What brings award-winning author Alica D Williams joy? Bubble baths, her daughter's smile, and authentic connections, for starters.
Alicia D Williams just won the Coretta Scott King Author Honor award for her poignant and thought provoking picture book, The Talk. She is the author of Genesis Begins Again, which received the Newbery and Kirkus Prize honors, was a William C. Morris prize finalist, and won the Coretta Scott King--John Steptoe Award for New Talent. Alicia D also authored the picture book biography, JJump at the Sun: the True Life Story of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston and Shirley Chisholm Dared, The Story of the First Black Woman in Congress. Her love for education stems from conducting school residencies as a Master Teaching Artist of arts-integration. Alicia D infuses her love for drama, movement, and storytelling to inspire students to write. Join us for an Adventure in Learning that explores storytelling, space for students to connect and see possibilities for themselves in literature, and hope in challenging times.
Let's talk about your adventures in learning.
Dr Diane: So it's been a big week for you. You won the ALA Award for The Talk, and I was wondering if you could just start by talking a little bit about your adventure in learning and how you've gotten to where you are, where your stories are resonating with such a wide audience.
Alicia D: Wow. My adventures in learning. I really think the Adventures began with the bookmobile. The bookmobile introduced me to stories. I was such a shy, quiet kid. And throughout that, I fell in love with stories because I watched my family members tell stories over and over again with the cadence, and they would have this story. One of my favorites was how my aunt and uncle were sent down to Little Rock from Detroit, and they didn't know the difference between the water fountains and they ended up drinking from the color water, I mean, the white, only the water fountain. And the way they told that story every single time, I could see it in my head and I can laugh over it again and again.
So with that, the stories grew because I wanted to know more. I wanted to know about history. I want to know about where people were when things happened in certain movements, and that just kind of blossomed in the way I tell my stories. Who are you and where were you? What did this mean for you? Does it have any impact? So when you think about my stories, it is a learning experience because I feel like I'm still learning and I'm still growing on from that young person that I was. But I also want to infuse the passion I have for history, although it's being challenged right now, but I want everyone to fall in love with the characters as well as the history I'm telling.
What inspires you to write the things you write?
Dr Diane: Well, I just finished reading Jump at the Sun again, and you made me fall in love with Zora Neale Hurston all over again. And you did it by making her so real. She jumped off the page. And I found myself thinking, where was this book when I was growing up? How powerful would it have been to have had a story like that alongside what was being taught? And so I found myself sort of wondering, as you're writing your books, what are you hoping kids are going to get out of them? What inspires you to write the things that you write?
Alicia D: I just want to make my readers feel seen. I want to heal my readers for whatever they see in my stories that touches them. I want to heal my readers. And I may have this whole Kumbaya energy, but I just want to make people better off. Like when I meet you, I want you to be better off when I've left you, whether I give you a compliment or just a hug or something. And I feel like that for my readers when I write, I just want them to be better off after they put that book down.
Dr Diane: Well, and I've certainly felt that with your books. We were talking earlier and I was sharing with you. I teach a children's literature class for UVA with librarians, and when I met Genesis, I fell in love with her. You tackled some tough issues when you tackled colorism and you tackled alcoholism of father, but you did it in such a way that you fall in love with this character. She's so real and she jumps off the page. And so it's one of the books that I now have on my list for my students to read because I've got students who are librarians across the state of Virginia, but they also are all over the country. And I feel like this is an important book because it's outside of most of their experiences but they need to be able to have a window and understand, and they've got students who, well Genesis is them. And so I think that what you write provides windows and mirrors for people, and Genesis in particular just totally leaps off the page. She's an amazing young lady.
Alicia D: I love when people speak of Genesis as if she was real because she is as a character, because there are so many Genesis out there. But for Genesis I get a lot of "I just want to give her a hug. I just need to let her know. And I think that's why when people adults read it, it's such a tough read because it scrapes at that pain and the trauma that they had. But it's also one that they say, oh my gosh, I needed this when I was 13 years old, which when 13 year olds and young adults read it, they don't have that trauma pain that they have to constantly revisit. They may be going through it, so it speaks to them at that moment. So it's not as tough a read for them.
But I'm glad you said that. That book took a lot out of me. Not just with the revising and the editing and the workshopping, but emotionally. There would be times I would be at the computer crying because they say, put your characters in trouble, don't rescue them. And while at the time I was still in graduate school and just recently from graduate school and those lessons were fresh and I would put her in these situations and I would do research because I did not want this to be my story. I needed it to be universal. So I would watch documentaries, I watched YouTube videos and I thought, oh my gosh, the length that people would go through to obtain beauty, even if it may cost them their lives. And I needed to humanize addiction because people don't grow up wanting to lose their families. People don't grow up wanting to have this toxic environment where they're gambling their money away. How can we humanize this in a way that readers can have some kind of empathy and some kind of even understanding and those who are going through it can have some kind of healing as well? So I'm glad you said that because it took a lot out of me.
Moving Beyond the Single Story
Dr Diane: You have a passage in it that still resonates with me and it's the one where Genesis is being introduced to the music of Billie Holiday and Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald and where she doesn't recognize W.E.B. Du Bois’ name. And she tells her friend, “Don't look at me like that. All they ever teach during Black History Month is Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman. Anybody else? You're on your own.” And I found myself really thinking about that a lot in terms of how schools serve children of color, in terms of what's presented and when it's presented and how can we do a better job. And one of the things I'm excited about is that there are more and more stories coming up, that it's not a single story, that we're not just sharing the same ones again and again. And you've done a great deal to help contribute to that. I recognize that's the positive and I know on the negative is we're fighting the people who are afraid of those stories and are looking to ban them. So I guess where I wanted to go is as you're bringing stories into the schools, as you're telling stories, do you see sort of that spark of recognition for kids when they suddenly see possibilities beyond just the one story?
Alicia D: I think I see it more when they see me presenting it, one as a black woman, one as a black woman with hair that looks like for my audience that looks like me, and presenting in a way that I needed to hear it, that there's other opportunities. I think you're so right with that. There's a space for all stories. It's so true. It's a space to tell the narratives of how of the transatlantic slave trade, of slavery, of civil rights. There is a space, but you hit the mark when you say, when it's presented, how it's presented, and if there is or isn't a balance. And if you look, if you scroll through social media right now, especially because it is Black History Month and you might even see displays, and it's almost always of Civil Rights or people who have made a way out of slavery like Harriet Tubman, which we need to celebrate those stories.
So as a student, when you are given your history from the oppressed state, you never know what you can accomplish because you think that's all there is to you. And you don't get this. You don't reason this as a young kid, but if you go through the rest of the months and you get to see a story with the default as white and they get to do other things and have other inventors and everything, you just know that there's something. So when I do present my lessons and I do get the opportunity to speak and the stories I choose to tell, yes, it's going to include that pain and that history. But you said it like that passage. It is my duty, I feel, to bring some celebratory like Shirley Chisholm to let kids know you can be pretty much a troublemaker or you can pretty much called rebellious and bossy. But there was a woman who was called these names, and look what she did or there if you love stories, there is a woman who is a filmmaker and anthropologist. What’s an anthropologist, you say? We can offer the balance. And I think for myself, if I was offered a balance, I would have figured out a long time ago what I could be capable of.
Dr Diane: That resonates so much with me. And one of the things that I've talked about with my college students is it's great to have a month where you're celebrating, but it's much more powerful to include and integrate stories all year round and to make sure you're not sharing one single narrative, that it's not just an oppressive standpoint, that you're including books where all children can have a chance to see themselves featured in multiple roles and in multiple places. Whenever you're teaching, if you're going to be teaching about the environment, find cool stories about modern scientists who are people of color, who are women. They're out there. If you're going to be sharing fiction, come up with five or six options and let kids have a choice and let them be able to gravitate towards and find books that light their fire and ignite their spirits.
Alicia D: When I worked in the school, and it was a predominantly white school and independent school, but every year you'd walk down hallways and you'd see the biography projects where they do living museums, and the only people of color out of the vast inventors and scientists and explorers and artists, only people of color every year would be Oprah. There would be Sojourner Truth. There would be Martin Luther King. There will be a celebrity like Beyonce or Michael Jackson, but there wouldn't be a Zora Neale Hurston, there wouldn't be a Langston Hughes, there wouldn't be a Dizzy Gillespie, there wouldn't be a
Dr. Diane: Wynton Marsalis.
Alicia D: Yes. There wouldn't be a Jesse Owens. There wouldn't be a Bessie Coleman. It wouldn't be any of these. And that's so limiting not only for the few black and brown students, but how limiting for predominantly white students.
Dr Diane: Absolutely. It's completely limiting for the white students as well.
Alicia D: So that’s where the problems come in later in life. I really do understand that takes work on the part of a teacher to push past being uncomfortable and to actually search these things, which we always have our phones in our hands. It takes us a Google search, right? That's all it does. And there is a book for every single topic, every single person. If you decide to do a unit that is like on the weather, there is a book or person that is diverse that you can bring in there. And there's something that you want to talk about, which is a tough conversation, like "the talk." There is a book for it.
Dr Diane: And books are such a great way to open and build those connections. And I think that's what it's about, is not being afraid to be vulnerable and have the connections and be willing to be wrong. I think that's a huge part of it, too, is I think that we so often operate from a place of fear and discomfort, and when you do that, you're cutting yourself off from such amazing possibilities. And usually, if you can make it past the fear, there's an awful lot of joy to be gathered past the fear.
Alicia D: And shame.
Dr Diane: Yes.
Alicia D: I love Brene Brown. The shame component. When I was teaching, I felt like I had to have control, even though there are times I'm like, I don't know what I'm doing right now. I don't know enough about this topic. I didn't have enough time. And when a student would challenge me or I felt like my defenses go up, right, that game starts to come in. But we as educators have to come to terms like, we don't know everything, and this could be a learning moment, but we don't know how to do that in that time, in that moment. Or it's like an active thing, like, what can I learn today? Okay, something's going to happen today that I can have a learning opportunity. And then we're not ready to reshape because, one, we got administrators on the back. We have this and that and that. But until we can build it in, like, yes, I don't know anything, how can I approach this with vulnerability and be open? We may not ever be okay with being uncomfortable.
Let's talk about The Talk.
Dr Diane: Let's talk about The Talk for a minute. It's a gorgeous book. And if you have not read it, go get it. For me, it opened my eyes to things I didn't know about. And I think that it is affirming and in so many ways, probably comforting to folks who do go through it. What prompted you to write that book?
Alicia D: I knew that this book needed to be told, and it was so much that was going on in America. And I knew I've given this talk many different ways at different points with my daughter. And I tried to write it. I tried to write it as a poem. I tried to write it as a story, and I tried to give the story away to a male in 2019. I let it go, and I thought, it should be a male who writes this, because this is such a male dominated event.
Dr Diane: Yes.
Alicia D: But I was destroyed, damaged, and going through PTSD after watching Ahmaud Arbery. You know how the video plays automatically when you’re scrolling? I was so traumatized, I could not get it together. And one night, insomnia set in. One night, this little boy woke me up, and he was like, look at my shoes. Jay woke me up. And there's two things that happened. I wrote it. It was a gift. I wrote it, typed it out the next morning and was like, Whoa. I think maybe something’s here. I'll send it to my agent.
But the boy who woke me up, I knew that boy. It was this little boy at the school I was working at, and his name was Kyle, and he was in kindergarten. And I followed him to first grade, but in kindergarten, Kyle was probably one of three black children in the classroom. But Kyle was always being pulled out in the hallway. He's wiggling too much. He's moving too much. And I'm thinking, he's doing the same thing that all the other kids are doing. Why is he always getting this talk that he is too busy? And I would get so frustrated with the teachers, like, stop singling Kyle out. So when Kyle got to second grade, I was at this point, I took a step back and became an assistant in the art room. And I would see the class come in, his class come in, and the teacher assistant who brought him get him, Kyle, you need to listen, blah, blah, blah. I would see the art teacher take that same energy and all the other kids, and then I did the same thing. I was like, he went to go fill up his water. The watercolor changed the water. I was like Kyle. He just started crying. And I realized oh, my gosh. This labeling of him being bad had carried on like a disease from teacher to teacher. And we're singling him out, and he can't get a break. And so when he woke me up, it all came together of the talk that he gets, the talk that parents give. The Talk just blossomed out of all of this energy that had been holding back this pain that I was struggling with.
Dr Diane: The book deals so effectively with sort of that singling out and the racism behind it. But it's also a hopeful book in that he's surrounded by a family who is there to protect him. And so it's a tribute to families as well and sort of that whole joy of the family and the potential of the kid.
Alicia D: You keep his innocence. And when I wrote that, since he is the one that woke me up, it was so important that I let the editor know to let the illustrator know, because you never get to meet, and he has to be front and center, like right there in the beginning. Because I want you to fall in love with Jay. I just want you to see your son. And Jay, I just want you to see that your nephew or whatever, his energy and his friends, they're just kids. And to subliminally like, wait a minute, this, something is off here. So I kind of wanted you to be angry that the world treats Jays like this, because now you care about this little boy and you see him as not some black little boy, not some troublemaker little boy, but a little boy, period. And that's why the families are so important. There's some YouTube videos that I watched of parents giving their children the talk. And I cried so much watching it because you can see the little girl when her dad is telling her how many times he got stopped. You could see her processing it. And I'm like, we give our children these conversations and it's just not fair, right, that their innocence is being shifted. And I needed to know, how do you put this bubble back around them, right? Once it's burst, how do you create this bubble back around them? And that's why you see the grandparents. It's all the grandfather, the grandmother, mom and dad, they all put that bubble back around them to reaffirm them. Because what the illustrator, Brianna said, she said something so important that with all the images, with all the looks, they start to internalize why they're bad, what they did that was wrong. And when you get this in your head, it starts to dictate how you are. So I think about Kyle, he was already being told he was bad. It was shown that he was bad. He wasn't reaffirmed at the school that he was good. So what happens? You're creating a bad boy. So how do we put this bubble back around him?
Dr Diane: And it puts a responsibility on all of us to circle them with love, but also to, I think, as adults dismantle and fight the systems that are creating that in the first place. And some of that starts with internal work on my part, on our part.
Alicia D: Yeah. I had someone tell me male, white male, said he was very uncomfortable with the illustrations. He said he didn't understand why all the white people were illustrated with an angry face. And I can understand his discomfort, being a male, a white male, where in this world he has the privilege not to observe. And so I said, One, I need you to be okay with being uncomfortable. It is a children's book, so be okay with it being uncomfortable. It's not an attack on you or white people. It's an awareness. So now you can be aware when you have that. So you have to be aware that you have biases, you have stereotypes you believe in, and you have to be aware when they come out and when you're aware of it, you have to be aware when others are doing it. So it can also make you feel uncomfortable. So we may see these all the time. I was just profiled when was that? Last October when the book came out. I was profiled in the shopping center. So I was like, we get it all the time and we see it. Our children may see it, may not see it. So it should make you uncomfortable.
Dr Diane: Absolutely. And I certainly didn't feel attacked by it. It made me uncomfortable, I think, in a really good way, in that it made me aware. And it's definitely helped change the way that I look at the world. And so for that, I absolutely thank you.
Alicia D: And if you do feel attacked, it's good to say, why am I feeling this?
How do you take on difficult topics while radiating joy?
Dr Diane: We all have inner work we have to do. That's part of the process. And actually, that was something I wanted to move into just a little bit in terms of that inner work and joy. I know you've written about some pretty weighty subjects. You're not afraid to take on things that are difficult, and yet you exude an air of joy when people meet you and when people talk to you. I imagine that's not easily won, but what is it that you do that brings you joy?
Alicia D: I will say writing. Looking at my work table with the revision I'm going through, I don't know if I can actually say writing. But what brings to me joy is music, dancing, connecting with people, genuine connections, having solitude and space. Art brings me joy. I find joy in so many different ways now. And that took work. That took work. Things that I would have never paid attention to before now, especially now that I live alone. I get the time to slow down. And I think growing older brings me joy. Growing older, I can appreciate those times where I can sit alone with the book, those times I can sit alone with my thoughts. Perhaps one of the most important things I do is I sit alone with my thoughts and I journal my thoughts, and I may find a book that helps push me further to be a better human. I know a friend of mine said why do you keep saying you want to be a better human?
Dr Diane: Why not?
Alicia D: He didn't understand why I was reading books to be, I just want to be a better human. He didn't understand what that meant. And like I said before, not just for yourself, but you want to leave everyone in a better space because we're all struggling with something. We all have something, we're not talking about some trauma that we haven't dealt with, but something. But if I can leave you in a better space, even for a few moments, then I feel even more grateful.
What are you currently reading?
Dr Diane: What are you currently reading?
Alicia D: I am currently reading several things at a time. I'm in the midst of a novel revision, and my editor keeps talking about voice, voice, voice. And I think I wrote it out of so much I was going through during COVID and during the trauma, I felt that it probably was me just putting things out. So I'm reading books, revisiting books with boy narratives. I'm reading some Varian Johnson. I am reading oh, gosh, it's in my room. One book that I have fallen in love with is called Black Nerd Problems. A bunch of essays and such speaks to that black men and boys are not a monolith, and they discuss everything from anime to manga to comic books to Marvel. And I'm like, oh, I'm fully geeking out and learning different vocabulary about the fandom. I am very excited on learning a whole different world of geekdom that I didn't know enough about. That's cool.
What are you working on right now?
Dr Diane: And then what are you working on right now? You alluded to you're doing revisions? What's the next project?
Alicia D: It's a novel in verse, which is a first for me. At first I was trying to discover who Elijah McClain was. Elijah McClain was, for those who don't know., who was killed, his last words were on the Internet. You could read them. It's like, “I'm awkward. I'm sorry I don't eat meat.” And I thought, you cannot hear that and not wonder why they didn't pause. Why did they not pause and say, this is a kid, that he is, you know, for someone to call and say, a boy is a suspicious man because he has a hoodie, and you not hear that and say, whoa, whoa, this might be a wrong call. So I was trying to figure out, explore, why don't we see these boys as human? Why do we see them as monsters? And who was Elijah McClain that you know, who was he? And then I realized, okay, after that, I realized I don't want to make assumptions and I don't want to add any trauma to anyone that can make the connection. So I had to divorce him. And I found that it's a story about two, it was three friends. One is hit by a car. And so the two are dealing with grief in their own ways, and you see them growing apart, but they do this last effort to save their friendship by doing all these world records. You don't know if that unspoken grief and those world records will bring them together or tear them further apart.
Dr Diane: Oh, wow. Well, I'm excited to read it when you finally get it out there.
Alicia D: Thank you. Me too.
What are your hopes for the future?
Dr Diane: And what are your hopes for the future?
Alicia D: I hope that I get closer to my purpose for myself. I hope I get closer to my purpose, that I can produce great works that will just resonate with people, continue to do that. Just want to have books that would stay on the shelves. And then I could also find more connection. The biggest thing, I just want more connection with people. Real, genuine, and authentic connection.
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