The PEN Pod: Nurturing Children’s Curiosity with Tami Charles
Tami Charles is a former teacher and full-time author of picture books, middle grade and young adult novels, and nonfiction. She’s the author of middle grade novels Like Vanessa and Definitely Daphne; Becoming Beatriz, a YA novel; and the picture books Freedom Soup and All Because You Matter, her most recent release. Tami joined us on The PEN Pod to talk about how her experience as an educator influenced her as an author, creating a safe space for children to ask questions, and discovering diverse books as an adult.
This book is such a beautiful reminder to Black and Brown children about their worth and their beauty, and it feels especially necessary now—amid renewed calls for racial justice, as well as the ongoing movement for Black Lives. Can you tell us a bit about where the impetus for writing the book came from?
Absolutely. I thought about writing the book as soon as I discovered that I was pregnant. The second I found out and realized that I’m going to be a parent, I saw that there’s so much beauty in that, but there’s also a little bit of fear. I didn’t know what I was having—I didn’t know if I was having a boy or a girl until he was born. So, when he was born and I discovered it was a boy, that probably scared me even more, because I know that for as beautiful as this world can be—and it certainly is—there are some scary things. There are some unjust things that have happened and are still happening to people of color—particularly Black and Brown people—and that kind of made me feel like, how am I going to raise him in a world like this?
My first reaction was that I would just shield him—keep him in a bubble and not really address anything. I wanted to keep him so little, as little as he could be forever, but as we all know as parents, kids grow up and we can’t stop them from growing up and learning things and hearing things and experiencing things. And that’s pretty much what happened when my son went to school and he met new friends from all different walks of life, which has been beautiful, but along the way, he’s had some real questions based upon things that he’s learned at school or seen in the headlines. I remember one of his first questions to me. He was five or six, and he had learned about Dr. King at school, and he said, “Mommy, why would they want to hurt him? If Dr. King was such a good person, he was trying to do good things for everyone.” He was only five or six when he asked that, which was like a lightbulb moment for me to think, “It’s time to start having these tough talks. How am I going to do it?”
“I took all the words that I had bottled up about how I was feeling about the state of our country, and I put it into a love letter because I want my son to know that this earth, this universe—it’s beautiful and there’s so much beauty in it. There’s a bit of ugly in it, but that doesn’t diminish your worth. I just wanted him to know how much he matters, despite what he may hear or see.”
Fast forward a bit, and I wrote this book. I took all the words that I had bottled up about how I was feeling about the state of our country, and I put it into a love letter because I want my son to know that this earth, this universe—it’s beautiful and there’s so much beauty in it. There’s a bit of ugly in it, but that doesn’t diminish your worth. I just wanted him to know how much he matters, despite what he may hear or see.
That comes across so powerfully in the book—that sense of love and protectiveness. Before you began writing full-time, you were a teacher, and you mentioned just now that some of the first conversations you had with your son were sparked by things that he was learning in school. Can you tell us about that transition from teaching to writing, and how you think your experiences as an educator might have informed your writing?
I have to say, I taught for 14 years, and it really was the time of my life. I miss it, and I miss my children. They weren’t my students, they were my children. They were the ones who helped me to reenvision the dream I had for myself as a child. I wanted to be an author growing up. I didn’t think that I could, because I didn’t see myself in the books that I read, the books that I had access to. By the time I started teaching, there were definitely more diverse books available to my students than I had growing up, and together we read stories and we wrote stories and it was such a magical journey that I started writing again, and I would share my writing with my students. They were the ones who gave me the green light. They said, “Wow, Ms. Charles, you should really be an author.” I’m very thankful that they brought that spark out in me. So, the transition from teacher to author really wasn’t that different.
As a teacher, we read and wrote stories together. I feel like I was able to create a classroom that felt like a safe space for my students to really put all of their feelings onto the page. I think it’s kind of manifested in the relationships that I maintain with lots of my students. Even to this day, I have students who are married with three kids now—it’s insane! But, being with my students for all those years, they informed me of my writing because they would share their feelings and their fears with me, and it really helped me just become a better writer overall.
“I wanted to be an author growing up. I didn’t think that I could, because I didn’t see myself in the books that I read, the books that I had access to. By the time I started teaching, there were definitely more diverse books available to my students than I had growing up, and together we read stories and we wrote stories and it was such a magical journey that I started writing again, and I would share my writing with my students.”
That’s so amazing that, in your relationship with your students that you just described, it was kind of like a two-way thing, where you got to have those conversations together.
Absolutely. We had Monday meetings, and we called them a “Monday Family Meeting.” I remember the kids really liking that because when you’re in kindergarten, you do circle time and the teacher reads to you, and it’s all really cutesy and stuff. Well, I was teaching the oldest kids in the building—fifth graders—so I definitely couldn’t call it circle time, but I did call it like our Monday Family Meeting, and they really looked forward to that, because we would all gather at the start of day, and everyone would go around telling me how their weekend was. It was an honor system—whatever we said in that room stayed in that room. So, I might have had a student who said, “I went to Great Adventure this weekend, and it was awesome.” But then, I had a student who would reveal, “My dad didn’t come to see me again. That’s the third week, and he’s missed his visitation.” So, there’s that family atmosphere, that give-and-take feeling that these kids can tell me how they’re feeling and not be punished for it. They can fully be themselves and fully put their curiosity on display, which ties back to what I tried to do with this particular book.
My son now literally will ask me anything, because he’s not afraid. If he comes across a YouTube video—I can’t watch him all the time—which he did, he stumbled on the George Floyd video, he could have kept that to himself. He didn’t. Why? Because he knows that “my mom has made this atmosphere where I can come to her and ask her questions and I’m not going to be penalized for it.” It is so important for kids to have that, and you can’t put a color on that either. Yes, this is a love letter to my son. Yes, this is a love letter to Black and Brown children, but this is also an affirmation to all children. My hope as an educator, as a parent, as an author, is that all children will have that safe space in person that they can go to and say to a teacher or a parent, “I saw this, and what does that mean?” That was the springboard for All Because You Matter.
I wanted to go back to the point that you brought up about diverse stories, when you noticed that there are more now than there were when you were reading as a child. But of course, my feeling is that there always can and should be more books. One of the main focal points of conversations happening now around our current reckoning of racial justice is the need for more representation in books and publishing in particular—on the page, among published authors, and in publishing houses themselves, because as we all know, that has a huge impact on the types of stories that get to be told. How have you seen these conversations impacting the world of children’s books particularly?
I feel that right now, we’re at a reckoning in children’s publishing, and we have really seen it during the rise of these not one, but two pandemics. We got two pandemics going on at the same time—we have COVID-19 and then we’ve got a pandemic of hate and injustice, and it’s on all of us to do the work, to wipe that out. I think that publishing is getting onboard, but I think we still have a long way to go when you look at statistics. And I don’t want to misquote, but I know that one of the latest statistics—it was reported by We Need Diverse Books—that there’s a large percentage of books that feature white characters written by white authors. But that second category is animals—it’s not even us—and then comes Black, Latinx, but all the numbers just like really, really dwindle. I hope publishing is finally getting onboard, and I’ve been seeing some really exciting things that have opened up conversation. One being #PublishingPaidMe, and I believe that was started by a Black author—hope I’m saying this right—L.L. McKinney, which has really brought out the disparity in pay for us, as published authors. Let’s have these conversations, and let’s make things fair and equitable.
“Yes, this is a love letter to my son. Yes, this is a love letter to Black and Brown children, but this is also an affirmation to all children. My hope as an educator, as a parent, as an author, is that all children will have that safe space in person that they can go to and say to a teacher or a parent, ‘I saw this, and what does that mean?’ That was the springboard for All Because You Matter.”
One thing that I’m super excited about is I am repped by Lara Perkins of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. They just hired two agents of color—I want to shout out one in particular; her name is Jemiscoe Chambers-Black. She’s not my agent, but she has been helping my agent with some projects that I’m working on. It’s really nice to see that publishing is trying—my message to publishing is, “Don’t stop here, keep it going.”
It’s something that I think about a lot too, and that we at PEN America are often thinking about as well. In terms of representation, what does it mean for literature as a whole if more stories can get told? And obviously the answer is that we are all the better for it. I hope that it doesn’t end here and that this is really just the starting point for continued representation, continued conversations around how to improve all of that.
My biggest dream is to see it reach a point where it’s just like normal. Let’s just normalize it so that we don’t have to continually push, push, push and then, “Okay, we’re here.” Let’s just make this normal. It should be normal that we have BIPOC people at the top of the chain in publishing, making those decisions. Let that trickle all the way down from top, all the way down to authors and illustrators—let’s just spread the love all the way and the equity.
Going back to this book, it’s so much about affirming Black and Brown children and helping them make sense of their place in the universe and really the history of things. How can parents—and parents of Black and Brown kids especially—during what feels like a particularly uncertain and scary time, help their kids make sense of what’s going on right now, with the headlines as they are?
This question is a really tough one, and I’m going to tell you why. My purpose in writing this poem—really it’s a poem—I tried to make it lyrical, I tried to make it beautiful, and I tried to make it open to your own interpretation as a parent, caregiver, or teacher. I really did not want to write it in a didactic way because my goal is not to be didactic. I feel like, you know, the onus is not so much on me. The onus is definitely on the adult in this situation. Be it a parent, teacher, caregiver, librarian—it’s on adults to figure out how they can do that.
My best piece of advice that I have is instead of trying to come up with some magic prescription on how to do it, the starting point should be the environment that you create for the children. It’s that environment that will allow you to have these conversations. I think the environment that you create—that’s really going to be the vehicle. From there, you’ll know what to do. If you focus on creating a home environment or a class environment where the child in your life feels that they can come to you for any question—or anything that they’re curious about and feel like they won’t be penalized—that’s where the real conversations will come. You will earn that child’s trust for eternity. But, the key is to make the child feel safe, do not make the child feel as though you’re judging—you’re judging the question or you’re judging the curiosity. Just let the child be, this is what he or she is curious about. Hear the kid out.
“It should be normal that we have BIPOC people at the top of the chain in publishing, making those decisions. Let that trickle all the way down from top, all the way down to authors and illustrators—let’s just spread the love all the way and the equity.”
And I think we need to give kids more credit. These kids are smart! I’ve taught some geniuses over the years that have left me mindblown. Sometimes, we just have to take the backseat as adults, and from there, you’ll be able to have these conversations. I do wish that as adults, we don’t push an agenda. My goal is not to push an agenda on my son. I will reveal facts about things that he can read and things that he can watch, but I want him to create his own opinion because what his opinion is might be different from mine. I don’t want to push my opinion on a topic. I don’t want to push that on him. But I can show him, along the way, if it’s a topic that’s tough, if it’s a topic that makes him see that this is really wrong—how they’re treating this person and, “Oh my goodness, this person looks like me or my friend or my cousin.” While he’s being open to that and asking me whatever he wants along the way, I’m going to remind him that I love him. I’m going to remind him that he matters, so that he wears that on his shoulders and he never forgets it. That’s really just my advice. It’s probably not advice, but there we have it.
That’s such a great point. As someone who didn’t grow up in an environment where I was super encouraged to ask those questions, I think it would have really made all the difference and really changed my own sort of grappling with things like racial consciousness and understanding. Although I’m not a parent personally, I think that it makes a lot of sense to me as someone who has been a child and has been around kids for part of my life. Lastly, we’ve been asking folks on the podcast to tell us what they’ve been reading right now to kind of make sense of things, if that’s something that you’re able to do right now. But, I also wanted to ask you kind of an inverse of that question as well, because there is such a beautiful and poetic line in the book—“same hair, same skin, same dreams.” Can you tell us about a book that may have impacted you in this way, in which you saw yourself for the first time in its pages?
This is a question that I could take one whole hour to answer, so I will try to whittle it down. My answer today is going to be different from past answers that I’ve given, and here’s why. The truth is yes, I loved reading growing up, and no, I didn’t really see myself in the books that I read while growing up. I read a lot of Anastasia Krupnik and Ramona Quimby and Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High, and that was all cool, but those girls didn’t look like me. They didn’t live in an urban area or anything. I didn’t have much in common in that respect. I didn’t really see myself in a book, truthfully, until I started teaching.
“My best piece of advice that I have is instead of trying to come up with some magic prescription on how to do it, the starting point should be the environment that you create for the children. It’s that environment that will allow you to have these conversations.”
I was a whole adult by the time I realized that, “Wow, they have diverse books now? Where was that when I was growing up?” Honestly, by the time I started teaching—and this is 14 years ago—that’s when I learned about authors like Jacqueline Woodson, Carole Boston Weatherford, Meg Medina, Kwame Alexander, and Walter Dean Myers. Where were these authors when I needed them growing up? But the beauty of it was, it’s never too late to dream a dream that you may have put away because you didn’t think that you could do it. Imagine if I had that representation growing up. I didn’t, so technically I’m a late bloomer to this, but for those kids who can see it now, that’s mind-blowing! That our kids can see themselves now in books, people who look like them—same hair, same skin, same dreams. It’s such an honor for me to finally be included in that conversation with other authors who I’ve admired once and I saw myself in books. This didn’t happen until I was an adult, unfortunately.
I think it’s so interesting that you mentioned how it’s such an experience discovering those books now, and then also seeing yourself as part of those lists—that’s gotta be such an amazing experience, albeit a belated one, because we should have had these all along.
I feel like I’m playing catchup. That’s why I have quite a bit of books that are published or are forthcoming in a short amount of time. It’s because I’ve been devouring the books that I would’ve liked to read, which have in turn inspired me as an author to really spit out so many books because I’m so inspired by the canon of literature that’s now available. That’s what I mean when I say I’m playing catchup because I would’ve been doing this, had I known.
It’s great that there are so many of them coming out, and we just really need even more of them. It’s so wonderful that your book, All Because You Matter, is now part of this sort of blossoming of books that really centered the experiences and stories of Black and Brown kids.
Yes, it’s a real gift. I’m thankful for Bryan Collier’s art—it’s everything and more than what I imagined it could be.
The illustrations! I just started crying when I saw one of the spreads—I thought, this is just so beautiful.
And that’s my son—that’s his actual face on the cover! He invited us to a library up in New York, and I remember because I pulled my son out of school—and my son is very dedicated with attendance. This was totally worth it. We drove upstate a little bit and he took some pictures, and had us posing in different scenarios. I guess he had already had a vision in his head of how he was going to artistically tell the story. He took pictures and drew them from there. And when I tell you, he has my baby spot on, down to the sparkle in his eye. I’ll have this forever, and when my son becomes a parent, he can give this same book to his children and I can be long gone, and my children’s children’s children will have this, so my work is done. I could totally retire, but I’m not.
Well, that’s amazing. I can tell you if I had had the opportunity to be featured in a book at your son’s age, I would have been dying of happiness, as a total book lover when I was a kid.
This kid has bragging rights for years. He’s eating it up too because he’s done a few promos with me, and he’s telling everyone it’s his book—I’m just the vessel. He’s the star.