Calling all middle grade readers! Zetta Elliott is the author of over 25 books for young readers, including the award-winning picture books Bird and Melena’s Jubilee. She is also a contributor to the anthology We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices. Elliott is an advocate for greater diversity and equity in publishing.
Zetta Elliott was born in Canada and moved to the United States in 1994. A longtime resident of Brooklyn, she currently lives in Illinois.
Author Q&A with ZETTA ELLIOTT
Where do you find the inspiration for your books?
Inspiration is everywhere! Often I find it in the world around me, which is why I mostly write about my neighborhood. I moved to Chicago last fall; now I live near Lake Michigan and that certainly impacted my decision to write my first graphic novel, The Boy in the Lake. I live near the childhood home of Emmett Till, so he was also incorporated into the narrative. My friend Marie sent me four tiny dragons, which I keep in a mint tin in my bag — that was the inspiration for my Dragons in a Bag series. I think if your mind is open, you’ll find people and places in your community that are worth putting in a book.
What were your favourite books when you were a kid? As a young reader, did you see yourself in the books you read?
I don’t really have favorite books, but I definitely appreciated Ezra Jack Keats’s picture books. Growing up outside Toronto in the 1970s, those were the only books I saw that had Black children in them doing ordinary things. So like everyone, I loved The Snow Day but also Goggles and Pet Show. I always wanted to read books about older children and those novels (The Secret Garden, The Phoenix and the Carpet) never had main characters who looked like me — or Black people were depicted as “savages.” I had to “dream myself into existence” in the (mostly British) fantasy fiction that I read (and loved) back then.
What’s the most surprising thing you have learned when creating your books?
I’m consistently surprised by the unexpected ways books can circulate. My dragon series is for kids age 7-10 but I regularly get tweets from parents reading the book aloud to much younger children. Some of my self-published titles like Milo’s Museum have been picked up by museums and school districts; Benny Doesn’t Like to Be Hugged is about an autistic boy but it’s being used to explain consent to young children, and Mother of the Sea was chosen for the Great Stories Club of the American Library Association. That’s why I continue to self-publish — a book can’t do anything when it’s sitting on your hard drive. I still face a lot of rejection in the publishing industry (and can’t get anything published in Canada), but when I make a book myself, I’m giving that story a chance to live in the world and reach the children for whom it was written.
What is a challenge you have faced as a writer?
Getting published! I’m an award-winning author with a bestselling series but I still struggle to get published in the US (where I live) and in the country where I was born. For the past few decades, on average, only two Black Canadian authors managed to get a book published traditionally in Canada. So even though rejection feels personal, it’s clearly systemic racism that’s keeping the door closed. I think that has started to change in the past couple of years, but with so few Black editors and agents, it’s hard to get your story in front of someone with the cultural competence to effectively assess it. I have a book that’s based on my Caribbean uncle’s experience learning to play hockey in Toronto in the 1960s. How many hockey books are published each year in Canada? And how many centre White children only? It’s frustrating but my new agent, though based in the US, is with a Canadian literary agency. Maybe she’ll have better luck than past US agents in selling my stories.
What advice do you have for kids who are interested in writing?
Read! The best way to become a good writer is to study stories, and that’s what you’re doing when you read. You can also study the way stories are told in film and television. If you see a movie you love, watch it again — and then again. Once you know how it ends, you can focus on how the storytellers laid out the plot, introduced characters, and created dramatic tension. I also recommend developing a writing practice — you need to build up your stamina and make writing a priority. Even if you set aside just ten or fifteen minutes a day, that’s enough time for you fill a page of your journal or notebook. You can describe your day, the view outside your window, or imagine yourself in another part of the world. You can’t sit down and write a novel any more than you can jump up and run a marathon. But if you train every day and feed your imagination, you’ll be able to write dialogue and then whole chapters and soon you’ll have a complete novel!