Every month we'll highlight a reader in the Great Lakes Bay region and learn more about them, their work, and their reading life. We'll also discuss books and share a conversation about something close to their heart.
Hearing directly from Rae and how she has turned her passion into her livelihood is inspirational. She is a true example of having the universe conspire on her behalf when she committed to her purpose.
Read on to learn more about Rae's story and how Zora has made an impact in her life.
Why and when did you start writing?
I have been telling stories for as long as I can remember. My grandfather was my first and favorite audience. He would pick me up from school each day in his pristine white Cadillac and listen to my outlandish stories about made-up events from my day. I remember the plush burgundy interior and the comforting scent of his spearmint Chapstick making me feel so safe. My first stage was that big couch-like backseat. Climbing into it was like entering another world where I mattered most. In fact, I credit my granddaddy's patience and kindness as the reason I still tell stories today. My earliest memory of actually penning stories was between 4th and 5th grade. I wanted to be able to write full books out of the gate as soon as I picked up the pen.
Rae at the Eatonville Library in Eatonville, Florida, Zora’s hometown
Why did you want to write a children's book?
I was a reluctant and highly resistant reader when I was growing up. The third "r" to characterize my feelings about reading is "rebellion." I found it absurd that there weren't Black and brown children who looked and lived like me in books. And I didn't want to read picture biographies of historical figures. I wanted to see little girls and boys who looked like people I knew having the same grand adventures that white characters had. When I didn't see those options, I resisted reading well into adulthood. Add to that the fact that my storytelling wasn’t supported, while reading was constantly celebrated. I grew up feeling that it wasn't fair that only grown-ups' ideas and voices mattered. Still, a big kid at heart who writes across genres, these things are true.
I've found that many underrepresented children feel the same. Unfortunately, many children don’t possess the language or skillset to articulate the crux of their emotions around the reasons they don't read. That's exactly why I write for children. I want them to have multiple layers of representation in the characters, storylines, and the author they are presented. Knowing that children are beyond capable at creating what they want to see, I offer children the opportunity to become storytellers with engagement components at the end of my books.
I also offer a complete creative writing program called Junior Storyteller that teaches children my story creation process. When they have finalized their story, my team turns it into a professionally illustrated book. Teachers and parents rave about the educational and soft skill improvements they see in Junior Storyteller participants.
You have a son, who is five. What do you and your son like to read together? What does he think of your book?
Yes, Cam is seriously amazing. As a building block for targeted literacy-based activities, I have focused a lot on conversation with him. I did this from the time I found out I was pregnant. I think it's important to note the importance of the conversation component because many adults, like my grandfather, are functionally illiterate. There is this misconception that if an adult is illiterate, they can't positively impact a child's scholastic performance and life trajectory. But that isn't true. Conversation is one of the best tools to unlock a person's critical thinking, communication skills, social-emotional intelligence, and more. That means when it's time to read, the experience will be so much richer if conversation has been leveraged. In fact, conversation and storytelling hold hands tightly with Cam's reading experience. We make up stories in our garden, in the grocery store, to pass the time while waiting in the doctor's office, and to calm anxiety at the dentist's office. Cam is currently in gifted kindergarten and tested in the 97th percentile for math and 91st for reading after only a month in school. His preschool teacher assured me last year that it is because of the conversing and storytelling he has been exposed to. Of course, this makes me super proud of him since he started reading pretty fluently this past summer. He has already memorized most of Zora’s Garden and knows tons about Zora Neale Hurston. I love seeing how excited he tells people that his mom writes books and that he is writing one too. (Yes, he indeed is! And much better than me. Haha)
You're a Zora Neale Hurston scholar. How does one become a scholar? What does a scholar do?
I can't really tell you how one becomes a scholar. Becoming a Zora Neale Hurston (ZNH) Scholar for me was completely unexpected. I should also add that I don't fit the common criteria of being university-affiliated or having a Ph.D. Instead, I became a ZNH Scholar through storytelling. It all started when I was invited to give a Black history presentation for Michigan State University in 2018. I was already an independently published children's author. But I still held onto a lot of fear about writing across genres. Luckily, that invitation to present led me to discover Zora Neale Hurston serendipitously when my original plan was to present on Langston Hughes. And that presentation would change everything for me.
During my quick research on Langston, I kept finding these awe-inspiring facts about Zora. I also found myself outraged when I discovered that the two writers were best friends during the Harlem Renaissance. Despite their friendship and shared patronage, Langston certainly had more status. Of the two literary figures, Zora emerged as a treasure trove of inspiration for me and stole the show. I remember asking myself, "Why isn't everybody talking about Zora?" So I decided to become that person. As I began to obsessively study her life and see Zora’s humanness through her accomplishments, my dreams were born. I felt like just learning about Zora was truly a gift for me. I didn’t set out to become a scholar, but I kept getting invited to give lectures about her. Being unexpected with a signature storytelling style caught the eye of Zora's hometown, her family, the Florida Humanities, and even the ZNH Trust. In fact, the library manager in her hometown and the Florida Humanities were the first to tell me I was a ZNH Scholar.
What is it about Zora that pulled you in?
There are so many amazing facts about Zora, but I think, above all else, it's her spirit. Unlike any other historical figure, there is a clear feeling that I get about who Zora indeed was. At this point, I can hear what she might say and gauge her feelings between the lines of the letters she wrote and Zora's facts that I know. Zora had the type of moxie most of us only dream of, which is with great reason. Zora was the most prolific Black woman writer of her time and a trained anthropologist in 1927. She traveled the South and around the world documenting the cultural practices of Black and brown folks respectfully before anyone else had even thought to do it. She risked her life to do it beginning in 1927. Zora was also raised in the first all-Black incorporated municipality in the history of the US. Zora's father helped write many of the town's laws that are still in place today, and he served as mayor three times. If Langston Hughes was the king of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora - his best friend during the great movement - was definitely the Queen of the Harlem Renaissance. Zora's legacy is drenched in authentic existence and a celebration of Black and African diasporic culture throughout time. She showcased her genius across so many mediums and genres. Her spirit lives because of this and so much more. I never grow tired of learning about her and understanding her.
You recently had a once-in-a-lifetime experience with a famous author. Can you tell us about it?
Yes. In another unexpected moment, the Zora Neale Hurston Trust contracted me to interview Dr. Ibram X. Kendi (author of Stamped from the Beginning and other books). His adaptation of Zora's short story Magnolia Flower into a children's book had just been released earlier in September. I was already over the moon to interview the leading voice in antiracist research and talk with him about Zora virtually. But in another layer of kismet, a Philadelphia bookstore was hosting Dr. Kendi the same day I was scheduled to interview him. I had never met the owner but was introduced via email by a mutual acquaintance the same day the interview was confirmed by all the necessary parties. She kindly invited me to be her special guest at the event before I realized that it was for Magnolia Flower. She also didn’t know anything about the interview. I would be lying if I said these occurrences of miraculous coincidences didn't happen often when it comes to my Zora work. This is one took me by great surprise, though. I knew I had to get to Philly for this once in a lifetime moment. So I booked a last-minute flight to Philadelphia, and it was one of the top three most life-changing experiences for me. I interviewed Dr. Kendi at 5:30 p.m. via Zoom, changed my shirt, hopped in an Uber, and headed to the event 30 minutes later. I met him and Loveis Wise (Magnolia Flower illustrator) in the green room and walked down with them for the event. I even got to gift them both a copy of my book, Zora's Garden. Dr. Kendi's copy of Zora's Garden was for his brilliant daughter Imani. I believe the interview will be released on the 2nd of November via the Zora Neale Hurston Trust's social media platforms.
Speaking of visit, you also have visited Zora's birthplace and lectured on her in her hometown? What was your experience like?
I first visited Eatonville on a family trip to Orlando and Daytona Beach in the summer of 2018. I had been gifted the trip by my best friend and his wife, who won the trip on a radio station. They already had a trip planned and couldn't take it. I had just given my first Zora Neale Hurston presentation that February. Honestly, even sharing about Zora's beloved hometown in the presentation didn't make it click that Eatonville was a real place. So when we got to Orlando, and I kept seeing the signs for Eatonville, I couldn't believe it. A detour became mandatory. Visiting the historic town as a tourist then, I wanted to soak up so much about Zora. Unfortunately, I didn't get that while there. But just being there was a gift. It made me feel close to Zora and Eatonville. (Eatonville is Zora's most used setting in her books and short stories.)
I returned in July 2021 as part tourist/part scholar with a plan to do some research all over Florida. At this point, I had read so much about Zora, her anthropological work around Florida, and her books that I could do a great deal of sense-of-place research independently. Plus, I had a few contacts and wanted to meet them in person. This time I felt like Zora cracked Florida wide open for me. I took trips nearly 2 hours away every day and spent time connecting with different stakeholders. I even visited the ZNH Collection in Smathers Libraries at the University of Florida. A month after returning, I discovered that the Eatonville Branch Library had been awarded a Florida Humanities Council grant. The Library planned to host the Zora Neale Hurston: The Storyteller and Her Town Series during the 33rd Annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities. The 3-day, 4-event series featured yours truly as the series scholar and speaker. The trip was a dream, especially when 105 people showed up to the last event for the walking tour I led of Eatonville. Total attendance was more than double that for the entire series.
In June 2022, I returned to do focused research in new territories and to debut my children's book, Zora's Garden, in Eatonville. Amid research travels, I opened the first copy of Zora's Garden at the corner of Zora's favorite place (she lived in many different places) in Eau Gallie. I also gave a Zora Talk and a walking tour of Eatonville. Every time I go, it never feels like enough time, and there is always something new to see or investigate. This last time, it was surreal to have the opportunity to debut my indie-published book in Eatonville and to also go into Matilda Moseley's house for the first time. Mrs. Moseley was Zora's childhood best friend and appears in many of her fiction and nonfiction works.
When you're not studying Zora, what do you like to do?
As you can probably guess by the length of my answers, I write a lot. Haha. It is true, though. I love writing children's stories, poems, articles, and novel manuscripts. I enjoy inviting children into the world of storytelling, which keeps my excitement for the magic of the craft going. Other than that, I am a voracious reader now. And I love gardening, which I decided to try because of Zora. It doesn't happen as much as I would like, but I love lazying around in bed, catching up on shows, and drinking tea. Most of all, I love hanging out with Cam and watching him become his whole self.
What's your favorite Zora book? Non-Zora book?
My favorite fiction book by Zora is Jonah's Gourd Vine, which is mainly biographical about her father, John. Nonfiction is Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo," which relays the first-hand account of the sole survivor of enslavement in the US. My favorite short story is Drenched in Light which is largely biographical of Zora as a little girl. My non-Zora favorites are the Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, How the One Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones, and The Reel by Kennedy Ryan.
How can folks find out more about your work?
Instagram: @raechesny and @juniorstorytellerkids
You can also purchase Zora's Garden at Leopard Print Books.