New Voice: Liara Tamani on Calling My Name

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Liara Tamani is the debut author of Calling My Name (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2017). From the promotional copy:

This unforgettable novel tells a universal coming-of-age story about Taja Brown, a young African American girl growing up in Houston, Texas, and it deftly and beautifully explores the universal struggles of growing up, battling family expectations, discovering a sense of self, and finding a unique voice and purpose.

Told in fifty-three short, episodic, moving, and iridescent chapters, Calling My Name follows Taja on her journey from middle school to high school. 


Literary and noteworthy, this is a beauty of a novel that deftly captures the multifaceted struggle of finding where you belong and why you matter.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I started writing Calling My Name to explore and heal the wounds of my teenage self. 

Like Taja, the protagonist of Calling My Name, I grew up in a very loving and religious family. My family was always in church—Bible study, choir rehearsal, Sunday services, Vacation Bible School, Church conventions—you name it, we were there. Also like Taja, I had a lot of doubts and questions about religion but quickly learned that I wasn’t supposed to have these doubts and questions, that their presence meant I might not be saved. So I dealt with them internally, fighting against the fear of hell, which was very real to me at the time. 
And when I became sexually active in my later teenage years, my fears were compounded by guilt and shame. Let me tell you, it wasn’t fun.

While Calling My Name is not my story, it was definitely born out of my experience. And I wanted to share my truth, to give voice to the struggle of sexual shame and guilt (which a lot of teenagers deal with, especially girls), and to speak to the terrifying experience of departing from one’s family and community teachings to find one’s own way.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

Because Calling My Name is written in vignettes, I mostly studied novels that were composed of interrelated vignettes and short stories. 

I read any short-story cycle or novel-in-vignettes I could get my hands on, but my favorites were The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros ( Arte Público Press, 1984), Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks (Harper & Brothers, 1953), and Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997). I loved the lyricism, economy of language, voice, and characterization in these books. I love their liberated story structures. 
I studied their linking devices and transition techniques. These books taught me how to construct relationships between my vignettes and stories in order to connect them and move the larger story forward. 
They taught me how to take the images, observations, ideas, and threads of dialogue in my individual vignettes and stories and expand them within the larger social, cultural, and emotional context of my book.

As an MFA in Writing student/graduate, how did that experience impact your literary journey?

I wrote Calling My Name during my MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I started the first piece at the very end of my first semester, fell in love with the voice, and spent the next year and a half adding to the novel piece by piece. Upon graduation, I had a finished, polished book. I didn’t plan it that way, but I was very fortunate to have it happen that way.

It was great to have each new chapter of my novel critiqued every month by an adviser. It was also nice to be able to dedicate the critical analysis part of the program to studying books and techniques that would help me write Calling My Name. And the structure and discipline of the MFA program was invaluable. I don’t think I would have written Calling My Name so fast without the deadlines.

Obviously, an MFA isn’t essential to becoming a fiction writer. There are so many paths, but this one was the right one for me. And one of the best things about the program is the lifelong community of writers it creates. 

I can’t tell you how much inspiration and support I’ve received by being connected to the VCFA community. And that inspiration and support has been vital to me through all parts of my publication journey.

Dream Keepers YA Authors Panel with Renée Watson, Nic Stone,
Liara Tamani, Jacqueline Woodson, Ibi Zoboi, and Vashti Harrison 

As a member of a community underrepresented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?

Taja is a young African-American girl, and her culture is on full display in this book; it’s embedded in the story. Some issues with race come up because race is always a factor for black people, and I wanted to be honest about the ways it’s a factor in Taja’s life. 

One issue involves the time when the neighborhood families of Taja’s white friends move away when the neighborhood starts becoming too black. Another issue surrounds the hard time Taja has with the new black girls at school who thinks she talks too white.

These issues are present, but they aren’t the focus. While books that explicitly deal with America’s race problem are very important (especially in these times), books that remind readers that black people and people of color have more than race problems, that we are whole human beings, with the whole spectrum of human problems and human joys are equally as important. 

Taja is African-American, but she is also just a teenage girl who is trying to figure out her path in life—a human experience so many of us can identify with.
Cynsational Notes

Booklist gave Calling My Name a starred review, “An excellent portrayal of African American culture, gorgeous lyrical prose, strong characters, and societal critique make Tamani’s debut a must-read.”

Liara Tamani lives in Houston, Texas with her daughter.

She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College and a BA from Duke University.


Read about how illustrator Vashti Harrison designed the cover for Calling My Name at Epic Reads. 

In Memory: Patricia C. McKissack

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Patricia C. McKissack, honored children’s author from Chesterfield, dies at 72 by Jane Henderson
from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Peek: “…’I think my mother died of a broken heart.’ Fredrick McKissack Jr. said his mother and father were ‘best friends and partners.’”

Before becoming an author, Patricia earned a master’s degree from Webster’s University and taught English at a junior high school in Kirkwood, Missouri.

In a 1998 story by Renee Stovsky from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Patricia said frustration over lack of information on poet Paul Laurence Dunbar to share with her students fueled her drive to write children’s books. Peek: “I realized then that if someone didn’t start preserving these stories, an extremely important part of our heritage could be lost forever.”

Not surprisingly, Paul Laurence Dunbar: A Poet to Remember (Children’s Press, 1984) was one of her first published books. Dozens more quickly followed.

Before long, Fredrick left his civil engineering job to work on books with Patricia. Together, the McKissacks published more than 120 children’s books on a wide range of topics from African history and customs to supernatural stories.

In For the McKissacks, Black is Boundless, Barbara Bader wrote for the Horn Book about the couple’s prolific list. Peek: “The McKissacks do think big. ‘We’re Kennedy products,’ Pat McKissack has said — idealists and optimists.”

In 2014, Frederick and Patricia McKissack received the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement from the American Library Association.

Patricia’s The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Random House, 1992) won the Coretta Scott King Award in 1993 and was also a Newbery Honor Book. The same year, Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I A Woman (Scholastic, 1992) co-authored by Frederick and Patricia also received the Coretta Scott King Honor Award.

Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I A Woman also received the Boston Globe-Horn Book award for nonfiction. The McKissacks delivered the acceptance speech together. From Patricia: “Like most children of my generation, I was not introduced to African-American heroes through textbooks. History in the 1950s didn’t contain much information about African-American contributions….but we got our history in other ways.” She explained how her Sunday school teachers combined spirituals and Bible truths. “We decided to use that format and begin each section of our book with a spiritual…”

Her Horn Book essay with Fredrick, You Can Be President, explores the magical things that can happen at family dinner.

In A Literary Love Story’s Final Chapter, Kenya Vaughn from the St. Louis American wrote,”the couple decided that little black boys and girls deserved positive images of themselves and a broad scope of their people’s rich history as they turned the pages of books. The McKissacks knew that these words would be critical in shaping what they think, feel and know about who they are…”

In Rocco Stanio‘s article from School Library Journal, Jacqueline Woodson said of Patrica, “She was lovely and groundbreaking and doing the work that set so many of us in motion.”

Patricia McKissack, Prolific Author Who Championed Black Heroes, Dies at 72 by Sam Roberts from the New York Times. Peek: “Ms. McKissack, who grew up in the segregated South and was the only black student in her sixth-grade class, wove the back-porch fables she remembered from childhood together with her own personal anecdotes (including a false accusation of thievery and a dinner at a whites-only restaurant) in fictional narratives.”

Remembering the Life and Writing of Famed St. Louis Children’s Author Patricia McKissack aired on St. Louis Public Radio. St. Louis librarian Jennifer Ilardi talked about Patricia’s impact on her life. “…I’m biracial and finding other books that represented my father’s side of the family was tricky. Books are windows, mirrors, and doors….I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t have access to these type of books and her books when I was a child.”

In reviewing Patricia’s most recent book, Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out!: Games, Songs & Stories from an African American Childhood, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Random House, January 2017), Roger Sutton from the Horn Book called her “children’s book royalty and storyteller supreme” and described the book as “a rich compilation.”

The Horn Book called Patricia’s death “a huge loss to the children’s literature community.”

Edith Campbell had a moving tribute to Patricia on Crazy QuiltEdi. Peek: “I’ve learned that we are all libraries, each carrying in us the stories that make us unique. And yet, there are those who are more than that; they’re the people who create the stories that express our shared identities, that inspire us to be more than we’ve planned for ourselves and who question.”