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Uncut Interview with Zetta Elliott

via Zetta Elliott

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The finished maker spotlight is now open to the public, and it’s right here


Good to know

  • I’ve been a fan of Zetta Elliott for a long time, and it was intimidating to reach out to ask if she’d do a maker spotlight with us so I am SUPER EXCITED ABOUT THIS.
  • Zetta became a patreon supporter a while ago, because she’s awesome. But I was a fan of her work and wanted to do a spotlight on her since way before she started that.

Sneak peek: Zetta Elliot’s uncut interview

What event inspired you to write children’s literature? How has your work changed and grown over the years?

There wasn’t really a single event but I’ve worked with kids for 30 years and I still find gaps in representation. In 2001, I was teaching in an after school program and met a student who was being bullied because her mother was in prison. When I couldn’t find a book that matched her reality, I wrote it myself (An Angel for Mariqua). In some ways, I don’t feel like my work has grown–but my confidence has. I didn’t know how the publishing industry worked when I first started writing for kids, so I let myself do whatever I wanted. Now I know exactly how the industry works and I’m able to self-publish the stories that routinely get rejected by publishers. I can be more strategic about what I share with my agent, knowing that some stories simply won’t sell in the current market. 

What single takeaway do you want families to get from your work?

There isn’t a single takeaway because each family is different. I self-publish the books that have been rejected by editors so that folks know what kind of stories are being excluded. So if families are reading my indie books, I want them to know that these stories matter and are worth fighting for (and supporting). In general, I’m trying to broaden the representation of Black children and teens. I hope readers put down my books and reflect upon the complexity of Black people and our relationship to the past, present, and future. 

What makes your books different from the stuff that’s already out there?

I’m not sure that my work really IS all that different! My voice is unique, I think, and I’m centering kids who are generally shoved to the margins. But lots of authors do that. I guess I’m unapologetic and I’m not afraid of unhappy or incomplete endings. I’m trying to introduce readers to topics that have been conveniently erased from school textbooks, but not at the expense of a good story. 

What are the risks in doing this work?

The publishing industry to designed to serve a single market: middle-class Whites. So if you’re writing something that won’t appeal to that market–or that editors believe won’t appeal to that market–you’ll be shut out of the system. There’s a lot of money in children’s publishing, but it goes to creators of certain kinds of narratives. So it’s important to be clear about WHY you’re writing, and you need to be clear about your boundaries. If you start to compare yourself to authors on the bestseller list, you can get demoralized very quickly! Have your own definition of success and remember that it’s not a meritocracy. If you believe in yourself and your stories, then you can manage your expectations of the industry.

Why is it important to have #OwnVoices authors and illustrators writing from lived experience, rather than white authors writing these stories as outsiders?

Perspective matters. Too often in the kid lit community we talk about diversity without acknowledging that equity is just as important. You want a wider range of books, but a just approach means ensuring that ALL creators have an equal opportunity to tell their own story in their own way. That means talking about the gatekeepers and holding accountable the folks who continue to privilege creators who don’t come from the communities they seek to represent. White women dominate the kid lit community–they represent the majority of editors, reviewers, agents, librarians, educators, and booksellers. Dominance isn’t healthy and the diet of books our kids have been consuming for generations hasn’t been healthy as a result.  

I first found out about your work through the book ‘Benny Doesn’t Like To Be Hugged.’ Benny is a Black boy in a sea of books about White autistic characters. Why did you choose to consult with #ActuallyAutistic people?

As an outsider, I knew I’d get something wrong even after doing research and talking to autistic kids and their families. I’m not autistic and even though my narrator also isn’t autistic, she’s describing a boy who is. So there are several layers of distance and that leaves a lot of room for misrepresentation. It meant a lot that Lyn Miller-Lachmann, an award-winning autistic author and friend, agreed to provide feedback on the story. We’re now collaborating on a middle grade novel in verse, Moonwalking.

In your recent book, ’Say Her Name,’ you preface a book of poetry by saying you’re not a poet. Your body of work suggests you’re constantly striving to grow and experiment instead of replicating sameness just to sell books. How are you hoping this spirit will connect with young readers just finding their own voices?

With Say Her Name, I really wanted readers to know that poetry is for everyone. I was (am!) insecure about my skill as a poet, but I still sat down and wrote some poems about topics that matter to me. If my agent hadn’t found a publisher, I would have self-published the book. Instead, I self-published a workbook (Find Your Voice) to help folks ease their way into writing. Poetry can be really intimidating and the way it’s taught in school often makes people feel it’s dry, dull, irrelevant, and not for them. I hope the range of voices and forms in Say Her Name makes poetry accessible and appealing to those folks. I’m very aware of the fact that I embody possibility–I never saw a Black woman writer until after I had graduated from college; I never read their work in school in Canada. I’m hoping that my books and my determination to bring my stories into the world will let folks know that they can do it, too.

What keeps you up at night – either with excitement for the future, or worries?

Luckily, I’m a sound sleeper! But when I think about leaving the kid lit community, it’s over the lack of transparency. The few successful  authors from marginalized groups often seem to promote the myth of meritocracy–“Just work hard and keep trying!” The increase in IP and packaged books destabilizes our understanding of authorship and I wonder where that will lead since readers (and award committees) don’t know which books are traditionally authored and which ones aren’t. I support different ways of publishing books, but think folks deserve to know how a story was developed–especially when the story is developed by Whites but written by a person of color.

How can white families support the work of #OwnVoices authors, illustrators, and publishers?

I think the biggest challenge is FINDING #ownvoices kid lit creators! I try to talk about publishing and marketing whenever I give a talk so that folks know how intentional you have to be to subvert the system. If you see a book in a bookstore, someone made a choice to put it there (usually the store’s buyer). If the book is face out on a table near the front door, a publisher probably paid for that placement. Unfortunately, you can’t simply walk into any store–chain or indie–and expect to see #ownvoices books. Most indie stores won’t even carry self-published books, and libraries won’t add to their collection books that haven’t been reviewed in major outlets–but most major outlets dismiss indie books or charge a large fee to review them. It’s a SYSTEM. So you many not be able to trust the folks who ordinarily tell you about great books–you’ll have to go beyond those sources if you want something different. White families should definitely follow you! And sites like The Brown Bookshelf, Social Justice Books, We Are Kid Lit, American Indians in Children’s Literature, The Bull Horn. Folks can also ask booksellers and libraries to stock our books; make sure your kids’ school reading lists are inclusive. Do an inventory of your home library with your kids and be aware of the bias in your own collection–then do something about it.

How can our members follow and support the work you’re doing?<

I’m on Facebook (Author Zetta Elliott), IG (@zettaelliott), and I occasionally tweet announcements connected to my work (@zettaelliott). I blog less now than I did before, but you can find my posts on Goodreads and my website (www.zettaelliott.com). You can also use the form on my website to sign up for my newsletter.
Zetta Elliott, PhD



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