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Author Interview: Up Close and Personal with Zetta Elliott

Author Interview: Up Close and Personal with Zetta Elliott

I recently had the pleasure of asking the legendary and ever inspiring, Zetta Elliott a series of bookish questions in an interview. Her latest book for kids, A Place Inside of Me is my favorite picture book of 2020 (so far).

Check out the highlights below including a snapshot of what’s currently on her nightstand and her upcoming projects.

How did you come up with the story line for A Place Inside of Me?
APIOM wasn’t really a story; when I wrote it back in 2001, it was a poem. I wanted to express the range of emotions that Black children feel in this country. At the time I was living in Ohio and I would often take a break from writing my dissertation (on lynching) to write stories for kids. It was therapeutic, in a way, to take such heavy material and turn it into something a child could comprehend. My editor, Grace Kendall, had the idea to use the illustrations to reflect a protest narrative. We rearranged some of the stanzas and that helped with flow.

What messages are you hoping readers will take away from A Place Inside of Me?

The subtitle really says it all—“a poem to heal the heart.” I hope that young readers will honor their emotions—all of them—and know that it’s okay to feel afraid or upset. When we’re honest about how we feel, we have the chance to forge connections with others; shame only leads to silence and isolation. I hope kids understand that connecting with others and working together is how we create change. 

What are some of your must-have children¹s books for a home library?
I don’t read a lot of kid lit and I don’t have kids, but I’d encourage parents to do an audit of their home library to make sure it’s inclusive.

Besides reading, what are some other things parents can do to set their children up for literacy success?
Understand how the publishing industry works (or doesn’t work). Then demystify the process—make sure your children understand what “gatekeepers” are–and encourage your kids to write! As a child I just accepted that books magically appeared in my classroom and at the library. I didn’t understand that a handful of people were deciding which stories would become books and which books would wind up in my hands. Kids have a keen sense of what’s fair and what’s not; they might become more engaged as readers when they realize the power of bypassing gatekeepers and becoming storytellers themselves.

Do you have a favorite book that you have written?  If so, what is it and why?
That’s like asking a parent if they have a favorite child! I don’t have a favorite, but some characters stay with me longer than others.

If you could give parents one piece of advice about reading with children, what would it be?
Let your child be an active participant—let them choose the books you read together and help them make books of their own. Children can be creators and not just consumers of books.

Any advice for aspiring writers and authors?
Develop a writing practice and set aside time every day to do nothing but write—even fifteen minutes a day is enough time to journal or write a haiku. For me, writing is 70% dreaming so you might also need to set time aside for that. Most importantly, have your own definition of success so that you aren’t pointlessly comparing yourself to others.

Hardcover, Paperback or e-book (when reading a book on your own)?
I don’t read e-books but would like to give audio books a try. Mostly I like the feel of a book in my hands. No preference for hard or soft cover, though the latter is more affordable.

Fiction, non-fiction or some other genre (when reading a book on your own)?
I only read non-fiction for research; I’m trying to read more poetry but mostly I read speculative or historical fiction.

What books are on your nightstand or e-reader right now?

The books currently on Zetta Elliott’s nightstand

Are you working on any special projects that you want to share with others?
Too many! I have a MG novel-in-verse that’s due to my editor at the end of August, but I just finished my second collection of poetry, American Phoenix, and I’m also working on an experimental novel about four teen girls working on an Amish farm here in Central PA.

How can people get in touch with you on social media or on your website?
There’s a contact form on my website (www.zettaelliott.com) and I’m on IG and Twitter: @zettaelliott.

About Zetta Elliott

Zetta Elliott is a Black feminist writer of poetry, plays, essays, novels, and stories for children. She was born and raised in Canada, but has lived in the US for over 25 years. She earned her PhD in American Studies from NYU in 2003; she has taught at Ohio University, Louisiana State University, Mount Holyoke College, Hunter College, Bard High School Early College, and Borough of Manhattan Community College. Her poetry has been published in New Daughters of Africa, We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, the Cave Canem anthology The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, Check the Rhyme: an Anthology of Female Poets and Emcees, and Coloring Book: an Eclectic Anthology of Fiction and Poetry by Multicultural Writers.

Her essays have appeared in School Library Journal, The Huffington Post, and Publishers Weekly. Her picture book, Bird, won the Honor Award in Lee & Low Books’ New Voices Contest and the Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers. She currently lives in Lancaster, PA.

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