Years ago my editor handed me a book she thought I’d enjoy: Like Sisters on the Homefront by Rita Williams-Garcia. I loved it, and I’ve kept an eye out for each of her books since then.
Rita hates to fly. She’s not the least bit ambivalent about it: flying is not for her. But when she was invited out to Oakland to speak about her latest book, One Crazy Summer, she felt she owed us a visit. After all, One Crazy Summer, set in Oakland at the time of the Black Panthers, had won Newbery and National Book honors, among other awards, and brought Rita all kinds of crazy good things.
So I hopped down to Marcus Bookstore to see her read. It was a thrill. Besides being a great writer, Rita is a fantastic storyteller and she had all of us spellbound. Teaching with Rita at Vermont College, I know she is a pretty shy person. But you never would have guessed as she read, and talked about the writing.
Two favorite tidbits for me: She ran into a problem with a real life event she decided to put in her book at a different time than actually happened. She puzzled out how to explain her choice to us, then said, “You have to obey the God of Storytelling before Father Time.” I LOVE this! It’s also, for me, the difference between fiction and nonfiction: when I write nonfiction I obey Father Time scrupulously, and pray that the God of Storytelling will work with me.
After the reading Rita said to me, “This is my Newbery dress,” indicating the brown knit dress she was wearing. I remembered that dress back when it was huge balls of yarn in her lap, being knit into a dress as the faculty sat in the back of the room listening to lectures. The soft click-click-click of her knitting needles. “I got a call I’d had won the Newbery Honor,” Rita said. “And that I wasn’t to tell anyone until the winners were announced the next morning.”
We were in our winter residency. Rita had to keep her great big secret surrounded by writers. So she gathered up her knitting, and brought it with her everywhere, keeping her eyes on her fingers and her lips sealed.