Archive for the ‘On Our Minds’ Category

Oakland Unified School District’s Bret Harte Middle School Library circulated 298 books during the entire 2015-2016 school year. In 2016-2017 Bret Harte’s total circulation: 3,875.frickbefore.jpg

Frick Impact Academy began the 2016-2017 school year with 174 books checked out and circulated, and ended the year with 2,219 books circulated.

Both schools were closed the year before, for approximately 10 years.

What brings about this dramatic change that will surely influence student’s reading? 1. Great staff – thank you to Librarian Lolade Gbadebo at Frick and Library Technicians Maggie Rogers and Nida Khalil at Bret Harte, 2. Great books on the shelves, 3. “Weeding

frickcafe.jpg

 out” old tired and not great books from the shelves. Frick began the school year with a total of 5,878 books on the shelves and ended the year with a total of 4,946 books. That means 2,349 books were weeded and 1,417 new books were added!

Photos are of Frick – semi-before (before, before the library was filled with junk! ) and

AFTER!

please insure that all school libraries are not used for:
(1) punishment sites for tardy & other students,
(2) student/psychologist or student/counselor 1on1 meeting sessions,
(3) eating, snacks, drinks

and that school libraries are used for:
(1) individual work/study sessions,
(2) completion of homework/papers,
(3) low talking small group work/study sessions,
(4) allows students to print out assignments using printers that are in working condition,

(5) have books that are on the shelves and not in boxes

(6) are open before school starts, and after school ends – for student use to complete homework/papers/etc.

(7) have copies of all school textbooks available for use by students, especially at the beginning of school

Equity thanks to MK

Posted: May 11, 2017 in On Our Minds

This is the first time in the two years that I’ve been employed by Oakland Unified School District that I’ve been able to provide equal access. It’s the first time that I sent ALL high schools and middle schools the same opportunity:

  • A giveaway book for all students
  • A book teens are going to LOVE
  • An AWESOME book (not overstock, not something someone is trying to get rid of)21914livewire3.jpg

It’s Buck, by MK Asante.

Thank you MK (and Random House and donor) who made it possible for 10,000 or more kids in the Bay Area to get to read this book over the summer. For providing equity. It’s a super good feeling to not have to pick and choose and try to come up with some kind of formula to piece meal out something to deserving kids. It feels so liberating, so right to be able to send out to all schools and have principals aware of and experience the benefit of the library and the National and other connections we can bring.

It’s sadly a strange feeling, this liberation from constraint of scarcity. I guess this is what Marx was talking about?

Readers may remember that Buck won the top 10 In the Margins award and was one of my personal favorites –  as is MK.

As many of you know, my last day at the Juvenile Hall was in 2015. Yes, I miss the beloved children, AND… I’ve been lucky in my work to be on a school campus and to see kids I’ve known, give them a hug and hear about books they’ve read and what they’ve been doing.

I’ve taken a little break…. from reading, blogging and the rest, as I’ve been laying the groundwork at Oakland Unified School District to open libraries. More about that later. In the meantime I’ve been thinking about where I’ve been and where I’m going….

I’m passionate about opening up kids’ worlds through literacy and libraries. Throughout my career, I’ve worked with preschool to adult learners, often in communities where people actively hated or feared reading. I’ve attempted to establish relevant libraries all over Alameda County and create lifelong readers as a result.

During the years I worked with adult learners I consistently asked them what they identified as the root cause of their reading challenges. Every single person shared a story of a traumatic experience around books and reading. These negative experiences had one thing in common: they were at school.

National research continues to show that school libraries have a positive impact on student success, however California has occupied last place in every national metric that measures the health of school libraries. In 2014-15 California school districts employed only one teacher librarian for every 7,400 students, when the national average was one teacher librarian for every 1,100 students. California ranks 50th in terms of overall literacy development.

Over 50% of the children in the Alameda County Juvenile Hall are from Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) schools, where only 40 of the 88 schools have a school library, some with parttime staff. These youth in Juvenile Hall have difficulty navigating the public library system in terms of library cards, fines and access to relevant materials. What is the answer?

While at the Juvenile Hall I received many calls from teachers whose students had been released from Juvenile Hall and reentered their classroom as readers. I can honestly say that the culture of reading at the Hall was 99% positive when I left.  The library was a safe havens for exploration and a space for critical literacy.

Collection development is….well, everything. If the collection isn’t relevant, or if there are extraneous books on the shelves that aren’t relevant, or are dingy, or messed up, reading doesn’t happen, the culture doesn’t change. I did not accept donations,  or if I did it had to live up to my picky and high standards. I did not put a book on the shelf that someone might read. I only put books on the shelves that kids or a kid were reading or had read. The collection was so good that kids who were incarcerated for 2-3 and more years still found books on the shelves that they wanted to read. One of my greatest joys was a kid who had been there for 2 years or so and came to the library on fire, taking a stack of 10 books that he had never seen or wasn’t ready for before and now was. I know my students found books that reflected and enlivened their lives and that enabled their excitement about reading, sometimes for the first time in their lives. Meeting and having a dialogue with famous, not famous and local authors helped them to feel connected to the world of books and reading.

In answer to these calls from teachers, I was drawn to work as the District Librarian in the Oakland Unified School District. (I was also headhunted, and I have to say I appreciated that experience). I’m hoping I can have an impact on students before kids get incarcerated. In this way I can serve more students, those from K to 12. Utilizing the model  created at the Juvenile Hall, The Juvenile Justice Literacy Project ensures that teachers, librarians and families will have the information on how to develop relevant library collections for all ages, how to make them available and accessible on a daily basis, thus assisting all students to validate their lives and the lives of their families in the pages of a book.

Keep in touch, I’m working on it!

I haven’t been blogging lately as the nature of this blog is changing. To what? I am not sure, although today I am compelled to write.

Today I did my first act of successful witnessing.

Two black women  had been pulled over by the police.

I pulled up beside them, unrolled my window and asked if they wanted a witness. The driver said yes. I parked my car (illegally) and got out of the car with my cell phone. I kept a “respectful” distance away from the police and also from the women in the car.

The woman in the passenger seat looked to me as if she was having a  traumatized response. She was having difficulty breathing and was shaking uncontrollably.  I moved a little bit closer, slowly –  (after all, I am white, and I could be triggering her as well) and asked if they needed anything. The driver said “water” and reached out some money to me. I did not take the money. I went and got the water and gave to the woman. The driver said to me: “with all that is going on, we just don’t know, we just don’t know” inbetween trying to assist the passenger with breathing and calming. She said to me, “we will feel better when the cop leaves.” I moved away from their car.

The cop asked, “can I speak to you for a moment.” I moved towards him so that he would not come towards the women. He said, “she appears to be having a panic attack.” I said, “Absolutely. Are you done? I  think it would assist if you were able to leave.” He got in his car and left.

The driver then asked the passenger if she wanted to get out. I opened the door and held out my hand to help her to get out of the car, which was really difficult given how scared she was. She said, “hold me, hold me” and I reached out to hug her but realized within two seconds that she was not able to relax with me. By that time the driver was there and was able to hold her and calm her down. The driver also talked with me a lot about their fear, and I listened.

The passenger calmed down. Not totally, but enough that she was able to stop shaking. Her eyes were red. Her skin was clammy. I say these things because that was how it was when I leI asked if they needed anything else in the moment or if there was anything else I could do for them.

In case people don’t know or understand I want to break down the privilege part: 1. I was able to witness. 2. I was able to be calm around the cop because I personally have not had negative experiences with cops. 3. I was treated with respect from the cop. 4. I was able to leave and feel as if I were making a difference and that my day was richer for the experience. 5. I was not harassed or penalized in any way for parking illegally. 6. There may be even more I am not yet aware of how much privilege I had in this interaction. These 6 points are not given, are never if rarely the experience of my friends that are people of color in their interactions with the police. This is white privilege.

If a white person had been a driver and needed help would they have had their wits about them enough to offer money for what was needed? The fact that this woman offered me money in the midst of what must have been her own fear and trauma, the fear and trauma of her loved one, and the legacy of trauma she and her people have experienced from those in “authority”  not to mention the  basic hassle and frustration of being pulled over and given a ticket shows her amazing skill and resilience in the face of a huge amount of stress.  White people do not have this stress and trauma. This is privilege.

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, https://www.facebook.com/Bluford.Series

Programming: AR – Rapper

Posted: May 13, 2015 in On Our Minds

Arthur Renowitzky is the executive director and founder
of Life Goes On Foundation (LGO) a nonpolitical/nonprofit organization working in the Bay
Area to help bring an end to gun violence amongst youth. Arthur founded LGO in 2007
after he was shot point blank in the chest outside of a San Francisco night club by an
unknown assailant, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. The shooter took $20
dollars from Arthur and a $15 tin chain. The shooter was never found. Arthur forgives his
shooter and wishes for no revenge.
After the shooting, Arthur was rushed to the hospital and believes the first responders are
the reason he is alive today.   After a 23-day battle in a medically induced coma, Arthur
woke on Christmas Eve-day to learn he would never walk again. That news drove Arthur’s
mind in a direction he never imagined – not, my life is over, but “I can’t let this happen to
another kid like me”
Establishing his “line in the sand” against gun violence, Arthur knew the best route was
to found his non-profit, LGO, and aggressively hit the streets spreading his message of
peace and the real reality of gun violence, through special events and public speaking.

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:

hhttp://www.eventscribe.com/2015/ALA-Midwinter/assets/audio-flash/171186/launcher.asp?AssetID=43021

“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. 

 

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.

SELF-PUBLISHING OR SELF-SEGREGATION?

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.

GAPING HOLES IN “MAINSTREAM APPEAL”

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.

THE ASSIMILATION PROBLEM

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).

I SELF-PUBLISH FOR TRANSPARENCY

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.”

LIBRARIES PRODUCING STORIES

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.