February 25, 2022
Brittany Thurman Gets Ready to “Fly”
By Pam Wigley
Anything is possible with the support of friends and family, even learning how to double Dutch jump rope. That’s the message author Brittany J. Thurman hopes children absorb from her new book, “Fly,” and it’s a message that’s guided Brittany her whole life.
Brittany, who earned her MFA in dramatic writing from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama in 2013, grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, where she now resides. When she was just a first-grader, she wrote her first story, “A Girl Goes on a Walk.” She still has that story, and she shares it with students during school visits before reading her current works to them.
“I was encouraged by my mother (Tia) and my grandmother (Frances or ‘Gran-Gran’),” Brittany says. “Both were always supportive of the things I wanted to do, like studying abroad for undergrad and choosing writing as a career. But they both had a way of keeping things in check, in perspective. I didn’t have many women of color as role models outside the home, so I hope to be that for little girls now.”
Now, she said, she looks to authors like Mildred Taylor (“Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry”), Sharon G. Flake (“The Skin I’m In,” “The Life I’m In”) and Jacqueline Woodson (“This Is the Rope,” “Brown Girl Dreaming”) for inspiration. She said she wishes that, as a child, she had known of them, “because their work is honest, transparent, real … the characters speak for themselves.” Still, Brittany had her own influence — second-grade teacher, Miss Downey, who was one of the only African American teachers she had.
“She was more like a grandmother to me,” Brittany says. “She was supportive of me just walking through the door of Schaffner Elementary School every single day. I’m shy by nature, and Miss Downey was a ‘hug’ that let me know it was OK for me to just be me.”
Brittany early on also grew to love and appreciate the theater. She combined her interests when she studied abroad at Kingston University in London, where she majored in theory of theater. A professor there, Dr. Alex Mermikides, encouraged her to think about becoming a playwright. So, when she returned to the United States, Brittany researched dramatic writing MFA programs and placed Carnegie Mellon at the top of her list.
"For me, it is important for kids to know what they can do. To know that their dreams are within reach, no matter what those dreams may be. I wanted them to close this book with eagerness, joy and a new motivation to go forward and approach what they want. But I also want them to know that, often, things take work. It’s OK to keep trying, keep reaching. Each try is a step forward."
Once at CMU, Brittany found inspiration in School of Drama Professor Rob Handel, and she shared her dream of writing for children. He suggested she become involved in a program called Growing Theater at CMU, overseen by then current Head of the School of Drama, Anne Mundell. Through the program, Brittany visited elementary students and taught them about the theater. That experience led her to be comfortable visiting classrooms, and she quickly developed a sensitivity to the children.
“I never know what they are experiencing at home — if they are being read books that truthfully reflect the world in which we live. So, I often think about that and how children’s literature expands worlds right from the lap,” she said. “I don’t know if there is someone coming into the classroom with a different point of view from their own. Someone who can show and read an array of books that are vast in characters, setting, dialogue and writing.
“This is why I strive to continue visiting classrooms and schools as an author, just as I did when working in early literacy,” Brittany says. “I always want to be as open and honest as possible. I want to show that being an author is most definitely a path, especially for young Black children. But it has been a climb to get here. I want them to get thinking about the stories they are living today. Stories and experiences will stay with them throughout their lives. It all matters. It all has meaning.”
Now working as a full-time children’s book author, she reflects back on her time at CMU. Although it was challenging, she wouldn’t change the course of history.
“I don’t know that I would be a writer for children if it weren’t for Carnegie Mellon. I feel the rigor of the program during the first year helped hone my skills today,” she says. “I always think about the fact that I wasn’t sure if I could continue. I had severe doubt and worry during my first year that I wasn’t cut out to write. But I’m big on reflection and realized quickly that sticking through that doubt was what led me to where I am at this moment. I say to current students, ‘Just stick with it.’ No matter what that it is.”
In her daily work, she remembers aspects of what she learned while at the School of Drama and uses that knowledge regularly to write today. The experience of being immersed in the world of theater, plays, writing for the stage, in community with actors, directors and designers — all have combined to fill her writing process. At Carnegie Mellon, while revising a play that felt as absurd as Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot,” she remembers sharing the piece with Handel.
“He told me that it was one of my best works," Brittany says. "While the revision process was tedious, I realized that revisions would become the best instrument for me to use while writing any work. It was a tool for me to stop scratching the surface and to get to the truth of the story I was trying to tell. I think I revise much better than I write.”
She advises current students and recent alumni who want to make their own mark in either writing or the entertainment industry to “read everything” they can.
“No matter what degree you’re pursuing, read about or research the people who are already doing the work,” Brittany says. “Reach out to them. Ask for help. Ask the questions that you don’t know how to get an answer to. The right ones will always try to give back.”
Currently on a tour promoting “Fly,” Brittany is excited to share its message with children ages 4-8. Illustrated by artist Anna Cunha (“A Story about Afiya”), the book follows 5-year-old Africa, who dreams of competing in double Dutch. Through the help of her community and inspiration from her grandmother, Africa fulfills her dream while recognizing the ability she has had within her all along.
“The ultimate reward for me for 'Fly' would be to get this book into the hands of as many kids as possible,” Brittany says. “Reading and early literacy have always had a grasp on my life. From my grandmother buying me my favorite books as a kid, to now. For me, it is important for kids to know what they can do. To know that their dreams are within reach, no matter what those dreams may be. I wanted them to close this book with eagerness, joy and a new motivation to go forward and approach what they want. But I also want them to know that, often, things take work. It’s OK to keep trying, keep reaching. Each try is a step forward.”