A boy and his books

I love to evangelize about books to children. Usually this happens during school visits. I add slides of books I’m excited about in my presentation. And sometimes it happens during signings. But mostly it happens in my house to my children. My daughter is an avid reader, my son is less so. But I keep trying with him. Book by multi-award winning author who also wrote Spider Man? Chapters are too long. This one has an imaginary cat! It’s too sad. Everybody’s talking about this one, and it has Legos on the cover. Nope. Typically, I read aloud to him to get him into the book, and then let him go off on his own to finish. Typically, he abandons the book after a few chapters, then goes back to his old faves: Minecraft How To books or anything by Tom Angleberger. I’m happy he has books he loves but I keep trying to expand that reading palate.

Back in May when Laura Ruby’s YORK came out, my mother, who was staying with us at the time, started reading it. The following week I was at the Queens Book Festival and a kid came to my signing line with his mom. She had a copy of THE JUMBIES clutched in her hand. “She’s right there! She’ll sign the book for you! I’m going to get it. You’re going to like it!” she declared. The kid was not biting. So I asked him what he was interested in. He liked puzzles and games. I mentioned that Karuna Riazi was somewhere around, signing THE GAUNTLET. And then I told him about YORK, which my mother had finished and could not stop talking about. I wrote down the titles so that he could go find those and read them. He was thrilled.

A few days ago I had the chance to start YORK, got a few chapters in and then decided to start over, reading it aloud to my son. Once again, he didn’t seem to be paying attention. But last night, he told me that he was making a puzzle like the Morningstarrs for his sister to solve. He was inspired, he said. I asked if he was ready for me to read some more to him. He said, okay. In the language of this particular eleven year old boy, this is the highest of praise.

Kate Messner’s THE EXACT LOCATION OF HOME is next up. The geocaching adventure that Zig undertakes–and that gets him into trouble–might interest my adventure-loving boy. I finished it last week and loved it. But as I’ve learned, what I love and what he loves is often very different. I’ll keep trying, though. Everyone doesn’t have to love every read. There are books out there for every reader even if it takes some searching.

Related: if anyone is interested in slightly-read but otherwise brand new books, let me know. My kid has a pile in his room. They’re all great. Someone out there is going to love them.


Queens Book Festival 5/27/17

Hello friends,

I hope you will join me and many, many other authors at the Queens Book Festival on Saturday May 27.

The flyer below is just a small sample of the authors who will be attending.

QBF 2017 Flyer6.jpg

Africans before slavery

Every black history month, students all across the United States read and listen to stories of the most notable African-Americans. Like Harriet Tubman, who worked against slave laws to bring people to freedom, those who became educated despite laws to prevent their education and worked with abolitionists, like Frederick Douglass, who convinced Abraham Lincoln* to allow black men to fight, thereby bringing about a turn in the Civil War to the advantage of the Union, and those who–after years of struggle–fought against oppression and Jim Crow laws during the Civil Rights movement like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Claudette Colvin. African American history, it seems, begins with injustice and continues with struggle. People were stolen, sold into slavery, brought to the Americas, and have been defined by these events ever since. But who were those people before they were enslaved?

250px-ibn_soriThey were royalty.

Abdul Rahman Ibrahima was an African prince, who was sold into slavery and obtained his freedom after forty years. He returned to his native Timbuktu, only to die shortly after. You can read about him here or here. There’s also a book and movie.

Sahle Selassie ruled the Kingdom of Shewa, Ethiopia. He was the great-grandfather of Haile Selassie I. Find out about him here and more about the Amhara people he ruled.

They were the founders of the earliest civilizations.


Detail from the “Catalan Atlas” from the Royal Geographic Society.

Of course, I’m talking about Kemet, more commonly known as Egypt. Ancient Egypt was home to archaeological wonders, had the world’s first navy, and surprisingly good medical practices. You can find out more about them in this book.


The African continent is vast, and there are many people still learning what ancient Africans were like. Somali archaeologist Sada Mire is working to uncover more about ancient African history.

They had some of the earliest written languages.

250,000 manuscripts still survive at the library at Timbuktu, some of which date back to the 8th century.

They were artists.


9th century bronze Igbo staff head.


12th century A.D. Yoruba bronze head sculpture.


And this is only the tip of the horn, as it were. Africa is a vast continent, the cradle of human life. The history of Africans began long before slavery and will continue long after. Slavery was African history interrupted.

In response to the president’s remarks yesterday at a Black History Month breakfast, a few wise authors I know put together a teacher’s guide to help students rewrite the president’s speech. You can find it on Linda Urban’s blog with links to reliable sources on African American history, as well as a few on the history of Africans before history. I’ll also add this prezi, which has an interactive map that tells about Africa and African history before slavery.

*While many people credit Lincoln with abolishing slavery, it’s important to understand the full story. He was not, at first, pro-abolition. This History.com link explains Lincoln’s position on slavery, abolition, and equality.


A return to teaching

On Friday, I head out to Boston, not to the ALA Midwinter conference, but to Lesley University, where I will be a new faculty member in the Writing for Young People MFA program. I began my career teaching, and other than writing, it’s the thing I feel most comfortable doing.

I have not talked about this new career move much. Not for lack of enthusiasm, but for an overabundance of feeling overwhelmed. 2015 was a stellar year. THE JUMBIES re-launched my writing career in ways I had not imagined one book could. I spent a lot of the spring through fall traveling to conferences, book events, and to schools (my favorite), talking to readers, teachers, and other writers. I met and befriended many authors who I admire and respect. I was asked to judge a Caribbean children’s literature award, did several blog posts and videos for other sites, saw my novel selected for Scholastic Reading Club, and now I’m gearing up for conference proposals for 2016. There hasn’t been a lot of time to talk or even think about residency at Lesley, other than preparing for my students.

But today, I’m packing. So I’m slightly panicked about being away from my family for a week and a half. My family is not so thrilled about me being away either, which makes it harder.

As I contemplate how little I can take for a 10-day trip (I am determined that everything fit in my usual carry-on), I’m going over what I have prepared for the next few days…meeting students, other faculty, teaching a seminar on how to begin a story, doing readings, working with students on their stories…and I realize I’m not worried about that part at all. I know how to do this. I know how to read a group and switch up a presentation if I have to. I know how to pull things out of students that they aren’t sure they have in them.

What I am worried about is overdoing it, getting totally drained, and not having my family to re-energize me at the end of the day. So perhaps a small talisman would help.


Which one should I take?


When I return home, I go back to finishing up my next novel, working on freelance projects with publishers and individual clients through my Fairy Godauthor editing services, and doing school visits. (I still have plenty of spring slots open, btw.) But I will be more mindful of my personal time, which means I may refer some Fairy Godauthor clients to other editors or even to writing classes if I think that’s what they need. And there are lots of good ones, like “Mothering as a Creative Act” offered at The Loft and taught by one of the loveliest and smartest people I know–Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich.

There’s one more big project I have in mind for 2016–working on a novel writing workshop aimed at late elementary-middle school students. This is where my MA in Education and years of working for educational publishers will come to bear. I hope it will be something I can do as a writer in residence, or provide to teachers to use on their own. Either way, I’m excited at the prospect of teaching again, and digging into more education work–this time on my own terms.

Let them read what they want to read

Yesterday on the way to a violin lesson, my daughter told me that she was in the school library and found a book called “The Mozart Problem.” She then proceeded to tell me the whole story, the whole time demurring about her ability to do it justice. I assured her that she was doing a very good job of telling the story. At the end, she said that she wanted to read it again, but the librarian didn’t really let the middle school kids check out picture books, just chapter books.

What. The. …?

Of course I sent an email to the librarian asking for clarification. No response yet. (For those of you who know me and the kind of turns of phrase I’m prone to, I assure you, it was a polite email. Not just Tracey polite. Actual polite.)

Me: It's meant for high school kids Him: *shrug*

Me: It’s meant for high school kids
Him: *shrug*

This morning, when I woke up sleepy boy for breakfast, he was rolled over a copy of “Dark Matter,” one of the first books I edited for Rosen last season. When the book arrived at the house, he immediately grabbed it up, and I hadn’t seen it since. This is a book from Rosen’s “Scientist’s Guide to Physics” series, so the readability is much higher than his 3rd grade level. I know. I ran the readability myself. I asked him if he was reading it, and he said he’d already read “about half.” Then I asked if he understood what he was reading, and he admitted that there were a lot of words he didn’t understand–science words–but that he was continuing to read it anyway.

You can imagine how this makes me happy. I took a picture to send it to the author.

Now, obviously I’m not the kind of parent who’s hung up on age suggestions on the backs of book covers. If my kids want to read something, they can go right ahead. Well, mostly. I do take some parental license. For e.g. I made my daughter wait to read the last couple of Harry Potters until she was ten. Actually, I think she still hasn’t read the final one, and is unlikely to now that she’s moved on to the likes of The Hunger Games. My son is still hoarding board books. To be fair, I think my daughter might still be hoarding a couple herself.

I still have some of my fairy tales from when I was a kid. They are tattered and gross, and I still read those bad boys every now and then. And when the kids borrow them, I make them swear on pain of no dessert that they will return them in the same tatters they found them with.

Isn’t that how it should be? Does it even matter what the book is so long as it’s a good one?

During the kerfuffle last year over some ridiculous adult saying that it was pathetic for other adults to be reading children’s books–specifically YA, my mother asserted that she loved picture books. Who was going to read them to the children? How were they going to learn to read? And how would you have a conversation with them about it afterward? All reasonable questions, Mom. Of course children’s book writers countered with, “So we can write the books, but we’re not allowed to read them?” I mean it is the rare 3 year old who gets a publishing deal for board books, right? There are way too many “supposed tos” and “can’ts” in the world. Can we just leave that out of what people–especially small people–should be reading?


The American family album

A few weeks ago, a friend and I saw the independent film Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People. It was about African American photographers, and more importantly, the images of black Americans that have been left out of the “family photo album” as the film’s narrator put it.

The film was a real education for me, showing images of African American families, working, middle class, even wealthy families, happily existing, just being another color on the American landscape, juxtaposed with the ones I think we all know: dirt-poor African American families and some that were staged (according to the narrator) of people stealing, and then of course, the lynching photographs which were sold as postcards and mailed around the country.

It happened that at the same time, I was just starting work on a Civil War book so images of Union soldiers in particular had a heightened impression on me. When Union soldiers are pictured in history books, they’re not often the former slaves who joined the fight, though even Lincoln admitted that it was the black troops who turned the tide of war in favor of the North.

Since then, I’ve been finding lots of images of African Americans in history that paint a very different picture from what I–and indeed all of us–have seen. I realized that the dearth of portraiture was like being erased from history. It’s painful. Britain’s Autograph ABP has an exhibit currently of photographs of black Britons from the 1800s which is illuminating. Years ago, there was a Smithsonian exhibit by Deborah Willis about black photographers. One of the inspirations for her exhibit, was a book called The Sweet Flypaper of Life. A narrative by Langston Hughes, accompanied by images of African American families looking exactly like every other American family, just with different color skin.

A few days ago, some people in my husband’s office said that he didn’t “act black.” It was supposed to be a compliment. I also came across this phrase recently in Misty Copeland’s biography. It’s funny how the people saying these things don’t realize that it’s racist. As if well-educated, well-spoken, classy African-descended people are some kind of anomaly. (Just so you all know, those are the only kind of black people that I know personally, and obviously just from family, I know a lot.) But it’s not imagery many people are familiar with. My recent post for CBC diversity covers some of the dangers of this.

Then my mother visited some family last weekend and came back with a few tales from our family history, including the revelation that somewhere back up the family tree was a white plantation owner, and possibly an Amerindian person (indigenous peoples from the Caribbean). My mother added that my father (who identifies as Indian descent) is also mixed, with some of his ancestry coming from Syria.

So I have this family–from everywhere, it seems–and I’d like to get them all into the family album. I wonder what I, as a writer and editor, can do about that.

This week in writing: Put your money where your shelf is edition

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign launched last week and got rousing support on Twitter and Facebook, and the conversation continues. All the talk is good, but it’s important to actually go out and support diverse books with your hard-earned cash.

If you’re interested in buying from indie booksellers. This link will help you find the ones near you. However, wherever you buy these books it’s going to be a good thing.

And so you know what to buy, here’s a list of books by or about African/Afro-Caribbean/African-Americans that were published in 2013. Some books are reissues. I think it’s all correct. If you notice any issues, please let me know and I’ll update the list.


Title Author Illustrator
Sasquatch in the Paint Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem
Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad Adler, David
He Said, She Said Alexander, Kwame
The Laura Line Allen, Crystal
Splash, Anna Hibiscus! Atinuke Lauren Tobias
The Market Bowl Averbeck, Jim
Hold Fast Balliett, Blue
Jump Shot Barber, Tiki and Ronde
Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me Beaty, Daniel Bryan Collier
Revenge of a Not-So-Pretty Girl Blythe, Carolita
12 Days of New York Bolden, Tonya Gilbert Ford
Emancipation Proclamation Bolden, Tonya
Echo Brewster, Alicia Wright
My Cold Plum Lemon Pie Bluesy Mood Brown, Tameka Fryer Shane W. Evans
Can’t Scare Me Bryan, Ashley
A Splash of Red: the life of Horace Pippin Bryant, Jen Melissa Sweet
The Cart that Carried Martin Bunting, Eve Don Tate
Serafina’s Promise Burg, Ann
What Was Your Dream, Dr. King? Carson, Mary Kay
Ignite: All About Myths: African Myths and Legends Chambers, Catherine
Etched in Clay Cheng, Andrea
Max and the Tag-along Moon Cooper, Floyd
Parched Crowder, Melanie
Off to Market Dale, Elizabeth Erika Pal
Don’t Spill the Milk! Davies, Stephen Christopher Corr
A Marked Man Doeden, Matt
Panic Draper, Sharon
Go, Jade, Go Dungy, Tony and Lauren Vanessa Brantley-Newton
The Missing Cupcake Mystery Dungy, Tony and Lauren Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Africa is My Home: A child of the Amistad Edinger, Monica Robert Byrd
Dog Days. English, Karen Laura Freeman
Nikki & Deja: Substitute Trouble English, Karen Laura Freeman
Life is Beautiful! Eulate, Ana Nivola Uya
A Song for Bijou Farrar, Josh
I See the Promised Land Flowers, Arthur Manu Chitrakar
The Price of Freedom Fradin, Judith Bloom and Dennis Brindell Fradin Eric Velasquez
Community Soup Fullerton, Alma
A Good Trade Fullerton, Alma Karen Patkau
Words with Wings Grimes, Nikki
Schuman, Michael A. Halle Berry
The Girl Who Heard Colors. Harris, Marie Vanessa Brantley-Newton
When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop Hill, Laban Carrick Theodore Taylor III
The Magic Bojabi Tree Hofmeyr, Dianne Piet Grobler
Lullaby (For a Black Mother). Hughes, Langston Sean Qualls
Vengeance Bound Ireland, Justina
The Summer Prince Johnson, Alaya Dawn
Lottie Paris and the Best Place Johnson, Angela Scott Fischer
Flowers in the Sky Joseph, Lynn
The Campaign Karre, Elizabeth
Trouper Kearney, Meg E. B. Lewis
Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest for Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who would cure the world Kidder, Tracy
My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King III, Martin Luther AG Ford
Louisa May’s Battle Krull, Kathleen Carlyn Beccia
Charm and Strange Kuehn, Stephanie
You Choose: The Harlem Renaissance Lassieur, Allison
We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song Levy, Debbie Vannessa Brantley-Newton
March: Book One Lewis, John and Andrew Aydin Nate Powell
Cline-Ransome, Lesa Light in the Darkness: A Story About How Slaves Learned in Secret James E. Ransome
Hope’s Gift Lyons, Kelly Starling Don Tate
The Pirate’s Coin: A Sixty-Eight Rooms Adventure Malone, Marianne
Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table Martin, Jacqueline Briggs Eric-Shabazz
The Mystery of Meerkat Hill McCall Smith, Alexander Iain McIntosh
Lulu and the Cat in the Bag McKay, Hilary
Lulu and the Dog from the Sea McKay, Hilary
Jesse Owens McKissack, Patricia and Fredrick
Ol’ Clip-Clop. McKissack, Patricia C Eric Velasquez
Double Victory: How African American Women Broke Race and Gender Barriers to Help Win World War II Mullenbach, Cheryl
Kuku and Mwewe: A Swahili Folktale Munte Vidal, Marta
The Cruisers: Oh, Snap! Myers, Walter Dean
Darius & Twig Myers, Walter Dean
Invasion Myers, Walter Dean
A Great Idea Engineering: The Pyramids of Giza Nardo, Don
Mythology and Culture Worldwide: Egyptian Mythology Nardo, Don
Nelson Mandela Nelson, Kadir
I am Harriet Tubman Norwich, Grace Ute Simon
Mister and Lady Day: Billie Holiday and the Dog Who Loved Her Novesky, Amy Vanessa Brantley Newton
Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas Ottaviani, Jim and Maris Wicks
Spy Boy, Cheyenne, and 96 Crayons Owen, Rob
Out of Nowhere Padian, Maria
Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song Pinkney, Andrea Davis Brian Pinkney
Peace Warriors Pinkney, Andrea Davis
The Tortoise & the Hare Pinkney, Jerry
A Girl Called Problem Quirk, Katie
Sugar Rhodes, Jewell Parker
The Cucuy Stole My Cascarones Rivas, Spelile Valeria Cervantes
Jackie Robinson: American Hero. Robinson, Sharon
Hey, Charleston! Rockwell, Anne Colin Bootman
The Other Side of Free Russell, Krista
Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-so-Happy Heartbreaker Russell, Rachel Renee
Dork Diaries: OMG! All About Me Diary! Russell, Rachel Renee
Prince Fielder Savage, Jeff
Anna Carries Water Senior, Olive Laura James
Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew up to Become Malcolm X Shabazz, Ilyasah A.G. Ford
Anubis Speaks! Shecter, Vicky Alvear
Something to Prove Skead, Robert Floyd Cooper
I am the World Smith, Charles R
Brick by Brick Smith, Charles R Floyd Cooper
Daddy, My Favorite Guy: Papá Mi Compañero Favorito Smith, Icy and Crystal Smith Octavio Oliva
Nobody Asked the Pea Stewig, John Warren Cornelius Van Wright
Courage Has No Color Stone, Tanya Lee
Father Groppi Stotts, Stuart
Golden Boy Sullivan, Tara
Kenya’s Song Trice, Linda Pamela Johnson
As Fast as Words Could Fly Tuck, Pamela N Eric Velasquez
Desmond and the Very mean Word Tutu, Archbishop Desmond and Douglas Carlton Abrams A.G. Ford
Next Waltman, Kevin
The Milk of Birds Whitman, Sylvia
P.S. Be Eleven Williams-Garcia, Rita
JFK Winter, Jonah AG Ford
You Never Heard of Willie Mays?! Winter, Jonah Terry Widener
This is the Rope: A Story From the Great Migration Woodson, Jacqueline James Ransome
The Granddaughter Necklace Wyeth, Sharon Dennis Bagram Ibatoulline
Between U and Me Zendaya



Common Core may change the face of children’s publishing–in the best way possible

kid book 2Children’s book publishers have always looked to the school market to find niches for their catalog. I remember the days when creating a new Reading or Language Arts program meant that reps from publishing houses would give presentations of their catalog and leave us with piles of awesome books. It’s big money to get into an educational anthology. Something that many writers don’t think about when they’re penning books, but it’s good money, and steady money at that (once you get your cut from the publishing house, that is).

As the editor of those anthologies, my job was to find books that were at the right level, satisfied themes, were high interest, and did a delicate balance with ethnicity percentages that reflected population statistics. But now that Common Core asks educators to use more diverse literature, there is far more literature about non-white cultures in current educational programs than there was just five years ago. This is from my own observation from the many educational programs I’ve worked on in the last ten years.

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the lack of diversity in literature. Mitali Perkins noted that the diversity in published kids’ lit does not match up to population statistics. The CCBC notes that when you compare numbers of published children’s books to  authors/subjects of color year by year it’s dismal to downright embarrassing. And it’s not getting better. Author Colleen Mondor has pretty much had it with the diversity problem, and links to other notable kid publishing dustups in a post. (She also mentions my favorite kerfuffle: the Liar cover.)

There seems to be an ingrained idea that children’s books about different cultures don’t sell. But where are the actual figures on that? Seriously, if anyone has those figures, please pass them on. If your character is non-white, non-male, and non-straight, your book may get relegated to a marginal niche market. Don’t believe me? Hear it from a white male author.

My guys reading at Target.

My guys reading at Target.

This isn’t just a literature problem. Or an author problem. A recent study links people’s levels of empathy with how much literary fiction they read. Kids’ lit is not literary fiction. But is it really that far a jump to understand that connecting with diverse cultures might be aided by reading about them? Some connect recent social hot-button topics to a dangerous lack of diversity.

But that brings me back to the Common Core State Standards, which seeks to bring a more diverse range of literature to the classroom. Publishers that I’ve worked with in the last year have been looking to meet Common Core standards which means they are seeking diverse materials. And because the old multicultural standbys are, well, OLD, they’re looking for fresh new writers and books. Those of us who represent diverse cultures, or write about them should be happy about that.

The change that children’s literature needs may not come with a march, or a protest or grassroots effort. The change we’ve been looking for may come from a series of codes like this one: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.2.9 Compare and contrast two or more versions of the same story (e.g., Cinderella stories) by different authors or from different cultures. Which is not everything, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Book banning makes me want to dance.

It’s banned books week. And thank goodness. Everything that is horrible, morally lacking, and unfit for human eyeballs is listed pretty much everywhere this week so I can find them! Ah, freedom. It smells like old library. I’m so grateful for book banning and challenging, I can’t even tell you. You’ve probably already heard about how Rainbow Rowell was disinvited to a school district to talk about her novel, Eleanor and Park. I might not have heard of Eleanor and Park if it wasn’t for that. And now I can buy the book. Here! Stuff like this keeps happening, right? And usually backfires, showing people like me what they should be reading, giving authors loads of press, and showing the world who the morons are and how they find new ways to couch their censorship talk.

But probably my favorite, favorite thing about censorship is how much it reminds me of Footloose. Can you ever get enough of Kevin Bacon dancing? I know I can’t. So the next time someone bans a book, do like Kevin Bacon. Dance in the headlights…all the way to the bookstore.

Go here for all your banned books week activities. Enjoy.

Let your brain blink

I'll do my "blinking" in the hammock.

I’ll do my “blinking” in the hammock.

My husband asked me to do nothing for six months. No extra projects. No volunteer work. No extending my help to others at the expense of my own time. I balked at first. Six months of doing nothing? I asked. Yes, he said. That’s boring, I told him, but I compromised, agreeing to take a break for one month. I didn’t even notice when that month turned into two. It turned out that not feeling tense every day about a constantly-replenishing to-do list was pretty nice. But it wasn’t just that. My brain needed to blink.

There was a documentary about creativity on the Science Channel tonight. I turned it on just as a scientist was explaining that the moment of epiphany does not happen in an instant like we think. Before it happens, our brains have a burst of Alpha waves that shuts down visual information. Like your brain blinking. Then the idea has a chance to bubble up. You probably have experienced this: when an idea is coming, the world goes a little fuzzy. At least it does for me. That’s Alpha waves slowing how much information comes in, allowing us to get those good ideas. Just like my husband’s idea about not doing anything for a while allowed many more ideas to come to me.

Of course, I didn’t exactly do NOTHING. I worked on a client’s manuscript, met my agent for dinner after BEA and talked shop, kids, and the joys of dessert, finished the final revisions to my novel, began to research two other books, spoke on two panels and moderated a third at the BooksNJ event last Sunday, and I even finished reading a few books. But for me, it’s as close to nothing as I get. The point is, now I’m itching to start writing again, though I wonder how much more I’d get if I let my brain “blink” for a little while longer.

A few more days on hiatus won’t kill me…