When I was in the sixth grade, my class had a special Language Arts unit called, Writing Workshop. It was incredible. At eleven and twelve years old, we were given forty-five minutes a day to just—write. I know some writers, who don’t even get that much free time to sit with their words!
After this free-writing period, my Language Arts teacher, Ms. Chaimson, showcased student pages on a device that may or may not have been an overhead projector, and we workshopped each other’s pieces, as a class. Ms. Chaimson passages, and students were encouraged to read to give critical feedback.
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Well, we had just finished reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, and I was mesmerized that a story about a Black family was chosen as our classroom read-a-loud that month. I paid close attention to the southern dialect Mildred D. Taylor gave her characters. I don’t know that I had seen dialect written this way in a novel before—and I had to try it out in my own writing. I worked on my Writing Workshop piece during the allotted time, at recess, and even during math class, changing all the dialect in my existing story to recreate Roll of Thunder, Jr.
I proudly turned in my piece and waited for the Newbery to be presented to me the second kids laid their eyes on my prize-worthy work. I got a big reaction alright. As my teacher read my words aloud, the entire class screamed with laughter. They laughed at my exaggerated (ie poorly executed) Mississippi dialect on the page. They fell out of their chairs. One boy in particular stood up to give a live-action reenactment of one of my scenes until our teacher made him sit back down. While this went on, I slunk down into my seat, humiliated—but also?— sething with rage that nobody appreciated my Newbery-worthy masterpiece.
There’s a place in my heart where I’m proud of twelve-year old me, for taking such a writing risk in front of my peers. But, there’s also a side of me that gives that revised piece the little side-eye.
There’s nothing wrong with including southern dialect, to give a story another layer of authenticity. But, there is something wrong with copy-catting another author, to fast-track my way to success.
I remember my intentions back then. Sure, I wanted to try out a dialect that I read in Roll of Thunder. But I saw something that worked well in a story I loved and decided I was going to be the star of my sixth grade Writing Workshop by becoming Mildred D. Taylor.
Copying Mildred D. Taylor’s voice is impossible. She has documented her lived experiences with such heart and authenticity that her books continue to be a school and library staple.
I was not (and am still not) Mildred D. Taylor. Me nor anyone in my family are from Mississippi. I think I have been to the state once. Dropping a few overly exaggerated southern characters into my writing, didn’t enhance my own story. It made a mockery of the hard work Ms. Taylor put into sharing with us her experiences.
The interesting thing is, I could’ve written a more authentic story set in the south. My mother’s side of the family originates from Lancaster, South Carolina. Before the Great Migration carried our bloodline up to Washington, DC, my grandmother lived in a modest home, on a dirt road so small, it had no street name. Working as a sharecropper, she picked cotton and fed the animals on their farm to help her family survive.
I could have taken the time to research my own family history and recovered memories of my grandmother’s very specific rural South Carolina superstitions. I might have remembered the way she warned her adult children of trouble through her “visions.” I could have stood at the stove, watching the women of my family preparing the pie crust and cooking a pot of black-eyed peas for luck on New Year’s Day. I surely would have heard threads of my grandmother’s heavy South Carolina accent (which is southern, but completely different from a Mississippi accent) on my own tongue, even though I’ve never lived a day on South Carolina soil. Maybe, my classmates would’ve still laughed at my writing efforts. But, the characters would have been better developed, well thought out and more authentic.
But, sixth grade me didn’t trust her own voice yet. And in 2019, when I began drafting BE REAL, MACY WEAVER, I still didn’t.
I wanted to be published—badly. My first novel had won the SCBWI Emerging Voices award the year prior, but didn’t catch the attention of agents. I mean, it did—but the manuscript just wasn’t where it needed to be. That July of 2019, I was ready to start on something new— determined that this story wouldn’t end up in a drawer like the first. I prefaced my drafting journey by reading authors I admired. I started with my classics. Judy Blume. Beverly Cleary. Virginia Hamilton. Ann M. Martin. Then I read more current books that I liked, that also had a strong readership. Ghost by Jason Reynolds. Front Desk by Kelly Yang. One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson.
And while every writer should read lots of books to study the craft, I was slowly using my mentor texts to cross a line with that first draft—eventually resorting back to my sixth grade copy-cat tactics. I wanted agents to believe I was worthy. I wanted editors to tell me I owned at their house. I wanted readers to like my writing so badly, I tried desperately to be a little Jacqueline-Woodson-y or Kelly Yang-ish. The results of that first full draft? A collection of scenes that were desperate for a voice that didn’t feel like discount brand Rita Williams-Garcia—watered down and unoriginal. I knew what I wanted my story to say, but my main character hadn’t found her voice yet—mostly because I was too busy trying on everyone else’s.
Macy didn’t come alive on the page until I forced myself to be more vulnerable—to look inside myself, at my own feelings and my own memories. To get there, I switched up my work routine, writing overnight, when things were quiet, and most of the East Coast was asleep—or at least not texting my phone. With no distractions, I turned inward, and stayed there as long as I needed to find my voice. Once I found it, I began to give meaning to Macy’s actions. Instead of using my main character as a flimsy tool to achieve literary success, I began treating her like a mirror—a reflection of my most vulnerable self. These were the moments I finally discovered Macy’s voice—and most importantly, my own.
Be Real, Macy Weaver is a story about a girl discovering and embracing her own identity. In some ways, Macy and this novel helped me “be real” about who I am as a writer and trust my own voice more. I wouldn’t trade this two-year journey for anything. Thank you, Macy-girl!
Meet the author
Lakita Wilson is the author of several novels and nonfiction projects for children and young adults, including What Is Black Lives Matter? a part of the New York Times bestselling Who HQ Now series, and Be Real, Macy Weaver. A 2017 recipient of SCBWI’s Emerging Voices Award, Lakita received her MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Lakita lives in Prince George’s County, Maryland, with her two children and shih-tzu. She can be found online at www.LakitaWilson.com and on Twitter and Instagram at @LakitaWrites.
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About Be Real, Macy Weaver
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A humorous, heartfelt, and fashion-filled contemporary novel about Macy Weaver, a young girl struggling with how to be her true self and make a best friend. Perfect for fans of From the Desk of Zoe Washington and Stand Up, Yumi Chung.
Eleven-year-old Macy Weaver knows relationships are complicated. Fresh off her latest friendship breakup, she’s spent most of her summer break on her own. So when Macy’s mother decides to go back to college three states away, Macy jumps on the chance to move—anything for a fresh start.
But Macy’s new home isn’t exactly what she expected. Her mother’s never around and her dad’s always working. Lonelier than ever, Macy sets her sights on finding a new best friend. When she meets Brynn, who’s smart and kind and already seems to have her whole life figured out—down to her future as a high fashion model—Macy knows she’s it. The only problem is that Brynn already has a BFF and, as everyone knows, you can only have one.
Resorting to old habits, Macy turns one small lie into a whole new life—full of fantastic fashion and haute couture—but it isn’t long before everything really falls apart. Ultimately, Macy must determine how to make things right and be true to herself—rather than chasing after the person she thinks she’s supposed to be.
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 07/12/2022
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post