Author Brandy Colbert

Monday, July 27, 2020 No comments

What inspired you to write “The Only Black Girls in Town?”

I wanted to write about a Black girl who lived in a predominantly white town until another Black girl moves in across the street. Alberta’s story isn’t my story, but I did grow up in a predominantly white town where I was usually one of the only Black kids or one of very few in my school or grade. I desperately wished for someone my age to live across the street, and I would have been ecstatic if I’d had a Black neighbor, like Edie, who moves in.

How long did it take you to write this book?

I’m pretty terrible with tracking how long it takes me to write a book, but from conception to final edits, it was probably a little over a year. I do a lot of research while I’m writing, especially since I don’t outline and don’t always know where the story will go ahead of time.

Did you go through a lot of revisions?

I typically go through a couple of rounds of revisions for each novel, and this was the same. One round is focused on fixing broader issues, such as plot problems or character development. Subsequent rounds help fine-tune the story, including through line edits.

Alberta is a surfer which is a first for me to read a story about a black girl that surfs. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated that. What made you give her this talent and can you surf? 

I don’t surf—I’ve taken years of swimming lessons and have lived in Los Angeles for nearly two decades, but as much as I love the beauty of the ocean, it still terrifies me! That said, I know that plenty of Black people who are avid swimmers and surfers, and I had never read about that in a novel, either. It fits with Alberta’s story because she lives in a small beach town, but I also wanted to highlight a space where Black people exist but aren’t typically shown.

I love this quote, “Racist?” She says it so plainly, it startles me. Sometimes that seems like a bad word. Like people are more afraid of being associated with it than actually not being it.” It’s such a profound sentence and even yet at this young age Alberta gets it and she’s finally found someone,  Edie,  that she’s comfortable talking about this with. We always get it but others not so much. Discuss. 

As a young person growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I recognized when people said things to me that seemed “off” or were, indeed, just plain racist, but I didn’t always have the language to express my discomfort and hurt. More than that, I didn’t often have anyone to back me up. I was taught to stand up for myself, but it was also understood that keeping the peace could be useful, too. Alberta feels a true sense of relief when she begins talking to Edie, realizing she’s been holding in a lot of conversations and situations that have bothered her over the years because she didn’t have anyone around who could understand; her white friends have made her feel like she was overreacting or perhaps misunderstanding words and actions. It’s empowering to write about Black girls who speak their truth from a young age, calling out inappropriate and racist behavior when they see it.

You depicted a very healthy and loving relationship between Alberta’s two Dad’s and her biological mother. Of all the experiences she's going through in the book a lack of love is never one of them and I think that’s so important. What inspired you to build this somewhat unconventional family? 

I grew up in a conservative area of the country that has very established rules of what a family or love should look like, and that never sat well with me. I wanted to show that love and family come in all forms and that this is true in the Black community as well.

Since the pandemic authors haven’t been able to have normal launch parties. What did you do to celebrate the release of The Only Black Girls in Town?

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to celebrate the book with an official launch! It was published in early March, right before shelter-in-place orders went into effect, so my bookstore launch was canceled in the midst of the lockdown, as was the school visit and bookstore tour I had planned. But I’ve been lucky enough to do some events here and there as we all figured out the virtual situation, and I’m happy I’ve been able to connect with readers through social media.

What is your advice to aspiring writers, especially MG writers? 

Write a story that you want to read! You’ll be working on the book for at least a couple of years, so you need to write something that truly interests and inspires you. Also, it’s okay to write for yourself, first and foremost; I’m writing the stories I wanted to read when I was a kid, and I’ve been so pleased and surprised by how other people have connected to it, as well.

What are you working on next? 

I’m currently working on a nonfiction YA book about the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. As of now, it’s due out in the fall of 2021.

Brandy Colbert is the award-winning author of several books for children and teens, including The Voting Booth, The Only Black Girls in Town, The Revolution of Birdie Randolph, and Stonewall Book Award Winner Little & Lion. She is co-writer of Misty Copeland's Life in Motion young readers edition, and her short fiction and essays have been published in a variety of critically acclaimed anthologies for young people. Her books have been chosen as Junior Library Guild selections, and have appeared on many best of lists, including the American Library Association's Best Fiction for Young Adults and Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. She is on faculty at Hamline University's MFA program in writing for children and lives in Los Angeles.

To learn more about Brandy please connect with her on social media. 

Instagram and Twitter: @brandycolbert


Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow Part II

Thursday, June 25, 2020 No comments

Today is Part II of our interview with author Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow featuring her story Eid Pictures in the anthology "Once Upon an Eid." You can read Part I here.

Part II - Eid Pictures

I love the contrast between current day Eid celebrations vs. twenty years ago and all the way back to slavery. What inspired you to capture generations of this holiday celebration?
I have a lot to say on this and I hope you’ll give me room to say it because I’m trying to undo gross erasure. African American stories of Eid (and being Muslim in general) are erased and have been for generations. It’s the reason behind the #BlackOutEid hashtag I mentioned. National news sources display photo spreads of American Muslims celebrating Eid without a single Black person. In fact, newspapers will claim to be doing a feature on Eid “all over the world” and skip over Africa and the diaspora completely. 

African American Muslims make up one of the largest groups of American Muslims, making up about a third of them, with South Asian Americans making up another third, and Arab Americans making up a quarter. I get into the statistics because there is so much erasure, the assumption is that Black Muslims are a minority but Muslims are so diverse, it should be understood there really isn’t a majority. The erasure is political.
And then, as many as 30% of those of us who were enslaved and brought over here came from Muslim cultures in Africa. Those people largely lost that faith through the brutality of slavery. It was erasure of another kind. And there were African Americans converting to Islam in droves throughout the 20th century. Beyond academic texts and biographies of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, there aren’t many stories written about these people.  I needed to write this poem to start undoing that erasure.

How has this celebration changed from your childhood to present day?
The groups of people celebrating are much larger. And there is more awareness around Eid. Last year in Philadelphia, hundreds (maybe thousands) of people celebrated a citywide Eid in a park and a children’s museum across the street opened its doors to us for free that day. We have schools throughout the country recognizing the day and giving kids the day off. I could have never imagined that as a kid. Eid felt like it was a secret. I took off school that day and didn’t really explain to anyone what I was taking off for.

I love this line that speaks of the ancestors, "I can almost hear their whispered wishes - duas spoken on the field each Eid." What role does the ancestors and your faith play in your writings?
I try to write for them. I often pray I can honor their legacy. I feel like the African American Muslims of today are the descendants of those Africans forced from their faith. We are literal answers to their duas.
Do you prefer poetry or prose and why?
It’s hard for me to say. It depends on what my purpose is. I find both satisfying to write although I think most people find prose more accessible and it’s why I’ve felt compelled to write more prose professionally.

Tell us about your upcoming book?
My upcoming picture book, YOUR NAME IS A SONG, is about a little girl who is frustrated about her teacher and classmates mispronouncing her name during the first day of school. With her mom, she learns to celebrate the beauty and musicality of names--particularly African, African American, Arab, Asian, and Latinx names--so that she can take pride in her own name. It comes out in 2021.

If you missed Part I of Jamilah’s interview you can read all about it here.

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, M.S.Ed, is an educator and children’s book author. Her books, which feature young Black Muslim protagonists, have been recognized and critically-praised by many trusted voices in literature, including American Library Association, School Library Journal, and NPR. She’s taught youth in traditional and alternative learning settings for 15 years and currently directs and develops writing programs for Philadelphia area youth.  To learn more about Jamilah please follow her on social media.


Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow - Author Interview

Tuesday, June 16, 2020 No comments

Today we're sharing part one of our interview with author Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, M.S.Ed. Jamilah is an educator and children’s book author. Her books, which feature young Black Muslim protagonists, have been recognized and critically-praised by many trusted voices in literature, including American Library Association, School Library Journal, and NPR. She’s taught youth in traditional and alternative learning settings for 15 years and currently directs and develops writing programs for Philadelphia area youth. Jamilah recently contributed to the anthology Once Upon An Eid and today we feature her story Perfect.

What inspired you to write Perfect?
It’s taken from episodes from my own childhood. Like the main character, Hawa, I was raised by an African American parent and an African-immigrant parent from Guinea. While I grew up mainly in  African American culture, I remember going to the Bronx to meet my Guinean relatives. There were clashes as there are in any family but a lot of good times too and I wanted to represent what I feel is beautiful about this side of my heritage.
Tell us briefly what is Eid?
Eid literally means festival. It’s the word used for the two main Muslim holidays: Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha. The former marks the end of Ramadan and the latter comes at the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The ways people celebrate these holidays vary by culture but it typically involves prayer services, getting together with loved ones, great food, new clothes, and gifts or money especially for children 

In Perfect, Hawa was excited to wear a special outfit for Eid. How important are new outfits for Eid?
We are literally taught to wear our best clothes for the Eid. It’s in our religious texts. So, looking nice is a very big deal. Getting a new outfit for Eid was the thing I looked forward to the most as a kid and at times, I cared a bit too much about dressing up like the kids I depicted in “Perfect.” I think a place you can see just how valued dressing up is for the Eid is if you scroll #BlackOutEid on Twitter and Instagram. Black people from all over the diaspora show off their Eid best each holiday.

I really enjoy books that mention ethnic dishes and you talk about stew and jollof rice in Perfect. You also mention plantains (my favorite). Do you  have a favorite African dish and can you make it yourself? 
I’m much better at making soul food, but I’m learning how to make West African cuisine too. I LOVE jollof rice. I can make it but not the way my mom does—still trying to learn. She also used to make an amazing peanut soup that I’m still trying to get right. I eat plantains like crazy and I’m glad those are easy.
What are some differences between your African and American families and did you draw from those differences for this story?
My African family (and many Africans I’ve known) can be pretty blunt and I thought about that in the kinds of jokes they might tell. It can come off rude to many Americans but often they’re just more straightforward. This translates in the very open ways they welcome others too, which I showed in “Perfect.” When I think of African American families, I think about how the women are so warm and encouraging even when they’re scolding you. They speak life into their children. When I created Hawa’s African American mom, I thought of my aunts and other mother-like figures in my community who model that kind of nurturing.

Hawa, the main character, carries a personal slight made toward her Mom in her heart for a year. That “slight” created a wedge between the cousins. I appreciated that tension and could relate to it in some ways because I’m protective of my  mom. How did you tap into this preteen’s feelings so accurately?
I can’t say it was my own personal experience although I have at times felt protective of my mother. I think writers often have the ability and a need to tap into the emotional experiences of humanity. Something pushes us to imagine those experiences, even painful ones, in vivid detail, and that can lead to second-hand trauma if we don’t learn how to channel that impulse. But I think we create characters and stories for those characters because that impulse is there.
If you had to describe the takeaway for Perfect in one or two sentences what is it?
Embrace your family, embrace your culture, embrace all of you.
Finally, how did you celebrate Eid this year?
We dressed up and performed a short Eid prayer at home. Afterwards, we grabbed balloons and signs my kids made and we got in our car and with at least 100 other cars, we paraded up and down Broad Street, which is one of the longest and most historic streets in Philadelphia. Afterwards, we had an online Eid lunch with family and I posted all about it on social media, which was fun too!

Tell us about your upcoming picture book “Your Name Is a Song.”
Your Name is a Song is a book about a little Black girl whose name isn’t revealed until the end of the book. We meet her at the end of her first day of school and she is very upset that no one in her school –not even her teacher –can pronounce her name correctly. Her mother cheers her up by convincing her that her name and other distinctive cultural names are like songs. They explore and celebrate a number of African, African American, Asian, Latinx, and Middle Eastern names together while also responding to the kinds of insulting things people might say about the names from these cultures. By the next day of school, the little girl feels more empowered to teach others how to say, or rather sing her name.
Where can we pre-order this book? 
Your Name is a Song is available wherever books are sold for preorder. However, I strongly suggest You can use them to order books from your local independent bookstore OR you can just order directly from them and proceeds will still go towards your independent bookstore. They are helping keep independent bookstores alive and authors like me need our independent bookstores to thrive.

Thank you Jamilah and please join us next week for Part II where we discuss Eid Pictures. To learn more about Jamilah please follow her on social media.

Twitter: twitter page
Instagram:  Instagram

Violet Duncan - I Am Native

Friday, April 24, 2020 No comments

Today’s interview is with Violet Duncan author of I Am Native. Violet is Plains Cree and Taino from Kehewin Cree Nation. She has toured nationally and internationally as a dancer and storyteller. Violet is currently a Professor at South Mountain Community College: Storytelling Institute. She is also a former "Miss Indian World," representing all Indigenous people of North America.

What inspired you to write I Am Native?

I was inspired to write I am Native so that people who are new to Native culture, would see a side-by-side of Nehiyaw (Cree) and N'dee (Apache) peoples practicing their Native and modern cultures. I also wrote this book for Native children and their family members, so that they would see themselves as they are today. The intention of the book is to bring both worlds we live in together on the page, ending the confusion that Native people are all gone.

How long did it take you to write this book?

This book took three years from first thought to print. I wanted to make sure the language was very easy to read for our young readers. I also wanted the illustration to showcase native culture correctly and that part took a lot more time.

Did you have critique or writing partners?

My family members are my critique and writing partners. Everything I write first goes through my children and they are very honest with me. Next, I share with my husband and mom and they offer a lot of insight. After family members, I share my writing and early illustrations with elders in my home community. This stage is very important to me. Sharing our culture is a process and I am always learning; I feel better knowing my elders are on my side and encourage me to keep going.  

You decided to self-publish instead of having a traditional publisher for your book. Why?

Self-publishing puts you right into the driver's seat and allows you full control of the writing and illustrating process. This was really important to me since some pages would take me months to write to get the feeling just right.  

There’s a big emphasis on family and intergenerational relationships in your book. Tell us why that was important to feature.

All across Turtle Island, (the name for earth or North America), you will see many different Native Nations sharing their music, songs, stories, and dances through a multigenerational teaching style. There is no "school" that teaches all the dances, stories and songs from one Nation. You learn from family and community members. It is not uncommon to have a household with children, parents, grandparents and maybe even aunts and uncles living together. Each generation offers new experiences and knowledge and this has always been the way Native culture is passed down.

In your book, the children experience both traditional Native experiences and modern-day experiences. What is your message in depicting it that way?

When my children go to school, their peers are always so curious when they find out we are from Native Nations (Cree/Apache/Taino/Arikara/Hidatsa/Mandan), they ask what we do at home, what we eat and if we live in a tipi. Yes, in 2020 we are still asked if we live in tipis. I wrote this book for those children. I needed a crystal clear format so that it was understood that we are human beings, multi-disciplined, articulate and proud. We are athletes because we practice both basketball drills and hoop dancing drills. We are dancers in ballet and Jingle dress dance. We are not something stuck in the past, we are not gone, we are here.

What is your message for both Native and non-Native children that read your book?

For all children, my message is to be proud of who you are.  For Native children, my message is to be proud of your culture because we come from strong, resilient people that have been passing down our indigenous knowledge since time immemorial. 

Where can readers find you online?

You can find me on Facebook and Instagram @violetduncan but also check out my website

Valerie Bolling - Let's Dance!

Wednesday, March 25, 2020 No comments

We're so excited to share this interview with Valerie Bolling, author of Let's Dance! Be sure to get your copy at retailers online.

What inspired you to write Let's Dance?

This book was inspired by children who love to dance, especially my nieces, Zorah and Anyah. I decided to write a fun, rhyming story that celebrates the universality of dance. After all, dance is a language we all speak even though we have different "accents."

To illustrate the variety of "accents," I wanted to ensure that the book portrayed an inclusive representation of children: gender, race, ability. My editor, Jes Negrรณn of Boyds Mills & Kane, expanded upon my vision for diversity by recognizing that some of my words describe cultural dances like flamenco (Spain), kathak (India), and long sleeve dance (China). I am thrilled to have this added layer of cultural representation in my book!

You seem committed to diversity. Can you tell us more about that? 

I would love to. As an educator, I want to use my books as a vehicle to teach- especially about topics and themes that others may not feel comfortable writing about or talking about with children.

When I write, I think of the children who don’t typically see themselves in books, and one of my goals is for them to feel valued and validated when they read my books.

For Let’s Dance! I had a clear vision of showcasing underrepresented and marginalized children, engaging in the joy of dance. Turn on music, and most children will start to move – or as I say in my book:

“Groovity-groove/Bust a move.”

We may groove or move differently on the dance floor – or in life- but we are connected through the common experiences we share....and dance is one of them.

Are you able to do all of the dance moves in your book?

Funny question, Kirstie. Absolutely not. Some I'd have fun trying; others not so much.
No breakdancing headspins or handstands for me!

Tell us about your book launch party? 

I had a PHENOMENAL launch party on March 7 at a local library. There were more than 200 people in attendance, the largest number the library reported ever having for an event!

It was standing room only; people were even standing outside of the large auditorium.
There was dancing, reading, a raffle, and book signing. The book sold out and most important was that the audience and I had a fabulous time!

What was your route to publication like?

Admittedly, I had a fairly easy road to publication with Let’s Dance! I started querying in January 2018, and I got an offer at the beginning of July 2018. However, I have other stories I’ve been querying for one or two years that remain unpublished.

Did you have critique partners? If so, how instrumental were they in writing your story?

Yes, I have critique partners, and they are unquestionably instrumental in my writing process. With Let’s Dance!, Marianne McShane, a friend who is a writer, storyteller, and retired librarian, suggested I read Watersong by Tim McCanna as a mentor text and that I start the story with a line that appeared later in my text:

“Tappity-tap/Fingers snap.”

Her recommendations helped significantly in revising the book.

Currently, I am a member of a picture book critique group, and I also have a fabulous writing partner, Lindsey Aduskevich.

Tell us about your illustrator and illustrations?

The illustrations are AMAZING. Maine Diaz is extremely talented. She brought my words, my vision, and Jes' vision to life. Her gorgeous, energetic illustrations truly make my book dance!

How do you juggle writing and working full-time?

It’s not easy, but life is a balancing act, isn’t it? I write late at night until midnight or 1 a.m.,
and I reserve large chunks of time for writing on weekends, usually on Sundays.

What's the one piece of advice that has helped you as a writer? 

Two things immediately come to my mind, so I hope it’s OK to speak about them both because they are intertwined. One is “Don’t take rejection personally.” The other is “Keep trying.” 

There’s much rejection in this business, but it’s not necessarily about you, the writer. It's likely that particular agent, editor, or publisher is not connecting strongly enough with the story.

It could also be that another story similar to yours is on the person's list; thus that book and yours would compete. It may be that the story is good but isn’t the genre or theme the person is currently looking for.

Perhaps you need more time with your story to revise more and get critique from others.
The bottom line is that if your story isn’t right for an agent or editor, then that person is not someone who should represent your writing - your career as an author.

Since we rarely know the true reason why a manuscript is rejected, we have to keep trying, hoping that we will find someone as passionate about our writing as we are. Isn't that what all writers want? We deserve nothing less.

What are you working on next? 

I’m always working on revising stories, but my newest project is a narrative picture book biography. I’m still in the early stages.

Valerie Bolling has been an educator for over 25 years and a writer since age 4. She and her husband live in Connecticut and enjoy traveling, hiking, reading, going to the theater...and dancing.

If you’d like to learn more about Valerie please visit her social media links below!