I still remember the third grade where I was a student at John Dewey Elementary School – my teacher Mrs. Kaveney, recess, hundreds of games of kickball, our Black History Month program, the school spelling bee, the end of the year class picnic at Mrs. Kaveney’s house. Thanks to Valerie Wilson Wesley’s Willimena Rules’ series, I was able to go back to the third grade at Harriet Tubman Elementary School. But instead of Mrs. Kaveney, Willimena was taught by Mrs. Sweetly who is rumored to be a mean teacher.
Reading six of the titles in the Willimena Rules series was such a pleasure for me. I grew up reading Beverly Cleary’s books about Ramona, her older sister Beezus, the family cat Picky Picky, friend Howie, neighbor Henry Huggins, and his dog Ribsy. Valerie Wilson Wesley has given me and today’s young readers a very comparable series as we follow third grader Willimena Thomas, affectionately called Willie, her big sister Tina, a host of neighbors, the family cat Doofus Doolittle, classmates, and her loving family members. In every book, Willie encounters a problem, usually tries to figure it out for herself, but inevitably big sister Tina steps in to help her out. And sometimes Tina’s intervention makes the problem a little worse. But Tina really did have good intentions.
With Maryn Roos’ wonderful illustrations and fun chapter titles like “Begin the First Day of School with a Burp,” “Get Over It and Eat Ice Cream,” “Grow Very Big Ears,” “Don’t Even Think About a Plan D,” “Remember: One Push + One Shove = Trouble,” and “Take Bad Advice From Your Dumb Sister,” the six titles that I read in the Willimena series are great reads that focus on a protagonist who admires Harriet Tubman, has a loving family, and encounters humorous problems with her big sister Tina by her side.
In the course of six books, Willimena loses the class pet, goes fishing and gets in big trouble, spends her cookie money, loses a coveted role in the school play, worries about Valentine’s Day and is intimidated by a class bully. My favorite of the six titles was How to Lose Your Cookie Money. In this book Willie is a Girl Scout who spends part of the money raised selling Girl Scout cookies on something else and needs to recover that money in a hurry. I could relate to this story because I was a Girl Scout too and throughout school, I had to sell candy. Every now and then, I would eat the merchandise myself and have to come up with the money because I was sort of irresponsible. But Willie did a much better thing with the money than I did.
If I was a parent, I would definitely have Willimena in my house for my kids to read. Instead, I frequently tell friends and family members who do have kids the same age as Willie that Willimena Rules! Parents who have kids that like to read the Junie B. Jones series by Barbara Park, they will adore Miss Willimena.
Valerie, you’re widely known for your Tamara Hayle mysteries written for adults, but you began writing for children. What made you delve into children’s literature? What is the inspiration behind the Willimena Rules series?
VWW: My first published book was a young adult novel called Where Do I Go From Here (Scholastic 1997), which is no longer in print, and I wrote the first book of the Willimena Rules series ( How to Lose Your Cookie Money) years before it was published. The truth is, I just love to write, be it for adults, teenagers or children. I take each audience very seriously and never talk down to anyone-no matter how old they are.
2008 is the twentieth anniversary since your first book The Afro-Bets Book of Black Heroes from A to Z was published with Wade Hudson of Just Us Books which is also celebrating twenty years this year as a publishing company.
VWW: I can’t believe it’s been twenty years since Just Us Books came into being. I’ll never forget the day that Wade and Cheryl Hudson, who had been friends for years, told me they were starting a publishing company and asked me if I would co-write The Afro-Bets Book of Black Heroes (1988). I was, and still am, immensely proud of that book; it has touched so many young lives. Tamara Hayle readers will occasionally mention that their mothers read the book to them as youngsters…that always knocks me out!
How was your journey to becoming a published author?
VWW: My journey to publication has been a long road with many turns and corners. As I mentioned, my first published novel was for young adults. About two years later I published my first Tamara Hayle Mystery, When Death Comes Stealing. My eighth, Of Blood and Sorrow, came out this month. I’ve also written three adult novels-Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do, Always True to You in My Fashion, and Playing My Mother’s Blues. I’ve been busy!
What are the significant changes that you’ve witnessed in African American children’s literature?
VWW: There are quite a few books for black youngsters now, particularly picture books, but we need more books for kids who are just beginning to read. Black children need to see their lives reflected in the books they read. If they don’t, they won’t feel that they are welcome in the world of literature. Our live are rich and diverse, and the books our kids read should reflect that truth.
I know that you have two daughters. How much of Willimena and Tina are based on your daughters?
VWW: My daughters, Nandi and Thembi, were the inspiration for the series. Both are grown women now, and I have a new grandson. In a few years, I’m sure I’ll be looking to him for stories!
On Amazon, so many parents praise you for creating a series for young African American girls. What do you have planned next for Willimena? Are there any plans to make Willimena either a television show or an animated movie?
VWW: We’re looking for a new publisher for the Willimena Rules! series and when we find one, I’ll post the information about forthcoming books on my website. I’ve really been touched by the emails I’ve received from parents and children who love Willimena and are looking forward to new books.
Who was your third grade teacher? Who was your favorite teacher?
VWW: I think my third grade teacher was named, Mrs. Banning. (It’s been so long ago I can barely remember.) I do, however, remember by favorite elementary school teacher. It was my eighth grade teacher, Ms. Anne Curran. She was a tiny woman with a deep, powerful voice who was an avid reader and shared her love of books with her students. She really encouraged me to write. I won honorable mention in a state-wide essay contest when I was in her class. I still remember how proud she was of me-and how excited I was when I received that $75.00 US savings bond.
Willimena attends Harriet Tubman Elementary School and she looks up to Harriet Tubman as her model of strength and perseverance. Who are people that you admire from history?
VWW: I have always admired such historical figures as Malcolm X, Zora Neale Hurston, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ida Wells Barnett. We have so many heroes and heroines who are inspirational, it’s hard to name just a few. One of the most rewarding things about co-writing the Afro-Bets Book of Black Heroes with Wade Hudson was discovering then writing about the lives of so many important, and often forgotten, historical figures.
Do you find it easier to write for adults or children? What are the main differences?
VWW: I love writing for both audiences. Of course, the children’s books are shorter and the language simpler but the themes are often complicated. For example, How to Lose Your Class Pet, is really about the need to forgive and not blame yourself when you have no control over circumstances. All of the Willimena Books are about growth and moral values, which I try to share without being pedantic.
What is your writing atmosphere like? Are you an early in the morning or late at night writer? Do you need absolute quiet or is there music playing in the background?
VWW: I like to write in the morning. Usually, after I’ve had a cup or two of coffee and read the paper. Sometimes I write at night. The last few months have been an extremely busy period in my life, so I’ve been off-schedule. Hopefully, I’ll get back on soon. My home office is near my kitchen, and that’s rarely quiet. I only write to music if I’m working on a romantic scene.
Do you plan to continue to write for children? Will you be adding more young adult titles to your bibliography? Ultimately, what does the future hold for you and your writing career?
VWW: I love to write, and hope to continue writing for all my audiences. Wish me luck!!
The Buzz on Willimena Rules! Rule Book #1: How to Lose Your Class Pet
From School Library Journal
Most children will be able to identify with this story, and the dialogue between Willie and her sister sounds realistic, with the two arguing and then giggling from one minute to the next. Black-and-white pencil illustrations convey the oftentimes-humorous tone of the novel. This satisfying tale with an appealing heroine is a good choice for the easy chapter-book section. ~ Elaine Lesh Morgan, Multnomah County Library, Portland, Oregon
The Afro-Bets Book of Black Heroes from A to Z (1988)
Where Do I Go From Here? (1993)
Freedom’s Gift: A Juneteenth Story (1997)
Willimena Rules! Rule Book #1: How to Lose Your Class Pet (2003)
Willimena Rules! Rule Book #2: How to Fish for Trouble (2004)
Willimena Rules! Rule Book #3: How to Lose Your Cookie Money (2004)
Willimena Rules! Rule Book #4: How to (Almost) Ruin Your School Play (2005)
Willimena Rules! Rule Book #5: 23 Ways to Mess Up Valentine’s Day (2005)
Willimena Rules! Rule Book #6: How to Face Up to the Class Bully (2007)
Stay in touch with Valerie through her website.