Though her first book, A Good Kind of Trouble—a novel about a girl navigating middle school, friendship, and race—was roughly 20 years in the making, Lisa Moore Ramée’s second book, Something to Say, has arrived only a year after her debut. Something to Say stars Jenae, a girl who prefers to be alone and invisible until a new kid at school refuses to let her be either one. But when they are paired up for a project, Jenae’s fear of public speaking means she may have to risk everything to avoid speaking up. Ramée spoke with PW about her inspiration for the book, how she stayed positive during her long path to publishing, and her advice for young readers who may have something to say in this ever-changing world.
You mentioned in your biography that you once hoped to be an actress but had a case of stage fright. Jenae, your main character in Something to Say, also has a fear of public speaking. Are there any aspects of acting that you feel help you as a writer? And how did that early stage fright experience inspire this character?
As a child, I would play act in my bedroom, singing into my hairbrush and playing all the parts. I imagined myself winning numerous Academy Awards. I really wanted to be an actress. Right up until the moment I joined a drama club in high school and actually had to be onstage.
That’s when I realized that I had this crazy stage fright. I was adamant that I was never getting up in front of people again. However, at some point in life, we’re almost always forced to give a speech. That moment came in college and, like Jenae, I wanted to die.
Years later, as I was working on this book and developing Jenae’s character, it made sense to me that, because she was someone who wanted to be invisible, one of the worst things you could ask her to do would be to stand up and give a speech. Fortunately, I had those feelings to draw from as I wrote that scene.
Interestingly, though, this story seems to revolve around finding power in speaking up, even when it feels frightening. What would you say to encourage a young reader who, like Jenae, has felt safer when they’re invisible and is truly afraid to speak up but feels passionately about something?
Part of what inspired me to write this story is that I did not always have the courage to speak up. I think that what I would hope for a young person or anybody reading the book is that they recognize a couple of things. First, it’s hard to speak up. Quite simply, it’s just not an easy thing for many of us to do.
However, if someone feels like they want to speak up, but maybe not in a “shout out loud” way, there are quieter but still effective ways to share their voice. It can be as simple as writing a letter to someone in city or state government expressing their opinion. Maybe they aren’t comfortable speaking in front of a crowd, but they can find the courage to pick up the phone and call a council member.
What we’re seeing in the world right now is that if enough voices carry a message then the people in power are forced to listen. It is important not to think, “Someone else will take care of it, or someone else will do it.” Find those little ways to contribute your voice.
Finally, if someone wants to be a part of something happening in their community, they might consider asking their parents something like: “Hey, is there something we can do as a family? Can we work together?” It can be really hard to stand up for something alone but by joining a movement of people, they can be comforted and supported by that larger group.
A key subplot of this story is the fight within this diverse community to rename the middle school that Jenae attends for civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez instead of actor John Wayne. Can you tell us about how this came to be a part of Jenae’s story and what message you hope your readers take from it?
Before I wrote this book, I had been seeing similar fights play out in the news. Then, in a town close to where I lived, some community members wanted to change the name of the local middle school to honor a Filipina woman who had been significant in their cultural history. The city council was against it. The school was currently named after a founding father of their city. Ultimately, a big local fight ensued. I was drawn to the idea that a city government would so strongly support holding on to history more than listening to voices of people in their community. It was something I knew I wanted to explore in a story.
I had a personal connection to this issue as well. When my grandfather was still alive, he lived with us at my mom’s house. The man was in love with Western movies. It was the greatest gift of all time to him when cable television developed a Western channel. I’m sure this made me an odd child, but I enjoyed watching those old Westerns with him. I especially loved John Wayne. There was something about him—that gunslinger, save-the-day attitude that made him really cool. Then my brother said to me one day, “You know, John Wayne is racist.”
I was shocked. I didn’t want to believe it. But there was printed evidence of the statements that he had made against Black people, against Native people, and about white supremacy. I thought about John Wayne Airport near Los Angeles and began to wonder if he was someone we should honor like that. It raised a difficult question for me: can you still enjoy the work of someone who has done something society has agreed is wrong?
I loved being able to bring this question into a book. I knew the school would be named John Wayne Junior High, but I had to think long and hard about who the community would be fighting to name it after. I asked myself: what does this community look like? I’m from Los Angeles. It seemed to me that the community would be looking to name the school after someone like Sylvia Mendez. I thought, who better? Such a wonderful historical figure who not enough people know about. I wanted to bring her story into this book and hopefully shed some light on the fact that there actually was a school integration case before Brown vs. Board of Education.
You’ve described your publishing journey as being a contender for a “Longest Ever” Award. Can you summarize that journey and share what rewards along that path kept you following it?
I am not someone who grew up saying, “I want to be a bestselling novelist.” It wasn’t until after college that I started thinking about writing. I had started working at Disney Comics. It was a new unit and we were developing a product called Junior Graphic Novels. But we had no money in the budget to hire a writer so I thought, how hard can it be? And there was nobody smart enough to say: that’s a dumb idea, you’re not a writer, you’re an account executive.
But I would go into my office, close the door, and write this graphic novel. It was the best experience. I thought, I don’t want to see another spreadsheet in my life. All I want to do is this.
I went back to school and got a Masters in English literature. I wrote my first novel, an adult horror novel because I was a big Stephen King fan. At about that time, my daughter was starting junior high and was dealing with issues surrounding race that appalled me because I thought we were in a better place as a society than we were.
I started writing the book that became A Good Kind of Trouble. I sent out maybe seven or eight letters to agents and I got requests for full manuscripts. I had no idea what that meant. But it was enough to give me a little taste of hope: that the idea—a girl trying to figure out what being Black meant and how it impacted her relationship with her friends—was compelling enough for people to want to read the manuscript.
I entered Pitch Madness. Agents liked my pitch. None of them signed me. I did #DVPit. Nobody signed me. I was getting the message that the idea was something that people liked, but my writing was not. By that point, I was getting tired. I didn’t know if I wanted to keep doing this.
Then, I heard author Traci Chee talk about how she approached her writing like a job. I hadn’t done that yet. I checked out a bunch of successful middle grade books from the library and used them like textbooks, studying voice, studying sentence structure to see what it was that I was not doing. I decided: I’m going to make this happen. I queried a bunch of agents. I got a lot of full requests. And then I got an offer. I danced like a fool around my family room so hard that I literally twisted my ankle.
I did my due diligence. I sent out letters to all the people who had the book and let them know I had an offer. And I ended up having a total of 11 offers. I went with Brenda Bowen because she and I got along really well immediately. She also wanted to get the book out quickly. We subbed the book right around Memorial Day and it sold just a few weeks later.
Even now, as I work on the next book, I know I can always improve. If you’re a querying writer and you’re getting rejected, don’t be afraid to ask yourself the hard questions. Your idea might be fantastic, but your writing might not be strong enough. I did the work to make my book stronger. And it paid off.
Something to Say by Lisa Moore Ramée, illus. by Bre Indigo. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, July 14 $16.99 ISBN 978-0-06-283671-7