Becky&Books Blog

2016 Children’s Books by Black SCBWI Authors

Cover of paperback edition of Grandmama's PrideFirst my big news: My first picture book, Grandmama’s Pride, which has stayed in print for 11 years, was released in paperback this month!  I was able to create a promotional page for it in the Book Blast of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) website. The SCBWI Book Blast runs until November 18th, showcasing books published in 2016 and written (or illustrated) by SCBWI  members. You can visit my page and leave a comment.

In addition to promoting my own book, I had the idea that the Book Blast was an opportunity to get a close-up look at the diversity situation by looking at the sampling or cross section of the current crop of children’s books it offered.  I wanted to know the portion of these books about black children, and the portion of those by black authors.

Cover of Tiny Stitches

In the Book Blast, 372 books by traditional publishers and 398 independently published books are included, 770 total. I haven’t actually read these new books yet—so I’m basing my categorizing just on the images on the covers and on ascertaining the author’s identity to the best of my ability.  Since SCBWI is international, not all the authors are from the United States.  Some of the books may be E-books. I’m not looking at Latinx, Asian, or First Nations children and authors, although these groups and others are represented. I also wasn’t able to look at artists. If this kind of scrutiny seems petty, unnecessary, or divisive, you might want to read my last post, Diversity in Children’s Books.

Traditionally Published Books

Of the traditionally published books, 32 showed a black orCover of Riding Chance biracial-black child or adult on the cover, sometimes in combination with other children. (One book by a black writer featured dinosaurs on the cover; another featured aircraft.) 14 books were by black or biracial-black authors—less than half of the 32.  Why do publishers continue to think that someone else can tell our stories better than we can?  The 14 books comprised 3.76% of the traditionally published books.  Here’s the list:

  • Alexander, Kwame.  Booked
  • Birtha, Becky. Grandmama’s Pride
  • Frazier, Sundee T. Cleo Edison Oliver, Playground Millionaire
  • Hohn, Nadia. Malaika’s CostumeCover of Nana's Favorite Things
  • Hooks, Gwendolyn. Tiny Stitches
  • Johnson, Suzan. Aiden the Soccer Star!
  • Kendall, Christine. Riding Chance
  • Lester, Julius. The Girl Who Saved Yesterday
  • Price, Dorothy. Nana’s Favorite Things
  •  Lyons, Kelly Starling. One More Dino on the Floor
  • Trice, Linda. Kenya’s Art
  • Weatherford, Carole Boston. You Can Fly: the Tuskeegee Airmen
  • Weber, Jen Funk. Been There, Done That: Reading Animal Signs
  • Woods, Brenda. Zoe in Wonderland

Independently Published Books

Of the 398 books published independently, 33 featured cover images of black or biracial-black children.  20 books were written by black or biracial authors. (Five of the twenty showed no people on the cover.) The books by black or biracial-black authors comprised 5% of the 398 independently published books.  The list:

  • Anthonio-Williams, Shameen E. Tulsa GirlCover of Tulsa Girl
  • Burks, Lauryn. Pretty Hand Goes to Paris
  • Carter, Tyrone. Tyrone Carter, Kid Scientist
  • Cheston, Dexter. Behind the Scenes Looks for FW ’16 – Nail Color: Designer Coloring Book
  • Dasent, Joann Frasier. A Farmer, His Son and Their Mule
  • Duchatelier, Geraldine and Ford. Ford Says: Listen to Safety Rules
  • Duchatelier, Cassandra. Counting by the Lake
  • Green, April. The Adventures of Princess Dane Nala: Dane, What About Me?
  • Jackson, Nakisha. I Love You Anyway
  • Little, Sylvia Hawkins. Illumination: Lewis Howard Latimer Thank a Black Man, Book 1
  • Mays, Belinda. 7 Days with Daddy
  • Morris,Claudia. Dusty the Circus MouseCover of Joshua's Amazing List
  • Prather, Dominique A. A Pajama Extravaganza Mystery
  • Richards, Sandra L. Rice and Rocks
  • Sherard, Donna. The Splendiferous Adventures of Ryan Odongo: Swahili Safari
  • Smith, Charmaine. Skinny Minnie
  • Smith, Caylen. Imperfect Hearts – Book 3 of the Guardian Series
  • Taylor, Tracy Carol. Something Wicked in the Land of Ahhhs
  • Thompson, Dietrich. Joshua’s Amazing Gift
  • Topping, Latoyoua. The Big Move

 

Cover of I Love You AnywayIt appears that black authors may be more successful publishing independently, with freedom to have longer titles, and dogs, mice, or teeth as main characters. But the drawback to small press and self-publishing, is that the author must do all her own publicity, marketing, distribution and sales, and possibly her own editing, art directing, and book design, too.  Many schools and most libraries won’t consider self-published books. They don’t have the means to evaluate them and there is no one to make sure the books meet standard criteria or to vouch for their quality—two more jobs that publishing houses do).

I really appreciate SCBWI’s including the independently published books in this promotion.  They don’t get much press.  They look just as exciting as the traditional offerings, and I plan to read as many as I can of each.  Black writers and our readers clearly need both types of publishing to get our books out, and we need publicity opportunities for both types, like the Book Blast.

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Diversity in Children’s Books

 

Graphic by David Huyck showing diversity in children's books, 2015.As a speaker at the October 2016 Fall Philly event of The Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter of The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI),  I knew I wanted to raise the issue of the need for more diversity in children’s books.  I went searching the internet for the excellent graphic by Tina Kügler from 2012, and discovered it has recently been updated by illustrator David Huyck. (The new graphic was created under a Creative Commons license; anyone may republish it.) I read the story behind the update at sarahpark.com, where there is also a follow-up piece with links to additional information and graphics.  There is more diversity now than there was in 2012, but we still have a long way to go, especially since we are moving towards a time (2020?) when white children will make up only about half of U.S. children.

As this image illustrates so well, we need diversity in children’s books so that children can see themselves.  You can observe the difference in the size of mirror each child (or animal/inanimate object) has, and the possibilities that those mirrors reflect.  But  the other half of the story, though not shown by the illustration, is this: We need diverse books so that children can see each other. That white child on the right needs to be able to envision the other children as astronauts, sports stars, scuba divers and animal lovers, too.  And yes, even royalty.  Inability or refusal to do this holds our society back as much as limiting children’s visions of themselves.

Although I’m focusing this discussion on David Huyck’s  chart, of course diversity isn’t just related to racial and ethnic identity.  As defined by the We Need Diverse Books organization, it can also refer to LGBTQIA identity, gender, people who are differently abled, and cultural or religious minorities. We could add economic or class diversity, or even something I heard about with great relief from my daughter’s head ofschool– academic diversity. Yet looking at only one kind of diversity still raises many questions.

This chart doesn’t reflect the numbers on how many children’s books are written or illustrated by people of the same ethnicity that they are writing about, or why that might matter.  I’ll discuss the need for “Own Voices” in an upcoming post. This chart doesn’t suggest why the world of children’s book publishing is so unbalanced, although a peek at the diversity of professionals in the field may.  The chart also doesn’t aproach a concept that I’ve begun to grapple with recently, thanks in part to a lecture series at the University of Pennsylvania Museum— the possibility that race is just a construct, with no genetic basis.  The chart, of course, can’t address a question I’m often asked when the subject of diversity comes up: What can white writers (or white readers) do? I’ll share some thoughts about that in a later post, too.  But, for now, what any of us can do is raise awareness by spreading the word about the continued need for more diversity in children’s books.

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Writing the Children’s Book You Hold in Your Heart

From August 14 to 18, 2016, I’ll be leading a writing workshop/retreat/short course at Pendle Hill Quaker Study & Conference Center: Writing the Children’s Book You Hold in Your Heart.  There is still room for a few more participants, so please help spread the word, if you know someone who might be interested.  Anyone planning to come should register right away!  In the video, I’m in conversation with Lina Blount, Pendle Hill’s Communications and Outreach Coordinator (and videographer).

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Art for Social Justice

Poster by Ricardo Levins Morales showing people sleeping in prison, titled Goodnight Moon.

Poster by Ricardo Levins Morales . 

I discovered this powerful image in the Barn Gallery at Pendle Hill, the Quaker conference, study and retreat center where I used to work, where I will be leading a writing workshop this summer, and where the poster is part of a show on display from May through July, 2016.  The artist is Ricardo Levins Morales, and I was grateful to learn that his website gave me permission to use the “Goodnight Moon” image on my own site.  Clicking on the image will take you to his site, with information about how to purchase prints, and pictures of his many other striking works of art for social justice.

I called this blog Becky&Books because I wanted every post to be, one way or another, connected to books. One connection here is obvious, as the image immediately evokes the cover, by Clement Hurd, of the classic bedtime story by Margaret Wise Brown. But there is another important connection for me. My next picture book, scheduled for publication by January 2017, is called Far Apart, Close in Heart and subtitled Being a Family When A Loved One Is Incarcerated.  And it is written for those “more than two million children who go to bed each night with at least one parent incarcerated” that Ricardo Levins Morales speaks of. Far Apart, Close in Heart is a story that I hope will offer the children (and adults) who read it courage, hope,  a sense that they are not alone in their experiences, and an awareness that they can act for change. It isn’t a treatise or a manifesto. Yet I’m hoping that, in its own way, it too will serve as art for social justice.

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African American History in 2015 Picture Books

African American History 2015 Picture BooksAn enticing assortment of picture books with themes from African American history was published in 2015.  Included here are some books I received from Bobbie Combs of We Love Children’s Books and Highlights Foundation, who shared her advance reader copies with me, and some I discovered at local libraries.  I began writing this post as a look back on the year that had just ended.  But each of the books held fascinating information that led me to further research. So I’m a few months late, but better educated. I’m amazed at how much I learned from these picture books!  They are discussed in historical order.  Please assume authors and illustrators are African American unless otherwise noted.

My Name is Truth by Ann Turner, illustrated by James Ransome

Cover of Ann Turner's Picture Book, My Name is TruthAnn Turner (who is not African American) retells the life story of the remarkable feminist, abolitionist, and inspirational speaker who began life as Isabella Baumfree (1797-1883), but who is better known by her taken name, Sojourner Truth. My Name Is Truth doesn’t shy away from the hard realities of life for enslaved African Americans.  Being sold from one master to another, overworked, beaten, having family members sold, and ultimately escaping in fear with her baby while abandoning three older children—these details are all included honestly in a narrative that is not beyond the understanding of children.  The story is told in first person, and the front jacket flap says that it is “written in the fiery and eloquent voice of Sojourner Truth herself.”  I wasn’t clear what words of the text were taken from quotations—perhaps those in italics or bold print. (The author’s note  cites some references and suggests books for further reading.) Sojourner’s first language was Dutch, and the famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech, was actually recorded inaccurately by an audience member, 12 years after hearing it, and not reflective of the way Sojourner Truth spoke.  Certainly, the language in the book is beautiful, and James Ransome’s lucid watercolor paintings match it to complete the story.

Ira’s Shakespeare Dream by Glenda Armand; illustrated by Floyd CooperCover of Ira's Shakespeare Dream by Glenda Armand, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Ira’s Shakespeare Dream introduces a figure from African American history that most children will not be familiar with—Ira Frederick Aldridge, considered one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of his time.  Born to free black parents in New York City in 1807, Ira grew more and more fascinated by theater.  Against his father’s wishes, at age seventeen he left the United States to pursue a career in England and Europe that was overwhelmingly successful. Ira Aldridge was also an abolitionist, and spoke out against slavery to his audiences.  Glenda Armand tells his story by choosing just the right details to appeal to young readers.  Famous quotations from William Shakespeare and more information about some of Shakespeare’s plays are seamlessly woven into the narrative. Floyd Cooper’s signature technique of oil wash on board, with kneaded erasers, results in an evocative, dream-like quality that is perfect for this story.  Just as young Ira is inspired, on the first page, by Polonius’s famous line from Hamlet, “This above all—to thine own self be true…” Young readers of this book will infer the message to follow their own dreams.  Glenda Armand also authored Love Twelve Miles Long, a 2013 historical fiction picture book about Frederick Douglass illustrated by Colin Bootman.

Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers’ Journey from Slave to Artist by Barbara Herkert, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Cover of Sewing Stories by by Barbara Herkert, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-NewtonQuilting artist Harriet Powers (1837-1910) was born to enslaved parents near Athens Georgia and learned needlework from the women in her (enslaved) community.  Barbara Herkert (who is not African American) uses poetic language to tell her story, augmented by small quilt patches on each page displaying additional factual information.  The book follows Harriet through her youth, marriage, the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, her first five children, and the hard times of Reconstruction. Harriet Powers’s two remaining unique and now priceless story quilts hang in the Smithsonian and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Decidedly upbeat, bright and cheerful illustrations depicting Harriet’s youthful years may recall, for some adult readers, the recent controversy about a 2016 book, also illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton and set during slavery (A Birthday Cake for George Washington, now recalled by Scholastic Press).   In Sewing Stories, women are smiling as they get together, spin, and quilt, clearly taking pride in their work and enjoying each other’s company.  Nobody is smiling while picking cotton. Readers may judge whether the background information on the harsh realities of slavery is sufficient to place the story in context.  Personally, I’m glad that we are beginning to have stories set during that time period that don’t focus only on escaping or the Underground Railroad.  Most people did not have the opportunity to escape; many found other ways to be heroic.

Harlem Renaissance Party, by Faith Ringgold (Author-Illustrator)Cover of Harlem Renaissance Party by Faith Ringold

Although picture books exist about a number of individuals who were a part of the Harlem Renaissance, this may be the first book to present the whole era to contemporary readers.  Since this is Faith Ringgold, the story begins with a bit of magic, as Lonnie and his Uncle Bates read a party invitation written in the sky, and catch a time-travel airplane back to New York City’s Harlem Renaissance.  (Ringgold grew up in Harlem in the 1930s.)There they meet nearly two dozen notable figures from the time period (1920s through the 1930s), and visit famous places like the Schomberg Library and the Savoy Ballroom. Lonnie is inspired by W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes to become a writer, and inspired by everyone to be proud of himself and his people.  This is a joyful, celebratory book that invites the reader to find out more.  Rendered in acrylic paint on canvas paper in Ringgold’s vibrant style, the paintings will capture the attention of even very young readers.  But this book would probably work best with older elementary or even middle school age children, and could probably serve as a syllabus for a semester-long course. There’s a lot of information here, and the book includes an extensive four page glossary and suggestions for further reading.     Readers who are curious about Lonnie’s pale skin, red hair, and green eyes can revisit Faith Ringgold’s earlier picture books, Dinner at Aunt Connie’s House and Bon Jour Lonnie, to be reminded that he is one of us.

New Shoes by Susan Lynn Meyer, illustrated by Eric Velasquez

Cover of New Shoes by Barbara Herkert, illustrated by Eric VelasquezIn a break from factual non-fiction, I’m including New Shoes by Susan Lynn Meyer (who is not African American) and illustrated by Eric Velasquez (who identifies his heritage as Afro-Puerto Rican).  As Meyer points out in her author’s note, “Ella Mae is a fictional character.  But the discrimination that she faces was very real.”  Ella Mae and her cousin Charlotte have fun window shopping for shoes in the 1950s south.  But Ella Mae is humiliated when she actually goes into the shoe store and she must wait until white customers are finished, the shopkeeper speaks disrespectfully to her mother and, worst of all, she is not allowed to try on the shoes before buying them.  So Ella Mae and Charlotte (who had the same experience) come up with an ingenious plan.  They do chores, scrub floors, pick vegetables and baby-sit, charging only a nickel—and a pair of old shoes.  After some work cleaning, polishing and buffing the donated shoes, they are ready to open up a new business—a store where customers can try on all the shoes they want.  The two delightful budding entrepreneuer/activists are depicted in Eric Velasquez’s wonderfully realistic oil color paintings that evoke the time period perfectly.  Velasquez has illustrated many picture books on themes of African American history.

Love Will See You Through: Martin Luther King Junior’s Six Guiding Beliefs by Angela Farris Watkins, illustrated by Sally Wern ComportCover of Love Will See You Through, by Angela Farris Watkins, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport

African American History is rarely discussed without a mention of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther. This blog post is no exception, as another picture book has been added to the many that already exist.   Love Will See You Through covers the years 1955 through 1966 in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., but the focus here is not so much on his life as on his principles—values, strategies, and “Guiding Beliefs.”  Angela Farris Watkins, PhD, the author, is Dr. King’s niece, and also an associate professor of psychology at Spelman College.  It isn’t clear from the book whether King himself identified these six beliefs during his lifetime, or whether the author is doing that, looking back on her memories of him and studying his life.  Nevertheless, they are sound concepts that children can explore living by:

  • Have courage
  • Love your enemies.
  • Fight the problem, not the one who caused it.
  • When innocent people are hurt, others are inspired to help.
  • Resist violence of any kind.
  • The universe honors love.

Each belief is amplified with brief examples from King’s life and teachings, and with striking illustrations by Sally Wern Comport (not African American) employing deep, rich, colors, with a larger than life quality.  The numbered beliefs are painted across pages.  Illustrations include jail bars, police officers, angry hecklers, and the aftermath of a firebomb, but no depictions of violence or attacks taking place.  Angela Farris Watkins has written several other books about Dr. King.

The Case for Loving: The fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko

Case for LovingThe state of Virginia, where Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter lived, had upheld anti-miscegenation laws preventing whites from marrying any other race since 1691, longer than any other state.  When Richard, who was white, and Mildred, whose heritage was African American and Rappahanock Native American, fell in love in Central Point, Virginia, they had to leave the state to get married (in 1958).  After they returned home following the wedding, they were awakened by police in the middle of the night and arrested.  The Lovings (yes, that was really their name) were released but, following court orders, moved out of state, to Washington D.C. There they added three children to the family, but wished to return to Virginia.  The Supreme Court heard their case in 1967 and ruled in their favor, a landmark civil rights decision that impacted the whole country.  The Lovings’ difficult story is sensitively told in language accessible to even very young readers.  Selina Alko and Sean Qualls, themselves an interracial (white and black, respectively) married couple with children, worked together to create the mixed paint, collage, and colored pencil illustrations, spare like the text, but liberally sprinkled with hearts.  Sean Qualls and Selina Alko also illustrated Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass by Dean Robbins (not African American), published in 2016.

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A Standing Desk

Standing deskWhen the idea for a standing desk first appeared on my horizon, I was working at the Quaker retreat, study and conference center, Pendle Hill.  My friend and coworker, artist Lawrence Sexton shared an article from a men’s health magazine, about the dangers of sitting at a desk all day long.  He and I subsequently made a point of standing up whenever we spoke to each other on the phone—or better yet, walking the short distance to the other’s office, and standing while we conversed. (Pendle Hill also has a tradition of “stand up” staff meetings, which keeps them short.)

Around the same time, I read a piece in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin of January-February 2011, called “Treadmill Desks: Learning to Walk, Chew Gum, and Write at the Same Time” by Arthur Slade and Jöelle Anthony. You have to be a member to access the SCBWI Bulletin archives, but you can read Jöelle’s blog post   and view Arthur’s video.

I knew I wanted to try a standing desk, because of ergonomics, as well as the health benefits. Because I’m short waisted, it’s always been hard to arrange a desk setup that works well—monitor level with my face, forearms on a slight downward angle from the elbow.  With a laptop, of course, it’s impossible. I looked at outrageously expensive models of standing desks on the internet.  I looked at cheap home made ideas, but I’m not really a do-it-yourselfer.  Finally I had the brainstorm.  I took an old tall chest of drawers, pulled out one drawer, and balanced across it a short wooden plank that I found in the basement. I parked my laptop on top, and borrowed a wireless keyboard from my daughter’s tablet. Voilá!  A standing desk.

I can worry about the treadmill part later.  Or not.  But for now, I’m just excited to have the standing desk.  The next challenge is to get myself to it every day.

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Unseasonable Christmas

Cover of In a Spring Garden edited by Richard Lewis, illustrated by Ezra Jack KeatsAs the warm, unseasonable temperatures and cloudy skies continued right through Christmas, I kept remembering another Christmas when the weather was nearly the same.  Finally a meteorologist mentioned that date—1964, the year of the warmest temperature on December 25th, until 2015.

I remember 1964 as a year when I was struggling with having to grow up, caught between being a child and an adult, when all the rules were changing, and nothing seemed to fit the old patterns and expectations any more.  I wasn’t in a hurry to be an adult.  I was asked, but didn’t know what I wanted for Christmas.  Unseasonable weather just added to the confusion.Photo of Becky Birtha on December 25 1964.

1964 was one of few growing-up years for which I can still remember particular presents. My sister gave me balls of scented soap in deep bright colors—something I’d never seen or heard of, never known existed.  In the following weeks, I actually used it.

My mother gave me a picture book of poetry. The book was In a Spring Garden, classical haiku collected by Richard Lewis.  It was illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats in colors as vivid as the scented soap. I knew who Ezra Jack Keats was.  The Snowy Day had won the Caldecott just the year before, an event worthy of celebration in our family. In a Spring Garden is still among my treasured possessions.

Maybe that memory has stayed with me because someone snapped a picture of me with my gift, by the Christmas tree. Maybe it is because I wrote a story based on that Christmas. (I recently searched for and found the first, and maybe only, draft, plunging me right back into that time.)Photo of first draft manuscript of Christmas story written by Becky Birtha in 1964. But I suspect it is because of the book—anchoring that day fast in my memory for all these years, and letting me know it was still O.K. to keep being a kid, even after I grew up.

Illustration by Ezra Jack Keats from In A Spring Garden edited by Richard Lewis

Illustration by Ezra Jack Keats from In A Spring Garden edited by Richard Lewis

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Forthcoming Book!!!

Photo of Becky Birtha 2015Yes, I’m aware that a long interval has elapsed between posts.  Noteworthy things went on in my literary life.  One was the book launch for Laurie Wallmark’s picture book biography, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine at The Book Garden in Frenchtown, NJ.

Another was attending KidLitCon2015, my first, and spending an October weekend hanging out in Baltimore with librarians, bloggers, authors and others as passionate about children’s books as I am.  In November, I managed to find out about and attend an amazing, diversity-focused small conference called “Telling the Story of All of Us,” presented by Rosemont College and Children’s Book World,

I still hope to write about all of these.  But I have a good reason—or at least a good excuse—for not having done it yet: a forthcoming book!!!  I’ve been working (with an editor!) on a new picture book. I’ve recently signed and sent in a contract, and planned publication is fall, 2016.  I’m bursting to share more about it, and just waiting for the go-ahead from the publisher.  Stay tuned.

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Reading MISTY on Chincoteague

20150925_133203When we were kids, my sister, Rachel, was the horse lover.  I suspect she read every book written by Marguerite Henry that our local public library had.  I wasn’t into horses, and I never read any of them, although I do remember my sixth grade teacher reading Brighty of the Grand Canyon aloud to the whole class.  But of course, I heard about Misty of Chincoteague.

This year, a friend chose the small island of Chincoteague, Virginia for a vacation and invited my partner and me to join her. When we arrived, I was in the middle of reading the adult novel, Americanah, by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, set in Lagos, Nsukka, and various east coast U.S. cities.  I was fascinated by it and deeply involved, but it wasn’t the right book for Chincoteague.  I remembered another journey to New Mexico, when the novel I had on the train seemed irrelevant after I passed Chicago.  I also remembered times when my own setting seemed to match up perfectly to the sense of place in the book I was reading.

View of a pond in the foreground and Oyster Bay in the Background, Chincoteague, VA

View of Oyster Bay from the vacation house.

Luckily, the vacation house had a bookshelf, well stocked with a surprisingly good selection ofBookshelves books for both adults and children.  I quickly found Misty of Chincoteague. There were no black characters in this book (unless you count horses), but I loved immersing myself in the adventures of the two children, Paul and Maureen (a strong, positive female character despite the constraints of the 1940s setting), in their attempts to capture, purchase, tame and keep a wild pony. Under the spell of the illustrator, Wesley Dennis, I even had to change my mind about horses as characters in books.

Becky Birtha stands next to a statue of Misty of Chincoteague

Standing by the Misty statue in Chincoteague’s Robert Reed Park

Clearly, Misty was Chincoteague’s most celebrated resident.  It was pretty amazing to see her influence on the whole town, and I marveled at the ability of one author, with one children’s book (although she went on to write many more), to make this seven mile island famous.  The visitors’ center gave me a map with all the celebrated places marked that related to Misty—where she swam ashore with the other wild ponies from Assateague Island, the location of the ranch where she lived, the statue of her near the library, and where to find her hoofprints in the sidewalk in front of the theater on Main Street.  The inside walls of the theater were even decorated with images of ponies, and a visit to the island’s thrift shop revealed second hand saddles for sale.

Young Chincoteague pony at Chincoteague Pony Center where descendants of Misty are for sale

At Chincoteague Pony Center where descendants of Misty are for sale

Of course, I checked out the famous places, halting only at visiting the museum, where Misty and her descendant, Stormy, have been taxidermized for posterity.  I didn’t want to see the display; for me the characters from the book were new and young, and the town had brought them tolife. (My horse-loving sister had been to the island years before, and was able to see the real Misty while she was still living.) Before I left, I did visit the town’s independent bookstore, Sundial Books.  I had replaced the paperback copy of Misty of Chincoteague on the vacation house shelf, so I had to pick up a copy to take home.

Sundial Books on Main Street in Chincoteague, VA

Sundial Books, a wonderful independent bookshop on Main Street in Chincoteague, VA

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Reading My Way Through Africa in Children’s Books

afrique33The idea of reading my way through Africa began with seeing a performance of Danai Gurira’s play The Convert, set in Rhodesia in 1895 (before it became Zimbabwe).  This powerful drama got me thinking how little I know about African countries.  I realized that for many countries in Europe I could rattle off lots of information—what language is spoken, a famous writer or two, what the national costume looks like, names of cities, even a little history.  But despite making a few friends from Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa, my knowledge is really limited.

I came home from Gurira’s play, checked out my bookshelf, and found (unread) Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, set in the same country as The Convert nearly 100 years later.  What surprised me most were themes that were very similar in the two books, despite the difference in time: the tension between the old ways and the new, and the struggle to get an education for a girl on the brink of womanhood.

Next I learned of a prize-winning short story by another Zimbabwean author, NoViolet Bulawayo, which led me to her book (also about a child but written for adults), We Need New Names.  I had begun a journey.  Inevitably, I read a little nonfiction and studied some maps, along the way.  I also realized it wouldn’t hurt if I even knew just the names and general locations of more African countries.  There were some games on the internet to help me with that.

I moved on from Zimbabwe to other countries, and also from books written for adults to children’s books, my real love. The theme of City Boy by Jan Michael, set in Malawi, was a kind of reversal of the Zimbabwean stories—a child from an educated, city-dwelling family must move back to a rural setting because his parents have died of AIDS.  In Stones for My Father, by Trilby Kent, the main character is a white child in South Africa during the Boer War at the end of the 19th century.  Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water tells of two children of Sudan, in 1985 and 2008, respectively.

Most recently, I’ve just finished A Girl called Problem, set in Tanzania in 1975 (soon after the end of colonial rule).  Author Katie Quirk’s website included a link to a helpful resource: a list of Young Adult Fiction from Africa, on the Bookshy blog. Another resource I’ve found is Access Africa which reviews and gives annual awards for children’s and young adult books on Africa published or republished in the US.

My plan is to read my way through the countries of Africa in middle grade fiction, contemporary or historical.  Whenever possible, I’ll read books by black writers who are from the country they write about.  (That hasn’t been the case, yet, for any of the children’s books I’ve read.) I don’t have any deadlines for this project.  But someday I hope to be able to take a blank map of Africa and fill in the name of a children’s book that takes place in every country.

Zimbabwe, Malawi, South Africa, Sudan (which is now two countries), Tanzania.  Only about 50 more countries to go!  I’d love to hear book suggestions.

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