Writing Books for Young Readers that Celebrate Famous Black Americans

Shasta Clinch chronicles the lives of leaders like Kamala Harris, Jordan Peele, and Amanda Gorman 

Shasta (Jean-Mary) Clinch, A05, is my favorite bookworm, and has been ever since our senior year together in Wren Hall. She’s obsessed with great storytelling—no matter the source. I fondly recall a phone call 15 years ago when we were chatting about the latest novel she could not put down. She told me,  “It’s about a teenage vampire named Edward.”  

A managing editor in the children’s book division of Random House, Shasta had snagged copies of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight and shipped one to my door, sure that I would love it, too. As ever, she was right. From board books for babies to obscure autobiographies for the most discerning readers, she never discriminates against a good story or delightful turn of phrase. Over the years, that outlook has served her—and those who know her—very well.   

While her husband remains at what is now Penguin Random House (the pair’s office party meet-cute is chick lit paradise), after a decade in her role, Shasta left in 2015 to build a freelance business as a proofreader and copy editor beyond the children’s section. Her work spans the stacks, from Great British Bakeoff contestant cookbooks to young adult romance novels to erotic tell-alls.  

Today, she’s an author in her own right. Her reading primers and children’s books focus on the positive impact of famous Black Americans—the type of stories she wishes she’d had as a child. Making good on her degree in English, Shasta has authored four biographies so far, with more to come. We recently caught up to talk shop and celebrate all she’s done since graduating from Tufts.  

As your friend, I have given your books to so many children I know—not just because it’s you, but because they are beautifully written portraits of cultural game changers: Kamala Harris was your first biography. When you were growing up, were there books like yours for you to read?  

Shasta Clinch: There were always biographies of important Black figures, but I was drawn to fiction and those characters of color were missing. I’m glad to see that inclusion today and even more biographies, not just book after book of Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr.   

A cover of the book Kamala is Speaking, which features a photo of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris

Shasta Clinch’s first book was Kamala is Speaking, a 2021 Step into Reading title about the vice president of the United States.

Books have always been important to you.   

They have—especially children’s books. They are the books I always return to. I still read children’s books, middle grade, YA. These books are magical. And now I get to share them with my kids.  

How did you get from Tufts to Random House? 

Tufts has a great career center. I somehow ended up at a recruiting consortium for a bunch of publishing houses. It was like speed dating. I interviewed for a summer program at Random House and didn’t get it. But they liked me, and I had a contact in HR, so when a job came up for a Managing Editorial Assistant in the children’s department—my dream—I had a job lined up at graduation.  

What are some of the books you’re proudest of working on while at Random House?  

As a managing editor, I managed the life of a book from acquisition by the editor all the way to publication. At any given moment, I was working on about 100 books at different points in the schedule. Barack Obama's picture book was really cool not only because it was Barack Obama, but also because it was a secret. And the secret books are always awesome because a little-known fact is that I could make a book disappear.  

How do you make the president disappear?  

Our audit systems at Random House automatically fed to external sellers: Amazon, Barnes and Noble. But there was a button we could press that made sure the book was hidden from everyone. And because only the editor, designer, production manager, and I knew about it, I had this brief, cool power to manage this important book and make it disappear. I couldn’t even track it online—I had to write everything down so nobody could find out the details.  

And then burn the evidence?  

I should have kept it in a scrapbook!   

On the other side of the spectrum, one thing people might not know is that when authors sign on for trilogies, they often run far behind schedule and sometimes even have to come into the office to write. And if it’s a 1,000-page book in a series, like Christopher Paolini’s four-book The Inheritance Cycle, I had to divide those into chunks of hundreds of pages that would all be on different schedules and married up at the end. It’s really intense but super satisfying to see it in the store.   

When the last book in Paolini’s series was finally published, he said to me, “You are like a general. And now I really understand what a managing editor does.” That felt really nice because it's not a role that's very visible.  

The cover of the book Black Voices on Race: Jordan Peele, which features a photo of Jordan Peele

For the Black Voices on Race series, Shasta Clinch has written books on Jordan Peele, Toni Morrison, and Amanda Gorman.

But now you are visible. You’re the front-facing talent! How did that come about?   

A former colleague of mine was looking for an author for a Kamala Harris book right after she got elected, and it needed a very fast turnaround. She also thought it was important to have a woman of color write the book.   

Did you feel intimidated?   

Oh, absolutely. First of all, despite my love of children's books, I never as an adult pictured myself as a writer. But because I trusted the editor and it was a cool opportunity, I didn't feel like I should pass it up. I still don’t feel like “a writer.”   

You’ve always excelled at following directions. What were the instructions to write Kamala Is Speaking?  

This was a level two Step Into Reading book for early readers. So it was my job to make sure I used only a certain number of words on a page, used basic vocabulary, short sentences, simple stories, and words less than two syllables—with the exception of her title, “vice pre-si-dent.” I read the junior version of her biography, her autobiography, and did a lot of online research. That it was a biography was helpful as far as the storyline. If it had been fiction, I don’t know what I would have done!  

How did it feel to see it in print?   

I was thrilled. I sent it to my parents, and my dad said that my name was too small (laughs). It’s still very surreal. I get self-conscious talking about it, and I think there is a little bit of impostor syndrome.  

But you followed up with three more.  

I am on the Editorial Freelancer Association contact board, and this company found me. They had seen my book and said they were working on a new series called Black Voices on Race. They said the name Jordan Peele and I was in. After Jordan, I got to pick two more, so I chose Toni Morrison and Amanda Gorman.   

What’s next?   

A Little Golden Book about LeBron James that’s coming out in Fall 2024. I did a lot of photo research—like, I found a picture of him and his mom, him on his elementary school basketball team—and got to pitch those. I’m also working on a book about Juneteenth, for which, as a Haitian American, I don’t have the same history to draw from. But I’m excited to learn about this holiday and feel honored to tell its story. 

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