Thursday, February 24, 2022

Black Creatives Speak Love During Black History Month and Beyond!

A few summers ago, when I wrote DADDY SPEAKS LOVE, I hoped each word would speak love, and through that love, truth—something I strive for in all my work (that and possibilities). For E.B. Lewis, he wanted his illustrations “to convey a strong sense of feeling and emotion.”

                          DADDY SPEAKS LOVE 
       author, Leah Henderson & illustrator, E.B. Lewis

As we near the end of February and the month-long celebration of Black History, I wanted to take a moment to ask a few brilliant debut and up and coming Black authors and illustratorswho speak love into their work each and every daywhat they strive to capture, highlight, explore, or reveal in their stories?

FLY author, Brittany J. Thurman

Brittany J. Thurman, author of FLY, illustrated by Anna Cunha said: I always think back on the time I spent with my elders as a kid. Many of those elders are ancestors now. Back then, I didn’t understand their protection, their way of keeping me safe, their way of showing what it meant to be loved. Today, I see every action of my elders, from my great-grandmother pulling me close to give her some “sugar” (a kiss), to my great-grandfather warning me not to eat the left-over communion crackers, it was all an act of love. Elders pop up in my work a lot. I seek to capture what it means to showcase and hold tight to their adoration. I hope to reveal through my words that we are all witnesses to our elder’s protection, to their dreams, which often become the life we are living today. Through them I strive, and I hope my work highlights the prowess our elders exhibited, a legacy that continues with us today.

SHOW THE WORLD! author, Angela Dalton

Angela Dalton, author of SHOW THE WORLD!, illustrated by Daria Peoples wrote: When I look at the work that I’ve created to date, there are two distinct themes that thread throughout my stories. They are the value of independence and finding your path. I enjoy developing and presenting Black characters who are curious. This curiosity finds them exploring places and spaces they’ve been told they don’t belong or have been left out of seeing themselves in. They celebrate Black spaces with joy and pride, and embrace them with honor. As they look, feel, touch, and listen to the world around them they develop what I think is the most important element to claiming independence and one’s unique path – the courage to know that they deserve both. I hope that my work continues to show Black children that their courage and curiosity is a gift, and through both, they can find themselves and their way through life.

A HISTORY OF ME, author Adrea Theodore

Adrea Theodore, author of A HISTORY OF ME, illustrated by Erin Robinson shared: As an author from a marginalized group, one thing that I want to do is write to highlight both the unique and the universal.  I want Black children to see themselves within the story; I want to show what is unique about our experience(s). At the same time, I also want to show what is universal, and how relatable our experiences are for everyone. A Black child may feel ashamed when taught about history that only emphasizes a negative portrayal of Black people; but that feeling of being ashamed?  That’s pretty universal.  A Black child can have the unique experience of being singled out for their skin color; but others can relate to being singled out or excluded for other reasons. We share a common humanity, and I strive to reflect this in my writing.

WHO ARE YOUR PEOPLE illustrator, Reggie Brown

Reggie Brown, illustrator of WHO ARE YOUR PEOPLE, written by Bakari Sellers added: The thing that I strive to capture in my artwork is a sense of familiarity. I want you (the viewer) to feel like you’ve seen that tree or house. You know that group of kids. No matter how mundane, whimsical or fantastical the situation is, you can see yourself in it.


YOUR LEGACY illustrator, Tonya Engel

Tonya Engel, illustrator of YOUR LEGACY, written by Schele Williams offered: Coming from a generation of great storytellers, I was so lucky to discover that even as a shy, quiet child, I could tell my truth and speak volumes in my own waythrough my art. Once I was sure of my footing and where I wanted to go with my work, I found that I was able to make canvases sing with a certain mystery, playing with visual metaphors, bright colors and symbolism, especially in my fine art originals. In my canvases, people and families are center-piece. Their layered skintones are made up of a kaleidoscope of colors; purples, yellows, reds, greens. The subjects are living, loving, tending the earth, experiencing loss or marveling at the beauty of existing on this wonder-filled earth. All things I long to see in art myself. What I hope the world gets out of my art at the end of the day is Love. Stories made of and made from Love.

Community Book Center, New Orleans, LA

                *Book links support the Community Book Center, a black-owned bookstore.*

Guest blogger, Leah Henderson

Leah Henderson is also the author of the middle grade novels The Magic in Changing Your Stars, 
a 2021 Golden Kite Finalist and One Shadow on the Wall. Her other picture books include A Day For Rememberin’ and Together We March, a 2022 Golden Kite FinalistWhen Leah isn’t writing or teaching, she is traveling in search of discovery, stories, and fun. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

The Impact of a New York Times Nonfiction Bestsellers List for Children's Books - and How You Can Support the Idea

Screen shot of the opening paragraphs of the letter to the New York Times asking for children's nonfiction bestseller lists.

On February 14, 2022, as part of the #KidsLoveNonfiction campaign, Mary Ann Cappiello, Professor of Language and Literacy at Lesley University and Xenia Hadjioannou, Associate Professor of Language and Literacy Education at the Harrisburg campus of Penn State University, sent a letter to The New York Times requesting that the paper add three children’s nonfiction bestseller lists to parallel the existing picture book, middle grade, and young adult lists, which focus on fiction. The letter was also shared on more than 20 blogs that serve the literacy and children's literature communities. (I learned about it from nonfiction powerhouse author Melissa Stewart.)

This change will align the children’s lists with the adult bestseller lists, which separate nonfiction and fiction. It will also acknowledge the incredible vibrancy of children’s nonfiction available today and support the substantial body of research showing that many children prefer nonfiction and still others enjoy fiction and nonfiction equally.

The submitted letter included the signatures of more than 500 educators and librarians as well as the institutional signatures of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and the Children’s Literature Assembly of NCTE.

From the letter:

Adding children’s nonfiction best-seller lists would:

• Help family members, caregivers, and educators identify worthy nonfiction titles.

• Provide a resource for bibliophiles—including book-loving children—of materials that satisfy their curiosity.

• Influence publishers’ decision-making.

• Inform the public about innovative ways to convey information and ideas through words and images.

• Inspire schools and public libraries to showcase nonfiction, broadening its appeal and deepening respect for truth.

The letter is now available as a petition for individuals – including those of us who create (write, illustrate, translate) and work in and with children's literature (agents, editors, booksellers, librarians) – to sign to show our support.

Here's the link to read the full letter.

And here's the link to add your name in support of the idea of the New York Times having children's nonfiction bestseller lists.

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,

Thursday, February 17, 2022

The Stories We Hold

I’m sure I’m not the only one who sometimes feels pressure, from my own inner critic or others, to tell a certain story—a story that is funnier, more serious, more literary, more creative—I could go on and on. Something more commercial or just plain different than what I’ve written or am trying to write. We sit with ideas for days, months, and years wondering if they are the ones we should explore, shape, and share. Hoping they are worth the time it will take to make them into something. 


But how do we ever know if we are picking the right one?

Honestly, I’m not sure we ever truly do. That is, until we actually begin (and even then, I’m still not so sure). I was listening to an interview with adult author Marlon James, where he spoke about how he often “pick[s] the wrong seed.” Where it has sometimes taken him between sixty to five hundred pages to figure out that a storyline or character needed to be left in a bin of ideas. That the right “seed” hadn’t been planted. While the radio host seemed shocked to hear this, I wasn’t surprised at all. I’ve been there. At times, it has taken writing a whole novel to know it isn’t right, that it’s not the story I’m meant to tell or the journey my characters are meant to travel.


This isn’t to say I can’t get there, or that the project should be abandoned, it just means it’s going to take a lot more work. Even then it doesn’t ensure others will agree it’s a worthwhile story to pursue. So I’ve had to find ways to quiet my own doubts, and uncertainties and believe in the story, characters, or moments that have captured my attention and heart. That they are worth figuring out. So now I try and pick projects that mirror seeds I hold dear. Whether it is the things that make me curious, the experiences I grew up loving, or wanting to see, hear, and read or a moment I just wish to uncover or understand. These seeds speak to family, friendship, possibilities, discovery or so many other things. But for me, these are the ideas worth planting.



Part of the wonder of writing is the wonder itself, the journey of exploration to find the story that is inside us, built on our hopes, wishes, and experiences. Those are the stories I’m okay with writing extra pages to figure out. While I hope it won’t take me too long to find my way into any stories, these are the projects that are worth the challenge. They are the ideas I will stand by, that speak to me, whether they are the stories my inner critic or others think I should write or not. These will be the stories that I am proud of, the stories that have a little piece of me. These are the stories I’ll hold dear.


What are the stories and ideas you will write extra pages for?

Leah Henderson is the author of the middle grade novels The Magic in Changing Your Stars, a 2021 Golden Kite Finalist and One Shadow on the Wall. Her picture books include Daddy Speaks Love, A Day For Rememberin’ and Together We March, a 2022 Golden Kite FinalistWhen Leah isn’t writing or teaching, she is traveling in search of discovery, stories, and understanding.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Frané Lessac Retrospective Exhibition and Book Launch: 50 Books in 40 Years - A Guest Post by Frané Lessac

Frané standing amid framed illustrations from the exhibition
Frané with framed illustrations from the Retrospective exhibition 50 Books in 40 Years

I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the children's book industry's most renowned authors. When some of these greats passed on, I decided to organise a retrospective to pay tribute to their contribution to my career by gifting me their extraordinary words. 

The Retrospective showcases one piece of original artwork from 50 of my books released over the past four decades - from the waterfalls and ravines of the Caribbean to the starry skies of the Milky Way in North America to explore the ancient wonders of my adopted homeland, Australia. The exhibition takes visitors on a journey around the world via the people, communities and places featured throughout my books that celebrate, empower, and inspire young children to discover their own unique heritage and explore cultures that exist outside of their own. 

My career started by chance, on a trip to a little island of Montserrat in the Caribbean. The people, the way of life and the brightly coloured houses inspired me to pick up a brush and paint. To my surprise, tourists and rock stars recording on the Emerald Isle wanted to purchase my distinctive naïve art, and those first paintings are still treasured in private collections in many countries. My desire to share the island's beauty with people all over the world resulted in the first book in the Retrospective - My Little Island. That book led to several more books that celebrate the people and the islands of the Caribbean. 

Since then, my books have brought to life stories from Papua New Guinea, Polynesian folktales, West African creation stories and traditional tales from southern India and Nigeria. The stories have taken readers into poor neighbourhoods in Los Angeles, into the White House in Washington and down the Mississippi River. More recently, my Native American books, We Are Grateful: Ostaliheliga and We Are Still Here! Native American Truths Everyone Should Know with Traci Sorrel, a Cherokee Nation citizen and author, have received the highest accolades in the US. 

Putting together this exhibition made me contemplate how far I've come. Every book is always a challenge. With each new book, I always ask myself, how can I do my best to give the author’s text justice? But as I looked around the walls of the Retrospective, I was immensely proud of all the books and the sense of accomplishment hits home. To see all of one's life’s work in sequential order is uplifting. It showed the progression for the first time in a single space and was an opportunity for visitors to look back at a body of work produced over many years. The Retrospective was also timely as it coincided with the release of my 50th book, which presented an opportunity for the double reason for celebration - to open the exhibition and host the book launch. Our Country, Ancient Wonders, written by Mark Greenwood and published by Walker Books Australia, celebrates my adopted country of Australia’s remarkable natural treasures and wild wonders. 

children looking at Frané's art at the exhibition, one pointing to a detail in a piece of art

Gathering a piece of art from 50 books was not an easy task. Almost all of the illustrations from my Caribbean books have been sold in past exhibitions. Luckily, a painting from my first book, My Little Island, is as vivid as the day it was painted. My stepmother's house was decorated in Italian rococo, and my art was delegated to the basement - hence the gouache colours were kept out of sunlight and are as pristine today as the day I painted them. Other books or selected art have been donated to places like the De Grummond Collection in Mississippi and the State Library of West Australia. It's a great honour to know that the book's art and drafts will be looked after for perpetuity. 

In an adjacent room in the gallery, I exhibited large-scale oil paintings that complement my books and document my love of travel. These paintings allowed me to stretch my wings, literally. Painting in oils makes me slow down, as they take so long to dry. The paintings in these rooms give viewers and myself permission to slow down and explore.

The costs of framing, creating a 50-book catalogue, hiring a gallery, and catering was way more than I expected. But by offering art, prints and books for sale, it was a worthwhile endeavour. Fortunately, one of the best children's bookshops globally, Paper Bird Books and Arts, is located next door to the Gallery. They were the official bookseller for the duration of the exhibition. I also conducted a series of Artist's talks, a Masterclass for adults and workshops for children. This has allowed me to interact with the community and a network of students, parents, teachers, librarians, and art lovers. 

And now that the Retrospective is framed with a complimentary and comprehensive catalogue, I've received invitations for the exhibition to travel. The work will be displayed in a regional arts centre and the State Library in West Australia in the coming months. 

a view of a table filled with Frané's books and a crowd exploring Frané's art
A view of the exhibition

The Retrospective exhibition and catalogue are available to view on Frané's website:


Thanks, Frané! And congratulations on this amazing milestone and retrospective exhibition.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Getting Unstuck: Maneuvering Roadblocks, Hurdles, and the Blank Page

 We’ve all been there, envisioning a perfect story in our minds, only to sit down excited to type, and find the words just aren’t there, or worse, we start off strong and then our ideas and momentum peter out as quickly as they first came to us. Where did all those amazing ideas go that were bursting with imaginative subplots, dynamic characters and heart stopping emotion? They are just gone. Hiding in the shadows of our minds, or maybe they never truly formed. 

This has been my world on countless occasions. Some people might think of this as writer’s block, but I prefer to think of it as not spending enough time with my story, my characters and my story’s world. If I don’t know enough, how will I be able to tell the story I see in my mind? Whenever I am met with these days, I go back to square one. 


In last Thursday’s post, I spoke about discovery and finding my way to new stories in a new year, well, how do I find my way into the one I’ve found, or would like to find? 


I start at the beginning of everything. Sounds simple, right? It can be.


Whether that is diving into a character’s life, by rutting around in their bookbag or purse, or maybe their most secret drawer, I try to get to know who they are when no one is watching. I try to find what makes them tick. What makes them nervous and happy, what they will fiercely protect and what they will run away from or towards. While most of this I can’t completely figure out by peeking into their bookbag, or suitcase, it does give me a tiny glimpse into who I imagine them to be. What would they grab fleeing a fire? Who would they call last if they could only make one more phone call? Who would they visit if they could only see one more person? What do they carry in their pockets? Or reach for when they’re scared?


Sometimes I need to shake things up even more, so I’ll hop in my car and take my character out to dinner—what’s their favorite dessert? Do they share? What do they drop in our grocery store cart? What would they spend their money on at a clothing store, toy store, or sports store? What comic would they pull off the shelf? 

 Why so many questions? Because that is the only way I will truly know and discover who my characters want and need to be for my story. I am trying to find what I don’t already know. I want to be surprised by something. Excited to head to the page again. So I walk with them and talk with them, see what they see, hear what they hear, wonder what they wonder. I am ready to do almost anything to get to know the character they want to be, so that when I go back to the story’s world, I care a little more about them and the world they are traversing. I’m rooting for them and am curious to see how they confront (or don’t) any roadblocks or hurdles I throw their way. In finding them, I find my way to getting unstuck.


  Guest Blogger



Leah Henderson is the author of the middle grade novels The Magic in Changing Your Stars, a SCBWI Golden Kite Finalist and One Shadow on the Wall. Her picture books include Daddy Speaks Love, A Day For Rememberin’ and Together We March. When Leah isn’t writing or teaching, she is traveling in search of discovery, stories, and understanding.

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

The 2022 SCBWI Winter Conference is Here! #scbwiWinter22

With socials starting today and leading up through the official conference kickoff with a keynote from Brian Selznick, with panels (agents, editors, art directors!) and keynotes and then an entire day to get "up close" with publishing professionals, special illustrator sessions, all the way to Sunday's awards and wrap-up (and even a GenNext Twitter social) we're in for an amazing few days of connection, inspiration, craft, business, opportunity, and community.

Check out the full schedule and all the conference offers here.

And whether you're able to attend or not, head over to the Official SCBWI Conference Blog (at for live blogging from a great team of authors and illustrators, including Don Tate, Jolie Stekly, Jaime Temairik, Debbie Ohi, and myself, Lee Wind.

Here's to a great conference ahead!

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,

Thursday, February 3, 2022

A New Year Brings New Discoveries

At the end of each year, I feel this need to get truly productive. Clear my desk of all the projects I promised myself I’d finish before a new year greeted me. And usually, I’m successful at getting a few projects off my pile, but there are inevitably many more unfinished stories, memories, tidbits, and imaginings I fail to really follow. Then, when that clock strikes twelve, wherever I am in the world, I’m always ready, willing, and excited to abandon that past year’s thoughts and stories, in search of something fresh and new. Eager for discovery.


That’s the best part of the writing process, right? That journey of discovery? The scavenging and collecting of curious ideas, peculiar characters, and unforgettable moments—pebbles that can be the beginning, middle, or final piece in a story’s journey? That perfect combination of ideas.


So, like for many, it is no surprise that at the beginning of each year, I feel a pressure to start something new. To discover. To wipe the slate clean, and create something from nothing. To spare my easer and avoid a revision game of musical chairs with my words. In January, February, and even March, I’m always ready to fill, real and imagined jars, notebooks and boxes. Collecting from any and everywhere—feelings, colors, smells, sights, sounds, experiences. Every space, moment, and idea, a potential for story and discovery. 


But why do I rarely look back in these first months of the year? Why do I never try and rearrange some of the curiosities collected in my past? The snippets that once got me excited are often abandoned so quickly just because another year has come. Who says we shouldn’t revisit old ideas in search of new ones at the beginning of each year?


No one!


So this year, instead of starting with a truly clean slate, I’ve decided to spend time reading through old notebooks filled with half-baked ideas and doodles, crack open shoeboxes packed with scraps of paper, tickets, gum wrappers and faded receipts, which captured quickly scribbled ideas, words, and moments I was once so desperate to remember and claim. Revisit what made me lean forward, pause, and take note. Explore and rediscover what once caught my attention, imagination, and curiosity, possibly mingling an old idea with a fresh discovery. 


I’m sure I’ll come across many false starts along the way. Not every idea is meant to be realized. But maybe, just maybe some are meant to keep me searching, giving just enough for new discovery. Each hour of each day, we gain more information, and hopefully more possibilities. New can also come from old, so let’s not discard or give up on ideas that once gave us a flicker of excitement. There may be something undiscovered there, waiting and ready to be collected and told this year. 


Guest Blogger: Leah Henderson


Leah Henderson is an author, mentor, and avid traveler. Her books include Daddy Speaks Love, A Day For Rememberin’, Together We March and The Magic in Changing Your Stars, a SCBWI Golden Kite Finalist. When Leah isn’t writing or teaching, she is traveling in search of discovery and story.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

An Exclusive Interview with Author/Illustrator Eugene Yelchin

The cover of Eugene Yelchin's "The Genius Under the Table"

Eugene Yelchin is remarkable. His recent memoir, The Genius Under The Table, is as well. (It received seven starred reviews!) We connected to talk about memoir, craft, and much more...

Lee: There’s this really cool metaphor Barbara Kingsolver brought up in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle - speaking of fiction being like planting a garden in a desert, where you have to bring everything - rope off an area and then bring in soil, seeds, water, and tend it to grow into the garden you want. Nonfiction, Barbara offered, is more like going into an overgrown jungle, roping off an area and then taking everything that doesn’t belong in your garden out. When you’re looking at your whole life, how do you approach telling just a piece of it (like you did in”The Genius Under the Table”) in a way that crafts a story with a beginning/middle/end?

Eugene: It's a great metaphor, Lee. However, one still must decide what to take out of the roped off garden and what to keep. I have never written a memoir before. I have never written a nonfiction book before. The process was completely mysterious to me. But as I began working, I realized that a memoir requires a solid story structure not unlike a fictional story. The questions I had to ask myself were the same questions I ask myself when I write fiction. What are the wants and the needs of my characters? What is at stake? What are the obstacles, the complications? What is the crisis, climax, resolution? The Genius Under the Table is a very simple book. It is about tough things (poverty, fear, oppression), but somehow, it turned out to be funny. If I were to describe its plot, the book is about me becoming an artist. I thought a lot about what might have led me to the career in the arts and I talked to my brother a lot. We have realized that the most significant events that had influenced my artistic future occurred between the ages of six and sixteen. By the time I reached sixteen, it was fairly obvious to everyone in my family that I was not good at anything but making art. As a result, the memoir’s duration falls within that period, roughly a decade from mid-1960s to mid-1970s, which naturally, gave my story the beginning, the middle, and the end. 

Lee: Did you think of yourself (the child you) as a character?

Eugene: Absolutely. Every person in the book is a real person, and every event in the book is a real event, but I turned real people into characters, and I organized real events into a cause-and-effect structure. Unlike autobiographies, memoirs rely exclusively on one’s memory, but our memories are unreliable. To get closer to the truth, traditional memoirs include two voices: a voice of a young person experiencing the past, and a voice of a mature author commenting on those experiences from the present. If I were a ten-, twelve-, fifteen-year-old, I would have found some “mature author” explaining stuff to me unbearable. As a result, I removed my present-day self from the book all together. The story is told from the point of view of myself as a boy trying to make sense of the complicated world he’s inhabiting. Lost, confused, mistaken in his assumptions, mine is an unreliable narrator, who is probably more real me than I’m willing to admit.

An interior spread from "The Genius Under the Table".

Lee: How did the art come in terms of sequence - did you draw first, then write, or the reverse, or was it some combination as you went?

Eugene: The illustrations in the book are the re-enactments of my childhood drawings. As a kid, I used to draw to make sense of things. My family lived in one of those grim Soviet communal apartments, all five of us together in one room. I slept on a cot under the table, and it was the underside of that table that served as my drawing surface. I vaguely remembered my drawings on that table, which, naturally, had to be adjusted to the needs of the narrative. When I was making the finished illustrations for the book, I already knew what I needed, but while I was still working on the manuscript, I would doodle on the reverse of a printed page, figuring out my next move. On occasion, those scribbled images suggested solutions to the problems in the text that I was trying to solve.

Another interior spread from "The Genius Under the Table."

Lee: There’s so much as children we don’t understand and that can seem really scary, to the point where we adults writing for children can want to explain everything… Letting the child you not understand things felt very real, and also brave of you as the adult creator of the work. Can you speak about that?

Eugene: I had never assumed that I could impart some significant knowledge to my readers. I can barely figure out stuff for myself. I worry that explaining the complexity of our thinking and our actions may take away from that complexity. Our job as writers is not giving answers, in my opinion, but asking questions. The more difficult the questions are, the better. Our job is putting our readers in situations which engage their moral barometer. Our readers must ask themselves: what would I do if I were in the protagonist’s shoes? How would I react to such and such statement or action? What is the right thing to do in such and such situation? Naturally, I take sides in the moral dilemmas of the stories I write, but I prefer for the readers to infer where I stand from the dramatic situations instead of my observations.

Lee: What advice might you offer other illustrators and writers as they approach crafting their own memoirs?

Eugene: I’m not sure I’m very useful as an adviser. But there are some obvious things I could mention: 1) Know what you are writing. Is it a memoir or an autobiography? 2) Remember that most people have some kind of childhood traumas. If you’re writing from the place of trauma, show us your effort to overcome it. Please, please, please, do not write from a position of a victim. 3) Stay away from nostalgia like from a plague. 4) Try to distinguish between real events in your life and the events you wish to be real.  5) Most importantly, try to tell the truth to yourself. The rest will follow.

Thank you, Eugene! 

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,