Angela Shelf Medearis
The Austin children's book author on reading, writing, and race.
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How did you get started writing children’s books?
I was working as a legal secretary, and I got fired. I had some time to figure out what I wanted to do, and I knew it wasn’t going to be in the clerical field anymore. I had always liked reading, and when I was growing up, there were never any African American main characters or even supporting characters in books. I really wanted to change that, so I thought I would try writing.
But not all of your work is for children.
No. I’ve written four cookbooks. When my mother got her first social security check, she realized she was going to have to do something to supplement her income. She decided to bake pies. I said, “You will kill yourself trying to do that.” I suggested that she sell recipe cards instead. Eventually I wound up working with her on a cookbook. Some of my ideas just happen like that. One thing leads to another.
Do you ever incorporate characters of other races or ethnicities into your stories?
That’s a question I get asked a lot. I’ve noticed that white authors never get asked that. The answer is, I do it all the time. All my books are pretty diverse, except if I’m writing about my family. There’s a lot of black people there.
What are some of the particular issues confronting the African American children in your audience?
There’s always the negative to be overcome. It’s the elephant in the room that everybody can see but nobody is talking about. Somebody once said, “Yeah, you can win the race, but it would be a lot easier if you weren’t handcuffed and tied up when you started.” It’s tiring for children. I think that’s something a lot of teachers may not realize. African American children have a lot to deal with, and they’re tired. So you have to find ways that you can draw them in. You can do that with books. With a book, you can show we have the same emotions, family structure, and ups and downs that people of other races have.
Do you think the schools are doing enough to teach diversity?
I think they’re doing what they can. Budgets are so limited, and books like mine are expensive. I think schools are a lot hipper and much more aware than they were twelve years ago, when I started writing. They realize that it’s important to have a diverse library. Before, people would say, “Well, we’d love to buy your books, but we don’t have any black children in our school.” If you don’t have any black children in your school, that’s one of the main reasons you need to have my books in there.
How much of your own experience ends up on the page?
I create young female characters who are similar to what I was like when I was young. Most of the time you read about girls who are so sweet and so nice and so clean and so dainty, and I was just not. I was a plump, rough-and-tumble, wild-haired, glasses-wearing, mouthy little girl. It’s just now becoming acceptable for women to be like I am. I stand up for myself and tell you what I think. So I think it’s good for girls to see those kinds of characters in books. They’re doing what they want to do, saying what they want to say, and being real about it.
You’ve written seventy books. Which is your favorite?
I really do like them all. I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve written. I always try to do the best work I can, even if it’s not something I have a passion for—like chocolate. When I’m as passionate about a story as I am about chocolate, I know that it’s going to be good.