Taylor, Mildred D(elois) 1943-
TAYLOR, Mildred D(elois) 1943-
PERSONAL: Born September 13, 1943, in Jackson, MS; daughter of Wilbert Lee and Deletha Marie (Davis) Taylor; married Errol Zea-Daly, August, 1972 (divorced, 1975). Education: University of Toledo, B.Ed., 1965; University of Colorado, M.A., 1969.
ADDRESSES: Home—Boulder, CO. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Writer. United States Peace Corps, English and history teacher in Tuba City, AZ, 1965, and in Yirgalem, Ethiopia, 1965-67, recruiter, 1967-68, instructor in Maine, 1968; University of Colorado, study skills coordinator, 1969-71; proofreader and editor in Los Angeles, CA, 1971-73.
AWARDS, HONORS: First prize in African-American category, Council on Interracial Books for Children, 1973, and outstanding book of the year citation, New York Times, 1975, both for Song of the Trees; American Library Association Notable Book citation, 1976, National Book Award finalist, Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book citation, and Newbery Medal, all 1977, and Buxtehuder Bulle Award, 1985, all for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; outstanding book of the year citation, New York Times, 1981, Jane Addams honor, 1982, American Book Award nomination, 1982, and Coretta Scott King Award, 1982, all for Let the Circle Be Unbroken; New York Times notable book citation, 1987, and Christopher Award, 1988, both for The Gold Cadillac; Coretta Scott King Book Award, 1988, for The Friendship, 1990, for The Road to Memphis, and 2002, for The Land; Christopher Award, 1991, for Mississippi Bridge; ALAN Award for Significant Contribution to Young Adult Literature, National Council of Teachers of English, 1997; Jason Award, 1997, for The Well: David's Story; Scott O'Dell Historical Fiction Award, 2002, for The Land; NSK Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature, 2004, for body of work.
Song of the Trees, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Dial (New York, NY), 1975.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Dial (New York, NY), 1976, reprinted (twenty-fifth anniversary edition), Phyllis Fogelman Books (New York, NY), 2001.
Let the Circle Be Unbroken, Dial (New York, NY), 1981.
The Friendship, illustrated by Max Ginsburg, Dial (New York, NY), 1987.
The Gold Cadillac, illustrated by Michael Hays, Dial (New York, NY), 1987.
The Road to Memphis, Dial (New York, NY), 1990.
Mississippi Bridge, Dial (New York, NY), 1990.
The Well: David's Story, Dial (New York, NY), 1995.
The Land, Phyllis Fogelman Books (New York, NY), 2001.
ADAPTATIONS: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was recorded by Newbery Awards Records in 1978, and as a three-part television miniseries of the same title by American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. (ABC), 1978. Let the Circle Be Unbroken was made into an audio book by Recorded Books, Incorporated, 1998. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and The Land were made into audio books by Listening Library, both 2001.
SIDELIGHTS: With her writings, award-winning author Mildred D. Taylor shares pride in her racial heritage and provides historical fiction about life for black Americans. As a child, Taylor was regaled with stories of proud, dignified ancestors, but she received a different version of history from white, mainstream America. Believing that school history texts diminished the contributions of blacks and glossed over the injustices to which they had been subjected, Taylor vowed to write stories offering a truer vision of black families and their racial struggles. Taylor draws upon family narratives, using a first-person voice that mirrors her relatives' rendition of such tales, and she has been praised for the authentic ring of her characters' ordeals. Taylor invented the chronicle of the Logan family, and her series of books follows the group's activities and experiences throughout the mid-twentieth century. Taylor uses this period because she wishes to emphasize how this generation's reactions to segregation helped to pave the way for the reforms of the civil rights movement and an improvement of interracial relations in the United States.
Taylor brings a unique vantage point to her fiction. Born in 1943, she was part of a transitional generation that witnessed both blatant discrimination against black Americans and the legislative reform to amend historical transgressions. Taylor also experienced the differing racial climates of the North and South. Although born in Jackson, Mississippi, Taylor moved north with her family when she was only three months old. In an essay for Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS), she recounted that her father, infuriated by repeated racial incidents, decided to leave the South in the mid-1940s because "he refused to allow my older sister, Wilma, and me to live our lives as he had to live his, in a segregated, racist society that allowed little or no opportunity to blacks." Although racism was persistent throughout the country, the North was perceived as an area offering greater freedom and job opportunities. Despite their relocation, the family did not abandon their Southern roots; they made an annual trek to visit relatives. Reminiscing about such trips in her Newbery Award acceptance speech, printed in Horn Book, Taylor remarked, "As a small child, I loved the South. . . . In my early years, the trip was a marvelous adventure; a twenty hour picnic that took us into another time, another world." At that time Taylor did not understand that the nature of these trips was a direct result of the racist policies of the South; the family packed food because they were not allowed in Southern restaurants and hotels, and they traveled back roads out of fear of harassment from bigoted police officers. Yet Taylor soon realized that she was expected to act—and was treated—differently in the South merely because of the color of her skin. She continued, "one summer I suddenly felt a climbing nausea as we crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky" because of the blatant discrimination in the South and the fear it inspired. Despite the uneasiness these vacations involved, Taylor's father insisted that his daughters be aware of these injustices commonly invoked in the United States. His reasoning, as she explained in her essay for SAAS, was "that without understanding the loss of liberty in the South, we couldn't appreciate the liberty of the North."
Yet, for the author, the South also held pleasant memories as the home of her ancestors. In an article for Horn Book she remarked, "I also remember the other South—the South of family and community, the South filled with warmth and love—and how it opened to me a sense of history and filled me with pride." This vision of the South was passed down in an oral tradition; when Taylor's extended family gathered, relatives would recreate the family's history with stories acted out on porches and around bonfires. Her father was a noted storyteller, engaging family members with fascinating tales of colorful, proud ancestors who retained dignity even when faced with the inhumanity and degradation of slavery. In an article for Books for Schools and Libraries, Taylor disclosed the effect such tales had on her: "I began to imagine myself as a storyteller. . . . But I was a shy and quiet child, so I turned to creating stories for myself instead, carving elaborate daydreams in my mind."
When the author was ten years old, her family moved into a newly integrated Ohio town, and she was the only black child in her class. This was a scene repeated throughout her formative years, and Taylor felt burdened by the realization that her actions would be judged—by whites unfamiliar with blacks—as representative of her entire race. In school, when the subject was history, Taylor was uncomfortable because her understanding of black heritage contrasted sharply with that presented in textbooks. In Horn Book, she commented that such publications contained only a "lackluster history of Black people . . . a history of a docile, subservient people happy with their fate who did little or nothing to shatter the chains that bound them, both before and after slavery." Knowing this to be false, Taylor tried to think of ways to repudiate the information in those books. In her SAAS essay she recalled, "I remember once trying to explain those family stories in class, about the way things really were. . . . Most of the students thought I was making the stories up. Some even laughed at me. I couldn't explain things to them. Even the teacher seemed not to believe me. They all believed what was in the history book."
The bias of such accounts had a motivating effect on Taylor. In Horn Book she explained, "By the time I entered high school, I had a driving compulsion to paint a truer picture of Black people. I wanted to show the endurance of the Black World, with strong fathers and concerned mothers; I wanted to show happy, loved children. . . . I wanted to show a Black family united in love and pride, of which the reader would like to be a part."
However, it was not until 1973 that Taylor wrote her first book. Spurred on by a contest deadline, she produced the manuscript for Song of the Trees in only four days. Three months later she received a telegram naming her the winner in the African-American category of the Council on Interracial Books for Children contest. Song of the Trees introduced the Logan clan: Big Ma, Papa, Mama, Uncle Hammer, Stacey, Christopher-John, Cassie, and Little Man. This book, based on an actual incident, is told through the voice of the Logan daughter, Cassie. Jobs are scarce in 1930s Mississippi because of the Depression, and Cassie's father is away in Louisiana trying to earn enough money to pay the taxes on the family's land. In his absence, white men threaten to cut down trees on the Logan's property. However Papa returns in time to take a stand against the white men. Ruby Martin, in a Journal of Reading review, praised Song of the Trees as "so beautifully told, the prose rings poetry."
Taylor's next book, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which earned the prestigious Newbery medal in 1977, continues the story of the Logan family and the author "creates a remarkable family portrait," according David A. Wright in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Using a limited time frame, the book examines the family's life and demonstrates how discrimination is an everyday occurrence. Stacey, Christopher-John, Cassie, and Little Man all attend school, suffering humiliations such as being splashed by the school bus that only picks up white children and receiving school texts in poor condition only because the white school no longer had need for them. Mama loses her teaching job because she defies school district officials by including a discussion of slavery in a history lesson even though it is not in the book. After a horrifying racial incident in which several black men are set on fire, the Logans help orchestrate a boycott of a crooked white merchant's store, a suspected ringleader in the burnings. This act sets off a series of events, including the threat of foreclosure on the Logan's land, the near lynching of the Logan children's classmate, and a suspicious fire.
Stuart Hannabuss, writing in Junior Bookshelf, commented that Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is "full of episodes of emotional power." Noting the effect of such scenes, David Rees, in his work The Marble in the Water: Essays on Contemporary Writers of Fiction for Children and Young Adults, remarked that "it's impossible not to feel anger and a sense of burning in reading this book." And Interracial Books for Children Bulletin contributor Emily R. Moore concluded, "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry deserves to become a classic in children's literature."
In the next addition to the Logan chronicle, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, "Taylor's recurrent theme of family unity has its strongest appearance," according to Wright. Cassie recounts the hardships of the Depression for both white and black sharecroppers and shows how sometimes people of the same economic status work together regardless of race. Yet, the author also presents more situations of racial struggle. The Logan children's classmate is unfairly convicted for his part in a robbery that took place in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Cassie helps an elderly black woman memorize the state constitution so that she can register to vote, but nonetheless the woman is refused this basic civil right. New York Times Book Review contributor June Jordan praised the book for its "dramatic tension and virtuoso characterization." In a review of Let the Circle Be Unbroken for the Christian Science Monitor, Christine McDonnell observed, "Though many of Cassie and Stacey's experiences happen because they are black, their growing pains and self-discovery are universal." McDonnell added, "The Logans' story will strengthen and satisfy all who read it."
The Friendship, written in 1987, presents a racial confrontation between two men in 1930s Mississippi. Tom Bee, a black man, had saved the life of John Wallace, a white storekeeper, when the two were young men. In gratitude, John insisted that the two would always remain friends, evidenced by their using first names to address each other. However, years later, John reneges on this promise and shoots Tom for addressing him by his first name in public—an act considered insubordination because blacks were supposed to refer to white men or women as "mister" and "misses." Frances Bradburn, writing in Wilson Library Bulletin stated, "This is a story that children will experience rather than simply read. . . . The humiliation, the injustice, but above all the quiet determination, courage, and pride of Mr. Tom Bee will speak to all children."
Taylor's next work, The Gold Cadillac, is set in the 1950s and chronicles a black family's car trip to the South to visit relatives. Much like the family vacations of Taylor's youth, the family is confronted with "whites only" signs and suffers harassment from white police officers who are both jealous and suspicious of the family's car and the prosperity it represents. Such incidents help the two young sisters appreciate the greater freedom and opportunity they enjoy in their Ohio hometown.
In the fourth book of the Logan saga, The Road to Memphis, Cassie is a high school senior dreaming of becoming a lawyer. She attends school in Jackson, Mississippi, and is for the first time without the protection of her parents and grandmother. Her brother Stacey and a friend are also in Jackson working in factories. There the trio face more racial incidents and also must contend with the outbreak of World War II. After Stacey's friend is forced to flee the city because he defended himself against a white attack, even though he realized he would be punished, Cassie grapples with her decision to pursue a career in the white-controlled legal system.
Another of Taylor's works, Mississippi Bridge, is told from the point of view of Jeremy Simms, a white character who has been present in the Logan books. In these works Jeremy was distinguished from the racist townsfolk in that he continually made offers of friendship to the Logan children. Mississippi Bridge chronicles another racist incident in which, during stormy weather, black bus passengers are forced to get off of the bus to make room for white riders. This story concludes in an incident that some critics perceived as judgment for the white's discriminatory actions.
The Well: David's Story, which Taylor published in 1995, revisits the Logan family, this time focusing on ten-year-old David Logan (father of Cassie in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry) and his family, who share their well water with both black and white neighbors in Mississippi in the early 1900s. Despite their kindness, the Logans are still treated with disrespect by the white neighbors. A reviewer writing for Publishers Weekly noted, "Taylor, obviously in tune with these fully developed characters, creates for them an intense and compelling situation and skillfully delivers powerful messages about racism and moral fortitude."
Taylor's next book, The Land, also a prequel to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, deals with Paul-Edward Logan, Cassie's grandfather, during the period right after the Civil War. Writing in Publishers Weekly, a reviewer commented, "Like any good historian, Taylor extracts truth from past events without sugarcoating issues." Noting that Taylor's tone "is more uplifting than the bitter," the reviewer added, "Rather than dismissing hypocrisies, she digs beneath the surface of Paul-Edward's friends and foes, showing how their values have been shaped by the social norms." A reviewer for Horn Book noted Taylor's masterful use of the realities of racism "to frame a powerful coming-of-age story of a bewildered boy becoming a man beholden to no one." Finally, Hazel Rochman, writing for Booklist, pointed out, "The novel will make a great discussion book in American history classes dealing with black history; pioneer life; and the Reconstruction period, about which little has been written for this age group."
With each of her books, Taylor has provided a glimpse into the history of black Americans. Even though her characters face repeated racial indignities, they show courage and resourcefulness in overcoming their problems. Taylor has earned esteem and recognition for her writing, but she gives her father credit for much of her success. Both the stories he told and the example he set in fighting against discrimination helped her form the basis of her books. The author accepted her Newbery Medal for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry on behalf of her father and remarked that "without his teachings, without his words, my words would not have been." Taylor added in Horn Book that she hopes her books about the Logan family "will one day be instrumental in teaching children of all colors the tremendous influence that Cassie's generation . . . had in bringing about the great Civil Rights movement of the fifties and sixties." In her acceptance speech for the 1997 ALAN Award, Taylor also pointed out, "In the writing of my books I have tried to present not only a history of my family, but the effects of racism, not only to the victims of racism but also to racists themselves." Taylor has said that she still has a final book to write about the Logans and will be returning to Cassie's voice to tell the story.
In 2004, Taylor was honored as the first winner of the NSK Neustadt Prize for Childrens' Literature. Commenting on Taylor's career in light of this award, Dianne Johnson of World Literature Today remarked that the author "respects her readers of every age and background, and she respects her characters by showing them in their fullness as individuals and as knowing or unknowing players in big social movements. The plots are full of the suspense and drama of the real lives of real people." In nominating Taylor for the award, Johnson applauded Taylor's African-American characters: "Her black characters, full of integrity, contradictions, intelligence, confusions, and passions, help to eradicate the 'all-white world of children's books' and the many stereotypes of black people that once predominated this world." Another contributor to World Literature Today, Robert Con Davis-Undiano, also commented on Taylor's important contributions to literature for young readers: "Taylor has been a signal writer in America. By signal writer, I mean that she is a writer whose work has marked a huge cultural shift in the lives of many American families who have suffered the indignities of poverty and racial discrimination. . . . There are literally tens of thousands of young adults in America, and many more young people still in school, who attribute their strong sense of the meaning of social inequity and the need for social change to their reading of Taylor's work."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 10, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993.
Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Beacham Publishing (Osprey, FL), Volume 3, 1990, pp. 1135-1143, Volume 8, 1994, pp. 3890-3897.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 9, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 26, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 21, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1982.
Crowe, Chris, Presenting Mildred D. Taylor, Twayne (New York, NY), 1999.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 52: American Writers for Children since 1960: Fiction, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986, pp. 365-367.
Rees, David, The Marble in the Water: Essays on Contemporary Writers of Fiction for Children and Young Adults, "The Color of Skin: Mildred Taylor," pp. 108-109.
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 5, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988, pp. 267-286.
ALAN Review, spring, 1995, Barbara T. Bontempo, "Exploring Prejudice in Young Adult Literature through Drama and Role Play"; spring, 1998, Mildred D. Taylor, "Acceptance Speech for the 1997 ALAN Award."
Booklist, December 1, 1990, p. 740; May 15, 1997, Karen Harris, review of The Road to Memphis, p. 1596; August, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of The Land, p. 2108.
Books for Schools and Libraries, 1985, Mildred D. Taylor, autobiographical article.
Christian Science Monitor, October 14, 1981, Christine McDonnell, "Powerful Lesson of Family Love," pp. B1, B11.
Horn Book, August, 1977, Mildred D. Taylor, Newbery Award Acceptance Speech, pp. 401-409; September, 2001, review of The Land, p. 596.
Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, Volume 7, 1976, Emily R. Moore, "The Bookshelf: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," p. 18.
Journal of Reading, February, 1977, Ruby Martin, "Books for Young People," pp. 432-435.
Junior Bookshelf, October, 1982, Stuart Hannabuss, "Beyond the Formula: Part II," p. 175.
New York Times Book Review, November 15, 1981, June Jordan, "Mississippi in the Thirties," pp. 55, 58; May 20, 1990.
Publishers Weekly, April 13, 1990, review of The Road to Memphis, p. 67; July 17, 1990, review of Mississippi Bridge, p. 234; January 2, 1995, review of The Well: David's Story, p. 77; August 13, 2001, review of The Land, p. 313; October 22, 2001, Jennifer M. Brown, "Stories behind the Book," p. 24.
School Library Journal, Bruce Anne Shook, review of The Land, p. 190.
Times Literary Supplement, March 26, 1982.
Wilson Library Bulletin, March, 1988, Frances Bradburn, "Middle Readers' Right to Read," p. 42.
World Literature Today, May-August, 2004, Dianne Johnson, "A Tribute to Mildred D. Taylor," p. 3, 4, and Robert Con Davis-Undiano, "Mildred D. Taylor and the Art of Making a Difference," p. 11.*