Author of the Newbery and Coretta Scott King Award-winning One Crazy Summer, Rita Williams-Garcia writes in the uncrowded genre of middle-grade historical fiction. Focusing on African-American characters (Williams-Garcia is African-American), One Crazy Summer and its sequel, PS Be Eleven, have won over readers with their sensitive, realistic portrayal of three young sisters dealing with an absent mother and a father who announces he’s remarrying — all against the backdrop of the American Civil Rights Movement.
City Paper: Literature that children and young people read serves such an important purpose – I think the books that we enjoy at those ages stay with us in a very different way from ones we encounter as adults. How does this affect the way you write (if it does)?
Rita Williams-Garcia: I try to respect the world that teens navigate through, which is so different from my own experiences. Teen life is tricky. The person you are during those years is still figuring things out and testing limits. I approach not knowing all the answers, even when I know the story.
CP: Do you ever test your books out on your own kids?
RWG: Actually, my daughters were in elementary school when I was writing for teens, so I didn’t test my novels on them. Now that they’re adults, they’ve read my middle grade novels and get a sense of the goofy kid that I was.
CP: What do you think is the key to making historical fiction relevant to your readers today?
RWG: I think the key is in the connections — a point I hope comes across in my upcoming release, Gone Crazy in Alabama, starring Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern from One Crazy Summer and PS Be Eleven. History isn’t some distant time long, long ago. We are living the effects of history every single day. By the same token, we all play a part in living history by simply being, acting, witnessing, and telling. Each and every one of us makes up those pixels that create some part of that picture of a historical era or event. This is how I lead when I’m writing historical fiction.
CP: Do you feel like the experiences of people of color are adequately represented in young adult literature, or in literature in general? If not, what do you think are some things that can be done to help remedy this?
RWG: When I began submitting my YA work some 30 years ago, I could count the number of YA books and children’s books with African-American characters released that year on my hands. The subject matter was generally slavery and the Civil Rights era with a few contemporary novels from authors like Rosa Guy, Walter Dean Myers, Alice Childress, and Joyce Hansen.
You’d have to look hard for Native American, Latino, African, Caribbean, Asian, Latino, Southeast Asian, and LGBT books. Yes, there are more titles today, but the statistics are daunting. Children of diversity still do not see themselves in books, period — let alone have the range of books truly required to reflect diversity. If we frequent our local bookstores and libraries and seek out books with diverse characters we’ll remedy this issue. Books with diverse characters are for everyday and every shelf.
We can participate in the grassroots push, #WeNeedDiverseBooks and contribute to #AnOpenBook. And check out a book. Buy a book. If you demand it, publishers will publish it, libraries can stock it, and kids can read it.