Sweet Homefront Chicago

GREAT novel; misleading cover art

Rita Williams-Garcia was her gracious smart self for last Friday's Sutherland Lecture in Chicago; good to hear her and good to see old friends, especially my boss Betsy. Below is my introduction to Rita; you can read the lady speaking for herself when we publish her lecture this fall in the Magazine. Next year's Sutherland Lecture will be given by Gene Luen Yang on May 3rd.



My first encounter with Rita Williams-Garcia was via her second novel, Fast Talk on a Slow Track, published in 1991 by Dutton, edited by Rosemary Brosnan, who has been with Rita from the start and is with us all tonight. Please welcome Rosemary Brosnan. Also please welcome Rita’s husband, Fred Leyro.


I reviewed Fast Talk on a Slow Track for the Bulletin, and at the time it struck me as unusual in a number of ways, good unusual. The book is about a black teenager, Denzel, who has finished high school--brilliantly--and faces some choices. Now, the fact that the protagonist is black is still too unusual in our field; that was welcome. The fact that the protagonist is male was also exceptional, although I recall the book being published in one of those cyclical moments when we worry about getting boys to read more. Novels. The fact that the protagonist was in the summer between high school and—what?—was unusual, an early sign of what is the norm today, when what we mean by “YA” has grown up a few years.


Rita’s next book—oh, my. Early on in Like Sisters on the Homefront, published by Lodestar in 1995, again edited by Rosemary, our heroine Gayle gets marched into the abortion clinic by her fierce mother. Pay attention to Gayle’s mother—in everything by Rita you can take a really deep dive into the emotional, complicated, strategic, dark, rich life between a mother and child. But Rita and Rosemary—did you know what a taboo the mention, never mind the occurrence, of abortion in a YA novel was? Is? Rita is brave.


Know who else is brave? Delphine Gaither, who, with her sisters—and their mother—provides the locus for Rita’s three novels published by HarperCollins, also with Rosemary, between 2010 and 2015: One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven, and Gone Crazy in Alabama. The first won the Scott O’Dell Award, Coretta Scott King Award, and a Newbery Honor, with accolades continuing for the next two books.


In One Crazy Summer, there’s an ongoing kitchen battle between Delphine and her mother that always make me think of Cynthia’s Voigt’s Dicey and Gran, except instead of Gram staring intently into Dicey’s eyes whilst holding the lid down on a clattering pot of dying lobsters, we have Cecile refusing even to let Delphine into her kitchen, where she has a revolution going on, and which is, we discover, a temple of poetry.


Cecile has, maybe, ten percent of her attention to give to her estranged but currently visiting daughters, but she has a few fast rules besides don’t come in my kitchen. As far as the rules for Delphine go, number one is: “Be eleven.” Meaning, live your life. Be aware of what is around you, where you have power, and what needs your attention right now.


But Delphine is, well, eleven, so it’s all a bit much to take in. I love her response to Cecile’s dictum: “I was eleven. How could you become what you already were?” EXACTLY. What Rita in all her writing is asking us is: how can we become who we already are? How can we know the truth about ourselves?


In an interview I did with Rita last year upon the occasion of the publication of her most recent novel, the National Book Award Finalist Clayton Byrd Goes Underground, she spoke of it as “an endowment story.” Speaking of the hero’s grandfather, she said, “Cool Papa was the one person in his life who gave him truth, gave him love. Also, in his way, he gave him boundaries. Those are the endowments that help people become themselves as fully as they can."


Truth, love, boundaries—these make you your eleven, they make you be you. So, I would add—aha!—does reading. Rita, thank you for giving us books that reward readers in search of themselves. Please join me in welcoming Rita Williams-Garcia.

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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