Posts Tagged diverse authors

WNDMG Wednesday – Debut Author Tamika Burgess

We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around
We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around

Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado

A New Year of We Need Diverse MG

Happy 2023, everyone! Welcome back to a new year of We Need Diverse MG, (WNDMG) where we get the chance to amplify the voices of marginalized creators and center publishing issues in the voice of underrepresented communities.

A New Year of Authors

Our first post of the year features a debut author, Tamika Burgess, who is part of my own debut cohort: MG in 23. Tamika holds the distinction of being the first of our group to publish in 2023 – Congratulations, Tamika!

I got a chance to interview her about her debut experience, and also to read her wonderful debut: SINCERELY, SICILY.

Book Jacket features young Black Panamanian-American girl in a pink dress, her hair in braids, sitting on a park bench.

 

About Sincerely, Sicily

Sicily Jordan’s worst nightmare has come true! She’s been enrolled in a new school, with zero of her friends and stuck wearing a fashion catastrophe of a uniform. But however bad Sicily thought sixth grade was going to be, it only gets worse when she does her class presentation.

While all her classmates breezed through theirs, Sicily is bombarded with questions on how she can be both Black and Panamanian. She wants people to understand, but it doesn’t feel like anyone is ready to listen—first at school and then at home. Because when her abuela starts talking mess about her braids, Sicily’s the only one whose heart is being crumpled for a second time.

Staying quiet may no longer be an option, but that doesn’t mean Sicily has the words to show the world just what it means to be a proud Black Panamanian either. Even though she hasn’t written in her journal since her abuelo passed, it’s time to pick up her pen again—but will it be enough to prove to herself and everyone else exactly who she is?

Interview with Tamika Burgess

HMC: Sincerely Sicily began as a picture book—how did you decide that its real identity was middle grade?

TB: When I started writing what is now my debut novel, Sincerely Sicily, I started out writing a picture book. But while writing, I realized I had a lot more to say, which would not work well for the concise way picture books have to be written. But I knew I wanted to write for an age group who is young and at the age where they are starting to learn about themselves and discover the world around them.

HMC: Before turning to writing fiction, you were an advertiser and newsletter publisher. Clearly, one common theme for you is connecting creators within the Latinx-African community. What else has this career path revealed to you about yourself?

TB: A recent revelation is my ability to prioritize my time. While writing Sincerely Sicily I had all the time in the world, without any deadlines. But now that I am under contract for Book #2, I have learned the importance of planning and prioritizing my writing time. With working full-time, it’s been hard. But I have figured it out and am progressing nicely.

HMC:  One strong theme in Sincerely Sicily is the importance of unpacking the difference between race and culture. Can you talk a little about why you wanted to write a book about that particular question?

TB: Sincerely Sicily is loosely based on my experiences growing up and came out of a need for representation and understanding. As a child, I didn’t fully comprehend how to explain my Black Panamanian background when people asked, “What are you?” Being asked that question, coupled with the fact that I was growing up in a predominantly white community as a Black Latina, I often felt out of place. My peers were all the same, and not only was I of a different race, but my culture was entirely out of their understanding.

I always wished for a point of reference, someone I could point to and say, “I’m just like them.” But characters in books, movies, and TV shows didn’t look like me, nor did their experiences resemble mine. So I wrote the book I needed and would have loved to read as a child.

HMC: One of the key moments in Sicily’s story is when her abuela criticizes her braids. It’s heartwrenching, and speaking as a person of color who has definitely struggled to navigate the world of “straight hair is beautiful hair and everything else isn’t,” I can tell you this part RESONATED. What did writing this part of Sicily’s arc mean to you personally?

TB: Although I have never experienced hair discrimination (at least not to my face), I know the issue of hair texture is big in Latinx culture and Panamá. I’ve read plenty of articles about women telling their hair stories and heard about the struggle Black women faced as children and adults. It was important to add this element to Sicily’s story because it brings awareness to discrimination that is still prevalent today. Also, how Sicily handles the situation with her Abuela can be an example to readers of how to handle conflict in general.

HMC: Your dialogue is spot-on for the middle-grade reader. Any craft advice for the authors reading this interview about how you channeled that vibe? 

TB: Fortunately, I work at a school, so I’m around my targeted age group all day. I pay attention to the things they’re talking about/what they are interested in and ask them about things when I have specific questions regarding my book.

HMC: This is your debut year, and you’re one of the first in the 2023 cohort. Any lessons learned you want to pay forward for authors whose books come out later?

TB: I have been working on promoting Sincerely Sicily for about six months. Looking back, I wish I had not let myself get overwhelmed. I was saying yes to everything and would end up feeling like I was drowning in book promotion.

With that being said, I have learned that saying “no” is okay. My mental health is most important, and I can’t let myself get lost in this publishing world.

HMC: What’s your creative process like? Do you create a playlist, light a candle, take a walk, anything in particular that helps set you up to write?

TB: The main thing I need is space. I can’t have clutter on my desk, or I’ll feel cramped, and then I won’t focus. I do listen to music, but not all the time. Sometimes I need the room to be completely silent. Other times I’ll let a random playlist play in the background. I might listen to a podcast if I’m doing some revisions or entering something I’ve already written into my manuscript. It all depends on my mood and what I’m working on.

HMC: Almost every author writes “Easter Eggs” into their novel—references that only special people in their lives will recognize. Are there any Easter Eggs from Sincerely Sicily you feel comfortable sharing with the rest of us?

TB: I have many of these, from characters being based on people in my life to using friends and family members’ names and specific qualities and likenesses of people. The book cover image is also an “Easter Egg,” as the clouds at the top are in the shape of the country of Panamá.

HMC: You’re working on your sophomore novel—can you tell us anything about it?

TB: My next middle-grade novel features a Panamanian boy. I am still in the early stages of outlining and figuring out the book’s themes. But just as with Sincerely Sicily, readers can expect Panamanian culture and historical elements.

HMC: BONUS question: Anything you want to tell us about that I didn’t mention?

TB: I want to share my favorite line from Sincerely Sicily. It’s when Sicily asks her mother how she should self-identify. Her mother tells Sicily that decision is hers but also reminds her of the following:

“Afro (short for African) comes before Panamanian to let people know I am of African ancestry… Panamanian or Latina, either way, I am Afro/Black first.”

HMC: Wonderful closing words, Again, Congratulations, Tamika!

((Want to read another interview with a debut author? Check out this archived post with contributor Meira Drazin))

Author headshot - a smiling Black Panamanian author with long dark braids, wearing glasses.

About Tamika Burgess:

Tamika Burgess (Ta-mee-Ka Bur-jess) is a storyteller with over a decade of novel, TV/film, and personal essay writing experience. Born to parents who migrated from Panamá, Tamika has always taken a particular interest in writing themes that explore her Black Latina identity. Because of her passion for spreading the knowledge of Black Panamanian culture, Tamika has been featured on various websites, podcasts, and panels. When she is not writing, Tamika is somewhere cozy online shopping and listening to a podcast. Tamika resides in sunny Southern California, where she is writing her second novel. Learn more about Tamika at TamikaBurgess.com.

Twitter

Instagram

Black Panamanian debut author Tamika Burgess holds her debut novel. She is smiling, has a blue shirt on, has curly dark hair, and wears glasses.

WNDMG Wednesday — Call for Submissions

We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around
We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around

Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado

WNDMG Wednesday Submissions

It’s a WNDMG Wednesday call for submissions! This month we’re excited to tell you that we’re looking to expand our team.  We’ve been a fixture on the Mixed-Up Files blog for two years now,  providing readers with once-a-month posts designed to center diverse writers, books, and readers.

Now it’s time to grow! We’re eager to add more voices to those to contribute content for this important series.

Who Should Apply?

Do you love middle-grade books as much as we do? Are you a middle-grade book writer, librarian, or media specialist from an underrepresented or marginalized community? We’re eager to add your voice to the ongoing conversation about diversifying our bookshelves!

WNDMG Contributor Responsibilities

Posting: WNDMG is part of the Mixed-Up Files blog team, which means our contributors work together with the whole blog to keep us running. As a WNDMG contributor, we would ask you to post 2-3 times a year for the series, plus possibly 1-2 times a year for the blog as well.

We value original, quality posts on discussion-invoking topics about diversifying our bookshelves and the publishing industry, unique book lists, or author interviews.

((What don’t we do? Book reviews or self-published books.))

Promotion: We need dedicated new members who will commit to regularly promoting our blog via their own social media pages as well as our own. We also urge you to share the good news when our members have a launch or great news to share!

Blog Upkeep: We ask EACH Mixed-Up Files/WNDMG contributor to take at least one blog maintenance job. A few examples of these jobs (there are more!) are:

  • Updating one of our social media pages
  • Keeping our Oh MG! sidebar news updated
  • Interview team (they rotate taking interview requests that come in…but Mixed-Up Files members are always welcome to coordinate interviews themselves!)

 

If you’re interested in joining us, click here to fill out an application.

 

Tip to help you prepare: Read some of our posts here: We Need Diverse Middle Grade. What would you like to see in this series? Use that to help you craft your submission sample.

Please spread the word to others who might be interested. If you applied a while back and would still like to join us, we’d be happy to receive a new application from you.

Applications will be open until December 1. We can’t wait to hear from you and will contact all applicants by mid December. If you have questions, we’re happy to answer them—leave a comment below.

WNDMG Wednesday – Guest Post by Jorrel Brinkley

We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around
We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around

Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado

WNDMG Wednesday Guest Post by Jorrel Brinkely

We Need DIverse MG is delighted to host a new author this week.  Jorrel reached out to WNDMG a few months ago with an idea for connecting his work as an author and school psychologist to the importance of diverse representation in middle-grade fiction, and we were excited to be able to feature a fresh voice on this always-timely topic. Thanks for your post, Jorrel!

My Journey, by Jorrel Brinkley

Hey everyone! I’m so excited to write a blog post this month for “From the Mixed-Up Files… of Middle-Grade Authors.” Having written a middle-grade novel and working as a school psychologist, I’d like to take this time to talk a little bit about the importance of diverse books and early literacy in reaching children in high-needs elementary schools.

Stereotypes and Microaggressions

As a teenager and in my adult years, I’ve been on the receiving end of various stereotypes and microaggressions:

“Do you rap or play basketball?”

“Imagining you riding a horse is like imagining Tupac riding a horse.”

“You look like someone I saw on a ‘Most Wanted’ billboard.”

I would say, “C’mon guys, read a book!” But given the small amount of prominent diverse books available when I was a kid, I guess I’m not surprised. I’m not disparaging any of those books, but we definitely needed more.

The White Default

Growing up, I can recall only a few books that I read in school featuring Black authors or characters. More often than not, the ones I read featured historical figures (e.g. think days of slavery or around the Civil Rights era) or were African folktales. Important for sure, but not always relatable. Most of the books that I’ve read centered around White characters. I remember that while I was writing my debut book, Gus & Major: Obedience School, I had an idea for another story. As I imagined what the cover of that book might look like, I realized that I had envisioned a White protagonist. Why was that? In my head, I saw a main character that fit with most of who I’ve seen my entire life in books, TV shows, and movies.

“This Boy Looks Like Me!”

It is important for children to not only see characters or authors who look like them but are also relatable. There can be much encouragement and hope for children when they read a book and realize they are not alone. It also gives them an idea of what they could be besides the stereotypical representations found in media. On a personal level, my three year old son was looking at a picture book. He is half-black, half-Latino. As he perused the pictures, he looked up with excitement and said, “This boy looks like me! And this is you, Daddy!”

Lacking Early Literacy Skills

As I mentioned earlier, not only am I an author, but I am also a school psychologist working in a high-needs elementary school. Most of the evaluations that I conduct with students deal with reading difficulties. Many times, I’ve found that the students I’ve tested do not have a learning disability. Rather, they simply lack the early literacy skills that are usually acquired before entering Kindergarten. Now, there are a multitude of factors that play into this, but that’s a discussion for another time. As they go through school, what I’ve typically seen is that they lack foundational reading skills. These skills build on each other every year as the curriculum becomes more challenging. The issue is that by the time the students are in their middle grade years, many have been unable to overcome the ever-increasing gap; that is their expected performance and their actual performance. Mix in a grade retention or two, and we have a serious problem. The students are over-age and seem to have lost interest in school, especially in reading. They do not see its importance; many have told me that reading is too hard. On top of that, when you place a book in front of them with characters that do not look like them or with an unrelatable story, reading it is the last thing they want to do. And let’s face it, smartphones and social media are stiff competition.

Enter diverse middle grade books.

Relatability in Diverse Books

Admittedly, my debut book features animal characters, BUT I was very intentional in writing a story that the students at my school and similar schools would find relatable. Why? In my experience, the children I’ve worked with are more interested in stories with diverse characters or those with similar experiences. They also seem to be more invested in the outcome of certain characters. In addition, when they can empathize with the author, that is a bonus. Not only are children interested in the story, but they are more willing to read other books by said author.

BookCoverWebImage_500x800

Each year at my school, I typically mentor a group of fifth-grade boys in which we discuss music and think about the messages conveyed in songs. When I ask them about their favorite rappers and why they listen to their music, I’m often told that they can relate to some of the rappers’ struggles. They feel like they’re not alone and that there’s hope that they can make it past their own personal struggles too. Without examining the veracity of some rappers’ statements, it’s important that we don’t miss that gold nugget. These boys connected with artists that looked like them, talked like them, and had relatable stories. I can almost guarantee that they would read a book written by their favorite rapper!

((For more articles on why representation matters, check out our WNDMG Wednesday archives))

Making Connections

What does this have to do with diverse middle grade books, Jorrel? I’m glad you asked. It’s all about making connections. Making connections with children through diverse books can help them process their emotions, provide language to what they are experiencing, and may even provide a framework for overcoming various challenges.

How do you attract students who don’t find curling up with a good book on a rainy day as exhilarating as you do? Give them diverse authors and/or characters and a relatable, compelling story. What if they are a struggling reader? Well, if they’re sitting and engaging with the book, that’s half the battle! It’s easier to target some of those foundational reading skills when interest and motivation are high.

On a few occasions, I’ve read part of my book, Gus & Major: Obedience School, to a group of third graders at my school. In it, I touch on topics such as fatherlessness, behavioral problems, and forgiveness. Most of the story is drawn from my time working with children. The students were immediately able to relate to the story and characters, saying things like, “So-and-so does that in my class all the time,” or “I used to act like him in the beginning of the year.”

I’m grateful that there is an increasing number of diverse books being published. What messages do we want to send to our children? How do we ignite a love of reading in children lacking basic reading skills and maintain their interest? Let’s expand their imaginations to what else is out there, and let’s introduce them to more diverse voices early.

About Jorrel Brinkley

Jorrel Brinkley is a school psychologist and the author of his debut chapter book Gus & Major: Obedience School. He has worked with elementary school-aged children from a variety of backgrounds for over 15 years. His goal is to engage children’s imagination through entertaining, relatable, and thoughtful stories. When he is not writing, he is spending time with his wife and two boys.

Connect with Jorrel

 Instagram

Website