“I was a storyteller before I was a writer,” said Brooklyn resident Zetta Elliott, 43. “From the time I was in preschool, my report card would say I was always telling stories to the other kids when I was supposed to be listening to the teacher. So narration and storytelling has always been a big part of my identity.”
Today, Elliott, a native of Toronto, Canada, is a prolific author of 30 published books, including 7 adult books, a dozen award-winning pictures books for children, ages 5-8; and several “historical fantasy” books targeted to tweens and teens, ages 9-17. So, she’s still telling kids stories. And, as it turns out just as in preschool, her penchant for storytelling continues to cause a bit of a stir.
Of the 23 books she has published for young readers, only three have been released by traditional presses. The other 20, she has self-published through Create Space under her own imprint, Rosetta Press. The truth is, Elliott’s stories often take an unapologetic look at heady subject matters, such as drug abuse, incarceration, racial discrimination and historical trauma– topics most children’s book publishers wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.
For example, Elliott’s book “Bird,” is a story about a young black boy, an artist, who becomes fascinated with birds, hence his nickname, “Bird.” His older, teenage brother is Bird’s biggest source of encouragement. He pushes Bird’s artistic talent, pouring what remaining hope he has for life into his younger brother, while he silently struggles with drug addiction. Eventually, his addiction worsens, he steals from his own family, is sent away and then suffers a fatal overdose. Elliott presents a not unusual African-American story, where both hope and despair casually co-exist. But it’s how the book ends– the conversation Bird’s grandfather must now have with his grandson explaining what happened to his older brother—that is most astounding, because it is told by Elliot with honesty and grace.
“Bird” won the Honor Award in Lee & Low Books’ New Voices Contest (2006); Kirkus Review’s Best Children’s Books of 2006; the Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year (2009); the West Virginia Children’s Choice Award (2000); the Paterson Prize for Books for Young People (Bird); and the American Library Association 2009 Notable Children’s Book Award.
Elliott said she confronts difficult topics in her storytelling because of the trauma she has witnessed in the lives of the young children she worked with for years as a creative writing teacher. Plus, she added, drawing from her own childhood experiences, she believes that what children need to see in pictures is themselves and to hear their own stories, told in a way that not only validates but also helps them get through.
“I step boldly into that space, because I come from a family where my parents didn’t talk about their personal history, their childhood; we didn’t discuss the past,” Elliott said. “But silence breeds silence. My older brother had an addiction, and no one wanted to talk about it. So where did he end up? In jail.”
Elliott, who has a Ph.D in American Studies from New York University, said another important aspect of healing for children is understanding their own history. In fact, after learning about her family’s own rich history, it changed the course of her life and her focus. Although she was raised in Toronto, Elliott’s maternal ancestors were African Americans— former slaves who bought their freedom and then moved to Ontario in 1820. Her father’s side of the family is from Nevis. He also lived in the United States for some time before moving to Canada, where he met Elliott’s mother.
“I’m invested in the history of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade because I’m triangular and I’ve triangulated my life,” said Elliott. “I have multiple, overlapping histories, so the binary doesn’t work for me. All of us are hybrid in multiple ways.”
But, she admitted, when she tried to weave African-American history into her writing class curriculum, the children seemed disinterested:
“I found that the kids were resistant to history– particularly African-American history, because they didn’t want to hear about slavery or anything that involved degradation or humiliation,” she said. “I had consumed so much fantasy fiction as a child—‘The Secret Garden,’ ‘The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe,’ which I loved. So I thought, All I have to do to get them hooked on Black History is add a little magic.”
This pivot in her writing genre also was a nod to author Octavia Butler’s popular historical sci-fi series of books, which Elliott also loved. One of the first historical fiction children’s picture books Elliott wrote dealt with the subject of self esteem: “I thought, how can I make Black women’s history comprehensible and interesting for young girls? So I used a mirror that flashes through different time periods,” said Elliott.
In “The Magic Mirror,” after being bullied, the book’s young African-American protagonist comes home crying to her grandmother who then tells her to go scrub a special mirror in the guest room and report back what she sees. When the little girl begins scrubbing, she starts to see women ancestors from her family tree battling adversity at different points throughout history.
In the first scene, she watches the story of a young girl with a chain around her neck being led to a slave ship; then the next scene is of a teacher during the American Reconstruction period whose school has just been set on fire; the next scene is a young woman whose story is set during the Harlem Renaissance; then another during the Black Power Movement… And then it ends with the little girl’s own mother, at her college graduation.
“The fact that she now sees this legacy that she didn’t know about before shows her that we’ve always faced difficulties, and we’ve always overcome them,” said Elliott.
Elliott also has written a sequence of historical fantasy books for tweens, part of the City Kids Series, including “The Phoenix on Barkley Street,” “Dayshaun’s Gift,” and a third book coming out in April 2016, entitled, “The Ghosts in the Castle,” all of which weave together magic with history with imagination.
However, not all of Elliott’s books are heavy, historical deep dives. Some are quite lighthearted, including the picture book, “I Love Snow ” a tribute to Ezra Jack Keats’s groundbreaking book, “A Snowy Day.” Elliott pointed out that Ezra Jack Keats was a writer from Brooklyn who was white and whose writing and illustrations were genius in normalizing the lives of black children. Similarly, Elliott’s “I Love Snow,” showcases a racially diverse group of Brooklyn children (you’ll notice key Brooklyn landmarks in the illustrations) and diverse physical abilities who are discovering the joys of snow! “I Love Snow” and another book, “A Wave Came Through Our Window,” both are on the Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year list for 2016.
“I feel like children should enjoy their childhood through storytelling. But also, we can’t afford to be silent about certain subjects with our kids— not in the era of Black Lives Matter,” Elliott said.
“I use the principle of Sankofa in that there’s no shame in going back to retrieve something of value that you own. There’s great value in history. For children to see other people like them who have had or are having the very same challenges but have overcome them, that’s important.
“So my books are my way of saying to a lot of marginalized kids, ‘I see you.’ You’re not invisible to me. I see you.”
On Thursday, April 14, from 6:00pm – 8:00pm, at Weeksville Heritage Center, Zetta Elliott will hold a book reading and signing of her latest teen sci-fi novel, “The Door at the Cross Roads,” the sequel to “A Wish After Midnight.”