In 2000, I taught a creative writing class in an after school program on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. One of my students was a girl whose mother was incarcerated; she was angry about the situation and her classmates teased her, which led her to act out violently at school—and sometimes in our class. I searched for a book that could serve as a mirror for that girl, but I couldn’t find anything and so I wrote a story for her. That story became my first novel for young readers, An Angel for Mariqua.
Here’s a summary:
Christmas is coming, but eight-year-old Mariqua Thatcher isn’t looking forward to the holidays. Mama’s gone and Gramma doesn’t know what to do with her feisty granddaughter. Almost every day Mariqua gets into a fight at school, and no one seems to understand how she feels inside. But things start to change when a mysterious street vendor gives Mariqua a beautifully carved angel as a gift. Each night Mariqua whispers in the angel’s ear and soon her wishes start to come true! Mariqua begins to do better at school, and she even wins an important role in the church pageant. But best of all, Mariqua becomes friends with Valina Peterson, a teenager who lives in Mariqua’s building. Valina helps Mariqua learn how to control her anger, and reminds her pretend little sister that “everyone has a story to tell.” Their friendship is tested, however, when Mariqua discovers that Valina has been keeping a secret about her own mother. Can the magic angel make things better?
I was in graduate school when I wrote this story, and my studies focused on Black women in the US. I was frustrated by the way issues that directly impact Black women and girls never seem to receive the attention they deserve, and are perceived—even by many Black women—as less important than the challenges facing Black boys and men. So with this novel I was trying to do two things: 1) provide a mirror for the many children whose mothers are absent due to incarceration, and 2) bring attention to the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS and incarceration on Black women, their families, and the Black community in general.
December 1 was World AIDS Day and these sobering statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) paint a grim picture of the disease’s impact on my community:
- African Americans accounted for an estimated 44% of all new HIV infections among adults and adolescents (aged 13 years or older) in 2010, despite representing only 12% of the US population; considering the smaller size of the African American population in the United States, this represents a population rate that is 8 times that of whites overall.
- In 2010, African American women accounted for 6,100 (29%) of the estimated new HIV infections among all adult and adolescent African Americans. This number represents a decrease of 21% since 2008. Most new HIV infections among African American women (87%; 5,300) are attributed to heterosexual contact. The estimated rate of new HIV infections for African American women (38.1/100,000 population) was 20 times that of white women and almost 5 times that of Hispanic/Latino women.
- At some point in their lifetimes, an estimated 1 in 16 African American men and 1 in 32 African American women will be diagnosed with HIV infection.
I look at these statistics and wonder why I waited so long to self-publish An Angel for Mariqua. Writing the novel wasn’t difficult, but getting it published by a traditional press proved almost impossible. For about a decade I sent the novel to various editors (some of whom are vocal supporters of WNDB) and had it repeatedly rejected. In 2011, a writer friend introduced me to her prestigious publisher; my agent sent her the manuscript and received this response: “I do love Zetta’s writing but the story is a little tough because Mariqa (sp?) comes across as an unsympathetic character…I understand why M is acting this way, but you do want readers to connect with her too.”
I think a lot of kids can relate to being raised by their grandmother, and living in a household that’s struggling to make ends meet. I think plenty of kids know what it’s like to be bullied or teased at school, and many of those kids probably learned—as Mariqua did—that fighting doesn’t solve anything. I doubt that young readers will find Mariqua “unsympathetic” if they try to put themselves in her place—and isn’t that what books teach kids to do?
So after more than a decade, I have decided to self-publish this book. I wish I could say we’ve made progress since 2000, but the rates of Black women’s incarceration (up 800% since 1986) and HIV infection have actually increased. Still, I cling to a quote from the Combahee River Collective, “Black women are inherently valuable;” they deserve our love, support, and understanding. Our families and communities will not thrive unless we recognize that all Black lives matter. I never got a chance to share this book with the girl whose life story served as my inspiration, but I hope she found someone to help her channel all that pain and rage into something constructive.
Right now Black women are marching alongside Black men to protest the non-indictment of two white police officers who killed unarmed teen Michael Brown and street vendor Eric Garner; every three or four days a Black person in this country is killed by law enforcement, but where are the books that explain this reality to young readers? We don’t just need diverse books—we need a publishing industry committed to social justice rather than the symbolic annihilation of kids of color. We need books that affirm the fact that BLACK YOUTH MATTER.
The fundraising campaign for We Need Diverse Books is closed but there are still plenty of ways to work to diversify our bookshelves. Please visit their site and see how you can contribute to making the stories out there ALL of our stories by clicking –> HERE – it’s vital, folks.
Born in Canada, Zetta Elliott moved to the US in 1994 to pursue her PhD in American Studies at NYU. Her poetry has been published in several anthologies, and her plays have been staged in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland. Her essays have appeared in Horn Book Magazine, School Library Journal, and Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures. She is the author of thirteen books for young readers, including the award-winning picture book Bird. Her urban fantasy novel, Ship of Souls, was named a Booklist Top Ten Sci-fi/Fantasy Title for Youth and was a finalist for the Phillis Wheatley Book Award. Her own imprint, Rosetta Press, generates culturally relevant stories that center children who have been marginalized, misrepresented, and/or rendered invisible in traditional children’s literature. Elliott is an advocate for greater diversity and equity in publishing. She currently lives in Brooklyn.
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Zetta’s book Ship of Souls was a 2012 Booklist Top Ten Sci-Fi/Fantasy Youth Title and a finalist for the Phillis Wheatley Book Award. It also received a starred review from Booklist: “Urban fantasies are nothing rare, but few mesh gritty realism with poetic mysticism so convincingly. By turns sad, joyful, frightening, funny, and inspirational, Elliott’s second novel is a marvel of tone and setting.”
The Deep is a companion book to Ship of Souls.