Happy Families (Knopf, 2012)
from the publisher:
Teenage twins Ysabel and Justin Nicholas are lucky. Ysabel’s jewelry designs have already caught the eyes of the art world and Justin’s intelligence and drive are sure to gain him entrance into the most prestigious of colleges. They even like their parents. But their father has a secret – one that threatens to destroy the twins’ happy family and life as they know it.
Over the course of spring break, Ysabel and Justin will be forced to come to terms with their dad’s new life, but can they overcome their fears to piece together their happy family again?
The “secret” is that their father is transgender and this is the story of the family moving forward. This is one of the books challenged in Texas.
Tanita’s earlier book, Mare’s War, was a Coretta Scott King Award Winner. She was born in California and now lives in Arizona. Tanita holds a Master of Fine Arts from Mills College. In 2007, she and her husband spent time living in Scotland.
So, here she is with a book that released in 2021, a most challenging to release and market a new book; now writing her next book and then, having an older book listed in Texas for possible removal from a library. Life’s not particularly easy for any of us these days, is it? I do think however, that it’s worth knowing more about some of the stresses particular to BIPOC authors, particularly the struggle for the continued existence of their stories. If they take away our stories, then what next?
Connect with Tanita on Twitter @tanita_s_davis.
How are you, Tanita? Have you made any new year’s resolutions or plans to get through this next phase of Covid?
TD: Hey, Edi! I’m okay. This Omicron sitch wasn’t what was wanted for the new year, but it’s a bit what was expected since viruses gonna virus, unfortunately. As isolation life continues, I have made a tiny resolution to start one thing and finish it per month, and I’ve already gotten January’s done – I embroidered a succulent in a pot on one (1) dish towel. It doesn’t seem like much on the surface, but the biggest issue during the sourdough-growing-garden-starting-artsy-being first lockdown was so many Great Works began which were never completed. I am trying to simply live through the idea of begin as you mean to go on, while putting less pressure on myself to produce something big, and more follow-through on doing… something to lighten my soul. Eventually I’d like to learn a song on my tenor recorder and record my effort. We’ll see how that goes…
Last time we spoke, we were exciting to share you latest book, Partly Cloudy. What was it like releasing a book during Covid times?
TD: Thanks to the support of the PR group with Harper-Collins, it was a lot better than I expected. I’ve had a lot of good Zoom talks with other writers and illustrators, and a lot of interviews with the far flung reaches of the Book-Devouring Social Media Hordes. I was pleasantly surprised that even though I was on Zoom a lot more, it was doable, and I felt like I was having meaningful conversations. Books continue to sustain us through every situation, and I’m so grateful.
What else are we calling these times, because there’s so much also going on around racism, equity, anti-Blackness, stopping Asian hate, immigration… I’m not sure what we’re calling it but, banning children’s books is absolutely a side effect.
When/how did you find out that Happy Families was being challenged? Do you remember how it made you feel?
TD: Ugh. My husband has a Google alert on my name, so when people began to share the List of Umpteen Challenged Books, he started getting pings. And my insides sank. I felt like I’d gotten on an elevator that was falling. I had no idea what to expect, or when we’d reach that final, really rough landing. I’ve watched authors whom I respect walk with grace under fire, so I can only hope to do the same – Jerry Craft is, himself, a class act, for instance – but the …policing of people’s …choices, in the name of “caring for our children” is disturbing. It started with a tiny trickle and has just turned into a flood, trying to wash people’s freedoms and ideas away.
I know it’s been quite a while, but what sparked you to write Happy Families? What story did you want to tell with that book?
TD: I wrote Happy Families for two reasons – one, because I grew up in a very conservative faith and community, and as a young adult I heard a minister from the pulpit take delight in dead-naming someone who was transitioning. And I felt ill. Though I didn’t know from anything at that time, the malicious glee with which he denied someone else’s humanity was clearly wrong – an unkindness done in the name of God. I couldn’t listen to that minister again.
Not even a year later, an eight-year-old child who was a family friend told her family that though she’d been born a boy, she was a girl. I was privileged to work with C’s mother and create a letter of reintroduction for C to the children’s’ groups within the church and for C’s classmates at school. We worked together to write things that would make sense to kids – and the adults who feared change and difference – and that remains one of the things I’ve been proudest to take part in. When I wrote Happy Families, I wanted to take those simple concepts we hammered out for kids, and age them up. I imagined how I would feel if the certainties I’d grown up with, if the way my parents gender-identify, was to suddenly change. And then I wrote how I hoped I could respond. I wrote the book for people who identify as Christians or religious people, whose mandate from God is to love one another. I know that once we release a book “into the wild,” we have no control over it, over how people respond to it, over what they read between the lines, etc. – if we as authors do our job, we don’t have to explain a book. And yet I also know that there’s no explaining anything to a reader who arrives with a bias in tow and their perspective skewed.
Do you think it’s ever necessary to ban books?
TD: Oh, my librarian friend, trick question! Especially in this era of basic vanity presses for whichever disgraced politician wants to tell their True Side Of The Story…
No. No banning. I grew up confined in my reading choices. My parents understood the Biblical adage of “whatever is true” to mean I couldn’t read fairytales as a wee Little and I was no longer allowed fiction by the time I hit junior high. I. Hated. It. I longed for the world of stories again, but I had reached a threshold in my growing up where my parents wanted to be sure I knew The Facts – or, probably more realistically, my father wanted to be sure I wasn’t reading romances and my mother wanted to make sure I knew there was no such thing as Happily Ever After without a lot of work and sacrifice. Laudable goals, but I needed stories like I needed air. I think sometimes you can, as a parent, have a concern your child is reading above their age or understanding, but if that’s the case, you set the book aside, provide another one, and put a date on the calendar when you and your child are going to read it together, and talk about it. You don’t need to involve another child, a classroom, or a school district in your personal family decision.
As a teacher, I wouldn’t want my kids to read something like Mein Kampf without supervision, but… regardless, I don’t think supervision = banning. Sometimes young readers need guidance, perhaps? But no, despite individual concerns, – no banning. Never banning.
What can you tell us about your next book?
TD: I’m right now in the process of editing the wordcount down for FIGURE IT OUT, HENRI WELDON, (previously titled Go Figure, Henri Weldon). Henrietta is a seventh grader mainstreaming to regular public school from a special ed school for the first time since second grade. She’s eager to attend the same school as her siblings and do “normal” things like catch the bus and not wear a uniform to class. Henri expects learning challenges – she has a math learning disability – but her biggest challenge is her older sister, who isn’t that thrilled to be sharing a bedroom at home and now the same school. Henri joins the soccer team and learns to make her sister her teammate as well, even if they don’t get along 100% smoothly. It’s a book that started out being about figuring out a math issue and turned into kind of being a book about figuring out how to make your strengths work for you in life, even if those strengths are different from your family’s.
Thanks, Tanita! Be well and do good