Showing posts with label Interviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Interviews. Show all posts

Monday, October 20, 2014

Publishing Perspectives: Interview with Carmen Milagros Torres, Puerto Rican Children's Literature Scholar

Publishing Perspectives is an interview series here on the blog that's all about seeking insights from people on both sides of the publishing fence ―the folks who work in publishing and the writers working toward publication. One aspect of publishing that hasn't been covered in the series before is academic publishing, but today we're breaking the mold. Below, Carmen Milagros-Torres shares her view of Puerto Rican children's and youth literature from inside the halls of academia.

Carmen is a children's writer and Ph.D candidate at the University of Puerto Rico whose main research focus is Afro-Puerto Rican children's literature. She's also a former contributor to Anansesem and she and I took Maya Gonzalez's online children's writing and illustration course together earlier this year. I'm very excited both by the scholarly work Carmen is doing as well as her potential as a children's writer. Expect great things to come from her!

I love to learn, and I especially love to learn about other cultures, so it was a delight to get the whistle-stop tour of Puerto Rican children's literature from Carmen. We traded emails recently and here's what she had to say.

Carmen Milagros Torres
 S.E.: First of all, I know you're in the middle of grad school studies and teach as well so thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy life to do this interview. Your pursuing a Ph.D in Caribbean Linguistics at the University of Puerto Rico with a special interest in Afro-Puerto Rican children's literature. Can you share a bit about your doctoral work? 

C. M T.: I want to first thank you Summer for the opportunity to share my love for children’s literature with your readers, especially the work from Caribbean writers. As you mentioned, I am in the dissertation stage of my doctoral studies under the mentorship of Dr. Alicia Pousada. I began my studies in Caribbean Linguistics at the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras campus in the Fall of 2009. At that time I wanted to integrate Caribbean children’s literature within my Linguistics studies but had no idea how I would do so. In my first course, offered by Dr. Mervyn Alleyene, I started exploring race within children’s literature with the works of Fernando Picó's The Red Comb and Rebecca Tortello's Nancy and Grandy Nanny. This paper became the first step towards what became my field of research.

S.E.: Your essay titled 'Puerto Rican Children's Literature and the Need for Afro-Puerto Rican Stories' was published in Bookbird: A Journal of International Children's Literature this July (volume 52, number 3). As you note yourself in the essay, "there is an absence of documentation of the history and development of Puerto Rican children's literature", so when I saw the essay in Bookbird I had to reach out to you. What do you think explains the lack of research and can you see any ways to address it?

C. M T.: Puerto Rico has had a very complex colonial experience. This is one of the factors explaining the lack of formal documentation of the development of Puerto Rican literature. Since 1898, The United States has played an integral role in the educational policies established in our island. This relationship with American culture has overshadowed the contributions of Puerto Rican writers who are many times better known in the diaspora than in their homeland.

An example of this collective amnesia is Pura Belpre’s contribution to Puerto Rican culture in the diaspora. Very few people know about Pura Belpre’s lifelong dedication to keeping the Puerto Rican literary tradition alive.  I was one of these people. I had taught children’s literature for over ten years at the University of Puerto Rico Humacao (UPRH) and had no idea of the importance of Pura Belpre’s work. It was only three years ago that I discovered her valuable literary contribution and nowadays I emphasize her work in my courses and mention that there is even an award named after the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library.

Teacher candidates in Puerto Rico receive their formal education from an American/ British perspective.  Our students read great American works for children such as Charlotte’s Web, The Giver, and The Chocolate War just to mention some titles. But these teacher candidates do not read works that portray the Puerto Rican experience such as Carmen Bernier Grand’s In the Shade of the Nispero Tree. They graduate lacking an important component of their professional development.

This reality continues in our educational system. Our public school system mirrors American educational policies in most cases especially when it comes to the teaching of English. The policy makers often just incorporate a methodology or approach that has been successful in the United States without taking into account the cultural reality of our ESL learners. This means that the resources used are American-focused and the Puerto Rican literary tradition continues to be ignored by educators and students alike.

An example is the curriculum maps that were used up to the end of the 2014 academic year. If we look at the suggested titles from 4th- 6th grade, there is only one Puerto Rican book, Esmeralda Santiago's memoir, When I was Puerto Rican. This reality should be of great concern for educators in the island.

This situation is being addressed through a grassroots movement led by dedicated educators who wish to create a positive change in our educational system. Dr. Anibal Muñoz, English professor of the University of Puerto Rico Humacao is one of the forerunners in incorporating Puerto Rican literature in the English classroom. As an English teacher in the public school system he realized that students did not relate to the works assigned in the English courses. This inspired him to create his own literary work to meet the needs of young adult ESL learners. He has since published two English novels, The Cleansing of Unwanted Puerto Ricans and The Sweet Puerto Rican Money.  He also published a collection of short stories titled Borincuan Times and just recently he published iPReople. His books have been used in public and private schools as well as at the university level with positive responses from educators and ESL learners. As president of PREWA (Puerto Rican English Writers Association), his goal is to ensure that culturally relevant literature is incorporated in the English classroom.

PREWA works to make sure that works by local writers are included in the resources that the Department of Education (DEPR) provides students. They also organize forums; the first one was held in November 2012 at UPRH. The keynote speaker was Prof. Manny Hernandez, another educator who has contributed immensely to the incorporation of culturally relevant literature in the ESL setting. Prof. Hernandez is also an author who has published The Birth of a Rican as well as edited a compilation of culturally relevant works to be used with young adult ESL learners.

S.E.: From what I understand, Puerto Rican children's literature has traditionally had a strong folkloric or historical emphasis, echoing the focus of Pura Belpré, the renowned Puerto Rican New York City librarian and chidlren's author. This is something that continues today. However in your essay you state that "the folkloric representation of Puerto Rican culture lacks a balanced representation of the full extent of Puerto Rican cultural diversity." Can you tell us more about that?

C. M T.: When most Puerto Ricans are asked to define their cultural heritage, it will be presented from an indigenous and/or European perspective. In children’s literature the coquí is a very popular figure that in our subconscious is linked with our indigenous heritage since these amphibians are native to our island.

Juan Bobo is another very important character who is represented as a jíbaro. Jíbaros are represented in contemporary times with the stereotypical image of a white Puerto Rican as different studies have shown. An analysis of this portrayal is presented in the article “The missing half: Preliminary notes for a comparison of Juan Bobo and Bobo Johnny stories of Puerto Rico, St. Kitts and Anguilla” written by Dr. María Soledad Rodríguez and published in the 2003-04 issue of Sargasso.

Pura Belpre’s beautiful book of legends titled Once in Puerto Rico documents many Puerto Rican legends.Carabalí by Cayetano Coll y Toste is the best known legend that portrays our African heritage. The book is a classic but not many Puerto Rican younger generations have read it. But even in this work, there is an absence of those Afro-Puerto Rican legends that must have existed once in our island. Puerto Rican society has silenced the voice of Afro-Puerto Ricans and this is reflected in the works produced.

Within mainstream Puerto Rican children’s literature there is a lack of African or Afro-Puerto Rican characters. The books that have portrayed Afro-Puerto Ricans are mostly all out of print.  Examples of these out of print titles are Ana Lydia Vega’s Celia and el Mangle Zapatero, Fernado’s Picó’s The Red Comb, Carmen Bernier Grand's In the Shade of the Nispero Tree and María Rijos Guzmán’s bilingual book Y llegaron los esclavos/ So the Slaves Came.

This lack of Afro-Puerto Rican children and young adult titles is evidenced by an Amazon search through the ezine Anansesem's online bookstore. This was one of my most important resources for identifying Afro-Puerto Rican children and young adult titles. Whenever I discovered a new Puerto Rican title in the Anansesem bookstore, I was able to purchase it as a used book.

When I go to the few bookstores that still exist in Rio Piedras near the university where I study, most booksellers couldn’t provide any children or YA books with Afro-Puerto Rican characters. The bookstore Libreria Magica has been another important resource in my research. The owners of this bookstore have a used books section and I have been able to obtain other Afro-Puerto Rican books that I had no idea existed such as Lcdo. Marcos A. Rivera Ortiz’s Aventuras de la juntilla: Cuentos de Maturí.

This literary scavenger hunt demonstrates that the African component of our identity has been ignored. This has been documented in formal studies. Recently Isar Godreau of the University of Puerto Rico Cayey with a group of researchers published the book Arrancando mitos de raiz: Guía para una enseñanza antirracista de la herencia africana en Puerto Rico (Pulling up Myths from the Root: Designing and Implementing an Anti-racist Curriculum about the African Heritage in Puerto Rico) presenting how the Afro-Puerto Rican legacy has been erased or distorted in our society. The work is based on a five-year study conducted in elementary schools in Cayey and Arroyo. The work showed that many students did not feel comfortable with their African heritage

Pura Belpré (1899-1982) was the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City. She was also a children's author, collector of folktales, and puppeteer

Children's books by Pura Belpré. She is known for her seminal adaptations of Puerto Rican folktales.

S.E.: In your essay you write that "Puerto Rican children's literature is rich with the legacy of the legends of the Tainos." The tainos were the indigenous people who inhabited the island, and there are still Taino heritage groups living in Puerto Rico today. What do you see is the value of publishing children's stories from the Taino oral tradition?

C. M T.: The Taino oral traditional must be kept alive as many great Puerto Rican writers are doing with their publications. They were the native inhabitants of our island. Their heritage flows in our blood along with that of the Europeans who settled in the island and the Africans who came here voluntarily (the mejías- free blacks) as well as those who were uprooted from their continent through the slave trade.

One recent work for young readers that portrays our indigenous heritage is Ed Rodríguez’s Kiki Kokí which has appeared in its English and Spanish versions. In this story we see how the coquí is interwoven with our Taíno heritage.

Children’s writers should include in their future works the active role Taino women had within their communities. In the winter of 2007, I attended a New York University (NYU) winter workshop that was offered that year in Sagrado Corazon University in Puerto Rico. Participants were taken to the Ceremonial Park Tibes of Ponce where a guide gave us a tour and mentioned that Taino women had been caciques in their community. This information was so surprisingly new to us. I discovered in that moment how little we know of our culture. Even though there have been works published about the role of women in Taino society, these books are not known to the great majority of readers.

Picturebooks featuring Puerto Rican taino legends

Artist's rendition of 16th century Tainos.

S.E.: Juan Bobo, an iconic Puerto Rican folkloric character has also been the inspiration for many of the stories published for Puerto Rican youngsters. I think I read somewhere that something like hundreds of children's books about Juan Bobo have been written in Spanish and English. Can you tell us a little about this character? Where does the Juan Bobo character come from and why is he so popular?

Vintage photo of Puerto Rican jíbaros
C. M T.: Juan Bobo is indeed an iconic Puerto Rican children’s character. As you mentioned, the number of titles published featuring Juan Bobo is immense. As a child, my mother and grandparents in San Lorenzo would tell me of the adventures of this unforgettable boy who seemed to understand things differently from the way most people did. He has appeared in many children’s plays presented in Puerto Rico. He has also appeared in children’s TV shows such as the well-known program, En Casa de María Chuzema, sponsored by the public television Channel 6 in Puerto Rico. In this show, he was portrayed as a boy learning different educational skills such as the alphabet.

I have not conducted any formal research on the Juan Bobo character even though he does appear in an unpublished novel I wrote years ago. In my story he is portrayed differently from the customary representation. From my first-hand experience, the appeal of this character can be compared with the appeal that Anancy spider has in the English-speaking Caribbean. Juan Bobo, like Anancy, usually gets away with his antics. While the adults get upset by his behavior, he demonstrates a valid point, i.e., if instructions are not clear, they are liable to different interpretations. By the way, thanks to the work of Casa Paoli of Ponce, I discovered that Puerto Rico also has Anancy tales. That is another topic for future discussion.

Looking at Juan Bobo from the perspective of the jíbaro construct, I see this character as a rebellious figure resisting the feudal-like nature of Puerto Rican society after the abolition of slavery which has been portrayed by Puerto Rican writers such as Abelardo Díaz Alfaro. Jíbaros (mountain-dwelling peasants) were often labeled as lazy because they worked just for their needs and dedicated the rest of their time to “laziness” as some articles have discussed. But they were rebelling against the new post-abolition regime which forced them to work for the rich without obtaining any real economic gain aside from meager wages on which they barely survived. So I believe Juan Bobo stories show that the jíbaros, who were portrayed as naïve and vulnerable to being tricked by the educated, rich hacendados (estate owners), were not as stupid as believed. They valued their freedom and their refusal to work more than was necessary was a way of making a statement.

Your question has sparked my interest in conducting research in this area. So in a future conversation, I would love to continue this discussion of the Juan Bobo character in Puerto Rico (for he has appeared in other countries).

Juan Bobo, typically depicted barefoot, wearing a pava (traditional straw hat worn by Puerto Rican farmers), and with tattered pants. From Juan Bobo Goes to Work illustrated by Joe Cepeda.
Juan Bobo as depicted by Jess Yeoman in Juan Bobo and the Bag of Gold.
Juan Bobo picturebooks. Note the similarities and differences.

S.E.: The coquí, a species of frog native to Puerto Rico, also shows up in Puerto Rican children's literature a lot. I've seen so many picturebook renditions of the coquí, it's quite fascinating. In your essay you cite Doris Troutman Plenn's 1950s book, The Green Song, as an early classic in the coquí tradition. How does one explain the appeal and longevity of the coquí in Puerto Rican children's literature? What do you think children find appealing about coquí characters?

C. M T.: Animal characters appeal to the imagination of children. Many of the best known and loved children’s characters are animals or toy figures. I grew up enjoying Winnie the Pooh, the squirrel Miss Suzie, the mouse Miss Bianca, as well as Peter Rabbit.  Many children’s books portray animals or toy animals as their main characters such as the Curious George books, The Velveteen Rabbit, and the well-remembered and loved spider Charlotte and her friend Wilbur of Charlotte’s Web

Contemporary books and children’s TV programs continue portraying animal characters such as the picturebook Olivia by Ian Falconer, winner of the  2001 Candelcott Honor award and the animated TV shows Peppa Pig, My Little Pony, Doki  and Julius Jr. This year's  Newbery Award was given to the book Flora and Ulysses written by Kate Di Camilo featuring a squirrel who obtains supernatural powers including the ability to write poetry.

A coquí
Since the coquí is a native of the island of Puerto Rico, it is the expected literary manifestation for Puerto Rican children’s literature; it has become the favorite animal to include in children’s stories written in our island. So when we look at the children’s books published in Puerto Rico and the diaspora, yes, the coquí is a very popular character.

Popular bookxs featuring the coquí include the classic novel The Green Song by Doris Troutman, There’s a Coquí in my Shoe by Marisa De Jesús, and The Song of the Coquí by nuyorican writer Nicholasa Mohr. Even Puerto Rican actor, producer and comedian Sunshine Logroño published El coquí que quiso ser sapop/The Coquí that wanted to be a Bullfrog in 2007.

In addition of the appeal animal characters have for young readers, there is also the reality that the coquí has become a symbol of Puerto Rican identity. A person just has to visit any artisan fair to see the coquí portrayed in many of the works these artists create. There is even a saying “Soy de aquí como el coquí” (I am from here like the coquí). The musical group Menudo, in their golden era in the 80’s, sang a song whose lyrics said “Oh, coquí, no hay nadie que ame tanto a nuestro pais” (Oh, coquí, nobody loves our country more than you).  So the coquí has become synonymous with Puerto Rican identity for most of the inhabitants of our island. This is another reason why the coquí prevails in Puerto Rican children’s literature over other animals inhabiting the island like parrots or lizards.

A few picturebooks featuring the famous Puerto Rican coquí.

S.E.: You're writing a collection of children's stories titled "Coquíes, Drums and Dreams". I'm extremely excited about that by the way! You submitted three of the stories, "The Coquí Song", "Adannaya's Sugar" and "Dancing Bomba" to us over at Anansesem and we were happy to publish them. What can you tell us about the collection?

C. M T.: Wow! I must first begin by thanking you and your editorial group for providing me with my first publishing experience. Having my work published in Anansesem motivated me to continue writing and even to dare to dream of someday publishing a collection of children’s stories.

The stories that are part of the collection Coquíes, Drums and Dreams started as a writing exercise for a course I was taking in the Institute of Children’s Literature in 2009. I wanted to write children’s stories but had no idea what to write about. During that same time, I was taking a graduate course with Dr. Alma Simounet and had finished reading the book Esclavos Rebeldes by Guillermo Baralt. In the book I learned that white sugar was prized over brown sugar due to the chemical process that it underwent making it more expensive. This fact prompted my idea for my writing assignment; the retelling of Rumpelstiltskin since I had seen how Patricia Storace had written the beautiful story Sugarcane: A Caribbean Rapunzel. That is the story behind “Adannaya’s Sugar”.

The following semester, I was taking the course “Language and Power” offered by Dr. Nicholas Faraclas.  We had an oral presentation and paper as our final work. I wanted to continue working with Caribbean children’s literature. At that time I read a very interesting essay titled “The Cinderella Complex” by Jean Dubino. Also during this same period, Disney had released their movie The Princess and the Frog which featured the first Afro-American princess. I did research to find out exactly how Disney broke away from its stereotypical portrayal of princesses. My discovery was that there were no major changes with Tiana compared to Cinderella, Snow White or Belle. As I was preparing my presentation, I got inspired to write a story in response to Disney’s stereotypical portrayal of female characters and “The ungrateful coquí” came to life.  I presented the story to my classmates with a very positive response.

The following semester, Prof. Vivian Mayol who worked at that time at UPR Río Piedras campus was coordinating a children’s writing competition. “The Coquí Song” had been published in Anansesem and a classmate commented about my story to one of the English professors who read and liked it. I decided to finally submit “The Ungrateful Coquí”. The jury, composed of Dr. Alicia Pousada and Dr. Robert Dupey, awarded first prize to this story which was such a surprise and honor for me.

I decided that I wanted to continue writing Caribbean adaptations of fairy tales portraying strong Afro-Puerto Rican female characters. The short story collection will have eight short stories which include the two which were published in Anansesem as well as “Amapola in her Dream”, “Anything, but Black”, “Fat Girl”,  “Roberto and Julia Eva”, “Shadows and Masks” and “Upon a Star”. These stories are part of my dissertation proposal.

The dissertation is titled “Un-Silencing the Afro-Puerto Rican Voice”. The work proposes the use of culturally relevant literature to help ESL learners develop their language skills in English. The culturally relevant work proposed is from an Afro-Puerto Rican perspective due to the discovery of the lack of Afro-Puerto Rican portrayal in children’s literature. The short story collection Coquíes, Drums and Dreams is proposed as an alternative to begin addressing this need for Afro-Puerto Rican literature.

The goal is to publish the short story collection after I successfully defend my dissertation in the near future. As soon as this becomes a reality I will share the good news with you.

S.E.: Your husband, the Puerto Rican artist Erick Ortiz Gelpí, has often illustrated your stories. Do you plan to partner with him for this collection or on future projects?

C. M T.: Erick Ortiz Gelpí has collaborated illustrating many of my literary projects such as the works that have appeared in Anansesem. For my short story collection he suggested that I should be actively involved with the illustration process. So for this short story collection I will be the illustrator except for the cover page which will feature Erick’s artwork. It has been challenging, but as he stated, fulfilling, for it becomes a project that has been produced through this literary and artistic experience.

For future projects, he will sometimes be the illustrator as in the past. At other times he will act as a facilitator so I can express through art the literary message I wish to portray in my work. It will be a very interesting literary-artistic alliance.

S.E.: In the essay you discuss some contemporary realistic children's books featuring Puerto Rican characters, some set in America like Grandma's Records by Eric Velasquez, and some set in Puerto Rico like In the Shade of the Nispero Tree by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand. In terms of themes and subjects, what are some contemporary trends in realistic Puerto Rican children's fiction?

C. M T.: Puerto Rican children’s fiction has continued to be published but it doesn't have the support it needs so it can be accessible for a great numbers of readers. The disappearance of bookstores and the few publishing houses in the island has made the publication of children’s books a difficult task to accomplish. Since I have focused in the last six years on compiling of data about Afro-Puerto Rican literature, I have not had the opportunity to do formal research on new trends in realistic Puerto Rican fiction which is greatly needed.

Efforts have been made to provide our young readers with high quality literary works. For eight consecutive years, the literary contest La Barca del Vapor has awarded the winning story publication through their publishing house. And the works are excellent. The recipient of the first award was the children’s writer Tina Casanova with her story Pepe Gorras, o la extraña historia de un perro sin cabezas/Pepe Gorras or the Stange Story of a Headless Dog which I greatly enjoyed. I also read the 2010 award-winning Dale la vuelta written by C.J. García  and La escuelita do-re-misteriosa by Isabel Arraiza-Arana, also winner of this important award.

The works appeal to young readers because they portray children in a realistic way and explore the concerns young people have such as the main character in the novel Dale la vuelta who is skeptical about adults and their knowledge since she can access anything via online search engines like Google. These works need to be more accessible for children. The titles I have had the opportunity to read are action-filled and humor is an important component within the development of the plots.

Just two weeks ago there was a used book festival held in a mall in the south of Puerto Rico. Local bookstores had stands at this event. When I approached these stands searching for books from the La Barca del Vapor series, they had no titles available at the festival. That for me was very lamentable since an opportunity was lost for children to enjoy these works.

Realistic chidlren's fiction featuring Puerto Rican protagonists

S.E.: We were both students in Maya Gonzalez's amazing online course, "The Heart of It: Creating Children's Books That Matter" earlier this year. It was so fun being in the classroom with you. What was that experience like for you and how do you plan to apply what you learned moving forward?

C. M T.: The course “The Heart of It: Creating Children’s Books that Matter” is a course all children’s writers/illustrators should take. I took this course in the midst of completing my dissertation so there are many ideas roaming in my head looking for another opportunity to flourish under the mentorship of Maya’s creative suggestions.

I grew artistically with this course. I dared to experiment with media I would never have used prior to the course. Another accomplishment that came out of this experience is that I wrote a contemporary fiction story which I wish to publish next year titled “Nieta de…” (Granddaughter of…). This story portrays a special granddaughter-grandmother relationship. The grandmother is a very creative character who does not fear what others think of her and she is an Afro-Puerto Rican woman. Her character breaks away from stereotypical portrayals of Afro-Puerto Ricans and elderly persons in contemporary times.

The course also provided the opportunity to share with many talented writers and illustrators, like you  Summer, who have inspired me to continue exploring my creative possibilities. It was a blessing to discover that there are many of us pursuing this literary dream of providing children with diverse experiences and to experience that community. All of the participants showed me the importance of giving a voice to the diversity that makes our world the magical place it is and of giving our children the voices that need to be heard in the books they read. So I want to formally thank Maya for her dedication to such an important cause.

Before I end this interview I want to thank you once again Summer for the support you have given to Caribbean children’s literature. Your ezine has become a resource for those who, like me, want to discover the rich children's literature tradition and works  for children produced in the Caribbean. Many of the accomplishments I have achieved in my graduate studies are due to the great work you have done in favor of the Caribbean voices of children and young adults. Now that I am on the threshold of completing this academic stage, I look back and can see the great contribution that you have made to this field. It has been an honor meeting you and your work. My goal is  to continue collaborating with your cause in the future years to come.

Carmen Milagros Torres is a professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Humacao. She is currently completing a PhD in Caribbean Linguistics and writing her dissertation titled “Un-Silencing the Afro-Puerto Rican Voice". Her interests include photography, crocheting and reading children's literature, especially Caribbean children's books which highlight the Afro-Caribbean experience. She sits on the Board of Directors of the Puerto Rican English Writers Association.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Interview with Uma Krishnaswami

Publishing Perspectives is an interview series here on the blog that's all about seeking insights from people on both sides of the publishing fence ―the folks who work in publishing and the writers working toward publication. Today, I'm honored to add Uma Krishnaswami's voice to the series.

Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Uma at a Commonwealth Education Trust curriculum planning workshop for a children's writing course. In those few days, Uma taught me a lot about what it takes to write for children. I've grown to respect her not just as an author of beautiful picturebooks and compelling novels for young readers, but also for her contributions and visibility in conversations about diversity and inclusiveness in children's publishing. I asked Uma to share some of her wisdom culled over two decades of writing books for young readers and helping her students do the same ―yes she's been at it that long! Here's what she had to say.

As a somewhat random start, I saw on your blog that you use Scrivener software for writers. I’ve been threatening to try it myself for the longest while. Would you recommend Scrivener for people writing either picturebooks or children’s novels and why? 

I’ve never used it for a picture book—it’s so much easier for me to visualize an entire picture book than an entire novel. In fact I need to hold a whole picture book in my mind for some time before I write a word. I don’t seem to need too many tools to accomplish that.

For novels, I find Scrivener invaluable. I don’t use all its features—e.g., I never use the little feature that helps you name characters. I turn the spellcheck off. I rarely use the screenshot. I like being able to color-code chapters and see patterns of plot and character involvement. I like being able to move passages, scenes, and even entire chapters around as I need to. I like being able to keep just the right music file handy to pull up if I need to evoke a certain mood as I write. For both novels and nonfiction projects, I can keep all my reading, research, and lists of print and online sources together in a single compiler, so everything’s accessible to me while I’m writing.

You’ve been on the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts since 2006. What is it like balancing teaching and writing? Any advice for people trying to strike this particular balance? 

I think it’s a different kind of balancing act for everyone, just the way we all come at writing in hundreds of different ways. For me, teaching and writing are very much alike. They are both more about process than product, the work is never finished, and you meet an amazing number of generous, wonderful, talented people along the way. Advice? I’d say stay open to possibility on both fronts and think about what both teaching and writing mean to you, not just as a balance to strike but as part of your life.

You’re represented by Ginger Knowlton of Curtis Brown, Ltd. What are some of the most important things you’ve learned about the working relationship between a writer and a literary agent?

I don’t know if I really feel competent to answer this question, but I will say that in my experience (and I’ve been both agented and unagented over the years) “relationship” is the key word. I am very grateful for my agent’s support. I don’t often have burning questions I need answered but can’t imagine not being able to call on Ginger, and Curtis Brown, when I do. And I am more than grateful for the help I get with navigating the business end of my work.

You recently wrote a blog post about common errors in American children’s books with South Asian content. It’s true that children’s books outside the mainstream, white norm published here in the States have often been subject to inaccurate and sometimes insensitive interpretations on the part of both publishers and reviewers. As someone writing children’s books set in India and rooted in the South Asian diasporic experience, have you had to work to ensure that reviewers, publishers and ultimately young readers in the US “get” your books? 

Factual inaccuracies, outmoded depictions, and great big gaps in material related to India and the region—these were in part the things that drove me to write in the first place. That said, I think my job as a writer is to write the story I need to tell. When I write and revise, I find the more I focus on the story, let the characters grow as they need to, let the big picture of the story reveal itself, the more likely it is that an editor will relate to it. At another level, I simply can’t control who will “get” my books and who will not. I’m an idiosyncratic reader—I read what pleases me and I have opinions about the books I read. I need to write my books and then when they’re published I need to let go of them, to hope that readers will have opinions about them. Beyond that, I have to move on to the next book and the next.

I recently wrote a post here on the blog about the question of audience in Caribbean children’s writing. Audience has such a big effect on the way a writer writes and also on the types of stories that get told. As a South Asian writer living and writing in America and writing books that in your own words, “cross from one place into the other and back again”, how do you see the issue of audience? 

It’s complicated. I tend to push audience to the back of my mind when I’m writing drafts, and then slowly, over the course of many revisions, I bring them back into my consciousness. By the time we’re done with the last rounds of edits, I’m fully aware that I need to make my thoughts accessible on the page to someone who’s 6 or 8 or 11, depending on the book. That does not always make me simplify, mind you—sometimes the thought of the audience has quite the opposite effect because I know how very perceptive young readers can be.

At some level I don’t think it matters where that reader lives. When I was writing Book Uncle and Me, I didn’t think I was writing it for readers in India, or in Australia where it has since been picked up. My picture book, Out of the Way! Out of the Way! was originally published in India, and I didn’t think I was writing it for kids in the US, but now they’re reading it anyway, thanks to the wonderful people at Groundwood Books who published a North American edition.

Illustration by Uma Krishnaswamy from Out of the Way! Out of the Way!

You regularly travel to India, where you were born, for book festivals like Bookaroo and to speak with young readers at schools and so forth. Do you find that your books are well received in India and as an expat writer, what have you found to be key for connecting with your readers in India?

I have felt very welcomed in the land of my birth. It’s been a joy for me to encounter the energy and enthusiasm of young audiences I’ve spoken to in India. I don’t know that I’ve had to make any special attempts or look for ways to make that connection—it’s all felt very natural.

In your children’s books, you’ve managed to tell nuanced, non-stereotypical stories about Indian and Hindu traditions ―like yoga, Bollywood and Hanuman, the Hindu monkey deity― that have been largely festishized in the West. Your books have also addressed topics as far-ranging as immigration (The Grand Plan to Fix Everything), divorce (Naming Maya), interfaith dialogue (Many Windows), death of a loved one (Remembering Grandpa), the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan (Chachaji's Cup), and adoption and biracial families (Bringing Asha Home). Both from the perspective of navigating the publishing world and honing our voices as storytellers, I’m interested in the question of how we convey culture and traditions in our stories without stereotyping or pigeonholing ourselves. Any insights? 

I think we reach for honesty at many levels—in thinking about why I want to tell a particular story, in getting as close as I can to a credible, plausible character, at staying true to the kind of story I am trying to reach. I try to get at the bigger questions through small, specific details of setting and context. Naming Maya needed a different kind of truth-telling (facing the realities of a contemporary child’s life) from Chachaji’s Cup (the truth about a period of history my mother lived through).

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything—well, it has an immigrant family at its center, but I see it and the sequel, The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic, as being about friendship and family in a world of blended cultural identities. Writing those books called for me to turn some conventional wisdoms on their heads—hence the kid of color rather than the white kid is the one who defines what is “cool” in the books. They are not about becoming American—Dini’s blended version of Americanness is never in question and that in some ways is the point.

Your latest chapter book, Book Uncle and Me won the 2011 Scholastic Asian Book Award and the 2013 Crossword Book Award in the Children's Category. You wrote on your blog that the book really started with memories of a particular setting, specifically, the street where your parents lived for over thirty years. As you say, “When you start to pay attention to the quirkiness of a place, it will begin to show itself to you as if it's auditioning for a part in your story.” I love that! I’ve been blogging about the importance of stories of place and “place-based writing” in Caribbean children’s literature. What, have you found, is the power of writing with a strong setting? 

It’s the only way I know how to write. Eudora Welty said, "Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else...” And I think children are loaded with the ability to soak up place even when they may have no idea that’s what they’re doing. All my childhood memories are deeply sensory, and bound up with very specific places—the way the bark felt in trees I climbed, or the smell of jasmines, the clanging of train wheels and so on. For me, reaching for place is always a part of reaching for story.

I've been hearing a lot about renewed interest in the poetry of children’s stories. In fact, the Children's Book Academy is currently offering an online course titled "From Storyteller to Exquisite Writer: The Pleasures and Craft of Poetic Techniques " and they just hosted a free webinar on the same topic. Some of your picturebooks, like Monsoon and The Girl of the Wish Garden: A Thumbelina Story have been praised for their poetic quality and even in some of your novels, there is this use of poetic imagery. How did this awareness of poetic language develop for you as a writer? Was lyricism something you naturally leaned towards or something you’ve had to consciously develop? 

I was a reader before I was a writer. Back in the last century, I was one of those lucky kids who can’t remember learning how to read. I have memories of sitting by myself and reading…reading…reading silently and then suddenly finding myself reading out loud, as if the words were just bursting off the page and I had to make them my own. We memorized a lot of poetry in those days, and perhaps that has something to do with it as well. My grandfather used to recite Longfellow and Tennyson while shaving. There’s a sensory memory—fluffy white shaving cream and “This is the forest primeval…”

Illustration by Jamel Akib from Monsoon

What’s next on your itinerary and are you currently working on a book?

Summer residency’s coming up at VCFA, so I’m getting ready for the next teaching semester to begin. And I’m working on a book project that I cannot talk about because it might evaporate if I did!  All I can say is that I’m in that happy place of waking up each morning eager to get to work on it.

Uma Krishnaswami is an award-winning children's author described by the Journal of Children's Literature as "a major voice in the expanding of international and multicultural young adult fiction and children's literature." She is also a writing teacher in the low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her short stories and poems have been published in CricketHighlights and Cicada, and her books, which include picture books, collections of stories of India, non-fiction books and novels, are published in English, Spanish, Hindi, Tamil and six other languages. She is published by Atheneum, Groundwood Books, Lee & Low Books, Scholastic India and Scholastic Australia, and represented by Ginger Knowlton of Curtis Brown, Ltd. Born in New Delhi, India, she now lives in Aztec New Mexico and regularly travels to India. She blogs at Writing With a Broken Tusk.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Interview with Stephanie Shaw, author of Bedtime in the Meadow

Well, the fall is officially here! That means bright outdoor vistas, pumpkin spice lattes, and the special joy of crunchy leaves underfoot. It also means new children's books hot off the press, like Bedtime in the Meadow by debut author Stephanie Shaw. This summer, I had the good fortune of meeting Stephanie Shaw at a Highlights Foundation's children's writing workshop. We've kept in touch and I'm very happy that we did; as it turns out, Stephanie is not only a genuinely lovely person, she also gives great advice.

This interview with Stephanie is part of my ongoing Publishing Perspectives series in which I interview people on both sides of the publishing fence―the folks who work in publishing and the writers working toward publication. A big thanks to Stephanie for kindly agreeing to this interview.

When we met over the summer, you were demurely calling Bedtime in the Meadow your "little book" and David (children's author David Martin) half-jokingly chided you about that particular way of describing it. Do you think he made a valid point?

I still think of it as a 'little book' but not in a demeaning way. It's a padded board book and has lovely illustrations by London artist Laura Watkins. I see it as something very special for a nursery and bedtime. Some books are just 'huge'― their sheer size, their spunky characters, their exploding volcanoes etc. BEDTIME IN THE MEADOW is quiet, lyrical and meant for the tiniest members of the audience.

Two of your children's short stories were recently published in High Five Magazine and Highlights Magazine. When I got your email I couldn't help but chuckle remembering our scurry to get our manuscripts in at Highlights offices that day! What does it take to get your work accepted by a magazine like Highlights?

Patience. Lots of patience. No, really I started submitting to Highlights a few years ago. It started with one of their contests. I didn't win, but they contacted me and asked me to re-write my entry as a non-fiction story. I did a lot of research and completed the assignment, but ultimately it was not acquired. But, I started reading Highlights and developed a better sense of what is appropriate for the magazine. When I wrote OVER IN THE MANSION (October 2013, issue) it was originally for a blogger's online Halloween poetry contest. The blogger said, "Why aren't you sending this out to be published?". So, I submitted it to Highlights. It was my very first sale. After that, I ended up communicating quite a bit with one of the editors at Highlights (Kathleen Hayes).

Since then I've sold three other stories, an action rhyme and four mini books to them. But, it really is about knowing what works for the magazine and what doesn't. Kathleen and I do a lot of back and forth. I think the most important part is to know what a publisher needs― and that goes for books as well.

You have two more books coming out soon, A Cookie for Santa (Sleeping Bear Press) and Owlet Falls Asleep (Tiger Tales Press). All of your books feature animal characters; even in A Cookie for Santa it's all about the puppies. Do you have any advice for creating animal characters?

And, I have a fourth book THE LEGEND OF BEAVER'S TAIL coming out in 2015 again with Sleeping Bear. I love animal characters. I know some publishers' guidelines will say, "No talking animals, please" but I can't seem to get away from them. And, I think we have a huge literary history of using animals to tell stories (Aesop's Fables, Rudyard Kipling's 'Just So' stories, The Three Little Pigs etc.)

My advice is to first have characters that are full of personality― presenting them as animals only adds another dimension to the story. And, sometimes animals characters can provide a tiny bit of distance so kids can look at behavior and not feel squirmy about it. For instance, I have a story about a crocodile and kangaroo arguing over a plate of brownies. The crocodile wants to wrestle to solve the problem. The kangaroo wants to box. I don't think it would be as funny with two characters who are children doing this type of behavior (even though that probably happens).

How long did it take you to write Bedtime in the Meadow and what was the process like?

Oh golly. BEDTIME IN THE MEADOW started as a very short poem. I wrote it for fun and then made a little photo album for a baby gift. That was probably five years ago. Then about two years ago, I read it in my critique group. One of our members (author Brenda Huante, CREATURE COUNT, 2012 FS&G), suggested I expand the poem into book length. I worked on it for about a month and the critique group was hugely helpful. The afternoon I read the final version to them we were in my living room in front of the fire eating banana bread. I saw their eyes start to close as I whisper-read it to them. I knew it was 'done'. I sent it out to five publishers including Tiger Tales on March 3, 2012 and publisher (now retired) Elisabeth Prial contacted me on March 7th with an offer! There were a few revisions after that― the text actually had to be cut down to fit the board book format― but then it was just sitting back and watching Laura Watkins bring it to life with the illustrations.

As a newbie children's author, what has been the biggest surprise, either good or not so good, so far?

The biggest surprise is how long everything takes. Months can go by with a manuscript sitting unread on an editor's desk. Then more months while the editor takes the story to an acquisition meeting. More time passes during the illustrator search and the revision process and the art work completion. Every step seems to take forever. And, each step can feel like changing seats in the waiting room. It's hard to sit back and understand that my project is one of many the publisher is working with. When we visited the offices at Highlights Magazine and I saw that huge stack of submissions on one of the editor's desks, I was humbled.

Another surprise is that it doesn't become easier. I mean in some ways, it seems harder to think of a story because I know so many of the pitfalls and I am afraid to take that first step! I think the words came easier when I didn't know any better! That is why those exercises of just free writing without thinking about it are good for people like me (and, of course, I resist doing them because I think, 'Oh, that will be so wrong. What's the story arc? Where's the Rule of Three? Am I using too many adverbs?'). Knowing rules can be so darn paralyzing! So, to everyone, I say, "Forget the rules. Just write!"

Most authors I've spoken to admit that the journey from the moment you decide you want to write children's books to the day your book enters the world as a finished product is a long one indeed. Please describe your journey.

I think like all writers, I have always loved books. I was raised in a family that valued reading. I was read to as a child. I had a library card from the age of five that was used every single Saturday at our small public library. So, I think the journey begins there. Authors who go before us 'invite' us to come along. Then when I took my teacher training courses at college, my favorite class was Children's Literature. I fantasized about owning a chidren's bookstore (I wanted to call it "The Little Prints" as a word play on the great Antoine de Saint-Exupery story, The Little Prince). But, there was this thing called 'life' and making ends meet, so I went on with my career in teaching.

I never lost my love of children's books though. The school library where I was principal was my absolute favorite place to be. I took an early retirement to care for my mom. When I was putting her to bed one night, she said to me, "I need a new clock." For some reason, I just had to sit down a write a story called GRANNY'S CLOCK. And, that is when my writing really started. It was something I could do in-between times of caring for her. She passed away two years later and I feel like she left me this wonderful way to spend the time I now have. And, in a way, it was 'full-circle'― here was a woman who introduced me to books at the beginning of my life and then, at the end of hers, inspired me to write.

Publishing a children's book is a team effort. Tell us a little about your team and what you learned from them.

There are so many people on a writing team. First, my friends and family are important because they do all the nurturing and listening and hand-holding and encouraging (and there is a ton of that). SCBWI and the Verla Kay Blue Boards have been critically important. I've made connections there about everything from what to wear to a conference to what to look for in a contract. My critique group really was instrumental― we had to disband when members moved and some others developed interests in other types of writing, but I'll be starting another one next month.

I have to say, the friendships I have developed with writers online have been the most valuable. I correspond and share manuscripts (not as a group, but individually) with at least eight different writers in eight different states. They are all willing to read and honestly comment on my work. Honesty is so important. Yes, we cheer each other on (celebrate and cry depending on what's going on) but at the end of the day, I count on them to tell me if a story is working or not.

You've become a children's author later on in life. Do you think that adds a certain advantage? Any words of advice for late bloomer children's writers?

Well, I wish I had started earlier. I wish I had taken more classes, read more books, immersed myself in the kidlit world...but, the advantage of writing now is that my livelihood doesn't depend on it. Writing (in general) just isn't profitable. So, I have the advantage of time during the day to devote to writing. Or not. Also, it is an expensive investment. The time is the biggest expense, but things like workshops, conferences, computers, books, postage― it all adds up. So, being able to afford to write is the biggest advantage of writing at this particular time in my life.

I would encourage other late bloomers to just get started and also to get involved with kids and current kidlit. Now and again I see pieces up on the boards by obviously older writers...they might write something about their grandchild or their cat, but it is more of a family anecdote and doesn't translate well into a story for a broader audience. So, really the best advice I can give is to read lots and lots of current kid literature.

Now that your first book is popping up in bookstores, what are you looking forward to the most?

I am super excited about A COOKIE FOR SANTA coming out next fall! It will be my first 32-page picture book. Sleeping Bear sent me a sneak peek at some preliminary sketches by artist Bruno Robert (Plum Pudding Illustration). The drawings are so lively and detailed. It is just a thrill to see a story really become a picture book with beautifully executed illustrations.

And, I am also excited about the unknown! It seems in the world of picture book creation there is no end to the joyful surprises. I know an idea for a story will come to me at the most unlikely time (there's a fair amount of faith involved in this writing stuff). And, I also know my learning will continue, my friendships will increase and the love I have always had for books will be with me forever.

Stephanie Shaw is the author of the recently released board book, Bedtime in the Meadow (Tiger Tales Press, 2013), and the upcoming releases, A Cookie for Santa (Sleeping Bear Press, 2014), Owlet Falls Asleep (Tiger Tales Press, 2014), and The Legend of Beaver's Tail (Sleeping Bear Press, 2015). Her children's stories and action rhymes have been published in Old Farmer's Almanac for Kids, Highlights Magazine and High Five Magazine. An Oregon native, she completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Education at Oregon State University and her Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology at Lewis and Clark College. Her career has included being a teacher of children with severe emotional disabilities, school counseling and school administration. Living in Oregon provides her with lots of weather-related excuses to stay inside reading or writing. She lives in McMinnville with her husband Brad and fox terrier Jiggs. She is a member of the SCBWI. You can visit her on the Web at

Monday, July 22, 2013

Interview with R. Gregory Christie

Publishing Perspectives is an interview series I run here on the blog that's all about seeking insights from people on both sides of the publishing fence ―the folks who work in publishing and the writers working toward publication.

I recently reached out to author-illustrator, R. Gregory Christie, who despite being neck-deep in projects, took some time out to provide some really thoughtful answers. I met Gregory a few years ago at the African American Children's Book Fair in Philly. Then, he signed my beautifully-illustrated copy of Open the Door to Liberty!: A Biography of Toussaint L'Ouverture, a book that I now feel like re-reading. I'm honored to welcome Gregory to the series!

R. Gregory Christie
Your style of illustrating is very distinctive. You abstract the proportions of your figures and favor loose brush strokes. It's quite painterly I would say. What are your influences and how did you develop your style?

I began painting from PBS shows when I was around 8 years old. It did two things for me, primarily to get over the fear of using color (a common fear among young aspiring artists along with breaking away from realism) and secondly exposed me to professional grade pigments. I asked for paints and star wars figures as a little boy.

I just knew Picasso for a long time but as I got to art school I held a job at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum. My idea and world of art expanded greatly during those years. When it comes to children's books, the first one with Lee and Low Books was influenced by Ernie Barnes, Pablo Picasso and Egyptian art.

Double-page spread from It Jes' Happened

You are a three-time recipient of the Coretta Scott King Honor Award in Illustration. I've heard it said that the types of books chosen for the Coretta Scott King awards are the "liver and brussel sprouts" of children's books, meaning books that are educational and inspirational but not fun for kids to read. Do you think this is a fair assessment?

No, its a shame how the accomplishments of people with pigment often fall through the cracks. In my opinion a "dream deferred" type of thing where the curriculum and value for 'brown books" are unbalanced against "non brown books". This seems to be remnants from the past, we are smarter than that now, I know it! I'm not just speaking about African American stories it's simply brown folks accomplishments in relation to children's stories and I'm not just speaking about whites, saying specifically that there's some evil plan to mess up black and brown people by ignoring black books.

Cover of Brothers in Hope, Coretta Scott Honor Award winner
Also, speaking about my own interests and actions. I doubt that I could name several Native American children's books, Latino classics or Oceanic stories without going to a search engine. It's just that people want to see themselves I guess, but I think we all need to be careful not to be so stuck in hegemony, especially when dealing with foundational imagery and should be careful about negativity when it comes to cultural understanding.

In specific regard to your question, in my opinion a there are a lot of fun books, playful and insightful in terms of cultural understanding with the Coretta Scott King book award choices. Such talk is dangerously close to the line of devaluing of the award and could possibly kill a great or enthusiastic sentiment before we even start to build it in children. Isn't the bottom line to touch the world of a child by opening the door to other worlds?

You've earned a lot of recognition, winning major awards like the Ezra Jack Keats Award and The Boston Globe’s Horn Book Award. For many illustrators, illustrating children's books is a sort of backstage business. Do you think children's illustrators should strive for recognition and eminence, or is there a general understanding that illustrators are sort of the underlings of the bookmaking business?

I disagree. In my opinion it's like arguing who really makes a marriage work, man or woman? I imagine it's both and it's within varying degrees. But I am certain that an author illustrator union is as strongly complex and fragile as a marriage. Sometimes the words are on such a higher level than the art and visa versa. But a great editor, and belief in the project by all parties including the marketing department, makes for a good union and can prevent an imbalance.

Last year you launched a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter to raise money to open up your own bookstore. What got you interested in the book-selling business?

Sagging pants and text talk... babies playing with cursing on the subway and the media, corporations and government rewarding ignorance and systematic memorization over thinking. I'm not a bleeding heart; I've seen so many people give their lives up for a cause..only to see them homeless and sick without support.

In truth and in my opinion, the elephant in the room is that people learn at different paces. We, or at least a majority of people I speak to all have a 'tribe' and cause..but at the end of the day idealistic thinking about a utopian society leads to heartbreak. It's hard to get adults to change.. I think that they can manage, get really great at that, but really can not change. On the other hand kids can, and you have a good 20-year window to expose them to their own possibilities of greatness.

Additionally I think we are moving in a foolish direction to make everything computerized. It's a tower of Babel in my own personal opinion. I got tired of seeing these things so this is my own way to deal with it. The "book business" as stated is so much more; it's more of a "possibilities business" because I have knowledge and sincere belief to offer. My heart is in the right place and the people who get it (what I'm doing) get it. But I do admit it is a commitment and I do miss my freelance life of vacations to Stockholm and Amsterdam. I can really go on and on about this decision but what's most important is for me to take the time to say thank you to the people who believed in me.

Your bookstore, GAS ART GIFTS, also houses an art studio. It sounds like a neat idea. What is the art studio used for?

GAS-ART GIFTS (interiror)―no ordinary bookstore!
To keep some fun along with the discipline. An 11-hour day has cost me relationships, sleep, lots of commuter and gas money but I know it's right and keeps me balanced. In truth, the location makes this idea a long shot. A majority of the people are not ready for this idea and again in honesty it can get discouraging that I own a job rather than a business. However, the brighter side is that I LOVE to paint and have quite a few assignments to do. I can do both, I can go in to another world and also open possibilities I would never have sitting alone in a studio.

You know? This is a unique idea; it will take time for a lot of people to "get" and support it. But I feel that in these times (in the information age), we cant shrug our shoulders and say newspapers, books and magazines, even libraries and cursive writing are on their way out. We (the adults that I think can't change) have an obligation to preserve traditions and use innovation to inspire the people after us.

I've known junkies that proudly say they can sew. Thugs who tell me they can or used to do art, and the point is that somebody showed them something, and even though they made poor life choices, that particular skill seemed to be one thing they were proud of and I got inspired by that. Such a situation makes me think that it's not enough to just also must build confidence and bring forth exposure as you give assignments and tasks. If you can get all those things in a high degree then chances are the students will stick with it and character will grow.

But people get bored and used to a good (and sometimes even a bad) thing, that's where the innovation from our generation comes in and the obligation to make the world a better place through individual relationships, unique thoughts and actions is needed.

You've illustrated over 20 children's books. Be honest you have a favorite?

I like the rawness of The Palm of My they say it's never as good as the first time.

Your artwork has been featured on HBO Kids and the PBS children's show, Between the Lions. What would you say is the biggest difference between working on picture-books and working on a television project?

I couldn't tell you...I am very careful to stay in my lane and do the things that interest me. So when it came to those jobs I found my joy in being a painter and in honesty wasn't too interested in the phase of the projects beyond that. The animators seemed to enjoy their segment of job as well and most certainly took what I did to an interesting level.

You've illustrated many children's books that can be described as socially conscious or social justice books. I'm thinking of books like Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth, and Keep Climbing, Girls. Are you selective and deliberate about the types of projects you take on?

Yes. It comes down to doing the books that I wish I had as a kid. But eventually after doing so many historical books I wanted something for baby showers and for very little ones to see, so books like Jazz Baby and Black Magic came in to play. The store gives me an opportunity to see the spectrum of my choices in one place. It also lets me see how my personal preferences and choices directly effect fans of my work. That type of feedback is invaluable and rewarding.

Double-page spread from Jazz Baby by R. Gregory Christie

You've also worked on many illustrated biographies of African-American historical figures like Muhammad Ali, Sojourner Truth, Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong and Richard Wright. Is there something about biographies that appeals to you?

For me, I hope that it just helps to bring out balance that may be lost to the Christopher Columbus and George Washington lesson plans. Even though I may be answering my own question with the word "obscure"...where are the obscure women/Native American/Asian/paraplegic stories? So I guess it's up to myself and other artists to get these stories out there. It's one of the reasons I was proud to do When Thunder Comes with Patrick J Lewis and Chronicle books. That project has a mix of cultures and some powerful poems.

Double-page spread from The Champ: The Story of Muhammad Ali

Can you tell us a little bit about your next project or projects?

These days its about building GAS-ART GIFTS in North DeKalb Mall. I have art students interested in weekly classes and eventually hope to have guest illustrators and their books sold on a 30-day basis. The foundation of the store will be my own books but I'd love to see famous authors and illustrators flown in to sign-sell their books and run a workshop. I want to see local aspiring artists use the space to teach classes in everything from calligraphy to sewing. I also have something HUGE coming out by the end of the much so that I'm not allowed to tell by social media, so stay tuned in to my own blog to see what it is.

In terms of books there are quite a few, and I'm superstitious about promoting a book before I wrap it up, so stay tuned in on the blog for that as well.

What advice would you give to someone considering children's book illustration as a full-time profession?

It is not a "one-book-wonder" type of profession. "I wrote a book" may not be as wise as I've written some stories". It's the same as telling an album producer that you are a singer and you wrote "a" song.

Also it's not wise to cut yourself short by putting the whole package together, meaning that you've written a story and now feel that you need an illustrator so that you can shop it around. It would be like getting your script green-lighted for a huge blockbuster but insisting that your close family and friends play the lead roles. It would be pretty rough to market a film like that and a shame considering that the studio has connections to established actors.

So check out out the many blogs and internet information on the children's book industry and you are halfway there due to the knowledge just waiting for you to learn out there. Also, create. Whether you have a deal or not, find the joy in creating and don't let them kill it with contracts and demands.

Consider that once a manuscript is sold to a publishing company, unless you are very famous, chances are you will not have a say where the illustrator takes the visuals. So if you have a really special story you may want to have so many good ones that you get those out first and save the special story as a mid-career book. Chances are you will be able to truly collaborate to a little bit more of a degree at that point.

Don't give up and find a way to live your dream.

R. Gregory Christie has been working as an illustrator for over 17 years. He has illustrated over forty books, and collaborated with clients such as The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Vibe, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Kennedy Center, Pete Seeger, Queen Latifah, and Karyn Parsons on a variety of projects. He is a two time recipient of the New York Times’ 10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books of the year Award, The Boston Globe’s Horn Book Award, The NAACP’s Image Award, Once Upon a World Children’s Book Award from the Museum of Tolerance, and a three time winner of the Coretta Scott King Honor Award in Illustration. His artwork has been featured on HBO Kids, PBS’ Between the Lions, The New Orleans Jazz Festival’s Congo Square poster, and for one year on the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s subway system in New York City.

He currently works as an illustrator and owns and operates a bookstore and art studio called GAS ART GIFTS in Decatur, Georgia. He enjoys teaching young people about art and literacy, and is available for school and library visits as well as other community events. You can follow him on Titter at @GasArtGifts and on Facebook at