Former teacher turned full-time author Tami Charles is dedicated to telling diverse stories for children of all ages. Inspired by her former students and the #MeToo movement, Charles’s new novel Muted confronts how easily Black and Brown girls are taken advantage of in the entertainment industry. Charles spoke with PW about writing in verse, her personal experiences in the entertainment world, how her students encouraged her to be an author, and why we need to continue protecting and listening to teens—especially ones from marginalized backgrounds.
What inspired you to tackle these particularly heavy subject matters?
Many moons ago, in the ’90s, which feels like it was yesterday—I met two girls while I was in middle school, and we had the same dream of wanting to do something fabulous in the spotlight. I grew up taking all kinds of performing arts lessons. When I met these two girls we formed an R&B singing group. We kind of modeled ourselves after our favorite group, En Vogue. We had the passion and the drive so we just started signing up for everything we could get ourselves into. But, you know, the music industry, it's a roller coaster. We even had some small brushes with fame, but we never quite hit the mark.
In our quest for fame, I noticed that the music industry does this thing where it sucks you in and it gets you hooked. Then it spits you out and leaves you to decide if all of this is even worth it; and for us, at some point, we determined that it wasn't. So that whole experience kind of launched the book that would become Muted. I could see how girls, Black and Brown girls especially, fall down the rabbit hole. So I wanted to address it because I started seeing the headlines creep up and the #MeToo stories. We see the Free Britney movements and how Taylor Swift has been really slighted in many ways, artistically, and taken advantage of but a closer lens on Black and Brown girls in the music industry reveals that they are not protected and defended the same as their white counterparts.
In Muted, why did you choose to use the entertainment industry as the pathway to discuss these sensitive topics?
Originally, Muted wasn't a girl group story. But in my very first version, I actually had the main character just want to be in the entertainment industry at large. But I know the world of entertainment. I know music. I know performing. So I had to go that route, just for the fact that I know it. But I can tell you that you could probably swap that out with sports or any other field that sees girls and women taken advantage of. There are little nuggets, you know, pieces of science that I try to drop for the reader even if the character doesn't know. But the reader hopefully picks up on it, so that if something like that were to happen to them, they would be wiser in their decisions.
In addition to being an author, you also have a background in education. How does that influence your writing when you are developing stories for young readers?
I'm writing to a few different people. First, I'm writing to my son. I largely write for him because I want him to see his mom, a woman who is achieving and reaching her goals. I think that's important for him to see. But as a former teacher, I write for my students. I taught for 14 years, and 13 of those were in one particular district where I had inclusion classes. So I write for them, too, because it’s important for them to open up a book and see themselves and their friends and communities reflected. I also write for the 12-year-old me who grew up reading Ramona Quimby and Anastasia Krupnik; even though I loved them, I didn't see myself in them.
Why do you feel it’s so important to produce and encourage diverse content in books?
Largely because when I was a kid, I devoured books, even though I didn't see myself in those books. I actually didn't see myself in the books that I was reading until I became a teacher. It didn't dawn on me to revisit my childhood dream of becoming an author until my students told me that I should try. We read a lot of diverse books in class together, and I remember saying, “Oh my gosh, I would have loved to have stories like this growing up, but I didn't.” I thought about how amazing it is that they get a wider canon of diverse literature now, and I knew then I wanted to be a part of that movement.
Do you feel Muted will help caretakers, educators, and parents talk to children about sensitive topics such as abuse?
Denver has two parents and it was important for me to show her in a two-parent home with two successful, accomplished parents. I wanted to also show how sometimes as adults, we can be so engrossed in our own careers and responsibilities that we think that everything we do is for our kids. However, we have to remember to stop and take a look. Her parents provided such a beautiful place for her to live but her mom was a doctor and her dad was a pilot and they were constantly gone. Denver also has a big sister at an Ivy League school, so imagine the pressure Denver goes through. I think parents should take heed and listen to children but also support them in their goals. Denver felt like she didn't have that kind of support. Listening is something we as parents can learn to do a bit more and I hope that they get that out of this book.
Did you originally set out to make Shakira the level-headed friend? Or did that just happen as you continue to write the story?
Yes. So at first, all three girls were just being mischievous, you know? I thought someone has to be the voice of reason here. I wanted each girl to have their own motivation. We know for Denver she believes there is no other path for her. The same can be said for Dali as she wants a better situation for her family being that they are immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Dali sees singing as a way to get her family to the states and get them set up properly. But for Shak, she is a good student, she's religious, her parents are in the military and her grandparents are pastors. So I went back and fleshed out her character more to show a full range of different personalities within the group.
What was your writing process like for this book and how did it differ from your previous works?
When I write a novel, I have a word goal count for the day, but for this, I just needed to kind of go with the flow. So I made up a poem count. And if I can shout out to writer friends Kelly Calibri and Stephanie Jones, they were my accountability. To make sure that the story felt like an album, I read a lot of verse novels. I tried to write it in prose and it didn't work for me. I didn't know I could write in verse, but then I got into it. Then I thought, “This actually works.”
Are you considering writing a follow-up for Denver to examine her life after Muted?
Well, I thought about it. I'm not going to say absolutely not. Let's just say this: if I were to write a follow- up, I would examine Dali more because there were some things that I left unanswered in the book purposely because the book is told from Denver's point of view. But it would be pretty interesting to get Dali’s side of the story of how all the things went down. Right now, I’m working on a new picture book series. I can’t say more than that just yet but I hope to announce it this spring.
Muted by Tami Charles. Scholastic Press, Feb. 2 $18.99 ISBN 978-1-338-67352-4