Hamline News

Alicia D. Williams MFAC ’13 celebrates oral storytelling tradition in new picture book

Photo of author Alicia D. Williams with her book, "Jump at the Sun"

 Alicia D. Williams MFAC ’13 is bringing her love of story to a new format: the picture book.

Her debut picture book, Jump at the Sun: The True Life Tale of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston, chronicles the life of the acclaimed 20th-century writer, folklorist, anthropologist, and storyteller.

Williams was drawn to Hurston’s biography because of the folklorist’s audacity and adventurous spirit. Hurston traveled the south during the time of Jim Crow laws, collecting stories and folktales and earning criticism for her portrayal of the happier side of the Black experience. As an oral storyteller and educator herself, Williams hopes the book will become something kids can read over and over, igniting new interest in the oral storytelling tradition.

“I wanted [to tell the story of] someone that was Black American, but not one that’s necessarily connected to a place of struggle, civil rights, or slavery. Those narratives are important, but I wanted someone who would compel people to have a love of stories,” said Williams.

Nurturing the writer’s spirit

Williams found Hamline’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults at a conference of the Black Storytellers Alliance, where Hamline had a table. Later, author-mentors also suggested she give graduate school a try, prompting her to finally enroll instead of simply talking about writing—kickstarting her writing career.

In the program, Williams gained confidence in her craft and motivating relationships with both mentors and peers. In the beginning, she said, she “didn’t know what she didn’t know.” Now, she’s learned to take note of what works in others’ writing, becoming an active learner and reader.

Williams has fond memories of sitting in writing workshops with her peers, cozy with hot chocolate during the chilly Minnesota winters, feeling both inspired and supported.

“It was such a warm spot. It was beyond writing for me. It was a community,” said Williams. “It was just a beautiful spot because it nurtured the spirit.”

Instructors like Claire Rudolph Murphy, MFAC adjunct instructor, lent a personal touch to Williams’ MFAC experience. Williams recalled Murphy helping her find an editor for the manuscript that became Jump at the Sun. It was these gestures, both big and small, that Williams called the “jewels” of the program that turned the experience into one of growth as a writer and a person.

“You feel so good because they’re giving you these jewels to let you know that your work is valuable,” said Williams.

Her debut middle grade novel, Genesis Begins Again, came out in January 2019. The manuscript that began during Williams’ MFAC journey went on to win a slew of high honors: a 2020 Newbery Honor, 2020 Coretta Scott King-John Steptoe Award for New Talent, and more.

Jump at the Sun, written by Williams and illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara, releases January 12, 2021, from Simon & Schuster. Her next picture book biography, Shirley Chisolm Dared, tells the story of the first Black woman elected to congress; release is scheduled for summer 2021.

Written by Anne Kopas