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

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Interview with Nancy Viau

It's a slow Thursday. I work from home and I relish the quiet, but right now I'm battling an infection. It's so hard to be productive when your brain is in a fog. I'm taking it as a sign to slow down, let things slide for a bit. I've given myself permission to just curl up in bed and finish reading Water for Elephants.

Publishing Perspectives is a blog series I started 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 happy to welcome picturebook and middle grade author Nancy Viau to the series, and to the blog. Last October when I attended the Philadelphia Stories Push to Publish conference at Rosemont College, I heard Nancy speak on a Writing for Children and Young Adults panel. I remember nodding along vigorously and thinking, "This lady really knows what she's talking about." I recently reached out to Nancy and she generously agreed to this interview. Thanks Nancy!

Your debut middle grade book, Samantha Hansen Has Rocks in Her Head, was noted by reviewers for its humor. How did you go about writing such a spunky, funny, chatty heroine?

I took the experiences of my four kids, mixed them in with those of kids I observed in stores, schools, and on playgrounds, added in a little of young Nancy Viau (my brother will tell you I was loud), and tweaked everything together to create Samantha. A lot of Sam’s spunk comes from the fact that she’s a work-in-progress, and readers connect with that.

I read somewhere that you were initially dead set on writing picture books until a critique partner suggested you write for an older audience (This is the story of my life by the way). You've said that you "dabbled" in writing a chapter book and Samantha Hansen was born. What would you say to children's writers who are trying to figure out where they fit?

I would ask, “What kind of writing do you enjoy the most?” In order to answer that, you may have to experiment. Try writing poetry and prose—everything from adult mystery to teen romance, picture books to chapter books. Send submissions out and get feedback from editors. They’ll tell you if your writing sounds too old for middle grade, too young for YA, etc.

You glean inspiration from nature and it's a theme that runs through your work. Did you have a conscious moment when you realized you wanted to write stories with nature themes, or did it just sort of happen?

Sort of both. Take cookies, for example. They are in the pantry and since I (consciously) love them, I’ll eat a bunch. It just happens. Nature is all around, and since I’m an outdoorsy person who loves science and the natural world, I can’t help but write about it.

Look What I Can Do!, released earlier this year, is your first picture book. What new or surprising skills has writing in this genre/format added to your repertoire?

I’m surprised that I can write a story that makes sense using less than 200 words!

And your second picture book, Storm Song, was released just this Tuesday. Congrats! I haven't read it yet, but I already love it since I love anything to do with rain. Can you tell us what the book is about? Also how long did it take you to write the first draft?

Storm Song is filled with onomatopoeia that describes the beginning, middle, and end of a thunderstorm. The underlying theme is that storms are really very musical, and I thought that if I could get kids to see this, maybe they wouldn’t be frightened when a big storm looms over the hill. In the story, the family spends quality time together and even the dog relaxes a bit. The first draft took six months to a year. I’d work on it, put it aside, and then go back to it.

You managed to get an offer for Look What I Can Do! from Abrams while you were still unagented. Many writers wouldn't dare venture into that territory. What's your advice? 

The one proactive thing writers can do is to go to conferences and meet editors. Pick editors’ brains; find out what’s on their Wish List.

I was browsing the Where's Nancy? page on your website. You make a lot of appearances! What's the secret to a great author event, be it a book launch, meet and greet, book signing, or author visit?

1. Be prepared. Practice what you will do or say. 2. Stay in touch with the organizer of the event so there are no surprises on either end. 3. Be on time. 4. Show up with a smile and an energetic attitude (even if the traffic was horrendous, your kid got sick at the last minute, the hotel had bedbugs, or the parking garage was full). 5. Put the audience first and be grateful they have come to listen to you.

You're represented by Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary. What would you say is the most important thing you've learned about working with an agent?

It’s really hard to find the right fit—someone who is your business partner and advocate; someone who understands and respects your passion and the fact that you are not perfect; someone who sees value in your writing and your ambition. What I’ve learned is that you don’t settle for an agent who offers anything less.

You started the KidLit Authors Club which brings together published children's book authors from from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and surrounding states. What, for you, has been the most rewarding aspect of running this group?

Oooh, where to begin…? There are so many rewards! The best part is that, given any moment of the day, I am surrounded by people who have a common goal—getting the word out about our books. We share info and opportunities without hesitation, and it’s that team spirit that has led to our success.

And lastly, what's the most fun or rewarding thing (or both) about being a children's author?

I can act like a kid and no one can say it’s not part of my job.

Nancy Viau is the author of Look What I Can Do! (Picture Book/Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2013), Storm Song (Picture Book/Amazon Children’s Publishing/formerly Marshall Cavendish Children’s, 2013), and Samantha Hansen Has Rocks In Her Head (Middle-Grade Novel/Amulet Books, 2008). Her stories, poems, and activities appear in Highlights, Highlights High Five, Ladybug, Babybug, and many other magazines. She is a member of The Authors Guild, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and The KidLit Authors Club—a regional marketing group she started that consists of published authors who bring interactive book parties to bookstores, libraries, festivals, and conferences. You can follow her on Twitter at @NancyViau1.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Interview with Zetta Elliott

Zetta Elliott, PhD
Publishing Perspectives is a blog series 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 welcome Dr. Zetta Elliott to the series! I first came to know of Zetta when she reached out to me via email back in 2010 and then I met her at the A for Anansi: Literature for Children of Black Descent conference at New York University that same year. Since then I've been following her blog, Fledgling, and have read all of her excellent books for young people. An outspoken advocate for diversity and equity in children's publishing for many years, Zetta's efforts on behalf of underrepresented writers and their stories have never ceased to inspire me. Many thanks to Zetta for agreeing to this recent interview.

I think of you as a "no holds barred", uber-transparent blogger. You aren't afraid to engage contentious commentators, or offend with what you say on your blog, and you've even shared your annual writing income with your readers. As a blogging author, is transparency something deliberate on your part? Or is it just sort of an inherent aspect of who Zetta Elliott is?

I've said for years that we need greater transparency in publishing, so I’d better practice what I preach! Mostly I think that’s part of who I am—and why I write. Some people blog just to promote their work or their image as an author; I think I use my blog more as a kind of journal, and friends have warned me about my openness. There are risks, but as Audre Lorde reminds us, “Your silence will not protect you.” I don’t expect to reach a point in my writing career when it’s “safe” for me to speak my mind, so I might as well do it now. Telling the truth doesn't just help the speaker/writer, it helps those who are unable or unwilling to speak for themselves—and I do get messages from other writers thanking me for saying something their agent warned them against. I want change in the industry and that won’t come from staying silent when I see something unjust.

You've written 3 well-received books for young people, including the Coretta Scott King Award-winning and ALA Notable Children's Book, Bird, and you also do a lot of work advocating for equity and diversity in publishing. Why heap advocacy on top of being an author? Isn't the best advocacy just to write the books that need to be written?

Well, as you know, there’s a difference between writing books and getting them published. I’ll always write, but publishing is another matter. I have stepped back from the advocacy work; I felt I was becoming too immersed in the children’s literature world and that field doesn't define me as a writer or a scholar. Fighting for access is a burden most white writers don’t have to bear, but writers of color make up less than 5% of the children’s book authors published annually in the US so the advocacy work has to be done. I work with See What We See and that social justice group will tackle inequity in children’s literature when it launches this fall.

Last year, you made 2 funded trips to Nevis, the Caribbean island where your father was born, to connect with your roots and do research for your in-progress family memoir, The Hummingbird's Tongue. I understand that you now have Nevis citizenship and are planning to open your own arts center, Black Dog Arts Center, on the island. What role does heritage and legacy play in your writing and in how you see yourself as an author?

“Funded trips?” I paid for both trips myself, though I did get two grants last year (one to do research in South Carolina, and another to do research in northern Ontario). My author income (royalties and honoraria) pays for my travel; this spring I’m heading to Ghana for the Yari Yari Ntoaso conference in Accra. I think travel is important for any artist. Writing is like wringing a sponge dry and then you have to absorb more ideas and observations.

I was named for my grandmother, Rosetta Elliott, and I want to know her story—that’s what took me to Nevis. I was then invited back to participate in their inaugural book fair. Right now I know more about Nevis in the 1700s than I do about the contemporary country. One day I hope to open an arts center/museum but I don’t think I could live in the Caribbean full-time; mostly I want to contribute something and an arts center could bring in visiting artists to lead workshops for Nevisians so they can continue to tell their own stories.

My father deliberately hid his past; he didn't want his children to feel connected to Nevis and in a way I’m going against his wishes by reversing his migration and digging for the truth. But I think I owe my ancestors a voice. I can do things they couldn't, and that’s why I write historical fiction—it allows me to turn back the clock and write them back into existence.

Speaking of The Hummingbird's Tongue, you write for both adults and children. I've previously had cause to wonder if authors who split focus and write for both adults and children have a harder time progressing their careers. What do you think?

I don’t know—I can’t think of anyone whose career failed because they wrote for different audiences. Really, my role models are people like June Jordan and James Baldwin and Toni Cade Bambara—they wrote for young readers and adults, and didn't seem to worry about their work finding a home. Publishers today prefer to market authors in just one way but hybridity is a big part of life in the African diaspora, and I don’t feel I should have to limit myself to please others.

You're one ideal of the independent, self-driven woman. You travel often and solo, live alone, and you recently blogged about becoming debt-free. What would you say to single women trying to build a career in publishing? 

Being child-free definitely gives me more time to write, and not having dependents makes it easier for me to travel at will. I've worked with kids since I was 16 and I continue to teach children now that I’m an author and professor; no one has ever questioned my expertise but I suppose I move in mostly progressive circles. Being in Nevis last summer I definitely noticed that people were concerned with my marital status and whether or not I had kids—I got the feeling some people felt my “success,” which they admired, came at too high a price. Some people don’t think a woman’s complete unless she’s got a man and/or kids, but those people don’t worry me. I don’t have any advice for single writers—every writer has to make the most of the time and resources s/he has.

In a 2010 article in The Huffington Post, you blogged in detail about your children's publishing journey and how, after many years, you used self-publishing to finally break into an industry that you experienced as being unreceptive to your stories. Since then 3 of your children's books have been published, and you have 2 more on the way. Do you feel vindicated and has publishing changed much since you set out to get published?

I don’t feel vindicated because nothing has really changed—I still struggle to place my manuscripts and publishers still refuse to reflect the diversity of our 21st-century world. I have one published picture book and about 15 unpublished picture books; I published two novels with AmazonEncore, but now my editor has moved on and I’m not sure whether my latest novel will find a home. Self-publishing remains an option but it’s hard work and very time consuming. A friend of mine wants to start a non-profit kids press one day and that’s probably my best option if I want to see more of my work in print.

Speaking of "on the way", let's talk about Judah's Tale and The Deep, your two in-progress YA novels. I'm really excited about both of these books. Please give us a two-sentence synopsis of each book.

The Deep: When fourteen-year-old Nyla find herself at the center of a battle between good and evil, she must learn to wield the astonishing power she inherited from the mother who abandoned her as a child. Far beneath the streets of Brooklyn, Nyla discovers a dangerous world filled with temptations that may lure her away from her friends forever.

Judah’s Tale: When Genna Colon magically opens a portal in Brooklyn, her boyfriend Judah finds himself pulled into the past and sold into slavery in the deep South. When hope of finding Genna fades, Judah must find a way to survive—and belong—in a country torn apart by war.

You describe both books as "urban fantasy" and in other places you use the term "speculative fiction". I know from reading your blog that you're fascinated with the possibilities of magic in the urban environment. You even wrote a scholarly paper on the topic. What, in your opinion, is the value of these types of stories?

They open up possibilities! I always ask myself, “What if?” I imagine alternate endings, alternate routes, alternate realities. Our youth need to develop the capacity to dream because we face many challenges in our communities, and we can’t create change without first creating a vision of the world we truly want to inhabit. Magic is a form of power, so it’s important that children of color know they come from people who have a long tradition of wielding power…

The Deep is the companion book to your 2012 middle grade novel, Ship of Souls (which I really enjoyed), and Judah's Tale is the much anticipated sequel to your 2010 YA novel, A Wish After Midnight (which I liked even more). Now that you've been through the process, what advice can you give to other writers about writing a series? 

It’s hard! That’s not really advice, but it’s the truth. I think sequels are really hard and I've given up the hope of having the second book be “as good as” the first. Judah’s Tale is not yet done and I've been working on it off and on since 2003. I will NEVER do that again. These days I only start projects that I know I can finish within a few months, projects that fit within my academic calendar. The Deep is a companion book, so I didn't have the same burden to maintain continuity—the characters are the same as in Ship of Souls but it’s a totally different story. I see The Deep as the bridge to the last book in that series, not that I have any idea when I’ll find time to write that!

I read a recent post on your blog that seemed to just ooze with frustration. You were lamenting the complacency of individuals and institutions who have the power to do something about the lack of equity in children's publishing but aren't doing anything. The complacency of certain groups aside, are children's publishing diversity activists a close-knit, collaborative community? Or is the disconnectedness of advocacy efforts a part of the problem?

True allies stick together and strive for the same goals. The See What We See “crew” is made up of that kind of committed people. A lot of people TALK about diversity, far fewer talk about EQUITY, and even fewer actually work to transform the publishing industry. Whenever I talk about SWWS, like-minded people come forward and ask how they can contribute, so that’s encouraging. Most institutions and organizations within the children’s literature community are made up of people from the “know something/do nothing” category. There’s nothing I can do about that.

In the blog post I referred to in my last question, you stated in the same breath that you'll soon be leaving the world of children's literature behind. Are you still determined to call it quits and if so, what will you focus on next?

As you pointed out, I’m currently working on The Hummingbird’s Tongue; I have another family memoir in the works that will trace my mother’s African American ancestors who escaped slavery in the US only to “pass” for white to avoid racism in Canada. I have to finish Judah’s Tale (hopefully this summer) and then I have a couple of adult historical novels I’d like to explore, one set in Nevis and the other in London. I’ll still work with kids and promote my books for young readers but I won’t be giving as much of my time to the advocacy work.

Last year you were accepted into CUNY’s Faculty Fellowship Publication Program. Do you think the university has a role to play in diversifying publishing?

It should, but it won’t! The academy is, in general, a very conservative space. Academic publishing is different from commercial publishing, and most scholars publish in order to get tenure; their books are sold mostly to academic libraries, little if any money is earned by the author, and scholars follow the rules and do whatever it takes to get the contract that will get them the job security they desire. The academy has not embraced digital publishing, certain presses are considered more prestigious than others…there isn't a lot of room for innovation. The FFPP is designed to give junior faculty time to polish scholarly essays for publication in peer-reviewed journals. Since The Hummingbird’s Tongue is a hybrid book, it’s unlikely to appeal to academic presses, though I may try to publish an excerpt in Small Axe or MaComère.

As a published author, you've been through the threshing floor of publishing multiple times. What are three of the most important lessons you've learned throughout the A to Z process of writing your books, getting them published, and being a published author out in the world?

Your work doesn't matter to anyone as much as it matters to you. Be prepared to defend your vision and nurture your book from infancy to old age.

Keep writing despite the obstacles and the rejection. Don’t stop and wait for everything to fall into place because chances are, that won’t happen.

Remember why you started to write in the first place and stay true to that because publishers mostly care about the bottom line. Would you write if you never won an award or earned a six-figure advance? I would.

Zetta Elliot is a black feminist writer of stories for children, poetry, plays, essays, and novels. She earned her PhD in American Studies from NYU in 2003 and has currently teaches in the Center for Ethnic Studies at Borough of Manhattan Community College.

Her poetry has been published in the Cave Canem anthology, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, Check the Rhyme: an Anthology of Female Poets and Emcees, and Coloring Book: an Eclectic Anthology of Fiction and Poetry by Multicultural Writers. Her novella, Plastique, was excerpted in T Dot Griots: an Anthology of Toronto’s Black Storytellers, and her essays have appeared in School Library Journal, Horn Book Magazine, The Black Arts Quarterly, thirdspace, WarpLand, and Hunger Mountain.

Her picture book, Bird, was a 2009 ALA Notable Children’s Book and won may awards including the Lee & Low New Voices Honor Award, the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent, Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers, and the West Virginia Children’s Choice Book Award. Her young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, was published by AmazonEncore in February 2010; her second YA novel, Ship of Souls, was published in February 2012. Her short story, “Sweet Sixteen,” was published in Cornered: 14 Stories of Bullying and Defiance in July 2012. Zetta was born and raised in Canada, but has lived in the US for over fifteen years. She currently resides in her beloved Brooklyn. You can follow her on Twitter at @zettaelliott.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Interview with Ibi Zoboi

Well, last week I started a new 'Publishing Perspectives' series here on the blog, which is to say, once a week for the next few weeks, I'll be posting interviews with people on both sides of the publishing fence, i.e., both the people who work in publishing and the writers working toward publication.

I love talking to writers and authors especially. Each writer is so different in how they approach the labor of finishing a book, getting published, and even in their relationship with the public. Clearly there is no one set of beliefs surrounding the craft of writing.

Today, I'm posting my interview with Ibi Zoboi. I first came to know of Ibi when we published her children's story, "The Little Golden Stone Man", set in Haiti, in the 2011 issue of Anansesem. Since then, I've been following her work and her blog, Tell My Horse. She's definitely someone whose writing career I'd be excited to watch unfold. I'm grateful to Ibi for graciously agreeing to this interview.

You're currently studying as an MFA student in Writing for Children & Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. How important is pre–qualification in our field?

I don't think there is such a thing as pre-qualification in writing. An MFA does not a guarantee a salaried job once you graduate, of course. And choosing to get one is a very personal decision. The only thing a writer must do is to write very well. And I'm certainly getting those skills at VCFA. I'm not there to write one good book. I'm there to learn the craft of storytelling.

There are certain skills a writer needs to make a career out of telling a good story. The Writing for Children program is very specific and it was the first to offer such a program. I'm surrounded by award-winning faculty and students (Trinidadian writer Lynn Joseph is my classmate). I'm in my second semester and I've read nearly a hundred children's and teens' books so far. I've examined different craft concepts and themes in children's literature and worked closely on my last manuscript. Rita Williams-Garcia was my last advisor and I'm now working with Susan Fletcher.

I'm a mom of three and I'm forced to carve out a block of time to focus on reading and writing. This has been worth every (loaned) penny! And I'm committed to a life-long career of writing for children so this was a necessary investment.

Last year you won the Gulliver Travel Grant given annually by the Speculative Literature Foundation. How have you used the grant to further your writing career?

The grant did not necessarily further my writing career. It's a nice addition to a bio or query letter, of course. But it did help the novel that I was writing. I'm writing about Haiti and I needed to be there on the ground to get some of the details correct. I'd been relying on blurry memory and Youtube videos before then. I visited Haiti during Fete Gede, or Day of the Dead, and Gede figures prominently in my novel. The Speculative Literature Foundation does an excellent job of highlighting and supporting genre writers (fantasy and science fiction), and I was truly honored to be their 2011 winner.

You've written a fantasy YA novel, Bandit, that's yet to be published. I love the title of the novel. Can you give us a sneak preview of what it's about?

Sixteen year-old, Brooklyn-born Anacaona Makandal has the magical gift of being able to teleport things with her mind (stealing) and make things come to life with clay (pottery). Ana comes from a long line of Clay Women and she has also inherited her magical stealing powers from her father, the last Great Bandit of Haiti—a Robin Hood of sorts, who can travel between the world of the living, the world of the spirits (the Vodou loas/deities) and the ancestors—Ginen. She is the only girl in Haitian history to inherit such a gift. A girl isn't supposed to be a Great Bandit. She’s supposed to fine tune her prodigious sculpting skills to become a Clay Woman like her mother and foremothers.

Do you think there is a gap in the market for genre MG and YA books featuring so-called characters 'of color' and is that something you hope to address as a speculative fiction writer?

Yes, there is a serious dearth of multicultural books featuring characters of color, and more specifically, black characters. I can count on one hand how many sci-fi/fantasy books for young readers from diverse backgrounds have been published within the last couple of years. Zetta Elliott does an excellent job at articulating the lack of diversity in the industry.

I was writing speculative short stories for adults first, before this YA boom. I also worked with children and teens as a creative writing teacher. When I realized that some kids had a hard time placing themselves in the future or pulling from their own cultural mythologies to write sci-fi or fantasy, I became more determined to tell these stories where inner-city black and latino kids were the heroes and heroines of their own stories.

You submitted Bandit to the Lee and Low New Visions Award contest which recognizes a debut author of color for a middle grade or young adult science fiction, fantasy, or mystery novel. Now you're one of three finalists for the award; congratulations! What did you do to prepare your manuscript for submission?

I've been writing and calling myself a writer for the last thirteen years (Though things slowed down a bit after the birth of each of my three children). I think the time I've put into writing was the best preparation. I also got a chance to work on the first few chapters with my advisor at VCFA. What Lee and Low and Tu Books are doing is tremendous. There had been all these online discussions (and they're still happening) about diversity in children's books, and their New Voices and New Visions Awards addressed a serious need. I'm honored to be among the finalists.

The award winner will be announced on March 31. What will you do if you don't win? What will you do if you do?

I'm still working on my manuscript with my new advisor at VCFA. A book is not done until it's on a shelf. So I'm learning the very necessary art of re-writing. If I don't win, I get to work on it some more and make it even better. If I do win, I get to work on it some more and make it even better, but under a contract and a publication date. It's a win/win situation for me. I'm excited and sincere about the story that I'm telling, so I know it will get into the hands of readers with the help of some amazing folks. I've had some great ones who've helped me get this far.

Your first picturebook, A is for Ayiti, was recently published by One Moore Book. What have you learned about the art of writing picturebooks that you didn't know before?

Writing for children is very hard. A is for Ayiti is an ABC book based on Haitian culture using an English alphabet! Edwidge Danticat served as guest editor for the series and I had to go through several edits with her and the amazing publisher, Wayetu Moore. I also learned that there is a great need for more books like these. OMB's Haiti Series garnered so much support and attention. I'm so glad Wayetu Moore took on this huge task. A is for Ayiti was translated into Kreyol and copies are being sent to Haiti. I was so proud to be a part of this series.

You have a writing blog, Tell My Horse, where you dish about your writing projects and developments. How important is it for children's/YA writers to build an online platform before seeking publication?

I really don't think it's important to build an online platform before seeking for publication. I know some folks who have a huge online presence and are vocal about different topics, but still had a hard time getting published. There are also lots of debut authors who I've never even heard of. Though it does help to have some visibility. For me, it's simply a way to get some of my ideas out. I'm a writer and the internet is just one giant notebook. You get to play around with your voice and words and send it out into the world.

I'm very passionate about mythology and Haitian folklore and children's books. So this is what I write about. People who are interested in what you have to say will seek you out. They will get a sense of your core values. These things are helpful, of course. But what's most important is to write, read, write, and read some more. I don't let blogging or social media get in the way of this.

Ibi Zoboi was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and is a graduate of the Clarion West Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. Her short story, “Old Flesh Song”, is published in the award-winning Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, a collection of African American speculative fiction. Ibi received an award from the Women Writers of Haitian Descent for her short story “At the Shores of Dawn”, which was published in One?Respe! literary journal. She won a "Tricky Talker of the Year" an annual tall-tale contest presented by the Afrikan Folk Heritage Circle. Her children’s fable, “Mama Kwanzaa & Her Seven Children”, was published in African Voices Magazine, and her short story "The Harem" is recently published in Haiti Noir, edited by Edwidge Danticat. Her children's story "Little Golden Stone Man" was published in Anansesem Caribbean children's literature ezine.

Ibi a recent winner of the Gulliver Travel Grant given annually by the Speculative Literature Foundation and is an MFA student in the Writing for Children & Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, visual artist Joseph Zoboi, and their three young children, and has completed a YA fantasy novel, Bandit, based on Haitian myth and folklore which she is currently honing for publication. You can follow her on Titter at @ibizoboi.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Interview with Tracey Baptiste

Over the weekend we had lovely Spring-ish weather in Philly. I was out running both days which always puts me in a good mood. I also celebrated my birthday with family. We went to Maggiano's and ate waaay too much food. I still have a huge chunk of the richest chocolate cake I've ever tasted in the refrigerator.

Today, before I finish off the rest of the cake, I'm posting my recent interview with Tracey Baptiste. About two years ago, I began following Tracey's blog, Knitting with Pencils, after reading her YA novel, Angel's Grace, a tender coming-of-age story set in Trinidad that was named one of the 100 best books for reading and sharing by NYC librarians.

My interview with Tracey is the first in a new 'Publishing Perspectives' series in which I'll be interviewing people on both sides of the publishing fence, i.e., both the people who work in publishing and the writers working toward publication. I've always found it fascinating to hear the stories of people who have been in the trenches of publishing so to speak. A big thanks to Tracey for kindly agreeing to this interview.

You were recently offered representation by Marie Lamba from Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. Congratulations! You must have written a great query letter. Can you share with readers a few tips for writing a strong query letter?

Queries have to capture the essence of your story. Where people go wrong is trying to tell their entire backstory. Agents are busy. All they want to know is "why should I take a look at this book?" The trick is this: a one paragraph intro that tells the agent that you are seeking representation for a book. Follow this with one paragraph that summarizes your book and captures its spirit. Think of it as the back cover copy. End with a one paragraph summary of your background as pertains to the writing of this particular book. That's it. Any more than that will work against you.

If you've written a good query and a good book, 50-75% of agents should respond, assuming you've done your research and are submitting to the right ones for your work. I have been doing this for a while, so I can usually write a query in a couple of hours, with tweaking for a few days. But when I started, it would take a month sometimes to find the right words.

Let's talk about your unpublished novel. You keep dropping all of these tantalizing hints on your blog, like "the book takes place nearly a hundred years ago" and it "involves jumbies and Caribbean spirits". Can you give us a little taste of what the book is about?

I'll do you one better. This is part of the query I used to hook Marie:

This story takes a paranormal spin on the Haitian folktake, “The Magic Orange Tree.” It is set on a tropical island, and is filled with creatures from the bedtime stories that I grew up listening to on the island of Trinidad. It introduces a new creature to intrigue fans of vampires, zombies, and fae: the jumbie—a malevolent spirit with the power to maim, transform, or even consume human victims.

That was my opening paragraph. The rest describes the protagonist, 10 year old Corinne, who unwittingly draws a jumbie out of the forest, and who finds herself the central figure in the jumbie’s attempts to get revenge on the people of the island.

This is also my first attempt at a Middle Grade novel, and one that’s so creepy. Think Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. But I wanted something that captured the creepiness of those soucouyant stories my family would tell me before bed when I was a child.

You started writing the novel ten years ago and received many rejection letters from agents who read the manuscript. Most writers would have given up and moved onto another project. What drove you to hang in there with this particular novel?

This is a long story. Ready? I conceived of the story ten years ago, and I started writing it around the time my first novel was published (2005). I had a hard time getting it to work, so I put it away and went on to write two more novels (both terrible), and seven non-fiction books. Somewhere in there, I also had a second child.

About six years ago, a friend who is also an editor told me I needed to make it more “epic,” but I couldn’t figure out how. I put it away again for about three years. Then I worked on it fairly steadily for a year. I sent it to my agent, she liked it, and sent it out on submission, but it was rejected three times. She decided not to send it out again. This was when she and I parted ways. I worked on it for a few more months and started sending it out to agents. A few were interested, and asked for changes, but ultimately no one bit. Finally last summer I made a “last list” of agents to send to, and Marie loved it.

Here are the stats:

Editors queried: 3
Agents queried: 18
Agent requests for partials: 8
Agent requests for fulls: 4
Offers: 1

(Once I signed with Marie, I notified the other agents that I was no longer in the market for representation.) I really believed in this story, not because I worked so hard on it, but because it represents me and my culture in a very real way. I wanted a heroine that my children could look up to, and recognize themselves in.

I'm always curious about where the idea for a book came from. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

“The Magic Orange Tree” was one story in an anthology called Best-Loved Folktales of the World that I picked up when I was in college, and that I still have in the bookshelf in my office. I like to keep it close. It's basically a Cinderella story, and I happen to love Cinderella stories, so I'm not surprised that this one stuck with me. It had everything I liked: magic, a clever girl, an island setting, a nasty villain.

I remember you were having trouble with your villain, both her name and characterization. What do you think it is about villains that makes them so hard to write?

I had never written a villain before! What I found out was that villains need to be as strong as the protagonists. They have to be just as complicated, and clever, and should get equal weight in a scene. Fortunately I finally came up with a name that suits her. (Phew!) But that only happened about a month ago. So sometimes I still slip and write her original name when I’m revising parts of the book. It takes some getting used to. (Even my husband hasn't gotten used to the new name, and I’m not so sure he likes it.)

You grew up in Trinidad and moved to Brooklyn at age fifteen. How does your upbringing and background influence your writing?

The influence is obvious in this story: the jumbies, the girl on the island, but it’s also very present in my first novel, Angel’s Grace, which takes place entirely in Trinidad over a summer vacation. I suppose I could write more American stories. I have lived here longer than I lived in Trinidad. But you can take the girl out of the island…

The truth is, I really want to write stories that feature the Caribbean and the creatures I grew up hearing about. I am writing for the kid that I was (and still am), and for my kids too, so they don’t miss out on their culture. My daughter is very interested in soucouyant stories, and there aren't many books that feature them. Not many that are really good, anyway. This is as much for her as it is for me. I don’t worry about where that puts me in the U.S. literary scene. Assuming the books are ever sold, I’ll let someone in marketing worry about it.

Your first children's novel, Angel's Grace, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2005. What is the one thing you wish you'd done differently as a first-time author?

I was so terrified and shell-shocked throughout that process that I’m not sure what I did right or wrong. One thing that my editor told me was that I took her notes well, and did great revisions. But one thing I didn't do was ask a lot of questions. Like, there were supposed to be illustrations in Angel’s Grace. We did the illustrations (I have them in an ARC) but they never made it into the final copy. I have no idea why.

You've worked at big publishing houses like Scholastic and Chelsea House Publishing. From your insider's perspective, what would you say to children's/YA writers trying to work with these publishers?

I've freelanced for both of these publishing houses along with a few others. But freelance writing for a house is quite different from being an author that they seek out. In one you’re an employee who gives them exactly what they ask for. In the other, you’re “the talent.” But my advice for working anywhere in publishing is this: be polite. Publishing is a very small world, and word gets around fast.

You're a freelance writer, entrepreneur, mom, and knitter. And you have a full-time job. How do you fit writing into your busy life?

Now that I’m back to a regular full-time job, finding writing time is harder, but I love it, so I squeeze it in whenever I can. I don’t have a particular day or time that I regularly write. But if I’m not actively writing, you can bet I’m thinking about it.

You're a NaNoWriMo regular and it seems to work for you. So many writers find that challenge impossible to do. What advice do you have for anyone attempting to make NaNoWriMo work for them?

NaNoWriMo is like stream of consciousness novelling for me. It’s very freeing to write without worrying about what I’m writing or what someone will think of it. And even though a lot of what I do write during NaNoWriMo isn't usable, an amazing percentage of it is! Especially when I let it sit there for a few months before I look at it again. My advice is to just get as much of a story out of you as you can, and then not look at it for a long, long time. When you finally do, it will surprise you.

You are a cancer survivor and you've blogged openly about your cancer journey. I never told you before how much I admire you for your courage and strength and how personally encouraged I was by your blogs. What would you say to struggling writers out there who are also dealing with illness?

Writing about cancer was a tough choice. I come from a family who likes to keep their business to themselves. But as a writer, I felt compelled to communicate. I didn't start writing about the cancer though until I was almost finished with treatments. By the time everyone (including some of my friends and family) had heard about it, I had already been in treatment for a year, and had only a few months of chemo left. Writing about it during the hardest part of the treatments would have been too difficult and raw.

What I learned about writing while dealing with illness is that if you love it, being sick is probably not going to prevent you from doing it. I wrote query letters and jotted down story ideas while hooked up to chemo machines. I knew being sick wasn't going to be my life. My life was that other thing I did, where I wrote all the time.

Tracey Baptiste was born in the Caribbean island of Trinidad and moved to Brooklyn, New York, when she was fifteen. She is a former elementary school teacher who left teaching to work for an educational publisher, and then left educational publishing to work for herself. She is the author of a critically acclaimed young adult novel, Angel's Grace, and 7 non-fiction Middle Grade books including biographies of Madeleine L'Engele, Jerry Spinelli, and Stephenie Meyer. She lives with her husband and two children in Englewood, New Jersey, where she is honing her latest middle grade novel for publication. She is currently represented by Marie Lamba from Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. You can follow her on Twitter at @TraceyBaptiste.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Benrali: Guyanese fine artist embraced by the children's book industry (Interview: Part 2)

I'm back again for the second half of my interview with Benrali, Guyanese author of The Turtle's Dream and Keys and Manni: A World Beyond Stars! If you missed part 1, you can check it out here. In this second half, I picked Benrali's brain about his work and the influences behind it.


S: Tell us a little bit about the folkloric elements in your books. Also, what does it mean to you to use folklore as a base, or perhaps a, sort of organizing principle for your stories?

Art by Benrali
Guyana's folklore has always been of interest to me since it is a unique blend between what the indentured Indian servants and African immigrants brought and what the native Amerindians believed already. But with Manni I felt the folklore just blended well for this project. I may or may not keep using folklore for my projects since one of the things we are taught as an illustrator is that each project is different. Folklore, fantasy, ghazals, moongazers and magical sea turtles just seemed to blend well for Manni. I do hope another project comes along that asks for that same blend but who can say? Each book is sort of like a fingerprint; unique in its own way. 

S: Another thing that interests me about your work relates to the illustrations.  On your website and other places your picture books are described as "finely created artist books." I couldn't agree more with that sentiment. What are some of the artistic techniques or influences behind your work as an illustrator?

B: I tend to think of my work as a weaving of multiple periods, styles and schools of thought. I am grateful to Parsons School Of Design and their excellent faculty for broadening my horizons as to all the artists, periods and styles that came before. I am merely scratching at the surface of the training you get as an undergraduate but I wanted to mention it. I can't say my current books have all of these elements but some schools of thought and artists which I have gravitated towards are Balinese rainforest paintings, Japanese woodcuts, Indian and Moghul miniature paintings, Henri Rousseau, as well as some fantasy artists. The list goes on but these are a few.

Detail from Manni: A World Beyond Stars

S: Of major, major interest to me is the relationship between identity and culture and how Caribbean children's authors and illustrators work out those things in and perhaps through their work. You have spoken elsewhere about going through a process of searching for or developing an artistic style for your illustrations. You suggest that the process was really one of searching for an identity within the multiple influences of your Caribbean heritage. Can you speak to us a little about what a Caribbean heritage means to you in terms of your work and the ambitions you have set as a children's author/illustrator?

B: What does Caribbean or Guyanese heritage mean for me? Since I grew up in the States there were no Caribbean artists to look up to as role models. Everyone knows that to be an artist you have to look at art or to be a writer you must read. It wasn't until college that I began the "un-brainwashing" process and started learning about Indian & African art, art from other cultures, periods, styles etc. The saddest part is that most Guyanese & Trinidadian children don't realize they have been brainwashed until after they hit college.

For me it was too late because so many images of American heros from movies and cartoons were already were implanted in my mind and it was impossible for me to undo all the mental damage that was done. How can you turn back time and give back to kids role models, heros or a foundation of their own background when time cannot be turned back? Also, to be honest, I can't think of any Guyanese children's book authors or artists which my parents shared with me. My parents didn't even make an effort so like most kids from Guyanese parents I was left to just deal with it and figure things out as I grew older. 

In regards to your question as to what about Caribbean heritage spurs on my ambitions as an author/illustrator. I can say  our blend of music Calypso, Soca, Reggae and Indian Chutney music makes me proud but I am honest when I say there is nothing within Caribbean or Guyanese books/art that spurs on my work because there are so few examples. Of course there are artists and writers but again, they were not made available to me and they are probably few to begin with. Why is there so little material in Caribbean and Guyanese visual and literary arts to act as a foundation? I believe art and writing novels or picture books were not of high priority for our parents or our grandparents so I am very understanding to that.

One of the most important books which all Caribbeans and Guyanese should read is Eric Williams' From Columbus to Castro: A History of the Caribbean. Never have I found a book that answered so many questions  as to why so many things are as they are in Guyana and Trinidad. In regards to the arts, England didn't bring slaves and indentured laborers to Guiana and Trinidad to educate, polish and give a good education; they were brought to the plantations for one thing and that thing was certainly not to create books of poetry with fine detailed art work. 

S: You have two books published under your belt. What have you learned so far about the business of picture books and where do you see yourself headed in the future?

B: I never considered myself a children's book author but I am grateful that the children's book industry has embraced my work. There will always be children so its a market that is there even though it is changing. Whether you are speaking of children's books, nonfiction, or any other genre, the whole industry is changing. I will still write but I probably will start getting into e-books since they are so inexpensive to produce and readers are reading more and more of them. I would really like to get into film and animation and I have a few books which lend themselves well to the screen. At the moment though my third book is due to come out late this winter or maybe in the spring. It is a collection of short stories and poems.

S: Well, thanks so much for chatting with us Benrali!

B: You're welcome Summer and thank you for the opportunity!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Benrali: Guyanese artist mastering the fine art of illustrated books (Interview: Part 1)

Well, I warned you that I would be having some interesting folks on the blog soon and I must say, it has been very interesting indeed probing the creative mind of Benrali, author and illustrator of The Turtle's Dream and Keys and Manni: From A World Beyond Stars. Benrali is the pen name of Aman Waseem Ben Ali, an emerging Guyanese author, artist, poet and screenwriter. 

Born in America to Guyanese parents, Ali graduated from Parsons School Of Design in New York and went on to attend and graduate from Hendriks Graphic Design Institute in Long Island, USA. The scope of his artistic training is evident in his gorgeously illustrated books, which weave together many styles, schools of thought and periods and which Benrali himself has said, are "proof that the Caribbean has no limits in regards to 'style'".

Well, without further ado, I'm pleased to present Part 1 of my conversation with Benrali. (Click here to read Part 2 of the interview).


S: Benrali, your work is very interesting to me for a number of reasons, one of them being that your books, thus far, have been self-published. What made you decide to self-publish?

B: Well, slight correction: I actually didn't self-publish. Looking at the current health of the publishing industry, I decided not to go with a traditional publisher, but rather, to embrace the new cooperative approach to publishing that is fast becoming a viable option. I didn't pay out of my pocket for anything. I had financial backers and partners who helped me create the Dreamworlds Beyond Time corporation which prints and sells my books. Books are only a small portion of our current product line. I created books where the art could be easily used for fine art prints, greeting cards and yes, the bestseller t-shirts!

Greeting Card featuring art from The Tutle's
The cooperative approach has worked quite well for me, in fact, I would say it’s the best type of publishing for myself since I didn't have to pay anything except minor expenses that go into shipping. Having financial backing is sort of like having a grant and this gave me flexibility that I would never have received with traditional publishing.  I really like this co-operative method because it gives artists freedom they would never have received otherwise.  

S: It appears that your books weren't explicitly written for children, nevertheless, I think they would appeal strongly to children, which is why I chose to review them here on the blog. In terms of audience and genre, how do you view your books?

B: For the record, I do not label my books as "children's books" but "artist's books".  You may feel that it’s splitting hairs but it’s a very important facet. Children's books are usually carefully watched over from start to finish by editors and art directors and sales reps.  Throughout the project editors, art directors and marketing/sales/distribution rep have a lot to say about what goes where and what should be omitted. A children's book is truly a joint venture. When a traditional book is produced it is a product of many minds. 

An artist's book is VERY different.  An artist book, no matter what the art or genre doesn't have more than one person involved.  It is more like a fine art painting printed in multiples and is guaranteed to be only "artist’s voice" which may or may not appeal to the audience.  Think about an oil painting you are about to buy, how would you feel if you found out there were 3 or 4 other people picking out the colors and changing things around?  My point of view is not that an artist's book is better or worse than a traditional children's book or adult picture book; it’s just different.

S: On the front flap The Turtle's Dream And Keys, it says that you got the idea for the book from a dream you had. In truth, I was taken aback by the dream-like quality of the illustrations in the book. There certainly is a visionary quality to them. The story itself and the language in which it is told, is also dreamy, even a bit esoteric. In your experience, how do children respond to your dream world, and the images in particular?

B: I have to be honest when I say that mostly adults have bought my books.  I have received some feedback from children who love the art and I have heard of one kid who tried to count all the circles and sand in some of the drawings which was flattering but most of the people I get responses from are adults and lovers of art books.

S: You say that Manni: From a World Beyond Stars is the first book of this kind written using the ghazal, an Arabic and Indo-Persian form of rhyming couplets associated with 12th century Eastern mystics. I am fascinated by this marriage of poetry, mysticism and the picturebook form. Can you explain the ghazal to us. Also, what do you think it lends to your story?

B: My father used to produce records with ghazals when I was a baby in the 80's.  One of his records was title "Anjani Anjani" and the singer he used was Veena Ahuja. I mention this because this is where I first heard about ghazals and yes they are mostly used in songs.  When I started high-school I learned about an author and teacher, Agha Shahid Ali who was an authority on ghazals and ghazals written in English. After reading up on some of the rules for ghazals I decided since Manni was a sea turtle from beyond the stars why not give the narrator for the book, Ooni, a truly unique platform.  

I have never heard of a ghazal ever being used in a picture book but I loved the rhyme scheme. I'm almost sure that ghazal pros will object but they have to admit I did stick to the rules calling for exact syllable counts in each line and the second line rhymes throughout the book and the ghazal is sung by the orator which in this case is Ooni. It's his ghazal after all. The story is set in the hours of night when most sea turtles are born so I thought the lullaby quality of the rhyme would be ideal for this work.

S: Yes, I was in fact struck by the song-like quality of the rhyming scheme. Then, when I did my research, I found out that ghazals are often sung by Iranian, Indian, and Pakistani musicians. Are there any plans to turn Manni: From A World Beyond Stars into a sing-along book perhaps? 

B: The thought did cross my partners' minds and I thought it was interesting too since I was at one time an aspiring singer songwriter. I even produced the infamous "demo cd" which went nowhere! Songwriting comes to me a lot easier than entire books so converting it into music shouldn't be that hard. I believe the book has found a more "artbook" and giftbook audience so I would have to think whether or not it would be marketable for children.

More: Read Part 2 of this interview.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Interview: Joanne Gail Johnson's Window Into Caribbean Children's Publishing

Two great interviews in a row, hooray! Today, it's Joanne Gail Johnson that I'm welcoming to the blog. If you know anything about Trinidadian children's literature, indeed about children's literature in the English-speaking Caribbean, then Joanne Gail Johnson is someone who needs no introducing. She is the author of such well-known children's books as Ibis Stew? Oh, no! and Pink Carnival! as well as Sally's Way, Digger's Diner, Go Barefoot, The Scottish-Island Girl and The Donkey and the Racehorse. The Editor of Macmillan Caribbean's Island Fiction fantasy series for tweens and the Regional Adviser of the Caribbean South Chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Joanne is no stranger to the world of Caribbean children's publishing. Joanne and I have been exchanging emails for some time, talking about the very issues she discusses below. At a certain point it just seemed like her insights and knowledge were way too valuable and relevant to keep all to myself. So here she is! By the way, how cool is it that I am finally interviewing an author from my own country? Joanne is the first author from Trinidad that I've interviewed! But I digress. To the interview.


Thanks for agreeing to do this interview Joanne, I really appreciate it.

You're more than welcome Summer. The work you have done in such a short space of time - especially in listing over 500 Caribbean children's titles on your blog from as early as a century ago - is of great service to us all and very inspiring. Thank you!

Although I could be interviewing you about your writing/books (and I would like to do that some time) today I actually want to spend some time talking about another aspect of your work, i.e., your role as Regional Adviser for the Caribbean South chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Please tell us a little bit about the SCBWI and the work of the Caribbean South chapter.

With over 19,000 members, the SCBWI is THE international information and networking not-for-profit society for writers and illustrators at any level of their careers in children's and Young Adult books. The benefits are far too many for me to list here so do investigate for yourself at

What I can add is that I found the SCBWI online in 2003 when the internet started to become not only a professional, but a household tool. I already had a few books published with Macmillan and over the years had spent so much time and money on legal fees and buying 'how to' books to educate myself about the business of it all. I thought, "Ahh, now this is what I needed from the start!" and my next thought was, "I'd really like to share this with others in the Caribbean and especially Trinidad!" because people were always calling or stopping me to ask how to write/ illustrate or get published a children's book they had in mind. I then offered my volunteer services and was invited to become the founding Regional Advisor of our Caribbean South chapter. I encourage writers and illustrators to explore the SCBWI online. In this capacity, I may be contacted via our chapter's blog:

You and I spoke privately before about publishing issues in the Caribbean. You have some strong views about self-publishing as it pertains to Caribbean literature. Please share.

Self-publishing, once dubbed "vanity press" for obvious reasons, features more importantly than ever as an option and is a major part of an evolution that is changing publishing, media in general and how we communicate our ideas with others. I am in favor of it in essence and use it myself. Self-publishing is put to good use when it is relevant however, it may also circumvent the necessary growth and development not only of individuals but of our local and regional publishing industry.

Situations that I consider 'relevant' are
1. poets
2. personal stories/ self-help industry
3. tie-in media product around which a business is envisioned
4. guru/ expert in anything as a supplement to seminars and workshops
5. an idea in any field or genre so off the wall, that no one will invest in it at first, but yourself

If you self publish to impress a publisher with the finish and look of a book, this only shows one's lack of exposure to the business. The only person you're impressing is yourself. Editors and publishers work in books. There is an industry standard for manuscript submission - once this is met it is accepted as professionally 'impressive'. With self published books, in most cases a publisher may say, "If it's been published already, why should we publish it again?" The idea that a self-published book may work as an advantage in manuscript submission applies only if you have a second, completed manuscript, that may be deemed of of greater creative value, which you have not yet published.

I take issue with the wave of self-publishing in the Caribbean because for the most part these authors are doing themselves and their talent a disservice.The feeling I get is that many are working to circumvent the process of professional competition and know-how. This concerns me because it primarily means lowered standards in general for our children. And yes, of course there are exceptions. My opinions and observations are not absolute.

At one time I believed self publishing was the only way to address what was once a dearth in Caribbean children's books. I have changed my mind about this. Now I have a sense there is a preferred stance of hopeful writers/creatives that sounds sort of defeatist to me. Many talented writers don't even know about, understand or want to try the standard industry process of query letters for example, even if it means getting rejected. This may reveal that we are not thick-skinned enough for the world stage and want some kind of preferential treatment and protection - very unprofessional! There is even such a thing as a 'good' rejection letter i.e. getting professional notes from a working editor in an established publishing house. Getting rejected by a professional who takes the time to tell you why may offer clues about the direction of growth needed. This may be of greater service in building a long term career based on one's craft, than just going straight to press on the steam of your own guaranteed approval and authority. Really, I know you asked me to keep my answers short but this topic could be an entire seminar!

The SBWI does not refuse self-published members but makes a differentiation for reasons of safeguarding quality. The SCBWI does not promote or award self-published books. If the sales are particularly good, this may warrant a second look but this is very seldom the case. We have collectively agreed to remain open and keep an eye on the way technology is influencing this change for better and/ or for worse.

You and the Caribbean South chapter of the SCBWI have taken a strong stance against self-publishing in the Caribbean context yet you yourself have a self-published title. How do you explain this contradiction?

As I explained in your third question, it has its relevance. It is not simply a matter of being against self publishing, it is understanding the playing field and making the best choices for your career at each stage. I sincerely believe we have talent right here in Trinidad who would get properties signed with established publishing houses IF they knew how. Earning such a success puts one on equal footing with your peers anywhere in the world; self-publishing does not.

The main thing in my case is that I got my first book published with Macmillan by sending a query letter in 1998 and going through the industry standard. At that time there was no internet, no Google Search! How blessed we are now as writers to have these tools! I sent my query snail mail! and got back a reply a couple months later with an expression of interest. The person I submitted to had left the post and it wasn't until the next year that I actually met an actual person face to face.

I had had rejections and trial and errors before that success. Earning knowledge through experience gives one clarity about the business of books and debunks any illusions we have about how things work. We take rejection so personally some times. I hear many people lamenting and claiming "victim" when really, in a competitive market their offering is either ill-timed, poorly submitted, or just not as good as the next. Teaching the "know- how" and "how to" of it is part of the work of the SCBWI. I would rather see our writers get contracts from established publishers and enjoy the benefits and prestige than have to start up their own businesses - unless they really, really want to! Because then, we hear all the complaints about the reality of that situation too, when they have no distributor or marketing support for their self published book.

I actually had an editor's interest in publishing Pink Carnival! but declined in the end because after a number of books, readers and anthologized stories I wanted to give myself the freedom to produce the book as I envisioned it and under a new imprint Meaningful Books. I also already had ten years of experience working with a big name like Macmillan and it was interesting to see what I had learned and there were still mistakes made. We are always learning. Mistakes in publishing, especially picture books are very costly. My new imprint is a part of a wider vision and goal to publish a very specific kind of book that does not really exist in the book market and that is an adjunct to my workshops with children, parents and teachers - again, as a part of a business goal. As I see it, a true publisher will actually publish others, and one of the imprint's goals is to do just that. I already have a second title produced and have identified a book by another author that I'd like to put out; it is a matter of resources and timing.

What are your views regarding independent ("indie") versus established publishing houses, either in the Caribbean or internationally?

One of the main problems I take issue with is that book publishers, in Trinidad anyway, are often book sellers and interest groups with 'sure thing' Ministry / text book hook ups. It's not a matter of ethics only but of end results - my concern is that it significantly reduces creative quality for our children generation after generation. And not to mention it limits and suppresses fair play in the market and stunts competitive creativity which is exactly what we need. We would do well to encourage Indie presses yes of course, but not to call a self published book, nor a book seller's press "independent". If an entrepreneur loves books and values her audience then let her invest in her vision and take a risk and then there should be healthy market support for such a venture and government and private sector should be a part of ensuring that such a risk is at least potentially viable.

Locally and regionally, we seem unperturbed by the consequences of business monopolies and have not yet made the connections between this and so many of our problems. In this climate the cultural creatives and artists cannot truly serve society as in developed countries. Breaking into a global market we then re-import to the Caribbean our own culture, may not be right in essence, but in my opinion, it is the route along which an individual will get the best opportunities - and in most entertainment and art fields this applies I think. Even Walcott and Naipaul have suffered in this machine - who is the rest a we?! West Indian authors of poetry and adult fiction have been getting a fair shake with Peepal Tree Press and Egg Box Publishing for example - both based in the UK. Children's books may be deemed less important and 'easy' so we may not be expected perhaps to produce the relative genius of a Beatrix Potter, Shel Silverstein, Enid Blyton or Doctor Seuss for our times and culture. Truly independent publishers here would want to discover and publish unique talent, as a sincere and serious mandate.

What are some of the things that aspiring and self-published Caribbean children's authors need to know in order to successful navigate the often messy world of publishing and does the Caribbean South chapter of the SCBWI provide professional development to help with that?

Absolutely - the help of course is all self-help. Members must discover, investigate and USE the tools and information available. Our mission is to help each other take a 'next step' in our careers- whatever stage we're at. If you have never been published we want to see you published and we want you to have every chance to understand whether or not your work is in fact publishable before you send it out to for consideration; and how to move it in that direction if it isn't. In many instances, editors in a big house will say I will receive unsolicited, unagented manuscripts only from SCBWI members this month and the only place you'll see that published is in our Bulletin magazine which only members receive! Not to mention the opportunity to compete for awards and grants against your international peer group and to apply fro travel grants to one of our three annual conferences where you can attend workshops and seminars and create opportunities to meet with editors and publishers face to face. 

You once shared with me some very interesting information about book piracy and illegal book publishing cartels in the Caribbean. How serious is book piracy in the Caribbean, particularly as it pertains to Caribbean children's/YA books? What can I, as an individual, do to stop or prevent book piracy in the Caribbean?

Yes it's true. Anyone who is in book sales or publishing in the Caribbean knows it. I saw some counterfeit work out of Guyana at a CAPNET conference a few years ago. The quality was amazing! Side by side there was no way to tell. It's not a problem easily solved, I mean the musicians suffer this plight and look at the way bootleg DVDs are culturally accepted. Until we understand that someone's sister, cousin, neighbor, husband etc is earning a living off intellectual property and copyrights it remains an abstract issue from Joe Public's point of view. And we're not very good on making white collar crime a crime anyway so I think this is one of the ways internet purchasing from publisher endorsed sources may help and of course most publishers have a 'official' distributor - at some point it is always going to be a matter of trust in our book sellers to be honest and vigilant. Just be a savvy consumer I guess! 

In our opinion, what would it take for Caribbean children's books to become bestsellers globally?

Well we are already you know. A book that sells on the internet is being sold globally and a book that sells 5,000 copies in the publishing world is already a 'best seller'. I know of course what you mean is a block buster hit perhaps. The reality is, NOBODY knows this answer. JK Rowling and her editors and publishers were not expecting the success she's had. It was unprecedented. Media tie in in the largest growing aspect of children's books and of course our market is just not rigged for these kinds of media and retail avenues and intersections. Well, except as it involves the corporate giants and their agendas. We have so much work to do; it is not a matter of individual talent.

I do believe that striking a chord in the North American/ U.K. market is the best bet - and artists in the developed countries on both sides of the proverbial pond know it and play it that way too. In many cases we are not aware of how much has already been done - what we may think of as new is not necessarily so. I've seen this first hand as an editor looking for teen fiction. It is important to investigate your idea before you invest in it. So many of the stories are similar and yet each author believes his own to be unique and special. Even so, a good story well told is something that never gets old. Networking is crucial - to really break through an author will need a good agent who believes in her work and commits herself to its success. A good agent will wheel and deal aggressively because her commission depends on and goes up when she gets the best deal possible for you!

Perhaps someone reading this is interested in joining the Caribbean South (or the Caribbean North) chapter of the SCBWI. What steps do they need to take?

It's easy! Just go online; Everything is there. You can join and pay online and then request to be listed under the Caribbean South chapter if you are not living in our region. My work is as a volunteer and the organization is a non-profit one so you will see that the content you receive is far out weighs the value of your annual membership. 

Joanne, thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with us. As a new member of the Caribbean South chapter of the SCBWI myself, I look forward to working with you!

Thank you for the opportunity Summer, you have much energy and talent to offer. I trust that we can all work together to create events for our regional chapter that will in time attract international interest and opportunities for our Caribbean talent in children's books.


Born, bred and based in Trinidad, Joanne Gail Johnson is a published children's author of a number of contemporary Caribbean books, series readers and athologized stories with Macmillan Education. She is a dynamic storyteller, and facilitates “Relevant Reading” and “Core Creativity” workshops for students and teachers; including volunteer readers of GSK's Comforting Words Mobile library at the Mt. Hope Children’s Hospital in Trinindad.

Joanne has traveled the length and breadth of Trinidad reading to children of all ages, and recently visited St. Maarten and The Bahamas where she visited both primary and secondary schools. As a children's theatre facilitator, she has worked with UWI’s Creative Arts Centre, The Trinidad Theatre Workshop, and ran her own children's theatre company, The Hamelyn Players, for eight years. In the 90s, her company SUN TV LTD pioneered indigenous cable television in Trinidad producing over 700 hours of 100% Caribbean content; and in 2003 created The First Ever Website for Caribbean Children. This year SUN TV launched its own imprint Meaningful Books with its inaugural title Pink Carnival!. Joanne’s work is generously supported by the Trinidadian NGO, Creative Parenting for the New Era. 

Related Links

Caribbean South Chapter of the SCBWI

Caribbean South Chapter of the SCBWI's Flickr photostream

Meaningful Books