A Conversation with Ibi Zoboi

Ibi Zoboi has published short stories, essays, articles, and one picture book. She's received grants from the Brooklyn Arts Council and she works as a Writer-in-Residence in New York City public schools. Ibi is finishing up her MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is working on two YA novels, a middle grade, and a non-fiction picture book. She was nice enough to answer some questions about her new project, the Brooklyn Blossoms Book Club. The Blossoms' inaugural event will be a reading and signing with Rita Williams-Garcia on August 31.

Tell me about Brooklyn Blossoms Book Club! What's your ultimate plan for the book club? Who will be a part of it?

Well, the cutesy little name was my daughters' idea. They're ten and eight and they read lots, of course. I'm in the Writing for Children & Young Adults program at VCFA so my bookshelf is full of picture books, middle grade, and YA titles. My daughters are lucky to own nearly every single book featuring a black girl as its main character. I'm in a position to know what those titles are. Most folks are not. My daughters' friends' parents are not aware of what's out there for their daughters. When I read a good book that I know will empower a girl in some way, I want to hand out free copies at a schoolyard or something. That's how I felt about Rita Williams-Garcia's One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven. I just happen to have daughters who fit the age range for those books, and they have friends. So the Brooklyn Blossoms Book Club was inevitable.

But it's more than just a book club, of course. It's more of literacy initiative aimed at underserved girls in Brooklyn. By underserved, I mean the girls from neighborhoods with poorly funded libraries and no independent bookstore in sight. I want to hold book events in community centers or playgrounds and make certain books accessible to those who need them the most. I want our local libraries to be safe spaces for girls. Some libraries in Brooklyn are so underutilized. There are more young people waiting in line to use computers than there are sitting at tables reading books. It's not uncommon to see a girl making out in the corner of the library. I once a stopped a fight that was about to happen right on the steps of my local branch. I think the library staff spends more time babysitting than actually being librarians.

I want these girls to develop critical thinking and writing skills from book discussions. I want them to create skits from these books, make themed art projects, write book reviews, and interview authors on camera. I want literacy to be a multidisciplinary, engaging, and fun experience. I need these girls to begin to examine how they are portrayed and perceived in stories, and in the media in general, through the lens of picture books, middle grade, and YA titles. Ultimately, I want these girls to let the world know that they're brilliant, they have their own opinions, and they have the final say on what images and ideas they want to claim for themselves.

What drew you to organizing a project like this? What do you think storytelling can offer kids, especially kids who aren't used to seeing their own stories reflected in the media around them?

The one thing that we have all inherited as children is stories. Everything around us is the product of somebody's story, narrative, and mythology. For my grad thesis, I'm writing about girls of color in speculative fiction (sci-fi and fantasy) middle grade and young adult novels. Yes, I can count all such titles on both hands and maybe one foot. Both realistic and fantastic stories that feature girls of color can have a tremendous affect on how they see themselves within the larger narrative where nerdy white boys or even white girls with long flowing hair and princess dresses save the day. Even if we have more stories like this, those books have to get into the hands of girls whose English teachers don't have a clue, or whose libraries are not safe spaces, or the closest bookstore is a bus ride and several subway stops away.

You're a writer and a mom, and you've done a lot of community work with kids and young adults both in New York and in Haiti--how do all those different pieces of your life fit together?

Because I'm a writer and a mom, they all fit seamlessly together. I've invested a lot of time and money (read: MFA) into my writing. I'm writing about black girls, Haitian girls, immigrant girls. I don't really want to teach college or sit in an Ivory Tower discussing diversity in children's literature. I like grassroots organizing. That's where seeds can be planted.

How can we support Brooklyn Blossoms?

By support, do you mean money? Yes, money, please. Thank you. There are certain books that I think every African American, Latina, or immigrant girl should own. Chances are, buying books and building a home library is not a priority for many families. I'm thinking, you know how those charities have you sponsor a cow for a child in some village in a third world country? A book collection can be like a cow, yes? I'm in the process of setting that up. I'm in the baby stages where I have to see what the response is and how many participants I get.

What books did you read when you were a kid? And what are some books you've read and loved lately?

I didn't read a lot as a kid. I watched Norman Lear sitcoms instead. My mother was an immigrant and a single mother. I spent the early part of childhood in a neighborhood with no bookstore and it wasn't safe for little girls to go skipping to the library on their own. When I was about ten, my mother had brought home a pile of those Little Golden Books and shelved them right above the Encyclopedia Britannicas. She'd make me turn off the TV and tell me to read a book. Those two collections were my only options. I remember Judy Blume's books and the Chronicles of Narnia from my Catholic school's library. I didn't care for those. I wanted a book to tell me how to outwit my schoolyard tormentors. Not like those girls in Blume's Blubber, but books with real black girl, neck-rolling, finger-snapping sass.

I just love Virginia Hamilton's whole body of work, starting with Zeely. I recently read Nancy Farmer's A Girl Named Disaster and wish I'd read it much sooner. Rita Williams-Garcia's Jumped, One Crazy Summer, and P.S. Be Eleven. Nnedi Okorafor presents such rich, authentic, and complex futuristic African settings in Zahrah the Windseeker and Akata Witch. Coe Booth's Kendra, Meg Medina's Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, Guadalupe Garcia McCall's Summer of the Mariposas, and Alaya Dawn Johnson's The Summer Prince are my recent faves.