Black Creators: Part II

Today, I continue my celebration of Black children’s book creators around the Triangle and state. I was planning to make this the final installment. But there are so many outstanding authors and illustrators that I’m creating a part III. Learn about the wonderful creators below, check out their work and stay tuned for one more salute.

Dare Coulter

Celebrated for her paintings, murals and sculptures, Dare Coulter is shining in a new field – children’s book illustration. She lent her talent to three books including the beautiful My NC from A to Z written by Michelle Lanier, director of NC Division of State Historic Sites. Dare’s mission? “My hope is to leave behind a body of work that accomplished my primary artistic objective, which is to give life to large and unapologetic depictions of black joy.” Learn more about Dare at

Shana Keller

Author of inspiring picture book biographies like TickTock: Banneker’s Clock, named a best STEM book by the Children’s Book Council, and Bread for Words: A Frederick Douglass Story, Shana Keller says she has a passion for history and storytelling. One of her favorite quotes is from Benjamin Banneker: “Every day is an adventure in learning.” Learn more about Shana at

Keith Knight

Award-winning cartoonist, NAACP History Maker recipient and inspiration for the Hulu show Woke, Keith Knight’s art has been featured in publications around the globe including The Washington Post, Ebony and ESPN the Magazine. He is the illustrator of the acclaimed Jake the Fake middle-grade series written by Craig Robinson. Learn more about Keith at

Michelle Lanier

The director of the N.C. Division of State Historic Sites and the first executive director of the NC African American Heritage Commission (NCAAHC), Michelle Lanier is a folklorist, historian, educator and preservationist. Her debut children’s book, My N.C. from A to Z, illustrated by Dare Coulter (see above) showcases the amazing history of our state. “This colorful, sturdy board book celebrates pride of place, creates connections to North Carolina’s rich African American heritage, and teaches children about human equality and social justice,” reads the description on the NCAAHC website. Learn more about Michelle at

Christopher Ledbetter

An award-winning young adult author, Christopher Ledbetter says he’s drawn to stories of transformation. He hopes readers feel strength and hope in his books. “I continue to write because I see it as an avenue to inspire and uplift. And, because the stories refuse to stop springing into my mind and demanding to be written.” he says on his website. His imaginative novels include Drawn, Inked, The Sky Throne and his latest, The High Court. Learn more about Chris at

Kwame Mbalia

Kwame Mbalia hit the scene with a splash. His freshman middle-grade novel, Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, won a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award. And that’s not all. He’s a New York Times bestseller whose follow up, Tristan Strong Destroys the World, earned multiple starred reviews like his debut. Look for his upcoming novel, Last Gate of the Emperor, written with Prince Joel David Makonnen, in May. Learn more about Kwame at

Georgia McBride

A speculative fiction YA author, executive editor and creator of Georgia McBride Media Group, she has published dozens of titles by authors around the country. Jonathan Maberry, author of Flesh & Bone and Rot & Ruin, said this of Georgia’s own novel, Praefatio: “This is teen fantasy at its most entertaining, most heartbreaking, most compelling. Highly recommended.” Learn more about Georgia at

LaRonda Gardner Middlemiss

A former engineer, LaRonda Gardner Middlemiss fell under the spell of picture books through her son. Savoring stories with him called her to write books of her own. Kirkus called her debut title, I Love Me! illustrated by Beth Hughes: “A celebratory proclamation of ultra-inclusive self-love.” LaRonda dreams of illustrating her own books one day. Learn more about her at

Johnny Ray Moore

His poignant board book biography, The Story of Martin Luther King, Jr., has sold more than 100,000 copies. Johnny Ray Moore is an accomplished songwriter, greeting card writer, poet and children’s book author. His titles include Howie Has a Stomachache, A Leaf, Silence Please, Anthill for Sale, So Many Questions. Learn more about Johnny at

Shining a Light on Black Creators

Happy Friday, Friends! It’s an honor to be Piedmont Laureate. Thank you for the warm welcome and support.

During my tenure, I look forward to offering panels, readings, programs and workshops that build bridges and focus on the brilliance, beauty and hope of children’s literature. There’s power in stories, reading those written by others and using your voice to tell your own. I want to honor both.

Part of my mission this year is to raise awareness of the outstanding authors and illustrators in the Triangle and around the state. In celebration of Black History Month, I’m starting by shining a light on Black children’s book creators who call North Carolina home. I’m inspired by their work and grateful for the ways they empower, captivate and affirm young readers.

There are so many that I’m saluting them in two posts. Part I is below. Look for Part II next week. Please check out their books and consider adding them to home, school and library collections.

Derrick D. Barnes

Newbery Honor Winner. New York Times bestselling author. Two-time Kirkus Prize Award Winner. Derrick has written more than a dozen books for young people that touch hearts along with snagging critical acclaim. His beloved titles include Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut and I Am Every Good Thing, both illustrated by Gordon James (see below) and The King of Kindergarten illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton (check out her work next Friday). Learn more about Derrick at

Tameka Fryer Brown

With award-winning books including Around Our Way on Neighbors’ Day illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb, My Cold Plum Lemon Pie Bluesy Mood illustrated by Shane W. Evans and Brown Baby Lullaby illustrated by A.G. Ford, Tameka has become known for her jazzy, poetic style and picture books packed with joy and meaning. She has more gems on the way including a bio on Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman in Congress and the first to run for a major party nomination for president. Learn more about Tameka at

Tracy Deonn

She knocked it out of the park with her debut young adult novel, Legendborn, earning a spot on the New York Times bestseller list and winning the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent. Set on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, Tracy’s stand-out title has been called a reimagining of Arthurian legend and thrilling celebration of Black girl magic. Learn more about Tracy at

Judy Allen Dodson

Historian. Archivist. Librarian. Advocate for Diverse Children’s Books. With her poignant debut novel, Escape From . . . Hurricane Katrina, you can add author to her stellar list of roles. In a powerful story of courage, determination, resilience and family bonds, Judy gives us twin heroes who weather a devastating storm outside and the emotional storm of a mom battling cancer. Learn more about this Junior Library Guild title and what’s on the way at

Chrystal D. Giles

Her acclaimed middle-grade debut, Take Back the Block, explores gentrification, heritage, friendship and home. It is a Junior Library Guild selection and Kids’ Indie Next Pick. Chrystal’s poem, “Dimples,” is featured in the poetry anthology, Thanku: Poems of Gratitude. Learn more about her at

Fracaswell “Cas” Hyman

Actor. Producer. Award-winning TV writer. Cas is full of storytelling magic. What a gift that he uses his talent to create middle-grade novels too. His first book, Mango Delight, earned a starred Booklist review and was named a Teachers’ Pick by Amazon. Lucky for us the charming sequel, Summer in the City, debuted last year. Learn more about Cas at

Gordon C. James

He says this on his website: “When people see my art I want them to say, I know that person, I know that feeling.” Gordon has people around the country feeling seen and loved. His award-winning books include Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, one of the most decorated books at the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards, I Am Every Good Thing and Let ‘Er Buck! written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson. Learn more about Gordon at

Did you enjoy learning about these creators? Come back next Friday to discover more.

Farewell in Four Parts

PART ONE: Celebrate

Congratulations! We made it, friends. We made it to December 2020. 

This is the final PL blog post of the year from me. (I’ll get to the concentrated gratitude in another section, but know that a current of gratitude runs throughout this entire post.)

As a New Year hurtles toward us, it’s tempting to look back and consider what we ‘accomplished’ over this past year. December scrolling reveals an internet rife with Best of awards and Year in Review lists. 

I guess that’s what our society does in December?

Are you planning to engage in a Year in Review of your own? 

My spouse and I spend every New Year’s Eve reviewing our previous 12 months and then set goals and intentions for the coming year. (This process involves snacks and champagne and occurs in the window between when the kids go to bed at 8:30pm and we go to bed at 10:30. Yes, we are the life of the party.) 

The goals we set for 2020 have been subverted, reconfigured or just crossed off the list, so I don’t think we’ll spend much time with those tattered aspirations. Instead, we plan to spend a portion of our two hour window celebrating what we achieved despite this year’s challenges and how we navigated the painful mismatch between our expectations and the reality. 

Our New Year’s Eve review has been a tradition for over a decade. It is a celebration of our most recent journey around the sun, and I love it.

Do you have a similar tradition? 

Will you reflect on your 2020 writing process? 

What will you celebrate?

Yes, celebrate.

What will you celebrate with a raised glass, a cheer, a song, a cupcake, or a pat on the back? 

Writer friends, my wish is that you find something to celebrate from your 2020 writing journey, no matter the painful mismatch between your expectations and the reality.

Celebrate, please.

If you wrote one idea on a sticky note that fell behind your fridge, celebrate it. 

If you wrote three books, a screenplay, your memoirs, and ten stage plays, celebrate those. 

If you wrote 15 well-crafted emails to your community list-serv/children’s teachers/doctors/family, then hurrah, celebrate. 

If you composed a to-do list that you never checked off, wrote GOOD MORNING SUNSHINE in lipstick on your bathroom mirror, or spelled out WASH ME through the dirt on your car window, that’s celebration worthy. 

Maybe you dashed off a few private journal entries that no one ever saw. 

Maybe you published 52 blog posts.

Maybe you discovered you are a poet not a novelist and now you write verse. 

Maybe you excelled in the chat box on Zoom.

Maybe you spent most (or all) of 2020 just…thinking. Thinking about writing. Thinking about words. Thinking about life. 

Maybe you spent most (or all) of 2020 just…feeling. A slew of feelings to carry and process and vent and sit with and burn through.

Maybe you spent most (or all) of 2020 just…existing. Growing, stretching, shrinking, breathing, sleeping, moving, dreaming, working, cleaning, watching, consuming. Maybe you tried on a lot of verbs, and none of them were ‘writing.’

That’s great. Good for you. Celebrate.

Whatever you did or did not do this year, let us celebrate the fact that we are here together. 

Let us also acknowledge that the writing process is more than putting words on the paper. 

Writing is a spectrum loop of gathering, processing, researching, considering, reading, resting, thinking, talking, revising, and so on. ‘Writing’ contains a multitude of verbs compressed. 

When I’m in a snit, when I’m feeling unkind to myself, when I’m feeling competitive or lost, I zero in on quantity — How many pages am I piling up? What’s my word count? How many pieces have I actually published/produced/made public? I zoom in tight on the quantity of the attention I’m getting — How many shares, likes, accolades, and paid gigs have I gotten and is that more or less than what I should be getting and more or less than what other people are getting? 

Yes, occasionally I find myself constrained by a very narrow and exacting definition of what it means to write and be a writer, but I’m not going there this year. 

I am NOT going there this New Year’s Eve because I know (and you know too) that writing is more global, more flexible, and all-encompassing than that. Writing is about quality too. Putting the words on the paper is only one element. Publishing is only one element. Sometimes we cannot ‘do’ all the writing. Sometimes we can attempt only a few of the verbs under the writing umbrella. That’s to be expected, and that’s ok.

There are so many of us writers, each with a unique perspective, voice, and file drawer of experiences. We may not share those perspectives, voices, and experiences, but we did share this year. We lived through this year as writers, and today I celebrate us. Cheers!

And most of all, most of all, most of all, let us celebrate the future.

Let us celebrate the writing that WE. WILL. DO.

Tonight, I raise my virtual glass to the writing that the future holds for us. 

We are walking toward it now. 

See, see, see! In the distance! 

Stories/poems/plays/essays are patiently waiting for us to arrive, and take their hands, and bring them home. 

PART TWO: Whether you are or aren’t

Looking for inspiration for when you’re not writing and for when you are writing?

Here’s a harrowing and inspiring piece by playwright Clare Barron: “Not Writing” by Clare Barron on the Playwrights Horizon website. It contains mature language and content, so beware, but if you are NOT writing, then maybe give it a read.


“….I pray that we lift up the voices that came before us. That we read our old plays and rediscover what’s there. That we allow for people to emerge at all ages. We allow for people to begin at all ages. To quit, and return again. To take breaks. And to come back to us. And we will welcome them with open arms.” ~ Clare Barron

If you ARE writing plays, then I highly recommend this piece by Ellen Lewis: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Play by Ellen Lewis on the Howlround website. I love it, and it invigorated my writing, and I wish I had written it!

Inspired by Wallace Steven’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” I began thinking about the various ways I look at a play I’m writing, as I’m writing it. Every lens reveals something different.” ~ Ellen Lewis

PART THREE: Gratitude

Thank you for connecting and for your support and encouragement.

Thank you for reading and listening. 

Thank you for helping us to build a community during a very isolating and isolated year.

Thank you for celebrating writing. Thank you for the writing you have done and the writing you will do.

Thanks  to the City of Raleigh Arts Commission, the Durham Arts Council, Orange County Arts Commission and United Arts Council of Raleigh & Wake County for sponsoring the Piedmont Laureate program, and for supporting me during this strange year. 

PART FOUR: North Carolina magic

This year, I had the honor of conversing with dozens of amazing local writers, administrators and creatives, as well as co-producing short original audio fiction written by eleven NC playwrights. You’ll see some of that goodness below. I look forward to crossing paths with and showcasing more North Carolina artists and writers in the future — there are so many, and we are so lucky to live in this place of abundant creativity.

Please click on the links below to soak up amazing North Carolina wisdom and work.

(Transcripts available upon request, please reach out to

Podcasts featuring NC writers and supporters:

Original Audio Drama:


Thank you sincerely + best wishes + safe travels wherever your writing journey takes you,


Collaborative Writing x 2


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Have you ever written with other people?

I don’t mean in the same room all quietly chipping away at your individual writing — I mean have you ever collaborated during the creation phase, writer’s room-style where you’re together breaking the story, pitching ideas, fleshing out characters, and debating storylines on a shared project? 

If you have done this, how did it go? What worked, what didn’t? What are the pros and cons? What did you learn about yourself?

If you haven’t written on a team, does that writing process interest you? How do you imagine it would go? What’s your ideal collaborative writing experience?

Under the right circumstances and with the right people for me, creative collaboration is my happiest happy place. 

Last week, I release two podcast episodes about writing collaboratively (specifically writing scripted audio fiction collaboratively). I hope these conversations offer windows into two different collaborative writing processes, including what we learned, and tips for other writers who might want to try that approach.

As you’ll hear in both episodes, there are many important ingredients for successful collaboration, including a clear process and goals, flexibility around story, and a general abundance mentality.

Collaborative writing is not the best option for all projects or for all people. However, when a writing team clicks, projects move with great speed and certainty, and participants maximize their strengths and grow in the areas in which they are less proficient. Also, creating together can be incredibly joyful, inspirational, and just plain fun.

I’ll include the links below if you’d like to listen. I’d love to hear what you think and what your experience has been.

(Transcripts available upon request. Reach out to

This is the first of two ASBX episodes about writing scripted audio fiction collaboratively. You’ll hear from the Soapbox Audio Collective Writing Team 1 that includes Juliana Finch, Mara Thomas, Katy Koop, and me, Tamara Kissane.
Together we’re writing Jesus Pancake.

132: Collaborative Writing 1: Jesus Pancake

This is the second of two ASBX episodes about writing scripted audio fiction collaboratively. You’ll hear from the Soapbox Audio Collective Writing Team 2 that includes Allan Maule, Ian Finley and me, Tamara Kissane.
Together we’re writing The Last Glacier Hotel.

133: Collaborative Writing 2: The Last Glacier Hotel

Wishing you all the best, and ever grateful for you,


A conversation with Poet Laureate and first Piedmont Laureate, Jaki Shelton Green

Breathe, write and listen to this podcast episode with our North Carolina Poet Laureate, the incredible Jaki Shelton Green. Jaki delivers restorative words, creative encouragement, and spiritual succor. It’s no accident that I released this interview on the Monday of Election Week; consider this a balm for your unease and a motivation to claim your narrative. 

Jaki muses about writing through difficult times, retreating ‘SistaWRITE style’, and her amazing new poetry album The River Speaks of Thirst.

Photo by Sylvia Freeman

Click here to read the transcript of this interview.

Listen via the Artist Soapbox website or via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and the usual podcisty-places.


Jaki Shelton Green is the first African American and third woman to be appointed as the North Carolina Poet Laureate. When he appointed her in 2018, Governor Cooper stated that “Jaki Shelton Green brings a deep appreciation of our state’s diverse communities to her role as an ambassador of North Carolina literature. Jaki’s appointment is a wonderful new chapter in North Carolina’s rich literary history.”

Her collegiate and professional experiences include currently teaching Documentary Poetry at the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies, Visiting Professor for the Carlow University MFA Program, Lenoir-Rhyne University Writer-in-Residence, Duke University Teaching for Equity Fellow, 2019 Barnard College Africana Studies Department Lewis-Ezekoye Distinguished Lecturer, 2019 UNC Chapel Hill Sonja Stone Memorial Lecturer, Taller Portobelo Artist Colony Portobelo Panama, University of Panama, Department of Cultural Resources for Brazil, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Distinguished Visiting Writer, North Carolina Turkish Association, Alhambra Cultural Center in Marrakech Morocco, NC Symphony, NC African American Cultural Heritage Commission.

She is the owner of SistaWRITE and co-partner with Dream Yourself Awake and Vertikal Creative Ventures providing writing retreats and travel excursions for women writers in Sedona Arizona, Ocracoke North Carolina, Agadir Morocco, and Tullamore Ireland.


INDYWeek: N.C. Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green’s “The River Speaks of Thirst” Reclaims Stolen Breath

Buy the album: The River Speaks of Thirst

Watch the video: Oh My Brother

INDYWeek: N.C. Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green Mourns George Floyd with “Oh My Brother”

Listen to the podcast: Creativity is Medicine: A Conversation With N.C. Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green

NC writers make a Declaration of Love

If you are looking for love, you now have access to 11 original audio varieties constructed by amazing local NC writers, actors, and directors.

The Declaration of Love audio anthology is live and ready for your ears.

Over the last four months, remotely and from our homes, we have written, rehearsed, recorded, and produced The DOL series. That’s 2 producers, 2 directors, 1 sound designer, 11 playwrights, 24 actors, 1 quarantine, and 1 writing prompt – all working together to bring you 11 short audio fiction episodes for free.

We are thrilled to share these with you as a gesture of our love.

I think I speak for everyone involved when I say that it has been a joy to connect with other artists and exercise our creative muscles during this time of isolation and dis-ease.

As I mentioned in the previous blog post, I am consistently buoyed and delighted by the abundance of creativity in our Triangle community.  In 2020, I’d hoped to spread love and joy for local playwrights and the writing process. The Declaration of Love anthology is a project that I undertook as Piedmont Laureate to live out my intention for this year. I hope it does so.

Below you’ll see the marketing blurb and links to each short episode. Scripts are embedded in the show notes if you’d like to see the raw material and/or read along. You’ll see content warnings there as well.

Enjoy, be safe, best well,


Love in space, at the seashore, in the backyard.

Love in the future, one hundred years ago, and right this very moment.

Love between family, friends, and lovers.

Broken love, silly love, healing love.

It’s all in here.

The Declaration of Love Project: Eleven original audio pieces written by NC playwrights

Co-producers Aurelia Belfield and Tamara Kissane of Artist Soapbox commissioned eleven NC playwrights to craft short audio scenes based on the prompt “Declaration of Love.”

Though the resulting original pieces span the gamut in style, setting, and content, they all spark our emotions and unleash our imagination through story and sound.

Recorded remotely by local actors, the finished scenes have been lightly sound designed by David Hill, and were released to the public on Oct 27-30, 2020.


The Gifts We Leave: Declaration of Love Episode 1

Game On: Declaration of Love Episode 2

Agape: Declaration of Love Episode 3

Stone Flower: Declaration of Love Episode 4

Love is All I Know: Declaration of Love Episode 5

Open Book: Declaration of Love Episode 6

Dangerous: Declaration of Love Episode 7

Happy Anniversary: Declaration of Love Episode 8

Stretchy Shorts: Declaration of Love Episode 9

Constellation: Declaration of Love Episode 10

Always: Declaration of Love Episode 11

Bonus Episode: A conversation with the producers of the Declaration of Love audio anthology, Aurelia Belfield and Tamara Kissane