Thursday, October 9, 2014

Imani and I

I cannot express how excited and proud I feel to be writing this blog. And of course, it’s all because of a small African girl who strived to touch the moon—and succeeded. Little Imani: the girl with the big dreams.

It’s such an interesting thing when you set out to write a story, and it takes on a life of its own. Imani started off male, Elijah first then Ayubu. All either boy did was jump and jump and jump and succeed. Not much of a story arc, right? But I knew there was something more to this story. As I dug deeper and fine-tuned the story, the voice that called resoundingly from the page was not a boy’s, but was that of a girl, a small girl, with a big story to share. I think this is something I am most proud of regarding how Imani came to be. Hearing her voice and realizing how her story is one so many can relate to, a story of setting “impossible” goals and working hard to reach them in the face of opposition. Most of us have been in situations like that, when something seemed insurmountable, but we persevered anyway.

Can I be honest? That has actually been my experience in this world called publishing. Pushing, pushing, pushing, and never giving up.

The more I polished Imani and incorporated aspects of the regal Maasai people, the more I saw the parallel between Imani and my own goal of becoming a children’s book author. I actually had the ambition of becoming a writer ever since I was in grade school. I loved getting lost in the stories of my mind. Writing and storytelling were authentic parts of me. So much so that my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Welch, predicted that I’d become a published author (best-selling, to be precise) when I grew up, based on the stories and poetry I’d write in her class. That want was ingrained in me from a very early age.

Once I finished college, I decided to give it a try. Write, perfect, publish. One, two, three. Simple, just like that. Of course, any author who has attempted to publish can probably tell you how it actually happens. Well, yes, there is writing. And of course, there’s “perfecting” as best you can. But the publish part was often replaced by rejection instead. The form letters or no response at all, time and time and time again, kind of like the teasing children or naysaying animals of Imani’s story. “You’ll never make it!” “That’s impossible!” “Give up! Give up!”

Sometimes I ask myself, what if I had just given up? What if I had let those “Nos” define me and place me in a box that would be locked, and remain locked, indefinitely? What if I had let them ground me by accepting the thought I would never touch the moon?

This is where the belief part comes in. The word “imani” actually means “faith” in Swahili. That was the last piece of Imani’s journey to a finished manuscript. Her name. Imani. Faith.

And that’s what I had to do: believe in my craft, my abilities, my story. Believe in Imani.

I remember when I received the email from the National Association of Elementary School Principal’s Children’s Book of the Year committee member, telling me I had won the contest and that Imani’s Moon would be published. I cried. Big happy tears falling down a smiling face. (And then I called my mother and we screamed together in sheer, concentrated excitement).

So now, each time I see Hazel Mitchell’s beautiful illustration of little Imani in her orange robe, reaching her arms out in triumph, I see myself. But not just myself, I see all the women who had big dreams, and all the little girls who have big dreams, who may have been told or may be told that they can’t do it, but who shut out the negativity and aim for the moon.

And I am so grateful. Grateful that I made it to my metaphorical moon. I’m also so grateful to NAESP and Charlesbridge and to my editor Julie Bliven and my fantastic critique group family (especially Rosi Hollinbeck and Elizabeth Varadan who’ve been there from the start) for helping bring my story to where it is today. My heart is as full as the moon shining behind Imani on the cover.

In closing, my hope is that someone somewhere will pull inspiration from Imani’s story, from my story, and push on, preserve, succeed. Even if no one else believes he or she can. Because, just as Mama tells Imani as she sits on Mama’s knee, “A challenge is only impossible until someone accomplishes it. Imani, it is you who must believe.”

Believe, and you will get there!

JaNay Brown-Wood is the author of Imani's Moon, illustrated by Hazel Mitchell.

$17.95 Ages 6-9

Friday, October 3, 2014

John F. Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State, Pens the Intro to "Peter, Paul and Mary: Fifty Years in Music and Life"

 I was a college kid on a cold Connecticut night in 1964 when I first heard Mary’s angelic alto. On that night in New Haven and on so many nights over the next five decades, in so many places all over the world, Peter, Paul, and Mary’s music asked more of us than to simply sing along. “The hammer of justice” and “the bell of freedom”! These are more than just lyrics; they were then, and they remain, a call to conscience, and as Peter especially has always reminded me, when something pulls at your conscience, you need to act.

As Peter, Paul and Mary journeyed from coffee houses and campuses to the Billboard Top 40, there could be no doubt that we were all living in turbulent times. But in their harmonies was a magic and message more powerful than a decade of discord and exhilaration.

That is why, after all these years, we return to the music. That is why when we turn the pages of this incredible book, we are questioned, liberated, and challenged once again.

I know my experience with Peter, Paul and Mary is one that I shared with so
©Barry Feinstein
many in those years of challenge and transformation. Their music became an anchor: “Blowin’ in the Wind” as the war in Vietnam escalated. “Leavin’ on a jet Plane” as I left to join the war. “Puff the Magic Dragon” as I patrolled the Mekong Delta. Their songs became the soundtrack of my life and of a generation.

They changed the cultural fabric of this nation forever. Peter, Paul and Mary brought folk music from the shadows of the blacklist McCarthy era to the living rooms and radio stations of every town in America. They gave the world its first listen to young songwriting talents from Bob Dylan to John Denver, Gordon Lightfoot to Laura Nyro. 

© Jan Dalman
And though their music might stop and the band would break up for years, they never stopped marching. They marched for peace, for racial justice, for workers rights.  They marched against gun violence, homelessness and world hunger. They marched for clean air and clean water, against apartheid and nuclear proliferation.

Through both their songs and their struggle, they helped propel our nation on its greatest journey, on the march towards greater equality. With their passion and persistence, Peter, Paul and Mary helped widen the circle of our democracy.

It was at Dr. King’s March on Washington, that Peter, Paul and Mary first
performed “Blowin’ in the Wind.” On that day and for decades thereafter, they made it clear that it was up to all of us to reach for the answer by reaching out to one another and to the world. Their message was not defined by protest but by taking responsibility—taking the risks that peace, the most powerful answer of all, always requires.

After the 1960s, those risks left many of us with wounds and battle scars, physical and spiritual, real and metaphorical. We saw too many of our heroes and friends—our flowers—gone to graveyards far too soon. In the years to come, their music helped us to heal.

It was in 1971, at one of the many marches in Washington that Peter, Paul and Mary helped to lead, when I first met Mary. She once told me she was always guided by advice she got from her mother: “Be careful of compromise,” she said. “There’s a very thin line between compromise and accomplice.” She wasn’t just speaking about music or even politics. It was a worldview, a philosophy of life—and it is within these pages and in the spirit that Peter and Noel (Paul) continue to share with audiences around the world, Mary’s spirit endures.

But this book is not a tribute to any “time that was,” or even to three incredible people who changed music and our lives forever. Instead, it is a testament to what they achieved with their audience, both as musicians and as individuals, as artists and as activists, as Americans and as citizens of the world.

It is also a testament to what’s left undone. The questions that Peter, Paul
© Bernard Cole Archive
and Mary posed more than fifty years ago at the March on Washington—how many roads, how many years will it take?—these are still our questions and we still have a responsibility to answer.

That is why the power of Peter, Paul and Mary’s music and their work in the world is enduring. That is why it remains an inspiration for the work to come, for our work together, and for all we hope to leave behind.

One of my favorite Peter, Paul and Mary songs has always been “Sweet Survivor.” I was moved when Mary sang it for me on my 50th Birthday, and then when Peter sang it for me on a cold bus in Iowa in 2003. Its words still speak to the future, not the past: 

“Carry on my sweet survivor, carry on my lonely friend
Don’t give up on the dream, and don’t let it end.
Carry on my sweet survivor, you’ve carried it so long.
So may it come again, carry on, carry on, carry on.”

And so as we read this book—and remember the music—we do it with much more than nostalgia: we do it because Peter, Paul and Mary remind us still to carry on.

John F. Kerry
US Secretary of State
February 2014
© Sylvia Plachy

 is on sale November 4, 2014
978-1-936140-32-9 HC $29.95