The Big Idea: Tanita S. Davis

Sometimes people are uprooted and put in new circumstances. How do we adjust, and can we put down new roots that work well enough for us? In her Big Idea, Tanita S. Davis considers this question and how it relates to her YA novel, Peas and Carrots.


There is no super power greater than knowing how to gather friendly, open, likeminded people around us, to use our intention to make our own safe place in the world. But when our relatives are rotten, and intentional choosing isn’t a skill available to us, what do we do then? Eventually, we stop thinking in terms of family, and seek other bonds.

My first teaching job out of college was working one-on-one with students housed courtesy of the State. They were a mixed lot: entitled incorrigibles who had smarted off to a truancy officer one time too many; runaways from intolerable home lives who’d ended up in the sex trade as a means of survival; gang-affiliated kids who looked like hard-faced adults, serving time for being accessories to grand theft and drive-by shootings. They all shared the simple human desire to belong somewhere – for their families to take them back, for the tight group they’d left behind to arrive one day and rescue them from my classroom… Every day that I worked with them, I watched their counselors and therapists and parole officers try to impress upon them the importance of making new connections, of finding different stomping grounds and other things to hold dear.

It was not a message which found a receptive audience. Almost every one of my students had some piece of the past they held onto against all comers, some piece of the world which represented to them all that they’d lost, and all that they would need to make the world right again. And, for almost all of those students, that thing was a representation of family. A location which they defended with fierce neighborhood pride. A faded Polaroid taped to the headboard at every new placement. A ratty old cardigan or piece of baby blanket held onto since childhood.  A tattoo, stick pin applied with charcoal and baby oil; the name of a best-beloved boldly claiming the tender skin of a wrist or forearm. A piece of a past, real or imagined, and long vanished.

Could they realistically be asked to let go of that? Obviously, no. And yet, how could they move into the future if they weren’t willing to let the past go?

What I saw work, during my brief years with these kids, was encouraging them to change perspective. Maybe they couldn’t have the crew they used to run with, but they could find literal running mates elsewhere. Some left the group home and get involved with long-distance running, basketball, tournament teams traveling and learning the feel of that inclusivity in teams. One girl embraced her love of arguing and took a semester to first observe, then begin to participate in her new high school’s debate team. We didn’t always get to see the next chapter in the lives of those with whom we worked, but sometimes we’d get a card or a call, or a social worker would bring back word. The kids who survived the destruction of their networks and didn’t return to the scene of the disaster were those who found and formed new connections, and new ways into what they ultimately wanted the most.

The world can be puzzled by these deliberate connections, these bonds we seek to supplement biology. Your new home may not be where any of you live, and your new family may be made up of what other people would consider strangers on the internet. I remember wheeling my through a crowded Costco shopping center when my sister was less than a year old, and encountering the crooned, “Oh, she’s precious! She looks just like you two!” It was, in this case, both ludicrous and …ludicrously wrong, as my youngest sister is an American of Cambodian ancestry, I’m an American of African ancestry, and my husband’s ancestral leanings are English, Scottish, and Irish. Sooo…maybe not just like us? But, I’m pretty sure that between her eye rolls – she’s nineteen now – and her general mien of disaffected snarkiness, there’s at least a family resemblance.

Peas and Carrots is a book marketed to middle grade/young adult readers and explores intentionally choosing people to love, and accepting each other in spite of our differences. At the end of the day, peas and carrots don’t go together because they grow together –  legumes and umbeliers are vastly different plant families – nor do they look alike or taste alike… They go together because we put them together. And so can we put together a family, too. Maybe blood shapes our earliest parts, but the choices of who we invite into our circles define us further down the road. It’s an absolutely huge idea that we can have some power over our own happiness in finding good, true, family-tested-friends. Love – and family, however we assemble it –  can be a lot simpler than we make it.


Peas and Carrots: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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12 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Tanita S. Davis

  1. Love can be simpler than we make it. But there is no denying that a pea, or princess, will have more choices, and fewer rejections, than a sweetgum ball. Sometimes, particularly cutting experiences can crush a pea. There are an awful lot of crushed isolated peas unable to find and roll up to carrots unassisted. Healthy plants should keep an eye out.

  2. Ouch. First couple of comments here feel pretty hostile, though maybe I’m reading the hostility of 2 into the question of 1.

    There have often been non SF/F works in the Big Idea, and it looks like this is another one.

    [This part deleted for responding to a deleted comment. No worries, 4 Ds — JS]

  3. This one sounds interesting to me, and potentially to a couple of teen relatives who are struggling with some issues involving identity and birth family vs. alternative support networks. I’ll add this to my library list at the very least, and it may wind up on the holiday gift list later this year.

  4. My language was not insulting. If you run a public forum and censor for “jerkiness” then, Sir, the jerk is you! (There is surely some meatier literatur around to recommend. Tell me your books and I tell you who you are).
    How about “Learn how to handle critisism”?

  5. Does the capital S in “Sir” mean you’ve been knighted, Sir Scalzi? Why am I always the last to hear about these things?

    I ordered Peas and Carrots for my library awhile back and it just came in. Looks pretty good. It’s on my ludicrously long to read list, but I might bump it up towards the top since it’s been awhile since I’ve read anything YA. Gotta finish Gentleman Jole And The Red Queen first, though.

  6. I enjoy the fact that all sorts of books are written about here at Whatever and appreciate especially that a title for teens with a diverse cast would receive some mention. Plus, I’ve read Tanita’s other books and she is a great writer – all of you expressing interest in this one will not be disappointed.

    As for what Tanita writes about in her post, I find the exploration of situations where teens would have to develop new networks to be interesting and worthwhile. So many teenagers become lost and feel alone; any book that provides them encouragement to reach out and forge new relationships (even families) is a good thing.

  7. Great to see Tanita Davis featured on The Big Idea — I’m a long-time fan of her work. My favorite is probably Mare’s War, but it’s a tough call and this new one sounds fabulous. (Check out that Elizabeth Wein blurb, after all.) Can’t wait to pick it up!

  8. I’m with Gwenda, Mare’s War is an objectively wonderful book, and I’m eager to see what Davis does with this topic. Regardless of your background, interconnections, finding your touchstones in this world is hard and important. I like the frame she’s set P&C in, and am thrilled to have another diverse, contemporary, title to recommend to my younger library patrons.

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