Award-winning author, Sharon Dennis Wyeth has been honored by the Children's Book Council, New York Public Library, Newark Public Library, the City of Philadelphia, and Reading Rainbow.
Sharon Dennis Wyeth is the African American author of over fifty children's books. Her critically acclaimed work has been honored by the Children's Book Council, New York Public Library, Newark Public Library, the City of Philadelphia and Reading Rainbow. Her American Girl World by Us book Evette, The River and Me was a recipient of the 2021 Good Housekeeping Best Toy Award and was featured in Smithsonian Magazine, The Washington Post and in segments on CNN, Fox News DC, and other platforms. Her 2022 non-fiction early reader Juneteenth Our Day of Freedom, also an Author Audiobook, was commended by School Library Journal. In 2023, her picture book Something Beautiful, a Parents Magazine Best Book of the Year, and an Author Audiobook, will celebrate its 25th anniversary in print. Sharon Dennis Wyeth is also a poet and memoirist. Black Eye her chapbook published by Finishing Line Press, chronicles a child's account of domestic violence and search for identity. Her recent memoir piece "I'm a Dancer," a testament to joy as a form of resistance, was included in The Talk: Conversations about Race, Love and Truth, winner of the 2021 Black Caucus of the American Library Association Non-fiction Literary Award, edited by Wade and Cheryl Hudson. Ms. Wyeth is a cum laude graduate of Harvard University and received her MFA in Creative Writing from Hunter College, where she received the prestigious Shuster Award. She is a recipient of an NAACP Education Award and a member of the Cave Canem fellowship of African American poets. She is an Associate Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins University. Ms. Wyeth has been a guest speaker at countless public and private schools, libraries, universities and other settings throughout the US and abroad. Follow Sharon on her website sharondenniswyeth.com.
Black Cottonwood (for Monica Hand)
You'd written a poem about our Walk
But by the time I found your note,
you were gone and I grew desperate
Then the magazine arrived and there we were inside--
5 a.m. on a day when time no longer mattered
two poets on a beach on Serifos
To answer your question: home did follow me--
my mom never got to Europe--yet, here I am,
making footprints in damp sand at dawn with you
To meet at dawn was my idea--
an early riser dogged by vigilance--
yet, when we met at the bedtime of owls
there was nothing in the world to fear,
my soles searching hard comfort in crushed shells,
wondering who'd earlier walked their dog
While you, Monica, sit serene,
sketching our impressions in your notebook
searching for the name of the tree
that oozes healing salve
*Italicized words are quotes from "Walk with Sharon: at the bedtime of owls" by Monica Hand
published in "Bone Bouquet" Volume 6 Issue 2 Fall 2015
This afternoon I had a visit from a panther
Floated into my study, settled near the bridge of my nose,
all of a piece, black and glistening, stretched like taffy
in a reclining pose--a decorative, reclining panther
I was petrified
She ushered in the memory of changeling childhood
when my face and arms and legs turned to fur,
my round brown eyes to slits, my entire self
dissolved into the body of an animal
Today was different
Two of us were in the room, coexisting
"May I ask what brought you here?" putting on a front
“You sent for me."
“Never! You're not real! You’re glass!"
She proceeded to expand, crowding me off the chaise
“What have you got against me?”
“That you made me crazy! Only crazy people turn into panthers.”
“Are you crazy now?”
“No, and you can’t make me. I’m a person, you’re a figment!”
“Are you so sure?”
She vanished in a stream of light and I felt myself possessed like in the old days
“Oh, God, I’m stressed. Here I am middle age, feeling a childhood fright.”
Then a voice inside me whispered: Don’t fight See what it’s like
Well, a panther is slim thighed, unthreatened,
claws sharp as razors, don't take nothing off nobody
But do panthers sit at desks? Do panthers write?
Well, this one does
Oh my! not so bad writing as a panther, unafraid of critics,
undetected in my silence, confident with the ability to pounce
and vanish into the night
As a child, I was the panther
when I heard my parents fight
A statue on the mantle
Out of reach, out of sight
The Love Knot
Ella filled a dipper from a water bucket sitting by the door. “Here you are,” she said, handing the dipper to Creed.
He nodded his thanks and drank the water down.
“If Mother was here, she’d offer you a slice of cake,” Ella said, taking the dipper back.
“Water’s fine,” Creed said. “I believe I’ll be having cake this evening,” he added with a wink. “Mama hinted at it.”
“Is it your birthday?” Ella exclaimed.
“It went out of my mind,” Ella apologized, taking her seat in the rocker. “Wish I’d remembered.”
“That’s all right,” said Creed. “You’re remembering it now. Yours was in April, wasn’t it?”
“April 19th,” she said. “Just before Mother left for the sanitarium.”
“How is your mother?” Creed asked, politely.
Ella swallowed. “Papa says she’s fine. Everything is brand new there,” she added hopefully.
“That’s good,” Creed said. “Did you go visit her?”
“Papa hasn’t let me yet,” Ella replied. “The place is far away.”
Creed glanced at Ella’s face. She looked sad.
“Did you hear from Millie?” he asked, changing the subject.
“I got one letter,” Ella said, perking up. “Did you hear from Stevie?”
Creed shook his head. “How’s Millie doing up North?” he asked, curiously.
“The way Millie went on, you’d think she’d gone to Heaven,” Ella said, with a knowing smile. “She went to a real movie.”
“Wow!” Creed exclaimed. “Millie went to a movie?”
“It got me jealous,” Ella admitted. “I’ve been wanting to see a movie all my life.”
“I’d like to see one, too,” Creed said.
“The movie theater in Culpeper should have seats for Colored people,” Ella complained. “What’s the reason for keeping us out?”
“Those kinds of rules don’t have reason behind them,” Creed declared. “Somebody ought to change them.”
“But how?” Ella asked.
Creed pulled his chair in closer. “My brother Charley wrote an anonymous letter to the newspaper,” he confided.
“What newspaper?” she asked. “Was it ‘The Richmond Planet?’”
“No, it was an Army newspaper,” Creed told her, “out at Camp Dodge in Iowa.”
“What was the letter about?” Ella asked. “Was it about going to the movies?”
“That’s how it started,” Creed reported. “A Sergeant in Charley’s Division tried to go to a White movie theater and he got arrested.”
“What a shame,” Ella murmured.
“It’s worse than that,” Creed informed her. “When the Commander of Charley’s Division got wind of it, he made a strict rule for all his Negro soldiers.”
“What was it?” she asked.
“If a soldier in the 92nd Division of the Army does anything at all to displease a White business owner, that soldier will get arrested!” Creed pronounced.
Ella’s jaw dropped. “Anything at all? That’s ridiculous!”
“Charley thought so, too,” said Creed. “Charley said that his Commander’s new rule was ‘outrageous’. ‘An insult to all Negro troops’--that’s what Charley wrote in his letter.”
Ella winced. “That must have made the Commander angry. Did Charley get into trouble?”
“Like I told you, the letter was anonymous,” Creed whispered. “Charley signed it ‘from a Negro soldier.’ That’s why we need to keep it a secret.”
“You can trust me,” Ella promised. “I can’t believe that all that ruckus began because a Negro Sergeant wanted to go to the movies,” she declared, mulling over Creed’s story. “If I were the manager of a movie theater, I would invite that Sergeant in for free. Everyone should see a movie at least once in their lifetime.”
. “There’s a Negro movie theater in Richmond,” Creed offered.
Ella’s eyes lit up. “How do you know that?”
“Charley saw a movie there when he was at college,” Creed explained.
“What was the movie called?” Ella asked.
Creed made a face and growled. “’Tiger Man’!”
Ella let out a belly laugh.
At the sound of her sister’s laughter, Gale turned around.
“Did you see Creed make that funny face?” Ella said, crossing to give Gale a hug. “He was pretending to be a tiger!”
Creed watched them. Ella’s sister favored their White father, but they were still two peas in a pod. Both of them were pretty, especially Ella.
“Maybe we can see a movie together,” he blurted out. “My parents could take us to Richmond.”
Heat rose to Ella’s face. “Fine with me. I like theatrical things.”
Creed grinned sheepishly.
“Want to play horseshoes?” she asked, abruptly.
Creed stood up. “Why not?”
Leaving Gale with her doll on the porch, Ella and Creed crossed to a stake stuck in the ground, next to a stack of horseshoes. Lined up not far away, there was a second stake, stuck in the ground as well.
“Does Trot wear these?” Creed asked. He picked up a horseshoe, and Ella picked one up, too.
“These aren’t Trot’s shoes,” Ella said, preparing to toss. “Trot goes barefoot.”
Ella’s horseshoe clanged against the stake across the yard.
“Perfect shot,” said Creed.
Creed’s first pitch was good as well, but not as close.
As they kept on with their game, they began to talk.
“How’d you like ‘Julius Caesar’?” Creed asked.
“Hated it,” Ella pronounced, pitching another horseshoe.
“Don’t see how you can criticize a play by Shakespeare!” Creed exclaimed. He sized up Ella’s shot. It wasn’t as good this time.
Ella handed him a horseshoe. “Just because ‘Julius Caesar” is a great play, doesn’t mean I have to like it,” she argued. “Caesar didn’t deserve to be stabbed to death.”
“Caesar was strutting around like a rooster,” Creed lectured, squandering his shot.
“That’s not a crime,” Ella said, making her case. “But those Roman men in the play stabbed Caesar over and over again. I don’t like it when bad things happen to people,” she added, wistfully.
They finished the game in silence and put away the horseshoes.
“Tell your mother I said ‘hi’ when you see her,” Creed said, preparing to leave.
“If I ever get to visit,” Ella said.
He glanced at her face. She looked worried.
“Everything will be all right,” he said, trying to reassure her.
Ella gave him a little smile.
“If you and Gale get lonely, come over to the schoolhouse,” Creed offered, walking out of the yard. He turned to wave at Ella’s baby sister.
“We might do that,” Ella said, perking up. “Tell your mother and Angie that we thank them for the green beans.”
“I will,” Creed said.
He took a few steps down the road, but then turned back.
“Did you hear my echo today?” he called out.
“I heard somebody’s echo,” she answered. “I didn’t know it was yours.”
“I was up on the schoolhouse roof, practicing my Shakespeare,” Creed shouted. “You wouldn’t have liked it. It was a speech from ‘Julius Caesar!’”
Ella ran a few steps toward him. “I might have liked it. You’re good at Oratory.”
“I shouted your name out, too,” Creed said, beaming.
“How come?” Ella asked.
“Just wondering if you were home,” Creed explained.
“Gale and I are always here,” she told him.
As Creed hurried away, Ella kept her eyes on him. Creed had always been spindly, but now he looked as strong as his brother Charley. Yet, Creed was still a bookworm. Ella was a bookworm, too, so she liked that about him. So, it was perfectly natural that they both had their opinions when it came to “Julius Caesar.”
Two hours later, Ella heard her father’s Model “T” rumbling up the road. He was earlier than expected. Leaving Gale on the porch to play with some wooden blocks, Ella met Papa in front of his car.
“Did they change your hours this week down at the prison?” she greeted her father, cheerfully.
“They let me leave early,” Worth Tutt replied. “I drove here as fast as I could.”
Ella swallowed. “Did something happen to Mother?”
“Your mother’s fine,” he said, looking out at the road nervously. “Has anyone been here?”
“Only Creed St. James,” she answered.
“I got here in time then,” he said. “Where’s your sister?”
Ella pointed to the porch.
“Go get her,” Papa instructed. “I need you to take her up on the roof.”
“But why?” Ella asked in amazement.
“Do as I say,” he snapped. He rushed to the shed and came back with a ladder. Dumbfounded by her father’s request, Ella hadn’t moved.
“Do as I say,” he yelled at her.
“Tell me why,” she begged.
Worth Tutt caught his breath. “Somebody’s coming to get you and Gale.”
“Who?” Ella exclaimed.
“Some woman from a Society,” her father explained hurriedly.
Ella’s heart fluttered. “What sort of Society?”
“The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children,” her father announced, sarcastically. “Seems they believe I’m being cruel to you and Gale.”
“Where’d they get such an idea?” Ella protested.
“Some people think that when a father leaves his children alone, he’s being cruel,” Worth Tutt said in a biting tone. “Never mind that the children’s mother is sick and their father has to work out of town.”
“Are you sure about this, Papa?” Ella asked. “There must be some kind of mistake.”
Ella’s father shook his head. “This lawyer, Mr. Bruce, who I met down at the prison, heard it through the grapevine. You see, his wife’s mother lives over in Madison-- I can’t go into it all now--we’re just lucky that Mr. Bruce warned me. So, unless you don’t mind ending up with your sister in a Negro orphanage,” he threatened, “you’ll get Gale and hide up on that roof!”
Ella ran to the porch and swooped Gale up. Holding her sister tight, she ran back to where her father was waiting. “Please don’t let them take us, Papa,” she pleaded.
“I’ll do my best,” he said. “But you have to trust me.”
Ella looked into his light blue eyes. Next to Mother, there was no one in the world she trusted more than her father. As Worth Tutt steadied the ladder, Ella climbed up, with Gale in her arms.
“Hide behind the chimney,” Papa called up to her. “Try to keep your sister quiet.”
Ella did what she was told, while down below, her father tossed aside the ladder.
Tucked behind the chimney, Ella kissed Gale’s cheek. As if sensing the danger, the little girl clung to Ella’s neck, dead silent.
“I’ll walk out to the road to meet the woman,” Worth Tutt whispered hoarsely.
“What will you tell her?” Ella whispered back.
Papa glanced up at her. “I’ll think of something,” he promised.
A few moments later, Ella heard voices. Holding tight to Gale, she peeked over the side of the roof. A woman in a feathered hat stood in the yard, talking to her father.
“Where are the children?” she asked shrilly.
“I’ve sent them down South,” Papa declared, “to be with their dear mother’s people.”
Ella drew back from the edge. Gale had started to whimper.
“Hush, Baby,” she whispered, kissing her sister’s cheek.
The woman in the feathered hat turned abruptly. “Is someone here?” she asked, glancing up at the roof. “I heard something.”
Lying stiff as a board, Ella held her breath.
“Only a few robins,” Papa said in a charming voice, “pecking around up there for something to build their nest. Robins are pretty little things, aren’t they? But not as pretty as the feathers you’re wearing.”
The woman touched her hat and giggled. “All right then, Mr. Tutt. But if your daughters should come back,” she warned, “they can’t be left alone while you run off to work in Richmond.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Papa, agreeably. “Now, may I walk you to your buggy?”
When Ella heard them walk away, she relaxed a bit. “Everything will be all right, Little One,” she whispered sweetly to Gale.
But Ella wasn’t so sure of that. Papa had told the woman that she and Gale had gone down South to be with “their mother’s people.” Yet Ella knew for a fact that her mother didn’t have a family down South. The only family Mother had was Papa, Ella and Gale, which meant that her father had lied! What would happen if the woman from the Society came back one day and found out the truth?
As Ella climbed down the ladder with Gale in her arms, Papa was walking toward them. Ella let her sister go, and Gale ran to their father’s arms. Papa caught Gale up and gave her a bounce.
“We fooled that Society lady, didn’t we?” Worth quipped, turning to Ella. “Wonder how many birds she shot in order to make that hat.”
Ella smiled weakly. “What are we going to do now?”
“I’ll figure something out,” Papa said. “Whatever happens, I’ll be the one to decide what becomes of my children—not some do-gooder Society.”
Your literary career has earned you awards and recognition across genres. When did you first know you were a writer and what guides your work today?
I was an early talker who reveled in the acquisition of "my words.” At the age of one and a half, I ran around my parents’ apartment in my underwear shouting out my vocabulary. It’s true! At the same age, I was already boasting about my memory. Before I started school, my father taught me to write my name and my mother took me to the library to get my own card. Good thing, since books were to become my refuge during a tempestuous childhood. As for becoming a “writer,” writing was just something I knew I could do. It certainly helped me get the attention of the teachers in the eight public schools I attended as my mother moved my brothers and me from place to place, trying to get out of her marriage. BUT did I think I could BECOME A WRITER? Certainly not! Writers were the ones who wrote my precious “library” books. So powerful they might as well have lived on another planet! Even when I got a summer job at the age of 16 writing newspaper articles (very lucky!), I didn’t dare think of myself as a “writer.” But that particular job taught me that writing was something I could do to make money–absolutely essential where I came from! But for ten years after college, I made income working at other things, while continuing to dedicate myself to writing on weekends and evenings. Once I’d written three plays based on personal history and gotten paid for nine paperback romances based on soap opera plots, I felt it was okay to say, “I’m a writer.”
Your work reaches across the entire emotional arc and invites the reader into intimate and sometimes violent worlds. How do you decide what, and what not, to share in your writing?
What I share depends very much on my particular readership. Most of my publications have been for younger readers and I’m extremely mindful not only of the language I choose but the depiction of settings, characters and outcomes. When I write, I’m also doing a lot of listening–to the characters I create and the insistent voice I carry around inside me. No matter what the age, my message to readers is that it’s okay to feel; that there’s no shame in feeling sadness or terror, loneliness or heartbreaking love. It’s okay to notice when things don’t feel quite right in your family or the world you live in. I want to send the message that there’s nothing weak about innocence. It’s not stupid to maintain hope and try to make changes in your circumstances and your world if necessary. I want readers to feel that when a moment of joy presents itself, the coolest thing to do is to enjoy that moment, no matter how fleeting. The only way I can begin to achieve this is by creating characters I not only love but respect. In writing “Ghost Gossip” a persona poem in my mother’s voice, I felt extraordinary empathy for the character who, as a young mother trapped with an abusive partner, found the courage to escape, while acknowledging an attraction to her abuser. In Something Beautiful, my picture book for young readers, I was extremely mindful of not falling into the trap of painting the kind of bleak setting some might associate with poverty. Imagine how kids who live in an under resourced neighborhood would have felt, if I’d fallen into that trap. Nobody wants to be depicted as a victim.