Queens, N.Y., native Rita Williams-Garcia says, “Writing stories for young people is my passion and my mission.” Recipient of the PEN/Norma Klein Award, Williams-Garcia is known for her works’ realistic portrayal of teens of color. For her New York Times best-seller “One Crazy Summer,” she won the 2011 Newbery Honor Award, the Coretta Scott King Award and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. In her latest Coretta Scott King Award-winning novel “P.S. Be Eleven” (HarperCollins), the sequel to “One Crazy Summer,” character Delphine Gaither returns to Brooklyn with her family and tries to “be 11” while she can despite the changing circumstances and responsibilities around her. This historical fiction tells the story of three sisters growing up amid the backdrop of the Black Panthers, Vietnam War and the overall radical change of the 1960s. Williams-Garcia teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in the Writing for Children & Young Adults Program.
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
What sparked your imagination for your book – One Crazy Summer?
I grew up in the 1960s and wanted to share a part of that time with my readers. If we think of the Black Panthers at all, we rarely remember their work with and for children. The Black Panthers began a breakfast program—a practice now implemented in schools throughout the country. They provided sickle cell anemia testing and fought for decent living conditions such as landlords’ use of lead paint, which is harmful to children. Their children’s programs included arts and crafts, literature, history, world events, and physical exercise. Why not show a piece of this movement through the eyes of a child who might have been served by or involved with the Black Panthers?
While I wanted to introduce the Black Panthers and talk a little about the volatility of the times, I also wanted to celebrate childhood in this story. Delphine, with so many responsibilities, has a hard time simply being a child. I enjoyed my childhood, growing up in Seaside, California. I couldn’t think of a better outdoor environment to place Delphine and her sisters than in sunny California in the 60s, where kids rode bikes and played kickball and dodge ball in the streets.
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
For a while, my biggest hurdle was finding time to write. I used to work full time in a fast-paced field and used my commute and lunch hour to write. It helped that as a child, I had developed the habit of writing every day. When I was around twelve I wrote story ideas in a notebook during the day and in the evening, after doing homework, I wrote at least 500 words of my never ending autobiographic novel. I laugh when I read my early work, but writing it developed my writing rhythm. It helped that writing was my own thing and I looked forward to doing it.
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?
First, be a reader, and read everything. In addition to enjoying stories from a favorite author, start noticing a few techniques the author uses to make her/his storytelling effective.
Second, start writing. Write for your own joy to get into the habit of flexing those muscles! Writing a little bit each day will grow into a sustained ability. Just write!
Third, be sense aware! Pay attention with your eyes, ears, nose, and hands. Eventually, you’ll gain an even deeper sense of your fifth intuitive sense. As you engage your senses to the world around you, your word choices and images will become all the more lively and multi-dimensional.
Lastly, take advantage of language arts classes to build on a strong grammar and usage foundation. The same grammar issues that plagued me as kid, still challenge me to this day. I write as freely as I can while I’m creating my story, but much later I use the editing phase to deal with my pesky old friends. As with everything in life, develop good habits early and keep them up with practice.
Can you suggest a fun writing topic to get them started?
Objects, like Delphine’s Timex watch, can reveal a lot about a character. Delphine is responsible, dependable and does things in a timely manner.
Take a character from a story you’re writing, or plan to write, and think of an object that will be associated with them. Take a few minutes to fully imagine your character and the connection between them and the object. Then write one or two paragraphs of the character in a scene with that object.
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
- Skellig David Almond
- Feed M.T. Anderson
- The Underneath Kathi Appelt
- Naughts and Crosses Malorie Blackman
- What I Saw and How I Lied Judy Blundell
- Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You Peter Cameron
- Ribsy Beverly Cleary
- Pinocchio (The original novel translated to English)
- Bud, Not Buddy Christopher Paul Curtis
- Ball, Don’t Lie Matt De La Pena
- The Tiger Rising Kate DiCamillo
- Out of My Mind Sharon Draper
- Harriet, the Spy Louise Fitzhugh
- The Friends Rosa Guy
- Olive’s Ocean Kevin Henkes
- Looking for Red Angela Johnson
- A Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L’Engle
- Le Morte D’Arthur Sir Thomas Mallory
- 31 Brothers and Sisters Reba Paef Mirsky
- DiDi and Motown Walter Dean Myers
- Island of the Blue Dolphins Scott O’Dell
- Same Stuff as Stars Katherine Paterson
- Tantalize Cynthia Leitich-Smith
- The Hobbit J.R. Tolkien
- Feathers Jacqueline Woodson
- The Maestro Tim Wynne-Jones
How do you decide on themes for your books?
I’m not always certain what will come first: the story or what lies beneath the story. If it’s the theme first, I don’t start writing until I have a story and a character to follow. If the story comes first, I stay as true to characters as I can, and often theme grows out of the struggle of those characters. Often theme comes from what I observe in the world. For example, a few years ago I couldn’t help but notice the rise in reported incidents of peer violence and female initiated violence. I thought about individual responsibility and the idea of bystanders as participants in peer violence. I looked at messages sent to girls through the ever-present media and entertainment world. I found it interesting that we touted positive self-esteem for girls twenty years ago, although now I’m more concerned about teens and an almost perverse sense of self-involvement. I gave all three viewpoint characters in Jumped large doses of self-involvement. As I wrote in my characters’ voices and told their story, my thoughts and observations about peer violence, personal responsibility and empathy percolated beneath the surface.
How important is research in the development of your books? Can you explain the process as well?
There’s no way around research! The hunt for artifacts, interviews and information can only bring the world I’m writing about to life for the reader. I don’t include everything I learn in the story, but having tons of information handy allows me to write with authority. For One crazy Summer I worked mainly with former Black Panther, David Hilliard’s The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service to capture the weekly events of the times from the organization’s point of view. I studied the Black Panther art of Emory Douglas, among other artists representing that movement. I read mostly women poets, such as Sonja Sanchez, Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni, and also autobiographies and interviews of Black Panthers. I drew from my own recollections of the times for facts of ordinary life, but I had to dig to find specific facts such as prices of food, a house, fortune cookies. Since I had never been to Oakland, I mapped out the area where the story would take place. I had to make sure there was a Safeway store in the area where I set the story. With the exception of about four, every chapter entailed research—even the model of Cecile’s printer. I don’t mention the Vander Cook moveable type printer by name, but I searched high and low for the right printer. It had to be right, down to how old it could be, and that it would have rollers and a hand crank.
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
Children absorb the activities and values in the home. Read to your children when you bring them home from the hospital. Let them get used to the cadence of spoken story, and then watch their mind's ears and eyes grow! They'll become stronger listeners, intuitive thinkers and confident people. My father used to play a spelling game with us or give us the word of the day and have us look it up in the dictionary and then use it in a sentence. To this day, my older sister Rosalind still recalls my father giving her the word "adapt" on her first day in a predominantly white school.
Can you tell us about any new books that you will be working on during the coming year?
Forthcoming is The Place of All Games with a mostly male cast of characters. The Place of All Games is set in an alternate future and place where disputes are settled by gaming and the combatants for one warring side happen to be boys. This story is vastly different from my other titles. It was an opportunity for me to engage my other interests but to also grow. I won't say it was easy, but I'm ready to do it again!
I'm also at work on the sequel for One Crazy Summer, titled P.S.: Be Eleven. I just couldn't leave Delphine, Vonetta and Fern alone! In this follow up story, the girls have just landed in New York, their father has an announcement, their Uncle Darnell will return home from Vietnam, and Delphine must face the dreaded sixth grade dance. There’s a whole lot going on!
If you weren’t creating children’s books, what do you think you would be doing?
I’d probably try to write television shows. I used to study how sitcoms and dramas were structured and found that interesting as a child. Or, I’d teach dance to the elderly. Now that sounds like fun!
Do you have a website where young people can learn more about you and your work?
Yes, indeed! I'm at www.ritawg.com.