What inspired you to write The Only Black Girls in Town?
I wanted to write about a Black girl who lived in a predominantly white town until another Black girl moves in across the street. Alberta’s story isn’t my story, but I did grow up in a predominantly white town where I was usually one of the only Black kids or one of very few in my school or grade. I desperately wished for someone my age to live across the street, and I would have been ecstatic if I’d had a Black neighbor, like Edie, who moves in.
How long did it take you to write this book?
I’m pretty terrible with tracking how long it takes me to write a book, but from conception to final edits, it was probably a little over a year. I do a lot of research while I’m writing, especially since I don’t outline and don’t always know where the story will go ahead of time.
Did you go through a lot of revisions?
I typically go through a couple of rounds of revisions for each novel, and this was the same. One round is focused on fixing broader issues, such as plot problems or character development. Subsequent rounds help fine-tune the story, including through line edits.
Alberta is a surfer which is a first for me to read a story about a black girl that surfs. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated that. What made you give her this talent and can you surf?
I don’t surf—I’ve taken years of swimming lessons and have lived in Los Angeles for nearly two decades, but as much as I love the beauty of the ocean, it still terrifies me! That said, I know that plenty of Black people who are avid swimmers and surfers, and I had never read about that in a novel, either. It fits with Alberta’s story because she lives in a small beach town, but I also wanted to highlight a space where Black people exist but aren’t typically shown.
I love this quote, “Racist?” She says it so plainly, it startles me. Sometimes that seems like a bad word. Like people are more afraid of being associated with it than actually not being it.” It’s such a profound sentence and even yet at this young age Alberta gets it and she’s finally found someone, Edie, that she’s comfortable talking about this with. We always get it but others not so much. Discuss.
As a young person growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I recognized when people said things to me that seemed “off” or were, indeed, just plain racist, but I didn’t always have the language to express my discomfort and hurt. More than that, I didn’t often have anyone to back me up. I was taught to stand up for myself, but it was also understood that keeping the peace could be useful, too. Alberta feels a true sense of relief when she begins talking to Edie, realizing she’s been holding in a lot of conversations and situations that have bothered her over the years because she didn’t have anyone around who could understand; her white friends have made her feel like she was overreacting or perhaps misunderstanding words and actions. It’s empowering to write about Black girls who speak their truth from a young age, calling out inappropriate and racist behavior when they see it.
You depicted a very healthy and loving relationship between Alberta’s two Dad’s and her biological mother. Of all the experiences she's going through in the book a lack of love is never one of them and I think that’s so important. What inspired you to build this somewhat unconventional family?
I grew up in a conservative area of the country that has very established rules of what a family or love should look like, and that never sat well with me. I wanted to show that love and family come in all forms and that this is true in the Black community as well.
Since the pandemic authors haven’t been able to have normal launch parties. What did you do to celebrate the release of The Only Black Girls in Town?
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to celebrate the book with an official launch! It was published in early March, right before shelter-in-place orders went into effect, so my bookstore launch was canceled in the midst of the lockdown, as was the school visit and bookstore tour I had planned. But I’ve been lucky enough to do some events here and there as we all figured out the virtual situation, and I’m happy I’ve been able to connect with readers through social media.
What is your advice to aspiring writers, especially MG writers?
Write a story that you want to read! You’ll be working on the book for at least a couple of years, so you need to write something that truly interests and inspires you. Also, it’s okay to write for yourself, first and foremost; I’m writing the stories I wanted to read when I was a kid, and I’ve been so pleased and surprised by how other people have connected to it, as well.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently working on a nonfiction YA book about the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. As of now, it’s due out in the fall of 2021.
Brandy Colbert is the award-winning author of several books for children and teens, including The Voting Booth, The Only Black Girls in Town, The Revolution of Birdie Randolph, and Stonewall Book Award Winner Little & Lion. She is co-writer of Misty Copeland's Life in Motion young readers edition, and her short fiction and essays have been published in a variety of critically acclaimed anthologies for young people. Her books have been chosen as Junior Library Guild selections, and have appeared on many best of lists, including the American Library Association's Best Fiction for Young Adults and Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. She is on faculty at Hamline University's MFA program in writing for children and lives in Los Angeles.
To learn more about Brandy please connect with her on social media.
Instagram and Twitter: @brandycolbert
Happy Publication Day to author Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow! Her latest picture book, Your Name is a Song, releases today.
This phenomenal picture book (illustrated by Luisa Uribe and published by Innovation Press) is the story of a young girl who doesn’t want to go back to school after the first day because no one is able pronounce her name…and of a mother who encourages her daughter to reframe and confront the situation in an empowering way.
I had the opportunity to read an ARC of Your Name is a Song and before I was even half-way through, I knew this was going to be one of the star releases of the year. I reached out to Jamilah to find out the story behind YNIAS.
Read the rest of Tameka Fryer Brown's interview on The Brown Bookshelf's blog.