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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Group Interview: The Sowing Circle sisterhood

Often my interviews take the form of one author or illustrator or another. Today, I am very pleased to be interviewing not simply one creator but a whole group at once. The Sowing Circle is a sisterhood of Southern Black writers. And, in their own words, the group mission is to “sow affirming words and images in the hearts of children in order to reap a generation that is inquisitive, empathetic and enlightened”. Now these same circle members have combined efforts to organize a blog tour and promote their four new picture books, all of which release on January 14, 2020. 

Sowing Circle members include:

Tameka Fryer Brown (BROWN BABY LULLABY)      Charlotte NC

Alice Faye Duncan (JUST LIKE A MAMA)                         Memphis TN

Kelly Starling Lyons (DREAM BUILDER)           Raleigh NC

Vanessa Brantley Newton (JUST LIKE ME)        Charlotte NC

And now, in their own words . . .

Why is your new book important to young readers?

Alice Faye Duncan  

All children do not live with their biological parents.There should be no stigma or shame in this. JUST LIKE A MAMA celebrates children who are “chosen” and cherished by adoptive mothers, foster guardians, and kinfolk like grandmothers, big sisters and aunts. I call my book, “A Celebration of the Unacknowledged Auntie.” They step-up and fill-in for biological mothers on the regular. JUST LIKE A MAMA is intentional to  affirm children living without their biological parents. And at the same time, it inspires empathy and understanding in the hearts of young readers, who do not share this experience.     

Tameka Fryer Brown  

I was inspired to write BROWN BABY LULLABY during a moment of nostalgia about my children’s “baby days”. I was remembering how pure and uncomplicated they were. I was also motivated by a desire to pen a love letter to brown-skinned babies (and children) everywhere, as our society doesn’t show them the love they deserve.  

After reading BROWN BABY LULLABY, I hope Black and brown children feel seen, valued, and loved. I hope children who aren’t Black or brown receive the message that Black and brown lives are both valued and valuable, loved and lovable, equally and unconditionally as human as they are. These are seeds that, if tended consistently in the hearts of our little ones, will produce a generation less tainted by racial bias than ours is, than past generations have been. This would mean the world for all of us.  

Vanessa Brantley Newton

JUST LIKE ME says it all. Children believe nobody feels the way they do. Or, they think nobody understands how they feel. This is especially true with the turmoil going on in America. Little ones see grownups fighting for high TV ratings. They see teenagers acting badly for the camera. This behavior speaks crashing volumes. Children soon believe, “I must act badly, be unkind, and say mean things in order to be seen.” JUST LIKE ME is a dose of positivity. I use poetry to say kindness is strength. Unity is power and compassion is courage. JUST LIKE ME is also Girl Power. It explores the simple joy of friendship between girls.

My host of characters express different skin tones, sizes, and styles of hair. And as they explore their differences, they also discover matters of the heart make each of them the same. My new book is my message of self-acceptance and appreciation for others.     

Kelly Starling Lyons  

Young readers need to know there are no limits on what they can achieve. In DREAM BUILDER: THE STORY OF ARCHITECT PHILIP FREELONthey see an African-American boy who loved to draw and build models, but struggled with reading. Through the support of his family and community, hard work and cultural pride, young Phil Freelon grew up and became an architect who made the world brighter by the beautiful museums and spaces he designed.  

I want kids to know that just like Phil, all of their experiences – tough and triumphant – lead them to their calling. My husband is a member of the 100 Black Men chapter Phil helped to found. Their motto is “What they see is what they’ll be.” The pinnacle of Phil’s career was being the lead architect for the National Museum of African American History & Culture. I hope DREAM BUILDER shows kids they can overcome challenges, dream big and make a difference just like Phil.    

What is your advice for librarians and educators who want to write picture books?

Alice Faye Duncan  

Classic picture books that survive the course of time are lyrical and filled with emotion. I say that a picture book is a protracted poem in book form. Therefore, if a librarian or educator aspires to write for young readers, I advise them to read poetry.  My favorite poets are Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and Eloise Greenfield. Specifically, Gwendolyn Brooks serves spunky and supreme alliterations. Her metaphors–palpable. Study Brooks like a book. As for the writer’s “sacred text,” creatives who are aspiring to write or illustrate books for kids must own a personal copy of the–CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET. This inexpensive reference tool counts the steps one should take toward writing and selling a book for young readers. 

Tameka Fryer Brown  

Read critically. Join SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) at Study the craft of writing diligently. As long as you still desire to be a published children’s book author, don’t give up!  

Vanessa Brantley Newton  

Don’t delay.  Get busy writing and rewriting. You have a captive audience, ready to hear something new. When you have written and rewritten your story, share it with children in your library. Don’t share before you have revised the draft to a shiny gleam. Test your story out and study how it is received. It is not enough to read your stories to family and friends, who eat your food and share your last name. They don’t want to hurtyour feelings. However, children in the library might be truthful and say when your story is working and when it is not. Study the books on your library shelves. Recall the drama and delight of an ordinary school day. There goes your next best seller!  

Kelly Starling Lyons  

I love to pass along advice I received early in my journey to create children’s books – write the story only you can tell. Those words of wisdom were shared by Patricia Lee Gauch at the Writers Workshop at Chautauqua. It has been more than 14 years since I heard them, but they continue to live in my heart. Librarians and educators have a unique vantage point. Their work surrounds them with children. Dip into that well and write stories inspired by what you see and wonder that are informed by who you are.    

How can teachers and librarians use your book to engage the school curriculum?

Alice Faye Duncan

JUST LIKE A MAMA is a great read aloud for any story-time occasion because the text is spare and rhythmic, while it also explores the joy of a loving home mixed with a childhood grumblings about green veggies and cleaning a junky bedroom. As for curriculum themes, JUST LIKE A MAMA is suited for March when schools and libraries celebrate Women’s History Month. It is also suited for the month of May when schools and libraries celebrate Mother’s Day.   

Tameka Fryer Brown

BROWN BABY LULLABY is an energetic, rhyming read-aloud that would be great for any story time activity. Use with lessons about families, routines, self-awareness and identity (i.e., what makes us unique/special), and rhyme. The Spanish words sprinkled throughout, combined with other cultural references in the text make this contemporary title a mirror book for Black and brown children. Such are important to incorporate in various ways throughout the entire school year. And of course, it’s a good right-before-naptime read.    

Vanessa Brantley Newton

JUST LIKE ME is a conversation starter for a variety of topics like friendship, self-image, self-acceptance, racial unity and kindness. Poetry has no age limit here. Pick one poem or pick several poems to highlight a theme for your curriculum or occasion.  As I am a singer and speaker, I encourage you to offer students in the library an opportunity to memorize and perform JUST LIKE ME poems.  

Kelly Starling Lyons

DREAM BUILDER shows the power of STEAM exposure, family and community support and finding your unique learning style. Educators and librarians can explore all of those areas through discussion, writing and related activities.    In celebrating STEAM, they can give kids inexpensive balsa wood models of planes. How easy is it to create them with the instructions? What about without them? They can take them outside and ask them to close their eyes like Pop Pop asked Phil to do. What do they hear? smell? feel? To focus on family and community, kids can write “Where I’m From” poems, personal narratives or create collages. For celebrating unique learning styles, there can be a discussion of what helps material connect most with individual students – listening, seeing, writing or a combination of all three. My publisher, Lee & Low, will be creating a teacher’s guide with more ideas. Visit the Dream Builder page here –    

Describe your happy writing place?

Alice Faye Duncan  

My favorite place to write is the bay window in my living room. My neighborhood is urban, but quiet. There is no great drama on my Memphis street and I can write in peace. My favorite time to write is two hours before day break. There is something about the stillness of the pitch black morning that primes my mind and makes me ready to wrestle with a manuscript. I have tried coffee shops, libraries, hotels, airports and airplanes. I have tried beach front properties. And still–my greatest inspiration is my nothing-happening street.   

Tameka Fryer Brown

My bedroom, in my bed, with my computer on my lap. Alone. Comfortable and sans distraction.  Of course, when I’m in the zone, I can write anywhere.  

Vanessa Brantley Newton  

I am a writer and illustrator.  When it is time to create, I welcome any moment of quiet with pen, paper, and a tape recorder. Dyslexia cannot win!  Therefore, I use a tape recorder to notate ideas and poems as they come to me.  My favorite work spaces include Barnes & Noble, my home office, my library and my car.    

Kelly Starling Lyons  

The morning hush is magic. In the wee hours before everyone is awake, the house is quiet but my thoughts are loud. That’s the perfect time to sit down at my computer and let my mind create. Often my stories are being written in my head long before my fingers touch the keyboard. As the sun rises and paints the sky, I let all it all out on the page.    

What fuels your writing powers?

Alice Faye Duncan  

When it comes to writing non-fiction, I search for obscure historical figures that have gone uncelebrated. Photographs, museums and books point me in their direction. When it comes to fiction such as JUST LIKE  A MAMA, I pull inspiration from my life and people I know. Names also give me super writing powers. I went to school with a boy named “Willie Jerome.”  I was so enamored with his name that I titled my very first picture book after him. That was 1995. And from that full-bodied name I drew on its energy and spirit to give my main character a living soul. I don’t have a story until I have the main character’s name.      

Tameka Fryer Brown  

I still do my best writing by muse. When a great idea hits, I go into a writing frenzy. I should be better at “butt in chair at least three hours a day” by now, but….  

Practically speaking, peace and quiet fuels my writing powers. I produce my best work in complete silence. If anyone knows of a good writing retreat on the east coast at the beach, please let me know.      

Vanessa Brantley Newton  

Music fuels my writing powers and my painting powers too. My playlist starts with ANYTHING by Snarky Puppy.  I love Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” PJ Morton’s “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,”makes me happy as does music by Prince and the “Happy Feet” soundtrack. The Doobie Brothers’ “Minute by Minute” is an oldie but goodie that sends me singing. Besides music, recalling and remembering times past moves my pen to write or I pick up the tape recorder.   

Kelly Starling Lyons  

My writing powers are fueled by imagination, memory, wondering and connection. A news article online may pique my interest like it did when I saw a headline about “dinosaur dance floors.” That inspired my fanciful picture book, ONE MORE DINO ON THE FLOOR. Or maybe it’s a visit to a museum where I see a piece of history I didn’t know like discovering the story behind Lift Every Voice & Sing at the Ritz Theatre & Museum in Jacksonville, Florida. That inspired my picture book, SING A SONG. Sometimes I feel the ancestors leading me to remember, reflect and write like when I wrote GOING DOWN HOME WITH DADDY about family heritage and reunions. My powers are activated when I’m open and ready to receive.

A thousand thanks to these creative artists for taking time out to talk with me.

Want to learn more? Librarians can visit the collective at

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Judy Weymouth says:

    I was a child in the 1950s who would have greatly appreciated and identified with Just Like a Mama. However, I am white and 65+ years ago we all know the chances I would have encountered such a wonderful book. Thank God for change and progress. Thank God for diversity. Thank you, Betsy for highlighting the contributions of these four amazing writers. ALL children stand to benefit from exposure to these books.

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