Monday Interview: Poet, Children’s Book Writer & Social Media Mogul GREG PINCUS!

Hi everyone, April is School Library Month and National Poetry Month! How are you celebrating? 🙂

Today I’m hyper-supra excited to have gotten an interview out of Greg Pincus busy schedule. I first met Greg at a SCBWI conference, where he reviewed and critiqued my blog for a good, solid 30 minutes. In addition, I had the opportunity to ask him any questions I had regarding social media and children writing–like what was the most efficient way to use twitter, Facebook, etc… I went home with pages of notes Greg had compiled ahead of our meeting, that included advices about blogging and about Multiculturalism Rocks. I wrote about it here. As you will discover during this interview, Greg is one multi-talented and multi-faceted children’s book writer. Let’s dive in!

MULTICULTURALISM ROCKS: Hi Greg, a big thank you for joining us on Multiculturalism Rocks! You’re a screenwriter, a children’s book writer, a poet, a volunteer librarian and, as I’ve nicknamed you (though I found out that others call you that, too), a social media mogul. 😀

I regularly read your posts on GottaBook and The Happy Accident. The first one is all about children’s literature. The second one is focused on social media. What is a “happy accident”? I know from a good source that you’ve had quite a few of your own (hint to April 1st, 2006 and your Fib poems)….

GREG PINCUS: A “happy accident” is a little bit like a lucky break or serendipity… though I like to think we can set ourselves up for these things. In fact, if you look at the happy accident you allude to, I think it’s a good example.

On April 1, 2006, I blogged about Fibs – 20 syllable poems based on the Fibonacci sequence – and how it would be fun to spread them virally around the web for National Poetry Month. I asked everyone I could to help and did everything I could to spread the word. In the end, it happened – thousands of poems appeared on hundreds and hundreds of websites.

That end result was not in my control, though I did everything to set myself up for it. What’s interesting to me, too, is that happy accidents continued to come from the spread of Fibs, including a two book deal… for children’s novels!… with Arthur A. Levine Books. Again, this was not entirely in my control, but I worked to set myself up for it rather than relying simply on “luck.”

Social media is a great engine for happy accidents, small and large both. Connecting with others, and asking and answering questions, is a great way to get yourself set up for good things to happen. Of course, we need to recognize situations as they come, too, and be proactive in making things turn out well.

Back in 2006, I could have been content with having one huge day of traffic… but to me, it seemed like there was more possible, even if I didn’t know what. So I kept asking my network and brainstorming to come up with other possible things to do with the excitement. That’s what lead me into the New York Times and the book deal.

MR: Congratulations on the two-book deal with Arthur Levine Books! What prompted you to write for kids? What is your genre, what type of stories most appeal to you as a writer?

GP: I think I never grew up, so writing for kids was a natural! I think, too, that the type of stories that appeal to me… the ones I feel compelled to write… are the type of stories that appealed to me as a kid, so I see no reason to fight it. I tend to write funny stories (well, I think they’re funny) no matter what age I write for. I’ve written everything from thrillers to farce to dramas, though, so I don’t think about genre when I write – I focus instead on telling whatever story it is that I want to tell.

As a reader, I love funny, enjoy thrillers, seek out non-fiction, and read a lot of poetry (mostly, though not exclusively, poetry for children).

MR: Let me get this straight: You write. You blog. You Tweet. You volunteer at a school library. You attend various conferences on technology and media, as well as children’s literature. Not to mention the time devoted to your family. How do you do it all? I’m one of those who could use one or two time management tips. 😀

GP: I gave up sleep in 2003 and have found everything much more manageable since then.

Actually, what I do is prioritize and re-evaluate constantly. As an example, I initially planned to post five times a week at The Happy Accident. I realized soon that I couldn’t sustain that, so something was going to have to change somewhere. Eventually, after a few different attempts at rejiggering, I came to the conclusion that the right balance for me was two times a week at the Happy Accident. This was reached based on really thinking about my goals, the likely results, and my priorities.

I am also pretty brutal with myself in terms of time allowed on certain tasks (well, brutal when I’m having time issues. Discipline can slip when everything’s going fine!). I do my blog reading via my Google Reader, and I allot a certain amount of time each morning to read what’s waiting for me. If I don’t finish… oh well! Sure, sometimes later in the day I have 10 free minutes – not enough time to write, but enough time to accomplish something if I want – and I might pick up the reading then. Or I might update Facebook or read posts there or visit Twitter or or or. I guess again here it’s about prioritizing, too – write my book or read blogs? Easy call. So in writing time, I don’t read blogs. If necessary, I turn off my wifi connection (or one could install Freedom or other management tools!). It isn’t easy – I could spend all day reading and chatting – but knowing the end goals helps.

MR: I LOVE 30 Poets in 30 Days, the event you host every April at GottaBook. I particularly enjoy how it celebrates cultural diversity in rhyme and verse. How did that come about?

GP: We’re lucky in that the field of children’s poetry has a wonderfully rich collection of voices, and one of the goals I had when I started 30 Poets/30 Days was to make sure that the project reflected that. Luckily for me, the poets I’ve asked to join in have said yes.

I also noticed when I asked poets for recommendations, they also suggested a wonderfully diverse collection of poets, including exposing me to people I hadn’t known. This was another more selfish goal of 30/30 – broadening my own reading and finding amazing new-to-me poets and poetry to enjoy.

I think exposing everyone to diverse voices is important, too, but at the end of the day, the diversity came about because I love seeing and learn from seeing other perspectives and hearing other voices, and I wanted to share what I love with everyone who stops by.

MR: I’m talking to Greg, the social media expert. Multicultural books often suffer from a lack of publicity and exposure. Do you have any advice for authors promoting their work? From your experience, what can we do that would make a big difference?

GP: Making a big difference starts from making a “little” difference. Actions become cumulative, in a sense. Promotion in a social media world comes from building relationships with people who can be your champions, supporters, and, if we’re lucky, our readers. It takes time and consistency and is much easier to do when you start early and focus on small steps rather than making a big difference.

There’s no magic bullet, unfortunately, but a few good rules of thumb are to be part of the community, not just talk about yourself. Support others when you can, particularly if you’re going to want them to support you. And think “out of the box” rather than just the “easy” areas to focus on. We folks in children’s lit are a wonderfully supportive group, but if you write a book about, oh, baseball card collecting, then become part of that community, too. When you share common interests with people, it’s easier to find champions and buyers.

MR: *hypothetical situation* You’re one of the concerned parents invited to Washington to meet president Obama and to defend the cause of school libraries, schools being a major victim of state and nationwide budget cuts. What do you tell him? How can we (readers) help librarians keep their job and save our school libraries?

GP: I think telling specific, personal stories that illustrate the impact of libraries, just as the President or other politicians do when they are on the national stage, can be quite effective. I also think continuing to make our voices heard not just once but consistently when the situations arise can also be helpful. And, frankly, that coming up with comparisons… of what is funded vs. what is NOT funding and what research shows as the impact of those programs is another way to go. Tough choices have to be made… but there are many different possible choices, and I think it helps to point that out.

That said, my deeper sense is that we need to think more broadly than abolut talking to politicians. We need to work on a community level first to make sure everyone understands the important role school libraries and librarians fulfill. I’m not likely going to get to talk to President Obama… but I can start locally with everyone in my orbit to make sure that we create a culture that values the library in the same way we value safe streets. Then, I’d like to believe, that idea can work its way upward.

MR: Talking of which, you’re donating three of your favorite poetry books. There are…

GP: Yikes!!!! Three?!?!?!?!?! You’re cruel! I can’t answer, cuz it depends on who I’m donating to. Yeah. That’s it. I mean…

OK, fine. I’ll cheat a tad: I’d donate an anthology put together by Lee Bennett Hopkins since it will show a great range of poets all focused on the many aspects of a particular theme (maybe America at War or Sharing the Seasons or or or!). Then I’d add an anthology of funny poems for kids since they are often my favorites and are what got me into loving poetry more broadly (perhaps the Jack Prelutsky anthology For Laughing Out Loud or the Kingfisher Book of Funny Poems or Kids Pick the Funniest Poems or or or). And then, since I just re-read it, I’d add in Joyce Sidman’s This Is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness because it’s fantasic.

Ask me another day, I’d probably say three different books!

MR: Last but not least, what is the procedure to follow for people eager to contact you help or questions regarding social media (blog, twitter, etc…)

GP: I answer a lot of questions on my blog at the Happy Accident, and I’m always available for hire. Folks can email me or find me on Twitter and start off by saying “hi!”

Greg, thank you again for your time and for sharing your experience. I look forward to this year’s 30 Poets in 30 Days, and can’t wait to read you books!

For more information on Greg Pincus, visit
o The Happy Accident – using social media to help create happy accidents
o While you’re at it, make sure to read his post “Going for the Win-Win-Win
o GottaBook – Children’s literature & poetry
o 30 Poets 30 Days April 2011
o Twitter

Monday Interview: Award-Winning Author, Educator, Feminist & Activist Zetta Elliott, PhD

Hi everyone and merry Monday! As you know this month we celebrate women’s history, and my dearest wish for the occasion was to interview Zetta Elliot, award-winning author of the picture book BIRD. Zetta’s most recent book, A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT (will occasionally refer to it as AWAM)–Feb. 2010, published by AmazonEncore (read MR review here) garnered rave reviews (grab it if you haven’t read it!) and landed her, among other recognitions, an interview with USA Today and with The Brown Bookshelf.

By the way, her path to publication for AWAM is quite stunning (self-published, then picked up for traditional publication after quickly selling over 500 copies).

Why was I so earnest to open this special month with Zetta? I honestly wouldn’t know where to start, but would begin with the fact that with her, it’s Women’s History Month every month. Indeed, as an activist, feminist, educator and author, Zetta celebrates women who make history pretty much every week on Fledgling–her blog, whether it be through hilighting other writers, giving a shout-out about their accomplishments for some, announcing their book events or workshops for others. Zetta also gives voice to otherwise unknown young activist women who make a difference in our world, a world that often starts in your neighborhood. I suspect that she’s a mentor to a few, with or without her knowledge. I’ll admit that witnessing her tireless efforts for more fairness and equality lifts me up every time I feel down. So yeah, she doesn’t know it but she’s among the women who’ve inspired and encouraged me from 2009 until now. Every time I visit her blog, I know in advance that I’ll be intellectually fed. She’s honest about her struggles, and even her rants give the reader food for thought. So, if you haven’t checked Fledgling yet (Zetta’s blog), please don’t delay. Bookmark it? A few times a year she comes up with these amazing compilations of stats on the publishing industry (a sobering read), or unique book lists (African American speculative fiction for kids, anyone?)

Assuming that I haven’t lost you yet, and hopefully having convinced you of today’s guest’s awesomeness, let’s start this interview. Buckle your seatbelt!

Multiculturalism Rocks: Hi Zetta, I’m excited to welcome you at Multiculturalism Rocks and to pick your brain. Thank you for joining us. 🙂

Zetta Elliott: Thank you for featuring me here at your blog, Nathalie!

Considering all your accomplishments– your academic achievements, your career as a teacher, a writer, a feminist, an activist– I’ve always wanted to ask you the following: Who was your role model, your inspiration, growing up?

That’s actually a tough question because I grew up without any black feminists in my life. My grandmothers were strong women and so I probably learned a lot from them. My father’s stepmother, Rudolpha, was particularly loving and she always found a way for me to contribute—around her I felt useful, important, like I had a clear purpose. And she let me help with her memoir, so she was an important role model in that sense. My maternal grandmother took great pride in her African American ancestors, and so she instilled in me a passion for the past. In a lot of ways, I wanted very much to NOT be like the other women in my family (their lives centered around men), so I guess they also deserve credit for turning me into a feminist!

You’ve had an amazing journey as a writer, from the awards you won for BIRD (illus. by Shadra Strickland, published in 2008 by Lee & Low Books), your path from self-publication to A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT being picked up by AmazonEncore. I’m asking this on behalf of other writers: When do you know your writing is worth it, worth betting on it? What made you decide to self-publish AWAM and what kept you going?

I’m fortunate in that I’ve almost always been praised for my writing ability. I had an English teacher in high school who encouraged me to become a writer, and throughout college and graduate school I had professors who praised my work. I was insecure in many other ways, but I was always confident of my ability to write! I was also trained to critique literature, so I have a lot of experience in literary criticism. I teach African American literature, and so I’m able to situate the books I read in relationship to the larger tradition. Many editors can’t do that—they don’t have the training, the expertise in the field of black literature, and/or the cultural competence to assess my work. So when they reject my stories, I don’t take it personally. I also know that less than 2% of children’s authors published annually are African American, so that means it’s institutional and much larger than my writing (or my so-called “bad attitude”).

Winning the New Voices Honor Award was also a boost—I had submitted BIRD to that same press at least twice before, and it was rejected both times. So what made the difference? Not the story—I didn’t change it at all; it was the person minding the gate! You really have to know WHY you’re writing—if you’re in it for the money, then you’ll do whatever it takes to make your story commercial. I write for other reasons, and that takes off a lot of the pressure to conform. I have academic credentials, a strong publication record, I’ve had my plays staged around the country, and my first book won a number of awards. When the rejection letters roll in, I remember that it’s not ME—it’s THEM! I decided a long time ago that I would keep writing no matter what, even if I never won an award or a fat advance. That’s liberating!

A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT: The young adult novel is set in both the present era and in the 1800s. It’s quite unique to have a time-traveler who is a teenage Black girl. Where did your inspiration come from?

Octavia Butler’s Kindred was definitely my inspiration; it was the first time-travel novel I’d ever read that featured a black female protagonist. I also loved The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and since I live near the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, it made sense to set the novel there. I didn’t want to take my character out of the city, so I had her return to Brooklyn circa 1863—that’s a big year for African Americans: the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1 (though slavery in New York was abolished in 1827), and then the Conscription Act followed a few months later, which led to the Draft Riots in July. I had read parts of Maritcha Lyons’ diary, and knew I wanted the novel to conclude with the riots that claimed so many lives. Brooklyn’s rich in history and the black community here is very diverse, so it made sense to have Caribbean characters. A senior editor recently called Wish “unoriginal”—I dare anyone to name another time-travel novel with an Afro-Latino protagonist and a Rastafarian love interest who wants to go to Liberia!

Will there be a sequel to AWAM? The ending hit me like a bomb.

Yes! I just finished writing a novella called Ship of Souls, so now I will turn my attention back to Judah’s Tale. There are some sample chapters on the Wish blog, and I’m about ¾ of the way done. I never intended to write a sequel, but Judah never really got to tell his story in A Wish After Midnight, so a second book was necessary. Sequels are hard!

link to sample chapters: http://awishaftermidnight.wordpress.com/judahs-tale-excerpts/

A few questions about your perspective on cultural diversity within the children’s publishing industry:
Is there an accomplishment or event that made you proud lately, that “rocked” your world?

Oh dear—there isn’t much in the publishing industry that makes me proud! Mostly it makes me furious, but I’m proud of all the writers who persist and turn to self-publishing when the industry keeps on slamming the door in their face. After the A Is for Anansi conference at NYU last fall, I wrote up a proposal for a multicultural children’s literature conference in Toronto; I’m proud to say that professors at York University have taken up the cause, and that conference will take place in 2012. Far fewer black children’s authors get published in Canada than here in the US—something has to change, and having an open, honest conversation is the first step.

A frustration? Something we should address, could improve?

Everything! We have a homogeneous group of editors publishing a largely homogenous pool of authors—that needs to change.

Out of curiosity, and because who’s afraid of being non-politically correct, how many editors of color do you know? I’m wondering about cultural diversity within the publisher’s ranks… Just being curious and remembering a post you wrote on the topic.

Let’s see…I think I know four black editors: Cheryl and Wade Hudson (at Just Us Books), Tonya Martin (at McKellar & Martin), Andrea Davis Pinkney (at Scholastic). I think a black woman edited Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, but I can’t think of her name. Emily Hazel is a junior editor at Lee & Low. I think there are several Asian women working in the industry, but I’m not sure how many Latinos or Native Americans are represented in the ranks. Publishing is a mighty white world! I don’t know any other industry that has so successfully resisted diversity for so long.

I’m now talking to Zetta Elliott, the activist (note: I know, the activist hat has been on all along this interview *grin*): What cause is currently the closest to your heart?

It’s hard to choose just one because they’re all interrelated! I want to excite children of color and get them to read more—that’s hard to do when we have so few books being published, and it’s hard to get more books into their hands when the publishing industry is so resistant to change. Editors claim they want original stories about children of color, but I know half a dozen writers with speculative fiction manuscripts that have been rejected over and over. We’re telling our truths, writing our stories, and hoping the majority group will open the door—but I don’t think that’s likely to happen for all of us. People all over this country and the world are taking back their power from the elites, and that’s what writers of color have to do, too!

Zetta, thank you again from the bottom for your time and for sharing your experience. I look forward to your next projects! Meanwhile, I’ll keep hanging out at your blog to keep up to date with what’s happening in the culturally diverse publishing industry world. 😀

Contact Information
o Zetta’s Website
o Zetta’s Blog
o AWAM’s Blog
o Facebook
o Twitter
o Email: zettaelliott at yahoo dot com

Edited 3.07.2011 @ 6:17 p.m.: AWAM sold 500 copies not 5,000 in short period of time; Zetta was featured in The Brown Bookshelf in February 2009, but not during the 28 Days Later Campaign. I apologize for these mistakes! 🙂