|Zetta Elliott||An interview with Zetta Elliott, January 2009|
BIRD by Zetta Elliott
Shadra Strickland, Illustrator
Ages 8 and up
Young Mekhai, better known as Bird, loves to draw. With drawing you can erase the things that don't turn out right. In real life, problems aren't so easily fixed.
As Bird struggles to understand the death of his beloved grandfather and his artistic brother's decline into drug addiction, he escapes into drawing as an outlet for his emotions and imagination. Along the way, with the help of his grandfather's friend, Bird finds his own special somethin' and wings to fly.
Told with spare grace, Bird is a touching look at how a young boy copes with real-life troubles. Readers will with be heartened by Bird's quiet resilience and moved by the healing power of paper and pencil.
Zetta Elliott's poetry has been published in the Cave Canem anthology, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, Check the Rhyme: an Anthology of Female Poets and Emcees, and Coloring Book: an Eclectic Anthology of Fiction and Poetry by Multicultural Writers. Her novella, Plastique, was excerpted in T Dot Griots: an Anthology of Toronto's Black Storytellers, and her essays have appeared in The Black Arts Quarterly, thirdspace, WarpLand and Rain and Thunder. She won the 2005 Honor Award in Lee & Low Books' New Voices Contest, and her picture book, Bird, was published in October 2008. Her first play, Nothing but a Woman, was a finalist in the Chicago Dramatists' Many Voices Project (2006). Her fourth full-length play, Connor's Boy, was staged in January 2008 as part of two new play festivals: in Cleveland, OH as part of Karamu House's R. Joyce Whitley Festival of New Plays ARENAFEST, and in New York City as part of Maieutic Theatre Works' Newborn Festival. Her one-act play, girl/power, was staged as part of New Perspectives Theater's festival of women's work, GIRLPOWER, in August 2008. She is currently a visiting professor in the African American and African Studies Program at Mt. Holyoke College.
ETC: If you had to sum up your book in one sentence, what would you say?
Elliott: I would say that BIRD is a story about the power of art to ease grief and uplift the human spirit.
ETC: What inspired you to write BIRD?
Elliott: Inspiration isn't easy to pin down. Long after I'd written BIRD, I realized that it was a blend of personal experience and imagined possibilities. When I first started writing for children, my goal was to produce compelling stories that told the truth-I felt my urban students didn't have enough opportunities to SEE themselves in books. As a young reader growing up in Canada, I almost never saw myself reflected in the books that I read, and I was a voracious reader. We didn't buy books in my family, but my siblings and I had our own library cards, and once a week we walked up to the public library and took out as many books as we could carry. Not having books in your home is a real disadvantage, and if you're watching TV and you still don't see yourself reflected in the programming, you can start to wonder if you truly exist. So all the stories I write are designed, in part, to create a different kind of visibility for black youth.
The news media show countless reports of black youth doing drugs, selling drugs, and engaging in gang violence. But those reports rarely probe the depths of these realities, and they're not generally balanced by reports of success and achievement. Black youth are not inherently criminal. They are not deviant and pathological. ALL children yearn to belong, to create, to understand the world around them. And so BIRD is my attempt to lend complexity to a topic that is too often reduced to black versus white or good versus bad.
ETC: Why are books so important for our youth?
Elliott: The stories I write are for EVERYONE. I think all readers can learn from the experiences of others-there isn't one way of identifying with a story or character, and so it isn't always a case of needing to see yourself or your life mirrored in a book. That being said, I do feel that the publishing industry isn't adequately meeting the needs of young readers of color. When it comes to black youth, there are limited reading options-I feel like there are lots of "tribute books" based on the lives of important historical figures (Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr.), and then there are "issue books" like BIRD. There's not enough in the middle, stories that reflect the everyday lives of children of color and represent them as ordinary people. One of my current favorites is Lola at the Library (by Anna McQuinn, illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw), which is a simple story about a black child's weekly routine of going to the library with her mother. After they select and check out their books, they go to a café and Lola sips the foam off her mother's latte! Those are the kinds of books that may not win a lot of prestigious awards, but they're just as necessary as the books about the Civil Rights Movement. Again-it's not either/or, a matter of choosing one type of book over the other.
Our youth do need to understand and appreciate their history, and that's why I wrote a young adult novel (A Wish after Midnight) about the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. I had to self-publish it, however, because I spent five years sending it out and no publisher was interested. I also made it a time travel novel, so that readers could identify with the contemporary protagonist and really care about her as she journeys into the past. I do want books for our youth that teach the importance of history, but those books should also reflect multiple perspectives and not just celebrate "Negro firsts." It would be wonderful if children could have a say in the kinds of books being published, since ultimately, the books are meant to serve them!
ETC: Are there any particular books that changed the way you relate to the world?
Elliott: Absolutely! I think everything you read has the potential to change the way you think about yourself and the world around you. As a child, I loved the books of Ezra Jack Keats-when I look back at those books now, I'm grateful for the way Keats both normalized urban children, and revealed the beauty of their lives. I didn't grow up in a big city, but I did play in the snow, and draw on the pavement with chalk-those children didn't seem so different from me, they were just regular kids having fun in their neighborhood. Mildred D. Taylor's novels (Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry and Let the Circle Be Unbroken) introduced me to the lives of children in the Jim Crow South. It was, I believe, my first introduction to African American historical fiction, and I returned to those books again and again. I can recall writing a short story in high school that was based on one of the most frightening scenes involving white bigots…Taylor really gripped my imagination by not sugarcoating that moment in time. I also read a lot of British literature when I was growing up, and that Victorian sensibility has stayed with me, to an extent. I still think Charles Dickens is one of the most gifted storytellers I've ever read, and his moral appeals resonate with me…I do think literature ought to "improve" us in some way, though I don't think such a response can be measured or guaranteed.
ETC: How do you feel about the future of children's books?
Elliott: In general, I'm optimistic, though I do feel that the publishing industry isn't keeping pace with the technological changes that are transforming the way we produce, consume, and circulate art. I think of the music industry having to reconsider its packaging-people aren't buying CDs as much any more, they're downloading the singles that appeal to them most. That puts power into the hands of the consumers, and not the music executives. The same applies to You Tube-if you can get access to a video camera, and they're more affordable these days, then you can post a video online and have access to a global audience. I'm not a huge fan of e-books, but I'm glad they exist because I think the point is to give readers more options. I'm excited by the possibilities of publishing on demand sites like lulu.com or Xlibris.com, but I'm also frustrated by the difficulty of getting the word out about self-published books. And there's still a measure of stigma involved-people think only "unworthy" books have to be self-published, and that's not true.
I belong to a community of extraordinarily talented artists of color, and they are increasingly turning to self-publishing because they're tired of waiting for a publishing executive to give them the official stamp of approval. In this country, black writers have always had to struggle to make their voices heard-extending all the way back to the 18th century with poet Phillis Wheatley. If the majority group controls the publishing industry, then members of minority groups will always have to "prove" that their work is legitimate and relevant to readers. Obviously, some progress has been made, and black-owned presses continue to produce books that mainstream publishers would never consider. And it should also be said that mainstream publishers are putting out some wonderful books by people of color. But I believe black-authored children's books constitute less than 3% of the total number of books published annually for kids (see the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison). And there is still a maze of gatekeepers one has to navigate-agents, editors, artistic directors-and there's very little candid conversation about how "the bottom line" ($) drives the number of times those gates are opened, and to whom. So I do think change is coming, but perhaps not as quickly as I'd like.
ETC: What books do you love to give to children?
Elliott: Anything by Ezra Jack Keats, of course. I also really like to give Wings by Chris Myers. I just ordered Beautiful Blackbird by Ashley Bryan, and Freedom Child of the Sea by Ricardo Keens-Douglas. And tonight I picked up Frog & Toad are Friends (by Arnold Lobel), which I'll probably end up keeping for myself because I love those stories so much!