Archive | August, 2020


26 Aug

My picture book biographies are encomia–also known as paeans or praise songs.

My biographies have sung the praises of divas, athletes, jazz legends, photographers and freedom fighters, among them Harriet Tubman, saxophonist John Coltrane, the Obamas, and most recently, Aretha Franklin. I paint my subjects as they might wish to be seen.

Often, my encomia take cues from the subjects themselves. R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul, illustrated by Frank Morrison, riffs on, and takes its title from, Aretha’s 1967 hit.

Be a King: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dream and You is a call-and-response litany of virtues and values. And Before John Was A Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane blows like a saxophone.

Vivid verbs rev up Racing Against the Odds: The Story of Wendell Scott, Stock Car Racing’s African-American Champion, illustrated by Eric Velasquez.

And my biographies of photographers are deliberately cinematic.

My classic biography, Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, follows Harriet’s spiritual quest. With allusions to African-American spirituals, the narrative unfolds through conversations between Harriet and God.

Stay tuned for my first encomium to a writer, and more to women leaders and to natives of Maryland and North Carolina, states I call home.

Interactive Books (no batteries required)

15 Aug

A teacher friend told me that Freedom in Congo Square was the first book that one struggling student learned to read. The student’s mother, also a teacher, cried as her daughter read aloud. No doubt, the book’s interactive elements played a part in this small victory. Interactivity fosters reading comprehension and fluency.

My interactive books fall under three categories: books with rhyming refrains, books with call-and-response, and books with hooks. These structures engage listeners during read-alouds.

Refrains Like Playground Rhymes

Both Sugar Hill and Jazz Baby use repetition to celebrate Black culture. The recurring line “Sugar Hill, Sugar Hill where life is sweet” conveys Harlem’s energy. “Jazz baby, jazz baby” signals the interplay between musicians and listeners. One toddler loved Jazz Baby so much that he slept with the book.


With the phrase, “You can be a King,” this un-biography lifts up leadership traits that students can emulate. Before John Was a Jazz Giant, also repeats part of its title to conjure the sounds of Coltrane’s childhood.

Books with Hooks

The Roots of Rap is written as a rap lyric. Freedom in Congo Square is a day-of-the-week countdown celebrating a New Orleans landmark. And R-E-S-P-E-C-T echoes Aretha Franklin’s hit song, using hyphenated terms such as T-A-L-E-N-T and P-R-O-U-D to chart her journey from the church choir to international fame.

Young readers often put these infectious read-alouds on repeat and soon memorize the verses. So, these interactive texts virtually read themselves.

Awards vs. Rewards

1 Aug

These books have won more awards, including Caldecott Honors, Coretta Scott King Awards and Honors, NAACP Image Awards, North Carolina Juvenile Literature Awards, and Arnold Adoff and Lee Bennett Hopkins poetry prizes and awards from the National Council for the Social Studies, International Literacy Association, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Cooperative Center for Children’s Books, and Bank Street College of Education. These and other titles have garnered more best-book-of-the year nods than I can name.

The greatest reward, though, is knowing that my books are raising the consciousness of children whom I may never meet. Young readers who are moved to write their own poems and tell the own stories to build a better world.

There are no shiny stickers for that. Just a warm feeling inside. I call it “hope.”