By  on June 12, 2015  Leave a Comment

Throughout my library career, I’ve worked with disenfranchised and resourceful people of color (I don’t like the term at-risk), from preschoolers to adults. For a while, I was a children’s librarian and I implemented a bookmobile program serving a local Headstart and preschool centers with multicultural youth. I provided up to four to six storytimes a day. What I didn’t know about storytime and storytelling when I started, I learned by the time I left that job. By then, I was also keenly aware of how few multicultural picture books there were. I contacted Children’s Book Press— an independent publisher based in San Francisco (now owned by the fantastic Lee & Low)—to locate titles that would be relevant to the kids in my community.

Flash forward to today, and I’m teaching a group of max unit kids to read to their babies (or brothers, or sisters, or cousins). It’s mostly an excuse for me to share books with them. I start with one of my favorite books, Debra Frasier’s On the Day You Were Born (HMH, 1991). As I read, these young people—some of whom who are facing 15 or 20 years of incarceration (and, even, an unbelievable 80 years)—were sucking their thumbs and twirling their hair. In a group of six girls, only one said she’d been read to as a child. What a difference it would make to have positive and welcoming reflections of themselves in the books that we shared. Imagine if all industries, including publishing, were accepting and warm toward them. As Frederick Douglass observed, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

PuffyLast month, I attended the Association of Children’s Librarians of Northern California 2015 Institute. The event’s topic was “All Due Respect: A Dialogue about Diversity, Equity, and Creating Safe Spaces for All Youth.” There, I discovered several offerings that would make excellent read-alouds and storytime picks for incarcerated teens, and a few are included below. Check the organization’s Facebook pagefor videos of some of the presentations.

Aya de León’s Puffy: People Whose Hair Defies Gravity sold out in about 15 minutes, as attendees saw the value of this book. What fun! This title has photographs of real kids and real families with full heads of buoyant hair and the narrative is set to a Dr. Seussian beat. The back cover features honor society student Vanessa Van Dyke who was bullied, then threatened with expulsion, because of her hair. Vanessa says, “It’s puffy and I like it that way.” Buy this one in multiple copies.

Oh Oh BabyI sat next to Janine Macbeth of Blood Orange Press and she slipped me her 2013 book. I actually burst into tears as I read it. Oh, Oh, Baby Boy! is simply gorgeous, both physically— with illustrations of tempura paintings on craft paper—and emotionally. It’s on a topic that’s rarely addressed: baby boys and their fathers. Blood Orange Press is an independent publisher that believes “children and adults of all ages should have access to stories that recognize and lift up their individual power, dignity, and beauty.” This book does just that. It’s an absolute must-purchase for every library.

boy bricksBeing a good father is what motivated Alton Carter, author of The Boy Who Carried Bricks to write his story. His book tells the hard tale of how he was broken as a boy: his mom had five children by four different men and there’s a blank space on his birth certificate under father’s name. Raised in a violent, dysfunctional family living in desperate poverty, Alton finally ran away and ended up in foster care. He was sent to live on a “farm” where he and the other children were horrifically abused and mistreated.

The In the Margins committee that I sit on has been debating the merits of this book, and the biggest issue we’re currently having is over the cover. Committee member Dale Clark says, “If they can get past the cover, a lot of kids would be able to relate to the horrors of Alton’s life. But that cover has to go. Seriously, it could easily be mistaken as an elementary novel and it is anything but that.” I’ve booktalked it with a blank cover. So far, the feedback I’ve received has been positive. We also contacted the publisher with our opinions about the cover and they were receptive to our feedback for the next edition.

Burn-Baby-Burn-Kevin Craig’s Burn Baby, Burn Baby has a good cover and some great graphics inside, especially the chapter headings— a cool heart with flames. Francis’s face was disfigured when his abusive father set him on fire. Now, he’s being bullied by kids at school and doubts anyone can love him. But, Rachel, the new hot girl at school is totally into him. Can it be true? A short page count, appealing cover, and topics ranging bullying to abuse and a bit of romance make this a compelling choice for every library.

If you don’t know who Freeway Rick Ross is, I’m about to officially increase your cool quotient. RICK_ROSS_Rick Ross is the name of the one-time drug kingpin who goes by the name Freeway Rick Ross (to distinguish himself from the rapper Rick Ross). Ross was involved in the crack cocaine trade in Los Angeles, as well as in other areas of the United States, and made millions. His connections to the Iran-Contra scandal were first revealed in a series of articles published by the San Jose Mercury News. While in prison, he taught himself to read and write, and now teaches economics to kids in the Watts neighborhood of LA, and speaks as a reformed drug dealer and community builder. Despite some uneven and repetitive writing of his Freeway Rick Ross: The Untold Autobiography, this is a must-have for every urban library for its author, and its intro to the politics of the drug wars. Purchase multiple copies; it’s going to be popular.

Ghetto BrotherJulian Voloj’s Ghetto Brother is an important book, presenting the story of a once-broken child who becomes a whole adult. Part biography, part history, this graphic novel follows the young, Puerto Rican Benjy as he navigates the streets of the South Bronx as gangs form and develop peace treaties, to his marriage to a childhood sweetheart, and the start of the hip-hop movement. Looking back 40 years, Benjy is able to put gangs and gang life into a larger sociopolitical context that many youth can’t. In this narrative, the protagonist learns of secrets about himself and his family that add even more multicultural depth and dimension to his story. Black-and-white photographs of people and places and a foreword by Jeff Chang (Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Picador; 2005) make this book both timely and relevant. The dark cover and fuzzy black-and-white drawings detract from the overall presentation, but the story is stellar. It’s a must-purchase for every urban and juvenile detention facility library.

Most of the kids I work with start out actively hating to read, primarily due to the dearth of materials that are relevant to their lives. I honestly believe that if there were more diverse books, there would be far less violence in the world. The fact that these books do not exist is in itself a hostile act that perpetuates violence.

Carter, Alton. The Boy Who Carried Bricks. Roadrunner Pr. 2015. Tr $18.95. 179p. ISBN 9781937054342.

Craig, Kevin. Burn Baby, Burn Baby. Curiosity Quills Pr. 2014. pap. $12.99 141p. 9781620076514.

de Leόn, Aya. Puffy: People Whose Hair Defies Gravity. CreateSpace. 2013. pap. $15. 23p. 9781494436773

Macbeth, Janine. Oh, Oh, Baby Boy! Blood Orange Pr. 2013. Tr $15.95. 32p. 9780985351403.

Ross, Rick and Cathy Scott. Freeway Rick Ross: The Untold Autobiography. CreateSpace. 2014. pap. $19.99. 282p. 9781499651539.

Voloj, Julian. Ghetto Brother Warrior to Peacemaker. Claudia Ahlering. NBM. 2015. pap. $12.99. 127p. 9781561639489.

Great interview. 

RAWing with Paul Langan answering the five questions of doom

  1. Tell me how you got started writing, in particular writing for teens. Why did you focus on writing books with an urban setting featuring youth of color?

I wrote my first short story in 6th grade. It was almost Halloween, and my reading teacher challenged our class to write a scary story. The winning story would be selected by the class and receive a $5 prize. I was a new kid in the school, and I wrote my story about the thing that scared me the most—a classmate who spent much of his time shoving me in the hallways and threatening me on the playground. In my story, he met a glorious end at the hands of a horde of bully-hungry zombies. He got attention, which he liked, but I got that $5 prize and discovered a new tool to deal with difficulties in my world: writing.

Many moons later, I worked for Townsend Press as a coordinator for a summer reading program for Philadelphia 8th graders. My goal was to get kids reading. To do that, we created a reading contest. Kids would select a book straight off teacher recommendation lists and bestseller charts. They’d read it and call our toll-free reading hotline where I’d confirm they finished the book. Prizes, including cash, were awarded based on the number of pages each student read.

We had fun that summer, but I discovered our students, mostly African American teens, seemed uninterested in the titles teachers recommended. Instead, they gravitated toward novels set in cities, featuring protagonists that looked like them (a rarity in the YA world in the late 1990’s). In retrospect, we should not have been surprised that they preferred books that spoke to their experiences. But at the time, this idea was revolutionary. The kids schooled us. The lesson was simple: if we want young adults to pay attention to books, we need to give them books that pay attention to them. That idea sparked the Bluford Series.

2.      Bluford is popular for lot s of reasons, but in particular often with kids who can’t or won’t read other books. In your opinion, what are the elements of a successful book for reluctant teen readers?  

Confession. I’ve never liked the term reluctant reader.  I’ve seen many with this label become avid readers—once they get the right book. Why don’t they have it? One culprit is reluctant publishers. For too long, mainstream publishers refused to acknowledge or embrace young readers of color. This is well documented by greater minds than me, and it is changing (finally). But traditional publishing still seems reluctant to address the issue of access. Listing a hardback book for $19.99 online or in a suburban bookstore is evidence of the problem. In crowded neighborhoods in Philly, Chicago, or Detroit, for example, bookstores are rare. Municipal libraries are underfunded. School libraries are being shuttered. Money for books and eBooks is limited. As a result, many teens don’t get to experience exciting YA books. Is it fair to call them reluctant readers? I don’t think so.

And sometimes we actually teach them to be reluctant. Kids without access to books tend to have reading experiences confined to what’s taught in school. Often these books are far removed from students’ interests, and they come with baggage: quizzes, writing assignments, worksheets, book reports, etc. These tasks make reading a punishable activity. For strong readers, this work can be dull. For struggling readers (more often boys), this work can leave them discouraged or frustrated. Years of this in school can destroy enthusiasm for reading. It may even lead students to conclude books have nothing to offer—or to give up on reading altogether.

The Bluford Series was crafted to change this. Bluford stories attempt to reintroduce reading to teens who have, for whatever reason, abandoned books. Each novel is set in bustling inner-city Bluford High School, a place one reader called “Hogwarts in the ’hood.” Each story begins with a situation that has emotional hooks that resonate for young adults: the desire to connect and be accepted, the longing for love and respect, the pain of loss or rejection, the feeling of being misunderstood by family or friends, the sting of betrayal and rivalry, the difficulty of being young and confused and uncertain, the magical intensity of growing up. These sparks burn bright in young adults.

In addition, the books are short (less than 200 pages), giving teens who may think they dislike reading a chance to finish a book. Many write to me saying Bluford novels are the first they’ve ever voluntarily completed. Some describe feeling as if something was wrong with them because, for the first time in their lives, they stayed up all night reading. A few have even said they thought they were ill because their hearts raced and they forgot about dinner while reading!

To produce this reaction, Bluford novels move quickly and include lots of action and suspense, starting on page one if possible. They also, I hope, pack an emotional punch, leaving readers with something to think and, perhaps, talk about.  This combination allows the books to compete with smart phones, social networking, and video games for teens’ attention—not an easy task. It might also convince them to give books a second chance. That was the intent from day one.

3.      Tell me a little bit about the deal with Scholastic coming out with the Bluford books with different covers, and in one case, a different title.  What, if any other changes, did you need to make to make the Scholasticable? (is that a word?)

I like the word! I may have to borrow it. Yes, Scholastic approached us years ago and expressed interest in distributing the Bluford Series. Townsend Press, my employer, is a small educational publisher. We lack the reach, expertise, and distribution muscle of Scholastic and were delighted they felt our novels were potentially Scholasticable.

We agreed to terms in which both Townsend and Scholastic could distribute the books. Their marketing team felt that photograph-based covers made more business sense. They also requested that we change the title of one of our books—The Gun—for fear some bookstore chains may refuse to carry it. To appease them, I renamed that book Payback, an alternate title I had all along.

4.      Okay, the big question:  so I reluctantly read a blog review of Outburst in my The Alternative series. This book tells the story of an African American teenage girl coming out of detention and going into a foster home.  The review began with “Jones, who is white …” and I wished I would have stopped reading there. Have you faced this being a white male writing stories for and about kids of color?  Most everybody seems to be onboard with we need diverse books, but not if those books are not written by people of color.  What are our thoughts on this issue?

Ah, yes. The Big Question—worthy of more than a few paragraphs!

I’ve been around the block for a while now. Early on, I visited schools where readers—teens and adults—didn’t know I was white until my pasty face appeared in the front office. I heard readers exclaim, “Oh my God, he’s white,” more than a few times. I have also heard my books described as “ghetto novels,” a racially charged term with positive and negative meanings. Still others have suggested I’ve “neglected” or even discriminated against white readers by not featuring white protagonists. Others are angry that I’ve written such books, arguing that I have no right to do so.

Race is our cultural third rail, and it is woven right into our national DNA, whether we want to admit it or not.  We are all impacted, and we all play a part. If you choose to avoid the issue or look away, you’re playing a part too, a passive one.

Most writers, myself included, are not passive. If we were, we wouldn’t choose this path. When you decide to write, you make a commitment to be true to what you are creating. That means doing your homework and research, mining your experience, and delving through your own creative process to tell the Truth. Your readers deserve all you can give (and sometimes more). So do your characters. If you get it wrong, both will abandon you.

For Bluford, I chose to set events in a city school, similar to the schools students in our summer program attended.  For believability and realism, I made this fictional high school mirror the population in those schools. As a result, few students at Bluford High are white. That’s reality! Unlike most YA books, especially in 2001 when Bluford appeared, nonwhite characters are not relegated to the sidelines. They are not minor players or token characters. Instead, they are the centerpiece, the heroes and foils, parents and children, principals and janitors, bullies and targets, veterans and neighbors, police officers and thugs in every story. Sometimes they are many of these things at once. Like all of us, they are complex and multi-layered with their own histories, secrets, and mysteries. They are also, I hope, full of contradictions, flaws, talents, fears, hopes, beauty and ugliness—traits that are authentically human. Real.

I get letters all the time. My favorites are those that say, “I know you’re white, but it’s okay because you totally get it.”  I treasure these because as a writer and fellow human being, Iwant to get it. It is the prime directive.

Of course, there are some things as a white man I will never fully understand. While I have many experiences which inform my work, my white skin makes my American experience different than that of my characters and many of my readers. This is complex territory too big to fully address here, but as a white writer, I must account for it, examine what it means, own up to it, and always remember it. This is our cultural backdrop, but it is not an excuse to avoid or ignore readers of color. That approach has been standard practice for far too long, and we see where it leads. Let’s change it. I think all writers should join in this effort. All readers matter.

Regardless of background or history, writers share a single challenge: to breathe art and Truth into their work. Readers get to decide whether we are successful. It’s that simple. To paraphrase the Bard, the story is the thing.

Does the story hold up? Does the writer get it? Does the art resonate? If yes, there’s nothing more to say. I aim for yes.

5.      What are you working out now?  In addition to writing Bluford books, what else do you do for Townsend Press?

We’re a small independent educational publisher, but we have a big reach. We produce materials—novels, leveled books for emerging readers, reading/writing texts for schools and colleges—that engage students and help teachers teach. The Bluford Series is just one part of that. We also sponsor various programs to assist schools with limited budgets. As an editor at Townsend Press, I have many responsibilities outside the Bluford Series. Lately I’ve spent much time working to digitize our offerings. But I am happy to say I’ll be returning to the Bluford Series full-time next year, and a new Bluford book, in the works for some time now, will be out this fall. We’ll post details about it soon on Bluford’s Facebook page,

YALSA’s Cultural Competencies Task Force interviews Patrick Jones, retired young adult services guru, author, speaker, winner of the 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Library Association and Catholic Library Association, and pro wrestling enthusiast. Patrick was a teen librarian for 20 years, and continues to be an advocate for teens and teen services. This podcast gives an overview of how best to reach out and serve young adults in juvenile correctional facilities and provides advice to librarians new to outreach to prisons:


Librarians Serving Youth in Custody:

The Beat Within: A Publication of Writing and Art from the Inside:

Contra Costa Times article about librarian Amy Cheney:

Literacy for Incarcerated Teens:

Reaching Out to Young Adults in Jail, p.16:

School Library Journal article about literacy for incarcerated teens:

The following selected works feature young women dealing with tough stuff, including sex trafficking, incarceration, and self-harm.

Up to 73 percent of juvenile justice cases involve girls who have histories of physical and sexual violence. Eighty percent of all girls in detention in 2011 were placed there for low-level offenses. Black girls make up only eight percent of the U.S. population of youth aged 10–17 yet constitute 39 percent of those detained. This is just some of the information documented in Richard Ross’s new book Girls in Justice (Image of Justice, 2015)The facts are brought to stark and full-color life through an array of superb photographs, matter-of-fact yet gut-wrenching stories of these young women, and six provocative essays by adults questioning the juvenile justice system.

At first glance, I thought there were too many white girls pictured, and it was jarring as to the facts documented and what I see everyday. But the vast majority of the girls featured in Ross’s title are young women of color, and what I might have read for white are actually Latinas. This accurately reflects the statistics on the individuals who populate our prisons. The book depicts, directly and indirectly, the intense discrimination that these girls face. Z.O., age 15, photographed on the back cover with Trust Nobody tattooed on her arm says: “I was just AWOL for a few days from my foster home. I was 11 when I was taken from my house. My mom was smoking crack and pregnant. My dad lives in Mexico. I was putting Wite-Out on a park bench and I was sitting there cutting class. They handcuffed me.” This text belongs in all libraries across the country for concrete insight into the reality of these girls’ lives.

Juvenile in JusticeRoss’s self-published Juvenile In Justice was recognized in the 2013 Alex Awards, sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA). I was there, and I screamed, I was so excited. It’s the perfect adult book for teens—deceptively simple and extremely powerful—multiple perspectives that support and build upon one another. Following the win, the Alex Awards committee added this to its eligibility requirements: “Titles that are self-published, published only in eBook format, and/or published from a publisher outside of the U.S. will not be considered eligible until the first year the book is available in print or distributed through a U.S. publishing house.” While I understand ALA’s point of view,  this criterion perpetuates the lack of diversity that we find in our library bookshelves. It is so discouraging.

PBS and CNN featured Ross’s new book on their media outlets—none of these venues would think about not featuring a book because it’s self-published. Ross has several other books that we can look forward to reading next year: Juvie Talk: Unlocking the Language of Lockdown and Parent of Last Resort: Child Welfare in America (both Image of Justice).

KernLittle PeachPeggy Kern, best known for her excellent titles in the “Bluford High” series from the independent Townsend Pr., has a new book, Little Peach (HarperCollins, 2015). We know things aren’t working out well for 14-year-old ‘Chelle, as she’s narrating her story from a hospital bed. With broken teeth and swollen eyes, she can barely remember her name.Little Peach is the story of how she got to this point.

Told in flashbacks, starting with the death of her loving grandfather, then moving to her mom’s, and her drug addiction, ‘Chelle decides to follow her friend to the Pink Houses in New York and meets Devon at Grand Central Station. With a good size print and a low page count, this book will be a hit with reluctant readers. Is the book better since it’s been picked up by HarperCollins? Not at all, in fact the hardback format and innocuous cover is going to make it a harder sell, compared to the books she writes for Townsend, which does a terrific job marketing books featuring teens of color.

Workman_Tattooed TeadropsP.D. Workman’s self-published book Ruby landed a Top 10 spot on our In the Margins 2014 list. As an exciting footnote, the In the Margins committee is actively advocating with Ingram and Baker & Taylor to feature the self-published and independent titles we review, including Workman’s books. In her latest offering, Tattooed Teardrops (2014), Tamara wants to turn her life around after being released from juvie. But when her psychotic ex-cellmate Glock shows up, Tamara’s life spirals out of control. How can she convince her probation officer and foster family that she has changed? How does she escape the influence of the frightening and out-of-control Glock? Readers will appreciate the realistic details about Tamara’s release, her issues dealing with a foster family, her emotional triggers, and the challenges facing someone trying to maintain the conditions of parole. For those teens who love books where all that can go wrong does go wrong (isn’t that almost all of them?), this is a winner.

Frank_DimeE.R. Frank, author and social worker and is back, and it’s been worth the wait. Like America (2002 S. & S.), Dime is a richly complex, psychological mystery with the right amount of interior and exterior action. Never preachy, the narration allows readers to gain their own insights through the extraordinary prose. Thirteen-year-old Dime has a problem. She has to write a note so that people will understand. Should she write the note as Brandy or Lollipop, two of the girls she lives with? Or should she write the note as if Money were talking, or Truth?

The note isn’t really the problem, even though she fixates on it. Lollipop, 10, is in the bedroom all day with her virtual fans. And soon the fans are going to be brought to her in real life. The real problem is that Dime didn’t think Daddy was someone who would put a naked 10-year-old girl in a room to earn money. She’s beginning to see more clearly and with the truth comes greater danger and an understanding of the consequences. This is some of the best writing I’ve seen that illuminates how girls are set up in complicated situations, and how love and abuse become confused in the minds of victims of sexual violence. Some teens may miss the literary references, but it won’t lessen the story’s power.

While clearly (from the cover) Tattooed Teardrops features a white protagonist, both Dime and Little Peach feature protagonists whose race is not specified. A pet peeve of mine is books where race is not specified, because the author is assuming the character is WHITE, where other characters that are NOT WHITE are described by their race. This is NOT the case in either of these books, where both Kern and Frank carefully created universal characters that all girls are going to be able to identify with.

The Beauty and the Beast Effect in YA Literature part II, a discussion of rape/abduction fantasies by author Christa DesirMy girls are picking up C. Desir’s books and loving them. In Bleed Like Me (S. & S., 2015), Amelia Gannon is a cutter. Her parents adopted three brothers orphaned in Guatemala five years before, and since then they have no time for her. The boys terrorize the family, and Amelia will do anything to escape. She meets Brooks, a hot, tough, former juvenile detention detainee who was once in in foster care (his father wanted to kill him and his mother is a meth head). Brooks makes Amelia feel loved, special, needed— but he’s also very possessive and wants to take her away from everything she knows so he can have her all to himself. There is no happy ending for either of them.  Librarian Sabrina Carnesi says, “This is a very important piece due to the multi-layered dysfunctional relationships, which makes for a more authentic presentation. In real life, one experience does not lead to a 180 degree turnaround in behavioral patterns. It’s so obvious to readers that the lesson has not been learned and that IS the lesson. The issues raised in Bleed Like Me serve as a catalyst for critical discussions.”

DESIR, C. Bleed Like Me. S. & S./Simon Pulse. 2014. 288p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781442498907.

FRANK, E.RDime. S. & S./Atheneum. 2015. 336p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481431606.

KERN, Peggy. Little Peach. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. 2015. 208p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062266958.

ROSS, Richard.Girls In Justice. Image of Justice. 2015. 191p. Tr. $29.95. ISBN 9780985510619.

WORKMAN, P.DTattooed Teardrops. pdworkman. 2014. 294p. pap. $15.95. ISBN 9780993768750.

Other resources:

A booklist for girls on the topics of sexual abuse and trafficking

#SVYALit (Sexual Violence in YA Lit) Project Index from “Teen Librarian Toolbox”

Listen to this terrific  presentation about why we need diverse books, in case you don’t already know, or want to feel validated and reinspired:


“When I said I was bored my mom told me to go read a book but I didn’t because I thought books were boring. In school I didn’t’ really read, I just skimmed the words. But since I’ve been here (Alameda County Juvenile Hall), for four months, I’ve read a good 6 books: Letter to an Incarcerated Brother (Hill Harper), Sister Souljah, Straight Out of East Oakland (Rev. Harry Williams), Buck (MK Asante), an autobiography of Tupac Shakur. I’ve even been reading the dictionary! It’s the most I’ve every read – I never finished a book before. The books give me education and space to be somewhere else. They’ve opened my mind and  opened my vocabulary!”  – Brendon S. 


Check out this great 38 minute informational video from Ryan Dowd of Hesed House:

I love this article for many, many reasons. Look at the cover of this book, the Girl Who Swallowed the Sun. It’s beautiful! How many covers do you see that is the  full face of a dark skinned person? I could probably count them on one hand. That is a terrible, terrible thing for the world. Thank you, Zetta, for changing the world.

Zetta came to visit the girls last Saturday, and it was delightful. The girls, brown and black and one white, enthusiastically participated. They sat on top of  the desks (after telling me adamantly that they were NOT going to sit in a circle), picked up the books they wanted, listened to Zetta, talked about reading, writing and what they were good at, and loved every minute of it. One of the girls said she forgot that probation staff was in the room. That says it all!

By Zetta Elliott in School Library Journal  on March 16, 2015

Zetta_coverI can’t breathe.

I am a Black feminist writer committed to social justice. I write stories about Black children and teens, but within the children’s literature community I have struggled to find a home or what poet June Jordan calls “living room.” In “Moving Towards Home,” Jordan describes a place “where the talk will take place in my language…where my children will grow without horror…where I can sit without grief.” If “home” represents sanctuary—a safe space where one can speak in one’s authentic voice, feel valued, and able to thrive—then the children’s literature community is not my home. I am—and likely will remain—an outsider.

By industry standards, I suppose I am a failed author. Since I started writing for young readers in 2000, only three of my thirty stories have been published traditionally. I turned to self-publishing as my only recourse, and now face the contempt of those who see self-publishing as a mere exercise in vanity.


Last year a white Facebook “friend” suggested that my decision to self-publish was analogous to Blacks in the civil rights era choosing to dine in their segregated neighborhood instead of integrating Jim Crow lunch counters in the South. In her mind, self-publishing is a cowardly form of surrender; to be truly noble (and, therefore, deserving of publication) I ought to patiently insist upon my right to sit alongside white authors regardless of the hostility, rejection, and disdain I regularly encounter.

Zetta_last bunnySince 2009 I have used my scholarly training to examine white supremacy in the children’s literature community where African Americans remain marginalized, despite the 2014 increase in books about Africans/African Americans. This sudden spike (reflected in the latest statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) was not paired with a comparable increase in the number of books by Blacks, however, suggesting that power remains where it has always been: in the hands of whites.

Publishers Weekly’s 2014 salary survey revealed that only 1 percent of industry professionals self-identify as African American (89 percent self-identify as white). That the homogeneity of the publishing workforce matches the homogeneity of published authors and their books is no coincidence. The marginalization of writers of color is the result of very deliberate decisions made by gatekeepers within the children’s literature community—editors, agents, librarians, and reviewers. These decisions place insurmountable barriers in the path of far too many talented writers of color.

I know better than to turn to the publishing industry when I seek justice for “my children:” Trayvon, Renisha, Jordan, Islan, Ramarley, Aiyana, and Tamir. I know not to hope that industry gatekeepers will rush to publish books for the children of Eric Garner as they struggle to make sense of the murder of their father at the hands of the New York Police Department. But I also know that children’s literature can help to counter the racially biased thinking that insists Michael Brown was “no angel” but rather “a demon” to be feared and destroyed. I believe there’s a direct link between the misrepresentation of Black youth as inherently criminal and the justification given by those who so brazenly take their lives.

The publishing industry can’t solve this problem single-handedly, but the erasure of Black youth from children’s literature nonetheless functions as a kind of “symbolic annihilation.” Despite the fact thatthe majority of primary school children in the U.S. are now kids of color, the publishing industry continues to produce books that overwhelmingly feature white children only. The message is clear: the lives of kids of color don’t matter.


A friend who is a librarian in Oakland, CA, recently encountered a young patron requesting a book on Michael Brown, and she had to explain that the traditional publishing process will likely take years to produce such a book. Police brutality is an issue of great importance to the Black community—the poet Jordan has called it one of our “urgencies”—yet the publishing industry has failed to produce children’s books that reflect and/or explain this reality. According to Horn Book editor-in-chief Roger Sutton, self-published books “aren’t filling any kind of need that isn’t already being met by established publishers,” as he wrote in a blog post entitled “An open letter to the self-published author feeling dissed.”  Sutton finds it “difficult to otherwise think of subjects that scare the mainstream off.”

Really? How many children’s books do we have about police brutality—mass incarceration—lynching—HIV/AIDS? Homelessness and suicide among queer youth of color? How many books show Black children using magic and/or technology to shape an alternative universe?

These are the kinds of stories that I write and am forced to self-publish, because they are rejected over and over by (mostly white) editors whose “most important job,” according to Sutton, “is to understand what contribution your story makes—or doesn’t—to the big world of books and readers.” Longtime editor and children’s literature scholar Laura Atkins counters that mainstream publishers seem to worry about “publishing only those books which they think will be palatable to the ‘mainstream.’ This results in books that tend to target a white middle-class audience.” Many members of the children’s literature community clamor for greater diversity but remain silent when another Black teenager is shot down. They cling to the fantasy that white supremacy has shaped every U.S. institution except the publishing industry. Like racism in police forces across this nation, racism in publishing is cultural and systemic; the problem cannot be solved merely by hiring a few (more) people of color.


In her essay, “How to Uphold White Supremacy by Focusing on Diversity and Inclusion,” published on the site Model View CultureKẏra condemns the liberal impulse to position “marginalized groups as naturally needing to assimilate into dominant ones, rather than to undermine said structures of domination.” It frustrates me that most people seem comfortable with the reform of the existing system rather than its transformation. The idea of trying something new seems positively terrifying, and those of us proposing viable alternatives are generally shut out of the diversity discussion. At the recent Day of Diversity held during the American Library Association’s Midwinter Convention in Chicago, I once again heard calls for best-selling books that will prove to the corporate publishing industry that there is demand for diversity. Yet Kẏra rightly observes, “When we work for justice and liberation, we can’t accept progress that is conditional on being economically beneficial.”

As a writer who prioritizes social justice over popularity and/or profit, I find “living room” in alternatives to the existing system. Since 2013 I have self-published 10 books for young readers. You likely won’t have heard of any of them, since indie books are excluded from review by the major outlets—which leaves just a few openminded bloggers, and without reviews, most public libraries won’t add a book to their collection (many don’t consider self-published books at all).


One reason I self-publish is to provide a degree of transparency that is largely missing from the traditional publishing process, and to refute the claim that the low number of books by people of color is a question of “merit.” Atkins, who has written about white privilege in publishing, observes, “It isn’t clear how books are selected, or how they are developed or marketed. So we don’t really see why books are rejected.”

Newbery Medal winner Kwame Alexander self-published his first thirteen books and acknowledges that there’s a “long history” of self-publishing in the Black community. Following in the tradition of independent publishers such as Just Us Books, founded by Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson in 1987, Alexander started his own press in 1995 and assumed responsibility for writing, promoting, and selling his own books. But I suspect most fledgling writers simply give up after hitting the publishing industry’s seemingly impenetrable wall.

As an indie author, I have the freedom to write about the things that matter most to the members of my community rather than waiting for approval from a gatekeeper who lacks the cultural competence needed to truly appreciate my work. Like the books generated by Reflection Press or Blood Orange Press, focusing on diverse authors and readers, my Rosetta Press imprint produces stories that are culturally specific and organic—not forced through a white filter in order to be labeled “universal.” Diverse books can foster cross-cultural understanding at an early age. At a moment when 75 percent of whites have no friends of color and public schools are rapidly “resegregating,” the need for diverse children’s literature is greater than ever.

I am partnering with other artist-activists to develop a model of community-based publishing that uses print-on-demand technology to transfer power from the industry’s (mostly white) gatekeepers to those excluded from the publishing process. Currently, as writer-in-residence at Brooklyn’s Weeksville Heritage Center, I am teaching free writing classes for children and adults and am developing a picture book about the free, 19th-century African American community, which the center will publish independently. I hold “office hours” and have set up a blog so that community members can “ask an author” any questions they may have about writing and publishing.

Instead of investing in a costly (and often antagonistic) MFA in writing, I encourage aspiring book creators to first take Maya Gonzalez‘s online course “The Heart of It,” which puts “the power of children’s books in the hands of the people and the community, in part by demystifying both traditional and self-publishing routes,” she says. An award-winning author of more than twenty books for children, Gonzalez is driven by a desire to restore voice to those who have been silenced: “Through the reclamation of storytelling we can hear and learn from each others’ experience. We can know each other again…perhaps for the first time. We can tell the stories we know we need to hear. And we can heal.”


I am hopeful that more public libraries will embrace a community-based publishing model and assist diverse patrons as they learn how to tell their stories, becoming producers and not just consumers of books. Public libraries have served as a sanctuary for me since I was a child, and I had a library card in this country long before I had a green card. The Brooklyn Public Library sends me into dozens of schools every year, enabling hundreds of kids of color to meet an author who lives in and writes about the magic to be found in their community. Most of my thirteen books for young readers aren’t part of the library’s collection, but perhaps that will change over time. I am hopeful that in the future the bias against self-published books will diminish as gatekeepers realize that it is unfair to punish writers of color for failing at a game that’s rigged. Until then, I will continue to self-publish, and I will offer my “organic” writing to the members of my community. I will find a home where my creativity can flourish. I will insist upon my right to breathe.

By  , published in School Library Journal on February 18, 2015

As librarians who work with incarcerated and underserved teens and see the misinformation in the world about the kids we serve, the In the Margins committee realized a book list and award for adults who work in the margins and understand issues of social justice and inequity was needed. To this end, the In the Margins Social Justice/Advocacy Book Award was created this year. We are enlivened to announce the formation of this award and the inaugural winner.

just mercyThe In the Margins committee recognizes Bryan Stevenson for his tremendous book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau).

The decision wasn’t easy. Our debate raged primarily between Stevenson’s title and Nell Bernstein’s Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison (New Press). Just Mercy carried the day (most likely) because of its accessibility and passion. The title is winning tons of awards, and we are happy to be in the good company of his work.

In addition to the winning title, the committee has also provided the other nominations, with annotations. We hope that you will read one or all of these books to increase, deepen, affirm, and clarify your understanding of the issues facing poor people of color in America.

In the Margins Advocacy Nominations

BERNSTEIN, Nell. Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison. New Press. June 2013. 384p. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781595589569.

Burning down the houseNell Bernstein doesn’t talk the usual talk about the youth involved with the juvenile justice system. Instead, she focuses on societal disregard and epistemic failure to educate and rehabilitate youth in custody. In a country that leads the world in juvenile arrest, this epic failure draws incarcerated youth deeper into the world of crime. Recent studies on offenders have revealed that those who are locked up as youth are twice as likely to be locked up as adults compared to those given alternative choices. Burning Down the House does for children what Michele Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (New Press, 2012) has done for adults: brings this issue to national attention. Bernstein outlines the history of juvenile “reform” schools, the rise and fall of the rehabilitative model, and the reality of what happens behind bars to already traumatized teens: further physical, sexual, and mental abuse. She takes a look at solitary confinement practices, “therapeutic prisons,” and juvenile reentry. Using solid teen developmental theory and research, United Nations findings, and trauma informed care, there is no book that so articulately sets forth the argument against the imprisonment of children. A passionate advocate for children, Bernstein highlights teens’ voices and experiences throughout the book, which adds and insight to the statistics.

GOFFMAN, Alice. On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. University of Chicago Press. May 2014. 288p. Tr $25.00. ISBN 9780226136714. pap $16.00. ISBN 9781250065667.

on the runFor six years, Goffman emerged herself into the subculture and lives of families residing in a poor black inner city Philadelphia neighborhood. Goffman’s commitment to the integrity of the people involved shows throughout the work as she reveals the desperation, fear, and resourcefulness of a community trying to survive within a culture of surveillance. Children’s games are centered on running and hiding from the police; janitors and other hospital employees end up treating serious wounds, including gunshot wounds, on the street.  Small business arise to assist people who need identification (if you don’t understand why people don’t go to the DMV or the hospital, you will by the time you finish this book). Entire families and some individuals within families are able to escape lives free from police surveillance, custody and control by virtually living their lives inside their homes. Written in clear concise language with scrupulous reporting, readers are able to see through the eyes and experiences of Goffman—a young middle class white college student and daughter of two prominent sociologists—the unfair and disproportional treatment of people by police. Based on the evidence presented in this investigative sociological report, there’s not much more to say about the separate and unequal treatment of people by police and the courts.

HART, Carl.  High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society. HarperCollins. June 2013. 352p. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9780062015884. pap. $15.99. ISBN 9780062015891.

high priceHart was the only black person in America to receive his PhD in neuroscience in 1996.  Hart bares his life and soul as well as his scientific findings in an eye-opening book about drug addiction and society, showing how stereotypes and fear, hysteria and racism, have informed our drug policies and enforcements—not the reality of drug addiction. In fact, it is the policies and enforcements that have destroyed families, lives, and communities far beyond what any drug could do. Coming from a background filled with domestic violence, poverty, and “the streets,” Hart examines his life, work and science in deeply honest, profoundly insightful and provocative ways. Calling for education based on science, and then decriminalization of all drugs, he advocates for a drug policy based on fact, not fiction. Reading this book will forever impact and change what you think you know about drugs and society.

HOBBS, Jeff. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. Scribner. Sept. 2014. 416p. Tr $27.00. ISBN 9781476731902.

short and tragic lifeHobbs was Robert Peace’s roommate at Yale. After his murder, Hobbs was compelled to understand more deeply the facts of Peace’s life and the full scope of the circumstances that led to his death. Peace grew up in poverty in New Jersey with a hardworking mother and drug-dealing father, both of whom valued and encouraged his education. Peace was inherently and effortlessly brilliant, graduating from Yale University with a degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. Like the three doctors of The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream (Riverhead, 2003), Peace made it out of the ‘hood. Or did he? Unlike the three doctors, he was a rarity in his family and community to attain such levels of education. Several years later he was murdered in a basement apartment where he was selling marijuana. Peace’s life and death were impacted by race, poverty, and education; Hobbs brings these complex concepts into reality through the powerful narrative of the specifics of one young man’s life.

STEVENSON, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Spiegel & Grau. Oct. 2014. 352p. Tr $28.00. ISBN 9780812994520.

Only a handful of countries condemn children to death row, and America is one of them. What is the one commonality of people on death row? The race of the victim: if the victim is white, the perpetrator is 11 times more likely to be condemned to die than if the victim was black. Stevenson was 23 years old, studying law at Harvard, and wondering why when he was called to an internship in Georgia where his first assignment was to deliver a message to a man living on death row. Face to face with this man, Stevenson realized his calling: representing the innocent, the inadequately defended, the children, the domestic abuse survivors, the mentally ill—the imprisoned. In heartbreaking and personal details, Stevenson interweaves real stories with statistics and his experiences fighting to change the injustices. Fast paced and relentless, Just Mercy reads like a Grisham novel, with short chapters featuring real people’s stories: children, youth and adults who have found themselves in the system since they were teens.

YAMINI, Omar. What’s Wrong With You! What You,Your Children, and Our Students Need to Know About My 15 Year Imprisonment From Age 20-35. Smashwords/The Proper Perception. January 2014. pap. $19.95. ISBN 9780991574605.

whats wrong with youYamini was 20 years old when he was sent to prison for being an accessory to a crime, and spent the next 15 years locked up in various institutions in Chicago. Life in prison is not about the fear of being physically hurt, he says, but the reality of “being kept, treated and controlled like an animal.” It’s the reality of losing human dignity and the struggle to maintain it amidst the chaos, boredom, insanity, humiliations, and degradations that make up life in prison. Hoping that teens who read his experiences will reconsider their behavior in order to avoid the same fate places the book in the realm of “scared straight,” yet the day to day details of a 15-year prison term and what it’s really like will have readers questioning the validity and purpose of locking anyone up.

ZEMAN, Marybeth. Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time. Vinegar Hill Press. Feb. 2014. pap. $15.99. ISBN 9780615953878.

jailhouse librarianZeman, a juvenile detention center transitional counselor, created a library book cart as a way to connect with incarcerated kids in New York state institutions. Short chapters alternate between Zeman’s life and observations of and interactions with the teens she serves. As she rolls her book cart up and down the hallways readers hear the voices of the kids asking for the “book lady.” Anyone looking for reasons why someone would want to work with teens in custody, or beginning a simple library, will find Zeman’s tale of personal fulfillment encouraging.

After careful consideration and heated debate, the In the Margins (ITM) committee has selected its best fiction and nonfiction, top 10, and overall selection list of 34 titles. On February 18, we will announce our newest recognition—the Advocacy |Social Justice Award—for authors.

Authors on our top ten list are doing great work in their communities; we hope that this acknowledgement from us gives more validation that their work are impacting kids in the larger community of our nation as well. We have evaluated and used these titles across the country and in Canada.

How It Went DownLeft for Dead

In the Margins Top Fiction Award, 2015How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

In the Margins Top Nonfiction Award, 2015Left for Dead by Ebony Canion

In the Margins Official 2015 Top Ten List

BUTLER, Pacc. From God’s Monster to the Devil’s Angel. CreateSpace. 2014. 170p. pap. $14.95. ISBN 9781494771669. NF.

Gr 8 Up—Gang life seems like Butler’s only choice when he becomes homeless in Chicago at 16. Abandoned by his drug addict mother and viciously abused by his father, he played football as a child to escape the horror of his home life, but as a young man he learns to dull his pain by hurting others. How can a man raised by fear and violence grow into a loving husband, father, and mentor to others?

CANION, EbonyLeft for Dead. Life Changing Books. 2014. 228p. pap. $15.99. ISBN 9781934230596. NF.

Gr 9 Up—Canion survives financial hardship, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and young widowhood, but nothing prepares her for the vicious hit-and-run that nearly takes her life. When everyone expects her to die, she not only survives but becomes dedicated to helping others find the courage to overcome difficulties in their own lives. Even when the woman who tried to kill her shows no remorse and is given no jail time, Canion refuses to allow bitterness to rule her life.

The LureEWING, Lynne. The Lure. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. 2014. 288p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062206886. FIC.

Gr 9 Up—Brutally initiated into the gang, Blaise is expected to do increasingly dangerous activities including being a “lure” to entice rival gang members. A fast-paced contemporary drama that asks, what are the right decisions when all the options are wrong?

Anatomy of a Girl GangLITTLE, AshleyAnatomy of a Girl Gang. Arsenal Pulp. 2014. 254p. pap. $16.95. ISBN 9781551525297. FIC.

Gr 10 Up—Five multicultural girls join together to form the Black Roses, determined to create an organization that is theirs and that will work for them, a place where all of them are taken care of, belong, protected, and benefit. But dreams don’t always come true, especially in the real world.

MAGOON, KeklaHow It Went Down.  Holt. 2014. 336p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780805098693. FIC.

Gr 10 Up—Sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson is dead, a young black boy shot by a white man. Witnessed by many in the neighborhood, and told in multiple points of view, everyone has an opinion and explanation of “how it went down.” This timely story depicts the confusion, challenge, and politics of perception and racial stereotyping.

The High Price I Had to PayMILES, Michelle. The High Price I Had to Pay 2: Sentenced to 30 Years as a Nonviolent, First Time Offender. Voices International. 2013. 66p. pap. $7.99. ISBN 9780991104109. NF.

Gr 10 Up—How does a young woman find herself serving 30 years for a nonviolent crime? This all-too-common story manifests itself in the life of Michelle Miles who followed her boyfriend into a life of drug dealing. When it all falls apart, Miles finds herself facing a seemingly endless sentence.

REYNOLDS, Jason. When I Was the Greatest. S. & S./Atheneum.  2014. 240p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781442459472. FIC.

Gr 7–10—Friends + bad choices = deadly circumstances. When Ali and his friends land an invite to an off-limits party that is so under the radar you can’t even hear the music from the street, it’s just too good to be true. An innocent misstep leads to total chaos and causes the dangers from the streets to almost destroy friendship and family. A fresh debut that captures the heart and soul of life for an urban teen who is trying to make the right choices.

LionheartWILSON, Rayshawn. Lionheart: Coming from Where I’m From. Legendary Publishing. 2014. 196p. pap. $15. ISBN 9780982786321. NF.

Gr 9 Up—Growing up on the streets of Columbus, OH, Wilson learns that survival means knowing how to lie and steal. At the age of six, he is traumatized as he watches the police arrest his crack addicted mother. Foster care, sexual abuse, and life on the streets lead Wilson to prison, ironically for a felony he did not commit. His resilience, hard work, and determination earn him his graduation from college and other accomplishments.

WORKMAN, P.DRuby: Between the Cracks. Vol. 1. P.D Workman. 2014. 486p. pap. $16.90. ISBN 9780992153953. FIC.

Gr 8 Up—At 13, Ruby’s dramatic life is out of control. She’s been out on the streets for several years and rotates sleeping with her social worker, a friend, and the boy she likes above everyone. Things get worse when she gets pregnant by the rival gang member who killed her favorite boyfriend. Sometimes she is the victim, sometimes she is the user—who will Ruby choose to be?

Griots of OaklandZUSMAN, Angela Beth. The Griots of Oakland: Voices from the African American Oral History Project. Story for All. 2013. 206p. Tr $59.99.ISBN 9780988763111; pap. $14.99. ISBN 9780988763104. NF.

Gr 9 Up—Got stereotypes? Get Griots. How do African American young men from Oakland, CA define themselves? What’s important? What wisdom do they have to share? It’s all here in striking photographs, visually appealing graphics, and short narratives. The hardback is of higher photographic quality, but the paperback makes the book accessible to everyone. The Oral History project that created this book can be replicated in other communities.

The Decision Making

Canion’s book Left for Dead won the top nonfiction In The Margins spot by a landslide and with no debate: it is a top read for youth served by the majority of the In the Margins committee. The top fiction slot was an intense debate between How it Went Down and Anatomy of a Girl Gang. These two books were in a dead tie for our entire debate; we kept changing each other’s minds creating another tie until the tie was finally broken. Exciting!

All of our committee members felt that How it Went Down, a multiple person view of a shooting of a black boy by a white man, was relevant, timely, and of great significance. Some of us have kids in our libraries picking it up and talking about the characters and the situations without any type of formal book group or facilitation. Others lobbied hard for Anatomy of A Girl Gang: in spite of its not so great cover, this book is going out and being read by boys and girls alike. It’s a crushingly and heartbreakingly realistic take of why kids get into gangs and their disappointments when the dream does not materialize. As one of my maximum security boys, Luis, wrote about the book, “…the characters show heart.”

We focus on books by, for, and about African American and Latino young adults living in the margins, as these are the kids that are disproportionately incarcerated in this country. First Nations kids fall into this category as well, and the committee is debating adding books by, for, and about them to our charge.

If there are any themes that surfaced this year, it would be, again, the many books written with female protagonists. In addition, there is a dearth of relevant and excellent books for Latino and First Nations youth living in poverty. We loved Hustle by David Martinez, and many argued fiercely for it to be a top ten. There are a few books that didn’t make our list with these protagonists that didn’t get the teen feedback we’d hoped for, or had other issues. More information is available about these titles at theITM website.

We are pleased with and proud of our list. The committee did amazing work in finding top books by little known self-published and small press authors, so much so that the majority of our top ten and even our list may be unknown to you, providing even more relevant books for your collections. We are proud to contribute to bringing these voices out of the underground and into your libraries.

That said, there are many titles that did not make the top ten list that our students are loving and reading. Make sure you take a look at those, and also the books that did not make our list as they may work for you, your libraries, your kids. We feel our selections will work well in any urban library setting with people from the poverty classes, and many titles will work just as well with adults as teens.

Annotations, the full list of 34 titles, the nominated list of 56 titles, and more information on the committee and selections can be found at the In the Margins website.

In the Margins is under the umbrella of Library Services for Youth in Custody. We have openings for our committee next year. Join us!

Originally Published in School Library Journal by Amy Cheney

2015 Committee:

Chair: Amy Cheney, Librarian, Juvenile Justice Center, Alameda County, CA

Administrative Assistant: Dr. Kerry Sutherland, Youth Services Librarian, Akron-Summit County Public Library, OH

Project Assistant: Mackenzie Magee, English teacher, Passages Academy, NY

Sabrina Carnesi, Librarian, Crittenden Middle School, VA

Dale Clark, Teacher-Librarian, Fraser Park Secondary, Burnaby Youth Custody Services, Burnaby, BC Canada

Joe Coyle, Project Coordinator, Mix IT Up!, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL

Marvin DeBose Sr., Library Supervisor, Free Library of Philadelphia, PA

Maggie Novario, Teen Librarian, Fort Vancouver Regional Library District, WA

Amy Wander, Youth Services Manager, Lafayette Public Library, LA