Lyons, Mary E. 1947- (Mary Evelyn Lyons)
Lyons, Mary E. 1947- (Mary Evelyn Lyons)
Born November 28, 1947, in Macon, GA; daughter of Joseph and Evelyn Lyons; married Paul Collinge (owner of a used and rare bookstore). Education: Appalachian
State University, B.S., 1970, M.S., 1972; University of Virginia, doctoral study. Hobbies and other interests: Playing Irish penny whistle and banjo with the group The Chicken Heads.
Writer. Reading teacher at elementary and middle schools in North Carolina and in Charlottesville, VA, and school librarian at elementary, middle, and high schools, Charlottesville. Instructor in writing at University of Virginia.
Best Books for Young Adults designation, American Library Association (ALA), and Carter G. Woodson Book Award, National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), both 1991, both for Sorrow's Kitchen; Teacher Scholar Award, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1991-92; Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies designation, NCSS/Children's Book Council (CBC), 1992, for Raw Head, Bloody Bones, 1994, for Stitching Stars, and 1996, for Keeping Secrets; ALA Best Books for Young Adults designation, and Golden Kite Award for fiction, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, both 1992, Jane Addams Children's Book Award Honor designation, 1993, and Parents' Choice Award, 1996, all for Letters from a Slave Girl; ALA Notable Book designation, 1993, and Carter G. Woodson Award, 1994, both for Starting Home; Books for the Teen Age designation, New York Public Library, 1995, for Deep Blues; Carter G. Woodson Elementary Merit Book designation, 1995, for Master of Mahogany; Jefferson Cup Series Award, Virginia Library Association, 1996, for "African-American Artists and Artisans" series; Joan Sugarman Honor Book Award, Washington Independent Writers, and New York Public Library One Hundred Books for Reading and Sharing inclusion, both 2002, both for Dear Ellen Bee; Parents' Choice Gold Award, and Aesop Award, American Folklore Association, both 2005, and Big Read for Little Readers Designated Juvenile Title, Virginia Center for the Book, 2008-09, all for Roy Makes a Car; three Virginia Foundation for the Humanities fellowships.
FOR YOUNG PEOPLE
Sorrow's Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston, Scribner (New York, NY), 1990.
(Editor) Raw Head, Bloody Bones: African-American Tales of the Supernatural, Scribner (New York, NY), 1991.
Letters from a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs, Scribner (New York, NY), 1992.
The Butter Tree: Tales of Bruh Rabbit, illustrated by Mireille Vautier, Holt (New York, NY), 1995.
Keeping Secrets: The Girlhood Diaries of Seven Working Writers, Holt (New York, NY), 1995.
The Poison Place (novel), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1997.
(With Muriel M. Branch) Dear Ellen Bee: A Civil War Scrapbook of Two Union Spies, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2000.
Knockabeg: A Famine Tale, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2001.
(Editor) Feed the Children First: Memories of the Great Hunger, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2002.
(Adaptor) Roy Makes a Car (based on a story collected by Zora Neale Hurston), illustrated by Terry Widener, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2005.
(With William Fash) The Ancient American World (nonfiction), Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2005.
Letters from a Slave Boy: The Story of Joseph Jacobs, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2007.
"AFRICAN-AMERICAN ARTISTS AND ARTISANS" SERIES
Starting Home: The Story of Horace Pippin, Painter, Scribner (New York, NY), 1993.
Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers, Scribner (New York, NY), 1993.
Master of Mahogany: Tom Day, Free Black Cabinetmaker, Scribner (New York, NY), 1994.
Deep Blues: Bill Traylor, Self-Taught Artist, Scribner (New York, NY), 1994.
Painting Dreams: Minnie Evans, Visionary Artist, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1996.
Catching the Fire: Philip Simmons, Blacksmith, photographs by Mannie Garcia, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.
(Editor) Talking with Tebé: Clementine Hunter, Memory Artist, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1998.
Mary E. Lyons is Southern born and her Southern sensibility is clearly evident in her many award-winning historical and biographical works for children. In her fiction and nonfiction titles, Lyons explores the lives of marginalized people in history, from women to African Americans to impoverished Irish during the potato famine. Her "African-American Artists and Artisans" non-fiction series is geared for middle-grade readers, and older teens are the audience for her biography of folklorist Zora Neale Hurston as well as of Keeping Secrets: The Girlhood Diaries of Seven Women Writers. The writings of two young slaves are fictionalized in the companion volumes Letters from a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs and Letters from a Slave Boy: The Story of Joseph Jacobs. Based on actual historical figures, both titles focus on the lives of a mother and son in the antebellum years of the early 1800s. Lyons's other fiction for young adults includes the novel The Poison Place, Dear Ellen Bee: The Civil War Scrapbook of Two Union Spies, and Knockabeg: A Famine Tale.
Lyons was born in Macon, Georgia, and moved often during her childhood. "We followed my father in his work," the author recalled, "and by the time I was eleven, I had already lived in five Southern states and eight Southern towns…. I didn't know it at the time, but reading provided an instant escape. If I felt uncomfortable in a strange neighborhood or new school, I glued myself to a book and forgot it all." This somewhat rootless childhood has inspired the author to center much of her writing around her Southern origins.
After graduating from college, Lyons found her first teaching job in an inner-city school located in the middle of a housing project; the doors were locked most of the time for security. Lyons, who had been a mediocre science student, was assigned to teach science to her predominately black students. After one year she returned to college to earn a master's degree in reading so that she might be a better teacher. She taught in public schools for the next seventeen years before leaving the classroom to retrain as a school librarian. Her classroom and library experience led Lyons to write her first publication.
"Life has a weird way of sending us what we need to complete ourselves," Lyons later noted. "When I was a reading teacher, I discovered that my eighth-grade classes enjoyed stories by women writers and African American writers. They especially loved the humorous folktales collected by Zora Neale Hurston. There was no biography of her in the school library for the students to read, so I wrote my first book, Sorrow's Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston."
Part biography, part introduction to the works of Hurston, Sorrow's Kitchen traces the writer's life from her childhood in Eatonville, Florida, at the turn of the twentieth century through her fight to become educated, her participation in the Harlem Renaissance, and finally to her work collecting and preserving the folklore of both her native South and of the West Indies. Researching and writing the book was a challenge for Lyons, "I had to relearn everything I had studied years before in high school and college," the author noted. "World War I, the Depression, World War II, the civil rights movement. This time I studied with Zora in mind." In Booklist Hazel Rochman observed that the "strength of Lyons's book is that she includes long excerpts from Hurston's works, set off within each chapter by a handsome border design." Elizabeth S. Watson, writing in Horn Book, called Sorrow's Kitchen "fascinating, enlightening, stimulating, and satisfying," and also cited Lyons's use of extended quotes from Hurston's writing.
Lyons uses Hurston's writings as a springboard for several books, including Raw Head, Bloody Bones: African-American Tales of the Supernatural and Roy Makes a Car. Raw Head, Bloody Bones incorporates some of the stories and tales Hurston collected during the 1930s as part of the Florida Federal Writers' Project. Several of the fifteen tales of ghosts and demons included in the collection are cast in the Gullah dialect spoken by the African-American inhabitants of the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, where Lyons lived as a child. In her Booklist review of Raw Head, Bloody Bones, Denia Hester warned that the "timid and fainthearted" should beware; Lyons's "collection of African-American tales is a bone chiller" as well as "a scary good read." A critic in Publishers Weekly observed that the tales "derive their bewitching quality from the rhythms of the spoken word and the dancelike quality of early African American speech," both of which combine to "provide a quixotic contrast to the often gruesome subject matter."
Based on one of Hurston's collected tales, Roy Makes a Car introduces a mechanic named Roy Tyle, who is known far and wide for working magic with automobiles. When Roy makes the claim that he can construct a car that cannot break down, he comes through on his promise and sells the car for lots of money. A flying car is his next creation, and when Roy rides this winged auto up into the heavens, God becomes the mechanic's business partner in the hopes that the car will be useful to the angels. In her School Library Journal review of the picture book, Carolyn Janssen asserted that Lyons tells her story "with the ease of a seasoned storyteller," producing a book the critic dubbed "Southern storytelling at its best." In Kirkus Reviews a contributor noted that Terry Widener's illustrations are reminiscent of the Depression-era artwork of Thomas Hart Benton, while a Publishers Weekly critic described Lyons's version of Hurston's tale as "turbocharge[d]" with "brisk pacing and plenty of colloquialisms."
Letters from a Slave Girl is an account of the early life of Harriet Ann Jacobs, a slave who later fled to the North and became, through her writings, an important voice in the abolitionist movement. In researching Jacobs's life, Lyons relied heavily on the woman's autobiography, and she recreates Jacobs's life from age twelve to twenty-nine in letters Jacobs might have written. The fictional letters detail the loss of Jacobs's mother and the forced separation of her family after the death of one owner. There is a letter to her dead father after she is denied permission to attend his funeral; another letter addresses the man she loves and explains that she has decided to accept the attentions of a relatively kind white man in order to escape those of her brutal master. Jacobs ran away from her owners and hid for seven years in a crawl space under the eaves of her grandmother's cabin, eventually escaping to the North in 1842. A Kirkus Reviews critic noted that the narrative voice "Lyons creates for Harriet—a luminous character, gentle and resolute—is graceful and direct," while a Horn Book reviewer dubbed Letters from a Slave Girl "historical fiction at its best." A Publishers Weekly contributor also found much to praise in the book, describing it as a "searing epistolary work" that "stirringly celebrates the strength of the human spirit."
The life of Jacobs's son, Joseph Jacobs, is transformed into fictional diary entries and a series of imagined letters in Letters from a Slave Boy. After his mother escapes in 1835, five-year-old Joseph is left with his great until he runs away in 1843. Able to pass for white and with rudimentary reading skills, he embarks on a series of adventures that move him from work as a printer's apprentice in Boston to a crew member on a whaling ship. An adventurer at heart, Joseph then joins the rush to California, and his search for the gold needed to buy his family's freedom ultimately takes him to Australia. According to Horn Book contributor Betty Carter, Letters from a Slave Boy gives readers "a glimpse of America in the nineteenth century—not only the yearning for a better life but also the prejudice toward minorities." In Horn Book Paula Rohrlick called the work a "fine historical novel," and Carolyn Janssen noted in her School Library Journal that in Letters from a Slave Boy Lyons's use of "dialect and spelling give authenticity" to the boy's story "without making the text difficult to read and understand."
In her "African-American Artists and Artisans" series, Lyons details the lives of several creative black Americans, some of whom were overlooked during their lifetimes. Series opener Starting Home features self-taught painter Horace Pippin, whose works include many scenes from World War I, where he fought as part of the first U.S. all-black regiment to fight overseas. Wounded in the war and left unable to lift his right hand above shoulder level, Pippin went on to become a highly renowned folk artist. Focusing on a former slave named Harriet Powers, Stitching the Stars describes the life and career of the woman who "wrote" stories in quilts with needle and thread. (Slaves were forbidden to read or write.) Powers's two story quilts are now on display at the Museum of American History and are considered priceless examples of folk art. Reviewing both titles for Booklist, Rochman noted that "Lyons's sensitive commentary will draw middle-grade readers to look at the paintings and photographs." Describing Stitching Stars in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Deborah Stevenson remarked that "Lyons's lively writing stitches concepts together with smoothness and clarity" to produce "an unusual take on history and a reminder of the democratic possibilities of art."
In Master of Mahogany: Tom Day, Free Black Cabinetmaker and Catching the Fire: Philip Simmons, Blacksmith, Lyons tells the stories of a cabinetmaker and a blacksmith, respectively. Born of free parents in 1801, Thomas Day became one of the most successful cabinetmakers in pre-Civil War North Carolina, and his works have become collector's items. In Master of Mahogany, "Lyons does an excellent job of piecing together the sketchy details of Day's life, of which little is known," wrote a Horn Book reviewer. In Catching the Fire, Lyons presents the life and work of Philip Simmons, a blacksmith whose gates, fences, and railings decorate the city of Charleston, South Carolina, where Simmons has lived most of his life. Based on personal interviews with Simmons and those who have worked with him, the book was dubbed "an engrossing biography" by a Kirkus Reviews critic and "engaging" by a reviewer in Horn Book. Stevenson concluded that Catching the Fire would be "useful not only as an introduction to a gifted professional craftsman, but also a reminder of how unexpected things can become art when executed with authority."
Other visual artists are profiled in books such as Deep Blues: Bill Traylor, Self-Taught Artist; Painting Dreams: Minnie Evans, Visionary Artist; and Talking with Tebé: Clementine Hunter, Memory Artist. In Deep Blues, Lyons details the life and works of a man who was born into slavery in Alabama in 1856 and who did not begin painting until he was eighty years old. Traylor's works are now acclaimed and exhibited throughout the United States. A critic in Horn Book noted that "Lyons's perceptive commentary … points out possible connections between Traylor's life as a farmer and the subject matter of his works."
Minnie Evans, the subject of Painting Dreams, was forty-three years old when she began to draw, and she based her pictures on dreams that had haunted her all her life. Born into poverty and untrained as an artist, Evans did not let this stop her, nor would she be stopped by her family and friends who thought she was crazy. "Lyons has brought us the life and work of an African American folk artist who succeeded despite community prejudice," commented Rochman. In Talking with Tebé, Lyons presents the art of Clementine Hunter, called Tebé, whose work portrays the life of a southern laborer. This story is told through Hunter's own words, which Lyons gathered from magazine and newspaper articles and tape-recorded interviews.
Other books by Lyons include Keeping Secrets, The Butter Tree: Tales of Bruh Rabbit, and The Poison Place. In the first of these titles, Lyons blends her own commentary with excerpts from the girlhood diaries of seven nineteenth-century women writers: Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Forten, Sarah Jane Foster, Kate Chopin, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Ida B. Wells, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She demonstrates how keeping a diary helped each of these young writers develop a public voice. A critic in Kirkus Reviews noted that "Lyons writes with style and feeling, creating a strong sense of each individual life story, even as she gives us a social history of what it was like to be a woman at that time." A Horn Book reviewer called Keeping Secrets "a fascinating look at the public and private lives" of these writers that explores "issues of femininity, social expectations, family, and racism."
In a somewhat lighter vein, Lyons retells African American trickster tales in The Butter Tree. These six tales from South Carolina involve the usual scenario of a small animal tricking a much larger one, and as a critic in Publishers Weekly noted, "undoubtedly helped the enslaved originators of these tales endure their own oppression." "Bruh" as well as "brer" is a variant of "brother," an indication that the slaves held this wily rabbit close to their hearts. In Horn Book Maeve Visser Knoth noted that "Lyons's skilled retellings are brief and uncluttered, recalling the oral tradition. She uses few adjectives, yet her language is colorful and evokes regional flavor."
Begun in 1989 with the scrap of an idea, Lyons's novel The Poison Place uses historical fact as its background, detailing the lives of two men. One is Charles Willson Peale, the eighteenth-century portraitist and founder of the first museum of natural history in the United States, the Peale Museum in Philadelphia. The other is Moses Williams, Peale's former slave, who became a silhouette cutter and the first black professional artist in postrevolutionary America. The novel is told through the voice of Williams on a nighttime tour with his young daughter through the museum. Williams's own struggle for survival is contrasted to Peale's story and that of his museum. As Rachelle M. Bilz noted in Voice of Youth Advocates, "Moses's lifelong quest for freedom is intertwined with the Peale family's success and failure." Through the narrator's revelations, the reader is led to wonder how much responsibility Peale himself had in the eventual poisoning of his own son, a taxidermist in the museum who died from the arsenic he used in his work. Bilz concluded that the novel was "fast paced and well written … sure to appeal to historical fiction fans." A contributor in Kirkus Reviews called The Poison Place "a riveting work of historical fiction."
Inspired by the stories of her Irish forbears, Lyons deals with the Irish Potato Famine of the nineteenth century in two books: the novel Knockabeg: A Famine Tale and the nonfiction Feed the Children First: Memories of the Great Hunger. Knockabeg mixes creatures and characters from Irish folklore with real-life characters. The fairy folk known as the Nuckelavees have put a curse on Ireland's potatoes, causing a famine and a war between the fairies and the mortals. A critic for Publishers Weekly found that "the action shifts between (and often intersects) both worlds, detailing the impact of famine on the human community as well as the wounded faeries' war stories when they return to heal the residents of Knockabeg." Kit Vaughan, writing in School Library Journal, concluded: "Don't expect an entirely happy ending in this story, which includes some gruesome descriptions of the effects of the potato famine on the mortals of Knockabeg."
Feed the Children First is a collection of comments made by descendants of Irish men and women who lived through a devastating potato famine in Ireland. Their accounts include descriptions of the many deaths that occurred—almost one-quarter of the population perished—as well as remembrances of the voyages many of them made to start new lives in North America. Diane S. Marton, writing in School Library Journal, found that these firsthand accounts "bear witness not only to unbearable suffering, but also to the humanity, dignity, and endurance of a people." "The personal voices and images in this collection bring the horror of the Irish potato famine very close," added Rochman, and Margaret A. Bush concluded in Horn Book that Feed the Children First serves as "a powerful introduction to Ireland's history and to the human devastation of a country in extreme poverty."
Lyons continues to pen historical fiction and to write for young readers. "I can't imagine writing for anyone besides young people," the author once stated. "They like to be told the truth and can handle complexities that adults can't." She also maintains contact with her audience by frequent visits to schools. "Teachers often expect a black author to show up because so many of my books have dealt with African-American issues. I'm always flattered that people assume I'm black; I hope it means I'm doing my job as a writer. But now I consider myself not only a writer of black history or of women's history, but increasingly as a historian of the South." For Lyons this means giving a voice to those who have not been heard before. "Many people I write about have never had a chance to speak for themselves," she explained. "In articles already written about them, you don't really hear their voices. I want to let my subjects tell their own stories in a form accessible to young readers."
Biographical and Critical Sources
St. James Guide to Children's Writers, 5th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Booklist, December 15, 1990, Hazel Rochman, review of Sorrow's Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston, p. 866; January 1, 1992, Denia Hester, review of Raw Head, Bloody Bones: African-American Tales of the Supernatural, pp. 830-831; November 15, 1993, Hazel Rochman, review of Starting Home: The Story of Horace Pippin, Painter and Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers, pp. 618-619; October 1, 1994, Ilene Cooper, review of Master of Mahogany: Tom Day, Free Black Cabinetmaker, p. 322; November 15, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of Deep Blues: Bill Traylor, Self-Taught Artist, p. 598; July, 1996, Hazel Rochman, review of Painting Dreams: Minnie Evans, Visionary Artist, pp. 1825-1826; September 1, 1997, Carolyn Phelan, review of Catching the Fire: Philip Simmons, Blacksmith, p. 117; December 1, 1997, Randy Meyer, review of The Poison Place, p. 616; November 1, 2000, Carolyn Phelan, review of Dear Ellen Bee: A Civil War Scrapbook of Two Union Spies, p. 540; December 15, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of Feed the Children First: Irish Memories of the Great Hunger, p. 725; January 1, 2007, Carolyn Phelan, review of Letters from a Slave Boy: The Story of Joseph Jacobs, p. 83.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, December, 1993, Deborah Stevenson, review of Stitching Stars, p. 128; October, 1997, Deborah Stevenson, review of Catching the Fire, p. 57; September, 2001, review of Knockabeg: A Famine Tale, p. 26; May, 2007, Karen Coats, review of Letters from a Slave Boy, p. 375.
Horn Book, March-April, 1991, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of Sorrow's Kitchen, p. 216; November, 1992, review of Letters from a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs, p. 729; March-April, 1994, Ellen Fader, review of Starting Home, and Ellen Fader, review of Stitching Stars, p. 219; November, 1994, review of Master of Mahogany, p. 750; March, 1995, review of Deep Blues, p. 221; September, 1995, review of Keeping Secrets: The Girlhood Diaries of Seven Women Writers and Maeve Visser Knoth, review of The Butter Tree: Tales of Bruh Rabbit, p. 614; September-October, 1997, review of Catching the Fire, p. 592; September-October, 1998, Susan P. Bloom, review of Talking with Tebé: Clementine Hunter, Memory Artist, p. 620; March-April, 2002, Margaret A. Bush, review of Feed the Children First, p. 229; March-April, 2005, Barbara Bader, review of Roy Makes a Car, p. 211; March-April, 2007, Betty Carter, review of Letters from a Slave Boy, p. 197.
Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 1992, review of Letters from a Slave Girl, p. 1380; June 1, 1995, review of Keeping Secrets; July 1, 1997, review of Catching the Fire; October 1, 1997, review of The Poison Place; December 15, 2004, review of Roy Makes a Car, p. 1204; November 15, 2006, review of Letters from a Slave Boy, p. 15.
Kliatt, January, 2007, Paula Rohrlick, review of Letters from a Slave Boy, p. 1176.
Publishers Weekly, October 25, 1991, review of Raw Head, Bloody Bones, p. 69; October 26, 1992, review of Letters from a Slave Girl, pp. 72-73; February 20, 1995, review of The Butter Tree, p. 206; September 18, 2000, review of Dear Ellen Bee, p. 112; July 23, 2001, review of Knockabeg, p. 78; December 10, 2001, review of Feed the Children First, p. 71; January 24, 2005, review of Roy Makes a Car, p. 243.
Reading Today, April, 2001, Lynne T. Burke, review of Dear Ellen Bee, p. 32.
School Library Journal, February, 1994, Maria B. Salvadore, reviews of Starting Home and Stitching Stars, p. 113; October, 1994, Joanne Kelleher, review of Master of Mahogany, p. 136; January, 1995, p. 127; September, 1997, Margaret C. Howell, review of Catching the Fire, p. 233; November, 1997, Sally Margolis, review of The Poison Place, p. 120; September, 1998, Judith Constantinides, review of Talking with Tebé, p. 221; October, 2000, Patricia B. McGee, review of Dear Ellen Bee, p. 164; September, 2001, Kit Vaughan, review of Knockabeg, p. 226; March, 2002, Diane S. Marton, review of Feed the Children First, p. 254; February, 2005, Carolyn Janssen, review of Roy Makes a Car, p. 106; February, 2007, Carolyn Janssen, review of Letters from a Slave Boy, p. 122.
Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1997, Rachelle M. Bilz, review of The Poison Place, p. 318.
Mary Lyons Home Page,http://www.lyonsdenbooks.com (June 10, 2008).
Mary E. Lyons
Lyons contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
Most people are surprised to learn that I was a remedial reader in the first grade. It wasn't my fault. Really, it wasn't. I had only been in this world for five years when I started school. With no year of kindergarten under my little belt, I wasn't quite ready to enter the land of reading. Besides, I was too busy dreaming about the party for my upcoming sixth birthday and talking to imaginary playmates named Kerchief and Johnny.
My mother drilled me with flash cards. My father told me I could have anything I wanted, if only I would move up from the Crows to the Swans, or whatever the good nuns at Holy Family Catholic School in Miami,
Florida, called reading groups back then. Anything I wanted! I worked hard for weeks and must have made progress. When reward time rolled around, I announced that I wanted a … chocolate milkshake.
I no longer remember that particular milkshake (it was one of many to come), but I still remember the first word I learned to read: LOOK. Those four letters grabbed me by the hand and haven't let go since. They've led me through thousands of books written by other people and twenty that I've written myself.
The stories in my first-grade reading books were about cardboard children named John and Jean. They had perma-freeze smiles and owned an ugly dog called Spot. John and Jean led very dull lives. Mostly they called their dog: "Here, Spot, here! Come here!"
As I went up through the grades, each teacher assigned a new reading book on the first day of school. It was supposed to last all year, but before the day was over, I read the book from cover to cover. That left 179 school days to sit through vocabulary and comprehension drills on stories I'd already read.
It's no wonder that whenever we moved to a new town, I read my way through the school library. And though my family didn't own many books, there was always something in the house to read: magazines, newspapers, and an ever-changing menu of public library books.
I spent my third-grade year in Savannah, Georgia. That's when I won a school contest and the first book I ever owned: Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock. Nancy was a cool detective who wore a long skirt with a matching jacket. Thanks to her, I learned words like "cloche" (she wore one on her head) and "roadster" (she drove one). The sophistication of the terms appealed to me. They also taught me how to use the rest of a sentence to figure out the general meaning of an unfamiliar word.
Third grade wasn't my finest year. The lay (non-nun) teacher at Cathedral Catholic School was young and inexperienced. One day she walked off the job for good, leaving a wild group of kids to run the classroom on their own. That didn't last long. Within an hour, the principal took over. One substitute teacher after another for the rest of the year meant that I didn't learn to write in cursive. By the time we moved to Orangeburg, South Carolina, I was a remedial writer.
Come to think of it, fourth grade wasn't a banner year either. I suppose I was tired of moving by then. Things didn't go so well at Ellis Avenue Elementary, the public school in Orangeburg. One report card suggested that I work on my table manners in the cafeteria. I should also stop talking so much in class (that last bit might sound familiar to some of you).
My fourth-grade teacher gathered her long straight hair into a bun and was a cold sort of person. I remember only two things that she said to me personally: "Didn't you learn to write in cursive in third grade?" and "Is it true that you Caflics (Catholics) worship fire?"
This was my first encounter with religious ignorance. It was also the first time I realized I was an outsider. I had been born in the South, yet I was outside of it as a Catholic, and a cursive-less one to boot. There were so few Catholics in the South at the time that the Church called it missionary country.
Two field trips stand out as highlights of my fourth-grade year: one to a turkey farm and one to a farm where we students picked cotton. I bet the bun-headed teacher would be surprised to know that the cotton-picking trip became part of the introduction to my book Talking with Tebè: Clementine Hunter, Memory Artist.
School mattered during my two years in South Carolina. School always matters. But home was where I had fun and where my younger sister and I invented pretend worlds. A full bathtub of water was a swimming pool in a swank Paris hotel. A neighbor's side garden was an enchanted forest. Dinner leftovers became gourmet dishes when we turned our shared bedroom into a restaurant (I was the waiter, my sister was the polite customer). Glasses of water thrown on our bedroom floor made the hardwood as slick as an Olympic ice-skating rink. This last was my idea. We ruined the finish on the floor. What was I thinking?
About once a week, we kids walked with Dad to the corner newsstand. The tiny shop was my source for "Katie Keene" comic books and a pulp series about a girl named Donna Parker. Donna had a perfect pageboy hairstyle, wore perfect shirtwaist dresses, and lived in a perfect house.
I also adored the Classics Illustrated. These were comicbook versions of grown-up novels such as The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandré Dumas and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. You'd think I'd like present-day graphic novels, but the illustrations and texts seem thin compared to the Classics Illustrated of my childhood.
Occasionally I dipped into The Book House. My mother bought this set of literature books for my older brother when he was a toddler. The fairy tale volume was my favorite. I still have the set, complete with crayon marks, torn pages, and end papers where I practiced writing my name in cursive.
In the fifth grade, my parents let me subscribe to the Weekly Reader Book Club. Receiving a book in the mail with my name on the package was the greatest thing ever. The first title was Wild Geese Flying by Cornelia Meigs. I loved the book, though I can't remember a thing about it now—only that it came in the mail like a Christmas present.
During the fifth grade, I faced censorship for the first time. Unfortunately, my mother was the censor. I came home from school with a biography of Martin Luther, a leader of the Protestant Reformation. I didn't care one way or the other about Martin Luther. The book was just one that I grabbed off of the shelf, the way that kids do when the bell is about to ring, and the teacher is shoving the class out the library door.
Maybe the book brought back bad memories for Mom. A Southerner, she had grown up with neighborhood Protestant kids throwing rocks at her while screaming "Catholic!" And I guess she was afraid that reading a book about a Protestant would be a sin. That seems crazy, but some of what she did was just right. She was
a parent taking an interest in her child's reading. She made me return the book. But she didn't march down to the school and demand that the librarian yank it from the collection so other kids couldn't read it. That happens much too often nowadays.
By my sixth-grade year, we were living in Charlotte, North Carolina, and my childhood wandering was over. (I lived in Charlotte until I finished high school.) The library in my Catholic elementary school was the size of a regular classroom—big but not big enough. After reading all the books with Newbery stars on them—Rifles for Watie was a favorite—I read historical fiction for adults that my older brother bought through his book club. I especially remember Hawaii by James Michener and Exodus, a novel about Israel by Leon Uris. Though I only partly understood the themes of these grown-up books, they affected me deeply.
For the first time, I was reading about outsiders. I couldn't have expressed it this way at the time, but the books made me realize something I've always remembered. Outsiders exist only in the minds of other people. The native people of Hawaii weren't outsiders until missionaries arrived in the nineteenth century and treated them that way. Jews weren't outsiders until Adolf Hitler—among many others down through the centuries, including Catholics—defined them as such.
Some events in Hawaii are based on actual history. In the book, as in real life, thousands of native people died from diseases that missionaries brought to the islands. Reading about the mass deaths upset me so much that I wrote a long essay. It wasn't a school assignment, and it wasn't a diary entry (those were mostly about boys). I wrote it just for me. Writing the words was similar to shedding tears. I felt better afterward, the way you do after a good cry.
When I was a junior, I transferred to Myers Park High School in Charlotte. I suppose that other Catholic teenagers were doing the same, because the clerk behind the school office counter rolled her eyes and shook her head when my father registered me. Standing behind a counter often gives people a sense of authority they don't have. "Too many Catholics coming here," she mumbled.
Unsettled by her irritation, we stood tongue-tied as she assigned me to a general-level English class. In my insulated Catholic-school world, I was the same as everyone else: an excellent reader with college-level standardized test scores. But advanced? For all Dad and I knew, I was below average compared to public-school kids. Besides, I was a girl, and advanced classes weren't supposed to matter for girls back then.
The teachers in my junior and senior year English classes usually called on the cute boys. I soon learned not to raise my hand, even when I wanted to answer
questions about Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice or Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. To this day, I'm uninterested in works by these writers. Hearing their names brings back memories of conversations that were closed to me.
Still, I had some sensational teachers in Catholic school and at Myers Park. Despite the snotty clerk, who I hope has gone to her just rewards along with Miss Bun Head, I reveled in the freedom and space of public high school. The campus was spread out like a small college, with grassy areas between the buildings.
The well-stocked library became my refuge during lunch hour. My taste for historical fiction grew. I gorged on books by the Brontë sisters, Edna Ferber, Thomas Costain, Victoria Holt, and Mary Stewart. Like many teens, I went through an Edgar Allan Poe phase, and I wept bitterly over the end of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. I'm still convinced that Rhett will sweep Scarlett into his arms and carry her up the mansion staircase again.
After a time, it seemed that there were no good books left to read. That's when an interested teacher or librarian might have made a difference in my reading life. He or she could have guided me toward more-challenging literature. By some standards, my high-school reading left a lot to be desired. I lurched from one mediocre adult book to another, reading an average of one per day. If I chose a title that I would think of now as quality literature, it was by accident.
No matter. The main thing was that I read and read and read. My speaking vocabulary became so broad that my best friend made fun of me for using what she called fifty-cent words (I mispronounced some of them, but she didn't know that). Her teasing embarrassed me. I would have felt better if I'd known that those fifty-cent words were a valuable currency. I would spend them again and again when I became a writer years later.
Reading was my apprenticeship for writing. There's no other way to do it. If you want to be a writer one day, and you're reading this essay on a printed page, you're lucky. If you're reading it on a screen, you might be in trouble. Here's why. Recently I discovered some research about reading on a computer screen. The light reflects back onto the reader's eye and slows down the reading speed, whatever it is, by one third.
Think about what this means. Reading makes a child smarter without even trying. If reading on a screen slows down your speed, then reading on a screen will make you less smart. It's that simple.
I feel fortunate to have childhood memories of bound books, not digital scraps of information on the Internet. Books were one of the best things in a childhood that, overall, could have been better. I yearned for piano lessons. That never happened, but I learned to play oldtime banjo and Irish penny whistle as an adult. Much more portable! I passionately wanted braces but had to wait until I was grown and could pay for them myself. Life, like teeth, slowly straightens itself out after a while.
Moving from one strange town to another as a child made it easier for me to take risks as an adult. More important, something else was going on as I roamed the South with my family. My young mind was taking memory pictures of the landscape. My young ears were recording a remarkable variety of Southern stories and accents. I tucked the sights and sounds away until I was the writer I never planned to be.
Appalachian State University is in Boone, North Carolina—the "Hub of the Holiday Highlands," they used to call it. The college sits in a skinny valley surrounded by mountains. Some of the lower hills run slap up against the back of campus buildings.
Local people call the tallest hill Howard's Knob. Go west on Main Street to Mast's General Store, take a right, and you're at the bottom of Howard's Knob. Continue up the steep incline, and you're in Junaluska, Boone's African American neighborhood in 1967.
As part of ASU's teacher-in-training requirement, I tutored a bright, sweet girl who lived in Junaluska. The Appalachia area was especially poor in those days, and substandard housing was a familiar sight in Boone. The first time I walked my student home, I wasn't surprised to see that she lived in a weathered plank cabin perched dangerously on the mountainside.
What surprised me was that town officials deliberately kept Junaluska outside the city limits. The girl's family lived without sanitation services, trash pickup, and running water. The meanness of those town limits appalled me.
I asked around and learned that Junaluska's residents might be descendants of the few slaves who lived in the area before the U.S. Civil War. That was the beginning of my deep curiosity about black history.
ASU offered a black history course. This was unusual for any college those days, especially one with only one black student at the time (she went on to become a college president). I had to take other history classes first—prerequisites, they're called. I completed the required courses, but the black history course was a disappointment. The professor broke his ankle and couldn't manage the steps to the third-floor classroom. We students were left with static-y taped lectures, and I was still thirsty for black history.
My curiosity deepened after I dropped out of college for a semester to earn tuition money. By complete accident, I ended up working as a secretary for a job counseling service in nearby Hickory, North Carolina. Nervous about race riots, town officials financed the service shortly after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The counseling office was meant to be a place where African Americans could take racial concerns and also get help finding a job.
The permanent staff was African American. Eager to serve clients of all races, they wanted a white face at the reception desk. I was the white face. I will tell you flat out that I didn't have the experience or maturity to handle that position, though racism was all around me when I was growing up. The poisonous "n" word floated through conversations I overhead as a child. "Whites Only" drinking fountains were a common sight in Savannah. I have a vivid fifth-grade memory of seeing white members of the Catholic congregation in Orangeburg leave our dollhouse-sized church when a black family approached the communion rail.
But mostly segregated schools in Charlotte meant that I had little reason to discuss race with anyone. One black student attended my Catholic school. Shy but popular, she was president of the freshman class. One black student integrated Myers Park High School without incident while I was there. Even though the civil-rights struggle was raging through the South, it passed over my head. I wasn't prepared for the racism I experienced personally in Hickory. "Personally" is the key word. You don't know what it's like until it happens to you.
The functionally illiterate white people who came to our office needed help filling out job applications. I was happy to assist. But when they realized that the interviewer who would help them find a job was black, they balked. One man spat on me. Others insulted my coworkers. My boss was ten years older in age than I was and about one hundred years wiser. If not for his gentle guidance, I would have started a race riot all on my own.
My roommate and I shared an apartment that caught fire while we were at work one dreary winter day. The fire imploded, so nothing burned, but all the mirrors and windows cracked, and smoke damage was extensive. Our apartment neighbors were students at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory. They graciously let us camp out on their floor until they learned where I worked. That was the end of their southern hospitality.
My coworkers worried that the fire was related to recent Ku Klux Klan activity in the area. (It wasn't. Apparently my roommate or I had left a cigarette burning in an ashtray on the sofa.) They found us a temporary home with a welcoming black family.
My experience with white hostility and black generosity in Hickory changed me. Compared to the civil-rights workers of that decade, I risked nothing and contributed nothing. I was merely a sheltered young woman who was fortunate to witness reality for six months.
One semester later I was back in the comforting rhythm of college life and education courses. If you were an elementary education major at Appalachian State University, the first thing you learned was to postpone Beulah Campbell's REALLY HARD children's literature course as long as possible. I thought I'd be clever and take it in summer school. Foolish me. It's not easy to read and review one hundred children's books in a four-week-long class.
I don't remember my final grade, but I do remember Miss Campbell's charming stories about the children's book authors she met over the years. Her excitement as she talked about them, her pride as she showed us her signed, first-edition books—this was teaching at its best. When teachers are excited, students catch the fever, too.
I also had some clunker teachers. During my freshman year, a history professor accused me of plagiarizing a research paper because it was too well written. One of my English professors openly harassed his female students in class with off-color remarks.
But most ASU teachers were so dedicated that I can only think that my college degree was a deal. Room, board, and tuition totaled about $1,500 per year. The low fees were a gift, because like many ASU students at the time, I financed my college education with federal government loans and work-study grants. I was the first woman to graduate from college on either side of my family, and I paid for most of it myself. I'm more proud of that than any book I've written.
When I graduated from ASU, I had something that most education schools don't require these days: a solid background in history and literature. I also knew, or thought I knew, how to teach elementary-level music, physical education, health, math, art, reading, and handwriting, both print and cursive.
I almost didn't learn how to teach science because I dropped out of the science teaching methods class three times (it always met at the impossible hour of 8 a.m.). I finally completed the course. This was a great relief, not because I wanted to teach science—I couldn't imagine such a thing—but because ASU required it for graduation. And I had to graduate. I had already signed a contract to teach in Georgia.
With Junaluska and Hickory still on my mind, I asked the school system in Georgia to let me teach in one of their all-black schools. My assigned K-8 school was in a forgotten corner of the city, surrounded by low-income housing projects. The building was large but ugly. The principal, I found out later, had a brain tumor and couldn't think straight. Teachers had no access to the supply closet, so the school secretary doled out mimeograph paper sheet by sheet. We lined up for it every morning, looking rather like people in the bread lines of the Great Depression years.
The school had no library. My classroom had no textbooks. This was a sad thing for everyone, especially inexperienced me. Unbelievably, I was the seventh-grade science teacher. My supplies consisted of one cracked aquarium and a few Petri dishes. What I wrote on the blackboard each day served as the textbook. I bought the chalk and eraser.
My African-American colleagues were immensely helpful, and my students were witty and talented. Years of living in Boone had mixed my Southern Piedmont drawl with an Appalachian mountain twang. The students spoke with a lyrical, lightning-fast, Deep South accent. We simply couldn't understand one another, a situation that led to much giggling for all of us. Finally I appointed an interpreter who proudly translated when necessary.
Oh, the teaching I could have done, if only I had known the rich background of what some scholars call "Black English." Twenty years later, I remembered those Deep South children when I compiled stories for Raw Head, Bloody Bones: African American Tales of the Supernatural. I'm sure they would have been interested in the African origins of Black English. Together we would have shivered and tittered over these tales told in the storytellers' original voices.
The following year I returned to the hills of ASU and earned a master's degree in reading education. My fellow students were a companionable, noncompetitive lot. Best of all, I redeemed my lousy undergraduate performance by graduating with all A's.
After four years as a Title I reading teacher in North Carolina, I packed my bags and set out for the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. When I left, I had a cast the size of a truck muffler on my broken right arm. I should have seen it as a bad omen, because the next two years in a doctoral degree program at UVA left me discouraged. The university had recently graduated its first female students, but the professors in my department still complained openly about the good old days when only men attended the school. I soon realized that I wasn't tough enough to survive their dismissive attitude toward women.
Not all of those two years was a loss. I learned the value of teaching reading skills with literature instead of reading series and workbooks. But I was broke, and most of the coursework bored me. It was time for the next step in my life: a return to classroom teaching.
That first year back in the classroom was a killer. It was as if I'd never taught before. Every day I instructed restless sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade children: a to- tal of ninety students in six classes that met daily. Most of the seventh graders were still stuck at a third-grade reading level. One class of eighth graders could read at about a sixth-grade level—they just didn't want to. Some had never read one entire book in their lives.
I tried to lure my students into the world of reading pleasure with a variety of teaching materials—reading kits, plays, paperback books, poetry units, literature readers. Most middle-school literature readers in those days featured stories by Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Hart Crane, Stephen Crane, Washington Irving, and other BMWs (boring male writers).
Some people call these the classic American writers, but there's another reason why their names keep rising like Lazarus in the school curricula. Their works are old enough to be copyright free. Educational publishers reprint them without paying permission fees. Then they pass some of the savings on to teachers. This means that school systems can buy multiple classroom copies at a budget rate. Literature by writers such as Washington Irving may or may not be classic. It's certainly cheap.
One gorgeous fall day, many of my eighth graders were falling asleep as they read a short version of Irving's short story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." I looked around the classroom. One half of the students were girls. One third of the students were African American. I was doing my teacherly duty by preparing them to study longer works by the same writers in high school. But what was the point of classic literature if it made my students dislike reading even more?
While their heads drooped over Irving's text, I took an inventory of my teaching materials. Later I calculated the percentage of literature by women and African Americans. The figures were astonishingly low. Women: 5 percent. African American: .5 percent.
Maybe, I thought, I could continue to teach comprehension and vocabulary skills with the so-called classics but add to the mix. That was the same year I met my husband-to-be. For the next few years, I scoured the shelves of his used and rare bookstore, Heartwood Books. I also spent every weekend reading in the University of Virginia library.
My goal was to find literature by women, including women of color. The selections had to be on an accessible reading level with themes that would interest eighth graders. My final list of fifty stories and book excerpts included works by Kate Chopin, Rebecca Harding Davis, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Zora Neale Hurston, Harriet Jacobs, Leslie Silko, Alice Walker, and Anzia Yezierska.
My students left middle school knowing more about women and minority writers than the teachers who would instruct them in high school. The word "multicultural" hadn't been invented then. Without knowing it, I had created a multicultural literature curriculum. And without knowing it, I had tilled the earth for a writing career.
Writing: The Beginning
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was an African-American folklorist, writer, and anthropologist. She published three collections of folklore, three novels, an autobiography, short stories, and plays. For what I called my "Women Writers Unit," I chose brief selections of her collected folklore. "The Black Cat Bone" and "How to Eat Fish" were big hits, especially with the boys. When I told them that this successful writer of the 1930s and 1940s ended up dying alone and poor in a charity home, they wanted to read a biography about her. No such book existed, and her autobiography would have been tough going for most of them.
The same happened with Harriet Jacobs's narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Like Hurston's autobiography, Jacobs's entire book was too big a bite for my students. I chose an excerpt in which she wrote about her life as an enslaved child. "Are there more stories like that?" my students asked after reading it. "Stories about slave girls?"
Well, no, not in our school library, not in 1980. It seems hard to believe now, but the only books I could find were a dog-eared copy of Tituba of Salem Village by
Ann Petry (a splendid book, by the way), and a short biography of Harriet Tubman. The first title was too long for my students. The second was falling apart.
A few years later, I won a grant from the Education School at the University of Virginia. I used the money to write and print classroom copies of a short biography of Zora Neale Hurston. The booklets were like little textbooks, with discussion questions and vocabulary exercises at the end. "You should try and get that published," a teacher on my team commented.
The idea had never occurred to me. With her casual remark as encouragement, I learned everything I could about the business side of children's books: publishers, editors, and how to write a query letter. By 1988, I was writing to companies that published nonfiction for children. Sending the letters was a "let's jump off this cliff and see what happens" adventure.
I already knew that professors of women's studies classes at the college level were teaching Hurston. And I knew that Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, had written a widely read essay about finding Hurston's grave. I had no clue that the subject of Hurston was hot and getting hotter in the publishing and theater worlds of New York.
I soon received a reply from a major publisher of children's books. They were interested in my idea for an anthology of Hurston's works and suggested that I add biographical material between the selections. An assistant editor at the company discussed early drafts of the manuscript with me for the next nine months. I will always be grateful for her help with what I call "getting the teacher out" of my writing.
In the end, the assistant editor's boss wanted a book focusing on Hurston's love life. Anyone who studies Zora Neale Hurston knows that she was deliberately private about her romances. I simply didn't have enough information to write about that aspect of her life. And I didn't want to. Alice Walker erected a stone over Hurston's grave that says "Genius of the South." For my students, Hurston's retelling of African-American folklore was her genius.
After sending another round of letters, I heard from the editor of Scribner's Books for Young Readers in July of 1989. Within a few weeks, she sent me the contract for my first book, Sorrow's Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston. The book was published in the fall of 1990. This was the same school year that I worked as an elementary-school librarian. It was also the same year that I won the National Endowment for the Humanities Teacher-Scholar Award for Virginia. Those were exciting but upsetting months.
The success of Sorrow's Kitchen still seems ridiculous for a writer's first book. Librarians and other people who review children's books liked it. It won three awards. USA Today newspaper and Ms. magazine reviewed it.
One day in the school library, I found myself wiping a first grader's nose with a tissue in my left hand while talking on the phone in my right hand with a public radio interviewer. Local and state newspapers called for interviews. A regional public television station featured me on a program about writers. I had my first book signing at a children's book store, where a teacher sniped, "Who would have thought it?"
No kidding. I'd been a little Dixie gypsy who had moved every two years or so as a child. A remedial reader in the first grade, a remedial writer in the fourth. Now I was an ordinary school teacher and librarian. Just who did I think I was? I wasn't sure, but I didn't have much time to ponder the question.
I had almost completed Raw Head, Bloody Bones and knew that Scribner would publish it in 1991. I was also researching the life of Harriet Jacobs so that I could write Letters from a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs.
A class of learning-disabled children who visited the library each week loved hearing me read Julius Lester's Tales of Uncle Remus books aloud. I started writing an easy reader called The Butter Tree: Tales of Bruh Rabbit so that this class and other children could enjoy B'rer Rabbit stories on their own.
Finally, I wanted to research a series of ten books about artists and artisans. I learned about most of the artists from John Michael Vlach's 1979 book, The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts. Their names were and still are famous in the field of folk art, but no one had written children's books about them. Once again, I saw a hole on the school library shelf that needed filling. But first I had to find out if young people liked the art. During that year as an elementary-school librarian, I shared slides of artwork with students while telling them about the artists.
One book published, three baking in the oven, and ten at the recipe stage—I was a very busy cook. The NEH Teacher Scholar award came just in time. It would give me a paid leave of absence for the upcoming 1991-92 school year so that I could devote myself to reading, writing, and study. Colleges call such a year a sabbatical, and they routinely schedule them for professors. For a public-school teacher, a paid sabbatical year is an almost-unheard-of opportunity.
I was thrilled. I had already turned every weekend and holiday into a reading marathon, but I still didn't have enough time. More than twenty years had passed since I tried to learn black history in college. With a year off from teaching, I could finally catch up with what I needed and longed to know.
So much to look forward to! What could possibly be upsetting about it? Before writing this paragraph, I've brewed a fresh pot of tea and thought over the answer.
Sometime during that year, my sister sent me a bottle cap. Teacup in hand, I've just gone to the closet and fetched it. A quote by British writer Oscar Wilde is printed on the inside. "Anybody can sympathize with the sufferings of a friend," he wrote, "but it requires a very fine nature to sympathize with a friend's success."
My sister was trying to comfort me, because the truth is, not everyone was pleased with the publication of Sorrow's Kitchen or the Teacher-Scholar award. My mother and husband were proud, of course, along with treasured friends and acquaintances. Elderly ladies brought flowers to me at school—not because they knew me, but because professional success had been off limits to them as young women. They wanted to make sure that I felt congratulated.
For some reason, the administrators and a few teachers in the Charlottesville school system were disturbed. It was okay for me to teach black literature and history in the classroom. It definitely wasn't okay for me to write a book about it. Around that time, I came across Rita Mae Brown's 1988 book, Starting from Scratch: A Different Kind of Writers' Manual. "Don't ever tell anyone you're a writer," she advises. "They'll think that you think you're better than they are."
I don't understand why some adults in the field of education are resentful of published writers. As nearly as I can tell, the same folks don't feel that way about musicians or painters. But it has proven true for me many times over. I don't always follow Brown's advice. Still, knowing that the same problem plagued her has heartened me through my writing years.
Letters from a Slave Girl and Letters from a Slave Boy
Children's book writers will tell you that correspondence from young readers is one of the best parts of the job. Most frequently, kids ask about my first historical novel, Letters from a Slave Girl.
Here's a quote from a typical letter: "When you wrote about Harriet and her feelings it seemed like you knew exactly what she felt and I was wondering if I could have a tip or two about learning how to do that without actually meeting the person."
Here's my answer: "Early one morning after I started writing the book, I sat quietly in my living room with a yellow legal pad. I listed the things Harriet and I had in common. She was from North Carolina, and I spent my later childhood years there. She had a younger brother, and so did I. She had a strict grandmother. My parents weren't terribly strict about boys, but it seemed that way when I was Harriet's age. If I had become pregnant as Harriet did, I would have had a hard time telling them.
"Most important, I remembered the job I had at a local department store when I was a sixteen year old. I was assigned to the Men's Department. The assistant manager was probably in his thirties, which seemed ancient. A lecherous fellow, he never whispered filthy words in my ear, as Doctor Norcom did to Harriet, but he made sly sexual comments meant to embarrass me. I felt ashamed, though that was silly. He was the one who should have been ashamed. And I never told my parents, just as Harriet didn't tell her grandmother about Doctor Norcom.
"The second thing that helped me understand Harriet was transcribing the real letters she wrote long after she grew up. It was a tough job, because they were on microfilm. I printed them out at the library and brought them home but couldn't read her scratchy writing. For days I sat with a tape recorder, painstakingly figuring out each sentence and speaking it into the microphone. It was like deciphering a secret code. I'd fill in four or five words, then use context clues to decode the rest of the sentence. By the time I finished, I felt as if Harriet's emotions had entered my brain in some magical way."
The letters in Letters from a Slave Girl are fictional and came from my head. I hope that after reading the novel, young people go on to read Harriet Jacobs's narrative, because she and her family are one of the most important in the history of slavery in our country.
Oddly, though, Harriet Jacobs hasn't become a household name. Most people recognize the name of her counterpart, Frederick Douglass. Like Jacobs, he was an escaped slave. The two knew each other in Rochester, New York, when Jacobs worked for a time on the second floor of the building where Douglass ran his North Star newspaper. Both were abolitionists, and both wrote about their enslavement. Yet most adults haven't heard of Jacobs.
That's why it pleases me that young readers know about her through Letters from a Slave Girl. Although the book was almost chosen for a major children's literature award in 1993, a few years later a member of the committee told me that it didn't win because of the sexual aspect of the story. Though my text is subtle, Norcom's sexual threats toward Jacobs made the committee members twitch. Naturally my first reaction was disappointment. Who doesn't want to win their book to win an award?!
My second reaction was horror. Like the assistant manager of my teen years, Norcom harassed Jacobs, not the other way around. Yet this slaveholder still controls Harriet Jacobs 150 years after throwing her down the steps of her grandmother's cottage. Why? Because we allow it. What he did was shameful, so we avoid her.
Joy Hakim, author of the popular "Story of Us" history textbook series for middle schoolers, spoke at the Virginia Festival of the Book in 1995. I asked her why she didn't include Harriet Jacobs in her series. "Because of the sex," she said.
The answer surprised me. There is nothing in Jacobs's narrative that we would call "sex." It's true that she described Norcom's threats and had two children by another white man, hoping to discourage Norcom. But her text is as modest as she was. We do Harriet Jacobs a great disservice if we believe that these events define her entire life.
To escape from Norcom, Jacobs hid under the eaves of her grandmother's roof for seven years so that she could remain near her children. The decision required emotional and physical courage that we can barely comprehend.
After she fled to the North, she risked public embarrassment to write a book that she hoped would help end slavery. During the U.S. Civil War, she taught freed slaves in Alexandria, Virginia, and Savannah, Georgia. After the war, she returned to her birthplace of Edenton, North Carolina, and helped elderly friends living in poverty. Why should we let two slaveholding men overshadow a woman who lived her entire life with integrity?
A few years back, a television special written by African Americans devoted a thirty-minute segment to Harriet Jacobs. Otherwise, she's almost invisible outside of college literature and history courses.
It isn't fair. That's one reason why I wrote Letters from a Slave Boy: The Story of Joseph Jacobs. I wanted to keep Harriet Jacobs's story alive, and I wanted to answer another frequent question from young readers: "Whatever happened to her son, Joseph?"
The format of Letters from a Slave Boy is the same as Letters from a Slave Girl. I created fictional letters inspired by real letters that Joseph wrote to his mother from the California and Australia gold fields. As far as I know, his letters are now lost, but the real Harriet mentioned them in her real letters.
I have high hopes for my books when I send them out into the world, the way that parents have hopes for children who leave the nest of home. The real Joseph Jacobs was a child of mixed racial heritage who passed for white at least twice in his life. More than two million mixed-race children now live in the United States. My hope is that reading about the fictional Joseph will help young readers who are frustrated when people rudely ask, "What are you?"
Artists and Artisans
I wrote Letters from a Slave Girl at the Virginia Center for the Humanities in Charlottesville. My little slantedroof office was on the second floor of the building. It was private and quiet, but my childhood habit of making pretend worlds started working too well. I felt so cooped up in the small office that sometimes it seemed as if I were Harriet, hiding under a roof in a space the size of two coffins. I had to get myself—and her—out of there! Maybe that's why I finished the first draft of the book in five short weeks.
Almost immediately I started research for the first title in my "African-American Artists and Artisans" series. I began with Horace Pippin. During World War I, Pippin was in the first African-American regiment to serve overseas. While fighting in France, he spent two days in a trench, wounded in the right shoulder and arm. Unable to move when a dead soldier fell on top of him, Pippin was finally rescued and taken to a field hospital. After the war, he taught himself to paint with his painfree left hand.
Pippin's story and how he painted his life into his art fascinates students. I wrote about him in Starting Home: The Story of Horace Pippin, Painter. Young people are also delighted by the droll dogs and cats drawn by Bill Traylor, a street artist born enslaved on an Alabama plantation. Those same drawings appear in Deep Blues: Bill Traylor, Self-Taught Artist. When I show Clementine Hunter's painting of a child dangling upside down from a pecan tree, kids laugh out loud. That picture appears in Talking with Tebé. Children usually gasp at Minnie Evans's colorful drawings of her dreams. Ms. Evans's abstract designs disturb some adults, but young people see things in art that grownups can't, so I decided to write Painting Dreams: Minnie Evans, Visionary Artist.
Slides of artisans' work impress my young audiences most of all. Master of Mahogany: Thomas Day, Free Black Cabinetmaker is about a successful businessman working in North Carolina before the Civil War. Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers tells how an illiterate Georgia quilter wrote her favorite stories using cloth, needle, and thread instead of paper, pen, and ink. Catching the Fire: Philip Simmons, Blacksmith describes how a South Carolina blacksmith learned to beat wrought iron into intricate shapes.
People who write for children never know where their words will end up. Sometimes adults like the books as much as young readers but for different reasons. Three years ago I heard from a woman whose grandfather grew up with Minnie Evans in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. The woman was a lonely teenager when she first met Evans in 1968 and now had a grown son fighting in the Iraq war.
After reading Painting Dreams, she wrote me a thankyou letter. "I cried for my son in Fallujah [Iraq]," she said. "I cried for the years I missed my grandfather, but mostly I cried for Minnie. She was my rock that I went to with my troubles, never thinking she had any of her own. She was like my own fairy godmother, not with material things, but with a golden angel's heart."
Each title in the "African-American Artists and Artisans" series was a heap o' trouble. I stopped after seven books, knowing that I couldn't afford the expense of re- searching the last three. But when I hear from people who love the art and the artists, I'm glad that my efforts have made a difference. A royalty check from a publisher can help pay the mortgage; a letter from a reader pays the heart. Children's book writers need both.
Research is like marrow. It builds the invisible bones that hold up every book I write. Before writing, I first read everything that other people have written on the subject. These printed books and articles are secondary sources of information. They tell me what others—usually scholars—think is true. Sometimes I agree with them. For instance, did Horace Pippin die after a lifetime of drinking alcohol to dull the pain in his shoulder? The evidence I found in secondary sources suggested that this was accurate.
Just as often, I find misleading evidence in a secondary source. While writing Letters from a Slave Boy, I read a biography of Harriet Jacobs. The author wrote that Harriet's son, Joseph, mined for gold on Muiron Island. This made no sense. Muiron Island is off the west coast of Australia, and the Australian gold rush took place on the eastern side of the continent.
The author of the biography had found her information in one of Harriet Jacobs's letters, but I already knew that it's easy to misread nineteenth-century handwriting. I ordered a photocopy of the letter and read it myself. My husband also read it. He noticed that Harriet had written the words "Mormon Island," not Muiron Island. Mormon Island was a gold mining town in California. My husband's discovery changed the entire ending of Letters from a Slave Boy.
Harriet's letter is an example of what we call a primary source of information. The best historians depend on primary sources for proving facts. A primary source can be a photograph, letter, painting, scrapbook, cracked plate, tombstone, or even an old house. Any authentic piece of history is a primary source as long as you're looking at the original. A handwritten page from the United States' 1790 census is a primary source. A scan of that page on the Internet is a secondary source.
While compiling Feed the Children First: Irish Memories of the Great Famine, I found a 125-year-old family letter hiding in a box in my mother's apartment. A relative in Ireland wrote it after his son immigrated to America to escape those hungry times. The letter inspired me as I wrote the introduction to the book. I included a picture of it at the end, along with a photograph taken of my Irish grandfather around 1900.
Sometimes a primary source lights a fire that I can't put out until I write a book about it. This happened when I discovered that Moses Williams cut the two eighteenth-century silhouettes I had owned for years. Williams was the first professional African-American artist in the United States. He was also the enslaved assistant of Charles Willson Peale, founder of a museum in Philadelphia. My novel The Poison Place imagines how Moses freed himself from slavery and from Peale's tangled relationship with his own son.
Primary sources inspired Muriel Branch and me to collaborate on Dear Ellen Bee: A Civil War Scrapbook of Two Union Spies. This work of historical fiction is based on two real Southerners—one black, one white—who worked as spies in Richmond, Virginia. Muriel and I knew that the white woman, Elizabeth Van Lew, kept a scrapbook, but some of the pages had disappeared. Mary Elizabeth Bowser, her freed slave, may have kept one, too. It was probably thrown away. Van Lew also kept a diary. Much of it rotted when she buried it for safekeeping during the U.S. Civil War. We wanted to imagine what these missing primary sources might have revealed about the bossy "Miss Bet," as we called her, and "Liza," the let-me-think-for-myself child whom she freed.
Dear Ellen Bee is similar to real scrapbooks that girls kept during the Civil-War era. It's a combination of diary entries, letters to and from the main characters, and scrapbook ephemera such as newspaper clippings, broadsides, a train ticket, valentine, and bookmark. Mu- riel and I wrote some of the text with the same secret codes that Elizabeth Van Lew's spy ring actually used when sending information to Union generals during the war.
Travel can be the best primary source of all, so I make multiple trips when researching a book. Knockabeg: A Famine Tale took me to a village on the west coast of Ireland and archives at the University College, Dublin. In the archives, I read 1930s interviews that Irish sixth graders conducted with descendants of 1840s famine survivors.
While reading the interviews, I discovered that some nineteenth-century Irish thought of faeries in the same way that people now think of angels, and that faeries helped a few lucky families survive the famine. I wove those details into Knockabeg, which describes the Great Famine from the faeries' point of view.
The Poison Place took me twice to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That's where I saw the exact spot that Moses Williams cut silhouettes in Charles Willson Peale's museum of natural history (now Independence Hall). In Goshen, New York, I counted the number of steps that Horace Pippin walked to school when he was a boy. In Edenton, North Carolina, I climbed the same thirty-seven steps that Harriet Jacobs climbed when she slaved for James Norcom at his plantation house.
For Letters from a Slave Boy, I toured the school that the real Joseph Jacobs probably attended in Boston. A walk through Sutter's Mill in California let me imagine the rough-and-tumble poker game that my character of Joseph plays with a slave catcher. The book I'm writing now has led me three times to Norfolk, Virginia, and once to the Delmarva Peninsula.
Interviews that I conduct on research trips are a crucial primary source of information. I couldn't have written any of the books in the artists and artisans series without the help of others. Many people who knew Minnie Evans in Wilmington, North Carolina, shared their special memories with me, including her son and granddaughter. Philip Simmons met with me for hours at a time. He described his life as a child on a South Carolina sea island and his work as a blacksmith in Charleston.
Scholars and experts often read my work and make suggestions or discuss my subject with me. Professor John Michael Vlach shared his thoughts about Harriet Powers's quilts. Furniture curator Jonathan Prown answered my questions about Thomas Day's nineteenth-century furniture. Southern folk-art dealers were extremely helpful when I wrote Deep Blues and Talking with Tebé.
Almost all of the people I meet on research trips enrich my books and my life, though I seldom see any of them again. Black or white, northern or southern, wealthy or living in modest homes—it doesn't matter. People who are willing to help a children's book writer are people with big hearts.
Which Book Is My Favorite?, and Other Questions
I hear the question "Which book is your favorite?" often. It's hard to answer. Right now, three of my titles are favorites because they're the newest. I've heard through the grapevine that Letters from a Slave Boy is helping readers sort out their feelings about skin color. Roy Makes a Car is a picture book based on a folktale collected by Zora Neale Hurston. I've seen it bring smiles to the faces of people from ages three to sixty-three.
Writing Ancient American World with William Fash of Harvard University gave me a chance to learn more about the ancient civilizations that led up to the Maya, Aztec, and Inca cultures. Some new fact amazed me every day while writing the book.
Do you think that people of the Aztec empire invented chocolate? I did, and I sure was wrong. Do you think that everyone living south of the US border speaks Spanish? More than one million people in Mexico speak the ancient language of Nahuatl. Six million people in Central America speak one of thirty-nine Mayan dialects. Eight million Peruvians still speak the ancient language of Quechua.
When you hear the word "America" do you think of the United States? America means North America, including the United States and Canada. But it also means Mexico, Central America, and South America. Many cultures, many languages, many people: all living on two continents called the Americas.
Interview with Mary E. Lyons
What's the best thing about writing children's books? It seems weird, but I love coming up with an idea for a book, then dashing off a quick outline to see how I might organize the chapters. I also like revising. It's satisfying to untangle words and ideas until the text is just right. That doesn't last long. It never reads as well the next morning. Then I revise again.
What's the worst thing about writing children's books? Constant worry about how to pay expenses, including ever-rising health insurance premiums. Most people involved in children's books—editors, librarians, school teachers, professors of children's literature—receive a paycheck and some form of health insurance. The writers who make their jobs possible get neither. Instead, the publisher sends them royalty payments. This ranges from five to ten to twelve percent of the cover price of a book. I never know how much the royalty checks will be, and they only come twice a year.
Favorite hangout? Our step-down living room is on the back of the house and opens onto a patio. Beyond is a steep ravine and woods with 100-foot-tall oak trees. Writing on the patio is like writing in a tree house. In the winter, I'm inside, lolling on my chaise by a roaring fire.
Most overrated thing about children's books? Young-adult novels. I'm a hard reader to please, I guess, because I was reading adult novels by seventh grade. What I think doesn't matter, though, because I'm a grown-up. What young adults think of their books is much more important. That said, I suggest that young readers challenge themselves and try hard books, too. None of us ever get better at anything by always taking the easy road. If you want your brain to grow, move beyond series books, fantasy, science fiction, and sports. Try something completely different every now and then. Otherwise you'll turn into a reading vegetable.
People would be surprised to know…? I used to watch The Young and the Restless every day. This embarrassed me until Toni Morrison, a Nobel Prize winner for literature, admitted that she watched it. A soap opera was a great way for me to relax after hours of difficult writing. Also, my mother and I shared lots of laughs about the plot and characters. I gave up watching the show after she died in 2006.
Proudest accomplishment? Marrying my husband twenty-five years ago.
What would you change about yourself? I'd stop smoking. To do that, I'd have to stop writing. I can't write without cigarettes. Don't ever start smoking!
People find most annoying about you: Smoking. Also, arguing that tobacco isn't a fossil fuel. Gasoline is. A car produces one pound of particulate matter for every twenty-five miles it's driven. Smoking is terrible for your health, but it isn't causing catastrophic climate changes.
Whom do you admire? Nineteenth-century abolitionists such as William Chaplin and William Stills. They risked their lives to help enslaved people escape.
Favorite book? My favorite recent children's book is A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park. It's permanently on the reading list for the writing course I teach at the University of Virginia. At the moment, my favorite book for adults is 1491 by Charles C. Mann.
Subject that causes you to rant? The high percentage of male artists who receive the annual Caldecott Award and Honor awards for the best-illustrated children's books. The numbers have been rising steadily since 1990. I don't get it. Do men really create better art? Or do award committees unconsciously perceive that men create superior art? The November 11, 2007 edition of the New York Times Book Review is a perfect example. It lists the ten best illustrated books for the year. Eight of the illustrators are men. Two are women.
Biggest 21st-century thrill? iTunes.
Biggest 21st-century creep-out? The 2000 and 2004 U.S. presidential elections and electronic voting machines with no paper trail.
What do you drive? A 1998 Toyota Camry.
In your car CD player right now? Jazz by Stephane Grappelli, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, and Johnny Hartman. Rock by Neil Young and Sinead O'Connor.
Never-miss television shows? American Experience and Masterpiece Theater.
Next journey? Alexandria, Virginia, to take photographs for my upcoming book.
Most trouble you got into as a teen? Going to an unchaperoned mid-week slumber party in high school and cutting classes the next day. The hostess girl was sick, and her parents were out of town. I reasoned that the rest of us should stay home from school and take care of her. It was a noble thought, but the school counselor didn't believe me. Thankfully, my parents did.
Regret? Not traveling through Europe after I finished college.
Favorite comfort food? Potato dishes of any sort.
Always in your refrigerator? Lemons. I couldn't cook without them.
Favorite cartoon? Almost any cartoon in the New Yorker magazine.
Describe a perfect day? The setting would be a suite with a balcony at a beachfront hotel in late September. After reading a well-written book in the morning, I'd swim laps in the pool. Then I'd have a chocolate milkshake served poolside, followed by a walk on the beach with my husband. In the afternoon, I'd take a long soak with lavender bath salts in a huge tub. That evening, my husband and I would order a room service dinner and dance to "La Vie en Rose."
Favorite Fantasy? To be a boot-stomping singer like Emmy Lou Harris.
Who'd play you in a movie? British actress Dame Judy Dench.
Most embarrassing moment? Getting myself dressed in first grade and forgetting to put on underwear.
Best writing advice you ever got? Newbery Honor Award winner David Kherdian once told me that every book is the one you think you can't write. In other words, lack of confidence can be a good thing.
Favorite bumper sticker? "I haven't been the same since that house fell on my sister."