By Ashley Wells
Today we’re pleased to welcome Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich to the WNDB blog to discuss Operation Sisterhood, available on January 4, 2022.
Set against the bursting energy of a New York City summer is a joyful middle grade novel about the difficulties of change, the loyalty of sisters, and the love of family.
Bo and her mom always had their own rhythm until they moved to Harlem with Mum’s boyfriend Bill, his daughter Sunday, twins Lili and Lee, the twins’ parents, and a menagerie of animals. With so many people in one brownstone, Bo isn’t so sure there’s still room for her.
Operation Sisterhood’s main character Bo experiences big changes and emotions throughout the book. She feels so real and I’m sure lots of kids will identify with her. How did you go about creating her character?
I love creating characters. I thought of the sisters as a unit in a lot of ways, and how each of their personalities might work (and sometimes not work) together. With Bo, some of the things I thought about were: what if you’re someone in this family that seems to operate in a very “fun and free” way, and that’s not exactly your vibe? What if you think that you’re very happy with your life and the role that you play in your family, and then you’re thrust into a new and uncomfortable situation where you feel you have to prove yourself? What if you pride yourself on being “strong” and you now have to be vulnerable in small, daily ways?
After some of those changes, Bo begins freeschooling. This learning method was new to me! Can you tell us more about it and why you included it in the book?
When my daughter was young, we were kind of homeschool-adjacent, even though she was also in a traditional school setting. I think that New York is such a resource-rich, dynamic, and beautifully diverse city.
In the book, the Dwyer-Saunders family calls it “freeschooling” because the parents want to raise the girls to be “free within themselves” to paraphrase Langston Hughes, to love who they are and who they can be. Many Black parents who have the resources and opportunity to homeschool do so because the educational systems and structures in the U.S. do not affirm Black lives. Even though I was never officially homeschooled and went to a lot of different types of schools, my parents believed in a kind of schooling outside of school, learning about Black history and culture in ways that were not available to us in school; learning in the context of everyday life in a way that is grounded in an understanding that Black children are capable, curious learners with a rich heritage to draw from.
Storytelling and preserving history are themes throughout Operation Sisterhood. What advice would you give to those looking to do this for their own communities?
I grew up really being nourished by stories from my parents and family members, of “back home,” of immigration, of my heritage and multiple ethnicities. Those stories helped me to understand that Black lives are beautiful, powerful, dynamic, and come in infinite flavors. Black people have a legacy of stories that is deep and wide and high and long, and our stories are a blessing to anyone fortunate enough to connect with them. Across the Diaspora, we have such deeply rich and powerful stories of ingenuity and innovation, endurance, triumph, struggle, and infinite joy.
Reading aloud was a big thing in my family as well. We loved stories, and valued many different kinds, and many different forms. My family went out of their way to make sure we had access to an extensive experience with theatre, museums, music, etc. I had a lot of time and space for imaginative play, and that was invaluable. I also had Black educators who went the extra mile. In the classroom, and in conversation, teachers and college professors were among those who shared Black playwrights, thinkers, filmmakers, artists, and more. It was so important to have them champion and cherish our experiences and imagination, especially in a world that so often did not.
You can start the way my sister and I did, asking “Tell me about when you were little!”. I think letters, the old snail mail kind, can be a lovely way to share and preserve family stories. I learned a lot about my dad by recording him as he talked about his experiences coming to the U.S., and then learned more when my daughter did the same many years later. My mom spent the last few years of her life mostly in hospitals, and sometimes we’d read Scriptures, and those stories would trigger memories of stories in her own life, like jumping Double Dutch with her favorite nun in Catholic school. I think it’s important to be curious, to listen, to be patient – to show that you honor the stories of the people in your life, no matter how “glittery” or “ordinary” they seem. And be generous with your own; sometimes it means being vulnerable, and sharing a bit of yourself. I believe that we can be enriched by each other. Each and every one of our stories is precious.
Operation Sisterhood highlights Black Lives Matter and the importance of taking up space. What books do you see Operation Sisterhood in conversation with on these topics?
The stories we encounter, and the stories we create, end up in conversation with one another no matter what. I think that in much the same way that all Black lives matter, we can make room for all kinds of stories by and about Black life. You can look at any book and ask: what is this saying about Black people? Who does this story value? What message is this creator sending about Black power, community, and humanity? I’d start with a visit to The Brown Bookshelf and go from there!
If you weren’t an author, what would your career be? What inspired you to become an author?
I’d be a voiceover artist for animation, a puppeteer, a toymaker, a preschool TV host. Oh, and since I was a kid, I’ve been pretending to have my own cooking show.
I was always surrounded by stories and books, encouraged to read widely, allowed to be a “free-range” reader, and supplied with plenty of paper, pens, and markers that I used for doodling, writing stories inspired by what I overheard about the tv shows I wasn’t allowed to watch, journaling. Writing became a very important form of self-expression for me as a shy kid, a way that I could be all of my selves. I started out writing little plays and show scripts at a very young age because of that.
You’ve published fiction and non-fiction children’s books. What’s your writing process like and how do you decide what to work on next?
I usually start with my characters, just living with them for a long time. Then I ask questions. It’s often my way of trying work things out for myself, about myself, about the people and cultures around me, of creating more questions. And for each project, I think about how I would like to serve my reader, what I’d like to give them, how I might hope they feel, with the full understanding that each reader brings themselves to a story and makes their own meaning, creating something new.
How do I decide what to work on next? Usually that has to do with deadlines! Or sometimes when I’m struggling with something, I put it aside to simmer and work on something different. But sometimes that’s just procrastination. And I love to challenge myself as a writer—right now I’m working on some easy readers, and that’s been a lot of fun. I’d love to write for kids’ TV one day as well.
If you could tell your younger self anything, what would it be? What would you like to tell Bo?
I would tell my younger self and Bo that it’s OK to be and love all the selves that we are, that we don’t have to try to be the “best.” That we are worthy of being loved, just as we are, that we have so much to offer this world, and we can keep figuring that out and working toward it, a little bit at a time.
What was your favorite childhood book? What books do you recommend to young readers?
There’s a literal treasure chest of recommendations and resources at The Brown Bookshelf, starting with anything by the phenomenal members!
Right now, I am recommending some chapter book series to everyone I know: the Ryan Hart series by Renée Watson, the Jada Jones series by Kelly Starling Lyons, and the Dyamonde Daniel series by Nikki Grimes. The 1619 Project: Born on the Water by Renée Watson, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Nikkolas Smith is exquisite. The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold. African Icons: Ten People Who Shaped History by Tracey Baptiste. Not So Pure and Simple and The Last Last-Day-of-Summer by Lamar Giles. Timelines from Black History: Leaders, Legends, Legacies, edited by Mireille Harper. The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu. Anything by Alex Wheatle. Almost There and Almost Not by Linda Urban. First Grade Dropout and Second Grade Holdout by Audrey Vernick. The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung. The Other Talk: Reckoning with Our White Privilege by Brendan Kiely. Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People by Kekla Magoon. What Lane? by Torrey Maldonado. Your Name is A Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow. I could go on…
Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich is the author of 8th Grade Superzero, It Doesn’t Take a Genius, the nonfiction books Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow and Someday Is Now: Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-Ins, and the upcoming Mae Makes a Way and Saving Earth: The Climate Crisis and the Fight for Our Future. She is the coauthor of the middle-grade novel Two Naomis, which was nominated for an NAACP Image Award, and its sequel, Naomis Too. Olugbemisola is a member of the Brown Bookshelf and a former board member of We Need Diverse Books. She lives with her family in New York City, where she writes, makes things, and needs to get more sleep. You can also find her on Instagram, Twitter, and her website.
Ashley Wells Ajinkya is an avid reader, book collector, and writer based in Minnesota. She also works in self-publishing and serves as an Ambassador for The Pad Project. In her free time, Ashley can typically be found buying more books, finding vintage treasures at thrift stores, or planning her next trip.