Ronnika (R.J.) Williams is a documentarian and archivist who has used her skills to create her first children’s book, Adventures of Alleykats – The Missing President.
Bonnie Ferrante: Welcome, Ronnika. The seed for becoming an archivist was planted quite early. Can you tell us a little about it?
Williams: Hi Bonnie, Thanks for having me! I was surrounded by historical artifacts/documents growing up, I would say around the age of five is when I became fascinated with old photos. I caught on quickly the importance of preserving them. I know this is going to sound weird, but I would make sure that my parents, and grandparents saved an obituary from every funeral they attended. Why? I loved reading about a person’s life and their family.
Ferrante: Photography/videography is also one of your passions. Where has that led?
Williams: It led me to the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. I’m currently a student there, and it has broadened my awareness of how complex both photography and videography truly is. Before I never cared about lighting, I would just click and shoot, or simply record. Especially when it comes to certain projects I’m working, and with freelance. I’m more critical of the finished product.
Ferrante: Tell me a little about your partnership with “Savvy Sessions” to provide educational tools for elementary students.
Williams: My sister is an elementary school teacher, so this is her baby. She provides the blueprint, and I strive to bring the lessons to life through storytelling. Focusing more on summer activities to keep the students minds sharp all year round.
Ferrante: Your first children’s book, Adventures of Alleykats – The Missing President, is receiving rave reviews. It seems parents and children love it. Why did you choose this topic on which to base a children’s story?
Williams: I was a summer intern at the Museum of Confederacy (Now the American Civil War Museum) in Richmond, VA for three summers. Whenever I would tell people where I worked I would either get weird stares (why are you working there, or what’s that face). I wanted to find a cool way to bring awareness to a place, person, and time in history that’s often omitted from the history books. I’ve always wanted to know all sides of a story. The good, the bad, and the truth!
Ferrante: What strategies did you use to merge factual history and fictional events?
Williams: I still love a good mystery, and adventure. Something that keeps me guessing, so I honestly talked with teachers, and they provided me with books that the children were into these days.
Ferrante: Was there ever a missing President?
Williams: He’s missing from the history books. There’s so much that’s missing from the history books. Hopefully my series can help bridge the gap.
Ferrante: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Williams: I want my readers to have fun while learning. It’s just that simple.
Ferrante: What did you enjoy the most about writing this picture book? The least?
Williams: I love how the story was constantly expanding. I wrote the outline over 3 years ago, while I was in graduate school. Working with the illustrator truly brought the story to life. I would say the least would be the editing process. That was stressful, and a hint of perfectionism was creeping out every time I received a revision.
Ferrante: It seems as though the first book is the beginning of the series. What are your plans for subsequent stories?
Williams: I’m currently working on Book 2. It’s going to be another adventure of course. I want to be able to build upon the series, and provide unforgettable content to be used in classrooms. I want the Alleykats to be a household name.
Ferrante: My deepest condolences on the loss of your father. I read that you promised him three things “before he passed away after a battle with cancer, that she would finish graduate school with high honors, pursue her love of documentary studies, and publish a children’s book series.” It seems that you have fulfilled all of these promises. Where is your journey taking you now?
Williams: Thank you Bonnie!
My journey has led me to give back to my community with my ongoing documentary project. My current photography campaign (final48.org) focuses on stories, and photos of individuals talking about their journey with grief. Even though it is very different from the Alleykats Series, it keeps me writing, and traveling the country collecting the stories. It truly gives me a lot of joy. The type of joy when someone tells me they love “The Missing President.” I know that every decision I’ve made has unlocked another amazing opportunity. Accepting that internship was definitely one of the best decisions I could have made for my professional career. I know that all of my sweat and tears for all of my projects has been worth it.
Ferrante: What were your favorite children’s books growing up? Do you feel they have influenced your writing?
Williams: My parents gave me a book when I was little girl that was full of African American biographies. They were in alphabetical order. I’ve asked my mom has she seen the book lying around in my old room. I’ve moved so much I know it’s in a box at her house. I had to do a book report on W.E.B. DuBois, but I was constantly distracted by the other figures in that book. That goes back to what I said before. I’ve always been fascinated with “the dash” of a person’s life. That book was my Wikipedia back in the day.
I was a HUGE Goosebumps and Nancy Drew fan. I can remember challenging my friends that they couldn’t finish a Goosebumps book in a day. Other than attending summer camps, I would sit in my room, or in the backyard, and READ. I was able to finish a couple of Goosebumps books in a day. Talk about an accomplishment that was before going to middle school.
Ferrante: Is there anything you would like to share that I haven’t asked?
Williams: I love hearing from my readers. I’m in the process of revamping the Alleykats website, but social media is quite active. Feedback is always welcome, and whenever I receive a new Amazon review it totally makes my day!
Ferrante: If snow could fall in any flavor, what flavor would you choose? (Being from Michigan, I assume you get snow.)
Williams: Oh yes, I have a Ph.D in tasting snow, and quite an imagination growing up with my neighborhood friends. I’ve always wanted the snow to taste like the different flavors of KOOL-AID! I would have to choose Lemon-Lime or Cherry. I can’t pick one!
Ferrante: If you could know one fact about every person you ever meet, what particular fact would you want it to be? (Assume that the other person would not have to be aware that you know this fact about them.)
Williams: Their level of optimism. These days I choose to surround myself with people that prefer to encourage, enlighten, and uplift. If there is a problem we are striving to find the solution. What is that person doing to make the world a better place.
Ferrante: If you could have the original of anything in the world, what would you want it to be? (Assume that you would never be allowed to sell it for money; you must simply enjoy it for what it is.)
Williams: I would want the original of my father’s U.S. Army photo. I found his uniform with his plane ticket home in his pocket, and later on found the photo. The photo is damaged inside of the picture frame, so I would want his original draft photo. Nothing in this world could compare to that.
Ferrante: That would be priceless. I lost my father at age 29 so I understand how meaningful these things become.
Thank you, Ronnika, for sharing your thoughtful and open-hearted answers with us today. I look forward to the release of your second Alleykats book. Good luck with all your amazing endeavors.
The Missing President will be reviewed on this blog February 3, 2017.
Note: the three random questions are from “Chat Pack – Fun Questions to Spark Conversations”.