The classroom buzzed with excitement as students settled in for an hour of storytelling. This time the story was personal. It was the story of a young girl with big dreams who never gave up.
“One of the things I love about New Orleans, it has some of the richest culture in this country,” describes author Rita Williams-Garcia to the eager faces in front of her. This was how her story began. On the streets of New Orleans listening to the kids bottle tapping, which was the inspiration for Rita’s book Bottle Cap Boys.
As Rita recounted her memories of New Orleans before hurricane Katrina she began to craft a world that her audience could imagine. Some of the students had seen pictures of New Orleans after the hurricane but this was different. Rita wasn’t describing run down houses with no hope. She was telling the stories of children—just like them—who would adhere bottle caps to the bottom of their shoes and tap to earn money. She created a world that these students could relate to. This class might not tap bottle caps but they had their own inventive ways of making fun.
As Rita moved on to tell of other experiences that shaped her writing she always held on to one important thing—experience. On that day these students learned that they could transform their own experiences into an adventure.
Rita’s personal tale kept the children spellbound. She described her move from California to New York and the difficulties that she faced during her journey, which finally resulted in her becoming an author.
Rita had wanted to be an author from a young age, writing whenever she got the chance. At the age of twelve she began applying to many publishers, all with the same result—rejection. As she recounted her earlier years, she shared how her older brother and sister would tease her when she got rejection letters. The previously quiet audience of students in the classroom murmured in agreement, thinking of their own siblings. Yet, in the face of rejection and teasing, Rita told of how she never gave up. Finally, at the age of fourteen, she was published by Highlights magazine. However, this was not the last time Rita struggled through rejection for success.
Having kept a dairy over the years, Rita stored up a wealth of information that she could access written from the point of view of a child. She explained to the class of how her diaries were not only a place for her to write in her latest crush but were also where she recorded historical events. She explicitly wrote of an assembly at her school after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated saying, “There were white kids laughing, while I remember a black teacher crying”. For the children in front of Rita, their desks shaped in a rectangle with Rita at the head, this moment in history was just that for them, history. Rita’s firsthand experience brought the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. alive through the reaction of someone right in front of them.
Along with her personal story, Rita also sprinkled in writing tips to prepare the class for their own Behind the Book project with a focus on how to access a part of history they wish to relive and research for their own writing. One interesting technique was that of listening to music. “The lyrics in the songs,” Rita explained, “reflect the emotions and political climate of the time. It is a great way to research.”
During her workshop, Rita Williams-Garcia encouraged the kids by sharing her own failures and mistakes. She didn’t make it on her first try. It took her six years until her first novel was published. As a long-time BtB author, Rita Williams-Garcia knows that providing room for students to develop self-confidence and a space to make mistakes so they can become comfortable with failure and success is essential to the program. Before she left, Rita shared that even though she triumphed over many obstacles, she still has to persevere in order to succeed and they can do it, too.
Are you an author or do you know an author who is an inspiration? Share this post or contact us to find out how you or a friend can bring your books into a BtB classroom.