SCENE 1: 1986. The Back Porch restaurant on Third Avenue in New York. A shiny new author, plucked from the “slush pile,” sits across from a shiny new assistant editor, who is wearing a flowery Laura Ashley number and looks to be dressed for a garden party. The author, too, is wearing her Sunday best.
“Do you think you would be compromising the integrity of your story if you deleted some of the four-letter words?” asks the editor tentatively, struggling to get the words out. She really means: “Are you going to get rid of the f-bombs that are exploding on every single page so I can publish your book and give you a fighting chance?”
The work in question is Blue Tights, a novel the editor requested after receiving a query letter that asked: “What would you do if…your ballet teacher tells you your butt’s too big for Swan Lake?” The author wrote that she’d been inspired to pen the story when she’d worked with pregnant African American teens while in college, and could not find anything of interest for the girls to read. The editor was intrigued and immediately requested the manuscript. Blue Tights needed work, but there was something about it that was clearly unique, and the author had a fresh, vibrant voice.
Back at the glamorous editor-author lunch, the editor holds her breath. “Yes, I’ll work with you on the language and on revising the story,” says the author. This gladdens the young editor’s heart.
SCENE 2: TWENTY FIVE YEARS LATER. NEW ORLEANS. The Coretta Scott King breakfast. The Newbery Caldecott dinner. Rita Williams-Garcia, the author of six highly acclaimed novels for teens, is honored for her first middle-grade novel, One Crazy Summer, with the Coretta Scott King Award and a Newbery Honor. The book has also won the Scott O’Dell Award and been named a National Book Award finalist. Four medals grace its cover. I’m still her editor, and one of the highlights of my career has been to see Rita acknowledged in this way.
After a quarter of a century, the relationship between Rita and me is a comfortable—and special—blend of the professional and the personal. We’ve shared so much: working on seven books, losing and finding jobs, having and raising children, experiencing the ups and downs of publishing and other vagaries of life. And, it must be mentioned, we’ve enjoyed an astonishing number of calories along the way. Rita is not only an author I work with, she is one of my dear friends. We call each other sister. And we tell people that even though we don’t look a thing alike, we really are sisters.
Family is central to Rita’s life. For years, she’s regaled me with stories of Miss Essie, her whirlwind of a mother; her dad, whose career in the army necessitated moving Rita, her siblings, and her mother from place to place; and her children. She visits her grandma every Sunday, armed with clippings and articles that make Grandma “pleased as punch.” Her brilliant, beautiful, accomplished daughters, Michelle and Stephanie, bring Rita much joy. And now that Michelle has recently married, so does her beloved son-in-law, Adam. Rita’s ex-husband, Peter, is a close, supportive friend, always cheering her on.
Say Rita’s name, and anyone who knows her will break into a huge smile. Sometimes we get on the phone and just laugh and laugh. People in neighboring offices know exactly whom I’m talking to.
As her editor, the smartest thing I can do is to leave Rita alone. Rita is not an author who should be directed to write x, y, or z: she writes what her muse dictates, and this is how every book has come about. I trust her completely. And I have been fortunate to work for publishers who trust me in this, too. When she told me she was writing a book about female genital mutilation, I knew to trust her judgment, and I was rewarded with the beautifully told and gracefully done No Laughter Here. When Rita was disturbed by girl-on-girl violence and was compelled to write Jumped, I knew she would write a hard-hitting, memorable story.
Rita is talented enough to know how to tell any story that moves her. When she decided to write her first non-YA novel about the 1960s and the Black Panthers from a child’s point of view, it was clear middle-grade readers would be in for a treat. I knew Rita would tell this story so that it was real and true, and never preachy. Rita doesn’t do preachy. The voice of her young narrator, Delphine, never falters. Delphine never understands too much or tells more than she would know. As in all of Rita’s books, her characters don’t explain themselves. They just live their lives, and Rita trusts her readers to figure the characters out.
What inspired Rita to tell this story? For one thing, Rita lived through this period. Although the media mostly portrayed the Black Panthers as violent and dangerous, Rita’s experience of them as a child was quite different: the Panthers provided shoes and clothing, free breakfast for children, and free testing for sickle cell anemia for kids in her neighborhood. The media rarely wrote about that sort of thing, instead focusing only on the guns and angry rhetoric. Rita knew that children of the 1960s like her characters Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern were often helped by the Panthers, and were even participants in bringing about change. The Black Panthers were, of course, not always on the right side of the law—and were often merely teenagers themselves. “But,” Rita said, “we never think about the children when we think about these movements.”
Moreover, Rita had a family connection to the Black Panthers. “As a young girl, I tried to hear what grown folks were talking about,” she told me while we were working on the book. “Young Black Panther relatives, plane hijacking, bank robbery, shoot-outs, trouble.” One of her Black Panther cousins hijacked a plane to Algeria; from the whispers Rita heard as a girl, she suspects another cousin was married to an extremely notorious Black Panther. (Even today, more than forty years later, the family remains mum about the specifics.) When this Panther’s face was shown on the news, “it was always quiet around the house,” Rita told me. “‘Y’all go out and play,’ my mother would tell my brother, my sister, and me.” If Rita or her siblings heard clicking in the background on the phone—evidence of government wiretapping—they were to inform their parents.
When the manuscript for One Crazy Summer came in, it was practically perfect. In fact, each manuscript I have received from Rita over the years has required less and less editing. (Blue Tights was a workout—but hey, Rita wrote the book in college.) One Crazy Summer originally contained a framing device: a prologue and epilogue written from Delphine’s point of view in which she looks back as an adult on the summer of 1968. I felt the frame had a distancing effect on the reader and asked Rita to delete it. No problem. And I asked her to delete an extraneous chapter that did not move the story forward, but added what I thought was unnecessary background about 1960s music. All this is peanuts for an editor—not much work to do at all. And there was not a great deal of line editing to do, either, because it is difficult to find an extraneous word in Rita’s books. She knows why every single word is there. And when I have an issue, she will either make a change gracefully—and gratefully—or give me such a good reason for not making the change that I am completely convinced by her superior logic.
Rita’s books are not written quickly. Seven published novels in twenty-five years is not the hallmark of a prolific author. The characters have to become part of Rita; they need to talk to her before she can write. And she always holds on to a manuscript for at least six months after she has promised it to me, as she polishes away and tries to make it perfect before handing it over. Even though she left her full-time job at a marketing company six years ago, Rita still takes the same amount of time to deliver a manuscript. We both thought she’d turn out books quickly after leaving the corporate world, but that’s just not Rita. The difference now is that she doesn’t have to do all of her writing on the subway as she commutes to and from work. Now she writes when she is not teaching her students in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
True to form, Rita throws her whole self into teaching. And, of course, she is much loved by her students. The day of the ALA announcements in January, Rita was in Vermont, watching the webcast with faculty and students. Earlier, she had received a call from the Newbery committee, and then, not dreaming that she would receive yet another award, modest Rita had left her cell phone in her room and missed the call from the Coretta Scott King committee. So when Rita saw the announcement on the screen, she leapt up and screamed. Melissa Fisher, the director of the program, told me that Rita couldn’t enter a room at the college for two days after that without receiving a standing ovation.
SCENE 3: HOGWARTS, 2010. (Okay, Hogwarts at Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando.) On the scariest ride we’ve ever experienced, Rita and I scream and hold hands, and then can’t stop laughing when we get off and totter around. This is a lot like the journey we’ve been on for twenty-five years. I’ve been so privileged to be Rita’s editor, and her friend and sister and companion in laughter. May we have much laughter ahead of us, and may we all have many more of Rita’s wonderful books to read and share with others.
From the July/August 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine