Sharon Dennis Wyeth

INTERVIEW

Sharon Dennis Wyeth is “Something Beautiful”
Gabrielle David
phati’tude Literary Magazine, Vol. 2, No.3

THE DEMAND FOR AFRICAN AMERICAN children’s and young adult literature has increased steadily over the past four decades. It wasn’t that long ago when African Americans faced few depictions of themselves in American arts and letters, and if they did, it was nothing more than cruel stereotypes. Children’s literature didn’t fare any better. In fact, when one reviews the classics of the late nineteenth century (often referred to as the “Golden Age” of children’s literature), the profusion of books designed specifically for a young audience, including Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Alice in Wonderland, Little Women, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Jungle Book, and the Horatio Alger stories, did little to provide black children stories of self-esteem that honestly depicted their lives. It wasn’t until Amelia E. Johnson (known as Mrs. A.E. Johnson) began publishing her series of children’s and young adult books in 1890, that the genre of African American children’s and young adult books was born.

While the early books and children’s magazines gave a message that growing up involved accepting a submissive attitude and an inferior role in society, as African Americans fought for civil rights, those old messages gave way to realistic portrayals of an African American culture that was met with the rise of a growing, educated black middle class. At first, famous and established poets and writers, such as Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, Ann Petry and Gwendolyn Brooks, used their status to provide quality literature that young black children would otherwise not be able to access. However, by the mid-1970s, African American authors geared specifically to writing African American children’s literature began to take root, such as Walter Dean Myers, Virginia Hamilton and Sharon Bell Mathis. These writers were deeply concerned with memory, tradition and generational legacy, especially as it helped define the lives of African Americans.

By the millennium, a new generation of African American children’s and young adult writers had made considerable inroads in the publishing world, whether self-published, through independent black publishers, or with large publishing companies. One writer who has successfully made an impact writing about the African American experience in an accurate and sensitive way is Sharon Dennis Wyeth.

Sharon Dennis Wyeth grew up in Anacostia, an African American community in southeast Washington. D.C. Reading was a refuge during a period when there was violence in her home, and kept the terror at bay. Also, children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder sparked her interest in history and reminded her of the good times she had on her grandparents’ farm where cooking was still done on a wood burning stove and a horse-drawn plough was used to farm the land.

As reading and writing was becoming her passion, Wyeth became “smitten” with a love for the theater after she wrote her first play in the fifth grade. While attending Anacostia High School, she was editor of the school yearbook, and starred in the school’s production of Romeo and Juliet. She appeared as a regular on the NBC nationally televised show called “Youth Wants to Know” a 1950s public-affairs forum for young people broadcast live from Washington D.C., which gave high school and college students the opportunity to ask questions of major figures in the world of politics, business and international affairs. While in high school, Wyeth held an assortment of jobs, including writing newspaper articles, working as a secretary at the YMCA, and as a model in a department store.

Wyeth went on to attend Harvard University, studying anthropology, Russian and autobiographical writing. She shocked herself when she announced that she was going to “write books for children,” and while she wrote off this declaration as an overly ambitious undertaking, she would nevertheless fulfill this goal some years later. Preparing for her future career, Wyeth worked in the South End of Boston as a social worker in training, helping senior citizens and teens. After she graduated with a B.A. with Honors in Psychology, Anthropology and Sociology, Wyeth moved to New York City to embark on a career as a family counselor, but she just couldn’t drop the writing bug.

While Wyeth worked at a daycare center in New York’s Lower East Side during the day, at night she studied drama. Soon she opened a small theater in Chelsea with a few friends and found herself producing, acting and writing plays. She performed in plays by August Strindberg and Anton Chekhov; and wrote and directed an adaptation of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” She also wrote “Room,” a one woman show in which she also performed. By the time she completed her full length play “Tapper,” Wyeth and her partners were forced to close down the theater because the landlord had tripled the rent. Eventually, Sam Barton of Amistad World Theater did a staged reading of “Tapper.”

Realizing that her days as a family counselor were coming to an end, Wyeth began teaching voice and public speaking at The New School. Although Wyeth was still getting some acting jobs, writing was beginning to take up much of her time. When she was offered an opportunity to write paperback romances, she jumped at the chance, which led to more ambitious projects. Once she completed writing nine stories for mass market books based on soap opera story lines, Wyeth found that the work not only provided her solid experience in structuring stories, she also discovered that when she put her mind to it, she could write them rather quickly. What followed was her first big break with Parachute Press, when she was asked to flesh out an idea they had in mind for a group of girls in boarding school who had boy pen pals. This led to the creation of Pen Pals, a preteen series published by Delacorte in 1989. The series grew into 20 books.

She took on another series, Annie K’s Theater, based on an idea Wyeth had about kids who put on plays. At this point, Wyeth had a deep desire to write a novel using some material from her own childhood, which planted her squarely in the multicultural genre. Her first single title novel, The World of Daughter McGuire (also published by Delacorte) is about an 11-year-old who becomes the target of racial slurs as a result of her mixed racial and ethnic heritage. Her first picture book, Always My Dad, (illustrated by Raul Colon, published by Knopf), about an African American girl who spends a summer on a farm and bonds with her often absent father, soon followed.

Many of Wyeth’s books are based on her own personal experiences. For example, Always My Dad is set on her grandparents’ farm in Virginia, where she caught her first lightning bugs and “stared at a moon the color of a sweet potato hanging over the Blue Ridge Mountains.” The story of Mahalia Moon in A Piece of Heaven (Random House) was inspired in part by memories Wyeth had of the children she met when she was a family counselor on the Lower East Side, and in part by her experiences growing up in a divorced family. Something Beautiful (illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet, published by Dragonfly) celebrates the working-class African-American community in southeast Washington, D.C, where Wyeth spent most of her childhood. It is the book she is most identified with. Another picture book, Tomboy Trouble (Random House) is based on her daughter’s third grade challenges after she got a short haircut. Some of these books were difficult for Wyeth to write because they brought back painful memories, but she would later admit she found the process cathartic.

She has found writing historical fiction to be equally significant. The 18th century African-American family Wyeth created in Once On This River became so real to her that she began to dream about them. She had a similar experience working on the trilogy, Corey’s Underground Railroad Diary. When Scholastic invited her to submit a proposal for their My America series on the Underground Railroad, Wyeth was ecstatic. She found that she identified so much with Corey as he made his escape on the Underground Railroad that sometimes her hands shook while she was writing his stories.

Wyeth writes out of a “necessity and a sense of obligation to my family, my community, to myself and, yes, to the past.” Since Wyeth is a playwright, she has developed a good ear for dialogue and when she puts her characters on the page, she writes as if they are actors engaged in improvisation. Always mindful of the young impressionable audience she writes for, Wyeth believes her years spent as a family counselor has helped deepen her understanding of family relationships in how she approaches her characters.

She has published nearly 50 books, many of them still in print. Wyeth has received numerous awards and recognitions including a Schuster Award for Outstanding Master’s Thesis, Hunter College; Parents Magazine Best Book; Reading Rainbow Book; Children’s Book Council Notable Book; Books for the Teen Age, New York Public Library; Best 100 Books, New York Public Library; LAMBDA Literary Award Finalist; Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow; Virginia Center for Creative Arts Fellow; Geraldine R. Dodge Fellow; Rockefeller Foundation grant co-recipient; Lucille Clifton Fellowship; and Squaw Valley Community of Poets. Wyeth is the first recipient of the Stephen Crane Literary Award, presented by the Newark Public Library, and is a member of the Cave Canem Fellowship for African American Poets.

Wyeth has been the keynote or featured speaker for such organizations as International Reading Association and National Council of Teachers of English. She visits schools throughout the country inspiring students to read and write. In 2010, Wyeth received her M.F.A. from Hunter College in Creative Writing/Memoir and resides in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband Sims, daughter Georgia, and her standard poodle Roscoe.

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When did you begin writing, and what did you write? Poetry? Short stories?

I began writing when a kindergarten teacher challenged me to write the word beautiful. My first publication was in third grade, a three line essay on the Pilgrims in the Birney School magazine in Washington, D.C. My first professional job came when I was in eleventh grade; I wrote P.R. articles for VISTA featuring the stories of VISTA Volunteers. I started out as a secretary to an O.E.O. staff writer and wound up writing stories myself. My children’s writing came after several years of writing plays and nine romances based on soap opera story lines. That said being a children’s author had always been a dream. Just didn’t see how I’d ever get to do it. Poetry is a great love of mine. I worshipped poets for years and only started writing my own six years ago. Now, I’m so into it. I put poetry (like song writing) on a pedestal never imagining I had it in me.

What drew you to the children’s writing industry? What has kept you in? Can you describe some of the high and low points?

I said being a children’s author was a dream and that’s the truth. When I went to Radcliffe College “way back when” (slightly before Affirmative Action), I told the girls in my dorm room that I was going to “write books for children.” We were sharing our ambitions. I was the only person of color in the room (not so hard to believe, I guess, given this was in the late sixties) and maybe I was trying to keep up with all these smart (and nice) girls who could see themselves doing great things. So it just slipped out of my mouth. I felt guilty, because it felt like a lie. How could I ever “write books for children?” Becoming an author was beyond my conception. Were authors actually human beings? I’d never seen one in the flesh. Oh, well, here I am, “writing books for children.” I guess it was my intuition speaking up for me that day in my dorm room. I’m in it for the long haul, in spite of the uneven compensation.

I had a couple of opportunities to do television writing where I’d make bigger bucks at least in the short term, but when I had to choose between going in that direction and the career I’d begun in the children’s book industry, I just couldn’t give up writing books.

Books were such a salvation for me when I was growing up in tough circumstances. I also feel driven to tell certain stories. One high point was the publication of my first picture book Always My Dad (which has been out of print for a zillion years even though the “Reading Rainbow” episode based on the book keeps on and on . . . .) the story of me and my mainly absent father. I loved that man! And he basically wasn’t strong enough to get a grip on life.

My mother had to leave him but my brothers and I missed him so much. We’d see him on my grandparents’ farm in Virginia sometimes when we were down there visiting. They were his parents, so he’d kind of pop up to spend time with us. You’d think I’d gotten a ticket to Disneyland; it was so thrilling to be in his company. Having a simple grape soda with him or catching a lightning bug and putting it in a jar — big deals to me and things I never forgot. Those are the scenes in Always My Dad. When I opened the book and saw Raul Colon’s illustrations, I wept and wept. I also found such peace after my good memories of my father were on the page instead of hopping around inside me like a lightning bug in a jar.

Writing my novels is so arduous but in some cases it’s a glorious process. The World of Daughter McGuire was a real high point. I needed to write about race and I found a way to do that for young readers. I also drew on my childhood family and wrote a couple of funny scenes based on my maternal grandfather who was so loving and a great man; he and my maternal grandmother helped my mother raise us.

LOW POINTS? Do we really have to go there? Getting a letter in the mail telling you that a book you spent a year of your life writing is about to hit the dust . . . dismal! I’ve toughened up though. I did have a really scary time writing my very first book for young readers, a novel that had to fit into an existing line of books. I got to make up the characters and the story but there was a formula and style that I couldn’t grasp and p.s. I had three weeks to pull it together. I needed money and they were paying. I wrote that thing from cover to cover three times in the course of five weeks, trying to grasp what the editor wanted. I scared myself; I was so determined, hardly sleeping or going out. It felt like the world was coming to an end. No book should be that important. Anyway, I never could make it the way it needed to be in order to fit into the line. The editor had to call in another writer to doctor what I’d given her. She was very fair, gave me half the fee (which I desperately needed, obviously) and let me keep full credit.

Soon after that I created a highly successful series Pen Pals and wrote nearly all twenty books; one of those books did give me problems but most of them were pretty smooth going (lots of fun!) and required only minor revisions. Though I’ve begun writing poetry and memoir for adults, I’m definitely hanging in with the children’s market. It’s who I am, after all. I also love visiting my readers in schools and exchanging ideas with teachers and librarians who are my kind of people. And, yes, I think there’s a need for literature featuring protagonists of color and that’s an area of personal interest to me and something I know how to do. We have to tell our stories. And I’m a story teller.

You started out writing children’s books and have moved into writing young adult books. What prompted you to make this transition?

The stories dictate the audience. I often begin with a character and a location. My character has a problem (don’t we all?!). My character speaks to me in a voice that tells me how old she is. I love writing for early grade and I think my voice is especially suited to middle grade. I haven’t done that much young adult. One thing that’s become evident is that regardless of the reading level, the content in my books appeals to readers of a variety of ages. My picture book Something Beautiful is popular with adult readers. People write to me, asking if I’ll sign copies for them to give to a wife or husband or partner.

A marvelous librarian in a high school near Atlantic City chose Something Beautiful as a theme one spring and invited me to be a speaker. I was blown away by these really big kids who took the book so seriously, and riffed off it in the most amazing way in their own fiction writing and art and philosophical essays, even metal work. Once on This River my historical fiction set in 18th century New York in the African community was another title that had surprising appeal — a lot of adult book clubs and historical societies. Talk about high points, writing Once on This River was definitely that for me. I loved my characters so much, they were like my own family; I created some ancestors for myself.

Does the story dictate what age it’s written for, or do you adapt the story to the age group? Does the collaboration of the illustrator affect that decision? How do the editor and publishing team affect these decisions?

Oops! I think I answered that a minute ago. Yes, the story dictates the age group, unless the editor makes a request ahead of time, as was the case with the “My America” series I wrote, Corey Birdsong’s Underground Railroad Diaries. I have not experienced a hands-on collaboration with an illustrator and I think that’s just great. I think it would be much, much harder if an illustrator and I started from scratch together. I don’t want somebody telling me how to write: it would hamper my own creative process to be fed someone else’s vision in the beginning stages of a story.

Sure, I visualize while I’m writing. But that doesn’t mean that my inner visualization is the ONLY visualization. I am the owner and creator of a story that I feel compelled to write. That’s my job. And though I have a deep appreciation and response to visual art, I have zilch skills in the area. It’s such a thrill to witness an artist’s interpretive response to something I’ve written and I mean that. I’m very grateful when an editor or art director (usually the editor) solicits my opinion on an element pertaining to the visual side, but I don’t expect it. I’m lucky in the houses I’ve worked with and the illustrators brought onto my projects. I’ve never been disappointed; far from it.

Walter Dean Meyers has mentioned in interviews that he places a collage of cut-out pictures of his characters above his desk to get familiar with them. What is your writing process? What kind of research do you do and does the topic of the book influence which illustrator works on your book? Which tends to come first, the visual or the story? How do you decide upon the major themes and subjects in your work? What is your inspiration?

My stories come from memory primarily and by that I also refer to cultural memory and collective memory. I have family stories that are incomplete but have a kernel of heart and drama. I have my inner landscape that’s always active; it often approximates some landscape of my childhood, the hot sidewalks of the inner city (Anacostia) or the dusty roads and mountains I remember from Virginia (Culpeper, Norman, Woodville, think Blue Ridge Mts.). In my mind I’m always walking these places either the sidewalk or the country road.

As for getting to know my characters, I get to know them on the page. There are many false starts in my drafts where the voice is inanimate. I just keep writing until something pops out and the character comes to life. It usually happens when they’re engaged in an action or when one of their senses is acutely engaged.

I LISTEN a lot when I’m writing. The truth is there’s a constant monologue going on in my mind that’s extremely loud and clear, too. It’s my writer’s voice and it’s especially active when I’m engaged in writing a project. I can turn it off, of course, when I’m with friends and family and doing something important like driving a car (LOL). But I’m often quite preoccupied with an emerging story. In addition to memory, my inspiration comes from history, especially African American history. A theme that’s emerged in my work is optimism. I’m also fascinated by resilience. I’m drawn to innocence; such a precious part of childhood. I think it’s important not to lose it entirely. Otherwise, where’s the sense of wonder? Where’s the enchantment? I deplore cynicism. I’m inspired by history and the African American spirit, the story of my people. And that includes the story of my family. From an early age, I’ve mythologized them. They struggled; they were beautiful and dramatic and in some instances tragic. Nature also inspires me. My character Corey in Corey’s Underground Railroad Diaries loves birds. He loves birds because I love birds!

What aspect of storytelling most appeals to you?

I like making sense of things. Storytelling helps me to do that and to do that for others. I like making kids laugh; I like to engage their minds; I enjoy introducing them to people and places they might not encounter in their own lives. As a storyteller I can comfort children. A big part of why I love to write stories is the chance it gives me to feel deeply. I cry when I’m writing; I laugh out loud; I go on adventures that are scary. I get to feel proud of my characters as they experience growth. Oddly enough I always grow a little myself, learn something new as I accompany my character on her journey.

When I was a little girl, my father was a very scary person at times and I couldn’t possibly control that. I couldn’t be open with my feelings, because it might have made him mad. I was also bullied throughout my childhood, both on the streets where I lived and in the schools I attended. It was unrelenting, horrible. Like a lot of kids, I kept things bottled up inside. But when I read a fairy tale, I could release those feelings. I remember sitting down on the floor of the bedroom I shared with my three brothers and opening a fairy tale book and not putting it down until I’d finished it. A long book! I was gripped with terror — the heroes in the stories had to face all kinds of giants and monsters. There was such reassurance when I got to the end and the heroes and heroines had prevailed. In spite of all the scary stuff, they came out okay on the other side. Reading those stories meant the world to me.

The library books on the floor of my room were my world. In my own work, I’ve often turned to fairy tales for inspiration. I’ve also used mythology. Early in my career, I made a conscious decision to always have happy endings, even though most of my characters have tough issues to deal with. A theme that emerged in my work is “something beautiful,” looking for beauty in ordinary places, looking on the bright side of a situation. That philosophy helps me. It can also help my readers, I believe.

As an African American writer, what is the message you are trying to convey to children and young adults?

There were no books with children of color in them in the library when I was a child. I am so proud that I can be part of creating this body of literature not only for children of color but for all child readers. For African American children, I think the history of our people can be an antidote to a sense of outsider-ness. Knowing that you’re part of a big, extended family reduces isolation. It also makes you happier, I believe.

Recently I went to Cameroon where my DNA has its African source. I felt such joy. Meditating on the suffering of my enslaved ancestors, it came to me that the people who were abducted and taken off to work without pay in the Americas brought their spirits with them. Now, that’s obvious, right? But it just struck me, something I hadn’t thought about before. There was a capacity for joy and hope and a persistence of faith in the family I was brought up in that just couldn’t be killed.

So, the story of our ancestors isn’t only a story of suffering, but a story of character building, stamina, endurance and the ability to make a good life in spite of hardship—the ability to endure, the ability to nurture. Young people don’t have much control over their lives and they’re aware of that. Our enslaved ancestors had no control, or very little. Yet they managed to raise us up. They left behind beautiful things, quilts, songs, stories, speeches, heroic escapes from slavery in boxes and coffins, newspapers and schools they started — it goes on and on. The history of African Americans is a rich and extraordinary legacy that we need to tap into more. What better way than by reading a book? Or in my case, writing a book.

Do you think your children’s and young adult books are being read exclusively by African Americans? Are the publishing companies promoting cross-cultural reading among children and tweens?

I’ve been to hundreds of schools where children from a variety of backgrounds enjoy my books and benefit from them. Publishing companies don’t buy books for one group of readers, in my experience (do they?). I know they have markets in mind, but . . . I have no complaints regarding the promotion of my books. We all have to do some of that work ourselves and a lot depends on timing and luck.

What would you most like librarians, teachers and parents to know about your books?

They can be in touch with me. That I support them. That I consider myself on their team. That I take my work seriously. That my easy to read books are great for reluctant readers because the content isn’t babyish. I think that lots of teachers and librarians already know about my books; I’m very lucky in the support I’ve experienced.

What publishing issues are important to you right now? What are the challenges? What are you excited about? Were there any people who played pivotal roles along the way?

My editors Michelle Poploff and Arthur Levine have been so supportive of me. I’ve worked with other gifted editors and each has taught me something new. I am not too current with publishing issues, too busy creating products (books!)

It seems that more and more adult readers are finding their way to YA books. Why do you think that is? A good story is a good story! And we’ve got lots of good writers. The world is waking up to the fact that young adult fiction, children’s fiction is FICTION; it’s not light-weight. Myself, I like a good story in a variety of formats.

What can African-American children’s book authors do to get on the public radar? How can they increase their chances of making it onto library and bookstore shelves and staying in parents’ minds?

Same thing required of every author. We don’t have much control over book seller’s choices, especially the chain book stores.

What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future? What are you working on now?

I’m working on a memoir and a poetry collection. My next children’s book will be The Granddaughter Necklace published by Arthur A. Levine Books.

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Source: Gabrielle David

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