Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich is the author of 8th Grade Super Zero, a book that we would totally add to our ever-growing list of fiancé/es, if such a thing were possible. The story of Reggie "Pukey" McKnight (who earned his moniker by vomiting in front of the entire school) and his best friends Ruthie and Joe C., Super Zero is one of the most warmhearted, smart, and funny debuts -- for kids OR adults -- we've read in a long, long time. Which comes as no surprise, since Olugbemisola herself raises the bar of awesome to unparalleled heights.
Did you make a conscious choice to write for young adults? What books were important to you when you were a young adult yourself?
My parents gave me such a gift during my childhood and teen years --they offered a lot of freedom to browse library shelves, and choose my own books (once or twice they might have asked me to put back a teen romance or two). It was wonderful to be around a family of readers... to be in a family that valued literacy. Books were a place of respite for me during a tough time; they gave me a space to work out who I was, even try on different identities at times.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl were books that I read when I was too young to understand them fully, but I 'got' something, they resonated with me in a major way. Madeleine L’Engle’s books -- A Wrinkle in Time , A Wind in the Door , and A Ring of Endless Light were very precious to me. My mom read Wrinkle aloud to me during a year that we lived in Lagos, and that was a wonderful time. Those books helped me reflect on death, grieving... imperfect heroines... the different ways we learn to love. Around that time, I also collected the “African Writers Series”, and just had a real thirst for ‘regular’ stories about Africans and their daily lives, and enjoyed books by Cyprian Ekwensi, Buchi Emecheta... Chinua Achebe’s No Longer At Ease was devastating, and told a story about relationship to homeland that resonated with me even then.
Their Eyes Were Watching God was big, though it's obviously not MG/YA. In high school, I worked on a term paper on Zora Neale Hurston, and our school librarian told me repeatedly that there was no such person when I asked for research help... That really reinforced my decision to take responsibility for my own education -- and to seek out well-informed librarians, because of course, there are tons! I have had the good fortune to volunteer in my daughter's school library, and the staff there are wonderful at both respecting teen's reading choices and encouraging them to challenge themselves. I was also blessed during junior high and high school with two great teachers, Ms. Glover and Ms. Anderson, who were committed to educating all of their students about the Black experience across the Diaspora, not as something exotic or foreign, but something that mattered. They really challenged us in terms of critical reading & artistic expression. (I even forgive Ms. Anderson for making me “Mama” in A Raisin in The Sun! Not for the interpretive dance at the school assembly, though.:-) )
I loved folk tales, fairy tales, myths. Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis is one of my all-time favourites. The line "how can we expect the gods to meet us face to face till we have faces" captures what intrigued me most about this story of a young princess who becomes a true princess. I was a young woman who believed, on the pages of my journals, that I was a hidden princess. Some others... The Cat Ate My Gymsuit! A classic novel of a teenage girl really digging deep to uncover her voice. Pride and Prejudice because Elizabeth had sass and could face her mistakes with dignity. Plus, I was OBSESSED with becoming 'an accomplished woman'.
It was also during the teen years that I learned to read critically -- for instance, I was a huge Agatha Christie fan (she does tight, neat description so well), but also began to look more closely at the racist and/or anti-Semitic sentiments that were present, in those and other favourites. It also became clear that it wasn't much fun so often seeing PoC in literature as a problem to be dealt with or ignored.
Much later I read bell hooks’ essay on ‘writing autobiography’ as a way of ‘talking back’... I’ve always loved memoir. I was always talking back as a reader, and my writing is a way of talking back (and much easier for me than say, actual talking!) I don’t know what I’d have done, or what I’d do now without books and stories. (Side note: I just read something that mentioned the "three perfect books" of American writing, and I feel a little oddballish because none of the three were among my favourites. Not even close.) Anyway, I love to re-read those old favourites, and am transformed every time. I always wanted to write, and did always write, in some form, and I think that in writing for young adults I'd love to give just a small shadow of the gifts that I got from books during those years.
Reggie and Ruthie are like a breath of fresh air in a market oversaturated with books about kids engaged in various self-destructive or scandalous behaviors. Was that also a deliberate choice on your part? Was it challenging for you to sell a book about normal kids struggling with universal but unglamorous problems?
You are way kind! This is sort of in retrospect, because my characters are not usually deliberate, conscious choices, but all of my experiences and relationships certainly play a part in how I write them. I've known kids like Reggie and Ruthie, and meet them every day. And I think that sometimes we dismiss 'regular' kids' stories as boring, or not in need of the same love and attention that the 'superstars' or notorious ones attract. It is pretty lame to quote one of my own characters, but I really do believe that 'everyone has a story, and everyone's story matters', and it is my failure as a storyteller if I can't find the emotional center of an unglamorous life. (Hmmm...I lead an amazingly unglamourous life, so now I'm thinking that this it was all just a thinly-disguised attempt to validate me.)
There were people who thought that Superzero didn't have enough of a 'hook' to sell. I was warned more than once that it wasn't the kind of book that could get published, or read. I do think that it's important for readers to have many different 'ways of telling' to choose from. I read a variety of genres as a teen, and was tremendously enriched by that, and always encourage young readers to do the same. I didn't *only* want to read about people exactly like me, and think that many readers are the same way -- we enjoy crossing borders with books, we love to recognize the familiar, and be thrilled by something completely new; we want a good, honest story.
You have said elsewhere you have a penchant for sweets and cheeses. Any sweets and cheeses in particular? Are you a stinky cheese sort of person?
I should break up with it, but the sugar, it keeps calling me, and sending flowers, and giving me compliments... I love cakes, and I once thought that I'd do better if I only ate cake-ish stuff that I made myself, but that just meant that I baked more. I love candy... Economy Candy on the Lower East Side of New York City is one of my favourite places to be. And cheese! I am way Wallace (& Gromit) about cheese. I like hard, sharp cheeses... I do like gorgonzola, so I guess the stinky cheese answer is yes. And pizza! Good pizza, not just any old rubbery thing. Ah, cheese! I make a super cheesy mac and cheese, with four different cheeses... And I make a mean spinach-cheese casserole. Oh, and there's this recipe I found in Cosmo once, for 5-Cheese Penne...
Ruthie is one of the most awesome characters in the history of young adult literature. Is she anything like eighth-grade Olugbemisola?
Hey, can you interview me every day? Heh. Thank you so much! I love Ruthie. Oh, I wish I wish I wish she was 8th grade me! Maybe in my head I was Ruthie, but I guess I kept it way under wraps. My mother always encouraged us to be engaged with more than our personal issues, or to make larger issues personal; we did a lot of rallying, demonstrating, vigil-ing, etc. She set a marvelous example that I try to remember as a mother myself now. Academically, yes, I was a lot like her. I had an 8th grade teacher, Ms. Simnica, who worked with me on an independent research project on the 'Women's Movement' of the 1970s... I was definitely all about the extra-credit in 8th grade... Oh, and DIY fashion-wise, yes. I was very much into expressing myself that way.
I know that I used to get frustrated with a lot of the female characters I read as a teen, and I think that part of why Ruthie developed the way that she did was because of my desire to read a strong girl who loved herself, who was confident without being conceited, who wasn't self-absorbed and self-pitying -- who woke up every day knowing that she could do something to make the world a better place. A lot of times there were characters in books that I strongly identified with, but I wouldn't have necessarily wanted to hang out with them. I would have liked to have been friends with Ruthie.
You deal with racism deftly but quite frankly in 8th Grade Super Zero , and you are very open in interviews and on your blog about your experiences of racism -- both in publishing and in the world in general. Do you feel like that's affected your career as a writer? What keeps you strong?
I think that those experience inform my work, they are a part of my life, and I don't believe in pretending that they haven't happened, or that they don't continue to happen now. Remarks and assumptions that are ultimately racist, even when they're well-meaning, are still exhausting and painful. And sometimes the concept of what is the default 'normal' or mainstream indicates that who I am is alien or problematic, and I want to give up. But I won't. In the end, I am not defined by small minded souls; it's unfortunate when others don't understand or want to believe that there is more to me than the colour of my skin. I refuse to be limited by their perceptions of who I can or should be. And I thank God for the power of story. There are always ways to make meaning, to work it out, to challenge and be challenged, as long as there are stories. My faith tells me that there is more to me, and to any of us, and what we can do, than we know, and I cling to that like crazy.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a YA tentatively titled You're Breaking My Heart , about a girl who wishes her older brother dead in an argument, and then he dies later that day. I've been wanting to explore themes of guilt and grief, and the different forms that healing and redemption can take, for a long time, and I've been hanging out with my MC for a while. Years ago, I read an analysis of Till We Have Faces that discussed the Hebrew mashal as a text in which the character is "forced into unwelcome self-understanding"; my MC feels justified and self-righteous about many things, and we find out that all is not what it seems to her. She's the daughter of Nigerian immigrants who were well-regarded professionals back home but are living a very different life in the U.S., and she is navigating that as well. There's swimming, knitting, an abandoned subway tunnel, and a crush. Maybe even a monster, I'm not sure yet. And I have these two characters, Makeda the Marvelous and Tara Belle Bradley, who are waiting for their stories to be told. I think they are chapter books, maybe young middle grade? I don't get the category thing too well, though. I've been playing with a nonfiction project called "Global Girls", and I have fantasies of something PBS and puppet-ish one day.
Some favorite books you've read lately?
Where The Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin is beautiful. Gringolandia by Lyn-Miller Lachman and A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliot both packed huge punches. I recently tore through the first three of Marguerite Abouet's Aya books, those were a lot of fun. I am re-reading Shine, Coconut Moon to use in a writing workshop this Spring; I am all about stories that value character and relationship, and that book just does some exquisitely nuanced, wonderful things along those lines. I re-read two Lenore Look books not too long ago: the first Ruby Lu and the first Alvin Ho... I've been eyeing Yoruba Girl Dancing, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, Joys of Motherhood, and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress for re-reads -- but before that I've got to read One Crazy Summer and The Rock and The River. I just got Mare's War by Tanita S. Davis, and that is definitely at the top of my TBR pile!
In nonfiction, I've recently loved Barbara Brown Taylor's Gospel Medicine, Atul Gawande's Better , and David Urion's Compassion as a Subversive Activity. I've just started and am loving the new edition of Pete Seeger's Where Have All The Flowers Gone: A Musical Autobiography, David Sedaris' When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and Kathleen Norris' Acedia and Me.
Oh, and with my daughter, who's just 6: I'm renewing my vows to love and cherish Beverly Cleary, A.A. Milne, Michael Bond, and Eloise Greenfield. I *love* Badger's Parting Gifts, Cynthia Rylant's Mr. Putter and Tabby series, just about everything from William Steig, John Burningham, and Bernard Waber; Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's collaborations, and I cannot WAIT until she gets her hands on Audrey Glassman Vernick's Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? and She Loved Baseball. I am doing a first-grade reading and writing workshop on community and friendship later this year, and I'm looking forward to preparing by reading the Nikki and Deja books, Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel, Subway Sparrow, and Heroines and Heroes/Heroinas y Heroes.