It wasn’t until JaNay Brown-Wood reread her award-winning authorial debut that she realized her journey as a writer paralleled her protagonist’s quest to touch the moon.
Talk about a story that jumps off the page.
Brown-Wood (2011, M.A. Child Development) is the author of Imani’s Moon, a children’s book about a young girl in a Maasai village in Africa on a lunar adventure in the face of jeering peers and taunting animals.
It is a folkloric tale with themes of perseverance and determination that have resonated with children around the country —and it almost didn’t happen.
As she searched for a publisher, Brown-Wood received stacks of rejection letters, some of which didn’t even include her name, before she entered Imani’s Moon into the National Association of Elementary School Principals’ Children’s Book of the Year competition. The story, Brown-Wood’s first, won the grand prize: a publication contract.
“You have to get your ‘no’s’, and all those ‘no’s’ allow you to refine your work, refine your craft, and then finally get that final product that you feel is ready to go,” she says. “All the ‘no’s’ are just part of the journey.”
And what a journey it has been. Brown-Wood has been a creative writer from a young age, but it was always her dream to become a published author. She grew up in Fresno and earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from UCLA. But it wasn’t until she moved to Sacramento to pursue a master’s in childhood development at Sacramento State that she decided to bring her lifelong dream to life and “to go full-steam,” she says.
Published by Charlesbridge Publishing, Imani’s Moon was one of the most celebrated children’s books of 2014-15. It was named one of the Top 2014 Mighty Girl Books for Young Readers, a Northern California Association of Children’s Librarians Distinguished Book for 2014, and a Reading Is Fundamental 2015 Multicultural Book. Live Oak Media turned Brown-Wood’s story into an audiobook, which was subsequently named Best Audiobook for Children in 2015.
Brown-Wood, who is also a professor at American River College, says that having a deep knowledge of early childhood development from her studies at Sacramento State allows her to capture and create more authentic characters, dialogue, and issues that are true to her readers’ demographic.
“With Imani, bullying is a big issue,” she says. “And with Imani, teachers can use that to start the conversation about it.”
Another conversation the author is facilitating is the relative lack of diversity in children’s literature. According to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, only 24 percent of books received by the CCBC in 2015 were by or about people of color. This issue is especially important to Brown-Wood, who is trying to move the needle by telling stories about characters who are more representative of the nation’s diverse makeup.
“Children need to see themselves reflected in books no matter what their race or ethnicity, no matter what their ability level,” Brown-Wood says. “We’re moving toward a better representation, but it’s far from it in my opinion at this point.”
Brown-Wood will have the opportunity to continue to further whatever discussion she chooses: Her next book, Grandma’s Tiny House, is due out summer or fall 2017 from the same publisher.
“It has just been highs and highs and highs that make me realize how blessed I am to be able to do this thing I’ve wanted to do for so long,” Brown-Wood says, “and to receive some accolades and so much success from it, it’s just indescribable.”