Monday, November 2, 2015

Chatting with Author and Activist Zetta Elliott presenting her last book Dayshaun's Gift.

Imagine to be in Brooklyn, imagine to be 9 years old, imagine that you're going to spend saturday morning with your mum in a community garden,  imagine that for some reason you're sent back in time  and find youself in your city but 150 years earlier... do you think this is impossible? Well it's what happened to Dayshaun  in Brooklyn.  If you think magic doesn't happen in city kid's life... well you haven't read Zetta Elliott's  Daysahun's Gift, the second of a 6 serie's of city kids books. It's time to get your own copy!

When Zetta Elliott sent me Daysahaun's Gift I immediately entered the story and surprisingly found that I could read it on many levels.
First of all I too travelled in time, exactly to a small province town in north Eastern part of Italy called Ferrara where I lived for almost one year where community gardens are a vivid reality. Within the magnificent Medieval walls that surrounds the city, community garden is a urban project that promotes community allowing people to care about the environment. Acknowledging that this is happening in super modern New York City is quiet amazing and somehow comforting.

Secondly, as a parent I always tried to find ways to tell History in a more narrative way which sometimes is the only way you have to access to wider and more inclusive perspectives on events that happened in the past since History books tend to be written  just by one point of view.  Growing up as a white girl  in a country (South Africa) where racism had a legal status, I didn't know much about the History I was living from the point of view of the oppressed. But luckily I had my nanny, Sera. She was a second mother to me, who didn't just care for my daily needs entertaining me or feeding me, she made sure that I would know how was the life of black people in the country, she cared more than my biological mother making her own preoccupation to let me understand how many injustices people like her were suffering on a dialy basis. Sera used to tell me stories of her people and how they have been struggling for centuries because of their skin color (colonialism and nationalism). And hers were not just folktales, they were true stories of real people.  So I grew up knowing a part of history I was denied to know in details because I could not find it in books, not history books nor fiction.  Somehow I owe her the debt of being a storyteller myself.
Zetta's book made me think about my nanny Sera, who made me travel all the way back to the past of South Africa through stories.

Imagination. Going back in time is a wonderful excercise of the imagination. Allowing our kids how to wear wings and fly back in time and space is a great opportunity to let them grow aware that the world is multiple and that the past is where we all come from, so better know it also to try and avoid mistakes.

Magic. As a young reader I never had a particular yearning for magic, maybe because all the books of magic were set in out of space worlds where you had to meet weird creatures. But authors like Zetta Elliott made me like magic because her stories are set in the cities we live, in our exhisting world, encountering real people, something we can easily relate to and identify with. If you add that magic is paired with History, I personally find it a perfect match along with the fact that Daysahaun is a black kid and it's quiet rare to find black characters in magic stories.
I believe not only parents but educators too will have a great time sharing this story with their students thinking at how to talk about history in an appealing way.

What else should I say? That Dayshaun's Gift is definetly a transcultural book, a special quality of stories. Through his time travel he touches on many actual subjects: immigration, racial violence, refugee crisis, solidarity, empathy.

Zetta Elliott is an award winning author, educator and feminist founder of Rosetta Press, an independent publishing company which publishes books that reveal, explore and foster a black feminist vision of the world.
Zetta has published, among others, three books for young adults: A Wish after Midnight, Ship of Souls, and The Deep and sixteen books for children, three of which will be released between the end of this year and 2016.

She is a prolific blogger and co founder of the Birthday Party Pledge which encourages people to give books to children as a birthday gift chosing from a list that provides multicultural titles.  It also inspires parents to help children building their own bookshelf.

KABILIANA - Zetta, why do you feel the urgency to write city books for children? Do you find a lack of this kind of book in the traditional publishing industry in the USA?

ZETTA ELLIOTT - Definitely—I don’t think there’s really anything like the City Kids series here in the US. I write about the city largely because I live in the city. I write specifically about Brooklyn because that’s my home, and there’s so much history and magic to be found in my borough. I also write about the city because in most fantasy fiction, cities are places to be avoided or escaped from—you travel through time and land someplace far away. I grew up loving stories about dragons and castles, which means I was almost always dreaming about England; the kids in those books never looked like me, their families weren’t like mine, and I was left feeling like my experience, my world just wasn’t good enough. I write about the city now so that urban kids—the kids that I work with—know that magic can happen to anyone, anywhere.

KABILIANA - Speculative fiction allows, for the wider imagination, to navigate the line of time and space without limits. What makes it so attractive to young readers?

ZETTA ELLIOTT - Speculative fiction allows us to ask, “What if?” And when you are marginalized within society, and when you feel relatively powerless as a child, spec fic can create a realm where you feel empowered—for once. When a child travels through time or encounters aliens or befriends a ghost, s/he feels special—and too many kids of color don’t get to feel that way on a regular basis. Or they’re told they’re special for but negative reasons (“special ed”). Every child wants to be the hero, to save the day, to find the key that opens the magic portal. But kids of color generally have to live vicariously through the adventures of white children because that’s all they see in popular culture. In a society where a Black child can be shot dead in a park just for using his imagination (Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun—who knows what adventure he was dreaming up), spec fic can offer a safe space to test or even shatter the limits imposed on children.

KABILIANA - Magic is also one of the themes that attracts you, you wrote about magic in many of your YA and children’s books portraying black characters which is unusual in magic /fantasy genre. Your use of magic it’s used in a non-magic world. Characters and places are real and the magic element pops up to shift in time and space. Characters exist equal to others, they don’t meet super heroes or weird creatures and this makes it easy to identify with the whole story. Where does this fascination with magic come from? 

ZETTA ELLIOTT - I grew up reading books like Narnia Chronicles and The Phoenix and the Carpet, and those books left a strong impression on my imagination. I love the idea of moving between worlds, opening a portal and stepping into a realm that’s full of wonder. But I am a realist and I find it challenging to build worlds that are completely different than the one we live in now. I’m also an immigrant, so it’s easy for me to write about my own border-crossing experience; I tend to see NYC with “fresh eyes” even though I’ve been here for over 20 years. Since I love historical fiction, I prefer to recreate worlds that have already existed—and focusing on NYC history lets me educate a little while I entertain my young readers. History is often taught in a way that bores children, but adding a touch of magic can make the past exciting. I find it easier to attract young readers when they open the book and see their contemporary world reflected on the pages. Then you can ease them into a world that’s both foreign and familiar.

KABILIANA - How did Dayshaun popped up in your imagination?

ZETTA ELLIOTT - Dayshaun came to me after I completed my first residency at the Weeksville Heritage Center in the spring of 2015. I wrote a picture book for them about the historic 19th-century African American community in Brooklyn, and I was finishing up The Door at the Crossroads, which is the sequel to my YA time-travel novel A Wish After Midnight. So I had a book for 4-6 year olds and I had a book for teens, but I didn’t have anything for kids in that middle age range. I already had a book for 7-10 year olds, The Phoenix on Barkley Street, and decided that Dayshaun’s Gift could fit in the City Kids series. I write about boys quite often because we know that boys of color start to fall behind in reading around Grade 3, and once they fall behind it’s very hard to catch up. I see how boys gravitate towards books that are colorful with cartoon illustrations, so I knew I wanted Dayshaun to be a quirky kid who’s thoughtful but also into zombies; he’s someone most boys can relate to, I think. Book #1 in the City Kids series involves a garden so I thought there’d be continuity with Dayshaun joining his mother at the community garden at Weeksville.

KABILIANA - I found your work transcultural in many ways. I imagine an immigrant child of nowadays who comes from difficult circumstances and finds refuge in a place like Weeksville (like the African Americans found in Weeksville during the riots in 1860s ).The refugee camp in Weeksville resembles a refugee camp of nowadays in many countries where people flee wars and droughts to find a better life. Here Dayshaun learns, through Susan and her friend Teddy, what is empathy, feeling connected with other human being who have a different experience. This made me think about the brutality which black American boys and girls are subjected on a daily basis and how important is the whole process of identification. How do educators and parents can discuss with their younger kids about social injustice without being rhetoric and with raising empathy in them?

ZETTA ELLIOTT - That was a real concern for me. I focused on racial violence and trauma in my dissertation but at the same time, I was teaching urban kids on a part-time basis. I wanted to make my research relevant to them, but I didn’t want to traumatize them further and much of the material was simply too graphic. I tend to think of Dayshaun’s Gift as a way for me to bring kids close enough to the fire for them to feel the heat and see the illumination—but they’re never at risk of getting burned. I didn’t want to put Dayshaun in the middle of a race riot; I wanted him to feel empowered, and so Susan and Teddy show him how even kids can support those in need. I don’t have children but I have nieces and nephews, and I do wonder how their parents talk to them about Black Lives Matter, or the Syrian refugee crisis, or the Central American child migrants detained here in the US. I don’t want to make children depressed or bitter, but I do want to change the understanding of terrorism here in the US  didn’t start on 9/11. Domestic terrorism has been and continues to be a major factor that shapes the lives of people of color in the US. We have to say, “Black Lives Matter” today because saying it for 400 years hasn’t changed the brutality Black people face in a white supremacist country. I hope the story resonates with kids elsewhere in the world, and I hope the book can help facilitate a conversation with kids about the conditions that create refugees and other displaced people.

KABILIANA - Susan is referred to Susan Smith McKinney Steward, the first African woman to earn a medical doctorate. Why did you chose Susan Steward? According to you, how many kids in NY city or in the USA know about her?

ZETTA ELLIOTT - I tried teaching once—I didn’t last a week, but the middle school where I was placed was the Susan McKinney Middle School in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn. I suspect that the kids who attend that school know about her, but I doubt that other children in NYC know about this amazing woman. Writing her into the book created gender balance and allowed me to talk about the specific challenges faced by Black girls and women. Susan came from a very accomplished family and her older sister was already principal of a local school, so she probably didn’t believe there were any limits she couldn’t overcome. Yet when she earned the highest grades at medical school and was named valedictorian, the school administrators asked her not to speak at graduation because of her race. She refused to step down, gave the valedictory address, and went on to do a lot for her community. Writing historical fantasy allows me to use magic to uncover buried heroines who deserve to be known and celebrated.

KABILIANA - We know that often history books are written only from one point of view and what is needed in this circular moving world is perspectives, space for the multiplicity of visions, how much fiction can contribute in filling the many gaps that history books have?

ZETTA ELLIOTT - Unfortunately, school textbooks are still viewed as the “official” record when it comes to the teaching of history. But recent controversies have shown just how biased school textbooks can be, and parents are pushing back (as in the case of enslaved Africans being referred to as “laborers”). I think multiple perspectives are crucial to destabilizing the dominant narrative. My novels won’t circulate the way textbooks do, but if a child reads my novel and questions something taught in class, then that’s enough for me. Parents can also supplement their child’s education with novels and films and websites. The main thing is to create critical thinkers who will challenge every idea placed before them.

KABILIANA - Dayshaun comes back to the present enriched and with questions he probably wouldn’t have if not for what he experienced going back to 1860s. When we talk about connecting with the past we rarely imagine it referred to a city kid living in super modern NY. How much is important for urban kids to connect with their past?  And how much a city like NY or other cities around the world could be ideal places to set a magic/fantasy story? How could they use this link in their daily life?

ZETTA ELLIOTT - NYC is FULL of history—it’s everywhere. I grew up in a city (Toronto) where I felt I couldn’t see any signs of the past, and I never believed anything magical would happen to me there. Then I came to Brooklyn and fell in love with the old brownstones and churches and massive oak trees. I could see and touch history every day! Now, as an adult, I know that there’s history—and magic—everywhere. If I went back to Toronto now, I could find what seemed invisible to me as a child. I don’t want the kids in my community to miss out on the chance to learn from the past—I want them to see themselves as shapers of and participants in history. I recently went to London for 4 days and started a new City Kids book—The Ghosts in the Castle. I don’t live in London but the story sends Zaria (from Book #1) overseas to visit family; that lets me talk about the diaspora and Caribbean migration. Everything about England seems strange to Zaria but what she wants most is to visit a castle like the ones she has read about in fairy tales. So her aunt takes her to Windsor Castle and there she encounters the ghosts of Sarah Forbes Bonetta and Prince Alemayehu who were both given as “gifts” to Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century. Through her encounter with them, Zaria learns about imperialism and colonization and hybridity. I’d love to write a City Kids book for every city I visit!

KABILIANA - Mr. Williams, the old man who lives in the camp, leaves Dayshaun a gift: seeds from Virginia to grow. Seeds in this story have also a metaphorical meaning. Passing a seed from an older to a younger generation means also passing the memory of the ancestor’s past. As parents, educators, writers, readers, how can we allow the past to inhabit the present of our children in an attractive way?

ZETTA ELLIOTT - I think we have to make the past present—speak the names of our ancestors, talk about the places and practices that shaped us when we were young. My parents rarely talked about the past but my grandparents were avid storytellers. I love talking to elders and we need to keep seniors at the center of our communities—not on the margins. Kids can do oral histories on their own or as part of a national project like Story Corps. Community mapping allows families to look for clues in their neighborhood—cornerstones that reveal a building’s age, architectural details from another era. We have to teach our kids to think about legacy—they stand on a foundation laid by others, and others will benefit from whatever gifts they bestow upon future generations.

KABILIANA - Imagining a reader from India, South Africa, or New Zealand, how can Dayshaun’s Gift resonates with him/her?

ZETTA ELLIOTT - I identify as a Commonwealth writer so I hope my books do resonate with children in other formerly colonized countries. I think The Ghosts in the Castle will more explicitly deal with imperialism but Dayshaun’s Gift also addresses issues like divorce and urban farms, the importance of creating self-sufficient communities.

KABILIANA - What is/are your next book/s about and when will it/they be released?

ZETTA ELLIOTT - My next book is a Christmas narrative called Let the Faithful Come, which highlights the desperate yet hopeful journey of so many migrants in our contemporary world. That will be available by mid-November. Billie’s Blues is also about migration; a little girl spends time listening to blues music with her elderly neighbor and learns about the conditions that pushed so many African Americans out of the rural South and into the big cities of the North. I hope to have The Ghosts in the Castle finished in time for the winter holidays!

We hope too Zetta!

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