By Kristin Scheel

“It was an intense thirty days,” Aliona Gibson said, of the Kickstarter campaign to self-publish her children’s story, Justice pon di Road, “but my friend told me, if you are not totally exhausted, you are doing it wrong.”

A trip to Long Bay, Jamaica in 2011, with her young son, Justice, inspired Aliona to write Justice pon di Road, a story of a boy encountering island culture on a morning walk with his mother. Illustrations by Andy Chou show the Justice character taking in the sights, of kids herding goats, the sounds of a rooster greeting the day, and tastes of mango from a roadside fruit stand, all from the comfort of his small grey stroller. The experience of reading the book evokes the comfort of the mother-son adventure. “I felt so strongly about this book, I hired an illustrator that cost more than my car!”

Self-publishing is risky, but single parenting can make you fearless. For example, after Justice was born, Aliona decided that it was finally time she learned to swim. She took herself to swimming lessons every Tuesday at the Oakland YMCA and then to Berkeley’s deep-water pool, to learn to tread water.

Kickstarter, Indiegogo and gofundme are three popular options for self-publishers, but convincing people to participate can be a full-time job. Aliona described the process as an “emotional rollercoaster” and said that while her friends and family made some of the larger donations, it was the smaller gifts, of 25 and 50 dollars, from people she didn’t know, that made the difference in her success. The Kickstarter for Justice pon di Road raised just over its 8,000 goal — in thirty days. “I’m still amazed!”

Aliona is not Jamaican, but her son’s father is. She didn’t set out to make a book just for Jamaican-Americans; Justice pon di Road is for all! But as she researched the market for her book, she learned about the lack of diversity in children’s publishing. “Our house is full of books by and about African-Americans, so I wasn’t aware that they were scarce.” A recent New York Times Article by Walter Dean Myers asked the question, “Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” When Aliona saw this article, she knew that she had made the right decision to self-publish.

Professor Elmaz Abinader, of Mills College, and one of the founders of VONA (Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation),  explains how the internet is evening the playing field,   “In a brick and mortar book store, writers of color are relegated to special category shelves and often marginalized away from the front displays. Publishing companies select representative writers and often pass on important stories of people of color. On the web writers can publish uninhibited and launch campaigns to create a visibility that is not available through traditional means.”

Six months later, Aliona has eight hundred books in her closet. Direct sales have been slow. Diesel, A Bookstore on College Avenue and Mr. Mopps’ Toy Store in Berkley carry copies, and Marcus Bookstore in Oakland has been a longtime supporter. This week, The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the original Marcus Bookstore in San Francisco, “the first black bookstore in the country,” is being forced out of the location in the Fillmore where it has been since the sixties. On Aliona’s own website, www.alionagibson.com, a link to a book called, For Black Writers: A Personal Account of How to Write, Publish and Market Your First Book is listed as “currently out of print.”

As gentrification is rapidly changing neighborhoods in both San Francisco and Oakland, where bookshelf space is limited and a lack of diversity in publishing persists, despite the market for more work by of writers of color, social media fundraising is just one part of a multi-tiered PR campaign self-publishing artists and writers of color must wage to be part of the conversation and put books where people can see them.

Meanwhile, Aliona Gibson hopes to keep writing and dreams of her book being picked up by a publisher. Will Justice have more adventures in Jamaica? Follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/justicepondiroad.

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