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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The sound of laughter and the aroma of freshly baked chicken with spices fills the kitchen. There are cookbooks on the counter standing tall with step-by-step instructions for diabetic-friendly meals, but Angela Shelf Medearis doesn’t need to reference any of the recipes. She wrote the cookbook.

“For the most part, I was the first African America author they had ever published,” Shelf Medearis said, adding book publishers told her “no” many times.

“I have thousands of rejection letters. I have been rejected in every form: in person by fax, by text, by email, by phone. If you sort of do the math, I probably have maybe 200 rejection letters for every book I published,” she said.

Her first book was published in 1990, titled “Picking Peas for a Penny.” It wasn’t a cookbook but a children’s book, instead.

Thirty-three years ago, inspired by how much joy reading brought her young daughter, Shelf Medearis started Book Boosters, a 501(c )3 non-profit to boost the self-esteem in kids of color by reading to them. When she couldn’t find enough books with characters that looked like the kids she was mentoring, she wrote one.

“Picking Peas for a Penny” is a book about Shelf Medearis’ mother and reads like poetry to keep the attention of a young child’s mind.

“So let me tell you a story that my mama told me about picking peas in the 1930s. How times were hard and times were tough but picking peas for a living was good enough.”

Excerpt from “Picking Peas for a Penny”

No one wanted to publish it.

Shelf Medearis recalls what one book sales representative told her: “‘Black people don’t go to bookstores to buy books and white people won’t buy books with blacks in them.’ I said, ‘How can a Black person buy a book at the bookstore if you don’t publish Black books? You might have a huge audience there.”

Motivated and determined to get her book published, Shelf Medearis and her husband traveled all over Texas with printed paper copies of her book in their car trunk, reading to children in classrooms. Thirty-two rejection letters later, turns out there was a huge audience for her first book and Shelf Medearis would go on to author 100 more published books.

Angela Shelf Medearis hosts a storytime with Laura Bush in 2011 (Courtesy Angela Shelf Medearis)
Angela Shelf Medearis hosts a storytime with Laura Bush in 2011 (Courtesy Angela Shelf Medearis)

Later, when members of her family was diagnosed with diabetes and she couldn’t find healthy cookbooks that spoke to her culture, she wrote one. That, too, was rejected.

“So, and I said to myself, ‘I bet he just heard the words African American Kitchen and said, “Nope!”‘,” she recalled.

She re-sent her manuscript to the New York publisher, but this time it was stuffed in a box with her homemade peach cobbler.

“Maybe he’ll flip through my manuscript and change his mind?” she remembered thinking at the time.

That’s exactly what happened.

With several published cookbooks, Shelf Medearis traveled the country with her sister to promote the recipes on local and national television and became known as “The Kitchen Diva.”

But The Kitchen Diva has since found something else that feeds her soul. She went from showing people how to eat well to making sure people had food to eat all. Her latest chapter in life includes delivering meals to hungry families in east Austin.