Illustrating Poems in the Attic

Poems in the AtticA pic­ture book is not com­plete with­out the art, and I’ve been for­tu­nate to have my books illus­trat­ed by some of the finest artists in the chil­dren’s book business.

My newest pic­ture book, Poems in the Attic, was illus­trat­ed by Eliz­a­beth Zunon. Recent­ly, I asked her a few ques­tions about this project, and why she chose it. She respond­ed by giv­ing me a peek into her process! Enjoy.

Q: What made you want to illus­trate this book?

A: I real­ly iden­ti­fied with the theme of trav­el dur­ing child­hood! I was born in Albany, NY, but my father is from the Ivory Coast, West Africa. My fam­i­ly and I lived there until I was twelve years old but came back to the States almost every sum­mer, so it seems like we were always hop­ping on a plane to go some­where! I also iden­ti­fied with the daugh­ter learn­ing about her moth­er’s life through her child­hood poems. When I was in col­lege, I was giv­en a box of let­ters writ­ten by my moth­er to her par­ents while she was in col­lege. I dis­cov­ered that my moth­er and I had a lot of the same thoughts and feel­ings about life!

Elizabeth Zunon
Eliz­a­beth Zunon, illustrator

Q: What were your pri­ma­ry chal­lenges in cre­at­ing the art for Poems in the Attic?

Mak­ing sure that the moth­er looked like her­self, slow­ly aging from child­hood to teenage-hood to adult-hood on the last page took a lot of lit­tle tweaks. Also, keep­ing the two sto­ries sep­a­rate on each page was a very inter­est­ing design chal­lenge to solve. But it was great fun! Illus­trat­ing each page was like try­ing to put togeth­er a puzzle.

Q: Do you find poet­ry eas­i­er or hard­er to illus­trate than prose?  Why/why not?

Yes, I do find poet­ry a lit­tle eas­i­er to illus­trate than prose. I find that my mind’s eye wan­ders a bit fur­ther while read­ing poet­ry, giv­ing me more free­dom when I’m mak­ing the cor­re­spond­ing art.

Q: What was your process for cre­at­ing the art for Poems in the Attic?

I first looked at many ref­er­ence pho­tos of the places in the book, as I’d nev­er been to most of them. ( I did go to New Mex­i­co and vis­it the White Sands Nation­al Mon­u­ment after fin­ish­ing the book, though!) Next, I drew lit­tle thumb­nail sketch­es (with very sim­ple shapes) of each page to fig­ure out the design and com­po­si­tion of each image. I then took pho­tographs of myself pos­ing as the char­ac­ters in each illus­tra­tion so I would have real­is­tic ref­er­ence images to work from. I drew detailed sketch­es for each page, then trans­ferred my sketch­es to spe­cial paper and pro­ceed­ed to paint the illus­tra­tions. Last­ly, when all of the oil paint was dry, I added cut paper col­lage ele­ments to the illus­tra­tions fea­tur­ing the lit­tle girl read­ing her moth­er’s poems.

Elizabeth Zunon
Eliz­a­beth Zunon in the midst of an illus­tra­tion for Poems in the Attic, fea­tured here with the per­mis­sion of Eliz­a­beth Zunon.

Q: What do you have com­ing up next?

I’m work­ing on a book about a lit­tle girl spend­ing time with her great-grand­moth­er, who is very prick­ly and a lit­tle scary on the out­side. The girl learns that great-grand­moth­er is this way because of all of the his­to­ry she has lived through as an African-Amer­i­can grow­ing up in the Unit­ed States. It will be pub­lished by Lern­er in 2016.

Chasing Freedom: the Story Behind the Story

It all start­ed in Chi­na. Yes, you read that right. The ori­gins of my book about Har­ri­et Tub­man and Susan B. Antho­ny has every­thing to do with China.

Trip to ChinaLet me explain.

In 1988, I was asked to write a few mono­logues for the­ater pieces on Amer­i­can His­to­ry that would be per­formed in a series of the­aters in Chi­na. Lat­er, after the scripts were com­plete, I invit­ed sev­er­al friends to join me in audi­tion­ing for the cast. I had no aspi­ra­tions to join the cast myself, but my friends, who were all per­form­ing artists, cer­tain­ly did. As for me, I sim­ply thought the audi­tion process would be a lark and I looked for­ward to spend­ing a fun day with a few friends. And it was fun. And fun­ny. As it turned out, the joke was on me. None of my friends made the final cut for the cast, but I did! As a result, I end­ed up going to Chi­na lat­er that year. But, back to this story.


The his­tor­i­cal fig­ures I chose to devel­op mono­logues about for the show were Har­ri­et Tub­man, Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, and Susan B. Anthony.

I was work­ing in library acqui­si­tions at USC at the time and was able to take advan­tage of the seem­ing­ly end­less col­lec­tion of books to be found in the Dohe­ny Library Stacks. I dove into my research with gus­to, and was excit­ed to learn that my cho­sen sub­jects were con­tem­po­raries, and that their lives fre­quent­ly inter­sect­ed. I found that bit of infor­ma­tion fas­ci­nat­ing, and won­dered just how deeply inter­con­nect­ed they were. In any event, I had no time to sat­is­fy my curios­i­ty, and so I lim­it­ed my research to the bio­graph­i­cal infor­ma­tion I need­ed to know about each in order to write my short mono­logues. How­ev­er, I did have occa­sion to mull over cer­tain ques­tions that occurred to me: I won­dered what it would be like if Har­ri­et Tub­man and Susan B. Antho­ny had a con­ver­sa­tion. What would they talk about? What would it sound like?

After a time, I tucked those ques­tions away and, even­tu­al­ly, for­got all about them.

Talkin' about BessieIn the inter­ven­ing years, I wrote a book about avi­a­tor Bessie Cole­man, the first African Amer­i­can licensed pilot. This is a biog­ra­phy writ­ten in verse, and told from mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives. While the infor­ma­tion about Cole­man was fac­tu­al, the for­mat I cre­at­ed to tell her sto­ry was a work of fic­tion. Talkin’ About Bessie has enjoyed con­sid­er­able suc­cess, win­ning the Coret­ta Scott King Award for Illus­tra­tion and an Author Hon­or for the text.

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, the edi­tor began ask­ing me to con­sid­er writ­ing anoth­er book about a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure. I told him thanks, but no thanks. Every year or so, he’d raise the sub­ject again.

Final­ly, in 2008, he asked if I would con­sid­er writ­ing a book about Har­ri­et Tub­man. I laughed, think­ing to myself that every­one and his moth­er has writ­ten a book about Har­ri­et Tub­man. Why would I write yet anoth­er? And so, again, I found myself say­ing thanks, but no thanks.

Chasing FreedomTwo weeks lat­er, how­ev­er, the idea I’d had way back in 1988 resur­faced. What about cre­at­ing a con­ver­sa­tion between Har­ri­et Tub­man and Susan B. Antho­ny? That would be a new and unique treat­ment of Har­ri­et’s sto­ry. Would my edi­tor be inter­est­ed in that idea? The answer, of course, was yes. And so, with that, I got busy.

I began gath­er­ing research mate­ri­als in Cincin­nati, Ohio, with a vis­it to the Nation­al Under­ground Rail­road Free­dom Cen­ter, the most exten­sive col­lec­tion of mem­o­ra­bil­ia from that peri­od. I spent sev­er­al days hunched over rare suf­fragette meet­ing notes by Susan B. Antho­ny, slave nar­ra­tives, and oth­er valu­able lit­er­a­ture rel­e­vant to the Under­ground Rail­road, the Civ­il War, and the suf­frage movement.

Nikki Grimes, John Parker HouseLat­er, I trav­eled to Rip­ley, Ohio, to search out some of the orig­i­nal homes that served as sta­tions of the Under­ground Rail­road, includ­ing the John P. Park­er House. After a week of research, I head­ed back to Cal­i­for­nia to begin the long process of por­ing over thou­sands of pages of biogra­phies, his­to­ries, and oth­er ref­er­ence work on my sub­jects, and the his­tor­i­cal peri­od against which their sto­ries played out. Bit by bit, the man­u­script came togeth­er. And now, final­ly, this sto­ry has gone out into the world!

I hope Chas­ing Free­dom brings this time in his­to­ry alive for my read­ers, and that they real­ize we are all part of one anoth­er’s story.

To Blurb or Not to Blurb

Nikki GrimesI love a good read. As for a free book, that gets me sali­vat­ing as quick­ly as the offer of dark choco­late. Well, almost! So when a pub­lish­er sends me a book to blurb, my ini­tial response is ela­tion. After all, a new book promis­es the poten­tial of a new lit­er­ary adven­ture. Or it may be intro­duc­ing me to a new author (Yay!). Or it may give me the oppor­tu­ni­ty to sup­port an author that I already know and love. What could be bad about that? Well, hold on there, a minute.

To blurb or not to blurb is not as ele­men­tary a ques­tion as you might sup­pose. At least, it has­n’t been for me.

First, let me say that I’m always hon­ored to be asked to write a blurb. How­ev­er, writ­ing one invari­ably comes at the expense of my own work. It takes time to read a book crit­i­cal­ly, which is what I feel I must do if I’m going to say some­thing intel­li­gent about it. That’s time tak­en away from my own writ­ing and, trust me, there are already a host of oth­er things that do that. Then, once I’ve read the book, I may decide not to blurb it, after all, for a num­ber of rea­sons: I object to the lan­guage; I don’t find the sto­ry hope­ful (for me, a required ele­ment of chil­dren’s or YA lit); I object to sex­u­al ele­ments (feel free to call me a prude. You would­n’t be the first!); I believe the book would ben­e­fit from anoth­er revi­sion; or I just plain don’t think the book is all that good. No mat­ter what rea­son I have for ulti­mate­ly decid­ing not to pen said blurb, the author—often, though not always a friend—is dis­ap­point­ed. I hate that. And it does­n’t much mat­ter that I warned the author and edi­tor going in that there’s no guar­an­tee I’ll write a blurb. Every­one is still dis­ap­point­ed, and I feel bad about that.

But, say the book checks all of my box­es, and I do write a blurb. While it may be used for mar­ket­ing pur­pos­es, it may nev­er show up on the book’s cov­er. And, even if it does, how impor­tant was that blurb, any­way? I hon­est­ly don’t know.

At the end of the day, I don’t want to be respon­si­ble for hurt feel­ings. And if I could offer some­thing use­ful in the way of cri­tique, it’s already too late. Besides, I real­ly need to con­cen­trate on writ­ing my own books. What with the demands that go along with main­tain­ing a career in lit­er­a­ture, as well as the ordi­nary demands of every­day life, I find pre­cious lit­tle time to write as it is.

To blurb or not to blurb? I’ve final­ly land­ed on the only answer that makes sense for me: Not.

The Writing Process Blog Tour

Have you ever been on a blog tour? This is my first time being part of one. Blame Chil­dren’s Poet Lau­re­ate, Kenn Nes­bitt. He’s the one who roped me into this! Seri­ous­ly, though, I’m hap­py to join the My Writ­ing Process Blog Tour. I hope you can take some­thing mean­ing­ful from my respons­es to the four ques­tions posed.


bk_bronxAs always, I’m jug­gling projects. I seem to be aller­gic to work­ing on one man­u­script at a time.

First, I’m waist-deep into a Bronx Mas­quer­ade sequel, which means I’m too far in to turn back, but not so far that I’ve ceased shak­ing in my boots for fear I won’t be able to live up to my own expec­ta­tions, let alone the expec­ta­tions of my fans. Yikes! But I press on.

I’m also work­ing on a nov­el-in-verse for Boyds Mills, pub­lish­er of Words With Wings.

Planet Middle SchoolLast­ly, I’m writ­ing a mid­dle-grade col­lec­tion of poet­ry inspired by poems/poets of the Harlem renais­sance. This last is for Blooms­bury, pub­lish­er of my nov­el-in-verse Plan­et Mid­dle School.


First of all, I work in more than one genre, so there’s that! Besides that, I’m not sure this ques­tion is answer­able, at least not by me. I know that my work is dis­tinct, per­haps in part because it is char­ac­ter-dri­ven. Or per­haps it is that my poet­ry is com­pact, yet always deliv­ers an emo­tion­al punch. Yes. That’s it. In any case, it is this aspect of my work that is most often com­ment­ed on, so let’s go with that.


In gen­er­al, I look for sub­ject mat­ter that allows me to address those issues I feel affect the lives of young read­ers, and that I believe need to be dis­cussed and explored. I wrote The Road to Paris because I did­n’t find many books tack­ling the often-dif­fi­cult expe­ri­ences of chil­dren caught up in the fos­ter-care system.

Road to Paris Almost Zero Words with Wings

I wrote Almost Zero: A Dya­monde Daniel Book to address the sub­ject of enti­tle­ment because I see this trend every­where, and it dis­turbs me. I felt com­pelled to speak into it.

I wrote Words With Wings because I fear this gen­er­a­tion has for­got­ten the val­ue of day­dream­ing and I’m hop­ing my book will spark dis­cus­sion of this top­ic, and per­haps inspire a bit of day­dream­ing, along the way.

Chasing FreedomSome­times, of course, I write a book sim­ply because a cer­tain sto­ry cap­tures my imag­i­na­tion or curios­i­ty. Chas­ing Free­dom, a book com­ing out next year with Orchard Books, is one such title. It’s an imag­ined con­ver­sa­tion between Har­ri­et Tub­man and Susan B. Antho­ny, inspired by my fas­ci­na­tion with both women, and the fact that their extra­or­di­nary lives hap­pened to have inter­sect­ed, a fact which still gives me tingles!


Every book is dif­fer­ent. Since I write across gen­res, and age ranges, there is no one, con­sis­tent pat­tern to the way I work. How­ev­er, I sup­pose there are a few commonalities.

Let’s see: I focus on writ­ing a com­plete draft before I do any edit­ing. In fact, I muz­zle my inter­nal edi­tor dur­ing that orig­i­nal draft. She is not invit­ed to the par­ty, nor is she allowed to speak until I begin work on the sec­ond draft! From then on, I’m in revi­sion mode.

With each draft, I try to focus on some­thing spe­cif­ic through­out, whether that’s tense agree­ment, con­vert­ing plain prose into more lyri­cal lan­guage, or trans­form­ing infor­ma­tion­al pas­sages into more dynam­ic dia­logue, and so on. With each pass, I’m hon­ing in on one par­tic­u­lar element.

I revise and tweak an annoy­ing amount—just ask my edi­tors! As a rule, I know I’m done when I find myself mak­ing changes that are no longer improvements.

What else? Hmmm. As a rule, I don’t try to write sequen­tial­ly. I approach my sto­ries like jig­saw puz­zles. I con­cen­trate on devel­op­ing the indi­vid­ual pieces of a sto­ry, then fig­ure out how those pieces best fit togeth­er. This approach keeps me from feel­ing over­whelmed, espe­cial­ly if the sto­ry I’m work­ing on is quite com­plex, with lots of mov­ing parts. (This saved me from los­ing my mind when I wrote Bronx Mas­quer­ade, a nov­el in 18 voic­es!) In fact, this approach helps me when writ­ing pic­ture book texts, as well. It cer­tain­ly aid­ed me while I worked on Poems in the Attic, a Lee & Low title that comes out this fall. Okay! I think that’s it for process. If you want to get any more out of me, you’ll have to attend one of my work­shop intensives!

I hope you’ll read Kenn Nes­bit­t’s arti­cle, my pre­de­ces­sor in this Writ­ing Process Blog Tour.


Halfway to Perfect

Halfway to PerfectThe notion of phys­i­cal per­fec­tion is noth­ing new, despite the fact that no such thing exists. Most of us girls grew up on teen mag­a­zines that spoon-fed us the idea of striv­ing for body types they told us were beau­ti­ful, desir­able, “per­fect.” What has this led to? In case you haven’t noticed, the obese among us are not the only ones dri­ving the ever-bur­geon­ing diet indus­try. Lots of aver­age-sized, bare­ly volup­tuous, and even skin­ny-min­nies have fall­en into the trap, too.

What’s all this got to do with kids? Plen­ty, I’m sor­ry to say. I’ve had friends, who par­ent 7- and 8‑year-old girls, tell me their lit­tle ones bemoan the fact that they are “fat­ter” than some­one in their class.  These girls, these chil­dren, have already made the dread­ed “D” word part of their reg­u­lar vocab­u­lary. Even the skin­ni­est among them become despon­dent when they real­ize they are not as skin­ny as the girl next door. Con­ver­sa­tion on the play­ground, these days, includes dis­cus­sions of which girl in class weighs the least!

I don’t know about you, but this fright­ens me. I decid­ed it was time to address this sub­ject. I did so in a chap­ter book titled Halfway to Per­fect: A Dya­monde Daniel Book. In it, my char­ac­ters tack­le the twin top­ics of body image and healthy eating.

Damaris, Dya­mon­de’s friend, suc­cumbs to the peer pres­sure of her class­mates, and begins a self-pre­scribed diet which essen­tial­ly involves cut­ting out almost every food put in front of her. (Car­rot sticks, anyone?)

Wor­ried for her friend, Dya­monde looks for ways to help Damaris see that, far from being fat, she is prac­ti­cal­ly perfect.

As I devel­oped the sto­ry­line, I real­ized this would be a won­der­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty to teach young read­ers a lit­tle some­thing about dia­betes, a dis­ease that increas­ing num­bers of chil­dren are wrestling with. My own knowl­edge of the dis­ease was some­what lim­it­ed, so it was time to put on my research hat!

In addi­tion to the infor­ma­tion I found in books like Juve­nile Dia­betes for Dum­mies, I was for­tu­nate to know a vet­er­an school nurse with whom I could con­sult. Her assis­tance proved invalu­able. Besides giv­ing me infor­ma­tion about the dis­ease and some of its treat­ments, rel­a­tive to my sto­ry­line, she also apprised me of the pri­va­cy laws gov­ern­ing the han­dling of a child’s med­ical infor­ma­tion with­in the school sys­tem. As a thank-you to my friend for all her help, I named the nurse in my sto­ry after her!

Dur­ing the course of the sto­ry, Dya­monde and Damaris get to know a class­mate with dia­betes. Through this new rela­tion­ship, both girls learn that a healthy diet is the only diet they should wor­ry about, because a healthy body is the most per­fect body of all.

In case you’re think­ing this sto­ry is all work, and no play, not to wor­ry! This is Dya­monde Daniel, after all. There are laughs along the way, and Free adds his own brand of com­ic relief, as always.

Here’s how the sto­ry starts off.  Here’s hop­ing you’ll want to grab a copy and read the rest!

You’d nev­er know it to look at her skin­ny lit­tle self, but Dya­monde loves food. If there were a class in eat­ing, she’d get an A+ every time.

Dya­monde treats all food fair­ly. She likes Mex­i­can tacos, Chi­nese egg rolls, and Cuban beans and rice. She eats beef hot dogs, turkey burg­ers, and fried chick­en. Actu­al­ly, she likes just about any­thing that has chick­en in it: noo­dle soup, pot­pie, even chick­en sal­ad sandwiches. 

Dya­monde doesn’t have much use for veg­eta­bles, but she loves broc­coli, most­ly because each spear looks like a tree. And she loves fruit—especially peach­es, cher­ries, and grapes, of any size or col­or. Dya­monde also loves some foods that oth­er peo­ple don’t, like cot­tage cheese and apple­sauce mixed together.

“Yuck!” said Free, the first time he saw her eat some. 

“Oh, puleeze!” said Dya­monde, stir­ring in a lit­tle more apple­sauce. “You just wish you had a bowlful!”

Yes. Dya­monde loved all sorts of food, but her absolute favorite food in the whole wide world was spaghet­ti and meat­balls with gar­lic bread. And guess what Mrs. Daniel had made the last time Free and Damaris came over?

Welcome Precious

Welcome PreciousWhere do ideas come from? It’s not always easy to say. Take Wel­come Pre­cious. One day, someone—I don’t remem­ber who—said “You should write a baby book.” I snick­ered. I had exact­ly zero inter­est in writ­ing anoth­er baby book. Years ear­li­er, I’d done one for Essence Mag­a­zine. That one was a work-for-hire, but still. Sure­ly one baby book was enough, right?

Ideas are stub­born things. Like seeds, once plant­ed, they tend to grow and take root. In no time, I found myself think­ing about nurs­ery rhymes, and lul­la­bies, and good­night books. Soon there­after, I was ask­ing myself, “Well, if I were to write a new baby book, what would my focus be?” I mulled that one over (for days? for weeks?), then hit upon an idea that held some appeal: I could write a text wel­com­ing a new­born into the world of sen­so­ry delights.

childOnce that was decid­ed, I need­ed a name for my book’s baby, and Pre­cious sprung to mind. After all, every new­born that comes into the world, with­out respect of race, cul­ture, or gen­der, is pre­cious. That idea was impor­tant to me because I was not craft­ing a book specif­i­cal­ly for black babies, although obvi­ous­ly women of col­or would find it espe­cial­ly appeal­ing. Rather, this was intend­ed as a book cel­e­brat­ing the sen­so­ry expe­ri­ences of all babies. Of course, if you’re going to fea­ture a black baby in a book, who bet­ter to bring on board than artist Bryan Collier?

I was so excit­ed when Bryan agreed to be the illus­tra­tor. As it hap­pened, right about the time he signed the con­tract, he had just learned that he and his love­ly wife, Chris­tine, were about to have their first child. Soon, Bryan would have his very own per­son­al frame of ref­er­ence to guide him as he worked on the paint­ings for Wel­come Precious!

Tim­ing, as they say, is everything.

babyIn most of my sto­ry told through poet­ry, I write a series of indi­vid­ual poems, woven togeth­er by plot or theme. In this case, how­ev­er, I want­ed to cre­ate the feel­ing of, well, not a lul­la­by exact­ly, but some­thing of a lyri­cal text. A book-length poem seemed to be the way to go this time around. As I wrote the piece, I imag­ined myself hold­ing a new­born, and read­ing this book to him or her, enjoy­ing the taste and feel of the words in my mouth. I heard myself singing, rather than say­ing, each line. With that in mind, the text very near­ly wrote itself.

This book has become a pop­u­lar baby show­er gift in my cir­cle, and per­haps in oth­er cir­cles, as well. Have you read it, yet? I’ll leave you with one of my favorite passages.

Wel­come Precious …
ChinaWel­come to sun-sparkle and moonlight.
Wel­come to the cool delight
of ice cream,
the sticky joy of peanut butter,
and the hint of honey
in choco­late fudge.

Wel­come to the warm circle
of your dad­dy’s arms,
the slip­pery kisses
of your gid­dy grandmother,
and the cool tickle
of Mom­my’s nose
rub­bing against your
bel­ly button …
Wel­come, Precious …