t her work amazing! I adore the artwork for this book! But as a rule, I don’t interact with illustrators directly – the editor moderates those communications so we can both do our best work. Once we had some sketches, I made a few comments on the PDFs, but not many. And when the final copy of the book was done, I went through the entire PDF to make sure that there was nothing amiss with the images and words.
Your publishing credits include acclaimed fiction and nonfiction picture books. This is your first middle grade work. What advice would you give to picture book writers looking to expand into middle grade?
Ooh, that’s a good question. My first piece of advice for anyone would be to read at least 20 – 100 middle grade books to get a feel for the voice, structure, and mindset of middle grade readers. So much of picture book writing is about placing the perfect words in the perfect order for 32 pages. But the writing process is very different for a 10,000+ word manuscript. While the individual words are still important, the structure is even more important. You definitely want to set the story up in a way that will keep young readers turning the page. As I was writing this manuscript, I tried to keep the language clear and conversational, so it almost felt like I was just gossiping in the hallway with a sixth grader about the adventures of our friend Stacey.
Is there anything else you’d like to share—about this or any upcoming works?
I am so excited for kids to read this book! I also have three more books coming out this year – a chapter book series called Abby in Orbit about a third-grade Afro-Latina-American girl living on the International Space Station in the 2050s, and Curve and Flow: The Elegant Vision of L.A. Architect Paul R. Williams, which is a picture book biography of the famous Black “Architect to the Stars.”
Andrea J. Loney’s picture books include TAKE A PICTURE OF ME, JAMES VANDERZEE (Lee & Low Books New Voices Award), BUNNYBEAR (ALA Rainbow List), and DOUBLE BASS BLUES (Caldecott Honor). Her upcoming works include the middle grade biography VIP: STACEY ABRAMS VOTING VISIONARY (HarperCollins, January 2022, the futuristic chapter book series ABBY IN ORBIT (Albert Whitman & Company, September 2022), and picture book biography CURVE AND FLOW: THE ELEGANT VISION OF LA ARCHITECT PAUL R. WILLIAMS (Knopf, Fall 2022).
To learn more about Andrea, please visit her website and social media pages.
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Farah Rocks Florida by Susan Muaddi Darraj, illustrator Ruaida Mannaa - Farah's little brother is in the hospital with a heart problem that needs surgery, so her parents send sixth-grader Farah off to stay with her grandmother in a retirement condo in Florida; Sitti Fayrouz does not speak much English, has a lot of rules, and does not understand Farah's interest in geology, so Farah is not happy with the move--but despite being the only child in the community, Farah finds that the people are nice, and despite getting off to a bad start (she accidentally dumped a soda on his lap) she forms a friendship with Dr. Fisher, who shares her interest in science.
Dream Street by Tricia Elam Walker, illustrator Ekua Holmes- Welcome to Dream Street--the best street in the world! Jump rope with Azaria--can you Double Dutch one leg at a time? Dream big with Ede and Tari, who wish to create a picture book together one day. Say hello with Mr. Sidney, a retired mail carrier who greets everyone with the words, "Don't wait to have a great day. Create one!" On Dream Street, love between generations rules, everyone is special, and the warmth of the neighborhood shines.
Little Seeds of Promise by Sana Rafi, illustrator Renia Metallinou- When Maya moves to a different country, she feels lonely and lost. Everything―and everyone―seems so unfamiliar here, and she wonders if she will ever find a way to fit in. Longing for her home, she holds tightly to the special seeds her grandmother gave her, afraid to plant them. Can she take the risk that they―and she―might grow and bloom in this new place?
Meena’s Mindful Moment by Tina Athaide, illustrator Åsa Gilland- Meena is excited to visit Dada and explore all the exciting sights and sensations of his home with him. But Meena has so much energy, it becomes a whole imaginary character she calls her hurly-burly hullabaloo. With playful art and engaging characters (real and imagined), this charming story all about mindfulness will be wonderfully relatable to anyone with a rambunctious hurly-burly hullabaloo of their own.
Take Back the Block by Chrystal D. Giles- Exploring community, gentrification, justice, and friendship, Take Back the Block introduces an irresistible 6th grader and asks what it means to belong--to a place and a movement--and to fight for what you believe in.
Dancing in Thathaa’s Footsteps by Srividhya Venkat, illustrat or-Kavita Ramchandran- A heartwarming picture book about a multigenerational Indian-American family discovering a shared love for bharatanatyam, an ancient classical dance that continues to fascinate dancers worldwide.
Your Mama by NoNieqa Ramos, illustrator Jacqueline Alcántara- Yo’ mama so sweet, she could be a bakery. She dresses so fine, she could have a clothing line. And, even when you mess up, she’s so forgiving, she lets you keep on living. Heartwarming and richly imagined, Your Mama twists an old joke into a point of pride that honors the love, hard work, and dedication of mamas everywhere.
Root Magic by Eden Royce- It’s 1963, and things are changing for Jezebel Turner. Her beloved grandmother has just passed away. The local police deputy won’t stop harassing her family. With school integration arriving in South Carolina, Jez and her twin brother, Jay, are about to begin the school year with a bunch of new kids. But the biggest change comes when Jez and Jay turn eleven— and their uncle, Doc, tells them he’s going to train them in rootwork.
Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi- With “Never Forget” banners everywhere and a hostile group of townspeople protesting the new mosque, Yusuf realizes that the country’s anger from two decades ago hasn’t gone away. Can he hold onto his joy—and his friendships—in the face of heartache and prejudice?
Jump at the Sun by Alicia D. Williams, illustrator Jacqueline Alcántara- Zora was a girl who hankered for tales like bees for honey. Now, her mama always told her that if she wanted something, “to jump at de sun”, because even though you might not land quite that high, at least you’d get off the ground. So Zora jumped from place to place, from the porch of the general store where she listened to folktales, to Howard University, to Harlem. And everywhere she jumped, she shined sunlight on the tales most people hadn’t been bothered to listen to until Zora. The tales no one had written down until Zora. Tales on a whole culture of literature overlooked…until Zora. Until Zora jumped.
Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh- Junie Kim just wants to fit in. So she keeps her head down and tries not to draw attention to herself. But when racist graffiti appears at her middle school, Junie must decide between staying silent or speaking out.
King Sejong Invents an Alphabet by Carol Kim, illustrator Cindy Kang- In 15th-century Korea, King Sejong was distressed. The complicated Chinese characters used for reading and writing meant only rich, educated people could read―and that was just the way they wanted it. But King Sejong thought all Koreans should be able to read and write, so he worked in secret for years to create a new Korean alphabet. King Sejong's strong leadership and determination to bring equality to his country make his 600-year-old story as relevant as ever.
Playing the Cards You’re Dealt by Varian Johnson- Ten-year-old Anthony Joplin has made it to double digits! Which means he's finally old enough to play in the spades tournament every Joplin Man before him seems to have won. So while Ant's friends are stressing about fifth grade homework and girls, Ant only has one thing on his mind: how he'll measure up to his father's expectations at the card table.
Areli Is a Dreamer by Areli Morales, illustrator Luisa Uribe- When Areli was just a baby, her mama and papa moved from Mexico to New York with her brother, Alex, to make a better life for the family--and when she was in kindergarten, they sent for her, too. Areli’s limited English came out wrong, and schoolmates accused her of being illegal. But with time, America became her home. And she saw it as a land of opportunity, where millions of immigrants who came before her paved their own paths. She knew she would, too.
Tu Youyou’s Discovery by Songju Ma Daemicke, illustrator Lin- Tu Youyou had been interested in science and medicine since she was a child, so when malaria started infecting people all over the world in 1969, she went to work finding a treatment. Trained as a medical researcher in college and healed by traditional medicine techniques when she was young, Tu Youyou started experimenting with natural Chinese remedies. The treatment she discovered through years of research and experimentation is still used all over the world today.
Jada Jones Skywatcher by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrator Nneka Myers- Jada is excited to do a school project about her hero Dr. Mae Jemison, a former NASA astronaut and the first Black woman to travel to outer space. She even gets to pretend to be her for the presentation in front of her teacher, parents, and friends! But when Jada's research reminds her how accomplished her hero truly is, she suddenly feels like she's made a mistake. How can she portray someone who seems to have everything together when she feels like she's falling apart?
When Langston Dances by Kaija Langley, illustrator Keith Mallett- Langston likes basketball okay, but what he loves is to dance—ever since he saw the Alvin Ailey Dance Company perform. He longs to twirl into a pirouette, whirl into a piqué. He wants to arabesque and attitude, grand battement and grand jeté. When he walks, the whole street is his stage. With his neighborhood cheering him on, will Langston achieve his dream?
Halal Hot Dogs by Susannah Aziz, illustrator Parwinder Singh- Every Friday after Jummah prayer at the masjid, Musa's family has a special Jummah treat. They take turns picking out what the treat will be, but recently the choices have been . . . interesting. . . Finally, it's Musa's turn to pick, and he picks his favorite-halal hot dogs! But actually getting to eat this deliciousness turns into a journey riddled with obstacles. Will he ever get his favorite tasty treat?
Ophie’s Ghosts by Justina Ireland-Daffodil Manor, like the wealthy Caruthers family who owns it, is haunted by memories and prejudices of the past—and, as Ophie discovers, ghosts as well. Ghosts who have their own loves and hatreds and desires, ghosts who have wronged others and ghosts who have themselves been wronged. And as Ophie forms a friendship with one spirit whose life ended suddenly and unjustly, she wonders if she might be able to help—even as she comes to realize that Daffodil Manor may hold more secrets than she bargained for.
Isabel and Her Colores Go to School by Alexandra Alessandri, illustrator Courtney Dawson-English, with its blustery blues and whites, just feels wrong to Isabel. She prefers the warm oranges and pinks of Spanish. As she prepares for class at a new school, she knows she's going to have to learn--and she would rather not! Her first day is uncomfortable, until she discovers there's more than one way to communicate with friends. This is a universal story about feeling new and making new friends.
We Can: Portraits of Power by Tyler Gordon- Here is a debut picture book by partially deaf prodigy Tyler Gordon, featuring his bold paintings of over 30 icons―musicians, artists, writers, civils rights leaders, sports legends, change-makers, record-setters, and more―alongside short explanations of how these people inspire him.
Unsettled by Reem Faruqi- When her family moves from Pakistan to Peachtree City, all Nurah wants is to blend in, yet she stands out for all the wrong reasons. Nurah’s accent, floral-print kurtas, and tea-colored skin make her feel excluded, until she meets Stahr at swimming tryouts. And in the water Nurah doesn’t want to blend in. She wants to win medals like her star athlete brother, Owais—who is going through struggles of his own in the U.S. Yet when sibling rivalry gets in the way, she makes a split-second decision of betrayal that changes their fates.