The first quarter of 2023 has been a vindicating one for Charlotte author Alicia D. Williams, whose October 2022 children’s book The Talk has been recognized with national book honors multiple times, including a cherished Coretta Scott King Author Honor, announced in January.
Following that announcement at the annual LibLearnX conference in New Orleans, Williams learned that The Talk, a children’s book about a Black boy whose family members struggle to discuss racial inequality, police brutality, and systemic racism with him as he gets older, has also been recognized with the Golden Kite Honor Award for Picture Book Text, announced on Feb. 24.
According to Williams, the awards are most important in that they will spread the message shared in her book to a wider audience.
“It is my hope that this book will be used as a talking point for parents, to help them have these difficult conversations in a gentle, loving way,” Williams stated in a release following the announcements. “The awards meant that perhaps The Talk would be amplified, keep the dialogue going, and be used as a tool for families to discuss such a tough topic.”
Williams’ debut novel, Genesis Begins Again, which tells the story of a 13-year-old girl with a dark complexion dealing with insecurity, colorism and poverty, earned a Newbery Honor Award and Coretta Scott King-John Steptoe Award for New Talent. It was also a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and William C. Morris Prize.
The process behind The Talk, however, was a much different process considering that it is a picture book for young children as opposed to a novel for teens, though there were similarities.
“Both my picture book and middle-aged novel were emotional for me,” Williams told Queen City Nerve. “Both came directly from something deep inside. Something I needed to figure out or deal with within myself.”
For Genesis Begins Again, Williams spent years crafting layered characters, motivations, backstory and plotlines while simultaneously carrying out in-depth research, including watching documentaries and reading all that she could find about colorism to ensure that her story came from an authentic place.
Williams had to put herself in the shoes of a fictional 13-year-old Black girl, not to mention all the other characters in her novel.
“I spent a lot of time with the characters. They became real to me,” Williams explained. “I was emotionally connected to them, especially Genesis.”
Even after all the writing was done, the editing process on the novel was seemingly endless, Williams said, including a revision process that she repeated many times before handing it into an editor, who then restarted the process again.
While Williams carried out similar research for The Talk, watching YouTube documentaries about how families approached the subject and again reading all that she could find on the topic, the picture book didn’t need as much backstory or depth of character.
“While the topic is sensitive, like Genesis Begins Again, the audience is much younger, so it was very vital to me to present the story in the gentlest way possible,” Williams said. “One that will build understanding, empathy and assurance.”
A bittersweet moment
Learning of this year’s Coretta Scott King Honor Award was a bittersweet moment, Williams said, as the call came while the country was still reeling from the murder of Tyre Nichols, brutally beaten to death by police officers in Memphis, Tennessee.
“When I received the call from the award committee, I was very emotional because of the release of the videos showing the assault of Tyre Nichols,” Williams said. “I thanked the committee profusely, even cried. The award meant that perhaps The Talk would be amplified, keep the dialogue going, and be used as a tool for families to discuss such a tough topic.”
In a discussion with Queen City Nerve following the release of her debut novel in 2019, Williams described how she had become interested in storytelling at a young age thanks to her close relationship with her grandmother, then became specifically interested in folk tales when she became a mother herself.
She experimented with other forms of storytelling — studying drama in New York, dabbling as a playwright, writing short stories and hosting oral storytelling workshops — before writing her first novel. Genesis Begins Again was published in January 2019.
Her follow-up middle-grade novel, set to be published in spring 2024, tells the story of two boys who embark on an epic summer of breaking world records to save their friendship.
Williams sad that, while the synopsis sounds more light-hearted than her previous two projects, there is still “something simmering under the surface … something unspoken between two friends.”
“I needed a less heavy topic for my mental health, but more importantly, I still had emotions swirling inside me that I needed to work through,” she said. “I was still grieving from the social justice unrest of 2020. Confused, too, as to why certain issues in our country never seemed to get resolved or better, and I needed to explore this.
“With this story, I got to have fun through two boys, best friends,” she continued. “It was therapy writing their joy, friendship, adventure, bravery, and sensitivity, too. I love to laugh. And through my characters, I work through conflicts, injustice, hurt, confusion, and even grief with humor. So, you can say, writing and laughing are good for my mental health.”
This year’s Golden Kite Honor Award came with a $500 cash prize and a $250 “charitable award,” which Williams chose to donate to Promising Pages, a Charlotte-based nonprofit that collects new and donated books and shares them with under-resourced families in Charlotte. The organization aims to build home libraries for the estimated 60,000 Charlotte-area children who live in book deserts — meaning they have few, if any, books in the home.
Williams said she chose Promising Pages because the organization’s mission aligns with hers. She remembers a time when the local library was seeing budget cuts and libraries were closing in low-income neighborhoods, which Williams credits with how we got to this point. She was dismayed but not surprised when she heard that a total of 60,000 Charlotte children were living in book deserts.
It’s an issue she can relate to.
“I didn’t have a home library,” she recalled. “Thank heavens for the book mobile, which drove to my grandmother’s neighborhood.”
The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library launched its own mobile library in January 2022 with hopes of reaching kids like Alicia once was.
“Not only did I get to continue reading during the summer months for academia, but those books were also an escape from my reality. Those books provided me an outlet to live in someone else’s shoes, to let me know that I wasn’t alone in what I was going through.
“And through the characters I was even guided on how to handle life — the very toughest parts and the unspoken ones — that children and young people go through,” she continued. “And my young life was rough. Those books encouraged my imagination. Encouraged my love for learning. A love for hearing someone else’s story. Books did that for me. They gave me connection and safety.”
Williams also saw how the pandemic affected kids’ access to books. With mobile learning playing such a large role in schooling over the last three years, thousands of children lost their only regular access to reading physical books.
“It became very apparent how home libraries are needed during COVID when children were sent home from school,” she said. “The reading gap increased and has yet to rebound. Children across the city to rural areas are affected by this. Imagine if those families had access to books in their homes. A few books would make a difference.”
Williams hopes that more folks will help support organizations like Promising Pages that are fighting on the front lines against the prevalence of book deserts. After all, she still remembers the books that made a difference for her as a young reader — books that led to her becoming an award-winning author.
“Promising Pages recognizes the need for home libraries ‘for children to grow academically’ and their mission aligns with mine,” she told Queen City Nerve. “We both want to help young people to grow, not only academically but emotionally as well. Books, as you can tell from the diverse stories found on bookshelves, are therapy. They’re good for our mental health.”
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