Author Feature: Cheryl Willis Hudson!
Bright Eyes, Brown Skin by Cheryl Willis Hudson & Bernette G. Ford
DF: Cheryl you are an author, consultant, speaker, and highly respected founding co-publisher of Just Us Books. With your commitment to excellence in publishing and promoting books by African American authors, what keeps your vision as an author and publisher moving forward?
CWH: Sometimes, it’s a challenge to remain positive in the face of all of the negative propaganda that is ever present on TV, in videos, and in the streets of our communities, but as the old folks say “Cream rises to the top.” African Americans have a rich and largely undiscovered history of innovation in the arts and we do have a tradition of excellence within our own institutions despite the pervasive images in the media to the contrary. It’s extremely important to keep that tradition of excellence in the forefront of our children’s lives rather than as a footnote or in the margins of history. For Wade and myself, it was important not only to have our own individual stories published but it was important to establish an institution such as Just Us Books to publish our own stories as a people and spotlight our own history and culture. I once read that freedom of the press belongs to those who own one. That’s a pretty profound idea. As a people, African Americans need to pass down the legacy of that history and the story of the resilience of our ancestors to our children as a reminder of what they can achieve individually and collectively in this time and place. What can be more perfect than a beautiful children’s picture book to convey that wealth? What can be more satisfying to a parent than to watch his or her child experience the discovery of the joy of reading and the wonder that language and literature and music and art can bring into their lives?
I love to see children get excited about reading and the self-knowledge and awareness of their own talents and gifts that the reading experience brings. Knowledge is power, and whatever moves that forward in terms of books and literature motivates me.
Books are vehicles of wonder and self-discovery as well as repositories and conduits of knowledge. Once a child can see herself in the pages of a book, she can also see herself in the pages of history and in dreams for her future. What keeps us moving and what motivates us as publishers is a vision of seeing children blossom in their own space and seeing them move forward to realize their own potential. This is especially true for children of color but very important for all children. The possibilities for achieving fairness, equity and a level playing field within school classrooms also motivates us to keep trying to make our publishing institution even stronger. People like Frederick Douglass, Ida Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Mary McLeod Bethune kept their hands on the plow despite tremendous odds stacked against them. If we have the will, we can do it, too. It’s not only important to become published but also to be a publisher and to shape our own institutions and repositories of our own history so we tell the stories from our own perspectives.
My Friend Maya Loves to Dance by Cheryl Willis Hudson
DF: You’ve written and published beautifully illustrated and popular books for children such as the Afro-Bets series, Let’s Count Baby, Langston’s Legacy, The Harlem Renaissance, My Friend Maya Loves to Dance, and others. How much has the push for literacy mastery in today’s youth, been part of your mission as a children’s author and publisher?
CWH: Children born in the 21st century truly live in a global village so it becomes necessary to be literate simply to get through the day. Therefore, literacy is of paramount concern in our contemporary society. Children and adults can’t afford to be left out or behind because of their inability to read and comprehend ideas. People need to be literate and to have the ability to communicate not only to meet their needs but also to realize their dreams.
Technological developments have revolutionized the way business is conducted and in the way that we learn and communicate with others and geographical boundaries are fading away with the digitalization of culture. Therefore all kinds of literacy and fluency are required for human beings to be “present” and active participants in our global communities—whether this is via computer literacy, spiritual literacy, cultural literacy, financial literacy, artistic literacy or other.
Since our thoughts and ideas are conveyed via language, mastery of language via literacy is a skill that will take all of us far. When I create the text for a picture book, say for example, My Friend Maya Loves to Dance, my mission is for the child who reads that book to fully experience the story: the words, the rhythm, the illustrations, the meaning of the narrative and the story behind the story. I want that child to identify with my personal experience of writing the story and also relate it to his or her own stories. This reading experience then incorporates language, music, dance, art and design in a way that takes the reader via total literacy to a higher level of understanding in about his or her own corner of the universe.
Our mission has been clear from the very earliest days of our business—to publish beautiful, authentic, relevant books for children about the Black experience that are accessible and valuable to all children.
Clothes I Love to Wear by Cheryl Willis Hudson
DF: It has been stated that there is a lack of diversity in children’s publishing. What can aspiring children’s writers of color do to break in to the industry? What are the issues and barriers that you see?
CWH: There are a number of things that aspiring book creators of color can do both individually and collectively. Aspiring writers and illustrators of color must first of all educate themselves about the publishing industry and do everything possible to develop and perfect their crafts, and promote excellence and authenticity in their personal work. Writers of color also need to support each other and advocate for diversity and solid exposure of multicultural stories in homes, libraries media outlets and bookstores. There are some wonderful bloggers that effectively promote diversity and support the goals of many writers of color. They need to explore possibilities and support independent presses as well as lobby for presence in larger corporate publishing companies. They need to commit personal time and energy to doing lots of self-promotion at local book fairs, festivals, flea markets, on grassroots level, etc. They need to explore opportunities via the internet and via social media...there's strength in numbers. The issues and barriers are unfortunately the same as there were 40 years ago--lack of diversity within the staffs of corporate publishing professionals & decision makers, low pay, and increasing competition for shelf space and virtual space for multicultural titles.
My father used to say, “If you really want to get something done well, do it yourself.” Now this is not to say you should not solicit professional services such as copyediting, proofreading and production from outside sources but aspiring writers also have to be open to creating their own opportunities. Successful publishing is a process not an event. All of us need to be reminded of this fact. Ultimately, aspiring creators of color need to continue the legacy of excellence and expectation in our own work by being the best writers and illustrators that we can while respecting the audiences that we serve.
Kid Caramel Case of the Missing Ankh by Dwayne J. Ferguson
DF: Who are some of your favorite children’s authors – past and present? Which authors (besides you of course) did your children enjoy reading when they were little?
CWH: This is a really difficult question to answer. My favorite authors and illustrators are the ones whose works I’m reading (or editing) at the time. Some of the earliest book creators I was exposed to were Langston Hughes, Eloise Greenfield, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Bell Mathis, Virginia Hamilton, Tom Feelings, John Steptoe, Jerry Pinkney, Leo and Diane Dillon, Pat Cummings, Mildred Taylor, Fred and Pat McKissack and Walter Dean Myers. As the canon has grown so has the circle of talent grown and expanded. At Just Us Books and Marimba Books all of our authors and illustrators are loved and respected and they are our favorites, too!
My children enjoyed some of the same authors as I as well Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and Ann Martin’s Baby Sitters Club for our daughter and Captain Africa and Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles for our son. We took our children to the local library and read to them often when they were growing up. They were also fortunate enough to travel with us to ALA conventions and lots of book fairs with us when they were young. So they developed a love of reading early in life.
DF: What’s new and forthcoming for you and Just Us Books?
CWH: We're trying to remain relevant to our readers and their needs. We’ve begun to develop eBooks and apps as well as continue to support our print backlist and further the AFRO-BETS brand. We continue to grow our Marimba (multicultural imprint) forthcoming in 2012 Bottlecap Boys Dancing on Royal Street by Rita Williams Garcia. We plan to update our signature Book of Black Heroes from A to Z. We will continue to publish biographies such as our recent book on the great 19th century Black leader, Bishop Daniel Payne—Great Black Leader. We are expanding our presence via social media. Look for eBook editions of the Kid Caramel series this fall and a forthcoming app of AFRO-BETS ABC Book. We look forward to celebrating 25 years in business in 2013!
DF: Thank you and best wishes Cheryl!
CWH: Thank you, DuEwa, for the opportunity to share some of my thoughts and ideas with you and your audience. Continued success to you as well!
Visit Cheryl's author site at http://cherylwhudson.weebly.com/. For information on Just Us Books visit http://justusbooks.com. Connect with Just Us Books on Facebook and Twitter!