An Interview with Denene Millner

In 2016 Chicago-based Agate Publishing announced the launch of a new line under its Bolden Books imprint dedicated to the work of African American authors. Writer, editor, journalist, and founder of the parenting website, Denene Millner began her eponymous imprint at Agate as “a love letter to children of color who deserve to see their beauty and humanity in the most remarkable form of entertainment on the planet: books.” One of her launch titles was 2017’s Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James, and winner of an impressive four ALA Youth Media Award Honor citations: Newbery, Caldecott, CSK Author, and CSK Illustrator, among other awards and accolades.

Denene Millner. Photo: Lila Chiles

Elissa Gershowitz: Congratulations on all of Crown’s love and attention.

Denene Millner: Thank you. I am alternately giddy and overwhelmed by the book’s reception. I’m so thankful that Derrick, in particular, is finally getting his due. He’s an amazing writer with a really passionate voice, an unapologetic black voice that deserves to be heard, and it was heard here. Derrick is one of the reasons I started My Brown Baby, my parenting website, in 2008. He was having trouble getting attention for his Ruby and the Booker Boys series [published by Scholastic], and I thought, “I should start a website and gather up an audience of black parents, and we can let them know that they need to support black authors who are writing these amazing stories for black children.” And here we are, ten years later.

Kim Parker: Denene, I’m black, and I have a four-year-old black boy. When I was pregnant, I was looking for blog posts written for black mothers, and I found My Brown Baby. I have your book — My Brown Baby: On the Joys and Challenges of Raising African American Children — it’s my go-to parenting manual. So it was no surprise when you started the imprint because you’ve always written for black audiences, and have always worked diligently to carve out spaces for black folks. As a new parent, I found that really helpful.

DM: Thank you for telling me that. My background is in journalism — I started as a political journalist, switched over to entertainment journalism, and then became a magazine editor, first at Honey and then at Parenting, which is where I found my passion for writing about parenting from a uniquely black perspective. My entire journalism career has focused on African Americans, shining a spotlight on us and speaking to our humanity. People would criticize me for that, saying, “Sure, you can go to Harlem, but those stories aren’t as impressive career-wise as being a correspondent in China or writing about tech or science.” I never believed that, and I never bought into it. If you’re a writer and you know how to put words together, how to interview people, how to paint a story with color and light — why not write about black people? I’ve been writing for thirty-one years. I quit my job at Parenting and moved to Atlanta in 2005, and I’ve been working for myself since then. I’ve never had a problem supporting myself writing about black people.

KP: How did you come to acquire Crown?

DM: You know what’s funny? All four books that came out in the debut year of Denene Millner Books [Crown, My Brown Baby, Early Sunday Morning, There’s a Dragon in My Closet] were previously rejected by other publishers. I had reached out to Derrick, knowing that every author has stories that nobody has read or purchased. I asked him, “What’ve you got on your computer that nobody will buy?” Derrick said, “I have a book called Crown, about how special little boys feel when they get a haircut.” He had seen a picture [illustrator] Don Tate had drawn of his son, who had just gotten a haircut, and he wrote this beautiful poem based on that picture, and that was Crown. I changed not a word. Not one word. I think we added the author’s note at the end. Derrick was happy with me as an editor because he didn’t have to explain what a do-rag was. He didn’t have to make the argument for why the text should say “black angels” instead of “angels.” He didn’t have to do any of that. I read it, totally got it, said let’s do it. And we did it.

Finding an illustrator was a task. We asked Don Tate, and his schedule was completely booked up. I reached out to probably three other illustrators before I got to Gordon — he and Derrick had worked at Hallmark together. I think we signed the contract with him at the end of October, and he handed in the illustrations by the end of December.

EG: And now you can’t really imagine anyone else as the illustrator of this book.

DM: It was meant to be. I love black art. You walk into my house, and there is no mistaking that you’ve walked into the house of a black woman. There’s Elizabeth Catlett on my walls, Tamara Natalie Madden, Ann Tanksley, April Harrison. That’s what I do when I get a check. Some people buy shoes and purses: I buy a piece of art. I long to find artists as illustrators. Charly Palmer [winner of the 2018 Coretta Scott King–John Steptoe Award for New Talent, in illustration, for Mama Africa!] is a fine artist here in Atlanta. Charly and I are friends, and I went to his studio once with an idea for a book, and we sat and talked for hours about our passions for writing and for art. And then he said, “I actually have this book that I did [with author Dorothea Taylor], like eight years ago, and nobody would buy it. Do you want to see it?” And he pulls out this fully illustrated, fully laid-out book and hands it to me. I was like, “Holy shit, are you serious?” (I curse like a sailor. This is from being a political reporter in New York City.) And that was There’s a Dragon in My Closet, the first book that I purchased.

EG: There’s a Dragon in My Closet is in my children’s school library, and our wonderful librarian has told me about how kids stop and say, “I’ve never seen a book with a brown child, who looks like me — and a dragon.”

DM: That’s exactly what my response was when he pulled it out of the box. Oh my god, it’s a little black boy, and a dragon. Hand that to me. My stepson had an imaginary friend named Mazi Boo. Mazi Boo used to always do all the crazy stuff around the house. When bad shit went down, it was Mazi Boo — blame it on Mazi Boo. So when I read There’s a Dragon in My Closet and this dragon is doing crazy stuff — the dragon is Mazi Boo. Black boys do the same things that all humans do. They get into mischief and shenanigans, and they blame it on an invisible friend. I did an exhaustive search at the time and could not find a book with a black boy and a dragon.

KP: That speaks to your New York Times opinion piece about the need for black children to see themselves in all kinds of situations. How do you balance those everyday stories with the history of — as my former students would always call it — “slavery times”? How do you make those decisions?

DM: I do not do those books. I’ve made it very clear — do not come to me with books about slavery, the civil rights movement, or black “firsts” or celebrities. I am looking for stories that speak to the everyday experiences and humanity of black children and families, outside of racial struggles, strife, and overcoming. I’m not saying those stories don’t deserve to be told, or that we should skirt history with our kids, or that we shouldn’t put those kinds of stories in front of them. But I don’t feel like I have to give that to them with every children’s book I read to them at night.

Some of our family’s favorite books, instead, spoke to everyday experiences of human beings who happened to look like them. Debbie Allen’s Dancing in the Wings, about a little girl who thinks her body is awkward and her feet are too big, and her big brothers are always making fun of her — but her big feet, long legs, wide arms, her wingspan make her the perfect ballerina. Homemade Love by bell hooks about a family who loves their child — I call my daughters Girlpie because of that book. Girlpie is not discussing what’s in her family’s bank account; that’s irrelevant to the story. Her family could be living in the most rundown apartment building in the hood or the richest house in Buckhead. The only thing that matters in the book is that this little girl is being raised by people who love her, and she loves that they love her. What child doesn’t want to have that love?

The Sun Is So Quiet by Nikki Giovanni is a collection of really sweet poems about little brown children. There’s a poem about eating chocolate and watching scary movies — what kids do. My kids loved those stories because that’s what they did at their house. They’ve always been surrounded by love. They’ve always been held in the highest regard because they’re special, and they want to see black children in their books that are special, too. That’s what you’re going to find in Denene Millner Books, every time.

What we are doing is very intentional. Windows and mirrors are important not just for brown children, but for white children too. Reading books like that provides white children with the opportunity to see brown children doing all the things that they do, having the same human experiences, so that when they go on the playground the next day at recess, and they see the little girl who looks just like Sassy in Dancing in the Wings or Girlpie in Homemade Love or Cassie Louise Lightfoot in Tar Beach, they might think, “Let me go over there and play with her.” It breaks down those walls, those barriers. I don’t want the books I publish to be just books that black people read. It’s important for everyone to read these books.

EG: How do you see Crown fitting in?

DM: If you look at Crown — the history and importance of the barbershop is legendary in the black community, and this book could open up a discussion about black barbers, their historical importance in the black community as people who are masters of beauty, men and women. The business structure that’s born of that; historically, running a black barbershop makes you one of the prominent people in the community. My picture book Early Sunday Morning [illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton] opens the door for a ripe discussion about the importance of the black church in the black community. There are all different kinds of ways that you can write history into a book that speaks to an everyday experience.

KP: Often I’ll hear, oh, we don’t have those books. You are steadily saying, here, you do have these books. And what I really appreciate with Crown, too, is that I go to barbershops. And in Crown there’s a woman in there, in the picture, and I was like, “Yes! We get our hair cut, too.”

DM: We ran aground of some folks who thought Crown would be a hard sell because kids wouldn’t like seeing all the adults pictured in the book. Really? Have you ever seen a barbershop with just little kids in it? That’s the reality of getting your hair cut in a black barbershop — you’re a little fly on the wall, amongst grown men talking about grown man things. And occasionally, there’s going to be a woman in there.

EG: What is the publishing structure like at your parent company, Agate? Do you have a lot of interaction with them? Do you have autonomy?

DM: Doug [Seibold, president and founder of Agate Publishing] is an angel. He is just everything. He opened the door and said, “Here are your wings; go for it.” My job is to find the stories and bring them back and edit them and find the illustrator, and then he has a phenomenal team. We all work together to create the marketing and publicity materials and get the sales group on board. We coordinate with doing the social media. It’s a small but scrappy team. They teach me a lot of things, and I’ve been able to take the knowledge and, with their help, do what I do.

KP: What’s challenging about your new role as publisher of an imprint?

DM: Authors and illustrators know they can probably get way more money elsewhere, but I think the success of our first year shows what you can do even with a little bit of money. And I get it, because, putting my author’s hat on, you want a good advance. But putting my publisher’s hat on, at Agate the advance may be small, but if we do what we’re supposed to do and we sell those books, you’re getting it on the other end. Some folks are willing to hear that. Charly had never illustrated a book, and he comes along and does There’s a Dragon in My Closet and Mama Africa! and wins the Steptoe Award. And Gordon, who had illustrated one picture book [Campy: The Story of Roy Campanella by David A. Adler], wins a Caldecott Honor and a CSK Illustrator Honor and a Society of Illustrators Award and an Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Honor and every other doggone award. Derrick is now traveling all over the country talking about Crown and has a Newbery Honor, a CSK Author Honor, and an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award under his belt.

KP: He’s got all the stickers. I love that.

DM: Seven! Those doors were opened by little old Agate, who didn’t have a whole lot of money up front, but Gordon and Derrick said okay, fine, we want to do this. And they did it, and now they will never be starving for work again.

KP: So, that was maybe the best debut year ever. What will you do now?

DM: We have a beautiful board book coming out — What Is Light? by Markette Sheppard. It was really difficult, when my babies were babies, to find board books that feature black characters. What Is Light? is a gorgeous story, very simple and spare, about all of the different ways that children experience light in their world. You see it in a turtledove. You see it in a butterfly, a firefly. It’s in the sky. It’s in your mommy’s eye. The way that you say hello to a friend. And it ends with an illustration of a child looking in the mirror, seeing the light in his or her own face. Oftentimes the only thing we think about with black males — the way that Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and so many others were portrayed. Nobody saw light in their faces in the seconds it took for their lives to be taken away. And then the way they were portrayed in the media as the architects of their own death — nobody sees light [see also Christopher Myers's "Young Dreamers"]. They only see darkness. When I look at black children, I see nothing but light. When Markette Sheppard sent that book, and I got to that last page, I thought, “Oh hell yeah. Let’s go ahead and buy that one.” And then this fantastic illustrator, Cathy Ann Johnson, came out of retirement — she said, “I’ll do it; this is a beautiful story, absolutely.”

EG: And you’re working with mainly black book creators?

DM: We work exclusively with African American authors and illustrators. I do that because the numbers don’t lie. The numbers have us at around 3500 children’s books in 2017, and only a hundred or so were written or illustrated by black people [according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s annual statistics]. That’s ridiculous. If no one else is going to open the door, I’ll make a point of opening my door, my windows, my garage, everything, to black authors and illustrators. And we get beautiful stories sent to us by people other than African Americans. It pains me to say no, but we have a very specific mission, and that is to provide opportunities where they do not exist for African American authors and illustrators.

From the July/August 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2018.

Kim Parker and Elissa Gershowitz

Dr. Kim Parker is Director of the Crimson Summer Academy at Harvard University, and co-chair for the Books for Black Children and Youth initiative of the Boston Network for Black Student Achievement. Elissa Gershowitz is editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc.

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