Wesley, Valerie Wilson 1947-
WESLEY, Valerie Wilson 1947-
PERSONAL: Born November 22, 1947; married Richard Wesley (a screenwriter and playwright); children: two daughters. Education: Howard University, B.A., 1970; Bank Street College of Education, M.A.; Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, M.A.
CAREER: Scholastic News, associate editor, 1970-72; Essence, New York, NY, began as travel editor, 1988, became senior editor, 1990, became executive editor, 1992-94, contributing editor, 1994—; writer. Member of board of directors, Newark Arts Council, Newark, NJ.
AWARDS, HONORS: Griot Award, New York chapter of National Association of Black Journalists; Best Book for Reluctant Readers citation, American Library Association, c. 1993, for Where Do I Go from Here?; Shamus Award nomination, c. 1994, for When Death Comes Stealing; named author of the year, Go Go, Girls book club; Award for Excellence in Adult Fiction from Black Caucus of the American Library Association, 2000, for Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do.
(With Wade Hudson) Afro-Bets Book of Black Heroes from A to Z: An Introduction to Important Black Achievers for Young Readers, Just Us Books (East Orange, NJ), 1988.
Where Do I Go from Here? (young adult novel), Scholastic (New York, NY), 1993.
Freedom's Gifts: A Juneteenth Mystery (juvenile), illustrated by Sharon Wilson, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1997.
Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do (novel), Avon (New York, NY), 1999.
Willimena and the Cookie Money (juvenile), Hyperion (New York, NY), 2001.
Always True to You in My Fashion (novel), Morrow (New York, NY), 2002.
"TAMARA HAYLE" MYSTERY NOVELS:
When Death Comes Stealing, Putnam (New York, NY), 1994.
Devil's Gonna Get Him, Putnam (New York, NY), 1995.
Where Evil Sleeps, Putnam (New York, NY), 1996.
No Hiding Place, Putnam (New York, NY), 1997.
Easier to Kill, Putnam (New York, NY), 1998.
The Devil Riding, Putnam (New York, NY), 2000.
Contributor of fiction to periodicals, including Essence, New York Times, Ms., Family Circle, Creative Classroom, and TV Guide.
SIDELIGHTS: Valerie Wilson Wesley's contribution to literature includes books for children and young adults, as well as adult relationship novels and mysteries. What unifies the whole of Wesley's work is that she writes from an African American perspective for a primarily African American audience. Her detective novels feature an African American heroine who is a single mother, and her relationship novels explore the dynamics of African American families. To quote a contributor to Contemporary Black Biography, Wesley excels in depicting a "literary character representing the millions of smart, tough, single African American mothers who live in big cities all over America."
A former senior editor with Essence magazine, Wesley wrote her first book with Wade Hudson. Afro-Bets Book of Black Heroes from A to Z: An Introduction to Important Black Heroes was reviewed by Sylvia Meisner of School Library Journal, who noted that the book satisfied an increasing demand for new information on African American leaders and celebrities. Her next book was a more personal one, based upon the experiences of her own family members. Where Do I Go from Here? tells the story of Nia, a young black female who receives a scholarship to a prestigious white boarding school and tries to find her place there. When a racially based fight causes Nia and a wealthy white peer to be suspended from the school, Wesley creates a situation which reviewer Kim Carter, in a review for Voice of Youth Advocates, called a success in "portraying the human similarities that cross racial and economic distinctions."
It was with her "Tamara Hayle" series that Wesley found a niche for her creative talents. Tamara Hayle is a street-smart private detective in Newark, New Jersey, who solves crimes in the seedier sections of that city and some of its neighboring towns. The contributor to Contemporary Black Biography wrote: "Tamara Hayle is a character who is instantly identifiable to her admiring audience of African American women. . . . Any single parent . . . will sympathize with Hayle, an ex-cop whose resignation from the force can be laid at the door of a fellow officer guilty of harassing a car full of black teenagers, Hayle's son Jamal among them." According to an article in American Visions, mystery writing such as Wesley's has contributed to a rising trend that features black authors publishing mysteries with black characters. As a result, the article noted, "the American fictional detective is changing." Throughout the series, Wesley places Hayle in a number of life-threatening situations from which she must save herself by using her wits, strength, and courage.
In the first mystery of the series, When Death Comes Stealing, Hayle investigates the murders of several sons of her ex-husband, fearing that her own son is next. A Publishers Weekly critic noted that while Wesley's adult fiction debut revealed little of Hayle's character, the author had created "a broad, interesting cast." The reviewer added that the book's strength lay in "its portrayal of black family life in dangerous times." A critic for Kirkus Reviews commented that Hayle's "descriptions of other characters are quick and often funny, even in grim situations. . . . Her colorful personality and cultural insight spice up a serviceable plot."
Wesley's second book in the series, Devil's Gonna Get Him, places protagonist Hayle in a situation where she is hired to follow the boyfriend of the daughter of a wealthy and powerful African American Newark man, Lincoln Storey. Hayle is reluctant to trail the boyfriend, who is a former lover, but through a number of events and twists, ends up delving into Storey's dirty past and becoming the target of danger herself. Stuart Miller, in a review for Booklist, declared: "Wesley has crafted an intriguing plot showcasing the appealing Tamara." A Publishers Weekly critic was less enthusiastic about the plot, but commented that the author's "characterization is powerful; the down-to earth observations of single-mother Tamara . . . amply fill out the thin spots." A Kirkus Reviews commentator also praised Wesley's characterization of Hayle, and commented that "her unapologetically plainspoken voice . . . makes this tale as memorable as her debut."
Where Evil Sleeps features Hayle solving mysteries and putting herself in dangerous situations in Jamaica. On vacation in Kingston, Hayle is persuaded to accompany a friend and her husband to a seedy bar for drinks. While there, a power outage allows someone to steal Hayle's purse and murder her friend's husband and another man. Though an old friend surfaces to remove Hayle from the events surrounding the crime, she eventually finds herself again embroiled in sleuthing.
A fourth book in the series, No Hiding Place, is driven, according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, more by "Wesley's compassion for the people of inner-city Newark than by her plotting." Nonetheless, the story—which features murder, suicide, old flames, and troubled teenagers—takes a look at the impact of the rise of a new African American middle class and how it relates to the poorer inner-city. A critic for Kirkus Reviews also commented that the novel's strength lay its "sharp, subtle portrait of two families whose tangled relationship packs a world of insight into a single painful case." The Publishers Weekly reviewer praised Hayle's "consistently sharp, honest voice" for its ability to drive the novel as it explores "complex social issues." Booklist correspondent Stuart Miller wrote that Wesley's depiction of urban ghetto life had the "ring of authenticity," adding "there is not a shred of sentimentality in this story's grim but ultimately satisfying resolution."
A fifth Tamara Hayle mystery, Easier to Kill, features Mandy Magic, a popular and successful radio personality. After finding herself the victim of tire slashings, graffiti, and anonymous notes, Mandy hires Hayle to investigate. As Hayle checks out these seemingly small crimes, she realizes that Mandy's past holds damaging secrets, including time she spent working as a prostitute. The Devil Riding also explores the dangers of prostitution as Hayle searches for a runaway teenager in Atlantic City. The determined sleuth plumbs the depths of that city's crime rings, only to discover ties between hardened criminals and the parents of the missing teen. A Publishers Weekly reviewer cited The Devil Riding for a "stellar cast of peripheral characters and a gripping plot." Stuart Miller in Booklist likewise praised the "solid characterizations . . . well-realized setting, and authentic depiction of teenage runaways."
Wesley has also written for young adults and children. Freedom's Gifts: A Juneteenth Story, illustrated by Sharon Wilson, addresses racial issues and the African American fight for freedom in a context that can be appreciated by young and older readers alike. The story, set in 1943 Texas, refers to the celebration of "Juneteenth": June 19th, the anniversary of Texas black slaves' freedom in 1865. Two young protagonists from New York visit their great-great-aunt in Texas, who moves them with her tale of slavery and subsequent freedom. Ironically, segregation is still a reality in the 1943 setting, prompting the aunt to remind the children that there is still more freedom to fight for. A Publishers Weekly critic called the story "sophisticated and distinctive" and praised Wesley's treatment of a "sensitive and important subject." Willimena and the Cookie Money begins with a dilemma: Willimena Thomas has spent the money she collected selling Girl Scout cookies and is now expected to turn it over to the scouts. In vain she and her sister try to raise the funds in other ways, but in the end she has to confess to her parents—and only then does she reveal how she used the cash. A Publishers Weekly reviewer deemed the work a "snappy novel . . . ideal for beginning and reluctant readers."
Although she loves to write about Tamara Hayle and plans more books in the series, Wesley has lately begun to pen relationship novels that take a realistic look at changing family dynamics over time. In Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do, forty-year-old Eva must adjust to life after her longtime husband leaves her. Eva begins a love affair with a younger man but must then cope with her children's response to her changing situation. Lillian Lewis in Booklist called the novel "a heartwarming tale" with "compelling turning points." Always True to You in My Fashion is set in the black artists' community in Manhattan and details the romantic dalliances of art dealer Randall Hollis who juggles lovers because he cannot commit himself to a monogamous relationship. Not only does Wesley explore the disappointments of Randall's many love interests, but she also examines the family history that has led Randall into his plight. Black Issues Book Review contributor Lynda Jones found the work "a page-turning delight" in which Wesley "winningly details the stupid choices that smart women continually make when it comes to trifling men."
Wesley told Black Issues Book Review that she enjoys creating fictional characters who are middle-aged and successful—at least in their work. "I just write characters that I can connect to, and that I can enjoy writing and learning about," she said. "The reality is, the older we get, the richer we become and often, but not always, the wiser. This is an area I'm interested in, this is what I know, this is what I'm learning."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 18, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Heising, Willetta L, Detecting Women 2, Purple Moon Press (Dearborn, MI), 1996-97.
Who's Who among African Americans, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
American Visions, April-May, 1997, pp. 18-21.
Armchair Detective, fall, 1994, p. 495; fall, 1995, p. 463; fall, 1996, p. 499.
Black Enterprise, August, 1982, pp. 39-44.
Black Issues Book Review, November-December, 2002, Lynda Jones, review of Always True to You in My Fashion and "BIBR Talks to Valerie Wilson Wesley," p. 26.
Booklist, December 15, 1993, p. 748; March 15, 1994, p. 1361; June 1, 1994, pp. 1775, 1787; July, 1995, pp. 1862-1863, 1869; May 1, 1997, p. 1468; August, 1997, p. 1884; August, 1999, Lillian Lewis, review of Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do, p. 2031; May 1, 2000, Stuart Miller, review of The Devil Riding, p. 1625.
Book Report, January, 1994, p. 50.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June, 1997, p. 378.
Children's Book Review Service, February, 1994, p. 121; spring, 1997, p. 145.
Emerge, June, 2000, Sheree R. Thomas, review of TheDevil Riding, p. 70.
Essence, February, 1994, p. 121; October, 1999, Martha Southgate, "No Business Like Wesley's Business," p. 76.
Horn Book Guide, spring, 1994, p. 92.
Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1993, p. 1531; May 15, 1994, p. 670; June 1, 1995, p. 744; July 15, 1996, p. 1010; August 1, 1997, p. 1164.
Kliatt, May, 1995, p. 53; July, 1996, p. 16.
Library Journal, July, 1994, p. 132; November 1, 1999, Ann Burns and Emily J. Jones, review of Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do, p. 103.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 14, 1994, p. 7.
Ms., July, 1995, p. 75.
New York Times Book Review, June 22, 1997, pp. 102-103.
Publishers Weekly, November 8, 1993, p. 79; May 23, 1994, p. 80; May 22, 1995, p. 50; April 15, 1996, p. 63; July 15, 1996, p. 59; March 31, 1997, p. 75; July 7, 1997, p. 53; May 1, 2000, review of The Devil Riding, p. 53; June 18, 2001, review of Willimena and the Cookie Money, p. 81.
Rapport, June, 1996, p. 24.
School Library Journal, December, 1988, p. 117; November, 1993, pp. 126-127; June, 1997, pp. 102-103; August, 2001, Barbara Auerbach, review of Willimena and the Cookie Money, p. 166.
Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 1994, p. 375.
Washington Post Book World, August 21, 1994, p. 6; August 18, 1996, p. 8.
Valerie Wilson Wesley Home Page,http://www.TamaraHayle.com/ (November 24, 2002).*