Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with the talented, fantastic Nikki Shannon Smith. We had a blast! Here's our conversation:
Nikki: I was born and raised in Oakland, California and now live in the Sacramento area with my husband and two teenage children. I’ve been an elementary school teacher for over 25 years, with three years as an elementary school principal. I’m currently teaching fourth grade, which I love. I write picture books and chapter books, as well as middle grade and young adult novels. In addition to teaching and writing, I also serve as the Co-Regional Advisor for Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI)-California: North/Central Region. I seem to live life either moving full speed ahead or not moving at all. There’s nothing in between!
Charvella: How did you start your writing career? Why did you decide to write young adult/children's books?
Nikki: While I always loved reading and writing poems and short stories, it never really occurred to me to write professionally until 2007. Although I had a very happy work and home life, I felt like who I was had gotten lost in all of my responsibilities. It was like my spirit was wilting. I took a day off and spent time thinking about what was missing. I know how this sounds, but I was watching The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was about women who looked much younger than they really were. Their secret was happiness created by following their dreams. Somehow, I knew exactly what I needed to do. I hopped out of bed and ran to my daughter’s bookshelf. I pulled out one of our favorite books, Danitra Brown Leaves Town, written by Nikki Grimes. I went to Nikki’s website, and was delighted to find that she had a list of things to do if you wanted to be a children’s author. (I love lists!) I followed her advice. I joined SCBWI and registered for my first conference, stepping WAY outside of my comfort zone and investing in myself. I also found a critique group. I already read a lot of children’s books, but I began to study them. I also purchased a few “how to” books. My first published book, The Little Christmas Elf (Random House/Little Golden Books), was actually a direct result of a professional critique I received at an SCBWI conference.
Charvella: Your work is incredible! Recently, I read Ann Fights for Freedom and was absolutely floored by its structure. You tackled a very sensitive issue of slavery and wrote it through a child's eyes. How did you come up with this concept of writing Ann as the protagonist, leading her family to safety and out of slavery rather than an adult character?
Nikki: I was thrilled to be invited to write for Capstone’s Girls Survive Series, which features fictional girls surviving real historical events. Ann Fights for Freedom: An Underground Railroad Survival Story was a lot of fun to write. One of my personal heroes is Harriet Tubman, so I wanted to model my character after her. In my mind it had to be the young girl who was the hero! Ann’s journey is based on my research of the routes and experiences of Harriet Tubman. Of course, there had to be a good reason that a child would end up being responsible for her family’s safety and freedom. I don’t want to spoil the plot; I’ll just say that I created circumstances for the parents and character traits in Ann that made it reasonable for Ann to be in charge. I hope young people read this book and think about how wise and strong children really are; we underestimate children too often. I’ve now written four books in the Girls Survive Series. In addition to this book, I wrote Noelle at Sea: A Titanic Survival Story, Charlotte Spies for Freedom: A Civil War Survival Story, and Sarah Journeys West: An Oregon Trail Survival Story.
Charvella: I observed this past year a surge in young adult/children's books being released. My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zaboi and Other Words for Home by Jazmin Warga are fascinating books. I believe diversity has played a role. Authors have emerged from various cultures and backgrounds with these incredibly eye-opening stories to tell. These stories are told from such a unique angle that not only are young adults and children reading them, but adults (like me) are also paying attention. Young adult and children's books have become socially conscious. What do you think?
Nikki: I think multiple factors are contributing to the increased popularity and visibility of books for children and young adults. The social/political climate in our country is creating increased cultural awareness, a strong fight for equity/equality, and what I consider to be a loudly voiced resistance to the oppressive status quo. It has made obvious a demand for books in which young people (especially those from underrepresented groups) see themselves.
The public is demanding diverse creators and authentic voices. Authors have always been activists, so people are taking action and making changes. Diverse books are getting noticed, and not just by the groups they represent. Even filmmakers are recognizing children’s books as a source of material for movies. We are telling a lot of important, beautiful stories from our own perspectives. The stories are crossing boundaries and reaching wider audiences.
While I’d like to simply believe in people doing what’s right— good people fighting the fight and doing the work—I think some of it boils down to basic economics: supply and demand. Publishers buy stories and produce books that consumers demand. Either way, our voices can’t be ignored.
Charvella: What are some upcoming projects and book releases?
Nikki: This month I had two books released: my fourth Girls Survive Book, Sarah Journeys West: An Oregon Trail Survival Story and The Amazing Life of Azaleah Lane. The Amazing Life of Azaleah Lane is the first book in my new series published by Capstone. I’m really excited about it. Black history and the black experience should be depicted fully, and it makes me happy to contribute both stories about history and happy everyday stories like this one. The series takes place in Washington, D.C. and Azaleah is the middle child in a family of three girls. She’s also quite a detective! In the first book, Azaleah is hard at work trying to solve the mystery of her little sister’s missing stuffed animal, Greenie. At the same time, she’s trying to finish a diorama based on her class field trip to the National Zoo. The second book in the series, The Dramatic Life of Azaleah Lane will release later this year, along with another (top secret) book with Capstone.
Like all writers, I have manuscripts that should never see the light of day tucked away in files. I’m always working on something. I have a middle grade novel out on submission now, and I’m almost ready to tackle a revision for a young adult manuscript. The middle grade story is a light-hearted story about friendship and family and the young adult story is much heavier speculative fiction where the historic meets the contemporary.
Charvella: What advice would you give to the person who wants to write a book, but perhaps may be procrastinating or afraid his/her work isn't good enough?
Nikki: START. There is no other way to do it. It might be horribly written, initially. Let it be horrible; just get it down on paper. You don’t even have to plan to show it to anyone. But once you get to the end of that horribly written manuscript, you will feel so proud and relieved and successful. It will make you want to keep going.
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Check out Nikki's books on her website: http://www.nikkishannonsmith.com/Home_Page.html