Interview with Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich


About the author: “Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich is the author of several children’s books, including Operation Sisterhood, It Doesn’t Take A Genius, 8th Grade Superzero, and Two Naomis, co-authored with Audrey Vernick, which was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. Her nonfiction books include Someday Is Now: Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-Ins, Saving Earth: Climate Change and the Fight for Our Future, The Sun Does Shine, Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow, picture books, easy readers, and more. She is a member of the Brown Bookshelf, and editor of the We Need Diverse Books anthology The Hero Next Door. She’s a Jamaican Nigerian New Yorker who lives with her family in NYC where she writes, makes things, and needs to get more sleep.” (Bio from the author.)

Find Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich on the following platforms:

A huge thank you to Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich for taking the time to do an interview with us at Pine Reads! Her newest middle-grade novel Operation Sisterhood is out now, and be sure to check out our review of Operation Sisterhood here!

Bethany Harrison & Erika Brittain: To start our interview, we would like to say thank you so much for talking to us about Operation Sisterhood! This is your newest middle-grade book, released on January 4th by Crown Books For Young Readers, and we loved this story so much! Have you gotten the time to celebrate this book release? If so, what did you do?

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich: One of the best things I got to do was record a “table read” with some friends and family. I wrote a script version of the scene where Bo first meets the whole family, and we recorded together over Zoom. The cast included biological and author family:  my daughter Adedayo Perkovich, a musician and poet; my sister Kikelomo Amusa-Shonubi, a crochet artist; Dhonielle Clayton ( The Marvellers); Lamar Giles (The Last Mirror on the Left); Torrey Maldonado (What Lane?); Brittany J. Thurman (Fly), and Laura Pegram, founder and editor of Kweli Journal. It was so, so much fun! I’m blessed to know such great talents and good sports.

BH & EB: A major part of this story revolves around Bo, Sunday, Lil, and Lee forming a band. You had your own brush with musical stardom with your band “GLOSS”, and there are so many great musicians mentioned throughout the story. Are there any musicians from the book that are a particular favorite? 

ORP: Ooh, it’s hard for me to even remember, I tried to pack so many in there! I think there are some like Hazel Scott and Louis Armstrong, whose activism I learned about as an adult, that are dear to my heart. But really, all of them! If they’re in there, it’s because I love, respect, and appreciate their artistry and their story so much.

BH & EB: Talking about Bo, Sunday, Lil, and Lee, the sisters all have such vibrant individual personalities! How did you come up with each one’s unique voice and presence?

ORP: It’s one of my favourite parts of the writing process (along with revision), creating characters. They tend to be very vivid early on, and I walk with them, live with them, have internal conversations with them for a long time before I even start writing. I think that when I think about their relationships with others, with themselves, with their environment, that’s what helps me create and deepen my characters (I hope.)

BH & EB: Our protagonist Bo is very resistant to change, especially adjusting to life with the “Dwyer-Saunders clan”. Being an adult now, how has your own relationship to change affected the way you portrayed an 11-year-old facing new problems?

ORP: I think Bo’s very smart – she knows what works for her, so it makes sense to want to keep it going. She also knows what brings her discomfort, and as “fun” as her family may seem, there are things about their life that are not right for her, and that’s OK. Bo is figuring out when to take risks, and to be flexible, and when to assert herself and set clear boundaries. I’m better at it than I used to be, but I’m still navigating that on a daily basis.

BH & EB: Bo connects with her new family through baking, and we get to read one of her recipes at the end of the book. Adding the recipe for the “Sunshine Surprise Smilecake” was such a great touch that made the book feel even more real! Where did the recipe come from?

ORP: I have a very large (mostly vintage) cookbook collection, and I love reading recipes, but I rarely actually follow them. I read to learn about what flavors work together, how certain food categories work, etc. I like to play around with food and flavor a lot. So I think that recipe started from a few different very basic plain cake recipes. I knew that I wanted to use yogurt in it, and I’d recently discovered freeze-dried fruit and how it can add intense flavor to frosting, so I knew that I wanted to do a berry cream cheese frosting. I was also focusing on coming up with something pretty simple, versatile, up for experimentation…very kid-friendly.

BH & EB: In your Author’s Note, you say that many of the girls’ adventures in the book are inspired by memories of your own adventures with your own sister. What was it like to revisit parts of your childhood as you wrote?

ORP: Oh, it was lovely, it gave me lots of opportunities to laugh with friends and family -– and the laughter was such much-needed good medicine.

BH & EB: Also in your Author’s Note, you mention that you wanted the book to express the “Black love and joy” that you felt through life. Do you have a favorite moment in the book that illustrates this?

ORP: I think that might be the scene of Bo’s first dinner/sleepover, when they’re in the living room singing and dancing along to soca. Soca was our Saturday morning cleaning soundtrack, and I also have fond memories of dancing with my mom and other family members to Boney M’s “Brown Girl In The Ring” and we’d take turns being that “Brown Girl” in the center, getting hyped by other family members. The Block Party also reminds me of the many, many NYC festivals, parades, block parties, etc, that we enjoyed…Oh! And the “presentations” that the girls do are a lot like the ones we did, like the reluctant performances at holiday gatherings, or the “persuasive” essays/speeches that I’d sometime have to do in order to make a case to my dad about some event or activity that I wanted to do. 

The OS family “freeschools” —  the parents want to raise the girls to be “free within themselves,” to paraphrase Langston Hughes—to love who they are, know they are loved as they are, and be fully who they can be. Even though I was not officially homeschooled and went to a lot of different types of schools, my parents, and many of the other Black parents we knew, believed in a kind of schooling outside of the school building, the kind that meant doing interpretive dances to “Young, Gifted, and Black” at annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfasts, reciting the poems of Claude McKay in after school programs, and memorizing the countries of the African continent with a puzzle.

Really, just the whole vibe of being loved, challenged, encouraged to be creative and curious, and to make the most of the world that I’m in – that’s the spirit that I drew from.

BH & EB: The book is written in a very sensory way—the big colorful brownstone, the sunny, green community garden, the girls’ projects. Were there people or places in your life that inspired these things?

ORP: Yes, absolutely. For instance, the garden was very much inspired by the JD Wilson Community Garden in Harlem. I first visited it more than ten years ago, invited by a friend. We barbecued there, and people came by and hung out, some stayed, some didn’t, and I was struck by the laid-back, all are welcome vibe that was very different from the community garden in my Brooklyn neighborhood at the time. Then not too long ago, I ended up living right around the corner from that same garden, and was part of a CSA there, and it still has that same “Come in, Join Us, Be You and Be With Us As Much Or As Little As You Want” vibe. Not too manicured, with a sense of joy and respect for community. And there’s a “cat clubhouse” which I thought was very cool.

BH & EB: In addition to a great cast of human characters, there are so many loveable furry, feathery, and scaly friends in this book. What was the appeal of having both human and animal characters in this story? How did that change the family dynamic?

ORP: Oh, that was just fun (though maybe not for everyone in the family!). I’m a cat person (shout out to Batman, who’s right next to me as I type), but I love lots of animals, my daughter spent many summers at zoo and aquarium camps, and I love the way libraries have opportunities to read to dogs, etc. Animal Haven here in NYC was the inspiration for Beauty of the Beast. I’m working on a story about a school library therapy cat who also happens to be a detective. ☺  I’m obsessed with some wonderful IG accounts, like Center One Therapy and The Daily Steve B. After I read A Ring of Endless Light and visited many aquariums as a kid, I wanted to be a marine biologist for a little while. I still love learning about the animal-related work that scientists to, especially some of the Black women and other women of color like Drs. Rae Wynn-Grant, Asha de Vos, Ayanna Elizabeth Johnson, Kakani Katija…I love the ways that they work at the intersection of science and social justice.

BH & EB: Going off that, one of the cats is named Mrs. Pilkington. You also have a blog called “mrs. pilkington knits”. So we have to ask, is there a story behind this nickname?

ORP: Ha! It’s an obscure reference to a moment on an old animated show called The Critic that involved a sophisticated talking T-Rex who spoke of assuming “odd jobs under the name Mr. Pilkington.” (Watch a clip here!) When I started my craft blog, I wasn’t comfortable using my actual name, so…yeah.

BH & EB: This isn’t your first pandemic-published/worked on book. It Doesn’t Take a Genius (Six Foot Press) released in April 2021, and you have a lot of exciting upcoming works in the next year. What insights or advice do you have for other writers who are doing what they love in a time of major change and uncertainty? 

ORP: I’d say be generous and flexible with yourself. Be kind and forgiving to yourself. Take that attitude and extend it to others. Know in your heart that this isn’t “easy” work, even if it’s the thing you know in your heart that you are meant to do, even in the best of times, and we are definitely not in the best of times. Other people’s rules may not work for you, and that’s OK. Or they might work for a little while, and then something will have to change. Connect with your writing community or that one writing buddy where you can just talk story and life, and sit and write, and also just struggle and be without judgment. And sometimes it helps to remind yourself of what got you started on this path in the first place – for me, it’s reading, listening to, and watching familiar favourites.

BH & EB: And lastly, can you tell us a bit about your upcoming written works? Or any fun personal projects you have going on?

ORP: I have a trio of nonfiction projects on the way this Spring: SAVING EARTH: Climate Change and the Fight for Our Future in April, MAE MAKES A WAY: The True Story of Mae Reeves, Hat and History Maker, and THE SUN DOES SHINE (Young Readers Edition): An Innocent Man, A Wrongful Conviction, and the Long Path to Justice. And I have a YA novel, and an I Can Read coming up as well. 

I have some knitting and puppet/toy projects that I’m working on, just for myself – those are always fun. And I’m working on an Operation Sisterhood sequel!

PRR Writers, Bethany Harrison & Erika Brittain