The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Alicia D. Williams
Alicia D resides in Charlotte, NC. She is the proud mother of a brilliant college student. Her love for education stems from conducting school residencies as a Master Teaching Artist of arts-integration. Alicia D infuses her love for drama, movement, and storytelling to inspire students to write.
Alicia graduated from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. She's performed in commercials, off-off Broadway, and even Charlotte's very own children's theater.
And like other great storytellers, she made the leap into writing--and well, her story continues. Alicia D loves laughing, traveling, and Wonder Woman.
Her award-winning debut novel, Genesis Begins Again, is the 2020 Newbery Honor Book, 2020 Coretta Scott King-John Steptoe Award for New Talent, 2020 William C. Morris Prize Finalist, and 2019 Kirkus Prize Finalist.
Alicia’s debut picture book, Jump At The Sun: The True Life Tale of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston, releases TOMORROW!
Welcome Alicia, it's so good to talk with you. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
This is a good question. As I read this aloud, I told my daughter that I couldn’t think of anything. Not one thing. She turned to me and plainly said, “How many jobs you’ve had . . . people never will know.” That’s the truth. I don’t think I even remember. I’ve been a flight attendant, did make-up for Glamour Shots, was a standup comedian and sketch comedian, actress, phone operator for the Geraldo Rivera talk show (way back in the day), sold makeup in a major department store, clothes for smaller ones . . . oh, I can go on, but I won’t bore you.
Bore us? No way! That's a fascinating list of jobs! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
There weren’t any books that were “mirror” texts for young Black girls. This news isn’t new. We know that diverse literature wasn’t a priority, and it especially wasn’t when I was growing up. Yet, I did find one book that reflected part of me. I grew up chunky and was teased a lot. I was called “fat” “fatty” and “fatso.” The one book that spoke to me was Blubber by Judy Blume. It’s about a girl who was bullied for being heavyset. If there is one major author that I enjoyed, it would indeed be Judy Blume. I learned about friendships and girl stuff through Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret?
Oh, when my hands finally got hold of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, my eyes were opened, and stories took on a whole new meaning for me. I saw my family in hers. I saw my grandmother’s tough love through hers. I saw me, in her.
Judy and Maya have influenced so many young girls (and I'd bet a few guys). What was your inspiration for Jump At The Sun: The True Life Tale of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston?
As a storyteller, I love sharing the Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox trickster tales. I love sharing our old folktales. They are in awe, eyes sitting and twinkling. They’re drawn into it. I’ve even done a tale at a nursing home, and the elders recalled the stories of their childhood. That’s what folktales do.
So, asking a storyteller what is inspiring about this, I’ll have to say the subject—Zora Neale Hurston: Storyteller extraordinaire! Zora Neale Hurston is too fascinating of a person, her life is too interesting to not already have a picture book biography available. She traveled through the backroads of southern towns—during Jim Crow—to collect folklore, songs, and sayings for us to gleam from today. Think about that. Think of how dangerous that was. Her love for stories is engaging. Her determination for an education is inspiring in itself.
I was impressed with all she did to get an education. And while I'm glad she collected the stories, I'm even happier that you are introducing her to multiple generations of youngsters. How long did it take Jump At The Sun to go from idea to publication? And how long did it take to discover that amazing title?
I wish I can recall exactly how long it took to write this book. That’s something I need to get better at. It never fails that readers will ask such a thing. (Sorry)
I didn’t date it, unfortunately. I do remember, however, sitting at my dining room table with a legal pad when the first few sentences of her story came to me. “In a town called Eatonville—a place where magnolias smelled even prettier than they looked, oranges were as sweet as they were plump, and the people just plain ol’ got along—lived a girl . . .” I read over the words and thought, “Hmph, if I can capture the playfulness of Zora’s storytelling then this would be amazing.” So, I gave it a go, without realizing how difficult picture book biographies were—with the number count and research. Ugh! With the revisions, copyedits, and more copyedits after illustrations, it took over five years. My Zora emails date back to 2016. You have to remember, picture books take time . . . time with the author, time with the editor, and time with the illustrator. Speaking of, I can’t take credit for the title. It was the pure brilliance of my editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy.
I adore your opening! The voice and images it produces are delights to the senses. What was the hardest part of researching and writing Jump At The Sun? How hard was it to decide what information went into the back matter?
The hardest part was deciphering the facts. Zora, herself, was a storyteller. She created her own truth, even if it wasn’t the honest truth. Getting the timeline of her life down was a challenge. I used different sources and found conflicting dates within each. That was hard but thank heavens for copyeditors who caught errors that slipped by me. Each time a discrepancy was found, I’d go right back sleuthing through all the texts. It was the same for the backmatter as well. As for what was included, well, Zora had an incredible life. I chose to include what I couldn’t fit within the confine of a picture book story.
There was so much in Zora to tell…and whittling down the story for children is indeed a huge part of the challenge. It’s funny working with editors because they’ll ask for more details, but it’ll all get edited out sooner or later. (Ha! 😊)
I’d like to add that it was important to get children to see themselves right away. Zora had such an imaginative mind. She created dramas and stories with her tools of spools, corn cobb, and soap. Zora was such a voracious reader: she loved the written word. She’d even memorize paragraphs. But she was rough too, played hard.
I wish I could’ve included the sweet story of how, as a young girl, Zora thought she was so special that the moon followed her. She shared this secret with a friend who swore the moon followed her too. They got into a little tiff, but that had to be edited out and wasn’t deemed important enough to be included in the backmatter. Hopefully, readers will want to go and learn more about Zora.
I love that anecdote; I'm sorry it got edited out. But your book definitely does spark a reader's interest in Zora. Did anything surprise you when you first saw the illustrations of Jump At The Sun? What is your favorite spread?
My editor first sent me black and white sketches of JATS. Even in its early stages, I was thrilled. My first thought was that there was so much movement in the illustrations, from the swish of a skirt to the swirl of wind. Movement, itself, captures Zora’s essence as she has traveled all over. The use of animals throughout the pages add to the adventure and folklore of Zora’s storytelling. My daughter told me that the book is like a scavenger hunt. There is so much to look for from page to page—the whimsical animals, Zora’s hats, and quotes hidden in the background (not the speech bubbles).
Text © Alicia D. Williams, 2021. Image © Jacqueline Alcántara, 2021.
It is hard to choose a favorite spread. I love every picture from the opening to close, to the Harlem Renaissance club scene to Zora sharing stories to friends. But I must say that I am impressed with how Jacqueline used her skills to show the meaning of anthropology and Zora listening to stories when she went back to Eatonville—so creative.
It is fun to discover that the words in some of the backgrounds are actual quotations of Zora's. Thank you for sharing that. Your daughter is so right; it's a treasure hunt indeed! What is your favorite animal? Why?
I don’t have a favorite animal and never owned a pet, really. Well, we did have a tiny frog once. But it’s a toss-up between cats and dogs. See, I zone out watching both cat and dog videos on Instagram. I call this time my pet therapy time because these animals are so funny. Cats and dogs have their own little personalities, and it’s amazing when they’re caught on camera.
Thank you so much for coming by to talk with me Alicia. It was a pleasure getting to know you.
The pleasure is mine!
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Jump At The Sun: The True Life Tale of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston
To find out more about Alicia Williams, or get in touch with her: