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Author Sighting: Nadia L. Hohn at 17th Annual SCBWI Conference

Nadia L. Hohn, author of Malaika's Costume, a book about immigration & Caribbean traditions, at Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Conference

Was I drawn to it or did I just happen to wander into some irresistible secret place? That can't be true, I say to myself because this so-called secret place is crammed to the rafters with hundreds of people. And, it is buzzing with life, with people, who are lining up, leaning in, poring over – yes! Those are thousands of images, drawings, paintings, collages, all manner of color-drenched illustrations, displayed on dozens of tables, running through the room like ribbons plaited through a little black girl's braids. I've wandered into the Illustrators Ballroom.

SCBWI Exhibit Hall-2 Photo Credit Luvon Roberson 600x450Illustrators Ballroom at the 17th Annual Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Conference in New York City. Photo Credit: Luvon Roberson

This space is one of my highlights at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Conference. This is where I meet Nadia L. Hohn, who lets me know that she's an author as well as an illustrator, Canadian, and was born in and lives in Toronto, her parents hailing from Jamaica. She shows me her book, Malaika's Costume (Groundwood, 2016). I'm drawn in, once again, because it's the story of immigration.

luvon roberson with nadia hohn Photo Credit Luvon Roberson 600x450Photo (l to r): Nadia L. Hohn, author of Malaika's Costume; and Luvon Roberson, What's The 411, Book Editor. Photo Credit: Luvon Roberson

In reality, of course, the story of immigration is many stories, told in diverse voices, throughout human history. Today, with news headlines screaming and U.S. presidential candidates blaring anti-immigration rhetoric and crying out for walls to be erected, how refreshing that children can discover one of their voices about immigration in Malaika's Costume.

Vibrantly illustrated, with images and colors that summon the sights, smells, sounds, people and textures of life in the Caribbean, and written in an easy-to-follow, flowing Caribbean dialect, Malaika's Costume tells this story through little Malaika's search for a costume to wear at Carnival. The story is particularly poignant as it is Malaika's first Carnival without her mother, who has immigrated to Canada in search of a job with better wages, leaving Malaika back home in the Caribbean in the care of Malaika's grandmother.

In some ways, Malaika's Costume is familiar. My mother migrated from Mississippi to New York City, following her dream of a better life for her children. She left behind my sister and me for several years, with family members.

Malaika's Costume looks at some hard truths about immigration and a little girl's separation from her mother, and is a beautiful surprise to me: It is a picture book, for children, ages 3 to 7. In its gentle yet head-on look at loss, disappointment, resilience, and ultimately triumphant creativity, we see a little brown girl's learning more about herself as she seeks and finds resources in her community.

The benevolent tailor Mr. Chin gives heartbroken Malaika a bag filled with fabric scraps, and with her wise-in-Caribbean-traditions-and-family grandmother guiding her, Malaika transforms the scraps into a rainbow peacock costume. In the first Carnival without her mother, we see Malaika's dancing in her magnificent many-colored costume in joyful celebration of and with her community.

Post Script...

Author Nadia L. Hohn informed me that the seeds for Malaika's Costume have many roots. In her blog, she says: "As a child, I used to write and illustrate picture books. One of the few I still have today is called, The Greatest Carnival Ever."

Greatest Carnival Ever Collage

About Nadia L. Hohn

Malaika's Costume is author Nadia L. Hohn's first picture book. She is currently writing the sequel. Irene Luxbacher, an award-winning Canadian illustrator, brings color-drenched images to life in Malaika's Costume via collage-inspired design. 

In my next "BOOKish blog," you will meet two illustrators-writers, Heidi Woodward Sheffield, and Mischa Kuczynski, in the fourth of my five-part series on the 2016 SCWBI Conference in New York City. The previous two stories in this series are SCBWI Executive Director Lin Oliver's call for diverse books and a feature story on acclaimed illustrator James Ransome.

In Full Swing: Illustrator James Ransome

James Ransome: Running, Building, and Steering His Career as an Illustrator

Billed as a workshop to help you "Work Long and Prosper," I was expecting the usual 10 tips for finding-the-happy-in-your work or some lame variation of that. Instead, along with the more than 200 people in the room, I got an invitation from acclaimed illustrator James Ransome to come take a look into his life as an illustrator – literally. Known for vibrant colors, striking design, and skillful drawing, Ransome took us inside his studio, thrilling us with a presentation chock-full of slides, showing us exactly how he creates, how he organizes his work, where he sits, why he works in one visual form rather than another at one time versus another, as well as how the hundreds of books lining his studio fuel his art and how his children and wife, author Lesa Cline-Ransome, figure in his creative process.

James Ransome Illustrator Freedoms School 700x591

James Ransome Illustrator Bimmi Finds a Cat

I'm not an illustrator – indeed, I can't even fake it – but like the professional and wannabe illustrators in that jam-packed conference room, I was mesmerized by Ransome's open, warm, insightful talk about how he, an African-American illustrator of children's books, has successfully built and sustained a long and fruitful career. He has illustrated nearly 50 picture books, book jackets, greeting cards, and magazine features, in a career spanning more than 20 years.

The following day, still holding on to what felt like a chat at Ransome's home – with about 200 more people present – I met author and children's book illustrator Don Tate. I learned that Tate, a champion of diversity and equity in children's literature, interviewed Ransome for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference blog this year. The two illustrators talked about a range of subjects, including the following exchange about artistic challenges:

Don: In the past few years, it seems that you've transitioned in the mediums you use, from oil to watercolors, and now pastel. Can you talk about that transition? What were the challenges, if any?

James: Being an art geek means I enjoy a variety of mediums. I have done books in oils, acrylics, watercolors, pastels and mixed media with collage. The desire to work in different mediums actually comes from a number of sources, but I would guess it mostly comes from a class I teach at Syracuse University. The class is entitled Media Arts Techniques where I teach the students a variety of mediums. So, I spend a good deal of time discussing, discovering new materials and studying artists who work in different disciplines. When I pick up a manuscript, I try to let the text tell me how and what medium needs to be used for the illustrations.

James Ransome Illustrator Granddaddys Turn

In the future, I plan to work in graphite, gouache, collage as well as digitally.

Check out Don Tate's full interview with James Ransome. 

Ransome's generous sharing at the SCBWI workshop on "Work Long and Prosper" offered a rare, intimate look at his work and indeed his life. Like the vivid colors that are the hallmark of his illustrations, his workshop inspires illustrators everywhere -- far beyond those in the room that day.

About James Ransome 

James Ransome has been illustrating children's books for over twenty years with almost fifty picture books, many book jackets, greeting cards and pieces in magazines. Winner of several awards for his illustrations, including the Coretta Scott King and NAACP Image Awards, James received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Illustration from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. He recently became a published author with his book Gunner, Football Hero. James' work is part of both private and public children's book art collections and a number of commissioned murals, including three for the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. An Assistant Professor in the Illustration Program at Syracuse University, James lives in Rhinebeck, New York, with his wife, author, Lesa Cline-Ransome and their four children.

CALL FOR DIVERSE BOOKS by Leader in Children's Publishing

Executive Director of the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators Speaks Out

In 2014, the call for diversity in children's book publishing came from Lin Oliver, Executive Director, Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators:

"I don't believe that I can authentically write from the point of view of a contemporary protagonist who is telling a unique story that derives from a racial or cultural experience not my own. Some people may feel comfortable with that. I don't. One of the reasons I'm so eager to read literature written by people with diverse backgrounds is to get their authentic take on their experience. I just don't trust that my take on it would ever be completely true or right. However, I do believe that I should always try to include people from diverse backgrounds, cultures, races, and religions in my populate the world I'm writing about with all kinds of people. This is different for me than writing from the point of view of a particular ethnic or racial character or experience. That's where I personally come out on this issue." -- Lin Oliver, Executive Director, SCBWI, 2014

When Lin Oliver, SCBWI's Executive Director, speaks out on diversity, we should expect her words to reach thousands in the publishing world and help to raise the volume of discourse (and action) on this critical need in the industry and, indeed, far beyond literature into the world-at-large. After all, SCBWI is a global leader in the industry with more than 22,000 members worldwide, in over 70 regional chapters writing and illustrating in all genres for young readers.

SCBWI ATTENDEES AT 2016 WINTER CONFERENCE 533X400Attendees at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators 2016 Winter Conference in New York City. Photo Credit: Luvon Roberson

With this backdrop, I have decided to use Oliver's open letter, penned in 2014, as the framework for my experience at the SCBWI Winter Conference, held on February 12-14, 2016, here in New York City. Over the next several weeks, I will share with you stories about the writers and wannabe writers, illustrators and wannabe illustrators, publishing insiders and unpublished writers and illustrators I met as well as the electrifying community of writers I experienced in the voices, advice, and mere presence of SCBWI Conference presenters.
For now, let's begin with opportunities for children's book writers and illustrators:

• This month – from March 1 – March 31, 2016 – you can apply for SCBWI's Work-in-Progress Awards 

• Coming up in April 2016, opens its children's fiction contest to find talented, ethnically diverse authors writing for readers ages 8-14. The contest is in honor of the 40th anniversary of the publication of Mildred D. Taylor's Roll of Thunder. Penguin Young Readers and We Need Diverse Books are teaming up to honor Taylor to find a new, diverse voice in fiction.

You will find many other opportunities for children's book writers and illustrators at And, you'll learn more about the people who make up SCBWI in the stories and images I will share with you over the next several weeks. Stay tuned – and discover how these writers and illustrators imagine and paint their stories.

SCBWI Book at 2016 Winter Conference Demonstrating Need for Diverse Writers Luvon Roberson 666x500Book on display at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators 2016 Winter Conference. Photo Credit: Luvon Roberson

In sharing their stories and images, I invite you to discover how you, too, can write and voice the story only you can tell!

For more inspiration, here's SCBWI Executive Director Lin Oliver's full open letter: SCBWI Executive Director Speaks Out on Diversity

My next "BOOKish blog" will feature James Ransome, renowned illustrator, who offered SCBWI's 2016 Winter Conference attendees a riveting and intimate look at how he creates. 

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