By Vanessa Aarons
1. What made you want to become a writer for children?
Reading was a major comfort and motivator for me during my childhood; it often provided me with a “home” when my family moved around a lot. Books were a place to try things out, to explore my many selves, to figure out what I thought and who I might want to be. They were such a gift to me, I hope to offer some of the same to readers now.
2. What type of books interested you when you were a kid? And how have they shaped your work today?
I had a lot of freedom to read as a child, so I read all kinds of books, including a lot that weren’t specifically considered children’s literature. I also read a lot of literature from England, West Africa, and stories from the Caribbean. I think everything that I’ve read—whether I’ve loved or hated it —informs my own work in some way, even if I can’t pinpoint how. Now, I often “read like a writer,” looking at craft, etc, but I try to remind myself not to do that all the time. I think it’s important to “read like a reader,” to engage with a story fully, without thinking too much, without talking about it too much, and (I hope) subconsciously absorbing any craft lessons.
3. What inspired you to write about Clara Luper as a main character in Someday is Now? What kind of research did you have to do to prepare to write?
Someday is Now was proposed to me by the publisher, Josalyn Moran. She had read another manuscript that I’d written, about Ella Baker, and thought that I might be able to write this story. I’d thought myself fairly well-versed in the “heroes” of the Civil Rights Movement but had never heard about this remarkable teacher and group of children who had made this incredible commitment and led these sit-ins in Oklahoma City that inspired so many, so I was definitely intrigued. I read many, many news articles, interviews, and oral histories. And one of the most wonderful things was getting to read Clara Luper’s autobiographical account, Behold the Walls; it was so cool to hear these stories in her own words. I also had the opportunity to speak with one of the sit-inners, Ms. Ayanna Najuma, which was pretty incredible. Actual living history! There are so many “hidden figures,” particularly Black people whose stories and work have been obscured, in our history.
4. When I was researching, I noticed that you are a member of The Brown Bookshelf, which is a website that is dedicated to showing Black and Brown voices in children’s literature. What made you want to join this organization and help involve more diverse voices in children’s books? Was this something that you always wanted to be a part of? Why?
My childhood was enriched by a wide variety of Black authors: Eloise Greenfield, Julius Lester, Maya Angelou, Cyprian Ekwensi, Langston Hughes, Camara Laye, Virginia Hamilton, Zora Neale Hurston, Chinua Achebe, Rosa Guy. My own “hybrid” heritage was affirmed, and I was reminded of the infinite stories and experiences across the Diaspora. We are a team with varying backgrounds, points of view, ways of being—just like our literature. I’m very honored to be a part of the Brown Bookshelf. I’m also dismayed by the lack of support and attention that so many Black stories get by the industry, by media. Our team works hard not just to amplify Black voices in children’s lit, but to shine more light on the ones that often go unnoticed, to challenge the “there can only be one” notion, to remind everyone, especially ourselves, that we are here, that we are telling our own stories, and those stories themselves are diverse and multifaceted. Black voices and stories are too often the first ones to be ignored, suppressed, and distorted; I’m so grateful to the founders, Paula Chase and Varian Johnson, for starting the site, and am so glad to be a part of it. Every year, during our 28 Days Later flagship campaign, I’m encouraged by the new writers we’re able to feature and humbled by the work of our veteran “Vanguards” whose work is foundational to what we see today. BBS offers a way to celebrate ourselves as deep and wide as we are.
5. As I researched, I noticed you mentioned that you where the “new kid” at many schools when you were growing up and always loved going to the library. How did this play into your path to becoming a writer?
At the library, and at home, I had a lot of freedom to choose what I read, so there was joy, discovery, the challenge of working out real-life through literature. I’m so grateful to my family for that gift of reading freedom.
I think that going to many different schools taught me a lot about listening because I had to get to know and figure out each school’s culture in order to fit in, find my place in the community. And that is so important to me as a writer, listening to the world, hearing and then going beyond that to explore what it could mean.
6. What is it like going through the process of writing a novel versus writing picture books? What are the different challenges?
Someday Is Now was my first picture book, so I’m still in the super early stages of learning that structure. But thinking more about page turns, and a “whole book” rhythm (as opposed to maybe of sentences, or passages) was new for me. I also write long, so trying to tell any story in under 762,000 words is a major challenge for me!
7. In Two Naomis, how did you and Audrey Vernick come up with the idea of having two characters both named Naomi but a different race? What was it like to co-write a book like this?
The concept was something that we’d joked about a bit for a while as an idea for a project. Audrey’s a very generous writer and collaborator, and one of the best parts of the process was just talking through the story with her as we went along. I also learned a lot about giving the characters more autonomy, letting myself be surprised by the directions a story might take. I’m a slow writer, but co-writing made things go a lot faster; there was someone else that I had to get my pages to in order for the book to move forward.
8. Both of the Naomis had to deal with a divorce between each of their parents. Why did you choose this particular subject matter?
We had come up with the idea for two girls, one Black and one white, who didn’t know each other, but found they had the same name and were the same age, and somehow in close proximity or in the same family, so it seemed most likely that divorce would be a way for that to happen.
9. What do you look forward to most regarding your teaching at the Solstice MFA Program here at PMC? What do you bring as a teacher? What is a piece of advice you give to new children’s writers?
I’m looking forward to conversation with the other writers and artists, to learning more about the stories that Solstice community members want to share. I hope that, as a teacher, I bring the reminder that I’m always still a learner as well. I hope that I help writers discover the story that they want to tell, to take risks, to play. I might tell new children’s writers to read, widely and unabashedly, and to take their work, but not so much themselves, seriously.
10. If you could choose one book for the MFA students to focus on and discuss, what would it be? What would you like your students to gain?
I can’t do “one book” questions! 🙂 A few of the books that have given me a lot to think about when it comes to story and writing are The Word, edited by Marita Golden, Walking on Water and The Rock that Is Higher, both by Madeleine L’Engle, Creative Quest by Questlove, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, A Muze and A Maze by Peter Turchi, Syllabus and What It Is by Lynda Barry, and Black Ink, edited by Stephanie Stokes Oliver. And yeah, I could go on. I think a student can learn something from just about any book, whether they go into in with a particular learning goal or strategy or allow themselves to be surprised. I love hearing about what books inspire other writers, and why—that might be a discussion I’ll have to have with the students this summer!