Magazine Top Ten 2018: How the Library Made Rita Williams-Garcia a Serious Writer

Posted by: yetheart, December 27, 2018 11:11 am
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Rita Williams-Garcia

"There’s nothing that replaces having a neighborhood library. It tells you that literacy belongs to you, that it’s not something you have to travel on a bus, travel far to get to—that it’s in your neighborhood. It’s meant for you and you can be a part of it.”

Rita Williams-Garcia is a middle grade and YA author living in Jamaica, Queens. She spent her childhood in the St. Albans branch of Queens Library, where she became serious about her writing. Her latest book is Clayton Byrd Goes Underground, about a boy who runs away in search of the blues after his grandfather dies. He meets up with some kids who perform hip hop on the subway and he adds his blues harmonica to their act as an adventure ensues.

Williams-Garcia described a Doug E. Fresh video as being the inspiration for the book, but she also comes from a musical family—Tupac Shakur was a cousin. Clayton Byrd Goes Underground was longlisted for the National Book Award, and two of her previous books have also been nominated for the National Book Award. Rita Williams-Garcia received the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature for Youth/Teens for Clayton Byrd Goes Underground at a ceremony held in Los Angeles on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January 2018. At a visit to South Jamaica Library, she brought the statue and let each child have a turn holding it.

To Williams-Garcia, the award is meaningful because “it means not just national recognizability, but sharing. It’s being able to share the story with the nation and to be recognized by your own people. There’s nothing quite like that.”

Williams-Garcia’s journey to being an acclaimed author began at the St. Albans Library, which was around the corner from her grandmother’s house. There, she checked out books on writing at age 12 so frequently that the librarian had to tell her that she needed to let others check the books out.

She credits the library branch with having the reference tools necessary to help her become a writer. “It helped me to become serious at an early age and to feel like someone was taking me seriously. The St. Albans branch was my place where I felt like yes, I am a writer.”

Williams-Garcia jokes that her overdue books and fines are proof of how important a role the library plays in her life today. She is frequently found at the Central Library.

She chooses to live in Queens today because “if you want that microcosm of the world and how it turns, you come to Queens because you get to see how people live, how they actually live and live together. We have all religions, all races, all creeds; we have it all right here. And to me, why am I going to leave? Why? If I live alone, anything I need, I can just go and get it.”

Rita Williams-Garcia's NAACP Image AwardAlthough she did not grow up with a bedtime story tradition like the character in Clayton Byrd Goes Underground, Williams-Garcia was a competitive reader with her siblings. “It was always who could read the most and the fastest and talk the most about them. I was not a fast reader, but I could talk the most about the stories. I got a lot out of the simple act of reading. It just stuck. Having literacy in the home, having that as part of our competition, part of our lives…Reading a story, reading books was as much a part of our household as playing games, playing Monopoly or kickball or dodgeball or something like that.”

Reading matters to her because of the connections it allows you to make with books, which can lead to connections with others, and how books can also help you connect with yourself.

She’s enthusiastic about all of the diverse stories being published today, and lists Jacqueline Woodson, Jason Reynolds, Tracy Baptiste, Kate DiCamillo, Kevin Henkes, and Christopher Paul Curtis as some of her favorite middle grade and YA authors.

Ultimately, Williams-Garcia’s success is a tale of persistence. She says that through rejections and siblings who made fun of her, she just continued to write—and she encourages young readers to do the same. “Don’t be afraid to dream and pursue it. Bit by bit…word by word. Sentence by sentence. Every day I lived in the promise of a dream. That’s how I was able to attain it.”

This author talk was part of the South Jamaica Reads program and is possible through generous funding from The Pinkerton Foundation.

Pictured above: Rita Williams-Garcia’s NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature for Youth/Teens.

This story originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Queens Library Magazine.

Read the Other Stories in the Queens Library Magazine Top Ten of 2018.