Made in Memphis

Alice Faye Duncan is a National Board Certified Library Media Specialist with 19 years of school librarian experience. Surrounded by stacks and shelves of books, writing for children seemed like the next logical step in her career. And she certainly knows how to capture the attention of her readers. The award-winning Memphis native has written five books: Willie Jerome; Miss Viola and Uncle Ed Lee; The National Civil Rights Museum Celebrates Everyday People; Christmas Soup; and Honey Baby Sugar Child.

In high school, Alice read two books that changed her life. “To Be Young Gifted and Black by Lorraine Hansberry helped me fall in love with myself. Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla My Love made me fall in love with words.” Alice believes everyone has a story to tell and if you’re an aspiring writer who wants to write that story she says, “Feel free to scream and cry about the writing process. But whatever you do, DON’T GIVE UP!” Alice doesn’t and is currently working on a picture book about blues great, B.B. King.

The following is a narrative of Alice's life as a writer—told in her own words:

From the Beginning

In 1991, I graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville with a degree in Library Science. During my studies at UT, I took a couple of classes in children’s literature. I tried writing a picture book during that time but was completely unsuccessful. While working for the Memphis Public Library, I took another children’s literature class from Mrs. Ramona Mahood at the University of Memphis. She was an inspiring teacher who allowed me to write a picture book for my graduate project. That manuscript was Willie Jerome, which became my first publication with Simon & Schuster in 1995. Tyrone Geter was the illustrator. I have not stopped writing since that time.

The Inspiration

My mother was an elementary school teacher who kept every college book she ever purchased. Our house was filled with bookshelves; and as an only child, who often rambled through the shelves for something to read, I found three favorite poets at a very early age. They were Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou. I loved them when I was ten years old, and I love them now at forty. In terms of fine artists who inspire me, one day I would like to purchase a painting by Kadir Nelson and a sculpture by Vinnie Bagwell. Here in the city of Memphis, I collect work by local African American artists such as Frank D. Robinson, Morris Howard, Darlene Newman and Carl Moore.

I can’t draw a stick! However, art is my muse and my addiction. In fact, when I am short on inspiration, I seek out art museums or documentaries about artists. I recently viewed Radiant Child, which is about the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat. His work came across as simplistic, but it was most thoughtful and well planned—just like a great picture book.

The Back Story

My most recent book is Honey Baby Sugar Child. It is a mother’s love song to her young child. I hear that my book is a very popular gift at baby showers and birthday parties for preschoolers. Honey Baby Sugar Child is presently in its 6th printing. Its publication was somewhat circuitous. In 1999, I sent the manuscript to my Simon & Schuster editor, who left the company shortly after receiving it. The new editor found it tucked away in the old editor’s drawer. He liked it and offered me a contract. An original publication date was set and changed. Finally, Honey Baby Sugar Child was released in 2005 and remains in print.

The Buzz

In 2006, Honey Baby Sugar Child received an NAACP Image Award Nomination for Outstanding Literary Work for Children.

The State of the Industry

I did not choose writing. It chose me. However, what I write does not frequently excite my agent or major publishing houses. For periods in my career, this type of rejection has made me doubt my talent. However, I recently had a new revelation. Yes, self-publishing is hard as heck. But there are times when a burning manuscript will not be denied, and you must publish it yourself. Religious folks might compare this to a Jeremiah experience. It’s like fire in your bones. Though the powers that be say, “No, that’s not it,” your soul says otherwise. On my own, I recently published The Delta Blues. This coloring book is a big hit with children and adults. It is the first blues book of its kind. As for The Civil Rights Movement: A Puzzle Book for Children, within three months, I sold 3,000 copies through school visits, social networking and my presence on the Web. Writing and selling books is far from easy. However, my soul is satisfied.