By Christine Lively
Today we’re pleased to welcome Tiffany D. Jackson to the WNDB blog to discuss her picture book Santa in the City, out November 2, 2021!
A little girl’s belief in Santa is restored in this ode to the magic of Christmas.
It’s two weeks before Christmas, and Deja is worried that Santa might not be able to visit her–after all, as a city kid, she doesn’t have a chimney for him to come down and none of the parking spots on her block could fit a sleigh, let alone eight reindeer! But with a little help from her family, community, and Santa himself, Deja discovers that the Christmas spirit is alive and well in her city.
With bold, colorful illustrations that capture the joy of the holidays, this picture book from award-winning author Tiffany D. Jackson and illustrator Reggie Brown is not to be missed.
The book is a memoir in part. How did this story develop from your life into a book?
It is definitely part memoir. When I was growing up, particularly in Brooklyn in the nineties, it was a pretty rough area. My mom really went out of her way to ensure that I still believed in Santa despite everything that was going on around us. I was a kid who had a lot of questions, so I always asked, “Well, how will Santa get in our apartment?” and my mom was the one who came up with the answer that Santa has keys like our building’s super, and he can get into all of the apartments all over the world. She had everyone in on what was happening—even our landlord would be like, “Yeah, Santa parks on the roof. Only adults are allowed on the roof which is why you never see him on the roof.” And I am still this way, everything has to make logical sense to me, and at the time, that made logical sense to me. “Right, I can’t go on the roof because I’m a child.” It was to the point where even if kids tried to be like, “You’re being dumb. There is no Santa.” I literally would hit them with these facts, and they would be like, “Oh…” I used to be like, “Oh, Santa probably doesn’t come to you because you’re bad.” So, I was like the ruiner.
So fast forward to a couple of years ago, I was sitting at a conference with Laurel Snyder, and we were talking about picture books and how they seemed so hard to me because they have so little words and they have to rhyme or tell a story, and I don’t really have a story to tell. We kept talking, and I said, “I don’t really have a story to tell. Well, other than this thing that happened when I was little.” She was like, “That’s a whole book! What are you talking about? That’s amazing!” Just the idea that I believed in Santa until I was eleven. My mom kept that going until I was double digits. So, with Laurel’s encouragement I thought, “OK, let me try this.” And, the story was born.
It’s different for me, obviously than other things that I’ve ever written, but I am so in love with this book, but I am also like, this was definitely a challenge.
So would writing another picture book give you pause?
You know, I’m working on the second one, and it does give me pause. I really give picture book writers a whole lot of props because to put an entire story—an entire world in under one thousand words—is insane to me. You know, I like to build up. I like to kind of have moments and breadth, and you get to know the characters, and in a picture book you can’t do that. You have to put so much into so few words. So, I feel like picture book writers are the most brilliant of the children’s writers because they are able to craft meticulously in such few words.
The pictures are gorgeous. I love that it seemed like a kind of love letter to New York.
Yeah, it definitely was. You know, as city kids we never really had many examples of what it’s like to have Christmas in a city. We only had picture books that had houses with chimneys and snow. The movies always had these gorgeous huge houses in neighborhoods that were decked out and decorated. Even me growing up, Home Alone was one of our mainstay movies, and even as a child I would think, “Man, they must have been millionaires. They’re going away for Christmas. That’s nuts!” Their neighborhood was full of big houses that were decked out. That was something that we never experienced. So, not having those examples to build our imagination on meant that a lot of the magic of Christmas is stifled. I wanted to make sure that city kids who grew up like me have something to hold onto—to point and be like, “That is my experience” which I think is the ultimate goal of most writers of diverse backgrounds—to give kids those mirrors, and to see themselves on the page. When we talk about diversity, we’re not just talking about diversity of race and color, but also diversity of living circumstances. I felt like I never really saw a lot of picture books, or stories take place in apartments. I grew up in apartments. My entire family grew up in apartments—either in the projects or in apartment buildings. Nobody had a home until I was way deep in high school. To me, that’s important because there are so many other kids who are just like me who grew up in and are still in apartments. I’m still in an apartment!
The pictures are so beautiful! It made me wish I had been in a big city for Christmas because it seems so special. There’s a lovely scene where they go shopping for presents, and the city is spectacular. Then, they put up lights in the window so Santa can find them, and that seemed so special—to think that Santa had to look through the city to find that one child.
I feel like New York is such a special place around Christmas because we have our giant tree, and everything is lit up. We have window displays. We have giant Santa decor everywhere—ice skating rinks. We are a very compact city, so when you put Christmas joy all around it’s overwhelming. It almost seems like a hoarder house because there are decorations everywhere!
What is it like working with an illustrator? It seemed as if there were very specific details in the images that made the story come to life. Did you have notes for what you wanted included?
I gave very few notes, and most of my notes were in the story. I mentioned King’s Plaza which is something in particular that a lot of Brookland kids go to. Otherwise, that was all Reggie Brown’s brilliance as an illustrator. I think he pretty much knew what New York was like during Christmas season, so he was able to capture those images. I am so in love with the imagery. Especially Deja’s hair, and her little hat, and I love how he drew my aunt Casey and my uncle Rodney who passed away, and he had no clue what these people looked like, but he really captured their essence in a lot of amazing ways. He was able to touch on a lot of cultural things like I didn’t spend a lot of Christmases with my grandparents because they were in Jamaica, so he touched upon those things, but he really drew inspiration from the text. So, there really wasn’t a lot of direction from me. All he needed was my words and he made the images. What’s great in having a Black man artist is that he’s experienced so much of this culture, so he knows what a mom would be wearing and other details. There was an amazing synergy, and I owe a lot to him because he made this book beyond my expectations.
The adults around Deja all take time to answer her questions and take her questions seriously. Why was that important?
I really wanted to highlight that it really does take a village to raise a child. My village was pretty robust because there were so many different people within a one-block area who I would see regularly who would know me as a child. That happens in most cities and in most neighborhoods. I think that’s a lesson as well. We shouldn’t brush away a child’s inquisitiveness. We should lean into that because it helps them be more creative in the end. Because I asked the clarifying questions, it made me become a really active thinker and to be able to think for myself. Even if it’s in the land of make believe where I am asking questions about Santa, none of my questions, as you see in the book, are really outrageous. They are really just practical questions like, “Where is he going to park?” There are never any parking spaces around here. Everyone complains about parking. I want kids to see this as an example for kids to know that when they ask questions, their parents and their community are going to nurture them. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to think logically about things—even if those things seem as outrageous as Santa—don’t be afraid to ask these questions.
One thing I always lean into is making sure that my books, whether they are Young Adult or picture books, are making sure that kids know that they can lean into their community by giving them those examples. Even if the person they lean on is not a parent because while I encourage them to be online and have their friends there, but if you are ever in trouble and you need help—here is your community. If you really have some questions, here is your community. It’s not just about your parents. If you look through every piece of my work, whether it’s Monday’s Not Coming, Let Me Hear a Rhyme, Grown, even Allegedly, every single time there are people other than the person’s parents trying to help them. I have had that experience all my life whether it’s my aunts or neighbors, and I think that’s important for kids to have those examples and texts to understand how that works so they feel comfortable enough to go out on their own to ask those questions and not feel that they only have their parents to lean into.
Tiffany D. Jackson is the bestselling author of several YA novels including the Coretta Scott King – John Steptoe New Talent Award winner Monday’s Not Coming. The Brooklyn native believed in Santa until she was eleven. This is her first picture book.
Reggie Brown is an artist and illustrator with a background in corporate graphic design. He lives in San Diego, California. This is his first picture book.
Christine Lively is a librarian at Wakefield High School in Virginia. She writes a monthly column for the Teen Librarian Toolbox blog of the School Library Journal about teens who fight the system to change their world. Christine is a Certified Life Coach for Young People ages 14-24 at christinelively.com. Christine lives in Fairfax, Virginia with her family and hound dog Gabi where she raises monarch butterflies, knits, and collects hippos of all types. You can follow her at XineLively on Twitter and Instagram.