African Voices Interview with Children’s Book Author Zetta Elliott
A poet, playwright, novelist, children’s book illustrator, essayist, and activist for diversity and equality in publishing, Zetta Elliott pens stories about the lives of children and young adults. A Canadian native and Brooklyn resident, her work has appeared in many anthologies, including the “The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South” and “Coloring Book: An Eclectic Anthology of Fiction and Poetry by Multicultural Writers.” Her essays have been published in The Huffington Post, Publishers Weekly, and the School Library Journal. Her plays have been performed in Chicago, New York, and Cleveland. Her picture book, “Bird,” won the Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers. She has nabbed a Children’s Literature Association’s Article Award for her essay “The Trouble with Magic: Conjuring the Past in New York City Parks.” Recently, African Voices had a chance to speak with Elliott about her motivations and work in children’s literature.
AV: When did the writing bug bite you?
ZE: I’ve been telling stories since before I knew how to write, but I always enjoyed opportunities to write in school. I don’t think I started writing outside of school until my high school English teacher, Nancy Vichert, took me aside at the end of Grade 9 and said, “If you want to be a writer, you will be one.” I had no idea how to become a writer but I definitely thought I needed someone else’s permission or some kind of training, and my teacher relieved me of that delusion. I started writing more after that and two years later started my first novel. I read a lot of Dickens (and other British literature) as a teen in Canada so my writing voice sounded British and formal…it wasn’t until I moved to the US in my 20s that I learned how to decolonize my imagination and find my true voice.
AV: Why do you focus on children’s literature?
ZE: I didn’t start out writing for kids, but I’ve worked with youth for almost 30 years and I often couldn’t find the materials I needed to teach effectively. Every kid deserves to see their life reflected in the pages of a book, but so many of us never had that mirror. I had a girl in one of my classes who was being bullied because her mother was in prison and I couldn’t find a single mirror book for her, so I wrote one myself (“An Angel for Mariqua”). I wrote about my parents’ divorce and how it feels when your father starts dating someone new (“Room in My Heart”). I realized that writing for kids was a great way to heal some of the wounds I’d been living with since my own childhood. I could also take a book I loved as a child and rework it so that a Black child was at the center. I looked at what was available here and in Canada and just became furious that so little had changed since I was a child desperately seeking mirror books. My father used to say, “If you see something that needs to be done, don’t wait to be asked—just do it.” That can be a trap for Black women, but writing books for young readers is a way of healing myself and serving my community at the same time.
AV: You have a doctorate and worked in academia. What made you decide to leave the academy and pursue writing and publishing full-time?
ZE: I never intended to become an academic. I graduated college and felt frustrated that so little of my formal education focused on Black history and culture. I never had a Black educator until the last semester of my last year in college, and he introduced me to Jamaica Kincaid. Then I spent the summer in Brooklyn with my father and decided to do my BA over again, this time focusing on Black literature. A professor in Toronto suggested I go to graduate school instead, and so I returned to the US and earned a PhD in American Studies at NYU.
I had Black professors and my cohort was majority Black — it was a completely different learning experience. But I was still working with kids the whole time and I struggled to make my scholarship relevant to them. So I took a year off, wrote my first adult novel (“One Eye Open”), and then finished the degree and used contingent academic positions to fund my writing life. But the academy has changed since I earned my degree in 2003; there are very few visiting positions and plenty of adjunct positions. I took a tenure-track job at a community college but knew I couldn’t stay past three years when the teaching load would jump to 4/5. I saved $30K and quit my job so I could focus on my writing full-time. It was a little scary but I have no regrets; I still give talks on campus, I can prioritize my writing projects, and I still publish essays on the racial disparities in children’s publishing. My scholarly training gives me a certain credibility and that opens doors that might otherwise remain closed to an indie author.
AV: What led to your decision to self-publish?
ZE: I naively thought it would be easy for me to get an agent and a publishing deal. When I sent my first novel out, I got such an enthusiastic response that I thought I’d have multiple offers and a six-figure deal in no time. Then, after six months, there was silence. So I started writing for kids and sent those stories out instead, and again got a really positive response: “You write beautifully but there’s no market for this.”
I did a little research into the industry and found the statistics compiled annually by the CCBC; their data proved that institutional racism was preventing many Indigenous writers and writers of color from getting their books into kids hands. I won a few prizes for my first picture book, “Bird,” but still couldn’t get an agent or editor to sign me. So I started to self-publish some of the 30 manuscripts I had sitting on my hard drive. I was uncomfortable serving as art director at first but grew more confident after the first few illustrated books and found talented artists who understood my vision. Now I have an agent and she sold three books to corporate publishers last year, but those books won’t come out until 2018 or later. I still self-publish because I have stories that I know will never appeal to mainstream editors who are overwhelmingly straight, White cis-gender women who don’t have disabilities. Most reviewers are White women, most educators and librarians in this country are White women, and I suspect most booksellers are, too. I can’t wait for people who aren’t from my community to recognize our “urgencies,” to borrow a term from June Jordan.
AV: We see you as a literary activist, you are very vocal about the lack of diversity in children’s books. Have you seen any positive changes in children’s lit since you started? What more needs to be done?
ZE: I haven’t seen positive changes in the publishing industry; in fact, the stats show that while the number of books ABOUT Blacks has soared, the number of books by Blacks has actually gone down. So when you just say, “We need diverse books,” the industry responds by giving more White writers more opportunities to write outside their race/culture. We still aren’t addressing issues of equity and access to opportunity.
You know what Frederick Douglass said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” and we don’t have a movement that’s demanding change. It’s not unlike police forces across the country—you can’t “fix” the issue of police brutality simply by hiring a few more Black and brown rookie officers because the problem is culture and systemic. Publishing remains an overwhelmingly White profession and no one is holding them accountable for that — and a few more brown interns won’t create real change.
We’re seeing a new “trend” in books that are marketed as Black Lives Matter narratives, and those authors are “getting paid,” but that doesn’t mean our actual lives and stories matter to publishers—they’re just trying to sell books (to Whites). I’m an advocate of community-based publishing and organic writing. We can be creators and not just consumers of books packaged by cultural outsiders. I look at television and see so much change — more ways for creators to tell their stories online, on cable, on Netflix, Amazon, etc. I think we need multiple strategies and that means not giving up on integrating the Big 5, but giving equal energy to small presses, self-publishers, digital publishing, and using our own platforms (podcasts, blogs, web magazines) to review and market our stories. I have 26 books for young readers and most aren’t eligible for review, which means librarians won’t acquire them for their collections, bookstores won’t stock them, and folks generally just don’t know what’s available. Home libraries improve kids’ academic performance so we also have to focus on changing the culture of consumption in our communities—books are an investment in the future (unlike sneakers). We have to create a new generation of dreamers so we have multiple visions of what this country can become.
AV: Wild card: what music are you listening to these days?
ZE: I generally write with the TV on! But sometimes, I turn it off and listen to Pandora instead. My current station is a mix of Emeli Sandé, Alice Smith, Solange, Sia, and Lianne La Havas. Sometimes, I get hooked on a particular song, so I had “Formation” on steady rotation for a while and “Rental Love” by Lake Street Dive.