At the age of three, I asked my babysitter (Mrs. Fisher) the following question:
“What is me?“
“Me is you,” Mrs. Fisher replied.
It wasn’t the answer I was looking for. I really wanted to know who “ME” was.
Maybe that’s why I began to collect family stories. I must have sensed that the history of my family had a lot to do with who I was.
I also really, really loved my family! I wanted to know what my parents and grandparents were like when they were my age. Where did they go to school? What kinds of games did they play? Did they like to read, like I did? Did they like to sing, like I did? What were their favorite records? Did they go to the movies? Did they have pets?
I found out that both of my grandfathers had ponies when they were little boys! And that by the time she was my age, my grandmother that lived in the country knew how to make ice cream. And that my grandmother who lived in the city knew how to weave on a loom.
My mother confessed that she got scolded in school because she couldn’t stop chatting. And my father confided that he’d always wished he had wings like a bird and that’s why he joined the Air Force.
Hearing these things made me happy. But there were challenging parts to their lives that they left out. My parents and grandparents had gone through difficult things that I would learn about when I got older. But the stories I heard at the age of six only made me smile. Hearing my grown-ups talk about themselves as children, made me wish that they could be children again, so that I could be their friend!
One of my favorite things to do was browsing old family photograph albums. There weren’t as many pictures in those albums as we have today, so I looked at the same ones over and over. The pictures of my grown-ups, when they were young, still live in my memory. As I browsed the albums, I puzzled over which side of the family I looked like. Some grownups told me that I took after my light skin father, while others remarked that I was the spitting image of my dark eyed mother with the wavy hair. But after poring over the beautiful photographs of my parents as babies and teenagers, I decided that I looked like neither one of them. I had to be satisfied with simply looking like myself. After all, I wasn’t my mother or my father. I was simply myself. I was “me!”
Both of my parents were African American and I am, too. As I got older and went to public school in the segregated Black neighborhood where I spent most of my childhood, the question of my light skin came up in conversation with my friends.
“How come your skin is White?” they’d ask.
“I look more like my dad,” I’d tell them. “Actually, it just is. I mean, light skin is what I look like.”
But there was more to the story.
No matter how light my father’s skin was, he was also a descendant of an enslaved African person. So, his “race” was Black. And so was my mother’s, and all four of my grandparents and great-grandparents for generations.
Through oral history, research and travel, I’ve learned much more about my family’s history. We are descendants of West Africans as well as Europeans. Our countries of origin are Cameroon, Scotland, Ireland, England and Portugal. I was happy to gain this information. It felt like missing pieces of myself were coming together.
Surviving racism is part of my family’s history. As I got older, I learned about some of the challenges my parents and grandparents hadn’t wanted to share with me when I was younger. What they did share with me was love. As they went to their jobs while keeping up with their schooling at night, I sensed their determination Or as my father once put it, they were determined “to make something of themselves.” Education was a big part of that.
When I was four-years-old, my mother and father taught me to read and write. Teaching me to read and write was a great gift of love. When I was five, my mother took me to get a library card and books became my passion. The books I read and the family stories I collected inspired me to write books for other children. For though I’ve been a grown up for a long time, I’ll always be my parents’ child.
My latest publications:
EVETTE: THE RIVER AND ME, introduces American Girl Evette Peeters, part of the company’s new World By Us line. Read about Evette’s quest to restore health to a river while healing a rift in her racially divided family.
JUNETEENTH OUR DAY OF FREEDOM is my non-fiction Step Into Reading Level 3 History Reader published by Random House. Read about the history of Juneteenth and how we celebrate the holiday now.
Readers of the picture books and contemporary and historical fiction I’ve written will encounter the themes that I think are important to shine a light on:
Literacy, racial harmony, identity, poverty, contemporary families, bullying, resilience, African American history, American history, the search for beauty, the strength found in community and a positive co-existence with nature.
My characters are every-day children and young adults who demonstrate resilience and find their own voices in the face of adversity. I believe in cultivating optimism. I believe in the positive power of story.
In EVETTE: THE RIVER AND ME, my American Girl book published September 2021, thirteen-year-old nature lover Evette Peeterson joins the environmental community. Her actions make a difference in the health of a river that holds personal memories for her family.
Book Awards: Pleased to announce that American Girl doll EVETTE PEETERSON and my book
THE RIVER AND ME are recipients of THE GOOD HOUSEKEEPING BEST TOY AWARD!
Past awards include: Children’s Book Council Notable Book, Best Books of the Year Parents Magazine, New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age, New York Public Library One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing, “Reading Rainbow” Book, LAMBDA Literary Award Finalist
Other Honors: NAACP Education Award, Shuster Award (Hunter College), Cave Canem Poetry Fellowship, Stephen Crane Literary Award (Newark Public Library), Lucille Clifton Poetry Fellowship (Squaw Valley Community of Poets), Mid Atlantic Arts Fellowship, Geraldine R. Dodge Fellowship (VCCA), Rockefeller Foundation grant
Faculty: Visiting Associate Professor, Hollins University Graduate Dept. Children’s Literature
Speaker Appearances: International Reading Association, American Library Association; conferences, universities and schools in the U.S., and abroad
Sharon Dennis Wyeth is an African American writer with a multi-generational mixed-race legacy–the descendant of enslaved West Africans. free people of color, European colonists and indentured servants. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., she is the author of numerous award-winning books for children and young adults.
Ms. Wyeth attended public schools and graduated from Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C.. She received an A.B. with honors in a combined discipline of sociology, psychology and anthropology from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Hunter College in New York, New York.
She is the recipient of a Cave Canem Fellowship for African American poets. She is a Visiting Associate Professor in the Graduate Department of Children’s Literature at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia.
An accomplished public speaker with a background in theater and speech coaching, she has been a keynote speaker at the national conference of the International Reading Association and other conferences.
At home with audiences of all ages, Ms. Wyeth has visited numerous schools throughout the United States and abroad sharing her work, her writing process and her personal story, motivating students to become avid readers and fearless writers.
Her themes include literacy, racial harmony, identity, poverty, contemporary families, bullying, resilience, African American history, American history, the search for beauty, a healthy co-existence with the environment and the strength found in community.