LEARNING ABOUT
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA

Compiled by: Susan Pais, Phyllis Brown, and Ann Gartner with Kay E. Vandergrift in Young Adult Literature

LOOK FOR RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA'S OWN HOMEPAGE COMING SOON!

BIOGRAPHY

This section on Biography was written by Rita Williams-Garcia in response to our interview questions.

Childhood

"My mother, Miss Essie, is perhaps the grand figure in my life, mainly because she frightened me, made me laugh, and loved to paint things in weird colors-napalm orange, chartreuse and aqua. She encouraged me to be creative and to see objects and situations beyond their physicality."

"I was born in Queens, New York at the tail end of the fifties. My father was in the army so we traveled by car across the country. Our first stop was to Arizona when I was three-a sweeping contrast to our Far Rockaway projects. We saw mountain lions, horned toads, snakes, Pueblo Indians selling moccasins, dolls and turquoise jewelry by the roadside, alcoholic cowboys and a blanket of stars almost every night. From there we went to Seaside, California where my sister, brother and I became kids. You know... dodgeball, kickball, dirt clod fighting, sliding down ice plants on cardboard boxes, roller skating, plum tree raiding kids."

"I learned to read at age two by looking at billboards, figuring out the sounds associated with the letters and putting it all together. My sister, who was in kindergarten used to slide her story books between the slats of my wooden playpen, lean her head against the bars while I read to her. (I had to make up some of the words, but many I figured out.) Words always held a particular attraction for me, even as a baby. The first words that truly fascinated me were homonyms. I actually recall being in my playpen, playing with the different meanings for lone, alone, loan, and balogna and see, sea, C. It kept me amused for hours! Before I went to school I read practically all of Dr. Seuss and Bennett Serf books. Any type of "I CAN READ" formats with big letters, easy words, and pictures with vivid primary colors made me feel especially victorious. By four I was writing a slew of king/sing/ring poems and stories-mostly adventures that involved the heroic exploits of my sister Rosalind, brother Russell and I. I watched the news and read the paper, filling my stories with floods, tornadoes, bombings, riots, and stern faces of white men surrounded by red white and blue banners running from the president."

"I can't honestly say I was influenced by any particular author, but I do remember in kindergarten, Miss Carroll reading LITTLE BLACK SAMBO, and that I and Robert were the only Negro children in the classroom. I remember Sambo's pitch black face, his pink lips, the tiger that chased him, and the laughter of my classmates."

"It wasn't until the fifth grade, 1968, riots... the Black Panthers prowling, and King's assassination, that the issues of race and discrimination were discussed in the classroom. Still, my most striking recollection was not from books, but from a film shown in class called "Boundaries" which spoke abstractly about boundaries between people, ideas, territory and objects. The image I remember was a Negro being hung as Whites watched."

"In the sixth grade I read the book MARY ELLEN, STUDENT NURSE, and to this day can recall the lines "Hi said the blackbird to the crow\Why do the white folks hate us so?" The book was outdated, and I had nothing in common with the protagonist-besides the obvious, but it was the only book that I could find outside of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth biographies with black female characters. When I brought this up to the school librarian-a grad student at the time, young, eager, and took African folk dance classes-she gave me three books about a West African girl who would rather hunt with her father, the chief, than do traditional girl things. I'll pay a king's ransom to know the title and author of the aforementioned books! The librarian also gave me Louise Fitzhugh's HARRIET THE SPY, which encouraged me to keep a journal."

"My teacher gave me a creative writing kit which had exercises, scenarios, writing tips and resources. I never used this kit (even nerds had limits) but loved the idea that I was being regarded as a writer."

Adolescence

"We moved from California to Georgia for six months, then to Jamaica, New York when I was twelve. I was thrown into culture shock. I was a proud little nerd with my hands clasped on my desk ready to rocket in the air when the teacher asked a question. My classmates wanted to kill me. I was writing furiously, checking out THE WRITER'S MARKET from the library, and sending out my manuscripts which for the most part came back rejected. I mostly read anything by Nikki Giovanni, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, and lots of Shakespeare. With the exception of Kristen Hunter's THE SOUL BROTHERS AND SISTER LOU, it never occurred to me to read young adult literature. S.E. Hinton's THE OUTSIDERS and Salinger's CATCHER IN THE RYE was about all I could respect. My eighth grade teacher felt my boredom and gave me Ayn Rand's ATLAS SHRUGGED and a treatise on objectivism. Some of it I liked and some of it was relentlessly repetitious, but I liked the fact that Ayn Rand was unabashedly brilliant. I'm often asked why not write about my own adolescence? Oh yeah. I wrote one thousand words every day, I played chess, I got my first DD cup bra at 14 -momentous occasion-and I sold a story to Highlights Magazine."

"None of my characters are truly me, although there is always some aspect of me in each and every one. Joyce in BLUE TIGHTS is a voluptuous teen with dance inside of her. Denzel in FAST TALK is a bright young man who must face himself. Gayle in LIKE SISTERS ON THE HOMEFRONT has lived through a lot of pain but refuses to acknowledge it. That's where similarities between myself and my characters pretty much end. Outside of watching football and baseball with my sister, my adolescence was uneventful."

College

"As I crossed the unispan that linked the academic and residential campus of Hofstra University on my first day away from home, I thought, "Since I'm eighteen, a semi-adult, living on campus I'm going to: 1) eat liver; 2) make a dental appointment; and 3) take dance class and dance on stage." Like Joyce, I had a gift for dance but was too shy to pursue it in high school. Before long I was taking classes in school, then jumping on the LIRR to take classes at Alvin Ailey's and Phil Black's in Manhattan. I lived in leotards."

"I declared Economics as my major. Why? I truly believed Blacks needed to have an active role in the distribution of capital within their communities and I planned to be at the forefront of this movement. Plus, there was also this brilliant senior who taught an Economics class and I wanted him to notice me. (His Afro was always perfect and he worshipped Bruce Lee and Che Guevera.) Alas, the senior graduated and I plunged deeper into the secants, tangents and bisecting graphs of micro economics without a safety net. I finally realized I was not an Economics major and switched to Liberal Arts so I could get out of there."

"It was in my last year that I took a fiction workshop with Richard Price and Sonia Pilcer that I began to write again. I was also involved with a community outreach literacy program, through my sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, where I tutored four high school girls who read below fourth grade level. Amazed by the lack of relevant young adult novels that could speak to these girls, I began writing dialogue stealing bits and pieces from their conversations. These pieces were worked out in my writing workshop and became the first draft for BLUE TIGHTS."

Life After School

"My plan was to take my manuscript, get an agent, sell it, find an island and write the Pulitzer Prize winning novel. I continued my dance lessons, went to auditions for "The Wiz", "Sophisticated Ladies," and whatever called for dancing-no singing. In the meanwhile, I had a job at this marketing company in Manhattan doing clerical stuff. As long as I could use their red IBM Selectric typewriter, make photocopies and send out my manuscripts (I did mailroom work) I was happy."

"Happiness was short lived. My manuscript, originally titled BLUE TIGHTS, BIG BUTT rejected everywhere. What gives? Such a a cool title! Editors said: "Character is not a good role model for Black girls." "Character is overly concerned about her physical appearance." "References are not universal." And all other kinds of junk. After three years of trying to sell it, I threw it under my bed, never to be seen again."

"In the meanwhile, I matured (ha! ha!), married Peter Garcia, and still worked at the marketing company, but as a promotional writer. I danced very little, wrote even less, and soon gave birth to Michelle Garcia. Lo and behold, it was the eighties and my company restructured, cutting out my cushy writing job. I took an administrative job within the company and decided it was time to write again. Who was I? A type it/send it/file it working stiff or a writer? I took out my draft of BLUE TIGHTS and thought about how I would revise and sell it. I did some cutting, to me editing, then went back to my old pal, THE WRITER'S MARKET and looked for publishers who were interested in realistic portrayals of adolescence. Lodestar Books seemed to fill that bill. Little did I know, I would be doing extensive revisions for my editor, Rosemary Brosnan. I meant it when told her "This is my last YA." Then there was FAST TALK ON A SLOW TRACK, which I loved writing because there was absolutely nothing like it out there."

"I always knew I would write about teen pregnancy but I never knew how the story would form. You see, there's the formula-girl gets pregnant, has to wrestle with telling parents, growing thing in her belly, eventual loss of boyfriend ,public opinion, birth, giving it up for adoption, etc. I figured, that's what After School Specials are for. In the meantime, images came at me. I remembered this thirteen- year- old girl holding her newborn rather casually. I remember a four -year-old girl spoon feeding her little brother with all the expertise of a weary mother. I remember two cousins on a train snapping on each other's singing. In that instant, on the train , the entire story of Gayle and her son being sent down south to live with relatives, complete with the relationships she forms with Cookie and with Great was born and took nearly five years to complete. This was June, 1989. By then my second daughter Stephanie was born and I was back in school for an MA degree in Creative Writing. I can't tell you how I balanced writing, my job, school and family. None of these things are possible without the support and understanding of my family. (They send out for pizza often.)"

"My fourth novel, EVERY TIME A RAINBOW DIES will be written this summer. It is the story of a boy who falls in love with a rape victim. As I write, a fifth novel invades my thoughts. I must stop now!"

BIBLIOGRAPHY

BIBLIOGRAPHY AWARDS

Fast Talk on a Slow Track

American Library Association Notable Books for Children and Young Adults, 1991.


Like Sisters on the Homefront

Coretta Scott King Honor Book, 1995.


REVIEWS AND CRITIQUES

Blue Tights

Compiled by Susan Pais

Summary

In her first novel, Blue Tights, Rita Williams-Garcia uses her main character to depict life in an urban setting for an African-American teenage girl. Through the experiences of Joyce Collins, a fifteen year old black girl, the reader becomes involved in the struggle as Joyce attempts to find her place in the community, her family, and society.

Joyce, an aspiring ballet dancer known by her "blue tights," has her dreams shattered when the high school ballet instructor informs her that she doesn't have a good body for dance. She retreats from family and friends and seeks out strangers to compensate for her disappointment and loneliness.

Eventually, Joyce finds and joins an African dance troupe that accepts her without judgment. Through this troupe she develops her talents and explores her heritage. The self-confidence she gains by dancing helps her achieve success and independence. Rita Williams-Garcia uses her resources as a reading teacher and dance instructor to create an honest and uplifting story, Blue Tights is a realistic portrayal of important issues in the life of an urban teenage girl. Readers can experience a multitude of emotions while relating to these believable characters.

 

"Williams-Garcia has created in Joyce a credible teenager-- headstrong, confused, self-absorbed, but capable of positive growth and change." From: Rudine Sims Bishop, "Books from Parallel Cultures: New African-American Voices."Horn Book. Vol. LXVII (1992): 616-620.

"eagerness to dance, hunger for acceptance, and need to be loved." From: Gerry Lawson School Library Journal Vol. 35: (1988): 120.

Fast Talk on a Slow Track

Compiled by Ann Gartner

Summary

Denzel Watson, a bright, successful student, is Princeton-bound. First, however, he must complete a summer program for minority students. He finds that at Princeton, his charm and personality won't carry him through as they often did in high school. Frustrated by his near-failure in the summer program, Denzel returns home to his summer sales job with no intention of returning to Princeton in the fall. The job allows him to feel the confidence he lacked at Princeton; he is able to be one of the best without having to work too hard.

While Denzel has never experienced failure before, the summer following his senior year of high school is full of it. He let down his best friend and alienated her; he failed to perform well at Princeton; he disappointed his co-workers and lied to his parents. Nothing has gone right. The events of the summer, however painful for Denzel, force him to address his failures (in the Princeton program and in relationships) and allow him to make steps toward decisions about his future. Rita Williams-Garcia's greatest strengths seem to lie in her understanding of young people and her effective use of adolescent language.

"Williams-Garcia writes just as authoritatively about teenage boys as she did about girls in her first novel, Blue Tights. She understands the forces and fears driving a young man in search of his true self. . . . this engrossing, fast-moving novel resounds with authenticity" From: Nancy Vasilakis. Horn Book Magazine Vol.LXVII, no.4, (July-August, 1991): 466.

Like Sisters on the Homefront

Compiled by Phyllis Brown

Summary

Like Sisters on the Homefront is Rita Williams-Garcia's most recent published novel. Her main character, fourteen year old Gayle, is on a long journey. It begins with Gayle's second pregnancy (her first child is seven months old), her mother marching her into a clinic for an abortion, then being sent, with her baby, away from the familiar urban, streetwise life in New York to live in the Georgia countryside with conservative, religious relatives. Gayle's journey evolves into one of discoveries of self, family, and historic roots through the process of sorting through the differences between her existing knowledge of life and the new values presented to her in this unfamiliar environment.

The major characters each have strong identities: Gayle, ignorant and rebellious; sixteen year old cousin Cookie, innocent and virtuous; Uncle Luther, a Holy Roller minister; Aunt Virginia, a local college professor; and Great, the feisty great-grandmother who is dying and must "Tell" the family history to a chosen one. The physical country setting representing graciousness, comfort, and stability is of tremendous contrast to Gayle's life with her mother in the city, and contributes, along with the contrast of characters, to facilitate her journey.

Gayle's language and humor are strong unifying forces of the story. It seems as if she is the first person narrator at times because the text smoothly shifts from third person to her direct, unspoken thoughts and back again as she pokes and prods at people and situations with her always honest and blunt commentaries. Rita Williams-Garcia's writing is noted for its authentic language patterns of urban African-American youth. Gayle comes to a point in her journey where it is evident that she is no longer alone, but is connected to a knowledge and understanding of her past. There is hope now that she has a better direction for her future.

"the dialog snaps and swings from raucous insult and jealous anger to painful lyricism." This style creates humorous situations in the contrasts between Gayle and her Southern relatives to portray "...the ironic collision of class and culture..." From: Hazel Rochman Booklist Vol. 92 (1996): 1002-1003.

Reviews

Collins, C.J. School Library Journal Vol. 41 (1995): 161. Publishers Weekly Vol. 242 (1995): 82.

BIBLIOGRAPHY ABOUT RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA

Senick, G.J. and Hedblad, A. (1995). Rita Williams-Garcia. In Children's Literature Review. Vol. 36 (1995): 202-206.
Kutenplon, Deborah and Ellen Olmstead. Young Adult Fiction by African American Writers, 1968-1993: A Critical and Annotated Guide. New York: Garland, 1996, pp. 313-316.
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Created March 22, 1996, Revised September 20, 1996