I spent a lot of time in and out of foster homes, and when I was home, it was always difficult. My mother was an alcoholic and paranoid schizophrenic, so I was dealing with a parent who had a mental illness and was in and out of the hospital. My father was in and out of the picture as well. It was tough. I moved around at one point every six months to a year, sometimes more frequently. So, always new schools, new environments, making friends, saying goodbye, starting all over again — over and over and over again. I was separated from my sister, which often happens in the foster care system. So, there was a lot of loneliness. It was an extremely difficult childhood.
It definitely influences the subjects that I choose to write about. You know, I lived in books. I lived in the library, and I'd read five or six books at a time and would go back and borrow five or six more. I went to bed with a flashlight so I could read after the lights went out. But with all of those books that I read, I rarely saw anyone in them who looked like me, or who had my life experience. I had a deep need to be validated — to know that I wasn't the only one in the world having these experiences — and I didn't find that in the literature. So I began to feel invisible.
Now, I've tried to create books for those children who, like me, are in dark places in their childhood through no fault of their own, and who need to have that acknowledged. That affects their reading choices as well. They'll come to my books because they find something relevant, and that makes them want to read. I've always believed no matter how complex language is, if you give a child a book to which he can relate, he will do whatever he needs to be able to read that book.
What is goodbye?
I had been wanting to approach the topic of grief in childhood for quite some time. It took me a while to find a publisher who didn't say, "Ee-uuw," at the very idea of grief and children in the same breath. Yet, children all around are suffering loss — not only the loss of a beloved pet or a grandparent, but they're losing their contemporaries, in school and out of school, as well as parents, who are dying from dreadful diseases. There are all kinds of ways that they're experiencing loss.
What I've noticed is that the rule of thumb seems to be if little Johnny isn't acting out, little Johnny must be okay. Generally speaking, adults are so caught up in their own grief that they don't notice what's happening with the young people in their lives. They're not connecting in any way, and I know that little Johnny's dying inside. I lost my father when I was going on 16, and it was a devastating loss. There was really no one to talk to about it. You internalize these things. But they don't go away. They surface in some other-usually unhealthy-way.
So I wanted to create a tool that would allow children who were grieving to access their feelings, to know that they were normal, and to also understand that it would pass. It's wonderful if they have the advantage of a grief counselor, but many children don't. So I wanted to create a tool that would allow them to walk through it on their own if they had to, but that could just as well be used as a tool by psychologists and by counselors; and to be used by parents as a touchstone point to help them connect with their children — even just to understand what their children are going through and the kinds of decisions that are critical at that time, such as giving the child the right to decide whether or not to attend the funeral. Those sorts of decisions will impact them for life.
Slipping past the intellect
Yes, I think poetry does have a magical element to it in terms of slipping past the intellect. I think it's because our defenses are down when we read poetry in a way that they aren't when we read prose. There is surprise in poetry with the image, or with the last line that you're not looking for. Prose rarely offers the same kind of surprise, and as a result, it's touched your heart before you even knew it was coming. There's always the "Aha!" There's a catching of the breath that happens, and I hear it all the time from audiences when I read. They're constantly caught off-guard, and poetry does that. Before you've had a chance to think about it, you're weeping, or you're taken back to that moment in your own childhood that you didn't even know was so close to the surface. That doesn't happen very much in prose, but it happens all the time with poetry.
Open to possibilities
I love travel and I love learning new languages and learning about new cultures. It has a huge impact not only on who I am, but also on my work — maybe in an indirect way. But when all you see is your immediate surroundings, your sense of what's possible is severely limited. As you push out from the center of that world and explore worlds beyond, your sense of what is possible for your own life grows exponentially. So, as you become a citizen of the world and you move out and explore other cultures and other countries, you begin to understand that there's all this possibility that exists in the world for you as well as everyone else. That's a great thing, and I think it's a gift to give any young person. I hope some sense of that open possibility finds its way into my work.
Danitra's a character
Children have really latched onto this character, and it's hard for them to understand that it is a character. Everywhere I go, students ask me questions like, "So, when was the last time you saw Danitra?"
And I say, "No, no, no. Danitra's a character."
"Oh. So, you guys don't hang out anymore?"
They really kind of don't get it that this is a character and not a real person, and they just feel that she is their best friend - which, of course, is a wonderful thing, because Meet Danitra Brown is about best friends and about this relationship. Who hasn't had a best friend? We've all had a best friend, so it's universal. We're talking about teasing and secrets, and just the secret fears that we have — the everyday things that children wrestle with. They find these things mirrored in the stories of Danitra and her friend Zuri.
But maybe you don't really need to. Maybe you just have to give them paper and a pencil every now and then and let them go. I think kids like that will kind of find their way. That's sort of my feeling. I wasn't really trained to it, but obviously, it was deep inside of me. The main thing — not just for artistic kids, but for anyone — is to encourage them as they get older and start thinking about careers, to really follow their heart and to go with what they love, rather than maybe following money or things like that — just to really follow their passion.
Marginalizing multicultural books
I think the status of publishing is definitely better than it was 20 or 30 years ago when I started, as far as African-American authors and illustrators and just books that are available for children of color to see themselves in. We still have a ways to go.
One of the things that bothers me about the treatment of books by people of color — that's African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians — is the kind of systematic marginalization of those books, which I speak to all the time when I'm addressing teachers and librarians in particular, who are in the habit of bringing out books by authors of color — African-Americans for the month of February; or Latino work for Cinco de Mayo or Cesar Chavez Day; or slating Asian books for Chinese New Year. Nobody questions it. Also, the notion of focusing on books by authors of color in schools where those students predominate is totally a mistake on so many levels; but one in particular is that the artist creates work with a view to showing the reader — or the viewer, if it's visual art — the ways in which we are all alike beneath the skin. So it is really critical not only to share those works with people of the same culture, but also to share those works with people of other cultures. So, it's even more important that non-blacks, non-Asians, and non-Latinos are reading this literature. And where is a safer place to learn about another culture than between the pages of a book? So, these works need to be shared.
The other fallacy in that kind of marginalization is that the work is universal. The subject matter is universal. And how better to teach young readers that than to give them books in which they can see that for themselves, learn that for themselves, and move beyond this perpetuation of institutional racism.
When I talk to teachers and librarians about this, what I've discovered is that very little of this is intentional. So you can always start with the assumption that this isn't intentional. And, generally, it isn't. When they're made aware of it, they stop doing it, and they say, "You're right. I do that. I didn't even think about it." So, that's really an important message to get out.
Poetry vs. castor oil
My recommendation for K through 3 in terms of introducing poetry is, first of all, to get beyond the sense of intimidation about sharing poetry. What I've discovered is that most adults have had a really unhappy experience with poetry in their own student life, and so they're kind of put off at the very notion of sharing poetry with their students. So, it's important to remember that if you present poetry as if it were castor oil, no one will like it.
A way around that is to find poetry that you love, that you are excited about, and that you're passionate about - because students are going to pick up on your attitude. People talk about poetry that they feel should be taught, and I always say, "Don't 'should' all over me. Choose work that you like."
The poetry market is so rich now that it can be used throughout the curriculum. There's poetry on math, science, space travel, sports, school supplies — poetry on just every conceivable subject.
So choose poetry that you like, that you connect with, and that you know your students are going to connect with, and start there, so that they have a positive experience. Have fun with it! Don't start out by analyzing! Nobody needs to start out analyzing — get them in love with the genre. Let analytical work come later — years later. Their first experience should be enjoyable. It should be fun. Choreograph poems. Experiment with ways to perform it. Children love an opportunity to perform. Do reader's theater with it. Make it a fun experience for yourself and for your students. After that, they'll take off. You won't be able to keep them away from it.