Tanita S. Davis is the author of a growing number of young adult titles that address concerns also held by middle grade readers. These works include the Coretta Scott King Honor book Mare’s War, which was also nominated for an NAACP Image Award; the groundbreaking 2012 Happy Families, which centered on a family with a transgender member; and the recently released Peas and Carrots, which highlights the struggles of a foster child as well as her foster family. Tanita is very active in children’s literature circles; she has her own blog, contributes to “Finding Wonderland,” is a frequent participant in KidLitCon, and has served a variety of roles in the Cybils Awards.
Who were you as a middle grade reader? What books did you like to read, and what activities did you like to do? (And would you be willing to share a picture of yourself at that age with SLJ readers?)
Here I am, age 11, singing in the combined fifth to eighth grade choir. I was a very serious kid, wearing button-down shirts under V-necked sweaters and slacks to school. I wasn’t sporty or very coordinated but loved soccer. I had gigantic round glasses that were so heavy—and were frequently broken so I sported tape or took them off (thus my heavy-lidded squint here). I played “Chinese” (the game is German) Checkers with my classmates and read a lot of famous person biographies and religious stories, as my parents were strict about my reading. That, and Peanuts comic books, made up the bulk of my library loans. Favorite activities were reading, writing Mary Sue detective stories (Cagney & Lacey fan fiction?), singing with my friend Sharon, and nerding out as a mermaid in my friend Norma’s pool. Good times!
Your books fill a much-needed spot between middle grade and young adult. You write about older characters facing serious problems, but without the content and language that is more appropriate for high school readers. Do you do this purposefully, and if so, why?
It wasn’t purposeful at first…. My aim was to write books that would be considered good reading for kids who might skew younger than the cultural norm for their age, as I did, for whatever reason. Then I heard Shannon Hale speak about the gaps that she feels exist within middle grade literature, and I thought, “Huh! That’s probably where I fit.” It’s interesting to me as well, since when I was teaching, fifth through seventh graders were some of my favorite students. That’s the group still willing to speak candidly about hopes and dreams but also feeling their way through bigger themes.
What do you think is the biggest difference between YA and MG? Have you considered writing a book that is strictly middle grade?
I think the biggest difference between YA and MG is the extent to which the reader would consider an adult as part of the answer to any of their questions or concerns. By YA, adults are generally seen as trying to hold teens back from their desires; adults in MG books seem still willing to help kids achieve what they want. I have tried to write “straight” MG, but my one attempt has taken MUCH revision and is still on the operating table…so, we’ll see!
Your book Happy Families dealt with high school students whose father is transgender. Since this book was published, the topic has gotten more mainstream media attention, and we are slowly seeing more books that address it. What prompted you to write about this topic?
I didn’t at all expect to be timely—in fact, the inciting incident happened in about 2003. I was sitting in church, and the speaker was an older gentleman with Decided Views, and the jeering nastiness, the sneering curled lip with which he spoke—from the pulpit—about his brother-in-law Jack asking to now be known as Jacqueline…. It literally gave me sick chills. I wasn’t raised to get up and leave church when I disagree with something. (Frankly, I wasn’t taught to disagree—that’s a critical thinking skill many people of faith take years to learn, but that’s another story.) Consequently, I sat there, sick, teary, feeling helpless and weak. I thought, “I have to do something about this,” but I had no idea what to do. Eventually, the idea of “see something, say something” took shape in a book incorporating a faith community and person of nonconforming gender. It’s throwing a pebble in the sea, but I hope it helped more reluctant people to think…especially if they’re going to call themselves Christians. (Aaaand let me get right down off that soapbox.)
My students often ask for historical fiction about African Americans that doesn’t deal with slavery or civil rights. Mare’s Ware addresses the fascinating topic of a grandmother who had been in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. Are there any other historical topics you think would make a good story?
I am learning that no matter what I think I’m “tired” of or made uncomfortable by, our whole history—including civil rights and slavery—needs to be told, just like it is within the dominant culture. However, I agree the roots of our history make a lopsided tree if those are the ONLY stories told, so…
- A nursing mystery starring a young Mary Seacole, or Nancy Drew–style sleuthery with a middle grade Jane Bolin (the first African American woman who graduated from Yale Law School).
- Imagine a Katherine Dunham dance novel or one about Nichelle Nichols, who did have a life before Star Trek.
- A book about the early NASA research mathematicians/human computers, like Melba Roy Mouton or Katherine Johnson. A story about Alton Yeats, the Air Force human speed tester for rockets, would be superb.
- Dorothy Lavinia Brown, the first black female cartoonist, or Edmonia Lewis, a Chippewa African American sculptor, would both make great books.
- A Mary Fields frontier novel would be awesome. She was an adventurous early Postal carrier. I imagine a story of Georgia Robinson, who in 1916 became the first female policewoman in L.A., or Eunice Carter, the lawyer and social worker who broke a mob-run prostitution ring in the 1920s.
- Even a story about the first African American sorority at Howard in 1908 might be worth telling.
There’s so much out there—all it requires is a ton of research!
Your characters always start with rather specific interests, which middle grade readers love. In A la Carte, for example, Lainey wants to be a chef. When you were in middle school, what did you want to be “when you grew up”? Do you think that middle grade literature can offer readers dreams that might not occur to them otherwise?
I wanted to be a police detective in middle school. SO badly. I blame Cagney & Lacey. And I really do think that even imagining that a career is open to A) girls or B) girls of color requires that this career is visible. In middle school, this is especially vital. Some of us don’t have realistic dreams modeled for us, so our books must do it for us first.
Your books are often described as “coming of age stories.” I love the term bildungsroman! Do you purposefully set out to change your characters, or does the plot drive their changes?
Purposefully…um, I wish! I am just not that slick. I don’t think I could “plan” a character shifting into the person that they need to be. I’m a seat-of-her-pantser and not a plotter, writing-wise, so the idea of outlining the character’s changes in the plot: no. A character, to me, naturally has to change, or there’s no movement in the narrative, and with no movement, there’s no purpose and no story. It seems a natural outgrowth of a character interacting with others and an expectation…but I still don’t plan it. And now I’m going to think about it every time I write!
Because of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, it seems we are seeing an increase in the number of books with diverse characters, but my African American students complain that the majority of books have African Americans in urban, lower-income settings. Do you have any recommendations of books that would have characters more like the ones you write?
Well, prolific Brit Malorie Blackman’s books actually inspire me. She writes about kids who see ghosts, who happen to get kidnapped, who happen to get a transplant of a pig’s heart…and also happen to be brown-skinned and reading the world through that lens. A recent Elizabeth Wein offering, Black Dove, White Raven, is historical and features a suburban Ethiopian American boy who lives both in the United States and in Africa, though the book is marketed more to young adults. More middle grade–ish U.S. published suburban kid novels about African Americans include:
- “The Dork Diaries” by Rachel Renée Russell
- The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson
- How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen
- The Magnificent Maya Tibbs by Crystal Allen
- The Lost Tribes by Christine Taylor-Butler
- The Perfect Place by Teresa E. Harris
- The Zero Degree Zombie Zone by Patrik Henry Bass & Jerry Craft
And many, many more, of course. Edi Campbell is amazing at keeping track of what books featuring black boys and girls are published each year, and Zetta Elliott also publishes a yearly list. Both ladies are wonderful resources.
A lot of middle grade novels feature the orphan trope, and yet a huge theme in your books is that families help to form our characters. In Peas and Carrots, Dess is trying to figure out her relationship with two families. Why the bold choice not to orphan your characters?
Orphaning…is such a cheat, to me. In real life, having no parents is miserable, not easier. You’re at a disadvantage because you’re either living with a relative, which may be okay, or you’re in the system, which is just not ideal and sometimes is truly awful. I won’t kill off your parents, because to me, adults who are there and who aren’t doing their job? Not only is that more realistic, but these flawed adults add realistic texture and grit to a narrative, allowing the tween or teen to exhibit perseverance and fortitude. Modeling that is important. “How to deal” is a big, big concept.
While the overall message that I hope comes through in my books is that our families support us, I also hope it’s clear that if they hold us back, we can choose to love someone else and still make it through. I wanted Dess to be able to see her choices; she could love her mother, but, to use the Southernism, she could “feed her with a long spoon.” Her mother might never have been able to come back to her and be a mother, despite all of her promises. Dess needed to sit with that and go on from that in strength—and maybe choose trusted people to be new family for her. That’s another critical skill we’re not always taught: what to do if our families are insufficient. We don’t have to outright reject them, but we don’t have to keep believing in the promise of what they could be, either.
Hope and Dess in Peas and Carrots are very different yet eventually come to terms with each other. Learning to deal with others is such a huge problem in middle school, but few books deal with it. Did you have problems of your own dealing with people in middle school? How do you keep in touch with your younger self?
Oh, I was both shy to the point of sometimes not speaking above a whisper, and then so awkward that eventually almost all of the girls in my seventh grade class stopped speaking to me. I was mortified by their blunt criticisms of my hair, the way I spoke, the way I laughed—that sort of thing is hard to forget. Middle school for me was the crucible, and when I was teaching that age group, I made my poor kids role-play what they would do or say in awkward and awful situations. I made it part of our daily curricula—10 minutes of Golden Rule practice, with a “What Do You Do, Dear? What Do You Say? How Do You Deal?” tie-in. There was a lot of horrified silence, snickers, [and] eye-rolling, and I’m pretty sure they hated it, but I hope it gave at least some of them a kind of script to go off of, or at least a jumping-off place. I hope my books can do that for someone, too.
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