Posted by: nancyisanders | January 15, 2010

From My Archives

l-Wade Hudson, r-Cheryl Hudson

Meet Editor Cheryl Willis Hudson!
Featured Publisher: Just Us Books
Web site: Just Us Books

Author, publisher and entrepreneur, Cheryl Willis Hudson has more than 30 years of experience in the children’s book industry. A native of Portsmouth, Virginia, and a graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio, Cheryl began her career doing text book design for publishers such as Houghton Mifflin and Macmillan.

Noticing a lack of quality Black-interest books for her own two children, in 1988, Cheryl and her husband Wade formed Just Us Books, Inc., a publishing company that specializes in children’s books that focus on Black history, culture and experiences. Cheryl serves as publisher and art director for Just Us Books. As an author, she has written 20 books for children, including Bright Eyes, Brown Skin; the What a Baby! board book series; and Hands Can.

An active member of her community and publishing industry organizations, Cheryl serves on the advisory boards of the Small Press Center and the Langston Hughes Library at the Alex Haley Farm, operated by the Children’s Defense Fund. She is a recipient of the Stephen Crane Award and is a 2003 inductee of the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent. A member of the Author’s Guild, PEN America and the Society of Book Writers and Illustrators, Cheryl also serves as a parenting expert for ClubMom. She and Wade were recently interviewed for HistoryMakers, an oral history collective of African American achievers. Cheryl lives in New Jersey with her family.


Interview Questions:
Q: Can you tell us a little about Just Us Books and its history as a publishing house?
A: Just Us Books was born out of a personal and community need. As parents, Wade and I were constantly looking for books for children’s books that reflected the diversity of Black history, heritage and experiences. We were disappointed by the limited number and their unreliable availability, so we decided to produce the kind of positive, vibrant Black-interest books that we wanted for our own two children. Combining my experience in graphic design with Wade’s background in marketing and writing, in 1987 we self-published the AFRO-BETS A B C Book, a concept book that teaches the alphabet using Afrocentric themes and images. The book received a tremendous response from teachers, parents, librarians and children. A year later, we published AFRO-BETS 1 2 3 Book and launched Just Us Books along with it.


Just Us Books, Inc. is an independent press that publishes Black-interest books for young people. We publish concept books, picture books, chapter books, poetry, non-fiction, biographies, and young adult fiction. We are a full service company, as are the majority of larger commercial children’s book publishers. That is, we do every thing from acquiring and editing manuscripts, giving them creative direction, to handling the production, manufacturing, promotion, distribution and sales of our titles.

Just Us Books has given a number of talented new authors and illustrators their start in the children’s book publishing industry, and we’ve had the honor and pleasure of publishing important titles that celebrate the diversity of who Black people are, and what we have accomplished. As a company, Just Us Books has helped prove that there is a year-round need and viable market for Black-interest children’s books—that we shouldn’t limit our book buying to Black History Month or holidays.

This year marks Just Us Books’ twentieth anniversary and we’re very proud of that accomplishment.

Q: Describe your visions and goals you hope to accomplish through the books you publish.
A: We are committed to publishing the best children’s literature possible and our titles appeal to children and adults of all backgrounds and ethnicities. African-American history, culture and children, however, are the centerpieces of our publishing program. I think what distinguishes us from others in the marketplace is the level of our commitment to reflecting authenticity in our titles through the voices of our authors and the vision of our illustrators. These authors and illustrators and editors create from their own experiences as people of African descent. Our publishing policy and practice encourages us to tell our own stories.

Prior to the establishment of our company, other houses published African- American literature within their lists but did not give these titles special attention. Just Us Books responds to a hunger and a need from the African-American community to see more of our lives and interests reflected within children’s books that are being published as a whole. The themes of our books are universal but they reflect a sensibility that is unique to an African-American experience.

Q: Name a personal highlight you’ve experienced as the Editorial Director/Publisher for Just Us Books.
A: One of the most important highlights of my career is having my daughter Katura and my son Stephan work with Wade and myself in the family business. For us, Just Us Books isn’t just a business, it’s a legacy, and I’m proud that our children are helping us to carrying it on. Another highlight came just last month when one of Just Us Books’ newest titles, The Secret Olivia Told Me, was named a Coretta Scott King Honor Book for illustration. It’s the first Coretta Scott King honor for Just Us Books, and for the illustrator, Nancy Devard, as well. As Art Director of the book, it’s a great accomplishment.


Q: Do you have any special events planned for the year ahead to celebrate your 20th year in the publishing industry?
A: Twenty years in publishing is an accomplishment we’re really proud of and we plan to celebrate all year long—into 2009. We’re kicking off the celebration this spring with a children’s bookfair that we’re hosting right here in East Orange, NJ, where Just Us Books is based. We also have exciting plans for the fall and encourage people to check out our web site for forthcoming announcements.

Q: What kind of manuscripts would you like to receive from prospective authors?
A: Our greatest need is for young adult manuscripts. We are also looking for middle reader titles for readers age 9-12. Manuscripts must feature:
* realistic, contemporary characters
* compelling plot lines that introduce conflict and resolution
* high-interest readability
* cultural authenticity

We would also like to receive more manuscripts that reflect Caribbean/West Indian culture and other aspects of the diaspora.

Q: Share one tip you’d like to give about writing for the African American market.
A: There are a number of key elements we look for in submissions, and they are listed on our web site, Some of the most critical elements:
-Positive images that leave lasting impressions.
-Cultural authenticity and cultural specificity. The cultural references in children’s material should reflect the authentic experiences and background of African Americans. Children should be able to see that the material is specific to them.
-Meaningful stories that reflect a range of African-American values and lifestyles. Stories should include an attitude of respect for our ancestors, as well as give respect and accountability for our audience.

Q: You are inundated with submissions on a daily basis. How do you filter through these and what would make a submission stand out from the crowd?
A: We pay careful attention to all manuscript submissions whether solicited or not. Typically, those that stand out have short, cover letters, and a clear focus. These manuscripts are neatly typed, are proofread and show some knowledge or familiarity of our publishing program. Non-fiction titles are well researched and fiction submissions reveal a unique voice. The stories are child-friendly and read well silently as well as aloud. Outstanding entries are well written; show attention to craft and respect for the reading audience. They are not simply cutesy, stereotypical or throwaway stories. They do not reinforce racial stereotypes. Since we hear from agents as well as individual writers and illustrators a query letter is preferred to a complete manuscript. Currently, we are looking for contemporary YA fiction. Two years ago we were looking for chapter books for middle readers. In the future we will be looking for picture books. We have a very small staff so this process requires patience.

A sure-fired turn off for our editorial review board is an impatient, first-time author who wants an immediate response. This author calls or emails us frequently to check his or her manuscript’s status; wants referrals to another publisher who can help him or her faster than we can, and is looking for large advances because he or she knows “we can make a lot of money from this book.” We encourage aspiring writers to visit our website and review our guidelines before contacting us. Always send that SASE for return of the manuscript.

Q: What should a first time author expect once a manuscript has been accepted?
A: After a manuscript has been accepted, a first time author can expect to have a close working relationship with our staff. He or she may be asked to re-work certain portions of the script. The author will see working layouts of the book and will be expected to respond to sketches and the whole illustration process if it is a picture book. He or she may be asked to rewrite once illustrations have been commissioned. There will be meetings and conferences with the assigned editor, review of pages, review of copyedits, marketing data, review of cover art, etc. If the work is nonfiction, the author will be expected to provide leads and documentation for the visuals. Just Us Books is a very hands-on company and we tell all of our first time authors that publishing is a process, not an event. Although we consult with the author and illustrator during every phase of the process, the final decisions are ultimately the publisher’s. A minimum of nine months is generally required for production and sometimes it takes as long as two years from the date of acceptance until publication. Most of all, a first time author should expect to do a lot of waiting. The birth of the book, however, is usually a beautiful thing. We give our authors a lot of tender, loving care and there’s a great deal of follow-up once a book has been published.

The contents of this interview are copyrighted by Cheryl Willis Hudson. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission. For more information contact:

Note: This interview was originally published here on my blog on March 4, 2008. Please visit the website for current and updated information.


  1. Nancy:

    Fascinating interview. Thanks for sharing. My historical fiction story book based on the Underground Railroad will be published Spring/Summer 2010 by Guardian Angel Publishing.

    Best wishes,

    • Congratulations, Donna! This is fantastic news. Hip hip hooray!

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