Bringing Black Panamanian Culture to Children’s Books, a guest post by Tamika Burgess
I have wanted to write a book for as long as I can remember. I never paid too much attention to the book’s topic, but I just knew it was something I was destined to do. Elementary school provided me with the first opportunity to do this. I don’t exactly remember what my stories were about, but I know that every time I entered my school’s Young Writers’ Conference, the characters of my stories were always butterflies, ants, or some other kind of insects. The freedom given to “just write,” as my third-grade teacher used to say, solidified the idea that one day I would write an actual book.
I got a slight taste of that feeling in fifth grade. After learning about the elements of a story and writing one, my teacher announced to the class that we could pay ten dollars and have our stories professionally bonded like real books. Thankfully, my parents paid the money, and my book, The Angry Ladybug, was stitched together with a red front and back cover and my name and title etched on the spine of it. Back then, I had no idea that the feeling of holding the words I wrote in my hand planted a seed that would eventually bloom in the form of my debut novel.
I finally started watering that seed in 2012 when I read R.J. Palacio’s Wonder. I was so captivated by the story and the writing that I told myself, “I have to do this too.” And in 2013, I started the first version of what would become my debut MG novel, Sincerely Sicily.
What started as a picture book slowly developed into a need for representation when I saw that, yes, Afro-Latinx culture was beginning to appear more frequently in fiction. Still, there was nothing specific to my culture. Born to parents who migrated from Panamá, I have always been interested in writing themes that explore my Black Latina identity. This was when I decided to write the book I needed as a child. While writing, I constantly thought of young Tamika, growing up in a small city, as a racial and cultural minority. I remember always wanting a point of reference. Someone or something that I could point to and say, “I’m Panamanian like them.”
But there was nothing. As a child, I didn’t fully comprehend how to explain my Black Panamanian background when asked, “What are you?” That is the point in my life where I started to question, how am I Black with a Panamanian background? And that experience alone is what led to Sincerely Sicily.
Writing this book was very liberating, as it allowed me to thoroughly share my background in a way I have never been able to do before. This includes writing about the Afro-Colonial and Afro-Antillean communities in Panama, along with the delicious food, slang, music, folklore, and much more. But the part of the writing process I really enjoyed was writing Sicily’s revelations about who she is and how it shaped her confidence to speak about her background. This confidence came after she navigated her way through two significant forms of discrimination. And that feeling of understanding and having the confidence to do something is what I know readers will be able to relate to.
I have so many hopes for Sincerely Sicily. My favorite excerpt from the book is: “Afro (short for African) comes before Panamanian to let people know I am of African ancestry… Panamanian or Latina, either way, I am Afro/Black first.” With that in mind, my main hope is that when readers finish reading, they walk away from the book with a clear understanding of the African diaspora. The diaspora is vast and spans worldwide. It is made up of people who descend from native Africans yet live outside Africa, predominantly in the Americas, therefore including Latin American countries.
I also hope that Sincerely Sicily conveys to readers that you should not make assumptions about people based on what you see. I would love for readers to learn that race has nothing to do with cultural background.
It was important for me to write Sincerely Sicily for middle-grade readers because that age group is at a place in life where they are learning about themselves and discovering the world around them. My book meets the middle-grade audience exactly where they are in life and provides a sense of relatability and comfort for young readers. And because of this, I look forward to speaking with readers of Sincerely Sicily and hearing how they connected with the main character, Sicily, her experiences, or any other things they loved about the book.
The year 2023 is not only the release year for Sincerely Sicily, but it also marks ten years of working on this book, from start to finish. And I am beyond grateful to see the seed planted in fifth grade finally bloom.
Meet the author
Tamika Burgess is a storyteller with over a decade of novel, TV/film, and personal essay writing experience. Born to parents who migrated from Panamá, Tamika has always taken a particular interest in writing themes that explore her Black Latina identity. Because of her passion for spreading the knowledge of Black Panamanian culture, Tamika has been featured on various websites, podcasts, and panels. When she is not writing, Tamika is somewhere cozy online shopping and listening to a podcast. Tamika resides in sunny Southern California.
Twitter & Instagram: @ TameeksB
About Sincerely Sicily
From debut author Tamika Burgess comes the captivating and empowering story of Sicily Jordan—a Black Panamanian fashionista who rocks her braids with pride—who learns to use her voice and take pride in who she is while confronting prejudice in the most unexpected of places.
Sicily Jordan’s worst nightmare has come true! She’s been enrolled in a new school, with zero of her friends and stuck wearing a fashion catastrophe of a uniform. But however bad Sicily thought sixth grade was going to be, it only gets worse when she does her class presentation.
While all her classmates breezed through theirs, Sicily is bombarded with questions on how she can be both Black and Panamanian. She wants people to understand, but it doesn’t feel like anyone is ready to listen—first at school and then at home. Because when her abuela starts talking mess about her braids, Sicily’s the only one whose heart is being crumpled for a second time.
Staying quiet may no longer be an option, but that doesn’t mean Sicily has the words to show the world just what it means to be a proud Black Panamanian either. Even though she hasn’t written in her journal since her abuelo passed, it’s time to pick up her pen again—but will it be enough to prove to herself and everyone else exactly who she is?
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/03/2023
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
SLJ Blog Network