Let's Talk About It: A Sitting In St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia


Told from multiple points of view, A Sitting in St. James intertwines the story of a white slaveholding family as their position in society begins to slip with the lives of the enslaved at Le Petit Cottage. After serving as mistress of Le Petit Cottage for more than six decades, Madame Sylvie Guilbert has decided to sit for a portrait. What happens next sets off a chain of events that will change everything. Full of tangled bonds, forbidden love, and family secrets this is a powerful work of historical fiction that transports readers to antebellum Louisiana and challenges them to confront America’s brutal past and problematic present.

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2021 Boston Globe-Horn Book Fiction and Poetry Award Winner!!


1. Slavery is a stain on US history, the ramifications of which play out in our society to this day. What can we learn by examining our brutal past through both the viewpoint of the plantation owners and enslaved in stories like A Sitting in St. James?

2. The author starts the prologue with the words “Patience. There is no story without history.” What do you think she means by this? How does this statement relate to both the story of the Guilbert family and to the book’s larger themes?

3. Juliette Boisvert Chatham makes arrangements to leave her daughter, Jane, in the care of Madam Sylvie in one last attempt to bring the girl into polite society. How has Jane’s behavior caused concern for her family? Would any of these concerns be relevant today? When Jane befriends Eugenie, Madam Sylvie declares this a triumph of her teaching. Do you agree?

4. Byron and Rosalie are both the children of plantation Master Lucien Guilbert. Both children must minimize a part of themselves in order to stay in the father’s good graces. How are their circumstances alike and how are they different? How do the ideas of power and privilege factor into their relationship with their father and as heirs of the Guilbert estate?

5. Madam Sylvie is determined to have her portrait painted in the traditional fashion of her ancestors. What does sitting for her portrait represent to her? Despite his ties to Madam Sylvie’s past, Monsieur Le Brun brings many new ideas to the Let Petit Cottage. How does his presence alter things for the Guilbert family?

6. Madam Sylvie clings to the past and her ties to the long disposed French Court. How does her hold on the past cause issues for her family in the present? What parallels can you draw between Madam Sylvie’s wish for things to remain as they are and the slow progress in racial equality we’ve made in our society today?

7. Lucien loves both his daughter Rosalie and his half-brother Henri deeply yet both remain enslaved. How does Lucien reconcile his love for his daughter and brother with the fact that he continues to keep them both as property?

8. The epilogue shows readers what happened to the main players in the story including the Guilberts, Thisbee, Lily, Eugenie, and Jane. Do you consider these to be happy endings? Cite specific reasons for your answer.

9. In her author note, the author speaks about the setting of Louisiana and the diverse history of its culture. What impact does the setting have on this story? How do you think the story would have been different if it were set in a different place? Use examples from the book and history to support your answer.

Click here to read an interview with the author, Rita Williams-Garcia!


"Monumental." —Booklist (starred review)

"A marathon masterpiece."—Kirkus (starred review)

"Necessary."—SLJ (starred review)

"Shocking and dramatic."—Shelf Awareness (starred review)

"Mesmerizing, confounding and vividly rendered."—Book Page (starred review)

"Williams-Garcia’s storytelling is magnificent; her voice honest and authentic."—Horn Book (starred review)


Rita Williams-Garcia’s Newbery Honor Book, One Crazy Summer, was a winner of the Coretta Scott King Author Award, a National Book Award finalist, the recipient of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and a New York Times bestseller. The two sequels, P.S. Be Eleven and Gone Crazy in Alabama, were both Coretta Scott King Author Award winners and ALA Notable Children’s Books. She is also the author of National Book Award finalist Clayton Byrd Goes Underground and six distinguished novels for young adults: Jumped, a National Book Award finalist; No Laughter Here, Every Time a Rainbow Dies (a Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book), Fast Talk on a Slow Track (all ALA Best Books for Young Adults); Blue Tights; and Like Sisters on the Homefront, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Rita Williams-Garcia lives in Jamaica, New York. You can visit her online at www.ritawg.com.