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Brandy Colbert on Writing Little & Lion

Little & Lion cover

I was having dinner with my cousin last year when she asked what my book Little & Lion is about. I gave a disjointed pitch, but she said it sounded interesting and circled back to my description of the main character, Suzette.

“Black, bisexual, and Jewish?” she asked.

I waited for her to question my choice to write about a character that represented several marginalizations. She never did.

“Cool,” she said. “My cousin on the other side of my family is black, lesbian, and Jewish. I’ll tell her to check it out.”

My eyes widened immediately. I knew that although my Suzette was fictional, more than a few people had to share her specific collection of identities in the real world. But I never expected to be so closely connected to someone who could “validate” the inclusiveness of my book.
I didn’t set out to write a highly diverse novel, which is how Little & Lion is often described. My only goal was to depict the Los Angeles that I live in and that very much exists.

I’ve talked a lot about how I grew up in a Midwestern town with a very small black population; there weren’t many people who looked like me, and especially not at the schools I attended. But I also craved meeting people from different cultures and ethnicities. I wanted to learn what it meant to have brown skin but not be black. I wanted to meet people who were part of the LGBTQ community, because by the time I was in high school, I’d met only one gay person—an adult man—who was out in my hometown, and I knew that number, even in a city as small as ours, was abysmal.

I grew up in a Baptist church, and I can’t remember when I first realized there were other religions, but I was instantly fascinated. Almost everyone I’d ever known had been Christian. My hometown has an overwhelming number of churches; on a recent visit, I counted about four within a two-block radius, and that’s not uncommon. I wanted to know about other religions and what millions of people around the world believed, even if it wasn’t reflected where I grew up. I finally took a Judaism class after high school, which was one of the most interesting courses in my college career, by far. It was taught by a woman, the rabbi at the only synagogue in town.

Moving to Los Angeles after college, I was astounded by how different it was from my hometown. People wore what they wanted and their outfits didn’t all look the same. They had varying shades of brown skin and diverse backgrounds to go with them. They spoke multiple languages and observed various religions—or, sometimes, they practiced nothing at all. They were gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and queer. They talked openly about their physical disabilities and mental illness. Sometimes one person claimed several of these identities at once.
I was surprised, and tremendously pleased. I’d lived for twenty-two years in a place where I was often ridiculed and judged for the color of my skin, and now there were so many people with identities that weren’t white and Christian and straight and able-bodied living and working among me. Los Angeles is the sort of city that celebrates the diversity of its inhabitants with neighborhoods like Chinatown and Little Ethiopia and West Hollywood and Boyle Heights, and I finally felt like I was home.

Sometimes people seem taken aback by a character that is Jewish, black, and bisexual, or a black and Korean-American boy who wears hearing aids, or a pansexual Latina. And some people are especially troubled by the fact that these identities can all exist in one novel. They believe that exploring these intersections is trying too hard to be politically correct, or that it’s just a tad too much diversity for one story. And I believe that to be insulting to people who are actually living these lives.

In Little & Lion, Suzette is made to feel ashamed about parts of her life and thus feels compelled to hide them. I grew up with people who believed they needed to hide their sexual identities because it made them too different in our small, homogenous town. And I’m certain there are people in several generations of my black Southern family who have felt the same, either keeping their romantic lives private or disengaging completely from the family to avoid potential judgment. I also know people whose bilingual parents didn’t teach them Spanish because they feared it would make them too different to be accepted.

Telling others that their identities are too diverse to be believable is erasure. It perpetuates the idea that we should all think and look and act the same, and that people can and should only concentrate on one aspect of their identity. Identity is at once private and also quite public in some instances.

Novels are fiction, but we know they can act as windows—a glimpse into the lives of people who look or act or believe differently than us. Too many children and teens don’t have the good fortune of growing up in diverse or inclusive neighborhoods and towns, and a book might be the closest they can get to learning about unfamiliar cultures and communities. Which is only a good thing, because books that serve as windows foster empathy.

I’m hopeful for the future of children’s literature and grateful that kids and teens have the chance to read a much more diverse array of books than I had when I was young.

And I hope there will be a day in the near future when people don’t find it unusual or unrealistic to read about a girl who just happens to be black, bisexual, and Jewish

 

Brandy Colbert photoABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brandy Colbert was born and raised in Springfield, Missouri. Her debut novel, Pointe, won the 2014 Cyblis Award for young adult fiction and was named a best book of 2014 by Publishers Weekly, BuzzFeed, Book Riot, and more. She was chosen as a Publishers Weekly Flying Start for spring 2014. Brandy works as a copyeditor and lives in Los Angeles, California.

 

ABOUT THE BOOK

★ “Subtle, neatly interwoven exploration of intersectionality.” –Booklist

★ “Colbert sensitively confronts misconceptions about mental illness, bisexuality, and intersectional identity.” –Kirkus

★ “Moving.” –School Library Journal

 

When Suzette comes home to Los Angeles from her boarding school in New England, she isn’t sure if she’ll ever want to go back. L.A. is where her friends and family are (along with her crush, Emil). And her stepbrother, Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, needs her emotional support.

But as she settles into her old life, Suzette finds herself falling for someone new…the same girl her brother is in love with. When Lionel’s disorder spirals out of control, Suzette is forced to confront her past mistakes and find a way to help her brother before he hurts himself–or worse.

 

Want to know even more about Little & Lion? Listen to our LB School Podcast interview with Brandy Colbert here.

Elise Parsley

View More: http://studioaphoto.pass.us/elisehylden

Elise Parsley studied drawing and creative writing at Minnesota State University Moorhead. During college, Elise also volunteered over 1800 hours helping kids read and learn through an AmeriCorps academic enrichment program in the Fargo, ND elementary school system. Now she helps kids read and learn through writing and illustrating humorous children’s books.

 

Elise’s debut picture book, If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, DON’T! earned a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. She has since released the second book in the “Magnolia Says DON’T!” series, titled If You Ever Want to Bring a Piano to the Beach, DON’T! and has a third adventure, If You Ever Want to Bring a Circus to the Library, DON’T! coming in May 2017.

 

What to Expect from a School Visit:

 

Elise Parsley loves school and library visits, big time! She infuses each presentation with energy, humor, and loads of crowd interaction. Audiences can expect to hear a story (or two if there’s time!) and watch a step-by-step drawing demonstration that teaches kids how to improve their own art or includes a word game. As an added option, Elise can also share how she makes picture books (spoiler alert: it includes lots of writing and drawing and re-writing and re-drawing!). Elise has also been known to haul a keyboard along with her for brief, but fantastic, dance parties. Of course, there’s always a Q&A time from both students and adults, and Elise loves to cap off each visit by signing books and chatting with kids.

 

Interested in a visit from Elise Parsley? Email author.appearances@hbgusa.com

 

Learn More About Elise Parsley’s Books:

If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don't! coverPiano to the Beach coverIf You Ever Want to Bring a Circus to the Library, Don't! cover

Javaka Steptoe

Javaka Steptoe photoOnce a model and inspiration for his father, the late African American award-winning author/illustrator John Steptoe, New York Times best selling author/illustrator Javaka Steptoe has established himself as an outstanding talent in his field. This eclectic young artist/educator utilizes everyday objects from aluminum plates to pocket lint, and sometimes a jigsaw and paint, to deliver reflective and thoughtful collage creations filled with vitality, playful energy, and strength.

 

Javaka has currently illustrated eleven award-winning books and continues to collaborate with celebrated writers on future projects. Steptoe explains,Collage is a means of survival. It is how Black folks survived four hundred years of oppression, by taking scraps and transforming them into something beautiful, into life. He creates artwork that is both personal and universal, celebrating the richness of our collective past through the use of family as a recurring theme. Steptoe contends, “I want my audience, no matter their background, to be able to enter into my world and make personal connections with their lives.”

 

His life work and artistry is a reflection of his commitment to the cause of children’s education. He believes that art as a tool for education helps strengthen problem solving skills, builds esteem, and fosters independent and innovative thought. Javaka travels extensively, reading and conducting workshops at schools, libraries, museums, and conferences across the country and internationally.

 

What to Expect from a School Visit:
I have presentations and workshops that align with Common Core standards and can accommodate a variety of different age groups.

 

I separate them into three categories:

 

Artist Talk — PowerPoint presentation and informational talk about my life and artistry.

 

Interactive Storytelling — I facilitate the telling of a story using audience participation props and sometimes an artist of a complementary discipline
Ex: a guitar player for “Jimi-sounds like a rainbow.”

 

Art Workshop — Participants make artwork based off of themes, materials, and, styles found in my illustrated books.

 

I can also tailor presentations specific to your school.

 

Interested in a visit from Javaka Steptoe? Email author.appearances@hbgusa.com

 

Learn more about Javaka Steptoe’s books:

 

Radiant Child cover

 

Javaka Steptoe Press Kit

Jewell Parker Rhodes

 Jewell Parker Rhodes photoJewell Parker Rhodes is the author of the Louisiana Girls children’s book trilogy, which includes Ninth Ward, Sugar, and Bayou Magic. Her children’s books have received the Parents’ Choice Foundation Award, the Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award, and the Jane Addam’s Children’s Book Award, among others. Towers Falling, her new middle grade novel, was published in July 2016.

 

Jewell grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Drama Criticism, a Master of Arts in English, and a Doctor of Arts in English (Creative Writing) from Carnegie Mellon University. Jewell is the Founding Artistic Director and Piper Endowed Chair at the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University.

 

What to Expect from a School Visit

Jewell loves school visits and tries to make her talks engaging, fun, and interactive.  She talks about her childhood, her writer aspirations, and her writing process.  She includes readings from her novels and videos which complement the novel and/or provide social and historical background.  She asks and answers questions throughout her talk and reserves time at the end for students to shine and show their curiosity.

 

Interested in a visit from Jewell? Email author.appearances@hbgusa.com

 

 

Learn more about Jewell’s books:

 

2011_NinthWard

sugar

rhodes_bayoumagic_cover

Towers Falling

Caitlin Alifirenka

Caitlin Alifirenka photoCaitlin Alifirenka is co-author of the YA dual memoir, I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives. Along with her pen pal, Martin Ganda, and Journalist, Liz Welch. I Will Always Write Back is a New York Times and Indie bestseller, it has won Junior Library Guild Awards, was part of Amazon’s Big Spring Book Selection, and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

 

Caitlin grew up in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, where her parents still reside. She currently resides outside of Philadelphia, PA with her husband, Dzmitry, and their children and works as a Registered Nurse in the Emergency Department.

 

What to Expect from a School Visit

 

Do you remember having an assembly and being excited to do something different? I like to make assembly’s exciting for kids, keep them interested and make them think. As the students enter the auditorium Spice Up your Life by Spice Girls is playing as the file into their seats. This usually gets the students excited about my presentation. It’s different than their typical assembly.

 

I start my PowerPoint presentation with a brief background of my life before Martin, and his life before me. It’s my hope that this opens their minds to our differences but most importantly, to our similarities. I want to convey to the students that parts of the world may be different, but not better or worse, than our lives here. I love this part because I’m able to watch as the students (from all backgrounds) begin to realize just how fortunate they are to have grown up with so much. Through my presentation I show them that I was just like them. And I was able to look beyond myself and do my best to help those less fortunate. For me, that realization was that my best friend was starving and he needed my help. By the end of my presentation, I want the students to want to be kind.

 

I finish up my presentation with the original video of Martin’s arrival to the United States. At this point, there are usually many tears as well as cheering. I follow up my presentation with a Q&A session with the students, sign books, and take pictures with the students. If one student from each visit can perform a random act of kindness, then we’ve made the world a better place.

 

 

Learn more about I Will Always Write Back:

 

Barry Lyga

Barry Lyga photoBarry Lyga graduated from Yale and then promptly went to work in the comic book industry. He was instrumental in the development of Free Comic Book Day. (You’re welcome). Since leaving comics, he’s written 17 novels, published in multiple languages around the world, including the bestselling I HUNT KILLERS. His books have been called “alluring,” “daring,” “extreme,” and even “made of paper.” He has no interesting hobbies because he basically spends all of his time writing. He was once called a “YA-rebel author,” which sounds strange every time he hears it.

 

What to Expect from a School Visit

 

I generally use AV, but for smaller workshops, I don’t need to. I have a variety of presentations I do depending on the school, the group, and what book I’m there to talk about.

 

I can talk, for example, about how Colleen Doran and I created the graphic novel MANGAMAN, along with visuals of the artwork-in-progress and the general process of creating a comic book.

 

But what I most like to do is a presentation where I talk mainly about things I wish I’d known at the age of the kids I’m speaking to. This includes Joseph Campbell’s “follow your bliss,” but also Steve Jobs’ admonition that everything in the world was made by people no smarter than you. I really try to get kids to realize that they don’t merely live in this world — they can CREATE this world. I try to keep it as light as possible, beginning with some jokes at my own expense and then slipping into the more serious stuff. Then, to reward them for listening to me, I do “Serial Killer Fun Facts,” during which I reveal scary things I learned while researching the KILLERS books…and usually end up picking some folks in the front row to kill…and also offer suggestions on how to terrify younger siblings. Oh, and I also give some advice on how to get away with murder.

 

The big thing, though, is Q&A. I absolutely LOVE to do Q&A. Because at least then I know that the people with questions got something out of our time together.

 

Interested in a visit from Barry? Email author.appearances@hbgusa.com

 

Learn more about Barry’s books:

I Hunt Killers coverGame coverBlood of My Blood coverAfter the Red Rain coverBang cover