interview: Tanita S. Davis

I’m so excited to share this interview with author Tanita S. Davis. Her previous works incude A La Carte (Knopf, 2008), Happy Families (Knopf, 2012), Peas and Carrots (2016), Serena Says (HarperCollins/Tegen, 2020) and the NAACP Image Award Winning Mare’s War (Knopf, 2009). I appreciate her taking the time to talk about her recent middle grade book, Partly Cloudy,

Lightning couldn’t strike twice, could it? After a terrible year, Madalyn needs clear skies desperately. Moving in with her great-uncle, Papa Lobo, and switching to a new school is just the first step.

It’s not all rainbows and sunshine, though. Madalyn discovers she’s the only Black girl in her class, and while most of her classmates are friendly, assumptions lead to some serious storms.

Papa Lobo’s long-running feud with neighbor Mrs. Baylor brings wild weather of its own, and Madalyn wonders just how far things will go. But when fire threatens the community, Madalyn discovers that truly being neighborly means more than just staying on your side of the street— it means weathering tough conversations—and finding that together a family can pull through anything.

EC: Are you as artsy craftsy and creative as Madelyn? What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?

TSD: I like to think I’m that craftsy and creative …? I do make all the wreathes for the front door throughout the year. I love to play with plaster and Sculpey clay and add to my ongoing creche and candle holder collections. More recently, I got Wendi Gratz’s How to Embroider Almost Everything and have sloooowly been making my way through learning to make even and accurate embroidery stitches. I still sing – masked, vax’d, distanced and often outdoors – with our local chamber group. All of these creative things make me a more grounded person, which can only make me a better writer. (Or I’ve invented a theory that justifies me spending money at craft stores. Could go either way!) 

EC: I’m really curious to know who was your favorite character to write?

TSD: I really loved writing Papa Lobo and had to remind myself it wasn’t his book. He is based on my grandfather, great-grandfather and great-uncle, and in writing him, they all came back to me for it a time, and it was good. They were such raconteurs – and, frankly, a pack of liars, and they were just as delighted with little me as I was with them. I miss them, and I hope these books honor the blessing of their memory.

EC: What can young Black girls do to maneuver days when they can feel the effects of climate change, racism, friendships and economic hardship all at once? What were the sources of Madelyn’s strength?

TSD: Madalyn’s parents leaned on their family and community to strengthen them, and the older generation of that community leaned on their history and their faith. Those two things for Madalyn created a place where she could perhaps feel frustrated and unsure, but still realize that her community before her had weathered such things in their time – and together, through whatever weather, she could lean on them, and make things work. From the outset, there were a lot of losses for Madalyn to navigate – a best friend, a canine companion, and regular ice cream – these are tough for anyone. But though Madalyn often lost patience, the support and love with which she was raised allowed her to never give up hope for something better.

EC: An intergenerational story with intergenerational fear and loathing of Black men. I think you did a beautiful job of addressing this bias and I cannot tell you how much I’ve enjoyed this story! Yet, I have to ask why you decided to do it through the story of a young Black girl rather than a young Black boy.

TSD: Okay, I have to laugh at myself.

You know, it never occurred to me to write from the perspective of a Black boy?

I know that female writers can write male characters, and do it well, but because I already had Papa Lobo in mind, it seemed the most emotionally challenging thing would be to pair him with a female relative. I wanted to write a Black man showing love and goodness – and parenting, against the stereotype of Black mean as the absent parent – but you know, now that I think of it, that might have been even more impactive written with Papa Lobo loving and parenting a male relative.

Hm! Next time…

EC: Tanita, from what I can remember you are strongly into SFF! Fantasy is the genre that comes to mind when we think of Black Girl Magic. Is Black Girl Magic something that is specific to fantasy? Can it be found in reality-based fiction, or does reality fiction provide Black girls with a different way of being?

TSD: I do love my SFF – I am always reading something or other with far-flung kingdoms and spaceships and time skips and werewolves and thinking, “I should really try writing something like that…” Very definitely, Black Girl Magic fits firmly into SFF, because Black Girl Magic dwells in possibility, that numinous, limitless, What If. BUT! It also fits into realistic fiction, because the What If lives within our day-to-day as well. What if we could figure out the right words to say to turn a bully aside? What if we could stand up for somebody, and also remind ourselves how capable we are? What if we really are stronger than we believe, and smarter than we think? What if we could change the world?

The power of Black Girl Magic is not in its performance of Blackness, but in seeing in Black Girl’s possibility.

EC: I was really impressed with how you captured those moments of realization that Madelyn had. I could really relate with her in that moment when Carlin looks her up and down and asks where she’s from and Natalie just stands there! (p. 44-5 in my ARC) How much re-writing and how much remembering from childhood does it take to perfect that?

TSD: There were a lot of memories – I was SO often the “only” in the room, the only on the team, the only on the staff. You become accustomed to the people who want to be kind often not knowing where to look or what to say as others whose intentions are less …helpful roll up, look you over, and start the microaggressing. It’s not an easy situation to navigate, and though I really believe we ought to live in peace with everybody, as far as possible, I also believe that we need to lay boundaries about what we’re going to deal with.

More than anything, I wanted Madalyn not to be the poster child for just lying down and letting herself get walked on. I wanted that for neither Papa Lobo nor Madalyn. My editor and I had to really work through some issues and communicate on this project – she expressed fear that I was creating a “Karen” with Mrs. Baylor, and I steadfastly did not want to change Mrs. Baylor to a Black woman or resolve her scrupulosity and nagging into just a funny character. After some work, I hope we reached an intelligent compromise that allowed everyone involved to keep their self-respect and allowed Madalyn to see adults modeling a sort of neutral neighborliness. Mrs. Baylor and Papa Lobo are not going to be sharing confidences at the neighborhood bake sale anytime soon, but when it comes down to it, they have shown that they can treat each other equitably and civilly as human beings. It may not be as sweetly tied up in a bow as other relationships, but it’s what Madalyn needs to see.

EC: Tanita, you know it’s taken me far too long to send you this interview. I’ve had a busy couple of weeks! Now that I’ve sat down with the book, the questions are just flowing! I think the best way to end this is to ask you what you want readers to take away from the story.

TSD: Mostly, I want my readers to know that they can truly and genuinely be friends with people of any color – as long as they, together, truly and genuinely work to offer their most honest and true selves to each other.

Friendship is hard – and the weird thing is, nobody warns us about that when we’re small. Nobody says, “You know, Frog and Toad worked each other’s last nerve sometimes, and that’s going to happen to you, too.”

Once we realize that every relationship we’re ever going to be in is going to require the work of authenticity, which is itself a work of difficult honesty, anyone can be overwhelmed, not to mention a young person! Especially when they’re in that position of being the “only,” it can feel like it’s impossible to ever be truly comfortable, or to find your person, or people. In many ways we’re not, as a society, being encouraged toward each other, but away, into more and more segregated little clusters. We look at each other with suspicion, wariness and weariness –sometimes, for very, very good reasons! But, if we are willing to put in the work, the time, the patience and the understanding – not just from one side, but from both – if we can have the hard conversations, the gift and freedom of a genuine friendship with anybody, whatever race, ethnicity, gender, age, whatever – friendship is possible.

Tanita, thank you for such a lovely interview!

Upcoming from Tanita:

What I’m working on now is Go Figure, Henri Weldon, coming in autumn 2022 from Katherine Tegen Books.

7th grader Henrietta has attended private school since testing revealed that the reason she couldn’t figure out telling time was because she has dyscalculia, a learning disability that makes math challenging to process and understand. Now that Henri’s starting junior high, she has the opportunity to mainstream into the public school where her sister and brother attend. She can’t wait to be “normal” and catch a bus and make her way through a big junior/senior high school like everyone else.

Henri expects to have math challenges – but what she doesn’t expect is a social misstep leading to a massive feud with her 9th grade sister, Katherine. Left to weeks of The Silent Treatment, Henri discovers friendship with a rat-loving math-whiz and a wisecracking soccer diva, and finds a new sisterhood within the girls’ soccer team – but can she keep up with after school practices and games and her schoolwork? It’s takes a lot of juggling to balance the equations of friendship, sisterhood and responsibility – but as she leans into what she’s capable of – and also learns to ask for help when she needs it – Henri Weldon proves she can, in fact, figure it out.

for more about Tanita S. Davis:

Essay • “Checking the Weather” Teen Librarian Toolbox Blog @SLJ

Interview • “Writer Q&A” @NerdDaily

Interview • “Author Q&A” @Confessions of a YA Reader

Interview • Author Q&A @ Karen B. McCoy’s blog

Crowdcast of Partly Cloudy book launch with Janae Marks here.

Shelf Stuff conversation with Saadia Fauqi and Shanthi Sekaran, and Dr. Dawn Bolton at Brave & Kind Books here.
Crowdcast of the Princeton Children’s Book Festival’s Book Jam 2021 where Tanita is in conversation with several other authors on young people making it through tough things at school

And, don’t forget to connect with her on Twitter