My mother read to me before I was even born. Stories were always a part of my life. The local library, just a few doors from my house, became a second home to me. I hungrily swallowed stories and books, reading everything on the children’s side by the time I was ten or eleven.
In addition, I had wonderful teachers in elementary school who encouraged me to read and dream, as well as to write. I remember winning a third-grade writing contest with something I wrote about a bunny. I’m sure it was awful, but the fact that my teacher took the time to display it in the classroom gave me the courage to continue.
When I became a teacher, I immersed my students in books and stories, expanding into literature beyond our textbooks. We memorized lines from Shakespeare and Chaucer, acted scenes from plays, and I encouraged them to transform their own thoughts into words. I introduced them to works by Black writers, because textbooks then printed only one piece by an author of color. Just one.
I started writing as a challenge from a student who dared me to enter a writing contest. I wrote a story, submitted it, then forgot about it. When I received the notice that I’d won first prize and my story would be published, I was thrilled, and my students celebrated with me.
Later, they gave me feedback on my first novel and they cheered when it was accepted for publication. At my first book signing, I promised them extra credit and candy if they showed up. They made me look like a rock star in that bookstore!
That book was Tears of a Tiger. It was gritty and somber and written to attract the attention of the teenager who had decided s/he didn’t like to read. With short chapters, powerful events, and memorable characters, the book soared. I knew very little about book awards at the time, so when I received the call that it had been selected for the Coretta Scott King Award, I was amazed…and thankful.
The award had been created to recognize books written by an author of color, and about children of color. Thinking back to the hundreds of books I had read at my local library, not one of them featured a character who looked like me. As I began to emerge as a writer, I discovered the works of Virginia Hamilton and Walter Dean Myers. I read every word Maya Angelou ever wrote. I discovered the poetry of Phillis Wheatley. I realized how thirsty I had been; these writers gave me the liquid power of their words. I wondered how many other writers of color had been hidden from me.
I read history books and old novels, poetry I’d never seen printed in a school textbook, stories of the past, present, and future. I researched the books that could have, should have been written when I was growing up. So I decided to write them! I knew that I had a long and interesting literary path ahead of me.
After Tears of a Tiger, I wrote the second and third book of what became a trilogy: Forged by Fire and Darkness before Dawn, as well as a second trilogy featuring another group of teenagers with issues and angst: The Battle of Jericho, November Blues, and Just Another Hero. I discovered that teens were thirsty for books about their reality.
Students have noticed that in every book I’ve written, I feature a teacher who makes a positive difference in the life of a character. I salute teachers, especially in these post-Covid days. It’s been rough and the world is still tilted. Thanks to all of you, students are once again beginning to feel upright and safe.
After a couple of visits to Africa, I wrote Copper Sun, which tells the very personal story of one young girl who is snatched from a loving family and community and thrust into the horrors of slavery. I wanted to make sure that young readers today understand what children their own age had to endure, to understand history and its ugly truths, as well as the importance of family and community.
That same family and community is highlighted in Stella by Starlight, written from evocative memories of my grandmother’s front porch in rural North Carolina. The story is fictional, but that porch, that lemonade, and the stories I heard on starlit evenings are very real.
Students sometimes ask about my writing process. I think first. Seriously. I go outside and let the sunshine or the moonlight speak to me. I write next to a huge picture window, so some chapters will have gray days, and some will be sunny. I take copious notes before I begin a book. I write down random facts of history I might need, scribble out possible characters’ names, make notes to remind myself to research tiny details, like what shoes looked like in the 1840’s. After I finish a novel, I go back and revise every single chapter. Many times–seriously. Repetition and revision make a book sing. Then, I send it to my editor who revises it again. If you are a writer and you are constantly revising your work, you’re doing it correctly.
Fiction. Reality. Life. Death. Joy. Sorrow. Victory. Power. All of these adjectives led to the writing of Out of my Mind. It is fiction, but it erupted from some place deep within me. The story is truth for so many families who live with family members with disabling conditions. Like all the rest of my novels, I write fiction to tell the truth. I blend fiction with reality to create all my stories. I worked at a summer camp for kids with special needs when I was a teenager. The memories of that camp ended up being what became Out of my Heart.
But ultimately, I’ll repeat what I tell teachers and school groups: I make stuff up and write it down. It’s a wonderful job because I get to create joy and sorrow and perhaps help a reader who needs to shed a tear or stifle a giggle or consider the world in a way not yet imagined. I am forever grateful.