Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Awards: Coretta Scott King Author Award, Coretta Scott King Author Honor, Once Upon a World Children’s Book Award, Carter G. Woodson Elementary Honor, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, Jane Addams Children’s Book Award
Vaunda Micheaux Nelson was born October 10, 1953, in Elizabeth, PA. She earned an undergraduate degree in English from Point Park College (now Point Park University) in Pittsburgh, a Master of English degree from The Bread Loaf School of English, Middlebury College, Vermont, and a Master of Library Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh. An author, librarian, and educator, she has published more than a dozen books for young readers. In 2010, she received the Coretta Scott King Author award for her book Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshall. Her books draw on stories from her own childhood, her family, and Black history.
Vaunda Micheaux Nelson was born October 10, 1953, to Norris and Olive (Batch) Micheaux of Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, the youngest of their five children. Both parents worked to support the family; her father owned and operated an auto body repair shop, while her mother was a laundromat attendant and domestic worker.
Storytelling, creativity, and family were powerful forces in Nelson’s childhood home. The Micheaux parents had a profound influence on their children’s relationship with reading and writing. Olive Micheaux read to the children every night, even after they learned to read themselves; though the town of Elizabeth had no public library, she took the children to the bookmobile every two weeks. Meanwhile, Norris Micheaux recited poetry and wrote his own verses. He also played the piano, and the family formed a large contingent of the small church choir at Elizabeth’s Allen Chapel AME Church. Nelson’s extended family lived in Elizabeth and nearby Pittsburgh, and Sundays after church often involved family gatherings at her maternal grandparents’ home.
Education also shaped Nelson. In their early years, she and her siblings were the only Black family in their school district, and they experienced racial slurs on the playground that sometimes resulted in fights. However, Nelson recalls her mother’s advice, which she took to heart: “You just be as nice as you can be.” Despite its challenges, Nelson loved school and was an extremely involved student, performing in theater and chorus, and serving as yearbook editor, class vice president, and a member of the student council in high school. She also began writing songs and poems in her preteen years, long before she considered creative writing as a career.
Upon graduating from high school, Nelson attended Point Park College (now Point Park University) in Pittsburgh, initially pursuing a degree in Journalism. However, she found journalistic writing formulaic and changed her major to English to better pursue her literary interests. She graduated in 1975 with an Associate of Arts degree in Journalism and Communications and a Bachelor of Arts in English. In 1977, she also earned a teaching certificate in English from Clarion State College (now Clarion University) in Clarion, PA.
Nelson’s professional career began in education with teaching jobs at O’Hara Junior High School in Fox Chapel, PA, and the English departments at the University of Pittsburgh and Chatham College from 1977 to 1981. During this time, she also pursued a Master of Arts degree through a summer program at The Bread Loaf School of English, Middlebury College in Vermont, graduating with an M.A. in English in 1980. During this time, she met Pittsburgh-area reporter Drew Nelson, whom she married in 1983. From 1981 to 1984, she put her journalism degree to work as a staff writer at The Daily News in McKeesport, Pennsylvania.
After leaving the newspaper in 1984, Nelson took a job as a bookseller at Pinocchio Bookstore for Children in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood. Though she intended it only as a temporary position, Nelson remained at Pinocchio for three years, a period she cites as enormously influential for her career. The job put her in constant contact — for the first time in her adult life — with librarians and children’s literature. She found a mentor in Pinocchio owner Marilyn Hollinshead and began to consider writing for children. She eventually joined Hollinshead’s writers’ workshop as she crafted her first story, based on her childhood experience of her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease. Meanwhile, the librarians she met at Pinocchio encouraged her to pursue a new professional direction: library school. In 1987, Nelson left Pinocchio to earn a library degree at the University of Pittsburgh, graduating with a Master of Library Science degree in 1988. The same year, Nelson published her first book, Always Gramma. In the years since, Nelson has published more than a dozen books for young readers. From 1988 to 1989, she worked as a children’s librarian for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, then from 1989 to 1994 as a school librarian at Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh. In 1994, she moved with her husband to New Mexico to accept a position as head of the children’s department at the Rio Rancho Public Library. Shortly before her retirement in 2018, she became a recreation specialist at the city’s senior center.
Many of Nelson’s books draw on stories from her own childhood and family history. Her Grandma books are based on her experiences with her own grandmother; her Mayfield books reflect her childhood growing up in Elizabeth; and No Crystal Stair and The Book Itch tell the story of her great-uncle Lewis Micheaux, who owned the National Memorial African Bookstore, which served as literary, cultural, and political hub in mid-twentieth-century Harlem. Nelson’s work also explores Black history more broadly, including such topics as the Underground Railroad and the lives of Black historical figures including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bass Reeves. Her 2009 book Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal received the Coretta Scott King Author Award. In addition to books tackling American history and her personal experience, Nelson also sees value in books exploring the everyday experiences of Black children. She said in a 2022 interview, “I’d like to see more books just showing children of color doing … kid stuff and not based on social issues.” She is addressing that need with her “Raymond and Roxy” series, which began with Ready? Set. Raymond! in 2002.
Taken together, Nelson's literary work and her work as a librarian speak to her commitment to the power of stories and personal relationships to build empathy and understanding. Both represent enormous contributions to the field of children's literature and to her communities — in Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and the nation.
Always Gramma. Illustrated by Kimanne Uhler. New York: Putnam, 1988.
Mayfield Crossing. Illustrated by Leonard Jenkins. New York: Putnam, 1993.
Ready? Set. Raymond! Illustrated by Derek Anderson. New York: Random House, 2002.
Almost to Freedom. Illustrated by Colin Bootman. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books, 2003.
Juneteenth. Co-Authored with Drew Nelson. Illustrated by Mark Schroder. Minneapolis, MN: Millbrook Press, 2006.
Who Will I Be, Lord? Illustrated by Sean Qualls. New York: Random House, 2009.
Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books, 2009.
No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Micheaux, Harlem Bookseller. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Lab, 2012.
The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth, & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Carolrhoda, 2015.
Dream March: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the March on Washington. Illustrated by Sally Wern. Comport, New York: Random House, 2017.
Let ‘Er Buck: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion. Illustrated by Gordon C. James. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda, 2019.