Today we are excited to welcome author Tami Charles to #MGBookVillage to chat about her debut novel, Like Vanessa, pageants, and much more!
I am so excited to see your debut novel, Like Vanessa, out in the world and getting all kinds of love! What is this story about?
I so appreciate the love! Thanks so much! Like Vanessa tells the story of 13-year-old Vanessa Martin, who faithfully watches the Miss America pageant, but never sees anyone who looks like her win. That all changes on September 17, 1983, when Vanessa Williams makes history as the first woman of color to win this title. Finally, young Vanessa believes that she can also reach for the impossible. The opportunity arrives when her school hosts their very first pageant. Vanessa’s grandfather and cousin believe in her, but her classmates think she doesn’t stand a chance.
What kind of research did you do to make the details feel authentically 1983?
The Newark Public Library has an awesome research room with news clippings from that time period. I spent some time there, reading and absorbing events that took place in Newark and beyond. I also had lots and lots of conversations with my father, who lived on Grafton Avenue, where the story is set, for many years. I lived there briefly, but I was quite young. He helped fill in some of the blanks for me. And lastly, thank goodness for Google!
I’ll admit that I’ve felt a bit ambivalent about pageants, but your novel helped me see a different side. What was your pageant experience like and what elements of that experience did you want to convey in Like Vanessa?
I should probably point out that I don’t believe this isn’t necessarily a “pageant” story. One could easily fill in the blank with any school- related activity and the feelings of ambivalence and doubt would remain. I remember trying out for cheerleading and being deathly afraid—I was awful, by the way!
One thing is for sure, no matter what your dream is, it’s good to have a role model who came before you to pave the way. That’s what Vanessa Williams did for me and for my main character. My experience with pageantry was a positive one. There were a few competitive moments, but the friendships gained, lessons learned, and opportunities provided outweighed any aspect of pageantry that could be deemed as negative.
I think Vanessa Martin sees this in her journey as she prepares herself for the Miss King Middle School contest.
What advice would you give young girls today who might be considering participating in pageants?
Find the right pageant that aligns with your goals. “Beauty” pageants weren’t really my thing. I mostly participated in pageants where your academic standing and talent were crucial to your chance of winning. Scholarships are a big deal, too. And last but not least, many pageant systems promote community service as part of their branding. All of these ideals are, to me, what makes a pageant worth signing up for.
I really appreciated that Vanessa is not the typical “beauty queen.” She admires Vanessa Williams but doubts that her own incredible talent – her voice – will matter because of her darker skin and larger body type….
For me, it was important that I showed this contrast. Yes, a black woman won Miss America, but in young Vanessa’s eyes, she questioned if her “black” was beautiful enough. Vanessa Williams has a much lighter complexion than my main character, who is dark and reluctant in seeing her own beauty. Young Vanessa’s singing voice alone would have gotten her through the pageant, but she still had crippling doubts because of her complexion and body type. Colorism is an issue that runs deep in POC communities and the media, especially during the 1980s era, didn’t do much to show the beautiful complexities in the ranges of our skin color. I enjoyed developing Vanessa in a way that made her love the skin she’s in.
And did I see that you actually MET Vanessa Williams?! What was that like?
Amazing! Incredible! I probably said something silly, but who cares! I met THE QUEEN!!!!
Can we talk about TJ for a moment? I LOVED him! In my head canon, he’s a future Project Runway winner and has his own fashion line…. 😀
Ah, TJ! I loved developing his character! In my mind, in the year 2018, TJ has his own couture fashion line, a penthouse in Manhattan, an amazing husband, and adorable twin daughters. He is living and loving the way he should’ve been able to in 1983.
One of the things I loved about Like Vanessa is how it shows the power of one teacher’s belief in their student to make a huge difference in that child’s life. Did you have a Mrs. Walton?
Oh, most definitely! I’ve had several Mrs. Waltons in my life. But before I mention them, I want to clarify that Vanessa Martin initially had trust issues in relation to Mrs. Walton, who was a new, white teacher at school. Mrs. Walton was not able to convince Vanessa to do the pageant. Her Pop Pop and cousin, TJ, were instrumental in encouraging Vanessa to compete. They deserve all the credit. Mrs. Walton certainly helped, but Pop Pop and TJ worked with Vanessa daily on preparing her for her moment in the spotlight. That said, I have to acknowledge the “Mrs. Walton’s” in my life. My amazing teachers at University High School: Juanda Boxley, Darnell Davis, Marie Gironda, and Quetzy Rivera. Thank you for lighting a fire in me that still burns bright today.
What are you are working on next?
I’m currently revising a YA novel, which will be a companion to Like Vanessa. The story will focus on the bully, Beatriz Mendez, from book #1. Beatriz wasn’t born mean. Once upon a time, she had a dream. We’ll see it reignited in book #2.
What have you been reading lately that you’ve liked?
I just finished “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo. So, so good! Right now, I’m loving “The Way to Bea” by Kat Yeh. The poetry is lush and addictive.
Thank you so much!
Tami Charles is a former teacher and full-time author of picture books, middle grade and young adult novels, and nonfiction. As a teacher, she made it her mission to introduce her students to all types of literature, but especially diverse books. While it was refreshing to see a better selection than what she was accustomed to as a child, Tami felt there weren’t nearly as many diverse books as she’d hoped for. It was then that she decided to reignite her passion for writing. Tami is the author of the middle grade novel Like Vanessa (2018) and the picture book Freedom Soup (Candlewick Press, 2019).