Saturday, February 20, 2021

Keynote Address – Looking Back to Move Forward Tami Charles


Tami Charles, the bestselling author, of LIKE VANESSA, and MUTED, began her keynote address with these profound words:

Life is like an arrow. Sometimes you get pulled back only to be launched into something beautiful. 

Tami was born in the 1980's in Newark, Jersey in what she describes as a sea of Black and Brown and blooming dreams. Tammy says she was the kid that--as many of us can relate-- drowned herself in stories. However, Tammy never saw herself, her family or her community in some of her favorites, including the popular Sweet Valley Twins series and others. 

Although Tami loved stories, she never considered becoming a writer. Tami assumed to be an author, you had to be old or rich. She was neither. So, Tami chose the safer path. She was the daughter of a former teacher turned principal, so she became a teacher as well. 

MUTED, just released Feb 2, 2021, is a novel in verse about seventeen year old, aspiring singer, Denver, who experiences the dark side of the music industry, where she will either break the code of silence--or become broken.

As a classroom teacher, Tami had the opportunity to share her love of stories with her students. They read Jacqueline Woodson, Meg Medina and Carol Boston Weatherford. It was in these moments, with these stories, that a spark ignited with Tami's twelve year old self. 

Tami finally saw herself in the books she was sharing with her students, and it was this representation that inspired Tami to finally dabble with writing. Her students became her first readers, offering honest critiques, but encouraging her to follow her dreams and continue on her writing journey. 

Tami joined the New Jersey regional SCBWI chapter. For the first few years, Tami attended SCBWI conferences, but quietly hid in the shadows. She left the conferences intimidated by the successful authors and illustrators--unsure if she would ever reach their level of success. Tami's imposter syndrome was real. But the statistical data attached to writer's of color in the publishing industry was also very real. Would Tami ever become one of the 7% of author's of color with traditionally published books?

Despite her fear, Tami pressed on--joining critique groups and working on her writing craft. According to Tami,

The writing got better. The rejections became nicer.

Six years after Tami began seriously writing, she landed an agent. Two years after that, she became traditionally published. 

LIKE VANESSA, published by Charles Bridge Publishing, is a middle grade story about a shy girl from New York who participates in a beauty pageant, despite her own issues of self-confidence.

Tami's first novel ended up becoming an award winning book. Tami, and her book LIKE VANESSA won the SCBWI Book Launch Award. The award allowed Tami to donate much needed funds back into her alma mater university high school and other community literacy programs. 

By sharing her writing journey, Tami showed us how doubt can be overcome by hope. According to Tami, the word no holds power. But the word yes holds beauty. And it's the hope that the No will someday become a Yes, according to Tami, that keeps us going. 

I kept going, and you can do it too.

With this message of hope, Tami leads us to her newest project,  a picture book titled, ALL BECAUSE YOU MATTER.

In the picture book that Tami describes as the book of her heart, she tells you children: reads to us lines like: 

...strength, power, and beauty lie within you

Inspired by her son. Christopher getting older and beginning to ask questions like "Why was Dr.King assassinated?" and "Who is George  Floyd?"  Tami wanted to write a book that fostered meaningful conversations, while reinforcing her son's value and worth.  

What better way than to write a love letter to remind him of all the reasons why he matters to me and to the world. 

Tami doesn't want her book to be the only one out in the world with this message. Before ending her keynote, she assigned conference attendee's a task. 

The world need our stories, funny, adventurous, the call to action and everything in between. They need your art, and your words to know that hope and kindness still exist. We write and we create to show how we live, how we love, and the color of our hearts. I want you to remember why is it that you do this work, who you're creating for. 

Tami reminds every writer to celebrate the yes's and learn from the no's. 

Allow them both to launch you to personal greatness. Along the way, remembering the wings that hope provides. 

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