Tami Charles is the author of Like Vanessa (Charlesbridge), an Indies Introduce Winter/Spring 2018 middle-grade debut and a Spring 2018 Kids’ Indie Next List Top Ten pick. Charles grew up in Newark, New Jersey, which serves as the setting for her book, and as a kid was in an all-girl R&B group and participated in pageants.
“All I can say is thank goodness the ’80s are back in fashion, because this gem of a book is best read sitting in front of a TV tray in a recliner,” said Kim Bissell, the co-owner of Broadway Books in Portland, Oregon, and one of the panelists on the Indies Introduce committee that selected Charles’ book. “Inspired by Vanessa Williams’ 1983 Miss America win, a headstrong and pushy teacher, and a supportive and scheming grandfather, Vanessa Martin braves the small-town pageant circuit, the potential disappointment of her father, and the challenge of being dark-skinned. Vanessa touches the dreamer spirit in all of us, and I cheered her on right through to the end.”
Here, Bissell talks with Charles about how her life (and the 1980s) inspired Like Vanessa.
Kim Bissell: Your masterful book reminds us of the beauty that shines from inner strength. What do you admire most in Vanessa Martin, or any of the characters in Like Vanessa?
Tami Charles: I love Vanessa’s spirit. To me, she embodies the hopes and fears that every girl has for herself. As young girls and women, we are taught to be strong, unbreakable, fearless. But we also want to give and receive love and feel beautiful and significant, too. To me, all of this captures Vanessa perfectly. She is a 13-year-old version of many of the women I hold dear to my heart.
KB: How much of yourself do you see in Vanessa Martin? How does Like Vanessa mirror your own childhood experiences?
TC: This story is semi-autobiographical. I actually did my first scholarship pageant at the age of 13, much like Vanessa Martin. The reason why I felt I could participate is because I knew that Vanessa Williams had paved the way by becoming the first woman of color to win Miss America. Additionally, I lived in the same city as the main character. Growing up in Newark, I have very fond memories of living on Grafton Avenue. I actually name it Grafton Hill in the novel because when I was a little girl, the hill leading up to Broadway seemed so massive to me. And lastly, many of the characters in the story are based on personality traits and/or experiences of my family and friends. Pop Pop is 100 percent my grandfather!
KB: Is there anyone who inspired you in a similar way that Vanessa Williams inspires Nessy?
TC: Vanessa Williams is a huge role model for me, in many ways. She accomplished something that I dreamed of doing. While I didn’t make it all the way to the Miss America stage, I placed in the top five for Miss New Jersey and earned a full scholarship to college. That wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have the courage to follow a path that was set for me by Vanessa Williams.
KB: What was the first book you read that really moved you to become a writer?
TC: Oh, I can’t just choose one! Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. But in more recent times, Meg Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s Under the Mesquite, Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer series, and Jaqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. I can really do this all day! I loved reading and writing as a child, but I didn’t know that being an author was a career path for me. I thought you had to be rich and older! Ha! Ah, to be a kid again! But as an adult, I discovered the beautiful, diverse books that I would’ve longed for as a child. I’m very thankful for the works of these authors and many more.
KB: Having been a child of the ’80s myself, I often wonder how current teens see the world compared to how we did. Do you think their challenges are the same? What will they face that we didn’t?
TC: I think the challenges are still the same. Teenagers want to be seen, heard, understood, and valued. They want their independence, but also want to know they have a support system when needed. I very much remember having these feelings in my teen years, and as a former teacher, I witnessed firsthand how today’s youth still want the same. If there’s any difference, I think today’s teens have a lot more access than we did in the ’80s and ’90s. Social media didn’t exist. Teenagers today are way more connected than we ever were! Because of this, they’ll have to make decisions regarding how they choose to formulate their own opinions based on hot topics shown in the media.
Like Vanessa by Tami Charles (Charlesbridge, 9781580897778, Middle Grade, $16.99) On Sale Date: 3/13/2018.
Find out more about the author at tamiwrites.com.
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