Rita Williams-Garcia (1957-) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
Born 1957, in Queens, NY; father in the military, mother's name Essie (a domestic servant); Education: Graduated from Hofstra University; postgraduate study in creative writing at Queens College; studied dance under Alvin Ailey and Phil Black. Hobbies and other interests: Chess, playing Tetris, jogging, sewing.
Agent—c/o Author Mail, HarperCollins Children's, 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019.
Writer; Interactive Market Systems, New York, NY, manager of software distribution and production. Has also worked as a dancer and reading teacher.
Authors Guild, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.
Notable Books for Children and Young Adults citation, American Library Association (ALA), 1991, for Fast Talk on a Slow Track; Booklist Editors' Choice selection, 1995, Best Books for Young Adults citation, ALA, and Coretta Scott King Honor Book selection, ALA, both 1996, all for Like Sisters on the Homefront; PEN/Norma Klein Award for Children's Fiction, 1997.
Blue Tights, Lodestar (New York, NY), 1988.
Fast Talk on a Slow Track, Lodestar (New York, NY), 1991.
Like Sisters on the Homefront, Lodestar (New York, NY), 1995.
Catching the Wild Waiyuuzee, illustrated by Mike Reed, Simon& Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.
Every Time a Rainbow Dies, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2001.
No Laughter Here, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor of short fiction to anthologies, including Second Sight: Stories for a New Millennium, Philomel, 1999; Period Pieces: Stories for Girls, HarperCollins, 2002; and First Crossings: Stories about Immigrant Teens, Candlewick Press, 2004.
In teen novels such as Like Sisters on the Homefront, No Laughter Here, and Fast Talk on a Slow Track, Rita Williams-Garcia draws on her experiences growing up in a New York City neighborhood, as well as on situations she has encountered as a teacher and as a dancer. Her young-adult novels depict black men and women living and coping with difficulties in an honest, uncontrived manner. "Williams-Garcia's portrayal of these urban black adolescents and their worlds feels genuine, neither sensationalized nor romanticized," declared Horn Book contributor Rudine Sims Bishop. "Her work is marked by an authentic rendering of the styles and cadences of urban black language, some touches of humor, and strong, dynamic characterization." Comparing Williams-Garcia's works with books by African-American writers Jacqueline Woodson, Dolores Johnson, and Angela Johnson, Bishop added that the novelist may well become "among the most prominent African-American literary artists of the next generation."
Born in Queens, New York, in 1957, Williams-Garcia eventually moved to Arizona, and then to California due to the demands of her father's military career. After her family settled in the California town of Seaside, Rita and her siblings spent their childhood playing outdoors a great deal. As she explained to Booklist interviewer Hazel Rochman, "We were always doing things. My sister was an artist. My brother was into math. I loved words; I just thought that was normal. To characterize me as a kid, you could say that I was definitely a geek."
Williams-Garcia developed her reading skills early in life, teaching herself to read at age two by learning to associate letters with their sounds, partly through looking at billboards and partly through the efforts of her older sister, who would often share her books with her. By the time she entered school, Williams-Garcia was already an accomplished reader and a writer of poetry and stories, most of them involving her siblings.
Williams-Garcia was exposed to racial issues while growing up during the 1960s. She remembers discussing race relations and racism in the classroom in the aftermath of the 1968 riots and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At the age of twelve, she left California for Georgia for six months, then settled in Jamaica, a section of the borough of Queens, New York. In the sixth grade, she went looking for literature for young adults that featured black protagonists. She discovered biographies of historical figures, such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, and a single novel, Mary Ellen, Student Nurse. Her teachers encouraged her to write for herself, and at the age of fourteen she published her first story in Highlights magazine.
After enrolling at Hofstra University, Williams-Garcia temporarily dropped writing for other activities. "In college, real life seemed to displace my need to 'make' stories," she is quoted as commenting on the Penguin Putnam Web site, "so I didn't write for nearly three years. (Real life was running my dance company and being political)." She declared a major in economics, auditioned for dancing roles in musicals, and performed community outreach work through her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. In her senior year in college, Williams-Garcia enrolled in a creative-writing class. In that class she combined her outreach work—teaching high school girls remedial reading—with her writing workshop training to pen an early version of the story that became her first novel, Blue Tights.
Blue Tights, while partly based on Williams-Garcia's own experiences, is for the most part a conglomeration of the stories of many young women. The book tells the tale of Joyce Collins, an ambitious African American who loves to dance and exhibits great talent. However, Joyce finds herself shut out of her school's European-oriented dance program because the dance instructor believes her full-figured body shape is not suited to ballet. Besides dealing with this great disappointment, Joyce has to come to terms with her home life—she has been raised by an often absent mother and a religiously fanatic aunt—and her identity. "A volatile combination of worldliness and innocence," Bishop stated, "Joyce seeks love and popularity in all the wrong places and with all the wrong people." "Williams-Garcia does not shy away from the harsh circumstances that define Joyce and her family," explained Susan Bloom in Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers. "Aunt Em's severe treatment of Joyce stems from a horrific self-induced coat hanger abortion she suffered in her adolescence. Williams-Garcia provides less sensational, daily evidence of the grinding poverty that eats at this family." "Through her work with an African-American dance troupe," Bishop concluded, Joyce "discovers her own special talents as a dancer and achieves a new appreciation of her own self-worth."
It took Williams-Garcia several years to get Blue Tights published. While she worked on the book, revising and collating the stories she had assembled from her own life and the lives of her reading students, she went to work for a marketing company in Manhattan, mailing out manuscripts typed on an old typewriter in the company mail room. The manuscript of Blue Tights (originally titled Blue Tights, Big Butt), however, kept returning to the author with depressing regularity. Editors complained that the protagonist had a poor self-image and was too focused on her appearance. "The letters I got back from editors and agents were more or less on the same lines," the author explained to Rochman. "Can you make the girl older, about 17, if there's going to be any kind of sexual content in the book? Or, this is not a good role model; she's not positive; she doesn't have anything uplifting to offer to young African American women growing up; can you do something about her attitude? Can you do something about all these references to black culture? Readers aren't going to understand them. Can you make it more universal?"
Williams-Garcia continued to write and submit stories during the 1980s. In the meantime she had married and given birth to two daughters. After her job was cut during a company restructuring, she decided to pursue writing with more seriousness. She brought the Blue Tights manuscript to Lodestar Books, a publishing house known for its history of publishing challenging books. The novel was released in 1988 and won recognition from many reviewers. "By writing about urban black teenagers and a young girl who aspires to be a dancer," Nancy Vasilakis stated in Horn Book, "Rita Williams-Garcia incorporates a setting and a subject that she obviously knows well." "The novel vividly evokes Joyce's neighborhood and the rigor and joy of her dancing," commented a Booklist critic. "Joyce's understanding is believably paced and powerfully realized," declared a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "and her story is uplifting."
While Blue Tights gains its sense of optimism from its resilient protagonist, Joyce, Fast Talk on a Slow Track gains its uplifting tone from the way its main character deals with failure. Denzel, the smooth-talking valedictorian of his high school, attends a summer program for minority students at Princeton University. While he relied on his winning personality throughout high school, Denzel soon discovers that those tricks no longer work in college. Ultimately, he is overcome by his sense of inadequacy and decides to abandon his chance for a Princeton education. Denzel turns to a part-time job as a door-to-door salesman to regain his self-esteem, and experiments briefly with the world of black street culture. Finally, however, he bows to family pressure and resolves to recommit Princeton, finding that, "with a little humility and some serious study, he can hack it," explained a Kirkus Reviews contributor.
"Williams-Garcia writes just as authoritatively about teenage boys as she did about girls in her first novel," stated Nancy Vasilakis in a review of Fast Talk on a Slow Track for Horn Book. "She understands the forces and fears driving a young man in search of his true self." In School Library Journal, Hazel Rochman added that "Teens everywhere will be able to identify and commiserate with Denzel as he goes through his options, gains confidence, and matures."
The heroine of Like Sisters on the Homefront, fourteen-year-old Gayle, also has her own set of problems and needs to gain maturity in order to cope with them. After she becomes pregnant for a second time (her first pregnancy resulted in a son, Jose, now seven months old), Gayle's mother takes the teen to an abortion clinic, then ships her off to the family home in Georgia. At first Gayle feels uncomfortable in the rural environment; she is away from her boyfriend and homegirls and has to cope with her uncle's disapproval, her aunt's insistence on proper child care for her young son, and her cousin Cookie's religious standards. She begins to change when her aunt gives her the responsibility of caring for her great-grandmother, Great, who is sick and near death. The relationship between Great and Gayle deepens as the old woman's condition worsens. Great "exhibits a strength of spirit and a stubbornness that Gayle recognizes in herself," noted reviewer Nancy Vasilakis in a review of Like Sisters on the Homefront for Horn Book. "Great understands Gayle, too. 'When you lay down your deviling,' she tells her great-granddaughter, 'you'll be stronger than those who lived by the rule all their lives.'" Great finally chooses Gayle to receive the Telling, the source of family history that keeps the family together.
"Strong-willed, self-absorbed, and impulsive, Gayle is not unlike the heroine of … Blue Tights," noted Nancy Vasilakis, adding that Williams-Garcia's protagonist is "imbued with a lively mix of naiveté and worldliness, particularly in sexual matters, that gives her characterization depth and vibrancy." "Painting Gayle as a hard-edged, high-spirited young woman clearly headed for either trouble or triumph, Williams-Garcia breathes life into what could have been a stereotypical portrait of a trash-talking, streetwise city teen," stated Deborah Stevenson in a review of Like Sisters on the Homefront for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, "and while its scales are tipped in favor of a responsible life, he book is honest enough to acknowledge the pleasures of the other kind."
Other novels for older readers include No Laughter Here, which focuses on a topic about which Williams-Garcia has strong feelings: genital mutilation, and frames her topic in the relationship between two fifth grade friends. Akilah Hunter and Victoria Ljike live in Queens, and when Victoria returns from a vacation with her grandmother in Nigeria a different, more subdued person, Akilah is concerned. As Victoria's inner turmoil becomes more apparent, her friend discovers that as part of her coming-of-age celebration the ten-year-old American girl was given a clitorectomy. Noting that Williams-Garcia includes details appropriate for her middle-grade readership, School Library Journal reviewer Miranda Doyle wrote that the author "addresses … cultural issues and contradictions without overwhelming readers." While a Publishers Weekly contributor described the novel as "disturbing and poignant," the critic added that "the author attempts to remain objective, showing how and why the ritual is still practiced in some cultures." Nell Beram noted in Horn Book that No Laughter Here "will be an eye-opening book for most preteens," while in Booklist Gillian Engberg praised the author for balancing "what could have been strident messages with interesting contrasts" in a "skillfully told, powerful story." A Kirkus reviewer called the work an "exquisitely written short novel [that] tackles an enormous and sensitive subject."
Balancing the serious focus of much of her YA fiction, Williams-Garcia makes a side-step into picture books with Catching the Wild Waiyuuzee. Written for the storybook set, the book focuses on a "wild" jungle creature who is attempting to escape the dreaded Shemama the Catcher, until listeners realize that the exciting adventure is actually a product of an imaginative youngster hiding to avoid having her hair braided by her mother. Praising the "quick-paced story," Yolanda Foster Bolden noted in Black Issues Book Review that Williams-Garcia "successfully giv[es] … audiences a balance of suspense and surprise." Kathleen Kelly MacMillan commented on the "enormous feeling of playfulness and love" between mother and daughter that the story projects, while in Booklist Connie Fletcher praised the book's "lilting language" and "zany humor."
"I really don't think we deal with the complex issues of our young people's lives," Williams-Garcia told Rochman in discussing the importance of the books she writes. "We tell them about racism and those kinds of things … but then there's that real person who has to deal with the fact that he is not a symbol, he is not a model, he is a real, flesh-and-blood person who makes mistakes and has to keep moving and learning and accepting all these things as part of life .… It's what you come to know about yourself that is more important than any big thing that might happen to you."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Children's Literature Review, Volume 36, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994, pp. 709-710.
ALAN Review, winter, 1996.
Black Issues Book Review, November, 2000, Yolanda Foster Bolden, review of Catching the Wild Waiyuuzee, p. 79.
Booklist, December 15, 1987, review of Blue Tights, pp. 696-697; April 1, 1991, p. 1561; September 1, 1995, Hazel Rochman, review of Like Sisters on the Homefront, p. 75; February 15, 1996, Hazel Rochman, interview with Williams-Garcia, pp. 1002-1003; November 15, 2000, Connie Fletcher, review of Catching the Wild Waiyuuzee, p. 651; December 15, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of Every Time a Rainbow Dies, p. 809; December 1, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of No Laughter Here, p. 668.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1988, p. 106; June, 1991, pp. 253-254; September, 1995, Deborah Stevenson, review of Like Sisters on the Homefront, p. 34.
Dance, November, 1993, p. 81.
Horn Book, March-April, 1988, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Blue Tights, pp. 215-216; July-August, 1991, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Fast Talk on a Slow Track, p. 466; September-October, 1992, Rudine Sims Bishop, "Books from Parallel Cultures: New African-American Voices," pp. 616-620; November-December, 1995, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Like Sisters on the Homefront, pp. 748-749; March, 2001, Nell D. Beram, review of Every Time a Rainbow Dies, p. 216; January-February, 2004, Nell Beram, review of No Laughter Here, p. 93.
Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1987, p. 1680; February 1, 1991, review of Fast Talk on a Slow Track, pp. 179-180; November 15, 2003, review of No Laughter Here, p. 1365.
Kliatt, January, 2001, Claire Rosser, review of Every Time a Rainbow Dies; January, 2004, Michele Winship, review of No Laughter Here, p. 14
Publishers Weekly, November 13, 1987, review of Blue Tights, p. 73; February 8, 1991, pp. 58-59; July 31, 1995, review of Like Sisters on the Homefront, p. 82; January 8, 2001, review of Every Time a Rainbow Dies, p. 68; December 22, 2003, review of No Laughter Here, p. 62.
School Library Journal, June-July, 1988, p. 120; April, 1991, Hazel Rochman, review of Fast Talk on a Slow Track, p. 143; November, 2000, Kathleen Kelly MacMillan, review of Catching the Wild Waiyuuzee, p. 137; February, 2001, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Every Time a Rainbow Dies, p. 123; February, 2004, Miranda Doyle, review of No Laughter Here, p. 153.
Voice of Youth Advocates, August, 1988, p. 136; June, 1991, Jo Holtz, review of Fast Talk on a Slow Track, pp. 104-105.
Penguin-Putnam Web site, http://www.penguin.com/ (May 5, 2005), "Rita Williams-Garcia."
Rita Williams-Garcia Home Page, http://www.RitaWG.com (May 3, 2005).
Williams-Garcia Page, http://www.scils.rutgers.edu/~kvander/williamsgarcia.html (September 20, 1996), Susan Pais, Phyllis Brown, Ann Gartner, and Kay E. Vandergrift, "Learning about Rita Williams-Garcia."*
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