book review: Henry’s Freedom Box

title : Henry’s Freedom Box: A true story from the Underground Railroad
author: Ellen Levine
illustrator: Kadir Nelson
date: Scholastic 2007
non-fiction picture book


Actually, I watched the dvd of Henry’s Freedom Box. This adaptation of the book engages artistic camera angles to bring Kadir Nelson’s artwork to live. This dvd enriches the story with interviews and teaching materials. The dvd follows the book word for word, providing readers a way to build their reading abilities, a way for visual learners in particular to enter the story.

The story begins here.

Henry Brown wasn’t sure how old he was.
Henry was a slave. And slaves weren’t allowed to know their birthday.

I prefer the author to have stated “Henry was enslaved.” A slave is an object while an enslaved person in a human being with a condition placed upon them. For the most part, we only know enslaved people through movies and books and rarely there do we see a full range of emotions, intelligence, artistry, physical limitations or anything that develops them beyond a cardboard image, a slave. Henry was enslaved.

Young readers will empathize with a boy who doesn’t even know when his birthday is. He was yelled at, poked, beaten and lied to. His mother prepared Henry for the pain he would face, but this didn’t lessen the sting. Levine too, prepares her readers for the pain. She writes

But Henry’s mother knew things could change. “Do you see those leaves blowing in the wind? They are torn from the trees like slave children are torn from their families.”

Henry marries, has children. Nelson’s images reflect the firelight in the cIMG_1285hildren’s hearts
rather than in their eyes and faces.

Pages later, they are sold away never to be seen again.

What happens next is based upon Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself. In the re-telling of Henry’s resistive act of running away, readers are shown that not all Whites were bad, that Whites were in fact important in helping Henry’s carry out his plan to escape. Henry finally had a birthday and it was 30 March, 1849, the day he emerged from the box. Even more of the story is available from the author on the dvd.

review: When the Slave Esperança Garcia Wrote a Letter

Title:  When the Slave Esperança Garcia Wrote a Letter
Author: Sona Rosa
Illustrator: Luciana Justiniani Hees
Date: Groundwood Books; 2015
picture book; nonfiction

Author Sonia Rose and illustrator Luciana Justiniani Hees created this non-fiction picture book to commemorate the life of Esperanca Garcia, the first enslaved Afro Brasilian to write a letter of petition for her freedom. The date of the writing of this letter, 6 September, has become Black Consciousness Day in Piauí state. The original letter was uncovered in 1979 and is now in a museum in Lisbon, Portugal. (Brasil was a Portuguese colony.)

Esperança’s story is a testament to the power of writing and the strength of hope.

openinEsperança wasn’t treated “so badly” by the priests who first owned her and who taught her to read and write but circumstances arose that caused her to be sold. While her children stayed with her, her husband did not.  “Others who came with me to the captain’s house are also being badly treated. The captain seems to have a stone in place of a heart.” Esperança detailed her existence to the governor of the state of Piauí to ask that the beatings end, that her daughter be baptized and that she could live with her husband again. A portion of the original letter is in the book.

This book is an important addition to children’s literature for several reasons. Most important, it makes young people aware of the African diaspora by introducing them to enslaved Africans in Brasil. (More Africans were taken to Brazil than to any other country in the Americans during the Transatlantic Slave Trade.) Older readers can be made aware of the complexities of enslavement. When non Europeans were first enslaved, it was justified by saying they weren’t Christian,, another way of rationalizing that they were not equal to Europeans. (Somewhat related information can be found here.) We read that Esperança wants to receive the sacraments and to have her daughter baptized. Was her marriage also viewed as a saccrament? We see variations on inhumanity as enslavement locates in other cultures.

day.  night

Hees’ artwork connects Esperança to this land and to this place. The striking use of colors, from pages fill with pinks, then greens and then blues and purple remind us of the passage of time.

hairMorning came softly, a timid sun graced the sky. Birds were
singing in the trees. It was time for
Esperança Garcia to get up. She rose from another sleepless night. She slowly fixed her hair and wiped away the tears that kept falling, even as she struggled to hold them back. Today was another day of waiting for the answer to her letter.


This story is uncomplicated, delivering a powerful messages of hope and resistance.

So many images of looking back remind me of ‘sankofa’.


We don’t know if she ever receives a response, but we know the tremendous courage that was enacted when Esperanca Garcia wrote that letter.  First published in Brasil in 2012, When the Slave Esperança Garcia Wrote a Letter made its English debut in late 2015. Sonia Rosa is a teacher who specializes in reading, culture and African history. She’s written over 35 books. Luciana Justiniani Hees is a Brazilian illustrator who illustrates using African and Afro-Brasilian themes.


Writers on Writing: Mitali Perkins/Anthologies

Anthologies are collections of works from different authors. Mitali Perkins recently worked on the anthology Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices, so I thought she’d be good to interview about anthologies. She was perfect!

Why are anthologies important to children’s literature?

Mitali_PerkinsTwo reasons. First, they showcase different voices and introduce us to authors who might be new to us. In this sense, they are like the tastes we get as we wander the Costco aisles that lead to lifelong addictions. Second, they provide an antidote to the “danger of single story.” Many voices telling many stories is exactly what we need when all of us make mistakes. Anthologies and their shared authorship provide a safer communal space for each of us to keep pushing the envelope, write bravely, and take risks, especially in fiction.

If you were on an award committee that was set up to recognize the year’s best anthologies, for what elements would you look?

Great question. My answer to this relates to my answer to the first question you asked. I’d look for anthologies that lead the reader to want more from many of the authors as well as one that addresses one tricky theme or topic from many different perspectives.

What did you most enjoy about creating the anthology, Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices?

It helped me to appreciate the brilliance of my editors. Editing is so hard. I am not a natural editor; I’m a writer with a unique voice and vision. It was tough not to override the contributors’ voices with my own. It was hard to ask them to revise. I discovered I didn’t like editing much and was glad when I could go back to being edited. On the other hand, I got to work with a bunch of brilliant authors, and it doesn’t get better than that.

What are some of your favorite anthologies?

I love poetry anthologies. Two of my longstanding favorites are Good Poems for Hard Times, edited by Garrison Keillor and Talking Like the Rain: A Read-to-Me Book of Poems by X. J. Kennedy and Dorothy M. Kennedy. 

What do you have coming next?

Borderlines, a YA novel about growing up between cultures, comes out in 2017 from Macmillan/FSG and Gifts for Abuela is a picture book about Christmas on the California/Mexico border coming in 2018 from Macmillan/FSG. But this year, Candlewick is releasing Open Mic in Paperback on August 23, and that’s exciting because the voices in the book might reach a whole new audience.

Mitali Perkins has written nine novels for young readers, including Rickshaw Girl (chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the top 100 books for children in the past 100 years) and Bamboo People (an American Library Association’s Top Ten Novels for Young Adults, starred in Publishers Weekly as “a graceful exploration of the redemptive power of love, family, and friendship.”) Her newest novel, Tiger Boy, is a Junior Library Guild selection.


Writers on Writing: Malinda Lo/Serials and Series


Continuing a story over several books is serializing that story. Books that share a common setting, story arc or characters is a series. A series would books such as Nancy Drew, Border Town and The Babysitters Club while serialized fiction would include The Goddess Wars, Legend and Dorothy Must Die. Despite these technical differences, we tend to call books with characters and settings that extend over multiple books a ‘series’. To really learn about serialized fiction, I recently interviewed Malinda Lo.

Why do you think serialized fiction is so popular with young readers?

I think serialized fiction is popular with readers of all ages because we become attached to certain characters, and we want to follow their journeys through many stories. Reading serialized fiction is like revisiting old friends. There’s a comfort in it because mlo-by-andiepetkus-wordstock1-lowresyou have a good idea of what you’re going to get, and if they’re old friends, you enjoy spending time with them.  

Additionally, if you like epic tales of adventure, they often have to be in series format. It’s hard to fit saving the world into one book! So if you like big, sweeping narratives, that’s another reason to love series. You get to see much more of that fictionalized world.

How is it decided that a particular story should be serialized? How are the contracts usually negotiated? (one book at a time, or for the entire series at one?)

I’ve written two kinds of serialized fiction. My Adaptation series is two novels and a novella, and is the kind of serialized fiction you generally find in bookstores. The sequence of this series and the number of books in it was negotiated during the contract stage, when Little, Brown acquired it. Sometimes if a book is a standalone and it does really well, publishers will ask for a sequel or for more in the series. So it’s not always decided up front. 

The other type of serialized fiction I’ve written is Tremontaine, a serialized ebook series from an ebook publisher called Serial Box. They release serialized ebook novellas weekly, like a TV series releases episodes. It’s actually quite an old kind of publishing. This is how Charles Dickens released his writing in the nineteenth century — by publishing it in newspapers serially. This was different from my novels because I was one writer on a team of writers, and we worked out the plot together. The overarching beats of the plot were created together before we started writing.

Is writing serialized fiction the same as writing a novel, or are there differences?

If your series consists of a series of novels, it’s like writing a series of novels. As many writers enjoy saying, every novel is different. At the same time, if you’re working with a series, it’s a good idea to know the whole plot (at least generally) before you start writing book one. Otherwise the resulting series will have continuity problems and plot holes. So while each novel on its own is simply (simply, ha!) writing a novel, you have the added issue of plotting across a series rather than only one book.

For Tremontaine, it was quite different from writing a novel because each “episode” was only about 14,000 words. That’s much shorter than a novel, so the structure of each episode was different. You had to limit what you could get done in one episode, and you had to work with the other writers by asking them to insert plot points in their episodes to lead up to yours, or to follow through afterward. The entire arc of the season felt more like a novel. 

If someone were to develop an award for outstanding young adult series, what criteria do you think they should consider?

I think that would be a wonderful idea! There are so many series that are fantastic that don’t get recognized because most awards focus only on standalone novels. For example, Holly Black’s Curse Workers series is truly a work of art. She plants many seeds in the first book (White Cat) that don’t fully blossom until the climax of the third (Black Heart). That kind of multi-book planning — and its successful execution — is really hard to do. So I think a series award would need to look at the entire arc of all books in the series, and consider how well the narrative and characters develop over the course of all books.

Additionally, each book in the series should have its own inner cohesion. Because it’s a book within a series, however, there will necessarily be loose ends in all the books except the last one. But even with that caveat, each book should move the characters through a relatively contained story arc, and then also push the greater story forward. It’s a big challenge and I really admire writers who are able to juggle epic plots and multiple character threads.

What can we expect from you in 2016?

This year I’m hunkering down and doing a lot of writing. You won’t see much new from me this year because I’m working on stuff that won’t come out until after 2016. I will have some nonfiction published this year, including an essay in a collection for adults on the business of writing. And you never know, I might turn out some other essays as well. Stay tuned.

After reading Malinda’s description of what would make good, award winner series, I too wish there were an award! But, Malinda is such a good writer that she could convince me of almost anything. Malinda Lo is the critically acclaimed author of several young adult novels, most recently the duology Adaptation, a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of 2013, and Inheritance, winner of the 2014 Bisexual Book Award. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA, a project that celebrates diversity in young adult books. She lives in Massachusetts with her partner and their dog. We’ll have to watch for her releases in 2017!


Writers on Writing: Jeanne/Fan Fiction

I was first introduced to fan fiction about 12 years ago when a student I had talked about the stories he would write. I didn’t hear too much about it until recently on Twitter where there is a huge presence that often bleeds over to YA discussions. I am completely out of my element when it comes to fan fiction, so I contacted Jeanne,  a new friend I’ve made on Twitter. She’s an expert on the topic.

Jeanne, I have to admit I am so uninformed when it comes to fan fiction. What exactly is it? Do you have any idea how popular it is with American Indian teens and teens of color?

The simplest way to put it is, fan fiction is a form of derivative literature that explicitly borrows elements (characters, settings, plot points, etc.) from a piece of media created by someone else. It comes in a variety of formats, genres, and styles. But at it’s heart fan fiction is a reaction to media. Where fans, or sometimes non-fans, take control of a piece of medijeannea and transform it into something new, something their own. While derivative works are nothing new in media, see James Joyce’s Ulysses or even Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, fan fiction exists outside the boundaries of any industry. It is a subversive form of literature. Anyone can write or read it. There are no real gatekeepers, beside an internet connection and computer skills. But even before the advent of the internet fan fiction lived in fanzines, or in the hearts and notebooks of fans.

I haven’t found any real comprehensive surveys or studies of fan fiction. But anecdotally, people of color have always been active in fandom. Anecdotally, I can say that people of color have always been a part of fandoms and fan fiction dating back to the fanzine days. Fan spaces, much like any other community in real life, are restricted by economics, language and cultural understanding. Though it’s important to know that western countries, like the US and the UK, are not the only places where fandoms and fan fiction exist. For example: Otaku is a Japanese term for people with obsessive interests, commonly used for the anime and manga fandoms. It’s been in us since the early 1980s. 

How is fan fiction changing young adult literature?

Well the most immediate example of this impact is how many young adult authors got their start writing fan fiction. Some of the most notable are Meg Cabot, Cassandra Clare, and Rainbow Rowell. In fact, Rowell’s Carry On is a fan fiction based on a fictional book series she introduced in her book Fangirl. With the availability of the internet to YA authors and readers are able to access fan fiction. But even more interesting is how fandoms, fan culture, has become a huge part of modern youth culture. 

The vlogbrother youtube channel, started by YA author John Green and his brother Hank, gain it’s huge following in part because of a video Hank did singing about his anticipation for that last Harry Potter novel, called Accio Deathly Hallows. The Green brothers, and their fan following known as Nerdfighters maintain strong ties to fandom and fan works. John even encourages fan artist to create works based on his novels, and has even produced posters of that art, allowing his fans to profit from their fan creations. 

Fan culture, and fan fiction by it’s association, is quickly becoming part of mainstream culture. It’s access point being via the publishing industry (Carry On and even Fifty Shades of Grey) and youth culture’s dominance over media and enthusiastic embrace of fandom. 

Are there any maginalized authors who began in fan fiction?

Off the top of my head, the only published author of color I know who wrote fan fiction is Rebekah Weatherspoon.

Where should I go to read fan fiction? Or better yet, what sites are most popular with young adults?

Two of the most well known sites are FanFiction.Net and An Archive of Our Own, also known as AO3. But fan fiction isn’t restricted to these sites. Wattpad has hosted fan fiction since it’s inception. Tumblr is quickly becoming a popular place to post and discuss fan fiction. There are also countless websites for individual fandoms, as well as personal sites fan fiction writers.

Jeanne is a stay-at-home parent, writer, and blogger. She critiques media as @FangirlJeanne, and spends too much time on Twitter and Tumblr when she should be writing.



Critical Engagement Through Social Media

This weekend, I was honored to be part of the Center for Teaching through Children’s Books one day event subtitled “I Tweeted, I Tumbled, I Taught”. In addition to hearing many ideas, teaching strategies and insights on using social media for professional development, teaching and engaging with others in ways that are legal and responsible. And, I got to meet people who had only previously been names to me: Betsy Bird, Colby Sharp, Julie Danielson,  Elisa GalleWilliam Teale,  Junko Yokota and Robert Muller. It was a very learning filled weekend as I connected with authors, grad students, librarians and educations mostly from the Chicago area. I didn’t take a lot of pictures, didn’t tweet much, but (and this sounds so self centered) I had so many people wanting to hear my talk, that I recorded it.

Writers on Writing: Cynthia Leitich Smith/Short Stories

Looking for a quick read? Or want to take a chance with a new genre without over committing? How about reading a short story? Cynthia Leitch Smith uses her expertise to guide us through some of the basics of short stories.

From a writer’s perspective, what are the essential differences between a short story and a novel?
Cynthia_Leitich_Smith_Black_SilverAt the risk of stating the obvious, the short story is…shorter. How much shorter is a subject of some debate and arguably a matter of publishing predisposition and/or posturing.

I tend to consider the short story one that takes the protagonist to (or just past) the precipice of change. It’s a narrower, more focused story than the novel, one with texture but not fully developed subplots.

How common is it for a young adult author to write short stories?Things_Ill_Never_Say
Quite common. I’m perhaps on the more prolific end. I’ve published seven YA short stories, mostly in trade hardcover anthologies (one in Cicada Magazine) and two middle
grade shorts, likewise in anthologies. My most recent are “Cupid’s Beaux” which appears in Things I’ll Never Say: Stories of Our Secret Selves, edited by Ann Angel (Candlewick, 2015) and “All’s Well” which serves as a chapter from Violent Ends, edited by Shaun David Hutchison (Simon Pulse, 2015).

What young adult short stories or collections would you recommend for educators, librarians or teens?moccasin_thunder_large
My top pick would be Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories for Today, edited by Lori M. Carlson (HarperCollins, 2005), with the caveats that I’m among the contributors and that I dearly wish there was a more current collection of shorts
by Native authors.

open_micI’d also like to highlight Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices, edited by Mitali Perkins (Candlewick, 2013).

Are fan fiction short stories very popular with teens?
Teens and grown-ups, too. You’ll find both among the readers and writers. Setting aside the copyright implications, fan fiction is essentially about imagining “what if” with the work of character and world building already in place. It’s an invitation to play with plot.

feral_Pride_finalWhat can we expect from you in 2016?
I look forward to the paperback release of Feral Pride (Candlewick, 2016), the final novel in the Tantalize-Feral universe. To varying degrees, the heroes of the Tantalize books join those of the Feral novels. It was great fun to write, especially those scenes in which protagonists who’d never previously met (like Quincie P. Morris and Yoshi Kitahara) appeared on page together. By that ninth book, I know what each might say or do under a given set of circumstances. The novel is a love letter of sorts to both the heroes and their most devoted readers.

Cynthia Leitich Smith is an award winning and best selling author who is noted for writing with diversity, humor, lyricism, imaginativeness, compelling action, and mid-to-southwestern settings. A complete list of Cynthia’s short stories can be found here. Her YA short story “Cat Calls” is available at no charge from Barnes and Noble.