Zetta Elliott on Starting Her Own Imprint & Character Development in Children's Fiction

Zetta Elliott discusses addressing complex topics in children's fiction, starting her own imprint, Rosetta Press, and what she'll address in her upcoming keynote at indieLAB.
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Zetta Elliott is the author of 30 books for young readers, including the award-winning picture book Bird, as well as a YA and speculative fiction author; a poet whose work has been published in several anthologies; an essayist forThe Huffington PostSchool Library Journaland Publishers Weekly; and a playwright whose plays have been staged in New York and Chicago. She started her own imprint, Rosetta Press, under which she publishes her books featuring culturally relevant stories about children who have been marginalized, misrepresented, and/or rendered invisible in traditional children’s literature. This October, her middle-grade fantasy novel Dragons in a Bag will be realeased from Random House.

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Here, she discusses addressing complex topics in children's fiction, starting her own imprint, Rosetta Press, and what she'll address at indieLAB, the all-new writing conference for entrepreneurial authors and writers.

The range and volume of work you have produced is incredibly impressive. As an author, a poet, a playwright, an essayist (and more), which form do you primarily prefer working in and why?

To be honest, I don’t have a preferred form. Writing across genres is fun and empowering—and liberating! Because when a story idea comes to me, or I hear a particular character’s voice speaking to me, I know I have a range of options—is this a script? For stage or screen? Could I tell a story more effectively in verse?

I have a collection of poems coming out next year with Hyperion: Say Her Name. I wanted to represent the challenges and triumphs of Black girls and women, but I don’t primarily identify as a poet; trying new formats helps me grow as a writer and it better serves my characters and my readers, I think. That book of poems will be illustrated, and most of my books for young readers also feature full-color illustrations. I prefer to work alone most of the time, but I like choosing collaborators and have learned a lot from the artists and designers I’ve met.

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What elements are essential to creating compelling children's fiction?

Illustrations are important, but they really only enhance a story that’s already engaging. All good stories are about voice, I think. Kids like action, and humor, and a tale that’s thrilling, but first they need to care about the characters. I learned about a decade ago that it’s possible to be a good writer but not a very good storyteller. I was putting a lot of energy into crafting exquisite sentences, but kids don’t really care about that; it’s not their priority, at least.

Telling a good story requires a different kind of focus, and I can’t really begin until I have a clear sense of who my characters are—what challenges they face, their strengths and limitations, their likely allies. I teach creative writing to kids as well, and having to break down the elements of good storytelling is a useful exercise for me as well. Kids need to invest in the protagonist’s motives if they’re going to cheer for them. I’ve often been told my stories are “too sad” but I think kids appreciate realistic narratives—and almost all kids have faced difficult situations in their lives. They need tools to navigate their own circumstances, and sometimes stories can provide them.

What led you to launch Rosetta Press, and what have you learned from that experience?

Technically I don’t run a press, but CreateSpace allows you to list an imprint and so I developed a set of objectives for Rosetta Press. I don’t publish the work of other writers, but my own work tries to achieve these goals:

  1. To generate culturally relevant stories that center children who have been marginalized, misrepresented, and/or rendered invisible in children’s literature.
  2. To produce affordable, high-quality books so that families—regardless of income—can build home libraries that will enhance their children’s academic success.
  3. To produce a steady supply of compelling, diverse stories that will nourish the imagination and excite even reluctant readers.

Self-publishing has taught me to trust my voice. When editors reject your work over and over again, it’s easy to think there’s something wrong with the way you see the world. But my indie titles have been embraced and valued by so many readers, and educators, and librarians—one was even selected by the Scripps National Spelling Bee! Your work can’t circulate and enrich others’ lives if it’s in your drawer or sitting on the hard drive. Give it a chance to live in the world.

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How do you think the publishing industry has changed recently? In what ways is taking an entrepreneurial approach to a writing career beneficial in today's publishing environment?

I don’t think the industry has changed at all. True transformation isn’t likely to happen without a drastic change in publishing personnel. The current industry gatekeepers don’t come from my community and don’t know much about my culture, so it doesn’t make sense for me to pursue only that path to publication. I have sixteen picture book manuscripts and my agent keeps sending them out, but I’m always prepared to go the self-publishing route if editors don’t share my sense of urgency about a story.

My priority isn’t making money, and as an entrepreneur I can put people first. I decided long ago not to rely on royalties to pay my rent, and that frees me to publish whatever I want. I earn a living through a combination of royalties/advances and speaking fees from conferences, campus talks, and school visits. By not putting all my eggs in one basket, I’m free to take risks and make choices based on my own particular priorities.

What are you working on right now?

Too many things! I just finished a writing guide for educators that I plan to self-publish in September. We’re revising the poetry collection, and I’ve got two picture books in development. My middle grade fantasy novel Dragons in a Bag comes out in October and we’re finishing the revisions on its sequel, The Dragon Thief.

I’m collaborating with a friend on a chapter book series, and still writing poems as they come to me. And I just moved to Philly with several story ideas already plotted. My Viking novel keeps getting pushed back but I hope to make it over to Sweden next year to conduct research.

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Is there a book or author that inspired you to be a writer or has had a particular influence on your work?

It was a person rather than a book—my high school English teacher, Nancy Vichert, encouraged me to become a writer when I was thirteen. Up until then I’d been writing for school assignments, and I was always a voracious reader, but I didn’t know you could just decide to write and make it your profession. Once I gave myself permission to write for myself and stopped looking to others for approval, everything opened up. I didn’t have access to writers of color when I was growing up, so discovering Toni Morrison and Jamaica Kincaid in college was a revelation. I started seeking out more books by Black authors and then understood I was part of a tradition of Black women writing about their world.

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Can you give us a brief idea of what you'll talk about in your keynote at indieLAB?

I want to encourage people to think of storytelling as much more than a way to make money. Sharing your story can be therapeutic, empowering, educational—it isn’t always about selling thousands of books. In most cultures, stories are meant to connect people; it’s a way of building and maintaining community. So when I look at the current industry and consider all the voices that are being excluded, I have to wonder what that does to our ability to relate to one another. This is a nation of dreamers and I think our communities would be stronger if more of us found the courage to share our unique stories.

Learn more about Zetta Elliott at zettaelliott.com, and join us at indieLAB September 29–30 in Cincinnati to hear her enthralling keynote.

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