Hansen, Joyce 1942–
Hansen, Joyce 1942–
(Joyce Viola Hansen)
Born October 18, 1942, in New York, NY; daughter of Austin Victor (a photographer) and Lillian (Dancy) Hansen; married Matthew Nelson (a musician), December 18, 1982. Ethnicity: "Black." Education: Pace University, B.A. (English), 1972; New York University, M.A. (English education), 1978.
Home—19 Dongan Pl., New York, NY 10040. Office—P.O. Box 3462, West Columbia, SC 29171. Agent—c/o Walker and Co., 720 5th Ave., New York, NY 10019.
Educator and writer. Board of Education, New York, NY, teacher of reading and English, 1973–95; Empire State College, Brooklyn, NY, mentor and teacher, 1987–95.
PEN, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Harlem Writers Guild.
Parents' Choice literature citation, 1986, for Yellow Bird and Me; Coretta Scott King Honor Book designation, American Library Association (ALA), 1987, for Which Way Freedom?; Children's Book Award, African Studies Association, 1995; Coretta Scott King Honor Book designation, ALA, 1995, for The Captive, 1998, for I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly, and 1999, for Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York's African Burial Ground; National Parenting Publications Award, 1998, and Carter G. Woodson Honor Book designation, National Council for the Social Studies, 1999, both for Women of Hope.
The Gift-Giver, Houghton Mifflin/Clarion (New York, NY), 1980.
Home Boy, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 1982.
Yellow Bird and Me (sequel to The Gift-Giver), Clarion Books (New York, NY), 1986.
Which Way Freedom?, Walker (New York, NY), 1986, published as Which Way to Freedom, 1991.
Out from This Place (part of history series for young adults), Walker (New York, NY), 1988.
The Captive, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1994.
I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1997.
The Heart Calls Home (sequel to Out from This Place), Walker (New York, NY), 1999.
One True Friend, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 2001.
Between Two Fires: Black Soldiers in the Civil War (part of "African-American Experience" series), F. Watts (New York, NY), 1993.
(With Gary McGowan) Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York's African Burial Ground, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1998.
Women of Hope: African Americans Who Made a Difference, foreword by Moe Foner, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.
Bury Me Not in the Land of Slaves, F. Watts (Danbury, CT), 2000.
(With Gary McGowan) Freedom Roads: Searching for the Underground Railroad, Cricket Books (Chicago, IL), 2003.
African Princess: The Amazing Lives of Africa's Royal Women, Jump at the Sun/Hyperion/Madison Press (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to Utah Education Quality Indicators by David E. Nelson, Utah State Office of Education (Salt Lake City, UT), 1983.
Work in Progress
A young-adult novel; a middle-grade historical novel, the first in a six-book series about an African-American pioneer family; a chapter book for younger children.
Joyce Hansen is the author of children's novels that have been praised for their convincing depiction of black children in both contemporary and historical settings. Her first three novels—The Gift-Giver, Yellow Bird and Me, and Home Boy—feature the lives of children living in New York's inner city, while Which Way Freedom? and Out from This Place dramatize the experiences of young blacks during the time of the U.S. Civil War, slavery, and Reconstruction. An English teacher working in New York City schools, Hansen strives for realistic settings in her books, in addition to authentic dialect and lively storytelling, as a way to reach out to young readers with positive messages of support and guidance. "I take writing for children very seriously," she once related to SATA. "So many children need direction—so many are floundering. I write for all children who need and can relate to the things I write about—the importance of family, maintaining a sense of hope, and responsibility for oneself and other living things."
Hansen was born in 1942 in New York City, and grew up in a Bronx neighborhood that provided many of the experiences in her first novel, The Gift-Giver. During her girlhood, as she recalled, "New York City neighborhoods were thriving urban villages that children could grow and develop in." In the Gift-Giver, which describes a foster child who positively influences others with his caring nature, Hansen recreates the secure atmosphere of immediate and extended family that she experienced as a young girl. In doing so, she also emphasizes the positive forces at work within inner cities that counter such perils as poverty, violence, and drugs. "We forget that there are many people in our so-called slums or ghettos that manage to raise whole and healthy families under extreme conditions," Hansen once commented to SATA. "Not every story coming out of the black communities of New York City is a horror story."
Hansen was influenced to become a writer by both her mother and father who provided, as she once described, an atmosphere "rich in family love and caring." Her mother, who once had aspirations to become a journalist, passed on to Hansen an appreciation for books and reading. "She grew up in a large family during the depression and though she was intelligent and literate she couldn't even finish high school because she had to work," Hansen remembered. "She was my first teacher." From her father, a photographer from the Caribbean, Hansen learned the art of storytelling. "He entertained my brothers and me with stories about his boyhood in the West Indies and his experiences as a young man in the Harlem of the '20s and '30s," she once commented. "I also learned from him to see the beauty and poetry in the everyday scenes and 'just plain folks' he captured in his photographs."
Hansen received a bachelor's degree from Pace University in 1972, followed several years later by a master's degree from New York University. In 1973, she began a career teaching in New York City schools, where she worked at one time as a special education instructor for adolescents with reading disabilities. Through her teaching work, which predominantly involves black and Hispanic students, Hansen became aware of the positive results to be gained by providing students with literature they could identify with. "Literature can be a great teacher, yet large numbers of Black and other youngsters of color never have a chance to explore themselves or their lives through the literary process," she stated in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin. "All children need sound, solid literature that relates to their own experiences and interests," she added, especially those "children who, for whatever reason, have learning difficulties."
Hansen's own work as a children's novelist has been greatly influenced by her students. "Though I often complain that I don't have enough time to write because I teach, if I didn't teach, I wouldn't have been moved to write some of the stories I've created thus far," she stated in Horn Book. Describing her students as her "muse," Hansen added in Horn Book that, as is the case with the innovative nicknames derived by her students, she is "influenced by their creativity—the way they twist, bend, enliven, deconstruct, and sometimes even destroy language; their loves, hates, fears, feelings, and needs filter into my writing." While Hansen's objectives as a reading teacher propel a major part of her writing, she maintains the necessity of relating stories that students like her own would respond to. Hansen tests her writing by asking, as she recounted in Horn Book,"what I am going to do … to make a reluctant reader want to read [a story]…. I imagine I hear Tatoo whispering in my ear, 'Miss Hansen, you know I'm not going to read all of that description'; or Milk Crate muttering, 'Boring, boring, boring'; or Skeletal yelling, 'This ain't like us.'"
As a result, Hansen's novels have been praised by critics for their convincingly drawn characters and accurate depictions of atmosphere and African-American dialect. Regarding The Gift-Giver, which is told through the language and observations of fifth-grader Doris, Hansen "paints an effective, inside picture of childhood in a New York ghetto," commented Judith Goldberger in Booklist. The novel tells the story of Doris's friendship with Amir, a shy and quiet classmate from whom she learns valuable lessons in friendship and caring for others. According to Zena Sutherland in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, the novel's strengths are "well-developed plot threads that are nicely knit, a memorable depiction of a person whose understanding and compassion are gifts to his friends, and a poignantly realistic ending." In Yellow Bird and Me, the sequel to The Gift-Giver, Hansen relates the story of Doris as she, in turn, helps a troubled classmate overcome a learning disability and discover his talents as a theatrical performer. "Smoothly written and easy to read," according to a contributor to Kirkus Reviews, the novel utilizes colloquial black English with "strength and vitality." Furthermore, the contributor continued, the novel is "rich with the distinctive personalities in Doris's world … [and] is particularly valuable for its emphasis on friendship, generosity of spirit, and seeing what's below the surface."
In her novel Home Boy, likewise set in New York's inner city, Hansen relates the life of troubled transplanted Caribbean teen Marcus who stabs another boy in a fight. Alternating between scenes of New York and Marcus's native Caribbean, the novel reveals the damaging influences of the boy's family, his involvement with selling drugs, and the pressures of adjusting to life in a foreign city. Inspired by an actual newspaper account of a Jamaican boy who stabbed and killed another youth in a New York City high school, Hansen modeled Marcus as "a composite of the many young men I've met through teaching," she told SATA. Despite its tragic overtones, the novel finds positives in the efforts of Marcus's girlfriend to get him on track, in addition to the affirming support of his reconciled parents and Marcus's own will to reform. The novel "revolves around Blacks and inner city life," wrote Kevin Kenny in Voice of Youth Advocates, yet holds appeal for many readers in its exploration of such universal themes as "quests for dignity, pursuits of familial and personal love, and the search for individual understanding."
After writing three works set in New York City, Hansen made a notable departure with two historical novels that take place during the American Civil War and postwar Reconstruction period. Again influenced by her students, Hansen evolved into historical fiction after she "began to think about how much drama there is in the black experience that is unknown to our youth and how historical fiction is a good way to make history come alive for young people," as she wrote in Horn Book. Although vastly different in location and time period than her previous fiction, Hansen's historical novels similarly offer strong characterizations, in addition to authentic depictions of atmosphere and dialect. Which Way Freedom? tells the story of a young slave named Obi who escapes from South Carolina and joins a black Union regiment during the Civil War, while the sequel, Out from This Place, tells the story of Obi's female friend Easter as she moves forward with her life after the Civil War. In both books, Hansen intersperses authentic black Gullah Island dialect with documented and little-known details of everyday life for slaves in their struggles before and after freedom. In 1997, Hansen published a fictitious diary of a former slave, I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl. Although disappointed that at times "slave life" is presented as "more inconvenient than inhumane," Booklist contributor Denia Hester maintained that the historical novel is "an effective, soul-illuminating portrait" of "determined young women" overcoming life's challenges.
Initially, Hansen had some difficulty making the transition to this type of writing: "Not being an historian, and deciding to write an historical novel, I felt like a trespasser on someone else's property who was tampering with a story that was not my own," she explained in the New Advocate. "I was an explorer in a strange land without a map or compass." Hansen did extensive research and read numerous histories of the period, including a collection of interviews with former slaves, for over a year before she began to write. She was surprised to find that the facts she uncovered during this period reshaped her view of history and her ideas about the way history should be presented to young readers: "My problem was that not all [the historic facts discovered through research] were compatible with the images that I wanted to create—images of a people bravely struggling to be free," she remembered in the New Advocate. "As I continued my reading and research, I came across still more conflicting and contradictory information. As a result, I had to reassess my purposes. Was I trying merely to confirm my own beliefs, or was I attempting to understand what those times might have been like? What I was, in fact, learning was that history is made up of individual stories shaded by individual perceptions and experiences … I was beginning to understand just how complex history is and that it defies any grand, simplistic interpretations."
In addition to novels, Hansen has created nonfiction books for young readers, among them 1997's Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York's African Burial Ground, a work she co-authored with Gary McGowan, and 1998's Women of Hope: African Americans Who Made a Difference. In reading Hansen's Women of Hope, according to a Publishers Weekly critic, young people are introduced to thirteen remarkable African-American women who variously influenced politics, business, the arts, and society. Hansen's writing is "celebratory, but never fawning" and Women of Hope offers "a sense of the expanding horizon of opportunities that African-American women have gained as the century has progressed," praised a contributor to Publishers Weekly. In Manhattan during 1991, a site was uncovered, exposing the graves of more than 400 mid-eighteenth-century slaves. Hansen and McGown's Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence presents this discovery through three different perspectives—anthropology, archaeology, and history. The "riveting" information is presented in a "disjointed, heavy, and repetitive" manner, remarked Hazel Rochman in Booklist. "The book is not easy reading," declared Rochman, concluding, however: "Still, the technology will excite students."
Hansen commented in the New Advocate on the responsibility involved in writing books for a young audience. "As [children] seek to understand an increasingly confusing world, their minds are malleable and vulnerable. Because of this, the responsibility of writers is enormous. Our job is to arrest the spread of ignorance, to inform, to provide insight and perspective, to entertain. Our words are powerful and those of us who are fortunate enough to have our words read must not abuse that power and privilege." Hansen added comments that give insight into the motivation behind her work: "I think the ultimate aim in any book we write for young people should be to show the heights to which humanity can reach even as we expose the depths to which we can sink. The word is powerful. We must use our words to help our children acquire a richness of soul and spirit so that maybe one fine day we will learnto live with ourselves and each other in love and harmony."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Children's Literature Review, Volume 21, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1990.
Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), fourth edition, 1995.
Booklist, January 1, 1981, p. 624; April 1, 1986, p. 1140; August, 1986, p. 1688; January 15, 1989, pp. 871-872; February 1, 1990, p. 1098; May 15, 1993; February 15, 1994, p. 1080; December 15, 1997, p. 697; May 15, 1998, p. 1615.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1981, p. 94; January, 1983, p. 89; April, 1986, pp. 148-149; July-August, 1986, pp. 209-210.
Christian Science Monitor, February 21, 1990, p. 13.
Horn Book, December, 1980, p. 641; November-December, 1986, p. 745; September-October, 1987, pp. 644-646; May, 1994, p. 325; July-August, 1998.
Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, Volume 15, number 4, 1984, pp. 9-11.
Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 1982, pp. 1195-1196; April 1, 1986, p. 545; September 15, 1988, p. 1404; April 15, 1993, p. 530; December 15, 1993, p. 1590.
Language Arts, December, 1986, p. 823.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 13, 1986, p. 6; July 26, 1992, p. 10, February 13, 1994, p. 12.
New Advocate, summer 1990, pp. 167-173.
Publishers Weekly, October 24, 1980, p. 49; June 27, 1986, p. 91; February 17, 1992, p. 64; February 24, 1992, p. 56; November 22, 1993, p. 64; April 18, 1994, p. 65; July 3, 1995, p. 62; November 23, 1998, p. 68.
School Library Journal, May, 1986, p. 92; August, 1986, p. 100; December, 1988, p. 121; September, 1993; January, 1994, p. 114; November, 1997, p. 118; May, 1998, p. 156; October, 1998, p. 154.
Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 1983, p. 36; April, 1987, p. 30; February, 1989, p. 285; August, 1993, p. 177; February, 1994.
Joyce Hansen contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
My own individual life is insignificant when viewed against the events in the larger world, but world and social events shape our individual lives, even when we come from remote regions of the planet. And the Bronx, New York, is viewed by many people as a remote region of the planet.
I was born in the Bronx in the year 1942, the first child of Lillian Dancy Hansen and Austin Victor Hansen. I have my own memories and inherited memories—the family stories my parents told me about incidents and events that I have no direct knowledge of. Those events, however, formed my life so I include them here. Many of these memories—my parents' as well as my own—found their way into fiction as well.
My father immigrated to New York City from the Virgin Islands in 1928 and my mother migrated to New York City from Charleston, South Carolina, in 1923. Both their families came to the Big City seeking a better life—my father's family escaping poverty and racism in the Caribbean and my mother's family escaping poverty and racism in the South. Both families, like so many other African Americans and Caribbeans, did not find the promised land in New York City as they had thought—there was poverty and prejudice here also, along with the Great Depression when many Americans lost their jobs. "The depression didn't really affect us that much," my mother said. "We always knew how to survive on very little money because most of us had been in an economic depression all of our lives." Both families settled in Harlem, the great black city within a city. Even in New York, people of color could only rent apartments in certain sections of the city. Harlem was where most blacks and other people of color settled.
Harlem was an exciting place for a poor, young man coming from a small poverty-ridden Caribbean island. Even though it was hard times because of the depression there was always some kind of job you could find. But back home on St. Thomas there was nothing. I went hungry many a day," my father often said. My grandmother wanted him to go to school when he came here, but he wanted to work. He found a job washing dishes in a restaurant by day and played drums in a band in the evening. He also decided to seriously study his boyhood hobby—photography—and enrolled in a photography course.
My mother came to New York City when she was eight years old. She attended school and was an outstanding student. She wanted to be a writer. Unfortunately, she had to stop her schooling and go to work in a factory to help her family. My grandmother and grandfather had nine children—eight daughters and one son. The older children had to work. She often told me that it was the saddest day of her life when she had to leave school in the ninth grade.
Fortunately for me and my brothers, my parents met when he was selling Christmas cards door-to-door in their Harlem neighborhood. They were married in 1941, and by that time my mother's family had moved into their own private home in the Bronx. My mother and father remained in Harlem with his family. This was a time of immense conflict in the larger world. World War II touched lives on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. My father was drafted into the Navy in 1948, and my mother and I moved to the Bronx with her family. The house at 624 East 163rd Street was the family homestead.
Some of my earliest memories were had in that large house where I lived with my mother, grandmother, grandfather, and four aunts—my mother's younger sisters. Now I can speak about my own memories. Because I was so young, most of them come in the form of small scenes and certain sensory details. For example, I can recall the smell of gingerbread in the large kitchen where much family time was spent, and my grandmother holding me in her lap and rocking me back and forth. She swung me back and forth so hard, though, I thought that my head would come off. When I think about it now, she was probably tired and busy and had to do a lot of fast rocking to hurry and get me to sleep so that she could do her work. I remember my grandfather coming in from work and falling asleep at the kitchen table.
I especially remember how one of my favorite aunts used to say to me, "You're an aggravating child." How I loved that word "aggravating." It had such an interesting sound. I had no idea what it meant, but I knew if I did something to annoy her, she'd call me "an aggravating child." I'd jump on and off a chair just to hear her call me "an aggravating child." One of the worst things I did to her happened one evening when she had a date. I filled my mouth with water so my cheeks puffed out like two balloons, and as she and her boyfriend were sitting in the living room I walked in with my cheeks puffed out and stood before them. Of course her date took his hands and playfully squeezed my cheeks, and I spewed water all over him. He was a good sport, though, and laughed. I know my aunt would have liked to choke me.
From an early age I loved words and talk, My father taught me how to say apple. I had trouble pronouncing it, and I can recall my mother's delight and surprise when I finally got it right. But she wasn't delighted for long, because once I got the knack of talking I wouldn't stop. I was told that I could talk before I could walk—imagine a baby in the crib speaking in full sentences. (My relatives like to exaggerate.)
Since I was an only child surrounded by adults, I suppose I spoke in a very grown-up manner. My mother has often related how she would cringe with embarrassment because when we were out in public I would begin to talk and ask questions, and people around me would ask, "How old is she?"
I would ask questions such as "Why is that woman's face shaped like a pear?" Or once when we were in the doctor's office I asked my mother, "What's the doctor's name?"
"Dr. Worm," she answered.
"He looks like a worm," I responded, for he was long and thin. The other patients roared with laughter. In 1943 and 1944 children who talked too much were considered fresh. In those days children were supposed to be seen and not heard, but I made sure that I was heard.
Another scene that sticks vividly in my mind was when I was about four or five and two of my aunts were talking. They didn't want me in on their conversation so they started spelling. They spelled "L-i-l-l-i-a-n," my mother's name. Evidently they were talking about her. "Lillian," I exclaimed when they finished carefully spelling the name.
"Oh God!" one of them said, "now she can spell."
There was one incident that I do not remember but was told to me. Six twenty-four was a large, two-story house with bedrooms upstairs. There was a salesman who used to come around selling household products and my grandmother purchased items from him regularly. My grandmother and aunts had nicknamed him Flat Head. So one day the door bell rang, and I opened it. As the salesman stood there I called upstairs to my grandmother, "Nana, Flat Head is here!"
There was a lot of scurrying in and out of bedrooms as my grandmother and aunts argued over who would come downstairs and face the man after I had embarrassed him and them. My grandmother, I was told, said angrily, "That's an aggravating child."
When my father came home from the Navy we moved just around the corner from 624 East 163rd Street to 919 Eagle Avenue.
Even though we moved, 624 was still the focal point. My grandmother took care of me while my mother worked. My young aunts entertained me and played with me when they came in from school. It was in the front yard at 624 that I taught myself how to roller-skate after many spills, scrapes, and scratches.
One of the last memories, and most unforgettable, that I recall from the big, warm house at 624 East 163rd Street was when I was about ten years old and it was Christmastime. My grandfather called me into his room. He was very ill with diabetes at this time and confined to a wheelchair. He explained to me that because he was sick and couldn't work any longer he would not be able to buy me a Christmas present that year. And then he began to cry. I was shocked because I'd never seen an adult cry—especially a man. I left the room and when my aunts—who were his daughters—asked me what he wanted, I couldn't tell them. I was so moved I had no words to articulate, but I felt the pain he had shown me and out of respect for him I said nothing. That was not something to talk about, even for a big mouth like me.
My grandfather passed away and the house was sold. My grandmother and two of my aunts moved to another apartment in the Bronx. The other aunts were married. Six twenty-four was eventually torn down and a school put in its place.
The block and the tenement we lived in at 919 Eagle Avenue became the focus of my young life. The building is still there in the Bronx, and it is the memories of friends and family from that particular place that are at the heart of my first three novels: The Gift-Giver, Yellow Bird and Me, and Home Boy. I lived and grew up on Eagle Avenue from the age of five to fourteen years—1947–1957. The apartment at 919 Eagle Avenue was what was then called a railroad flat because you had to walk through one room to get to the next, instead of the rooms being private. But that tenement with twelve other families could have been a castle, for my childhood was truly happy. I remember my mother reading to me and teaching me how to write my name and how to form letters and numbers. I remember struggling with the number eight. She also introduced me to books, and I have loved them ever since. I remember how every afternoon I'd go to the front of our ground floor apartment and look out of the window at the children coming home from PS 10, which was right across the street from us. I couldn't wait to go to school. My father was busy building his photography business in those days, working for long hours and coming home after I'd gone to bed.
A big change came in my life when I was five years old. I remember my mother being sick and crying and a couple of miserable days when I was sent to stay with one of my aunts and her husband. When I came back home my mother presented me with a bouncing new baby brother. My only-child days were over.
My brother, Austin Victor, Jr., turned out to be more aggravating than I had ever been. I was jealous of him because no one prepared me for his arrival. By the time he could walk and talk he was like a human tornado.
He'd mess with my dolls and books, and the fight was on. My other grandmother, my father's mother, lived with us then. One time he folded her up on the folding cot she was sleeping on.
Two years later when my mother was expecting another baby I knew what was happening and wished for a sister. Much to my disappointment I had another brother, Arnold. Now Victor and I had something else to fight over: who would hold the new baby.
In the larger world, Americans were coming out of World War II and the years of the cold war were beginning. We had shelter drills—in case the Russians bombed the Bronx. The school bells would sound and we had to crouch under our desks or line up against the wall in the hallways. We were issued name tags to wear around our necks so that in case of an attack we children could be identified.
We didn't have the same fears as the adults. Shelter drills under the desk provided a good opportunity to whisper to a friend or pinch an enemy.
On sweltering afternoons in 1947 I played on the fire escape in the apartment on Eagle Avenue and watched with fascination the military planes flying overhead in their V formations. I didn't know about the war that was so recent in every adult's memory and didn't know why military planes were flying over our Bronx neighborhood. Except for families who had lost loved ones overseas, the war had not touched children on the American mainland with the same immediacy and horror with which it had affected children in other parts of the world.
The elementary school years exposed me to my two great loves: books and talk. The most wonderful thing about school was learning how to read. I remember still the Dick and Jane books we learned how to read from. It wasn't the most interesting reading, but they were the first books I learned how to read alone. I began to read on my own and I reread all of the fairy tales my mother used to read to me. My favorite book, however, was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. My mother had also read that book to me, and by the time I was in the second grade I had read it and reread it by myself. Reading and books were increasingly becoming an important part of my life.
I was not a teacher's pet. As a matter of fact, most of my teachers didn't like me very much because I was too talkative. When I wasn't talking I was reading and/or daydreaming. My daydreams were really stories I made up in my head with beginnings, middles, and ends. Sometimes they were romance stories, but more often they were tales of revenge, with a teacher or a fellow student I didn't like at the center of the tale. Of course something very horrible would happen to the main character.
Sometimes my stories were serials and would continue the next day—especially when I was doing math and the teacher drew that pie on the blackboard to teach fractions.
I was also learning how to play with other children and moving from the small, secure world of family to reach out to friends. Those years of playing on the stoop in front of Eagle Avenue would provide much of the material for my first book, The Gift-Giver. I really had two best friends, named Mickey and Dotty, who were sisters. And there was a boy named Sherman who teased and sounded on the rest of us. No one would trade insults with him because he'd always win. The block and the stoop were our world.
Outsiders looking at our neighborhood saw an area that was "changing." Changing was another way of saying that African Americans and Puerto Ricans were moving into the area. Outsiders called our Morrisania section of the Bronx many things—a slum, a ghetto, the inner city. It was seen as a place filled with poor people who had a lot of problems. For those of us who lived there, it was home and it was beautiful.
Christmas was a special time for all of us who lived at 919 Eagle Avenue. It was an especially wonderful time for me and my brothers. Victor, Arnold, and I would decorate the tree on Christmas Eve while my mother filled the apartment with smells of ham and turkey, candied yams and cake. Usually, my father and I went out to buy the Christmas tree. We'd always end up with the tallest, skinniest, silliest looking tree, but we were happy.
Christmas day itself saw a stream of family and friends coming in and out of the apartment. Everything seemed very special because we didn't get toys all year long. We only received new toys once a year, at Christmastime. It seemed as if every adult who entered the apartment carried a big red Macy's Department Store box with special gifts in it for us.
Christmas was also the only time of the year that we could eat all of the candies and walnuts and pecans that we wanted. It was also the only day that my father stayed home and was not out taking pictures.
My friends in the building were in and out of our apartment too. It seemed as if everyone came to our place.
Summer was another special time. Those scenes in The Gift-Giver describing summer days were drawn from my memories of long summer afternoons and evenings playing jacks, double-dutch, hide-go-seek, hot beans and butter. When we became tired of ripping and roaring, we'd sit on the stoop and watch the boys play stickball. The crack of the ball as it hit the stick was a common summer sound. And the boys made their own scooters from old roller skates and milk crates. The grating noise as they raced down the concrete sidewalks and streets was another sound that filled our streets in the summer.
My father worked hard and most of his days were spent in his photo studio, but there were always a few outings when he would take us to Coney Island, Fire Island, and on hikes to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. I would also spend a week or two with my cousins who lived on Long Island. At the time it seemed to me that Long lsland was way out in the country.
My parents provided us with a safe, secure home environment; however, a child still had to deal with the outside world. When I was about nine or ten years old, I came home from school one day and saw a crowd of people on the block near the lot where we all played. A young Hispanic boy about ten or eleven lay on the ground. He had been shot by a sniper, and no one knew who he was.
The police asked us to look at him to find out whether anyone knew him. That night I saw him in my dreams. The incident had a profound effect on me, and for a long time I saw that boy whenever I closed my eyes to go to sleep. I saw him lying on the ground as if he were sleeping peacefully. I can still see his face. When I was writing The Gift-Giver and trying to think of a good reason for the mother in the novel to be so protective of her daughter, I recalled that horrible incident and included it in the book.
Though we were not aware of it, racism dictated how we lived and what kind of future we had. But, in spite of the fact that we were relegated to certain parts of the Bronx, we lived and worked within the limitations imposed on us. My family, at least, gave me a sense of hope that things would be better and our lives would not be as restricted as theirs had been. Things were changing.
In the meantime, my mother and father struggled and worked hard to give us a decent life. Putting in sixteen to eighteen hours a day, my father ran his photography business while my mother worked in a factory, often bringing sewing home. At night while we were in bed she would still be in the kitchen working at the sewing machine. When she couldn't find factory work, she took a job as a maid so that we could have small luxuries such as music lessons.
I studied the piano, taking music lessons from eight to fourteen years old, but I had no talent and was lazy about practicing. I wanted to sit at the piano and immediately play fluently—practicing was the boring part. Needless to say, I played as if I had ten thumbs. My brother Victor was much more talented musically. He studied the clarinet and actually learned how to play it.
My parents considered religious training an important part of a child's upbringing. Many a Sunday morning I wanted to stay in bed, but my mother's voice, sounding like a foghorn, penetrated the pillow I put over my head, and I had to get up and go to Sunday school with my cousin, Arlene. We traveled all the way from the Bronx to Harlem.
When I was a little older, I took myself to a neighborhood Sunday school at Grace Gospel Church. My friends in the neighborhood went there, so I went too. Grace Gospel Church is portrayed in The Gift-Giver. In the summer we had a big church-school picnic, and everyone in the neighborhood went. The church also had a day camp in the summer where we could have supervised play.
I was growing and learning, and through it all my love of books remained constant. I remember some of my happiest times were when I would go by myself to the library and walk down the rows and rows of books looking for the ones that would transport me to another world. I read voraciously. One day I came across a book in the house called Lost in the Jungle. It was filled with stereotypes of Africans with spears cooking white men in big cauldrons. But I read the book over and over; it was an important one for me because it was the first time I'd seen black people in a book.
I was fascinated because in the 1940s and 1950s there were few books for children about people of color, and where they did exist, they usually showed us in a horrible way—like Lost in the Jungle.
I went on to read many other books: Little Women, the King Arthur legends, mysteries—but I kept going back to that jungle book. All of us need, at some time, to see ourselves reflected in the literature we read. Though the reflection coming from that book wasn't accurate or even wholesome, it was all that I had for the moment.
When I became twelve another milestone was reached. I left the closed, comfortable world of elementary school and entered Paul Laurence Dunbar Junior High School in the Bronx. The school was named after the famous African-American poet. Things were beginning to change. The school was around the corner from PS 10. It was brand new, and in 1954 we were the first students to enter it.
I remember hating my seventh-grade class and missing terribly my sixth-grade class and my teacher. I can't remember her name, but she was young and kind, and I remember the class being like one big family. She also took us on a lot of trips.
Seventh grade was rough. It seemed as if everyone was bigger than I was, and I hated going to different teachers for every subject. But I found a pal, Dolores—little, skinny, and scared like me of the bigger children. We are still friends thirty-eight years later.
Not only was I changing in those adolescent years, but so was the world. In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. I wasn't yet aware of some of the greater changes going on in the world and the civil-rights movement that would end the last vestiges of legal segregation. I did notice though that our junior-high school teachers were younger than the teachers we'd had in elementary school and were not as stuffy and strict. They'd smile at us once in awhile.
Other things were changing too. Though I had never seen a gang or gang members, there were always rumors of some gang or the other coming over to our school to beat us up. And though no one ever came around us with drugs, we began to hear of older kids who were taking drugs and becoming junkies. My family was very protective and sheltered us. I saw why when I became an adult. It was in my adolescent years that drugs were being introduced into this working-class black community. The erosion of the community was slowly beginning. We still didn't have crime: people weren't mugged in the street, or apartments robbed, or old people beaten up. There were all kinds of families in our community. There was a family who owned their own home and business on the block. There was a musician. Most people worked. Those families who were on home relief, as public assistance was then called, were not proud of the fact and did want to work. But in those years jobs were limited for blacks, even in New York City.
The adults knew what was happening and were worried. My parents saw things that we children weren't aware of. In 1957, after I graduated from the ninth grade, we moved away. My parents bought a private house in the Belmont section of the Bronx. I put my Eagle Avenue days behind me—for a while anyway. In the wider world, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil-rights workers were making their voices heard.
I entered Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx. We were among the first African-American students to attend Roosevelt. I was once again scared, but Dolores and I found our way. I realized that there were a lot of things that we hadn't been taught in my junior high school. For example, our ninth-grade French teacher never taught us grammar. Instead, we'd write vocabulary words over and over again and sing songs. Each day in French class, we sang the French national anthem. I can still sing parts of it. I had not had the same education as the white children who'd gone to school in other parts of the Bronx.
I was never taught the parts of speech until I took French in high school and the teacher began to discuss conjugating a verb. I failed a math test because I'd forgotten the little bit I'd learned in junior high school. (I blame myself for the math failure, since I usually read a novel during math class.) But I shone in English. My love of reading was an education all in itself. I didn't know the parts of speech, but I knew when a sentence didn't sound right, and I knew how to fix it. It was while in high school that I dreamed of becoming a writer.
I was placed in a special creative-writing English class. I loved the class and am forever thankful to the teacher, whose name I can't remember. For the first time in my life I had a chance to explore my own creativity. I had another English teacher, Mrs. Minuto, who made me feel as if I could actually be a writer someday. Another outstanding teacher who I always remember was a history teacher who made history fun. He lectured, and I laughed and enjoyed his class so much that I didn't take good notes and just barely passed the New York State regents examination.
Those three teachers taught me something about teaching that I have tried to follow: let your students be creative, give them self-confidence, and make your subject enjoyable. At that time, however, I had no idea that I would one day become a schoolteacher.
The changes occurring in the wider world beyond would have their impact on those of us in high school in the years 1957–1960. We were touched by the efforts of our peers in the South to be able to use public places freely and to receive an equal education. A white classmate asked me why I signed a petition that was going around the class relating to the civil-rights activity in the South.
"You don't have any problems like that. That's not your fight," she said.
"But it is my fight too," I responded, not understanding why she couldn't see that.
We became conscious of our counterparts in the South and aware of the civil-rights movement. Many of the demonstrating students were high schoolers like us. We were beginning to develop a social and racial consciousness. Though I didn't take part in the sit-ins and bus-ins, I was learning things about the world and myself. I was proud of and fascinated by the South African singer Miriam Makeba. I admired Kwame Nkru-mah when he visited the United Nations in New York City. How regal he looked stepping off the airplane. When I saw a picture of him in the newspaper, I was thrilled. I began to see myself connected to a larger group of people. Africans were not like the people in that book Lost in the Jungle I'd read so many years before.
We black students stayed to ourselves because we felt like unwelcome guests at somebody else's dinner table. I can't say that the white students were mean or even unfriendly, but we knew that we were considered outsiders by most of the students and faculty at Theodore Roosevelt High School, so we formed our own little group.
We had our own two tables where we all always sat together in the lunchroom and formed our own fraternity and sorority. But we also took part in the larger life of the school. I was on the staff of the senior yearbook. Our senior trip and our senior prom were among the best times we had in school. All of the students, black and white, came together to celebrate our entry into the adult world.
I had all of the misgivings, apprehensions, and problems that adolescents have when they are leaving childhood and trying to find their way to adulthood. I didn't think I was very smart and knew that my parents could not afford to send me to college, so I switched from an academic program to a partial commercial program. I took stenography and typing so that I would be able to get a job after I graduated from high school.
Yet, there was part of me that wanted more than a secretarial job. I continued to read, and now I even tried to write. I made up elaborate stories/daydreams in my head—especially when I was in a class or a situation I didn't like. There was one thing happening outside, but no one knew the rich, inner life I enjoyed.
I was slowly turning into an adult. I made many new friends in my new Bronx neighborhood. Those early childhood days on Eagle Avenue were in the distant past. Mickey and Dotty, Sherman, and many of the kids I grew up with were a memory. I never visited the old neighborhood. I had become another person—or so I thought.
I graduated from high school in June 1960, and on a hot July morning, I left Belmont Avenue to begin working. I had a job in an office doing stenography and typing. I was happy to be independent and working. My parents were proud that I had attained a high school diploma, which neither one had, and that I was able to get a job in an office—not in a factory or as a maid. Things were changing.
This was a turbulent and wonderful time—the sixties. The old order was over. Black was beautiful. We wore our hair natural like Miriam Makeba. We listened to and loved Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. But this was also a violent, painful, and sad time when many people were killed: Medgar Evers, John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and civil-rights workers, including children. When Martin Luther King's voice was stilled in 1968, an era seemed to end. His death rocked the nation.
The Vietnam war added to the turmoil of this period. As the sixties moved into the seventies, many Americans and Vietnamese lost their lives. My brothers also grew up during this time, and both joined the U.S. Air Force and went to Vietnam. Fortunately for our family they survived and returned home. Many sons and daughters did not.
My world expanded during the sixties. I found another secretarial job, working for a New York State senator and lawyer in the Bronx. I read a lot, having discovered the black literature that I didn't have as a child. I read James Baldwin and Margaret Walker. I read black poetry, and a group of us often went to the theater where there was always a new black drama. African-American theater, music, literature, and art flowered.
I began to travel, taking my first trip outside of the United States in 1963 when I went to Puerto Rico and my father's home, St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. I saw the places he'd always talked about and I'd always imagined. I fell in love with the Caribbean and each summer took a trip to one of the islands. This was an interesting time for me personally, for I had left the awkward adolescent years and was entering my adult years. I was a little more self-confident—enough to go to college. I took a few business courses at night while I worked during the day. But I hated accounting. I read history, anthropology, and every African-American writer and poet that I could find. And I still secretly harbored my dream of becoming a writer. That's all it was—a dream. I wrote some awful poetry—imitating the style of Langston Hughes—and a couple of sorry short stories.
In 1968 I went back to school in earnest. As an adult student, I excelled in a way that I never had in elementary or secondary school. Maybe it was a combination of maturity and self-confidence. I still worked full-time while going to college at night full-time. I majored in English, for the business studies were not for me. I graduated from Pace University in 1972 with a degree in English literature. I had also taken some education courses. But I really didn't know what I was going to do with this degree. I was still writing, but no one seemed to be interested in my deadly prose.
A friend saw an advertisement in a newspaper for teachers in a New York City school district. I didn't want to go for an interview, but he convinced me. I really didn't want the job because I felt that I didn't have enough teacher training to step into a classroom. I explained to the principal that I had no experience, not even student teaching because I went to school at night. But he said he'd hire me. He needed a teacher to start immediately. In April. I wanted to wait until September, but he said he couldn't guarantee me a job in September, I had to come right away. I said yes, but I was scared. I got a temporary license and thus began my teaching career.
My book The Gift-Giver starts out by saying "It was hard coming to our fifth-grade class in April." Well I must have been thinking about my first day at Stitt Junior High School when I wrote that. It was hard coming in as a new teacher in April. I felt as scared as I did when my mother took me to school for the first time. The only advice I'd gotten about teaching when I received my temporary license was "Don't smile at the kids for the first six months." My knees knocked as I nervously walked up the pleasant, tree-lined street to the school. What would happen? Would I fall flat on my face?
Surprisingly, the first day went well. The children listened and did what I asked them to do. "This is a piece of cake," I told a friend later. "The children are lovely."
The next day was a different story. The kids did everything but walk across my desk and my head. They had checked me out the first day and knew that I was green and inexperienced. One of my colleagues had said, "They can smell a new teacher." I also didn't take the advice I was given and had smiled all day long.
I was assigned to a reading lab with a bunch of reading machines that I never knew existed and did not know how to operate. What happened to books? I wondered. Fortunately, two experienced paraprofessionals worked with me. Those two ladies saved my life. They were more than helpful; though I was the teacher, it was they, with their experience, who taught me. I also decided to take some reading courses at a college since my degree in English literature had not prepared me to teach reading—especially with machines.
My first year was tough. I was given the most difficult seventh-grade class in the school for homeroom. The other teachers called them "Hansen's Huns." But I learned so much in those two years that I was at Stitt Junior High School. In those days new teachers weren't given much help. You either sank or swam. I swam, but it was against the current for a while. I still had my dreams of being a writer to keep me going. Someday I'd be able to leave teaching, I told myself. I tried writing a children's story. My students said they liked it; however, I think they just didn't want to hurt my feelings.
By the time I was into my second year of teaching I realized that I loved it and I loved the children. I still wrote, but I actually did more reading than writing. I wrote a couple of short stories which were soundly rejected. However, I finally did get a travel article accepted by a Caribbean newspaper published in Brooklyn. I didn't get paid for it but that didn't matter. Finally, someone had published a piece that I had written. A beginning. In 1975 I was accepted into New York University and worked toward a master's degree in English education while still teaching full-time. I also had to leave Stitt Junior High School at this time because of school budget problems. I was sorry to leave. I was transferred to a group of special schools for pregnant girls. The girls lived in shelters and went to school there. Each day I visited another school in a different borough. One day I'd be at a Bronx school and the next at the site in Brooklyn. It was difficult and sad. The girls lived in the shelter because many of them came from foster homes or other shelters. Some of them had run away from their families.
My heart went out to many of these young women who were too young to be mothers. I met girls from all types of backgrounds and racial groups. We had white girls, Asian, black, Hispanic. Again, as in the junior high school, I found myself able to relate to the students—I don't know how much I helped them academically, for they had more pressing problems than trying to find out the difference between a verb and an adverb. But I tried to listen and to be understanding.
Some of the girls I remember clearly, and I hope that they are well. After two years at these schools I was laid off once again because of budget problems. I was immediately offered a position at another school. "A school for brain-injured children," I was informed. It sounded like something horrible to me. I refused the position, for I argued that I was not a special education teacher. I had no training in that area. "Just go and meet the principal," I was told.
I went to the school the day after summer vacation began, so I did not see the students. The principal interviewed me, explaining that these were high-school-age children who had special learning problems. I didn't take the interview seriously because I had made up my mind that I wasn't the right teacher for the students in this school. Also, I didn't think that the principal was particularly interested in hiring me, especially since I told him that I had had no experience teaching "brain-injured children."
When the fall came I received a call saying that I should report to the special-education school. I didn't know what I'd see. I expected to find children in straightjack-ets, or real crazy students, and special equipment and books for these "brain-injured children." I'd decided to report there and then I'd just have to quit teaching—after all, I had good secretarial skills and could always go back to office work.
When I walked into the school I saw outwardly the same kind of students I'd always been teaching. I saw normal-looking boys and girls, and I saw the same workbooks, textbooks, and reading machines I'd used previously.
Many of the students did have academic problems, but the awful label "brain-injured" was inappropriate. Thank goodness children are no longer labeled in that way. Many of the students were dyslexic, some had emotional and behavior problems and were thus put into special education. Quite a number of them should never have been placed in special education.
I decided to stay there for a while until I could find a teaching position elsewhere. I ended up staying there for ten years.
At this time, I was completing my master's degree. I asked one of my college professors if I could do a creative project instead of submitting a research project for my master's degree. I thought I'd write a children's book. I had no idea what this book would be about. I wasn't considering writing for publication, this would only be for my project. I was still trying to write and had joined a group of writers in my neighborhood in an informal workshop. I also was involved with a group called Black Creators for Children. The group was composed of writers, illustrators, teachers, parents, and anyone else who was interested in promoting and creating quality books for and about children of color. We would meet and discuss the kind of themes and images which would be appropriate in a book with African-American children as characters. We talked about the stereotypes and negative images that writers and illustrators should avoid.
At a meeting of the Black Creators for Children I heard an illustrator discussing how he taught children about art. He taught them, he said, to see inside of things. He would tell them, for example, that in order to draw a tree, they should understand what the inside of a tree looked like too. That lecture changed my life. I began to think about creating a character for my children's book who was different from most children. A child who saw beneath the surface of things.
Amir, the main character in The Gift-Giver, was born in my heart. He didn't have a name then. I thought about this character for a long time before I wrote anything down. When I did write about this youngster who was so different from his peers, I wrote it for my master's degree project. My professor read the seventy-page manuscript and told me that he thought that it was publishable.
I sent the manuscript to a publisher, and I was overjoyed when I received a call from a real, live editor saying that she was interested in the book, but I would have to do some further work on it. In the process of turning this project into a real book, I delved inside of myself and returned mentally to those long-ago days on 163rd Street and Eagle Avenue. I remembered things that I thought were long forgotten. Thus, Amir and Doris and the other characters in The Gift-Giver came to life. In 1980 when the book was published, my writing career was born. I had found my writing voice—and it spoke to children and young adults.
As I worked on The Gift-Giver, memories I'd buried came to the fore. I recalled my friends on Eagle Avenue—Mickey and Dotty, and Sherman, who always teased the rest of us. I remembered the long summer days jumping rope and playing stickball and the fun we had on the church-school picnics and bus rides. I remembered my mother always being concerned about knowing where we were and growing up with two aggravating younger brothers, who became one brother in The Gift-Giver and Yellow Bird and Me. I remembered the constant rumors about gangs.
Those days on Eagle Avenue were the heart of The Gift-Giver and Yellow Bird and Me. My grandfather crying because he couldn't give me a Christmas present was transformed to the grandmother in The Gift-Giver. The characters the Nit Nowns were really from a name that I got from one of my aunts, Audrey, who nicknamed a family in her building the Nit Nowns.
I drew inspiration, too, from the students I'd met through the years.
For example, Yellow Bird was based on one of my students at Stitt Junior High School. Yellow Bird was his nickname. The character Big Russell was also based on a student I had. The book Yellow Bird and Me was especially inspired by the special-education students I'd been working with. After writing The Gift-Giver I began to do various types of freelance writing. I wrote a couple of travel articles for a magazine (and was paid this time!). I also wrote church-school curricula and began another novel, Home Boy, in 1979.
Home Boy was based in part on a young Caribbean student I met when I was teaching in the special-education school and a newspaper account I'd read about a young Jamaican who had gotten into a fight in his high school with a boy who had been teasing him about his clothes and his accent. Tragically, he stabbed and killed the boy who had been harassing him.
I followed the story in the newspaper and began to think about the teenage boys in my school who came from the Caribbean and how so many of them had a hard time adjusting to life in New York City. I thought about how violence seemed to be increasing among all of our young people. As I wrote and rewrote (six drafts) Home Boy, set in the Bronx and the Caribbean, I also incorporated some of the stories my father had told me about his life in the Caribbean and the unhappy relationship he had had with his father. The book was a challenge for me, for I tried to write a much more complicated story than the episodic Gift-Giver.
All of my books were inspired by having the opportunity to meet so many young people in my teaching career. I see myself as a writer who tries to see beauty where it is not usually found. I write realistic fiction about people and places that I know. I also consciously, as a writer, try to dispel stereotypes and negative images about the African-American community. I have never forgotten that horrible book Lost in the Jungle. The families and friends that I knew and grew up with worked hard, were law abiding citizens, and had the same values as other Americans.
I try to write the kind of books I would have liked to have read as a child. Sometimes I'm asked when I am going to write an adult book—as if writing for children were not as important as writing for adults. My answer to that question is I'll stop writing for young people when I have nothing else to say to them.
I write especially for the young people I know—urban youngsters, economically deprived youngsters who rarely see themselves or their lives in the literature they read. I also write for the youngster who lives on a ranch in Wyoming or a village in Maine. Though he or she might not know immediately what a stoop is or never have played stickball on a crowded New York City street, he or she does know about loneliness and peer pressure and economic problems.
My two historical novels, Which Way Freedom? and Out from This Place, were great challenges for me because they were so different from the books I had previously written. I was writing about a place and a time of which I had no direct knowledge. The main characters were three youngsters in South Carolina who escaped slavery during the U.S. Civil War. One of the youngsters became a soldier in the Union Army.
Out from This Place, the sequel to Which Way Freedom?, continues their story, describing the period of Reconstruction when the war ended.
I had to research my story very carefully because I wanted to be certain that my historical background was correct. At the same time, I wanted the novels to be exciting and interesting for my readers. I had to learn how to combine historical fact with fully drawn, realistic characters. For me, stories begin with characters.
I had to create characters that I believed in and who really came alive in my head and heart. Obi, Easter, and Jason, after I'd done much writing and rewriting, began to take on a life of their own. One night, after writing off and on all day, I dreamed about Obi as if he were a real person. I knew then that I had created a character that was as real to me as Amir in The Gift-Giver.
I was thrilled when Which Way Freedom? was given a Coretta Scott King Award honorable mention in 1987. I wasn't sure that I could successfully write a historical novel—I certainly didn't expect it to win an award. It was truly a high point for me. I wrote both of these books with my students in mind. I wanted to expose young people to African-American history through an interesting and dramatic story.
My success with the two historical novels gave me the courage to try other types of writing. I recently completed a nonfiction book about black soldiers in the Civil War and an adventure story set in Africa and New England in the early nineteenth century. I also want to continue the story of Easter and Obi and Jason. Sometimes I feel them tugging at me, saying when are you going to get back to us?
As the years move on, I hope that I will always have something to say to young people. I realize that I would not have produced the books I have so far had I not had the privilege of being a teacher and had I not met so many wonderful New York City school children. Now, when I look back on almost twenty years of teaching in the public schools of New York City, I realize that I'm doing what I was meant to do and where I was meant to do it.
I am lucky and grateful too for having been born into the kind of family that I grew up in and to have a mother and father who are both creative and extremely intelligent. I am fortunate too in the people that I have known over the years: fellow teachers who helped me get over many rough spots, editors who gave me good advice and told me to rewrite, fellow writers who gave me encouragement, and friends who are now like family.
I am what is known, I suppose, as a late bloomer. I didn't graduate from college until I was in my thirties, and I married when I was forty years old. I do not have any children of my own, but I have my nieces and nephew, my godchildren, and the children I teach.
I presently teach creative writing in an intermediate school in the Bronx, in my old neighborhood where I played on the stoop and roller-skated up and down the streets. I've been working there for the past four years and it's like returning to my old home. I also teach composition and English literature at Empire State College.
I still work very hard on my writing and try to make each book better than the last. I am still learning.
Joyce Hansen contributed the following update to SATA in 2006:
It has been fifteen years since I wrote my autobiography in 1991 and much has changed in those years. I continued teaching middle school and also taught part time at a local college, always "stealing" as much time as possible for writing. In 1993 I completed my first nonfiction book, Between Two Fires: Black Soldiers in the Civil War. This was a departure for me because I'd never written nonfiction except for a few articles here and there. What a challenge to find information and to create an interesting story based on the research!
My editor at the time asked me to write a book about African-American soldiers in the Civil War because of my historical fiction about the same period. I agreed since I thought it would be easy; I had so much research from Which Way Freedom?, my first historical novel. I was in for a rude awakening, and should have known that writing is never easy. The truth is, I didn't know how to give life to a work of nonfiction!
After reading my first draft, my editor informed me that all of the facts were there, but something was missing. It was as dry as a bone. I had to learn to write in a genre new to me. I read other writers known for their excellent nonfiction—the late James Haskins, Jim Gib-lin, Pat and Fred McKissack, for example. I figured out what was wrong with my book. It had no heart, no soul, no story. Actually, it was the first book I'd written that was not my brainchild. I had to make it mine. Yet I hate war. How do you write about something you hate? How could I make this my story? I knew that the story had to come from the actual soldiers themselves. I had to research real black soldiers who had participated in the Civil War for various and complex reasons.
So I went back to the drawing board, so to speak, dug up as much information as I could find about actual soldiers, rewrote the entire book, and was satisfied knowing that I'd done the best I could. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was preparing myself for a major change in my writing career—though at this point in my life, my real career was still teaching.
During this period, I became a staff developer, helping other teachers. Though I had a position out of the classroom, I missed working with the youngsters. For me the most important position in a school is that of classroom teacher. As much as possible, given my schedule, I tried to be in the classrooms with the students and their teachers. My students over the years had given me so much inspiration—had fueled my writing and my imagination.
While my first nonfiction book was not a blockbuster best seller (I'm still waiting for one of those), it received decent reviews and I was pleased. I'd successfully written in a genre new to me.
My plate was very full in those days. Teaching took up most of my time, but I was beginning to get more writing work. I was asked by one of my longtime editors, Dianne Hess, to submit a middle-grade book to her. For some time I had been thinking about a book I'd read many years ago. It was a slave narrative written in 1789 by a man, Olaudah Equiano, who had been kidnapped when a young boy in the West African kingdom of Benin and sold into slavery. His story is fascinating, describing the astounding events that took him from Africa to North America, the Caribbean, and to Britain.
I decided to use Equiano's story as the prototype for my book The Captive. I wanted The Captive to be an adventure story while at the same time I wanted the readers to learn about African kingdoms, so I set the beginning of my story in the Ashanti kingdom of present-day Ghana, West Africa. This was my first attempt at an adventure story. It turned out to be different from my one other historical fiction and from my three other contemporary novels set in New York City. When it was chosen as a Coretta Scott King Honor Book in 1995, I was overjoyed. This was my second Coretta Scott King honor award.
Nineteen-ninety five brought other radical changes. The then New York City Board of Education offered an early retirement package to teachers who had been in the system for a certain number of years, and I qualified. I began to entertain the idea of taking the retirement and writing full time. It was a scary thought though. For one thing, my inspiration had come from my students. No matter what kind of book I was writing, I thought about them. What would they say about this? Would all of this description be boring to them? Would they want to read a story like this one? I guess you could say that I wrote with them sitting on my shoulders. How could I write for children if I were no longer around them? My experiences as a school teacher had helped me to find my writer's voice. I had learned that my students wanted, more than anything else, stories that validated them—stories that reflected a world they knew and understood.
Another issue to ponder: though I was getting offers to write books and a short story here and there for anthologies, could I actually make a living writing? I would be getting a retirement check, but it would be less money than if I waited until I had worked for twenty-five years and was at least sixty-two years old. I was only fifty-two years old. Then out of nowhere, an unexpected offer came my way.
Marc Aronson, senior editor at Henry Holt at the time, called me and asked whether I would be interested in working with Gary McGowan, an archaeologist, who wanted to create a book for young people about the African burial ground discovered in Manhattan in 1991. I was very, very doubtful that I would or could work on the project. I agreed to meet Gary and Marc at the laboratory in Manhattan where artifacts taken out of some of the graves were being analyzed.
I agreed to go to the lab because I am nosey and this was a chance to see some of the artifacts firsthand. But on the subway ride downtown I had already made up my mind that I wasn't going to work on the book. I didn't know anything about archaeology. I had no scientific background. And all I knew about the African burial ground was what I'd read in the newspapers.
Well, when I reached the lab I met Gary and one of his colleagues began showing me some of the artifacts—an amber bead that had been found on the skeleton of a young woman, part of a string of beads around her hips. They began to narrate the meaning of these beads. Perhaps the woman had been someone important, since she had been buried with beads around her waist and her wrists.
Maybe she had been a healer, or a princess. Her teeth had been filed, indicating that she was probably born in West Africa, possibly in the region of Guinea. They explained that this also indicated that there had been a rich African culture operating just under the surface of the outward life of black colonial New Yorkers. As Gary enthusiastically explained the meaning of some of the other artifacts—cufflinks, British naval buttons dating back to the Revolutionary War—I was fascinated with what I was learning about archaeology, how what might seem to us laymen to be just a rusty nail or a piece of stone becomes, with the tools and methods of archaeological investigation, an important clue about the past and about the people who lived that past.
The woman with the beads began to come alive for me and I saw what Gary was getting at—how these objects and how a burial ground could, paradoxically, make the past come alive and give voice to the long silence of people who had left no written record of themselves and who were not even footnotes in the historical records. Of course, by the time I left the lab I was hooked. Even though I was still doubtful about whether I could do a good job, at least this time if the book bombed, I didn't have to take the complete blame. I had a co-writer. And I didn't have to worry about the archaeological information because Gary was the expert in that field.
In the midst of the excitement one feels when thinking about a new project, I still had a lot to consider. Could I really write this book? Should I retire from teaching? Was this some ridiculous fantasy to think that I'd be able to write full time and survive? I decided to take a leap of faith that things would work out, and so in September of 1995 I retired to write full time. My biggest fear was that I would not be able to write for children since I was no longer around them. My own nieces and nephews were all young adults now, and I had no children or grandchildren of my own.
My husband and I made another radical change. We had a small home in South Carolina where we spent our summers. We decided that if I retired, we'd relocate there permanently. Not too long after I retired, we said good-bye to the Big Apple and headed for the Sunny South. I hoped that I was doing the right thing—leaving family and friends and going to live in a new place.
South Carolina wasn't really a new place for us since we'd spent our summers there and had good friends close by; yet I still wondered whether all of these changes in this point of my life made sense. Of course, my ties to New York City can never be severed. It will always be home. I traveled back and forth to the city often, especially to visit my mother and father. Those trips were always a time to catch up with old friends and meet with editors. If I could live in South Carolina and New York City at the same time, life would be perfect.
On one of my trips to New York in 1996, I went with my father to a celebration honoring African-American photographers. He was in his element. He was the oldest living photographer in Harlem, New York, and was treated like a respected and honored elder. He loved being around young people and just had such a wonderful time that evening. When we got back home I noticed that his speech was slurred and he was not able to eat the dinner my mother had prepared. I knew he was having a stroke.
Three days later he passed away. He was eighty-six years old. That was a loss in our lives, but we were thankful that he hadn't suffered, had not spent weeks or months or years ailing in a sick bed. Up until his passing he'd pursued his love of photography. During his last hours of real consciousness, he was being applauded for his lifetime of chronicling the lives of the people of Harlem, with a camera in his hand. I promised myself and my mother, who is still living at ninety-one years of age, that I would write a book about my father's life in photography.
There is the writing life and then there's real life. We have to learn how to deal with both. When I returned to South Carolina after my father's death, though it was difficult, I forced myself to pick up where I'd left off.
When we had moved to South Carolina I was completing another nonfiction book that I was asked to write—this time about Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War. I was able to apply the lessons I'd learned when I wrote my first nonfiction book. I thought about the many documentaries I enjoy watching and heard a narrator's voice in my head telling the story of this interesting period in American history. As in documentaries, the narrator tells the story while the illustrations enhance the narrative. I used other techniques as well—including details about actual people who lived through those times, setting scenes so that the reader feels as if he or she is really there, and ending each chapter with a problem or question so that the reader wants to find out what happens next.
Even with real life interrupting, being able to write full time made a big difference, giving me time to really think through what I was doing and rewrite as many times as I had to. While researching the book on Reconstruction, I found a quote from a diary entry of a woman who once had slaves and was lamenting their departure at the end of the Civil War. In a May, 1865 entry she described a servant girl, a former slave, as "lame, solitary, very dull, slow, timid, and friendless." The passage resonated. I promised myself that one day I would like to write a story about a girl like this. Perhaps she is not as stupid as everyone thinks, I thought. Maybe she is very bright. I tucked this idea in the back of my mind for a future time.
Once I moved, I didn't hear from Marc Aronson about the burial ground project. I thought maybe it was just as well because I was still working on the Reconstruction book, and I still wasn't sure how we could make a book about a burial ground interesting to the young reader. Just as I reconciled myself to not writing about it, Marc called and offered me a contract. If I had not had the experience of writing my two previous nonfic-tion books, I would have had no idea how to approach this one.
I am basically a storyteller, or I try to be. For the young reader especially, even when the book is nonfiction and discussion revolves around a burial ground, there has to be a lively narrative. Gary and I wanted the young people who read this book to understand that we are not talking about death but discovering what life was like for these earliest African Americans in colonial New Amsterdam and New York.
Our task then was to find these people and tell their story and link that story with the current work being done at the Foley Square Lab in Manhattan, where the artifacts were being studied, and also with the team at the Howard University Biological Anthropology Laboratory in Washington, DC, where the remains were being analyzed.
You cannot have an interesting story without characters, without people. Just as with my book Between Two Fires, I had to dig deep and long in order to find information about blacks in Colonial New Amsterdam and New York. People must have names and personalities to make them come alive for the reader. As I began to research the historical information, I was on a mission to find names and people. My father used to tell me that a photograph—even if scenery was the focus—was dead without people. So is a book.
While doing the research for the burial ground book, I was asked to write a "Dear America" novel for Scholastic Books. And so it was that I was able to once again think about that diary entry I'd read several years earlier when I was researching the Reconstruction book. I could now write about this little girl who everyone thought was stupid. I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly was my fourth historical novel and was the first book I wrote entirely while living in South Carolina. The setting of the novel is South Carolina and living here helped me to capture the environment: the intense heat in the summer, the pine trees and grand live oaks, the mauve and pink sunsets. The book garnered me another Coretta Scott Honor Book award, and out of all of my books has been the most well received.
I realized that had I not taken that chance and retired from teaching when I did, I might not have written this book. I might have turned down the offer to write it because my teaching came first. I would have been too busy. I also probably would not have written Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence, the story of New York City's African burial ground, which gave me my fourth Cor-etta Scott King Honor award.
The work was coming steadily. I learned that the fear I had of not being able to write for children once I retired from teaching was unfounded. The thing that children's writers need to remember is what it felt like to be a child. And the thing that will always hold you in good stead with your young audience is to always tell an in-teresting tale, even when it's nonfiction. I also visited schools from time to time, so that I wasn't entirely removed from young people.
Not long after writing I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly, I was asked to write another nonfiction book, Women of Hope, the stories of thirteen African American women. By this time I was pretty comfortable with nonfiction, except this book would be biographical. I enjoyed the challenge of writing the short biographical sketches so that these accomplished women spoke for themselves.
In 1999 I finally completed a book that I had been writing for years, The Heart Calls Home, continuing the story of Obi, Easter, and Jason from my earlier historical fiction. These characters had been nagging at me, and my readers too had been asking me what had happened to them. It was such a feeling of satisfaction to bring back these characters. Writing full time was making a big difference in my output.
I had also been working off and on over the years on another novel with the characters from The Gift-Giver and Yellow Bird and Me, published in the 1980s. Readers had been asking me what had happened to these characters as well. I realized that my sequel to The Gift-Giver was incomplete and I needed a third book to round out the story. I had begun writing it many years ago, even before I left New York, but had stopped to do other projects. After many drafts and rewrites, One True Friend was published in 2001.
On September 10, 2001, I went up to New York to visit with my mother and the rest of my family and to get my copy of One True Friend, hot off the press. I was so excited and happy that after so many years this book had finally been born and I would see it in print. I was supposed to have a lunch meeting my editor, Jim Gib-lin, the next day. Jim was going to give me a copy of the book.
Then the world turned upside down the morning of September 11, 2001. Jim and I didn't meet for lunch on that day. My book was a petty little thing that didn't really matter to me anymore. Everything seemed petty in the wake of all of the tragedy and horror of that day. It's amazing how tragic events temper our little egos and vanities. Jim and I met a few days later, but the events of that morning overshadowed us. What kind of world were we living in? We wondered how could this happen in New York City, in America. It seemed crass and ridiculous for us to be sitting in a restaurant talking about writing and books in the wake of the horror just a few days before. But then we thought about the children for whom we create these books and about our work; realizing that we have to go on and give young people a sense of hope in the face of all of the madness helped us.
Those who had loved ones who died on that surreal and tragic morning will never be the same. The rest of us who witnessed the events will never forget. And life will go on anyway, no matter what happens. It always does. We have no choice but to go on with our work and do what we can to help our children navigate the turbulent waters of this world.
The following year, Gary McGowan and I collaborated on another book, this one on the Underground Railroad and even more challenging than the one on the burial ground. There were many books about the Underground Railroad. What could we say that hadn't already been said? We began with the questions: Was there really an Underground Railroad? What evidence do we have to prove it?
Gary provided some little known archaeological information from a former church basement in Syracuse, New York, once a stop on the Underground Railroad. Images of faces had been carved into the wall of the church basement. Archaeologists believed that these images might have been made by runaway slaves waiting for safe passage to Canada. There were moments, though, when I was ready to give up. This book wasn't like the burial ground where we focused on one area. With this book, we were looking at several states and Canada.
But I kept moving along. Gary obtained great archaeological information from several other sources as well and I wrote the text. Through various forms of documentation, we learned that a series of routes, safe houses, and even waterways formed what we call today the Underground Railroad.
I finished the final draft of the book and was looking forward to a little rest and relaxation. I'd read a novel just for fun, plant some flowers in my garden, bake a cake, clean my office, but once again, real life intervened. A couple of days after turning in the manuscript, my husband took seriously ill and I spent months taking care of him. I try to find the positive side in all things. At least I was able to care for him without an unwritten book hanging over my head. But a book is never finished until you receive your author's copies in the mail. Between doctors' and hospital visits with my husband, there were illustrations to obtain and approve, captions and notes to write, an index to prepare, and all the tiny details that go into creating a book.
Then one day, in the midst of all of this, I received a call from a publisher asking me to write the text for a book about six African princesses. I said no. I felt as though I'd been pumping out one book after the other in between all of the other things that life demands. I was tired.
The editor who called me sent me a sample of one of their other books about princesses. The illustrations were exquisite and the book as a whole was lovely. I relented. I told them that if they provided the research materials and if the book on African princesses had the same artist and quality as their other book, then I'd do it.
In 2004 African Princess: The Amazing Lives of Africa's Royal Women was published. I have just completed a young-adult novel which I hope will be published next year and a middle-grade historical novel—the first book in a six-book series about an African-American pioneer family. I am also working on my first chapter book for younger children and will begin writing the book about my father's life in photography.
I feel as though I am truly blessed to have had the opportunity to work at what I love for so many years, and to have friends and family who have helped and encouraged me along the way. I have also had some of the most patient and talented editors in the business. I still write with my students sitting on my shoulders.
"Hansen, Joyce 1942–." Something About the Author. 2007. Encyclopedia.com. (June 29, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2687900041.html
"Hansen, Joyce 1942–." Something About the Author. 2007. Retrieved June 29, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2687900041.html
Hansen, Joyce (Viola) 1942-
HANSEN, Joyce (Viola) 1942-
Born October 14, 1942, in New York, NY; daughter of Austin Victor (a photographer) and Lillian (Dancy) Hansen; married Matthew Nelson (a musician), December 18, 1982. Education: Pace University, B.A., 1972; New York University, M.A., 1978.
Home— SC. Agent— c/o Author Mail, Walker and Co., 720 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10019. E-mail— firstname.lastname@example.org.
Writer. Board of Education, New York, NY, teacher of reading and English, 1953-75; Empire State College, Brooklyn, NY, mentor; retired from teaching, 1995.
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Authors Guild.
Parents Choice citation, 1986, for Yellow Bird and Me; Coretta Scott King Honor designation, American Library Association, 1987, for Which Way Freedom?, and 1995, for The Captive; Coretta Scott King Award, 1998, for I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly; Children's Book Award, African Studies Association, 1995, for The Captive.
The Gift-Giver, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1980.
Home Boy, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1982.
Yellow Bird and Me, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1986.
Which Way Freedom?, Walker (New York, NY), 1986.
Out from This Place, Walker (New York, NY), 1986.
Between Two Fires: Black Soldiers in the Civil War, Franklin Watts (New York, NY), 1993.
The Captive, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1994.
I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1997.
(With Gary McGowan) Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York's African Burial Ground, Holt (New York, NY), 1997.
Women of Hope: African Americans Who Made a Difference, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.
The Heart Calls Home, Walker (New York, NY), 1999.
"Bury Me Not in a Land of Slaves": African Americans in the Time of Reconstruction, Franklin Watts (Danbury, CT), 2000.
One True Friend, Clarion (New York, NY), 2001.
(With Gary McGowan) Freedom Roads: Searching for the Underground Railway, Cricket Books (Chicago, IL), 2003.
African Princess: The Amazing Lives of Africa's Royal Women, illustrated by Laurie McGaw, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor of short stories to various anthologies for middle-grade students; contributor of articles to Horn Book, Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, and New Advocate.
Joyce Hansen is the author of nonfiction as well as of novels for younger readers that have been praised for their convincing depiction of black children in both contemporary and historical settings. Novels such as The Gift-Giver, Yellow Bird and Me, and One True Friend portray the lives of urban children living in New York City, while Hansen's trilogy Which Way Freedom?, Out from This Place, and The Heart Calls Home dramatize the experiences of young blacks during the time of the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction. A former English teacher in New York City schools, Hansen strives to create realistic settings and authentic dialect, as well as produce lively storytelling, as a way to reach out to young readers with positive messages of support and guidance. "I take writing for children very seriously," she once told Something about the Author (SATA ). "So many children need direction—so many are floundering. I write for all children who need and can relate to the things I write about—the importance of family, maintaining a sense of hope, and responsibility for oneself and other living things."
Hansen was born in 1942 in New York City and grew up in a Bronx neighborhood that provided many of the experiences in her first novel, The Gift-Giver. During her girlhood, as she recalled to SATA, "New York City neighborhoods were thriving urban villages that children could grow and develop in." In The Gift-Giver, which describes a foster child who influences others in a positive way through his caring nature, Hansen attempts to recreate the secure atmosphere of the immediate and extended family she experienced as a young girl. In doing so, she also emphasizes the positive forces at work within urban areas to counter such perils as poverty, violence, and drugs. "We forget that there are many people in our so-called slums or ghettos that manage to raise whole and healthy families under extreme conditions," Hansen maintained. "Not every story coming out of the black communities of New York City is a horror story."
Hansen was influenced to become a writer by her mother and father, both of who provided what the author described as an atmosphere "rich in family love and caring." Her mother, who once had aspirations to become a journalist, passed on to Hansen an appreciation for books and reading; part of a large family and raised during the depression years of the 1930s, Hansen's mother was unable to finish high school although she showed potential as a student, because she had to help support the family. Hansen views her mother as "my first teacher." From her father, a photographer from the Caribbean, Hansen learned the art of storytelling. "He entertained my brothers and me with stories about his boyhood in the West Indies and his experiences as a young man in the Harlem of the '20s and '30s," she once commented. "I also learned from him to see the beauty and poetry in the everyday scenes and 'just plain folks' he captured in his photographs."
Hansen received a bachelor's degree from Pace University in 1972, and later earned a master's degree from New York University. In 1973 she began a career teaching in New York City schools, where she worked as a special-education instructor for teens with reading disabilities. Her work, which predominantly involved black and Hispanic students, made Hansen aware of the positive results gained by providing students with literature they can identify with. "Literature can be a great teacher, yet large numbers of Black and other youngsters of color never have a chance to explore themselves or their lives through the literary process," she explained in an article for the Interracial Books for Children Bulletin. "All children need sound, solid literature that relates to their own experiences and interests," she added, especially those "children who, for whatever reason, have learning difficulties."
Hansen's own efforts as a children's novelist have been greatly influenced by her students. She explained in Horn Book that if she hadn't taught, "I wouldn't have been moved to write some of the stories I've created thus far." Hansen also explained that, as is the case with the innovative nicknames derived by her students, she was "influenced by their creativity—the way they twist, bend, enliven, deconstruct, and sometimes even destroy language." While Hansen's objectives as a reading teacher propelled a major part of her writing, she understood the necessity of relating stories that students like her own would respond to. She tested her writing by asking, as she recounted in Horn Book, "what I am going to do . . . to make a reluctant reader want to read [a story]. . . . I imagine I hear Tatoo whispering in my ear, 'Miss Hansen, you know I'm not going to read all of that description'; or Milk Crate muttering, 'Boring, boring, boring'; or Skeletal yelling, 'This ain't like us.'"
As a result, Hansen's novels have been praised by critics for their convincingly drawn characters and accurate depictions of atmosphere and black dialect. Regarding The Gift-Giver, which is told through the language and observations of fifth-grader Doris, Hansen "paints an effective, inside picture of childhood in a New York ghetto," commented Judith Goldberger in Booklist. The novel tells the story of Doris's friendship with Amir, a shy and quiet classmate from whom she learns valuable lessons in friendship and caring for others. According to Zena Sutherland in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, the novel's strengths are "well-developed plot threads that are nicely knit, a memorable depiction of a person whose understanding and compassion are gifts to his friends, and a poignantly realistic ending."
In Yellow Bird and Me, a sequel to The Gift-Giver, Hansen relates the story of Doris as she, in turn, helps a troubled classmate overcome a learning disability and discovers his talents as a theatrical performer. "Smoothly written and easy to read," according to a Kirkus Reviews contributor, the novel utilizes colloquial black English with "strength and vitality." Furthermore, the contributor continued, the novel is "rich with the distinctive personalities in Doris's world . . . [and] is particularly valuable for its emphasis on friendship, generosity of spirit, and seeing what's below the surface." Continuing the story begun in The Gift-Giver, the novel One True Friend is composed mainly of letters, as fourteen-year-old Amir and twelve-year-old Doris write back and forth after Amir moves to Syracuse, New York, to live with his new foster family. Now reunited with his younger brother, Ronald, Amir is determined to locate the rest of his family in order to honor his mother's dying wish; Doris, for her part, describes a new friend whose life is threatened by a drug habit. Noting that Amir "is a genuinely sympathetic character," a Kirkus Reviews contributor added that One True Friend is "a good-hearted and honest treatment of kids' feelings as they cope with their own separate challenges." While School Library Journal contributor Miriam Lang Budin noted that Hansen "crowds a plethora of subjects" into her story and that "portions of the writing are unnaturally stiff," Amir is "a likeable kid" who shoulders his burdens responsibly. Frances Bradburn described One True Friend as "both sad and hopeful," adding in her Booklist review that Hansen's tale "dramatizes the struggle for survival" and "the primal pull of family."
Hansen's novel Home Boy, also set in New York's inner city, relates the life of a troubled Caribbean-born teen named Marcus, who stabs another boy in a fight. Alternating between scenes of New York and Marcus's native Caribbean, the novel reveals the damaging influences of the boy's family, his involvement with selling drugs, and the pressures of adjusting to life in a foreign city. Inspired by an actual newspaper account of a Jamaican boy who stabbed and killed another youth in a New York City high school, Hansen modeled Marcus as "a composite of the many young men I've met through teaching," she once told SATA. Despite its tragic overtones, the novel finds positives in the efforts of Marcus's girlfriend to get him on track, in addition to the affirming support of his reconciled parents and Marcus's own will to reform. The novel "revolves around Blacks and inner city life," wrote Kevin Kenny in Voice of Youth Advocates, yet holds appeal for many readers in its exploration of such universal themes as "quests for dignity, pursuits of familial and personal love, and the search for individual understanding."
After writing three works set in New York City, Hansen made a notable departure with a trilogy of historical novels that take place during the U.S. Civil War and the Reconstruction period that followed. Again influenced by her former students, Hansen evolved into historical fiction after she "began to think about how much drama there is in the black experience that is unknown to our youth and how historical fiction is a good way to make history come alive for young people," as she wrote in Horn Book. Although vastly different in location and time period than her previous fiction, Hansen's historical novels similarly offer strong characterizations, in addition to authentic depictions of atmosphere and dialect.
Which Way Freedom? tells the story of a young slave named Obi who escapes from South Carolina and joins a black Union regiment during the Civil War, while Out from This Place follows Obi's female friend Easter as, with the young boy Jason, she moves forward with her life after the civil war. The concluding book, The Heart Calls Home, finds Obi and Easter reunited after a long search. While Obi wants to marry and move west, Easter remains dedicated to gaining the education needed to contribute to life in her new home of former slaves on the sea island of Santa Elena. In her story Hansen includes the couple's letters, in which each attempts to change the mind of the other while both attest to their love and caring. The Heart Calls Home, by illustrating the prejudice faced by former slaves, reflects the "courage and hope that illustrates the strength and resilience" of freed black throughout the South, according to Bradburn in Booklist. In each of the novels Hansen intersperses authentic black Gullah island dialect with documented and little-known details of everyday life for slaves in their struggles before and after freedom.
Initially, Hansen had some difficulty making the transition to historical fiction. As she explained in her essay in Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS), "I was writing about a place and a time of which I had no direct knowledge." She continued, "I had to research my story very carefully because I wanted to be certain that my historical background was correct. At the same time, I wanted the novels to be exciting and interesting for my readers. I had to learn how to combine historical fact with fully drawn, realistic characters. For me, stories begin with characters." To her surprise, Which Way Freedom? was named a Coretta Scott King Honor Book in 1987. Hansen wrote in SAAS, "I wasn't sure that I could successfully write a historical novel—I certainly didn't expect it to win an award. It was truly a high point for me."
The success of her historical fiction gave Hansen the courage to explore other types of writing, particularly nonfiction. Between Two Fires: Black Soldiers in the Civil War describes in detail the two-fold battle African-American men faced as Union soldiers during the Civil War: fighting for freedom and also battling daily acts of racism. Elizabeth M. Reardon, writing in School Library Journal, applauded Hansen for her "well-researched and well-written volume" and appreciated the way the author "personalized this history, making readers feel the heartbreak of loss and the triumph of spirit of these men."
The Captive, based on an early slave narrative, brought Hansen a second Coretta Scott King honor. In what Horn Book contributor Lois F. Anderson called a "well-crafted and compelling survival story," Hansen relates the tale of a West African boy sold into slavery. After twelve-year-old Kofi, an Ashanti chieftain's son who is also the narrator, is sold into slavery in 1788, he endures a difficult boat crossing to America. Kofi is then forced to be an indentured servant in Salem, Massachusetts. While there, he learns to speak and read English, and eventually escapes. An African American sea captain helps Kofi, then defends the boy's right to freedom. As a ship's pilot, Kofi eventually returns home to West Africa. According to a critic for Kirkus Reviews, "the practices of the slave trade, in both Africa and New England, are explored in unusual detail." Similarly, a Publishers Weekly commentator wrote that the well-researched and enlightening story "offers a deeply moving Afrocentric perspective on the brutal inequities of American life in the nation's earliest, perhaps most idealistic years—and now."
Hansen has continued to produce nonfiction focusing on African Americans. Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York's African Burial Ground, written with historical conservator Gary McGowan, describes the 1991 discovery of an African burial site in Manhattan and explores what the artifacts excavated reveal about the lives of black people in colonial New York City. She also joins McGowan for Freedom Roads: Searching for the Underground Railroad, an effort to separate fact from legend about the secret network that led many blacks north to freedom in the years prior to the Civil War. In addition to archeological evidence, the authors review court records, narratives collected during the Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviews of the 1930s, and traditional narratives, creating what School Library Journal reviewer Elizabeth M. Reardon praised as "a fine asset to any study of the Underground Railroad." Noting that the book is "highly readable," Deborah Taylor concluded in Horn Book that Freedom Roads contains "unsolved-mystery aspects [that] will engage young readers."
Hansen has also explored the lives of several women of color who have achieved particular reknown. Her Women of Hope: African Americans Who Made a Difference features brief biographies of thirteen black women, among them Maya Angelou, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mae Jemison, and Alice Walker. Moving from American women to women of more geographically distant black cultures, her African Princess: The Amazing Lives of Africa's Royal Women profiles six African heads of state. Beginning with the ancient Egyptian queen Hatshepsut, Hansen moves toward the present as she profiles fifteenth-century Matamban Princesss Nginga and modern U.S. ambassador Princess Elizabeth of Toro. Describing each woman's life within the context of her own time, Hansen shows that "these intelligent and dedicated women all overcame obstacles, took risks, and often challenged the status quo," explained Mary N. Oluonye in School Library Review. Praising Hansen's "lively, well-researched" biographies, Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman added that the author "is always careful to distinguish fact from surmise," inspiring readers of African Princess "to find out more."
Hansen once commented in the New Advocate on the responsibility involved in writing books for a young audience. "As [children] seek to understand an increasingly confusing world, their minds are malleable and vulnerable. Because of this, the responsibility of writers is enormous. Our job is to arrest the spread of ignorance, to inform, to provide insight and perspective, to entertain. Our words are powerful and those of us who are fortunate enough to have our words read must not abuse that power and privilege." As a writer who is often read by young audiences, Hansen strives to meet that responsibility. As she wrote in SAAS, "I still work very hard on my writing and try to make each book better than the last. I am still learning."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Children's Literature Review, Volume 21, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1990.
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 15, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993, pp. 157-69.
Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Booklist, January 1, 1981, Judith Goldberger, review of The Gift-Giver, p. 624; December 1, 1999, Frances Bradburn, review of The Heart Calls Home, p. 696; June 1, 2000, Gillian Engberg, review of "Bury Me Not in the Land of Slaves": African Americans in the Time of Reconstruction, p. 1871; December 15, 2001, Frances Bradburn, review of One True Friend, p. 731; May 1, 2003, John Peters, review of Freedom Roads: Searching for the Underground Railroad, p. 1590; September 15, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of African Princess: The Amazing Lives of Africa's Royal Women, p. 238.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1981, Zena Sutherland, review of The Gift-Giver, p. 94; March, 1994, p. 223.
Horn Book, September-October, 1987, Joyce Hansen, "Young Adult Books," pp. 644-646; May-June, 1994, Lois F. Anderson, review of The Captive, p. 325; July-August, 1998, pp. 512-513; January, 2000, review of The Heart Calls Home, p. 76; July-August, 2003, Deborah Taylor, review of Freedom Roads, p. 480.
Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, 1984, Volume 15, number 4, Joyce Hansen, "Needed: Quality Literature for Reluctant Readers," pp. 9-11.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1993, p. 530; December 15, 1993, review of The Captive, p. 1590; September 15, 2001, review of One True Friend, p. 1359; March 1, 2003, review of Freedom Roads, p. 386.
Kliatt, November, 1999, Claire Rosser, review of The Heart Calls Home.
New Advocate, summer, 1990, Joyce Hansen, "Whose Story Is It?," pp. 167-173.
Publishers Weekly, November 22, 1993, review of The Captive, p. 64; November 19, 2001, review of One True Friend, p. 70.
School Library Journal, September, 1993, Elizabeth M. Reardon, review of Between Two Fires: Black Soldiers in the Civil War, pp. 255, 257; January, 1994, p. 114; May, 1998, p. 156; June, 2000, Starr E. Smith, review of "Bury Me Not in the Land of Slaves," p. 166; December, 2001, Miriam Lang Budin, review of One True Friend, p. 134; September, 2003, Elizabeth M. Reardon, review of Freedom Roads, p. 232; November, 2004, Mary L. Oluonye, review of African Princess, p. 164.
Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 1983, Kevin Kenny, review of Home Boy, p. 36; August, 1993, p. 177.
Joyce Hansen Web site, http://www.joycehansen.com (March 7, 2005).
"Hansen, Joyce (Viola) 1942-." Something About the Author. 2005. Encyclopedia.com. (June 29, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3445300038.html
"Hansen, Joyce (Viola) 1942-." Something About the Author. 2005. Retrieved June 29, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3445300038.html