A few years ago, while living in Surrey, British Columbia, I came across the story of Barbara Howard – one of the fastest female sprinters in the British Empire of the 1930s – who, if not for the start of the Second World War, would have competed at the Olympics as the first, Black Canadian female athlete.
In 1959, after graduating from the University of British Columbia, with a Bachelor of Education, Ms. Howard faced a racist education system, that did not hire Black teachers at the time. Years later, she learned that the principal at a college she had previously attended (at a Normal School), had advocated on her (unbeknown) behalf, to help land her first teaching position. Barbara Howard was the first teacher of colour to be hired by the Vancouver School Board.
At the age of 15, Valerie Jerome won bronze at the Pan American Games and in 1960, she represented Canada at the Olympics in Rome, with her brother Harry Jerome. In an interview, Valerie reveals the truth: “Sport made everything bearable.” At the age of 9, she was hit with rocks by kids at school, and every February she now returns to her old elementary school in North Vancouver to speak during Black History Month. She shares the story of how their family house burned down in the middle of the night, and how she was sent out to call for help because she presented the whitest. The neighbours never did not come to their aid.
These stories hold nuance and power. They are pivotal to understanding the continued need for narratives to be told from perspectives of lived experiences. Racism is real and continues to exist in Canada.
But, in our rush to (un)learn, let’s also consider what the world could look and feel like, if stories had always reflected the intersectionality and experiences of IBPOC2+ children – going on adventures, discovering magical creatures, finding love.
I have been fortunate enough to lean into the thoughts and perspectives of Dr. Zetta Elliott over the last decade, and am thrilled to welcome and share space with her.
Born in Canada, Zetta Elliott moved to the US in 1994 to pursue her PhD in American Studies at NYU. She’s the author of over thirty books for children, including the award-winning picture books BIRD and MELENA’S JUBILEE. DRAGONS IN A BAG, a middle grade fantasy novel, was named an ALA Notable Children’s Book and has been selected for the 2021 Global Read Aloud. The sequel, THE DRAGON THIEF, was named one of the best books of 2019 by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Her young adult poetry collection, SAY HER NAME, was named a 2020 “Best of the Best” title by the Black Caucus of the ALA and was nominated for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award. Her latest picture book, A PLACE INSIDE OF ME, was named an ALA Notable Book and a Notable Poetry Book by the National Council of Teachers of English; Noa Denmon won the Caldecott Honor Award for her stunning illustrations. She is an advocate for greater diversity and equity in children’s literature; her essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. She currently lives in Evanston, IL.
Welcome to a conversation with Dr. Zetta Elliott!
NAVJOT: Welcome Zetta! Your work represents a juxtaposition of the publishing industry – from trade published titles to grassroots activism with your self-published titles. As a trade-published author, do you feel there is still a need to push through barriers and continue to bring self-published stories to life?
ZETTA: Absolutely. I self-published three titles in 2020 and that leaves me with two dozen unsold picture book manuscripts and several novels. Even with an agent, even with more awards under my belt, I still face barriers in the publishing arena. I have never had a book published by a Canadian publisher. I have a commercially successful MG series and Random House didn’t want to continue after the second book. The so-called “racial reckoning” has been purely performative for a lot of people and corporations. Self-publishing doesn’t remove the barriers that exist in the traditional publishing arena, but it empowers creators who don’t want to deal with an industry that continues to be discriminatory and/or disingenuous in its commitment to change.
NAVJOT: Do you feel ‘diverse books’ get to the core of representation in children’s books?
ZETTA: Not sure I understand this question. You mean the term itself? There isn’t one term that fits every context. I use “diverse books” sometimes but mostly try to talk about inclusive kid lit.
NAVJOT: With the visible rise of racism and the atrocities uncovered at sites of former Residential Schools, what are your thoughts on the sudden awakening, or lack thereof?
ZETTA: I think many people are open to talking about “truth and reconciliation” but fewer people want to discuss reparations. And there will be no healing until there is a redistribution of resources. Look at the unrest in South Africa. You can’t leave people impoverished and pretend that a nation has “put the past behind it.” The fact that people are shocked by historical facts–the pressure here in the US to avoid teaching history that might make White children “ashamed” or “uncomfortable”–tells me we’re nowhere near the finish line. It’s one step forward, two steps back because those with power and privilege will fight tooth and nail to hold onto what they see as their birthright–and they will manufacture a narrative to make it seem like *they’re* vulnerable and are being victimized instead of victimizing others.
NAVJOT: A Hand to Hold has always held a special place in our family’s book collection. Our son fiercely believes that you included him in the illustrations, and so, it has always meant that this story was written FOR him. How important is representation in children’s books today compared to when you first began writing about the issues?
ZETTA: Well, a decade isn’t a very long time! BIPOC communities have been fighting for accurate representation for generations–and will have to continue to fight well into the future. I don’t think much has changed since I wrote my first open letter to the children’s publishing industry. And I decided a few years ago that I wasn’t going to spend my time and energy fighting folks who weren’t willing to share power. I hope that my books continue to resonate with children; because most are self-published, they won’t go out of print and I know there will always be demand for inclusive stories. Perhaps ten years from now, parents (educators, librarians) will have more options when it comes to finding “mirror books” for their kids. WE know how empowering those books can be, and WE know how hurtful it is when a child sees themselves or their culture being misrepresented or not represented at all. Many of us are still trying to heal as adults from the erasure we faced when we were kids. The US publishing industry is largely driven by profit; sometimes excellent books find their way into the world but too many stories still get rejected because industry professionals put profit ahead of people.
NAVJOT: The OwnVoices hashtag initially coined by Corinne Duyvis, has become a mainstay in conversations around representation in literature. It has certainly opened up access for small independent presses, like my own and offered space in a system that is difficult to otherwise break through. What are your thoughts on the statement by We Need Diverse Books to move away from this hashtag, and instead use specific author descriptions?
ZETTA: I didn’t understand it, to be honest. I’ve no problem with using kid lit creators’ particular identities. I’m not current on issues in kid lit these days but assume folks in the dominant group were appropriating #ownvoices and using it in ways that weren’t intended (White men who played baseball as kids calling their baseball novel #ownvoices).
NAVJOT: What brings you joy, Zetta?
ZETTA: Birds! I have a suet cage on my balcony and I love seeing the sparrows feeding all day long. I moved to Evanston last summer and love walking by Lake Michigan with friends or by myself. There are lots of gardens in my neighborhood–I love watching things grow and change as the months go by. Just being in my clean, quiet home makes me happy–even after our many months under quarantine. I’m collaborating with theater folks right now and it feels good to be out of my comfort zone. I’m ready to learn new things and look forward to stepping back from kid lit in the coming years (not kids–just the kid lit community, conferences, etc).
NAVJOT: Is there some wisdom you would share with an aspiring creator who is grappling between pursuing traditional or the self-publishing route?
ZETTA: Spend some time reflecting on your objectives. Why do you want to publish a book? For whom? How urgent is your project? I think it’s a good idea to keep your options open and if you’re looking to make money, it might be best to try to secure an agent who can submit to corporate publishers. But if you have a story that feels urgent, you can use print-on-demand technology and produce your own book quickly and inexpensively. That’s an empowering option and an act of resistance. When you’re clear on your own definition of success, then you understand why you’re doing what you’re doing–and you don’t waste time comparing yourself to others.
Thank you for sharing space with us, Zetta!
Please visit Zetta’s website to learn more about her work and share this feature to amplify her books.