There’s probably not a children’s author out there who hasn’t had to answer the question, “So what’s it like writing for children? How do you do it?”
I always have an answer, but it’s something that’s much easier answered by simply picking
up a children’s book and reading it. Once you do, you realize that the primary difference between a good children’s book and a good piece of adult fiction is that the protagonists are younger. That’s about it.
Brenda Woods’ novels deal with challenges and issues even adults would find daunting. But the author refuses to shield her young characters from life’s harsh realities and tough lessons. Not much different from raising a child in real life.
Woods’ 2003 debut, The Red Rose Box, about two sisters orphaned by a hurricane was a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and she’s not shied away from the tough subjects since.
BBS: The loss of parents (The Red Rose Box), the death of a friend (Emako Blue) and the brutal reality of slavery (Sally Little Song) your books portray characters batting against some of life’s toughest curve balls. What made you want to portray these topics through a child’s eyes?
BW: When I started writing, I don’t think I consciously intended to write solely about young people confronting harsh realities or learning hard lessons. Truth be told, I love a happy ending. Perhaps because my own childhood was traumatic, (a parent who was ill and time spent in foster care), my literature has unfolded in this way.
Digging deeper, I suppose I want kids to see themselves as capable of overcoming obstacles. Though I may put my young characters on sinking ships, whenever possible, I give them life boats.
BBS: Despite the complex subject matter, your books are told so delicately from the character’s point-of-view. They’re classified middle grade novels, so the readers may be as young as nine. What challenges did you face unraveling the emotions surrounding loss and death in such a beautifully straight forward manner?
BW: I was nine when one of the boys who lived on our block was killed by a car while riding a bicycle. He was only twelve. His funeral was where I learned about loss. I remember watching his mother grieve and having compassion for her. Once we got home, my mother wouldn’t let us talk about him. It was as if she was trying to hide death from us. But she couldn’t and we talked about him anyway.
Depicting death or loss from a child’s point of view is very much the same as depicting it from an adult point of view, at least it is for me. So, I can’t admit to feeling challenged in that respect. Young or old, loss is loss.
BBS: Your website bio says “sometimes kids who feel different, weird, and misunderstood grow up to write books and such.” How much of your feeling like that as a child/teen go into your characters and how they approach challenges?
BW: Growing up, feeling different, like you’re always outside the house, peering in through the windows, can make you a keen observer. Imagination blossoms and sensitivity takes root.
How much of that goes into my characters? Often, my protagonists are imaginative, sensitive observers.
BBS: What’s most interesting about My Name Is Sally Little Song is the blending of cultures – there’s the slave culture, the African culture and the Seminole culture. And for some reason, I was surprised that the males in Sally’s family adjusted better than she to the Seminole ways. But you captured the various cultures well. What went into research for this book?
BW: It’s true, Sally does have trouble adjusting. Her brother Abraham has his father to emulate but Sally’s eleven and still needs mothering. More than any character I have written, my love for this motherless, displaced child remains constant.
In terms of research, it was both substantive and substantial. One of my goals as a writer is to write authentically. Not only did I have to know what slave quarters were really like I also had to know how the Seminoles lived. I had to gain an understanding of the: geography of the area, the swamp environment, animal life, crops, language, and ways of dress. It was months of work.
BBS: What do you enjoy most about writing for young readers?
BW: What I enjoy most is meeting young people in person. They are bright and always genuine.
The next best thing are the letters…some are so heartfelt. Every so often, I get a letter from a young lady who confides that she decided to be a better person after reading Emako Blue. Once I received a letter from a young man who told me he had never read a book from cover to cover until Emako Blue. What a pat on the back that was.
BBS: What will you be offering young readers next?
BW: I am currently working on a young adult novel. I have received many requests from young readers to please write something where no one dies. At this point, all I can say is there will be some trauma as well as romantic drama but I promise…no one dies.
“The searing historical fiction shows that there can be no sunny ending; while slavery exists in America, the family will never truly be free.” – Booklist on My Name is Sally Little Song
“Steered by perceptive dialogue, the story takes readers from Emako’s funeral, through flashbacks, to the moment she is killed, to the shock and sorrow that follow her death, bringing it full circle.” – School Library Journal on Emako Blue
“She creates some memorable characters, especially Leah, and probes historical events in a personal context that may open many readers’ eyes.” Publishers Weekly on The Red Rose Box