Journalist and author Denene Millner is living every writer’s dream: her imprint, Denene Millner Books, has just released their first season of books with Simon & Schuster. Focusing on stories for children that celebrate Black families and firsts, Denene has begun to cultivate a community and a platform just as she did when she started her column, My Brown Baby. She talks with Zibby about finding time for her own writing while serving as a doula for others’ projects, and the role her own family plays in the stories she wants to tell.


Zibby Owens: I’m so excited to talk to you.

Denene Millner: I’m so excited to talk to you too. Thank you for having me. Oh, my goodness, look at all those beautiful books back there, and the lights and the features. They’re color-coded. That’s amazing.

Zibby: Thank you. So let’s talk about your amazing new imprint. Look at how cool this is. First of all, have to get this dress. Where is this from? That is so cool. Not that that’s what this is about.

Denene: Ted Baker. The funny thing about that dress is that — I went into Ted Baker. I was looking specifically for a dress. I was being honored by, I think, Atlanta magazine. They wanted me to take this big picture for the magazine. I was like, oh, my god, what am I going to wear? Ted Baker usually wins. I go in there. I see that dress. I’m super curvy, so I’m not sure if that dress is going to work. They go by weird sizing. One is two to four. Two is whatever. I’m at the top level. I’m a four, but they only had a three. I was like, “Does this dress come in a four?” He’s like, “No.” I said, “This three, I don’t know, it’s stretchy, do you think it would work?” He was like, “No, girl.” I was like, “Well, damn. Really?” He was like, “No, the three is not for you.” Then this black lady comes over. She’s like, “We have fours in the back. The three might work, but we have fours in the back.” I’m like, “Why are the fours in the back?” She’s like, “Because we don’t want people to know that these dresses can fit larger people.”

Zibby: Why?

Denene: First of freaking all, I’m not large. Second of all, what are you talking about? Do you want to sell the dresses? Do you want to insult your customer? Then I was like, “Can I just try the four?” She was like, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” She was extremely apologetic and understood why what she was saying was foul. She brought the four. I tried on a three and the four. I actually fit the three better than I did the four. I ended up taking it because it looked good, but it just left the most sour taste in my mouth. It’s like, what are you saying about bodies and women and me in particular? Who are you, sir, to sort of criticize me by just eyeballing me? I didn’t ask for your nasty commentary. I just asked you, hey, this dress has a little stretch, do you think it’ll work? I didn’t need the attitude, sir. I didn’t need that.

Zibby: It’s so true. I’m always embarrassed. Do you have my size in the back? Usually, I’m like, forget it, I can’t find it.

Denene: They would’ve lost that sale that day had the woman not come over and saw what was going down and was just like, come here, sis, I’ll go and grab the four. You might fit the three. Let’s try both. She was human about it and treated me like a human being, whereas this guy was this really just nasty human being, individual.

Zibby: Glad you got the dress.

Denene: I know, right?

Zibby: Glad I mentioned it because that was a very interesting conversation.

Denene: Such a cute dress. It fit me like a glove.

Zibby: Now I might have to go on the website and get myself a four or a three or whatever. So let’s talk about this amazing new imprint that you have from Simon & Schuster for young readers with all these beautiful books which my kids and I loved, by the way, especially this one. This was our favorite. Also, this was great, loved the colors. This was so sweet and poignant and awesome. Of course, you have other books too. Tell me about starting it. Tell me about everything.

Denene: Oh, goodness. Denene Millner Books was the brainchild or the natural progression from my work as a parenting blogger. I’m a journalist by trade, magazine editor. I worked for a parenting magazine. I wrote a column for them when I decided to work from home and be a stay-at-home mom, a work-at-home mom. I was working at home. We all work at home, so that stay-at-home mom is kind of a moniker that I don’t appreciate.

Zibby: And you’re rarely at home, by the way. I feel like you’re always out running your kids places.

Denene: Exactly. Yes, running, running, running.

Zibby: Running-at-home mom. Let’s call it that.

Denene: Absolutely. I had a column called — I’m taking a deep, deep background.

Zibby: That’s okay. Go for it.

Denene: Called Ask Denene. Basically, it was a column where people asked me questions and I gave them answers on the ethics and etiquette of raising children, making friends, being a mom, being in a relationship, and such. I started MyBrownBaby because I found that a lot of the conversation that was being had about motherhood was completely leaving out black women, black mothers. The only time that we seem to get talked to or about was when we were talking about pathology. If you wanted to talk about teen pregnancy, then you go to a black mom. If you wanted to talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, you go and you talk to a black mom. Poverty, black mom. Nobody wanted to talk to us about the actual joy and challenges of raising black children or children in general and then our nuance of what it means to raise a black child in America. I started MyBrownBaby. In the process, it just became this big, gigantic thing. I had this great audience. I’m also an author, and so I was thinking, how fun would it be to try to create some content, some books, for this humongous audience that I have, this rapt audience, with black children? I always found when my children were younger it was very difficult to find books featuring characters that look like them. This was pre-Amazon. My kids are grown now. One is almost twenty-two. The other one’s almost nineteen.

Zibby: What? You look so young. That’s crazy.

Denene: Thank you. It’s been a while since I’ve had to purchase books specifically for my daughters. Although, I still buy them children’s books, by the way, because they’re beautiful. They’re pieces of art and just jewels. They love them still. I went to dinner with the head of an independent publishing house called Agate Publishing based out of Evanston, Illinois, Chicago and Evanston. My ex-husband was having a meeting with him. I kind of hitched into the dinner to go and pitch to this small publisher, hey, what do you think about doing a children’s book imprint? He was already doing some really innovative things with this publishing house. He had a specific imprint geared toward black journalists and authors. I was like, I wonder if he’d be down to do a black children’s book imprint? Turns out, he showed up to the table with the same idea in mind. “You have this amazing platform with all of these parents who are willing and able to buy books featuring characters that look like black parents or black children. Would you be down to start this imprint with me?” We both came to the table with that idea. That was 2016. We debuted out first books in 2017. Straight out the box, we did great. Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut won every major award there was to win for children’s publishing in 2018, which was a celebration of books that came out in 2017.

Then in 2018, Simon & Schuster came along. They were like, hey girl, would you like to try and come and work with us? I was like, yes, please. I switched to Simon & Schuster not because Agate wasn’t doing well for me or that there was anything wrong with that relationship. I treasure it to this day. I am grateful to Doug Seibold, who is the publisher at Agate, for giving me that shot and opening the doors and letting me do what I do and have fun doing it. Simon & Schuster allows me to have a much bigger platform. There’s more money. There’s more infrastructure. There’s expertise with production, marketing, and promotion. They have their tentacles basically in everything because they’ve been around for forever. They are one of the top five publishers in the world. It just made sense to head over there so that I could create these opportunities for black storytellers and creatives who may not have gotten a shot at a top-five publisher if not for imprints like mine. This is my debut year with Simon & Schuster. We’ve done great. Me & Mama was actually the first book that I published, that I purchased when I went over to Simon & Schuster. I’d seen it when I was over at Agate, but I didn’t have enough money for it. When I went to Simon & Schuster and I had a little bit more money, I went back to Cozbi Cabrera’s agent and was like, “So I’m at Simon & Schuster. What’s up? Is that book still available?” She was like, “Yes, it is, actually.” I was shocked because, hello? Do you see this?

Zibby: It’s so gorgeous. I know. I just wanted to show some of the pages. It’s so simple, but so beautiful, this broken cup on this heavy-brush stroke blue. I’m trying to do a verbal interpretation of this artwork for people listening, but I’m not so good at that. It’s just so artistic. I would frame that and put it on my kitchen wall. Actually, this looks a lot like my kitchen.

Denene: Isn’t it gorgeous?

Zibby: I’m going to send you a picture of my kitchen after this. This has the same blue backsplash and everything, and I have this pot. Crazy. Anyway.

Denene: Oh, wow, and the blue. When she wrote that book, she came to me. It was initially a board book. It was just sort of comparing mommy’s things to daughter’s things. When she came to Simon & Schuster, she was like, “Yes, it’s still available, and I’ve changed it a bit. I’ve turned it into a day in a life of this day between mommy and daughter that incorporates the things that our children do when they spend time with us.” Oh, your ear is this big. My ear is this big. Your nose is this big. My nose is this big. My eye is blue. Your eyes is brown. My shoe is purple. Yours is tall and has a hell. That’s what kids do when they spend time with the people that they love. They want to connect with them. The way that they do it is to compare. I honor you and I respect you and I look up to you, and so I want to see what it is that I can connect with you on. She turned it into this slice of life between this mom and daughter. What I love about the story is that it just is. Those are the days that I still have with my daughters. There’ll still be times when my twenty-one-year-old comes home and we’ll just spend the day together. It’s a very ordinary day that turns out to be extraordinary because it was ordinary, because we spent time in each other’s space connecting heart and passion and love and togetherness in something as simple as cooking a meal together or watching a movie or sitting and reading books to one another or just being quiet and still and in the same place. I love that. I think that Cozbi did a great job bringing that magic together.

Zibby: I agree. That makes me almost sad for time. I just wish I had that time to sit and do nothing. Where’s the picture here of the mom totally stressed running around on her phone and sitting at her desk like me all day? No one’s laughing in a picture like that. Where is that picture?

Denene: Get in the bed! I said, get in the bed, turn the light off!

Zibby: Where is the mom crying on the bathroom floor? I don’t see her either. What? No. I have a different children’s book narrative for myself. Oh, my gosh, when I cover my face like this, it’s not because I’m happy. I love that book. I just love it. It’s quality time encapsulated. I’ve always been really interested in starting an imprint. I still have this dream that I’m going to start my own imprint for women memoirists or something. I almost did it recently. What is it actually like? I feel like I would be so emotionally invested in the books that it would take over my own life and everything else I was doing. I feel like I would almost feel more responsible for their books than I would a book of my own.

Denene: That is a very accurate assessment. There are times when I have to talk myself into, you have to pull back just a little bit. Divest a little bit. I run an imprint, but I’m still an author. I’m still a working author and a working journalist. The imprint is a passion. I don’t make a whole lot of money running this imprint. My bread and butter and tuition is paid by my writing. I have to remind myself of that. There is a whole infrastructure of people who are very, very good at their jobs and enjoy doing them and don’t need me to have my hand in every single solitary thing that has to happen in order for this book to be birthed. I look at myself as the doula. When I look at myself as the doula, then it’s like, you are doing the work, I am just coaching you through this. I’m helping you. I’m making sure that all the other people in the room who are here to help this baby be birthed are doing their jobs to the best of their ability for the sake of giving birth to this baby, but you are the one who is having the baby. This is your baby. It’s not mine. When I keep that in mind when I’m doing these books, it makes it a little bit easier. I think I come to it in a different kind of way maybe because I’m an author. It’s my baby. I sat here. I wrote it. I went to sleep thinking about it. I dreamed about it. I woke up. I worked on it some more. I skipped a Saturday afternoon out in the park in the sun because I tied myself to this computer. That means something. Every word that’s on that page meant something. There’s a reason why it’s there. I don’t want to have someone just willy-nilly change my words around for their own purposes. This is my baby. I decided how her hair would look today. I decided what shoes she would wear today. I decided that she would have Cheerios instead of Froot Loops. I made pancakes instead of French toast because that’s my baby. I respect that when it comes to my authors.

Boy, is it a lot of work to run an imprint. There’s so much work in terms of getting the production, the marketing, and the promotion together, getting the illustrators and keeping them on task, getting the authors and keeping them on task that sometimes actually reading through submissions is an afterthought, which is just terrible. When someone sends you their work and they want you to consider it for publication, they don’t want to wait months for you to read two hundred pages. They want you to let them know if this is something that you want to publish, and if you are, let’s get to it. There’s so much work to be done that sometimes I literally have to put my own work aside, put the imprint work aside, and say, okay, I’m going to sit here and just read everybody else’s work and see what’s new and what I can purchase, what may not work for me. I never want to give a no without giving a specific reason why, which would give you the chance to decide if you’re going to work on maybe making what it is that I saw, could be a better book, better or if you’re going to just take it to someone else who sees your vision. I used to hate rejection letters. I was just like, no, thanks. What am I supposed to do with that? What is it that you didn’t like? Is there some usefulness that you could give me that could make this work better? I’m always down for making something better. When there’s something that I love, I get to say, here’s why I love it. Here’s what I can convince the company to put behind it. I am the conduit or the doula who’s going to make that happen. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of work.

Zibby: All right, I needed to hear that. I’m always like, I can fit one more thing in, but it sounds like a whole nother job.

Denene: It is.

Zibby: I was almost conceptualizing it less like a doula and more like a grandmother. There’s that pride of ownership, and yet you’re not really responsible. You can’t really be in charge, but you have the right to kind of hover.

Denene: Right, but grandmas can walk away.

Zibby: Maybe this is just my relationship with my mother coming out.

Denene: Grandmas can be gully. All right, girl, I’m finished. Take your baby back. I’m done. A doula, you’re paying her to do what she’s supposed to do. She has to stick to it until that baby is born and past the six-week checkup.

Zibby: I see. A little more transactional.

Denene: For sure. Everybody’s heart is in the right place, but it is transactional.

Zibby: Wait, so go back to your own babies, your books that you’re proud of yourself and the writing, your day job if you will. Tell me more about the writing.

Denene: I am in the throes of finishing up a book called The Beautiful Blood. It is an epic story about three black women in America, one who gives birth to a baby and has that baby taken away from her in the 1960s South. She’s born in the 1940s, so you see her life in the forties and fifties and then what happens to her baby in the sixties. Then the second one is the mother who adopts that baby who gets taken away. Then the third part is the actual baby as a mother and grown-up living her own life and sort of comparing her life to that of her mother and through epigenetics, feeling the things that her birth mother went through when she had her own children. Oh, my god, daily, I wake up, I’m like, what were you thinking? Who told you you could do this? Why? When I hang up with you, I’m going to sit here like this in front of this computer just like this. Girl, I don’t even understand what I was thinking when I told these people at St. Martin’s Press and these eight other countries that I could do this.

Zibby: Of course, you can do it. Oh, my gosh, yeah, that is a lot of pressure.

Denene: But here I am.

Zibby: That’s a great idea.

Denene: It’s a beautiful, beautiful story that’s rooted in some form of reality. I’m an adopted child. I was left, I’m told, on a stoop. My parents came along and found me at an orphanage in Manhattan four days after I was brought there from wherever I was found. My parents are the most loving, hard, caring, giving parents that I could’ve ever asked for. I am convinced that my birth mother did the absolute best thing she could do for me, was to leave me somewhere so that my parents could find me and be my parents. If it were not for them, I don’t think that I would be where I am today. My parents are Southerners. My mom was from South Carolina. She passed away almost nineteen years ago. My dad lives in Virginia. He’s eighty-six, still my best friend. They lived good lives. They weren’t rich. They weren’t poor. They were solidly working-class black people in America who had factory jobs. My mom was in the church. They had their small group of friends that they went bowling with and played Pokeno with on Saturday nights. They lived good, quiet lives. I want to honor, in this book, my mother in particular.

I wrote an essay for The New York Times that’s coming out this Sunday. In it, I say my mom was of a generation that was in the crook between the Civil Rights Movement and the feminism movement. Black women tended to get sort of lost between the two movements. Feminists of the time tended to fight primarily for white women. Then with the Civil Rights Movement, you fought for black people, but by black people, we meant black men. Where do black women fall in that? I felt like my mom lived this beautiful life, but she also lived a very invisible life that never gets talked about in any kind of grand way. Who was she? Who were her friends? How did they deal with being treated not as an equal to their men and having these expectations of this Ozzie and Harriet kind of, you have dinner on the table, you are responsible for the kids, you’re responsible for the house? You also, because your husband is black and doesn’t make a whole lot of money because of circumstances of black people in America, you have to work too. You’re working full time, probably not making as much money as the men surrounding you or the white women surrounding you and going through all kinds of different racist things happening to you at the same time you have to go back home and deal with what it means to be a woman in a household with a man who has expectations of you that are very old-school. I am man, I take out the garbage and mow the lawn, and then you do everything else.

Who are those women? I wanted to honor my mom in that kind of way by actually exploring that on the page and then exploring who my birth mother may have been and how she may have gotten to that point where she had to either have her baby taken away or give her baby away in order to see a better life for her, or what it felt like to have your baby taken away, and then what it’s like to be the person who is the recipient of the trauma that comes from both of those things, the trauma of being left. Anybody who is adopted can tell you that there’s not a day that goes by that you don’t think of your birth parents, whether they’ve been in your life or not, whether you had a great experience with your adopted parents or not. There is something inside of you, inside of your DNA and your heart and your gut and your sinew that is forever connected by blood, by that beautiful blood that runs through your veins. I wanted to explore what that means to have that blood running through me and honor that, but also honor the woman who taught me how to be. Girl, I don’t know if it’s going to read anywhere like what I had intended, what you just heard coming out of my mouth, but I’m trying. I am trying.

Zibby: First of all, you are an amazing storyteller. I could just sit here with my chin in my hands all day listening to you tell these tales. You’re a gifted storyteller. I am sure that that is on the page as well. All you have to do is just say that and put it down there. Wow, what a wild story. Did you ever try to find your birth parents?

Denene: No, I have no desire. My parents are everything to me, and that’s that. It’s funny. Do you watch the show This Is Us?

Zibby: I’ve seen it. I don’t watch it. I know what you mean. I have watched it enough, once or twice.

Denene: There’s a character on there, Randall, who is one of the triplets, but he’s not really their — he’s a baby that they picked up the day that they had these two other babies. The third baby passed away, so they grabbed this baby who had been left at the fire station and bring him home with them.

Zibby: I have not watched it enough to know that, so I guess never mind. Anyway, go ahead.

Denene: Randall is black. The family is white. This season, they’ve been exploring Randall coming to terms with the fact that he was a black boy who was raised by these white folks. There were a lot of things that he had to kind of push down and push to the side and not explore growing up because he was just, not so much — he was happy to be there, but it’s not just a matter of being happy to be there. It’s being grateful to be there but understanding that — how do I explain it? The emotions that he’s going through, it’s like he’s taken them out of my mouth. You don’t want to disrespect the people who basically created this space for you to live. So many different things could’ve happened to me. My mother could’ve decided not to have me. She could’ve decided, well, maybe I should go see a back-alley somebody and just handle this. Maybe I should put her in a trash bag out on the side of the road and just forget about this. Or, maybe I should do, what she did, put her somewhere safe so that somebody can along and take her. My parents coming along and finding me means something to me. That is a gift to me. That’s the gift of life from three different people, my birth mother and then my mother and my dad. I don’t want to ever have my parents question my loyalty to them and my loyalty to our family that they graciously brought me into and created for me. My dad is of the mindset, you’re my daughter, and that’s all there is to it. That’s the way that I look at it. You’re my dad, and that’s all there is to it. I don’t have any desire to do that.

Zibby: I’m not trying to pressure you. I’m kidding. I’m sure you get this question a lot.

Denene: Oh, my gosh. Every time I say I’m adopted, the first thing that someone asks me —

Zibby: — I know. I’m sorry.

Denene: It’s not bothersome to me at all to be asked the question. I like to explain it. My journey is different from the next person’s. There are people who go out there and they actually, no matter what anybody has to say about it, they’re going to go and find their birth parents. Sometimes that story works out great. Sometimes it’s really ugly. I have no horse in that race. I’m nowhere in the stadium.

Zibby: Maybe there’s, though, some deeper reason why this is your first book. Just saying, maybe. I’m going to just put that out there as your armchair psychologist of the afternoon, whatever that means to you.

Denene: There is another book that I published in the first season at the same time as Me & Mama, it came out a little bit earlier, called Just Like a Mama. It’s by this incredible writer and librarian out of Memphis named Alice Faye Duncan who wrote a piece about a little girl being raised by a mom who is not her birth mom. The whole book is about how this little girl misses her birth mom, her birth parents. She learns how to really appreciate and love this woman who’s raising her just like a mama.

Zibby: I did read that too. I did. It’s just been a little while. Yes, I remember. There was something about the tablecloth, right? Weren’t they sitting at the —

Denene: — She’s like, “Eat your peas, Caroline.” That book resonates with me even more than Me & Mama. When I think of Me & Mama, I think of me and my daughters. When I think of Just Like A Mama, I think about my mom and dad and this kinship that we have that is not rooted in blood but is absolutely rooted in heart.

Zibby: I love that. That’s beautiful. Last question for you because I feel like I could sit here and listen to you all day. I have to tear myself away from this conversation. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Denene: Oh, goodness, sure, I’m a fount of advice for aspiring authors. Are you talking about children’s book authors? Are you talking about authors in general? Just authors in general?

Zibby: However you choose to do it, authors in general.

Denene: My biggest advice, my best advice to authors is two things. Write every day no matter what, no matter if you’re on deadline, no matter if you have a project that you are starting or completing. Write every day. I have a friend named Karen Good Marable. She’s a writer, one of my favorite writers. When I was a young journalist at The Daily News and then became an editor at Honey Magazine and Parenting magazine — Karen used to write for Vibe and Essence and all of these great magazines. I would literally tear her articles out of the magazine and hang them up like posters. She has a beautiful, beautiful writing voice that echoes her everyday voice. I think Southern people have just this really beautiful way of using language and telling stories. She is from Prairie View, Texas. Though she doesn’t have an accent, she has very much that storytelling cadence. It comes out in her writing. I just adore her. She moved here a few years ago. We are constantly communicating with one another when it comes to writing.

She had read something somewhere that suggested that in order to get yourself primed to write, that you sit down every day and just take a journal and write four pages. Just write four pages, free write. You don’t have to sit down and say, today I’m going to write about flowers. You just sit down. You let your hand write. She said by the time your hand gets to the fourth page, the truth has no other choice but to come out. I’m like, oh, let me try it. I tried it. Sure enough, whenever I’m at a loss for how to start a chapter or what a character should be thinking or how they’re going to respond to something that I’ve put on the page, sitting there and writing four non-stop, on a page, not typing, handwritten on a page, oh, my goodness, the things that come out on that page that somehow always have some kind of relevancy to what it is that I think I want to communicate on a page. Write every day. Whether it’s working on a project or working on an idea or coming up with an idea, just sit down and let your hand touch that page. Then the second thing is read. Game recognizes game, so you got to read. You have to pick up these books. I’m sitting here. I had a couple of meetings earlier, so I haven’t written today. I’m going to write as soon as we hang up. I picked up You Are Your Best Thing.

Zibby: I can’t wait to read that book.

Denene: I was reading Jason Reynolds, his first story. I’m like, yeah, okay, what I do is not right. I need to step my game up. I feel like I want to throw this computer across the room and never look at it again and maybe go pack groceries at Kroger because that all I’m worthy of right now. I should not be a writer. When you read other people’s work, you see storytelling. You hear cadence. You see how to form a beginning, a middle, and an end. You see how to color a sentence. You see how to put together ideas and processes. You come away from it a stronger writer when you look at somebody else’s work and read it and really glom into it. Then you go and put your hand on the page. It’s write every day and it’s read every day, period.

Zibby: Amazing. Wow. Denene, thank you. This has been so much fun and really inspiring. I hope I get to meet you in real life at some point and we can hang out or something.

Denene: Thank you. That would be lovely, if only that I get to lay on that couch and read a book. My god.

Zibby: Come on over. Are you in New York by any chance?

Denene: I’m in Atlanta. I’m from New York. What part of New York are you in if you don’t mind my asking?

Zibby: Upper East Side.

Denene: I could come and see you. When the world opens back up and I can actually go into the office of Simon & Schuster, which only happened once, then I can stop by and say hey.

Zibby: Please do. I used to have authors here all the time. Please come.

Denene: I would love it.

Zibby: Take care. Thank you so much.

Denene: Thank you. Thanks so much. Take care. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts