I first 'met' (really chatted) with Olugbemisola back in August when I did a post about the lack of contests occurring that featured books about poc. She generously donated two copies of 8th Grade Superzero, one for me and one to giveaway. I will always be grateful!
Reading in Color: What inspired you to write 8th Grade Superzero?
Olugbemisola: It began as a bit of an accident, I wrote a couple of pages as part of an application for a writing workshop. It was one of those night-before-the-application was due kind of things (a situation that I find myself in often), and I got an image of Reggie in my head and went with it for three pages. Much later on, as I began to seek out Reggie's real story, I was inspired by people and moments in my life, and some of the teens that I taught and worked with -- their desire to tackle big questions, to be thoughtful, and to be activists in many different ways.
RiC: What kind of research (TV shows, magazines, other books, teens?) did you do for this book to help you get into the MG mindset?
Olugbemisola: I didn't really do any set 'research', but I'm always observing and eavesdropping -- er, listening. Public transportation is a wonderful thing for writers! I've also spent a lot of time working with children and teens, and of course, I've been these ages myself, and I think many writers just tap into those memories. While the times may change, the minor heartbreaks that feel like major earthquakes, the daily deaths that spark constant rebirth, and the anguish and elation that characterize the teen years...those are timeless.
Ric: What's next for you, Reggie, Ruthie and Joe C. (I would love to follow them in high school, just see how they handle it. Maybe Reggie will be a stud and Ruthie will take over the high school and Joe C. will be a master DJ?)
Olugbemisola: I'm working on a YA project in which the Superzero characters are mentioned, and I did start working on a book featuring Ruthie in high school, we'll see how that goes. She takes a trip to Jamaica and confronts her ideas about identity, authenticity, and revolution. And romance, of course! I won't say just yet if Reggie is involved! :P
RiC: Which character do you relate to most? least? And how much of your own Jamaican heritage did you put into the story (were your parents like Reggie's, especially with their ranking of various Caribbean countries!)?
Olugbemisola: Ruthie is my favourite. I love her passion and commitment to justice, her creativity, her comfortable confidence! I relate to something in all of the characters...well, except for Justin, because I have no idea what it is like to be that effortlessly cool, and Mialonie, for similar reasons, and because I hope that I'm a better listener than she is!
My mom was Jamaican; she never ranked the countries or anything like that, though! Some of what's in the book was inspired by reflections on family gatherings, conversations and observations here in Brooklyn now, etc.. Reggie and Ruthie connect with their Jamaican heritage in different ways, but it is not a problem, or something to struggle with, for either them. It's who they are, and a part of their identity that gives them strength.
RiC: Why did you decide to write MG and not YA or adult fiction?
Olugbemisola: I didn't really make a decision either way. I just write. The other projects that I'm working on now would probably be considered YA; I also have some chapter book ideas floating around. And some nonfiction. I just love to write, and hope that I have the opportunity to continue! I think that books labeled as 'for children' or 'young adults' often offer narratives of transformation, and of hope, that I think are vital. My own childhood and teen reading years are very precious to me; the books that I read were such gifts and continue to be significant forces in my life. In that sense, writing for young people is also an attempt to 'give back' in a small way.
RiC: If 8th grade Superzero could be made a movie, who would you want to play the main characters?
Well, this question just gets me started on the lack of presence of people of colour in film and on TV! There is so much tween and teen programming now, especially on television, but there is a real lack of racial and ethnic diversity as well, except for the usual sassy/wacky sidekick of colour. The few actors that immediately come to mind are really more suited to play high schoolers...What do you think? Do you have any ideas? I'm listening!
*RiC Note: I don't have any ideas either, there is way too few poc on TV! The only actors I can think of are too young or in high school, not suited to play middle school students. Suggestions?)
RiC: Any advice for middle school or high schoolers going through similar situations to Reggie and his friends; friendships ending/beginning, helping others, being uncool and teased, etc.?
I'd remind them (as I have to remind myself daily) that we don't have to let others define us. And to look for the humanity in each other -- not to get stuck on type and stereotype, and the fear that leads us to be exclusionary. The club doesn't get any cooler when you don't let others in. It's just smaller, in a lot of ways. In Superzero, there is a character who has a lot of issues that fuel animosity toward Reggie -- this character is jealous of Reggie's family life, this person saw Reggie's strength of character long before Reggie himself did -- but Reggie will never know all of that, and may have to learn to get over it without that knowledge. I chose to leave out the character's backstory in large part because I think that while we have little or no control over what other people do or say to us, we can choose how we respond, and those responses can really transform. We all have issues, after all. I don't excuse the people who act like jerks; I also don't excuse myself from acting and reacting with dignity. And it's because of my own complete failure to do that so much of the time, the knowledge that I've had countless 'second chances', that I have to remain hopeful, develop a more generous spirit, and keep trying!
Don't let the "tyranny of the urgent" overpower the "urgency of the important"** (*those terms are not my own -- from a classic booklet on time management by Charles E. Hummel)
Sometimes things seem huge -- an argument, an embarrassing incident, who's popular and who's not -- and they obscure real, precious opportunities in our lives to make change and be transformed.
Keep words like respect, dignity, and compassion in your mental pocket.
Keep a notebook (a real pen and paper kind, that no one else sees). Pay attention, and write things down. Even though I cringe at some of the ridiculous and pompous stuff I've written over the years, I think the writing down, the processing, was important. And for me, writing things down, like quotes or passages by others that inspire or provoke me, helps me to remember and use them in real ways in my daily life.
Ask questions. Listen to the answers. Realize that there is often not just one right answer, sometimes there isn't one at all. Especially to the why questions, but you should still ask those a lot.
Make things, without worrying about being good at it.
Challenge yourself, be uncomfortable regularly.
And read. Stories.
RiC: Do you have any websites/blogs that people can go to in order to find more books and reviews of books about poc? And what YA/MG books are you currently reading?
This blog, of course!
Some other favourite sites, blogs, interviews, and articles:
I'd tell everyone to watch Chimamanda Adichie's talk on "The Danger of a Single Story"
Bowllan's Blog at School Library Journal
The Happy Nappy Bookseller
Neesha Meminger's Blog
Mitali's Fire Escape
Fledgling Zetta Elliot's Blog:
Brown Girl Speaks
(her African Diaspora Reading Challenge)
Social Justice Reading Challenge
Isabel Allende's speeches and interviews
Pete Seeger and Majora Carter Talking on This Brave Nation
this interview with Junot Diaz
one with Edward P.Jones
Esther's Call Blog by Oneleilove Alston
This interview with Eboo Patel, which includes a fantastic quote by the always amazing Gwendolyn Brooks
This essay by Edwidge Danticat
*RiC Note: These are some amazing links. Chimamanda Adichie's speech is something everyone, especially anyone who works or wants to work in the publishing industry should watch. I've learned about some new blogs as well and great speeches and interviews :)
currently reading, and in my TBR pile:
Gringolandia by Lyn-Miller Lachman
Purge by Sarah Darer Littman
Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before by David Yoo
Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez
The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon
*RiC Note: Loved Gringolandia and I'm getting ready to start The Rock and the River! I need to read Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before. I liked Return to Sender.
not a YA or MG novel, but related:
Rethinking Multicultural Education: Teaching for Racial and Cultural Justice
(and a bunch of other books that I've read already and will read over and over again!)
Thank you so much for this interview Olugbemisola!
You gave some wonderful advice and I'm excited to see what's next from this awesome author.
You can find more information about Olugbemisola at her website or blog Also find her cover story here (it was very interesting!) and Writers Aganist Racisim post here, it's great.
PS I was featured at Multiculturalism Rocks! I love the title of Nathalie's blog and it's a beautiful write up. I'm honored to be featured and I look forward to reading more of MR :) Read the spotlight here