Tanita S. Davis is the award-winning author of six novels for middle grade and young adult readers, including Serena Says, Peas and Carrots, Happy Families, and Mare’s War, which was a Coretta Scott King Award Honor book and earned her a nomination for the NAACP Image Award. She grew up in California and was so chatty as a kid that her mother begged her to “just write it down.” Now she’s back in California, doing her best to keep writing it all down. www.tanitasdavis.com
1 - What was your upbringing like? Do you share similar experiences as Madalyn?
One of the best things about writing fiction is the freedom to make everything up! Which is to say while my parents still live in the same house we moved to when I was five, I do share the experience of having left home for school. My parents wanted me to have a safe and sheltered education, so I spent high school at a Christian boarding school.
Whether or not that was as “sheltered” as they assumed is another story entirely! My parents had plenty of siblings and I knew my great-grandparents and great aunts and uncles as a child. I never lived with them, but the memories of my interactions with them color this story.
2 - In your opinion, what is Madalyn’s defining quality? What makes her uniquely perfect to navigate her situation?
Madalyn’s defining quality I’d have to say would be acceptance. Like most tweens, she is aware that things weren’t going to go the way she wants them just because that was what she most desires. She can’t get her Dad’s job back, or the family’s nicer townhouse and better school.
She knows that something has to change with her school situation. But acceptance doesn’t mean resignation for Madalyn – it just means, “Okay, it is what it is, now how am I going to navigate this?” Her acceptance comes with a healthy dose of determination.
3 - If you have kids or plan to have kids, how would you prepare them to be in environments where they are the only one [ethnicity or other backgrounds]?
Being the “only” happens to so many of us – the only female-identifying person in a male-dominated profession or interest, the lone vegetarian at a table full of carnivores, the sole person of color in a classroom or workplace. There are two things that will prepare any kid for being an “only” in any situation.
The first is to help the young person realize that their security, comfort or success doesn’t come from those around them, but from within. Internal validation is vital – because when you learn to be your own cheerleader, when there’s no applause from others, you won’t falter. When you learn to be your own taskmaster, you don’t need external motivation.
Secondly, friends are always important, and make life sweeter. But it’s super important to know that you don’t have to have people surrounding you who are exactly like you to have friends. Vegans don’t all have to hang with vegans. Female-identifying people don’t have to hang only with other femmes. Asians don’t all have to hang with Asians. Black middle grade girls can be friends with anybody. When you are confident in yourself, you can step out of your comfort zone, and accept the positives that anyone has to offer, and share your best in return.
You can make that friendship exchange with someone older or someone younger. Sometimes it will feel like you can be your best and most relaxed self with people like you but learning to go into friendship situations open to being friends with anybody will give you a lot of confidence and probably an unexpected empathy you’d never have gotten if you’d decided it was “safer” or whatever to “stick to your own kind.” Some of the strongest metals on earth are alloys, right?
4 - What do you hope readers get from this book?
I mainly hope that readers get a good story that both entertains them and allows them to see themselves or to open a door to another reality through empathy. I also hope readers take away the idea that though relationships throughout our lives require effort, that if they are brave and honest, they can have and they can be true friends.
5 - Overall, what was your writing process like?
I always have the intention to write good outlines, but I rarely write one until I’m a third of the way to the end of the book, and then the outline is more of a telling-myself-the-story synopsis. I revise constantly – even as I write – which people will tell you is Not The Way To Do It, that you’re supposed to just let the work “flow” and fix mistakes in second, third, fifth, ninth drafts, but I like to think of a draft as new every day… In the morning, I’ll sit down and before I can write forward, I have to look back at what I’ve written the day before, to see if it still feels like the direction I want to go in. What works best for me is to make sure I have a sturdy foundation from which to jump into the new day’s work.
6 - What’s your best advice for getting over writer’s block?
To my mind, the best way to get over writer’s block is to work on something else. Mostly, when a writer hits a wall, it’s because the story isn’t…right. It can take setting the story down for a week or a month and working on something fresh to give us the perspective to see where we went off-road. It can be something as simple as not acknowledging the arc that the main character is meant to take.
Maybe they’re doing something out of character that just appeared to you in the moment, or maybe you can’t move forward until you acknowledge in the text why the character is doing x, y, or z – but either way, you need to give a manuscript space when it’s not working out, leave it alone for as long as you can, and then come back when the work seems unfamiliar enough to give you room to see it. If you don’t have time, sometimes having a friend read the work aloud to you can give it enough foreignness to allow you to approach it with fresh eyes.
7 - What’s the best book you have read so far this year?
Considering how much I read, it’s always so hard to choose just one book to talk about! Narrowing it down by both genre and age group, the best realistic fiction marketed to middle grade readers I’ve read this year is Yusef Azeem is Not A Hero, a book about the 20th anniversary of September 11 from the perspective of a young Muslim boy and, through his journal, his uncle who was his age twenty years ago on that date. It’s by Saadia Faruqi.
8 - Do you plan on writing more books in the future?
I do. As long as I think I’ve got something to say that should be heard, I’ll be writing.