“Talk about children’s books?” author Rita Williams-Garcia chortled to our moderator, middle grade writer and SCBWI Metro NY Steering Committee member Gina Carey, as the May Professional Series conversation began. “Try and stop me!”
Over the course of the evening, Williams-Garcia took us from her first stories (“The lies I told my mother; they had all the drama I loved”) to her earliest submissions to McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal (“I loved the ‘Can this Marriage be Saved?’ feature”), Argosy and Playboy (“They wanted sex and war; everything I knew was from ‘The Time of Your Life’ weekly sex ed video.”), to the publication of her first novel, Blue Tights, in 1988 (to be republished in 2017 under Williams-Garcia’s own personal imprint, TRAIN SPARK).
Much of the evening’s conversation described the challenges of writing realistic, historical fiction from a child’s point of view, using as the main example Williams-Garcia’s trilogy of middle-grade novels set in the 1960s: One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven and the recently published Gone Crazy in Alabama, for which she has won a total of three Coretta Scott King Book Awards (2011, 2014 and 2016), a Newbery Honor and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. The trilogy starts in 1968, a time that Williams-Garcia calls “intense, but so much fun,” and touches on such seemingly adult subjects as the Black Panthers, the Vietnam War, drug addiction among returning veterans, and a mother who abandons her family, all as seen by Delphine, the oldest of three sisters.
“I knew I was going to write about the Black Panthers, and I knew it would be a story for children, so that the main characters would have to be children,” Williams-Garcia said. “This meant that the reader would learn about the Panthers as well.” But there are challenges to writing history from a child’s point of view. “Everything [in the trilogy] had to be filtered through Delphine’s eyes. If she wasn’t interested, I’d have to leave it out.”
Adults aren’t the central figures in children’s books, but they are key figures in realistic and historical children’s fiction. “In realistic fiction, the real-life acts of the adults impinge on the child,” Garcia-Williams stressed. “The way the child responds to the world around her has everything to do with the parents. Sometimes a glimpse of the home life illuminates the child’s behavior.”
But while a setting like Oakland, CA in 1968 (where the first book takes place) can be a great hook, Williams-Garcia points out that “setting is not story.” A good story is character-driven, not event-driven. “Everything is through the lens of your character,” Williams-Garcia stressed. “Focus, or events get away from the character.” The character is the reader’s bridge to a different time and place: “If you can engage the reader via your character, they will enter your world.”
The trilogy didn’t start out as three books. “I thought it was a single story,” Williams-Garcia said. “After I began writing the first book [which takes place in Oakland, CA], I realized that there was more of the story in Brooklyn, where the girls live with their father and grandmother. I didn’t realize that there was a third book until I was on a ‘good draft’ of the first.”
The conversation expanded to include Williams-Garcia’s other novels, including her YA works Jumped and Blue Tights, and the book she’s finishing now, Clayton Bird Goes Underground.
“I love talking about the work because then it’s real to me,” Williams-Garcia explained.
Rita Garcia-Williams made it real for us, too.
Queens-native Adria Quiñones writes like she’s running out of time. Follow her on Twitter (@AdriaQuinones).