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Cleo is a good example of the various influences that generate story. The impetus for the novel was my agent who mentioned to me that she was noticing a big need (and demand) for chapter book series that featured main characters from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
Our world is diverse. My world is diverse. I want to write books that reflect this beautiful fact. So I took on the challenge of creating a new character that could be at the center of such a series. I wanted Cleo to be a bright, energetic, confident African-American girl because this is my heritage, and I have many aunts, cousins, and friends who are all Cleos in their own way.
Although I went through a phase, like most kids, where I made little crafty things and hoped somehow to get people to buy them, I was never the Playground Millionaire type myself. However, I have a young friend who is very much this type, and it was her creativity and passion for selling that inspired the idea of a character who dreams of building a business empire.
As for my character's name, a bookstore owner had told me about her granddaughter who had the middle name Cleopatra. I had never heard of a child being named after the powerful and persuasive Egyptian ruler, but I thought it was an awesome name for a girl, and I knew the spirit of Cleopatra captured the essence of the character I wanted to create.
I played around with middle and last names for Cleo and came up with Edison Oliver because I thought it would be fun to give her the initials C.E.O. Later I realized that Edison embodied Cleo's drive toward business and innovation (Thomas Edison was quite the driven businessman as well as inventor from what I understand), and Oliver conjured the Dickens' book, Oliver Twist, about an orphaned boy.
Cleo is not an orphan. However, she is an adopted kid (like my young friend who helped inspire the character), and while that fact doesn't define her identity (no one facet of any of our experiences does), it is a significant shaping force, just as race has been for me. The thing I love about Cleo is how she is a shaping force. She loves the art of persuasion and convincing people to buy whatever she's selling, whether a product, a service, or just a great idea.
Part of my calling as a writer, I've discovered, is to portray families that don't "look" like they belong with one another. To show love that knows no boundaries, particularly along the lines that our society draws and defends so fiercely. In Cleo Edison Oliver, I continue my tradition of depicting interracial families. This family happens to be so by adoption — a beautiful and yet undeniably painful way that some parents and children come together.
I hope the various forces that were at work to bring Cleo Edison Oliver into the world will direct her into the hands of all kinds of kids — future business moguls, entrepreneurs, adopted or not, black, white, and other. All kids are dreamers, and I hope that Cleo inspires them to persist in their dreams!
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