Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Colorful Interview with Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

Today I'm interviewing Olugbemisola Ruday-Perkovich, author of 8th Grade Superzero a wonderful debut novel. Read my review here
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

Multicultural Review

Color Online


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


  1. Great interview! And it's interesting that you say that you couldn't relate to Justin. Like you, I wasn't at all like Justin in school (more the Ruthie type, too, but a little of Joe C., since I volunteered at an alternative radio station in high school), but I found his character very compelling. Justin has the social skills and intellectual ability to do anything he wants, and he can use that ability to do very good things or very bad things. People who struggle for one reason or another, who don't have it so easy, need allies. Allies can make a huge difference, and Justin has the potential to be that kind of ally.

  2. Great interview! this makes me even more eager to film an interview with Gbemi soon (and read her book!)

  3. I've heard so much about this book and am looking forward to reading it. Good questions and thoughtful answers. Thanks!

  4. I really hope we see Reggie, Ruthie and Joe C again.

    This interview reminded me of how much I enjoyed this book, Thanks Ari

  5. I regularly read Olugbemisola's tweets. It's wonderful to see her up close and personal through the interview. Thank you, ladies. You had me brainstormed for actors of color... :D

    How old is Will Smith's son?

  6. Great interview. What a wise writer!

  7. @Audrey-Thank you and I agree!

    @Nathalie-Jaden, is still a bit young I think. He could play Reggie in a few years or the kid from Everbody Hates Chris (Tyler something I think?)

    @Doret-Oh good! I want to see Reggie, Joe C. and Ruthie again as well.

    @Zetta-I'm so envious that you, Lyn and Gbemi all live in NYC and can visit each other! I'll be looking for the film :)

    @Lyn-I agree, Justin would make a great ally. And I think he would be a good class president, who would hopefully reach out to Reggie and the less socially acceptable kids at school (like the LARPs). I wish I was like Ruthie in middle school, she's my hero. I was a little like her, but I was more concerned with being popular =/

  8. Okay, this is a HELL of an interview! What a great job you did here and a lovely conversation to share with everyone. Those links are pretty amazing too - I'm really enjoying following them.

    You rock, kid - but then again, you already know that, don't ya? :)

  9. Thanks so much, everyone!
    I think Justin is going to surprise his peers as president. He's a good guy.
    I first thought of Tyler James Williams from Everybody Hates Chris too! But I think he's like 18 now.
    Thanks again, Ari. I'm pretty sure you were just fine in middle school, because who you are now is pretty amazing!

  10. Ari,
    You continue to amaze! Your questions are fabulous, and the answers even moreso! (Only one change I'd make: pronunciation guide for her name, please!) :--) I loved the answer about eavesdropping on public transportation. And the advice is so great; we've got to reprint it! Can I rerun this as a guest post by you on my blog in Feb to kick off Black History Month? (because as you know there is no reason to pay attention to POC unless it's February)

  11. There's so much good information here. Great quote >> "Keep words like respect, dignity, and compassion in your mental pocket." Thanks for the great interview!

  12. I've been debating on her book and after reading this awesome interview, it's definitely being added to the library. Great job Ari!

  13. Wow. That was one of the best, most insightful interviews I've read in a long time. If Ms. Rhuday-Perkovich's book is even 1/10 as beautiful as her answer are here, the book is going places. I've noted it on my reading for next year's Newbery.

    My favorite line, after the one Colleen snagged: 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....

    That sounds like the beginning of a great novel.

    My hat's off to you both!

  14. A book featuring Ruthie? That takes her back to Jamaica? CANNOT WAIT! I loved this book, and I love you, too, Gbemi! Even more so after this interview ...

  15. Thank you everyone ofr the conuragement and kind words. This interview was so much fun to conduct and olugbemisola is amazing. I'm definitely adding some of these quotes to my quotes that I feature :)

    However then I read this post by Justine http://justinelarbalestier.com/blog/2010/01/11/how-to-conduct-an-interview/ and now I feel slightly bad, I tried not to be to generic, and used some new questions but I could totally understand how the whole 'where did you get your ideas from' wuestion could get old. So I apologize to Olugbemisola and my readers if these questions were old to you, I'll do better next time!

  16. Ari, take that apology down! :) I loved your questions and am very grateful for the time you take to do all of this. Many, many thanks.

  17. Thank you for the great interview, Ari - it and Olugbemisola really zing. Thank you for introducing her to me and now I must go check out her blog - and her book! I'm really chuffed she mentioned PaperTigers too :-)

  18. @Olugbemisola-Thank you and Justine, you've reassured me as have the rest of these comments :)

    @Marjorie-PaperTigers totally deserved a mention, it's a great resource and I hope many other readers discover it.

  19. I FINALLY read this and it was AWESOME. Really really hope we get to read the Ruthie book!


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