Having published four books for young readers and contributed to multiple YA short story collections, Brandy Colbert has written her first novel for middle grade readers. The Only Black Girls in Town tackles themes readers will recognize from Colbert’s books for teens, including a frank exploration of racism and microaggression. Colbert spoke with PW about the appeal of writing for middle graders, her involvement in various short story collections, and the benefits of working with fellow writers focused on telling stories for children.
The Only Black Girls in Town is your first book published for a middle grade audience. What appealed to you about writing for this age group, and why did you choose to tell this story through a middle grade lens?
I’ve always really enjoyed middle grade stories, and as I wrote for teens, I started wondering if I could write for younger age groups, too. Middle grade books are the ones that really stuck with me and that I was desperately in love with [as a young reader]. They’ve left an indelible mark on my heart. I was a kid in the ’80s and a teen in the ’90s, so a lot of the books I was reading at the time had been published in the ’70s. I remember Judy Blume, who was my absolute favorite, and Beverly Cleary, especially the Ramona books. Also, Barthe DeClements, who I don’t hear people talk about a lot anymore. She wrote Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade and Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You; I owned them and reread them all the time. I think what resonated with me about her books was that she was an honest writer who put her characters through difficult things, showing the darker sides of a life that a kid might experience.
It was really intimidating to consider writing middle grade because I think the younger you go, the harder the book is to write. The premise for The Only Black Girls in Town came to me out of the blue. I usually think of my characters first, but with this one, I thought, what would happen if you were the only black girl in your really small town and another black girl moved in across the street? I texted one of my friends who writes for younger readers asking if anyone had written that book, and she didn’t think so, so I decided to try it. It’s not based specifically on my childhood, but it does have a lot of similarities because I grew up in a predominantly white town and was usually one of the only, if not the only, black girl in my class.
In this novel, you tackle both middle school friendships and the realities of being black and othered within a predominately white community. Why was it important for you to focus on these specific experiences?
I wanted to write something that would have spoken to me as a kid. There weren’t many books about black characters when I was younger, and those that did exist were usually about figures from the civil rights movement or about slavery. We definitely need those books and they shouldn’t go anywhere, but I wanted to speak to contemporary concerns. I wanted to write characters who experienced microaggressions and racism on the page, and I wanted kids to be able to see that and realize they can confront that. I don’t want to teach a lesson, but I think it’s important to give young readers the language to express themselves, which I didn’t have when I was younger.
You’ve recently contributed to a number of short story anthologies, including Black Enough; Toil and Trouble; Our Stories, Our Voices; Three Sides of a Heart: Stories About Love Triangles. What appeals to you about the short story format?
Short stories click with me; I can jump into the head of a character for a few pages and give them a voice. I have a lot of ideas and characters kicking around in there, but their stories aren’t always ready for a longer novelization or story. Though, I do hear from a lot of readers, “this would have been a great novel!” so maybe I don’t quite have the format down yet. But I like the bite-sized time with characters, rather than the immersion that a novel provides.
There are a couple that I think about possibly expanding. One is my story in Toil and Trouble, called “The Truth About Queenie.” That story was difficult for me to write because all my novels are contemporary realistic; I don’t have that speculative fiction brain that allows me to go deep, and the story is about a teenaged witch who is reluctant about her powers. I kind of pulled from the way I was thinking about writing speculative fiction to inform the character’s own insecurities! But I love her story and her friendship-slash-crush with her friend. I really enjoyed writing her world, which surprised me.
How does teaching at Hamline University’s MFA Program in Writing for Children affect your approach to storytelling and craft?
I never thought I would be a teacher, but now that I’m involved in the program, it’s so rewarding. As a writer who doesn’t outline unless I’m forced to, it was a challenge to have to articulate how I do things and how I think a student would benefit from doing certain things. It’s been a great way to look at how I draft, revise, and get the work out there. I’ve also learned so much from my fellow faculty members. We all attend each other’s lectures during residency. We’re immersed into this world; it’s like summer camp. It’s all day, every day lectures, workshops, and readings – it’s incredible. I feel lucky to be a part of a program that cares so much about writing, particularly children’s writing, because these are the people who are writing books for kids growing up now. It’s so important to develop that foundation and make sure writers understand the importance of writing for their audience.
The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert. Little, Brown, $16.99 Mar. 10 ISBN 978-0-316-45638-8