Meet K. Tempest Bradford, a Black, queer, cis woman (pronouns: she/her), a fantasy and science fiction author who writes tales steeped in Black Girl Magic. In this month’s author spotlight, preview Tempest’s upcoming book Ruby Finley vs. the Interstellar Invasion, publishing on September 29, 2022.
Where did the idea for Ruby and her story come from?
K. Tempest: It all started with a writing game. For years and years I have played something called The Picture Game. Not sure who came up with it; I was introduced to it by other writing friends. The rules are simple: Find an image (photograph, art, sculpture, whatever) that sparks your interest. Set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes. Write whatever you’re inspired to write based on the image. Don’t stop writing until the timer goes off.
I had found a piece of art by Phil Dragash called “Fight With What You Got” that showed a young Black girl fighting a giant red bug-looking thing with a water gun. I saved it until the next time I played the Picture Game. When I did—with my friend Alethea Kontis—I wrote what ended up being the first chapter. I didn’t think it was a first chapter, I thought it might be the beginning of a short story. When I read it to Alethea, she straight up said: You know that’s the beginning of a middle grade book, right?
I denied it at the time because I was working on an entirely different book. But the story and Ruby kept pulling me back and eventually I gave in and started brainstorming what happened next and how we’d get to the scene in the image that inspired me.
Why did you decide to make Ruby an entomologist? You included so many great details about different insects. What was your research process?
K. Tempest: When I started playing the game I figured that I needed a reason why Ruby would pick up the weird bug she finds in her yard instead of leaving it alone or even being grossed out by it. I decided that she must love bugs and wanted to study it, which led to her having an interest in entomology.
When I finally decided to write the book, I kept this aspect because I wanted Ruby to be highly intelligent and love science, which isn’t something I see very often in depictions of young Black girls in media.
That was my motivation for many of the choices I made about Ruby’s world. I wanted to show Black people and Black communities that mirrored my experience, which I don’t often see in books or other media. I decided on a tight-knit community, intergenerational households, loving, involved parents, and kids who form friend groups that aren’t driven by competition or meanness for that reason.
Making Ruby an entomologist did come with some consequences: now I had to learn more about bugs. I don’t like bugs. I’m like the Gramma in the book where I am ready to get out the flyswatter or the bug spray anytime I see one. I had to learn to look at them more the way Ruby would.
When writing the first draft this meant doing some general searches to find insects and bugs that either complimented what was going on in the story or would be easily recognizable if I mentioned them.
During the revising process I needed to come up with an appropriate science fair project for Ruby, so I delved into websites that had suggestions for middle school projects. I found a website that listed the details of all science fair projects submitted in California, which is where the idea for the bee experiment came from. That’s also how I learned how good bees are at tracking scent.
I allowed my curiosity about certain insects and bugs to lead me down research rabbit holes and I ended up learning so much! Some of the info I kind of wish I didn’t know (parasitic wasps are so problematic). Now I have much more respect for and interest in various bugs. In fact, just the other week I gave some of my lunch to a yellow jacket wasp. Normally I would run away, but after my research I understood that she was looking for protein to give the young ones, so I set aside a tiny bit of turkey. She took it and flew away and didn’t sting me. Win!
Do you have a favorite chapter or scene in the book?
K. Tempest: It’s a bit of a spoiler, so I’ll be vague. Toward the climax of the book Ruby and her friends are about to go into a dark basement at an abandoned school. One of them objects, gets voted down by the others, then delivers my favorite line of dialogue I have ever written: If I die, I’m telling all y’all’s ancestors on you.
How do you hope this book will be used in classrooms and libraries?
K. Tempest: I hope the book will kindle interest in science in general by showing a science-loving kid whose view of the world is influenced by it in a fun way.
I also hope it will spark conversations about community and family and the value of having many circles of support. Ruby has her best friends and her extended family and a whole neighborhood she can count on. I had that growing up, and it allowed me to make many of the choices that led to me becoming an author and being able to make a career out of the arts. Whatever path a kid chooses, if they have circles of support, they have a great chance at succeeding.
Tell us about a librarian or educator who made an impact on you.
K. Tempest: My high school band teacher, Mendell Hibbard, was one of the greatest people in the world. I transferred high schools in the middle of my junior year and I wasn’t sure where I was going to find my place among a bunch of students who had known each other for at least three years, often more. He made me feel at home in band right away and counseled me several times throughout the year and change I was at the school.
Ruby’s elementary school teacher Mr. Lewis wasn’t based solely on Mr. Hibbard. Though his style of teaching and mentoring—even outside of school hours—definitely influenced my ideas of what a Good Teacher is and how I wanted to reflect that in fiction.
What advice would you give to young writers?
K. Tempest: I have three big pieces of advice:
First, never stop playing around. One of the things that can happen when you start taking writing seriously is that it can become very serious. You must sit in the chair and hit a wordcount and don’t use adverbs and you have to write a million words of crap but those million words must be in a story or a novel that you publish as soon as possible. All of that is stressful and it’s not going to help you be a writer.
I played a 15 minute writing game with a friend and ended up with a whole novel. Playing around and trying out new (to you) techniques or styles and keeping your mind in the space of playfulness will help you to achieve whatever writing goals you have, so take time for it. It’s also okay to write things that aren’t meant to be seen, you just write them for the experience of doing so.
Second, community is every good writer’s strength. This is true for the community you live in, communities you become part of in school, and communities you join or make as an adult. Whatever kind of writing you do, find other people who also write it. Don’t just find one group, find many. Surround yourself with people who will support you and your dreams and be willing to support them and their dreams, too.
If you’re lucky you’ll find a friend as good as Alethea who will say to you: “You know that’s the beginning of a middle grade book, right?” and will keep saying that until you write the book because she knows that’s what you need to do because she knows you and because she cares.
Third, don’t listen to adults who say that you shouldn’t try to pursue a career in writing (or any other art) because it’s not stable and no one makes any money. If your passion is writing, pursue that passion with your whole self. Just make sure that you develop skills that will help keep you afloat as you work on your writing and start to submit things.
Since leaving college I have been a nanny, a writing teacher, a technology journalist, a web designer, a newsletter editor for a fashion website, a professional blogger, an office manager, and a bunch of other things. Some of those jobs utilized my writing skills. Not all of them. Each job contributed to who I am and to what comes out when I write fiction. All of them kept me housed and fed. None of them overwhelmed my passion, which is for writing.
What was your favorite book when you were a young reader?
K. Tempest: I had a ton! The first that comes to mind is Bunnicula by James and Deborah Howe. I loved the premise of the story about a dog and cat saving their family from a vampire rabbit (he’s not as innocent as he looks!). And when I first read them, I totally fell for the meta story about how it was actually the dog Harold who wrote the book and then dropped it off at the Howe’s door. Harold was very prolific – I think he wrote three of those books!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
K. Tempest Bradford is a science fiction and fantasy writer, writing instructor, media critic, reviewer, and podcaster. Her short fiction has appeared in multiple anthologies and magazines. She’s the host of ORIGINality, a podcast about the roots of creative genius. Her media criticism and reviews can be found on NPR, io9, and in books about Time Lords. When not writing, she teaches classes on writing inclusive fiction through LitReactor and WritingtheOther.com. Ruby Finley vs. the Interstellar Invasion is her children’s debut.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
Ruby Finley vs. the Interstellar Invasion
By K. Tempest Bradford
On Sale 9/27/2022
Ruby Finley vs. the Interstellar Invasion is abackyard adventure-mystery by debut children’s author K. Tempest Bradford, perfect for fans of Clean Getaway, The Last Last Day of Summer, and Sideways School.
Eleven-year-old Ruby is a Black girl who loves studying insects and would do just about anything to be an entomologist, much to the grossed-out dismay of her Gramma. Ruby knows everything there is to know about insects so when she finds the weirdest bug she’s ever seen in her front yard, she makes sure no one is looking and captures it for further study.
But then Ruby realizes that the creature isn’t just a regular bug. And it has promptly burned a hole through her window and disappeared. Soon, random things around the neighborhood go missing, and no one’s heard from the old lady down the street for a week. Ruby and her friends will have to recover the strange bug before the feds do.
Ruby is the science hero we’ve all been waiting for!
PRAISE FOR Ruby Finley vs. the Interstellar Invasion:
Junior Library Guild Selection
“A page-turning mix of science, science fiction, and mystery that will empower readers to pursue their own STEM passions.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Ruby is a fun, smart, and lovably realistic protagonist, well balanced against the different personalities among her friends. Her strength lies in both her capability and her bonds of family, friendship, and community… An entertaining and highly recommended read, perfect for readers who love science and adventure-mysteries.” —Booklist
“Bradford’s entertaining and informative tale highlights the value of scientific and critical thinking as well as the importance of friendship and community.” —School Library Journal
“I inhaled this book in half a day and LOVED every moment! Amazing scientist heroine, alien bug, adventures—this book has it all.” —Yoon Ha Lee, award-winning author of Dragon Pearl
“An action-packed, hilarious, heart-rending story. It is perfect in every way: from Ruby’s dedication to science to her incredible friend group. I am personally ready for Ruby Finley to take over the world.” —Mark Oshiro, award-winning author of The Insiders and You Only Live Once, David Bravo