diversity and my books, part 3, the Sixties Trilogy

[Note: this is a February series on the diverse themes and characters in Deborah Wiles’s books. I’m publishing the series during Black History Month, with the full knowledge that my books are written from a white person’s point of view (as I am white), and that every month is Black History Month. For more on that, see this essay by Michael Harriot at The Root. To read about the need for diversity in children’s literature, explore We Need Diverse Books online, whose mission statement is “Putting More Books With Diverse Characters Into the Hands of More Children.” You can buy the books I mention below at your local independent bookstore, at Amazon or B&N, or check them out at your local library. More about each one (including a buy option) is at the links I provide below. Part 1 of this series, Freedom Summer, is here. Part two, about the Aurora County books, is here.] I grew up in the 1960s as a child of rock candy, fizzies, Leave it to Beaver and the Andy Griffith Show, the suburbs, the American South, and the U.S. military; as well as the assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, large scale protests against and for the War and civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights; heated political debates and elections, fights for integration and segregation — the year my school district was set for busing, my parents moved us to an apartment, ostensibly so the house would sell better in the spring (we were being transferred by the air force the following year) but probably so we wouldn’t have to change schools (and maybe more) — and the sure sense that I had no idea what anything was all about. We didn’t talk about these things at the dinner table.

We didn’t talk about them at all. No one said, “We don’t talk about these things,” but it was understood, in the way that my African-American friend Bill Lee told me once, “No one in my family said, ‘Don’t walk across Baker Park; it belongs to white people,’ but you just knew not to do it.” He did it anyway, as a kid, and he was arrested. You can listen to Frederick Alderman Bill Lee’s oral history — a history I took when I did grant-funded oral history work years ago — at the Historical Society of Frederick County, Maryland, or at the C.Burr Artz Library’s history room, where most of the oral histories I did in those years are archived.

It was doing those oral histories, listening to all those different voices from many cultures and time periods, combined with growing up summers in Mississippi and listening to the kinfolks talk talk talk and tell the same stories on the front porch at my grandmother’s house every year, and listening to Annie Mae tell me stories of her childhood in the African American community right next door but a world away, as I sat next to her on the glider and learned to shell butter beans from my great-grandmother’s garden into a white enamel pan, that turned me into a storyteller and a writer of fiction. That, and wanting to know more. So, as an adult, I went back to the Sixties.

[[Below, some scrapbook pages from the finished Countdown.]] Now I had the chance to research and write about those days I lived through as a curious kid who had so many questions and who didn’t yet know how to think critically or make decisions based on facts instead of emotions, and who had — somehow, now, as an adult — the opportunity to publish these Sixties stories in a documentary format that I completely made up. Fiction, non-fiction, biography all in one book. Or, three books, in order to tell the story properly of a tumultuous decade that changed… everything. Countdown, Revolution, and Anthem — the three books of the Sixties Trilogy — were edited by David Levithan and published by Scholastic Press in 2010, 2014, and 2019. They are documentary novels, the first of their kind, that use primary source documentation (selected by me and beautifully designed by Phil Falco in strategically-placed scrapbooks) along with a fictional narrative to tell the story of the 1960s for young readers and their adults.

I centered my own experience in each story, because, again, that’s the only story I can adequately tell, that of a white kid in the Sixties. But you can’t write historical fiction about the Sixties without including others who did not look like me. So they are there, and in Revolution particularly, they have a subplot that is integral to the story.

[[Below, some scrapbook pages of Revolution as they are being designed and revised.]] To create Ray and his family and friends, who live — literally — on the other side of the railroad tracks from white Greenwood, Mississippi, I pulled on Annie Mae’s stories from years ago in Mississippi, on stories told to me by several in the African-American community in Greenwood, including Mary Edwards (we decided, while wandering a cemetery with her kin in it, that we must be related by last name, as my maiden name is also Edwards and both our families are from Mississippi) who grew up on the Wade Plantation in Greenwood; Sylvester Hoover, a historian of black history in Greenwood; and others, most important among them the story of Silas McGee, who is the real Ray.

[[Below, Silas McGee telling me his story. It had taken me years to find him, and then, at an elementary school in Greenwood, security guard Glenda said, “Oh, I know him. I’ll call him right now. And she did. And he came.]] [[Below, more scrapbook pages for Revolution we’re working on.]] I listened to Silas McGee tell his incredible, unbelievable story of courage in 1964 Freedom Summer, as we stood outside an elementary school in Greenwood one spring day, and I knew that whatever I wrote about Raymond, whatever I’d research, whatever I was told second-hand, was an imitation of the life Silas had lived, that every black Mississippian had lived in 1964, when Freedom Summer volunteers “invaded” Mississippi to help blacks register to vote in the coming presidential election.

I could identify with Ray’s feelings of rage and terror and injustice, as I had experienced those feelings myself — this is how I wrote about John Henry in Freedom Summer — and I could use my extensive research, my interviews, and early readers to help me, but I could never inhabit Raymond’s skin. I had not lived his story.

Still, Ray belonged in the story. My drafts told me so. The story began to sing the day I let Raymond have a say, as if he’d been there, in the wings, waiting. Because he had. I sent a few revised chapters to my editor, with Ray’s voice added, and my editor came back with “More of this, please.” Because suddenly the story had come alive, with the juxtaposition of Sunny and Ray’s stories. Of COURSE we couldn’t tell the story of Freedom Summer in Mississippi — even from a white girl’s perspective — without Ray, and without all those black citizens who fought for the right to vote, for equal justice under the law in all areas of their lives.

[[Below, some shots I took of 1. Driving toward Greenwood, Mississippi, headquarters of SNCC in 1964 Freedom Summer, 2. The Confederate Monument on the Courthouse grounds, and 3. The Leflore County courthouse in Greenwood, where so much of the action takes place in Revolution, and where so many tried to register to vote in 1964.]]

It scared me to write some sections of the story from Ray’s point of view. But when I talked with Mary and others in Greenwood and heard them say “tell my story,” or “tell my mother’s story — she tried to register…” I knew I would try. I had sat at their tables, I had grown up with their stories, but what did I know? I knew the landscape Ray grew up in, for one thing, for it was mine as well. I knew about white privilege in those Sixties days from living it myself and becoming aware of what it had to be like to be able to swim in that pool in Mississippi when no black kid could — something that never occurred to me until the pool closed. I knew I was about to stretch and grow as a writer. I knew I had my art form. I knew I had skills. I knew Ray had showed up; I would not refuse him.

I’d included a biography of Fannie Lou Hamer in Countdown, Book 1 of the Sixties Trilogy, and I’d included stills of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as a mystery for Franny to solve about her big sister JoEllen, as I knew the book had to bridge from 1962 to 1964 (originally 1966, but that’s another story for another time), and that Revolution would stand in for the Civil Rights Movement in the Sixties, which had to be all about… well, the struggle for civil rights.

I knew that JoEllen would be on those front lines, another white person’s point-of-view, and one that was years ahead of Sunny’s, my teenage protagonist in Revolution. Sunny wants a mother so badly, and thinks she has found a mother substitute in JoEllen, who has a few things to teach her not only about human rights, but about the mother right under Sunny’s nose.

I didn’t shy away from exploring the dark side of white supremacy in Revolution. I included it in the scrapbook sections (“Why You Should Join the KKK” and more). I gave it a voice in Byron de la Beckwith, who was from Greenwood, and who killed Medgar Evers, and in the men in the White Citizen’s Council who might or might not also have been Klan members.

They are all represented, in Revolution, along with racist relatives, and kinfolks on the fence about race, and those who helped behind the scenes — and on the front lines — to change history.

I also included black characters who worked tirelessly in Mississippi that summer and who were arrested, beaten, and jailed, including Stokely Carmichael (who became Kwame Ture) and Bob Moses, and many others who were in Greenwood and across Mississippi with SNCC and CORE, and I included a biography of Cassius Clay before he became Ali, as well as a story about the Wednesday Women, black and white, who came to Mississippi from New York City once a week to meet with black and white women in Greenwood, for support and encouragement and to bridge the gaps inherent in racism and classism.

The result was a patchwork of voices in Revolution, working together in a throughline that led to one violent night of reckoning for Ray and for Sunny and for change. And there’s some baseball thrown in for good measure. It was a good year for Willie Mays. Also the Beatles. Step-families. What makes a community? What tears it apart? I explored many themes.

I also experiment, in Revolution, with a relationship that Parnell, Sunny’s uncle, has with the Army recruiter who has come to town. I don’t have anything particularly defining to say about identities and that relationship in the book, but just as I was learning to write about black characters in Ruby and Little Bird, before I could understand how to write about them more fully in All-Stars and Cakes, I was doing the same thing with Parnell and his recruiter friend in Revolution that I would flesh out more fully with different characters in Cakes with Archie and Norwood Boyd, and with Flo and Eddie, two men who own the Cottages at Avila Beach, in Anthem. Parnell makes an appearance in Anthem as well, living in the Castro in San Francisco, a man who has been battered by a character who has been elusive throughout the book.

Is Parnell gay? Is Archie, is Norwood, is Flo, is Eddie? In each case I haven’t said. I leave it up to the reader (and one astute Anthem reviewer), for now, because I’m learning, I’m experimenting in creating authentic characters who exist outside my experience of my own identity, who aren’t the main story characters but who lend heft and meaning to the whole. For me, they are partners in the world of their story, whatever that identity might be, and I can paint them as such, as I think about them and invent their lives.

“Is Peach, in Each Little Bird that Sings, gay?” a reader wrote to ask me. “Does Drew, in Countdown, have an emotional or developmental challenge?” You can see Drew’s development in that regard quite clearly when he reappears, five years older, in Anthem. Does it matter to the story if you know these things for sure or not, if you can name them or label them? It does not. What matters is that you fall in love with these characters, identify with their hearts, and let their stories inform your heart and take you where you need to go. All hearts are the same color, identity, and ability.

By the time I got to Anthem, and we were making a leap from 1964 to 1969, I knew I would need my scrapbook images to help us cover the assassinations of 1968, the Newark, Watts, and Detroit Riots, the Summer Olympics and those black-gloved, black-power winners, and so much more to just get us to Summer 1969.

And, as I plotted a road trip novel across America, my 1969 Rand McNally Road Atlas at my side along with heaps of books and research materials and interviews, not to mention having the huge and important conversation that had started about diversity and inclusion since Revolution’s publication, and the emergence of We Need Diverse Books and #ownvoices and the very real need for inclusion in children’s literature to guide me, I knew I was writing in not only new territory for me, but in a much more inclusive and aware way about race and culture and my place as a white person in the conversation.

I planned accordingly. I wove into the narrative all I was learning. And, I made sure I had outside, expert readers for the book to advise me.

My protagonists, Molly and Norman, are white, as am I, and along the way they confront their privilege in the way kids would have seen it in 1969 — the way I came to a dawning awareness about it, too, through experience and curiosity and stumbling mistakes and misconceptions and apologies and re-calibrating and trying again and wanting to learn and continuing to stumble forward as they meet Ray in 1969, and as they sit around a campfire on the llano at the New Buffalo commune in New Mexico, and as they meet partners Eddie and Flo at Avila Beach and travel with them to San Francisco.

I stayed centered in Molly and Norman’s white, hetero, privileged, and frankly, innocent (naive? ignorant? they are young…) existence, while also allowing them to be human beings who crater from time to time, who have their own share of grief and loss and rage and resilience and frustration and victories — all opportunities to become more than who they were at the start of the book.

I became more than I had been, as I wrote the book. Awareness is an amazing gift, and responsibility. It changes everything. It changes how I tell stories. Willingness is another gift, and stumbling is a foregone conclusion. I am still learning. Still centering my own experience in each story I write. And still working hard to give my readers as inclusive and diverse an experience as I can, without trying to take the story away from those we need to hear from, those #ownvoices and diverse creators themselves. Only they can tell the authentic stories of their experience. I have always felt this way.

This is an exciting time to be publishing books for young readers, and to be a part of that great wash of stories that are here and are coming. We need every single one of them. More voices of color. More voices of diversity. More voices of inclusion. I want to read them all. I want to share them all. And I want us all to be lifted up and informed and awake and aware because of all these stories. What a time we live in.

Next: one last post in this series, this one about what’s ahead for diversity in my writing, including Kent State.

diversity and my books, part 2, the Aurora County novels

[Note: this is a February series on the diverse themes and characters in Deborah Wiles’s books. I’m publishing the series during Black History Month, with the full knowledge that my books are written from a white person’s point of view (as I am white), and that every month is Black History Month. For more on that, see this essay by Michael Harriot at The Root. To read about the need for diversity in children’s literature, explore We Need Diverse Books online, whose mission statement is “Putting More Books With Diverse Characters Into the Hands of More Children.” You can buy the books I mention below at your local independent bookstore, at Amazon or B&N, or check them out at your local library. More about each one (including a buy option) is at the links I provide below. Part 1 of this series, Freedom Summer, is here.]

This is how the four Aurora County Books look on my website. There is one black child on one cover, The Aurora County All-Stars (look closely), although Cleebo appears in three of the four Aurora County Books. You’d be forgiven for missing him in Love, Ruby Lavender, because when I wrote Ruby — at the same time I was writing Freedom Summer, in the late ’90s — I had no idea how to write outside my own experience, and further, felt like I couldn’t. Not because someone wouldn’t let me, but because I write what I know. And I didn’t know what it was like to grow up black in Mississippi.

“You don’t know what it’s like to be a boy, either,” my editor said about Freedom Summer. “But you know what it’s like to be treated unfairly. You know what it’s like to be angry. Use those universal feelings to write your story.”

I did this as I wrote Love, Ruby Lavender as well, a story about a 9-year-old girl, her wacky grandmother, three unruly chickens, and some loss and grief running under it all, along with the sure sense that “life does go on.”

There are a whopping four sentences about Cleebo in Love, Ruby Lavender, contained in a letter Ruby writes to Miss Eula: “For your information, I played catch with Cleebo Wilson yesterday. He had a bat, so we hit some pop flies to each other. He’s a good batter. I’m a better catcher.”

I knew Cleebo was black, but I didn’t say he was, just as I didn’t tell readers that Old Johnny Mercer, who works in the Snapfinger Cemetery in Each Little Bird that Sings, is black. In Little Bird, I named several characters after jazz musicians — Clark Terry, Kurt Elling and more — which could have been indicators of their skin color — Plas Johnson, the great tenor saxophonist who played the theme to “The Pink Panther,” is Declaration’s father’s name, for instance. But I didn’t specifically say these were white or black characters. Why not?

I hadn’t learned how to do this yet, in long-form fiction. In Freedom Summer, I could tell you “John Henry’s skin is the color of browned butter” and you could see this in the illustrations. But you can’t see Cleebo or Clark Terry or Plas Johnson in Ruby and Little Bird.

Further…. I really didn’t know how to write about people of color in Mississippi without writing about civil rights, as — again, telling my story — that’s the era I lived in as I was growing up, those Mississippi summers. So when The Boston Globe invited me to write a short story for their Newspapers in Education program, I jumped on the chance to go back to Mississippi and write about a community of people, black and white together, to define them as such, and to see where that led me.

Here’s where you can read some of that story archived at The Globe.

My instructions were to write for grades four through seven, to create a cliffhanger ending at the end of each of the eight chapters, to include topics the Globe could expand on in teaching materials, and “please don’t forget our boy readers.” I remembered Cleebo and how much he loved baseball, and that is where The Aurora County All-Stars was born. I created a white character, House Jackson, to be Cleebo’s best friend and my main point-of-view character, as, once again, that was my story to tell.

I wrote this story in 2005 — again, long before the current discussion about diversity and inclusion in children’s literature. The serialized story ran in The Globe that fall, and The Aurora County All-Stars, a full-fledged novel, was published in August 2007 by Harcourt Brace. My editor was Liz Van Doren. The stellar cover art is by the wonderful Marla Frazee, who did Ruby’s and Little Bird’s covers as well.

The book featured baseball, Walt Whitman, Civil Rights, Sandy Koufax (who would not play the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur), Satchel Paige, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, an old man in a crumbling house full of secrets… not to mention a rag tag baseball team starring a diverse cast: House Jackson, his best friend Cleebo Wilson, Frances Schotz and her dreadlocks, her great-grandfather Pip, who owned the barber shop that serviced black and white customers, and our mainstay, Ruby Lavender. The story was not about her, but in her we had, suddenly, a trilogy of books about Aurora County, Mississippi.

I am proud of this book, of what I learned in writing it, of the work I did, and of the reach this story might have had in a world that understood Mississippi to have been the place that Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP in the Sixties described thusly: “There is no state with a record that approaches that of Mississippi in inhumanity, murder and brutality and racial hatred. It is absolutely at the bottom of the list.”

Well, All-Stars was aspirational, certainly. It was also realistic for its portrayal of possibility today in Mississippi and in our country, and it is honest in its description in a middle-grade novel of the struggle for civil rights, even in baseball. I had hope for this book, hope that it would be discovered and beloved, in the way Ruby and Little Bird — and Freedom Summer — had been discovered and loved. Ruby made her way onto 32 state book award reading lists and countless Battles of the Books and one-book schools and communities, while Little Bird became a National Book Award finalist, and I became known as a Southern writer.

All-Stars does have its champions — many of them. I’m looking at you, T.J. Shay and Ellen, and at the Little League Baseball annual World Series. And more.. including many parents who wanted to tell me about the worst loss a parent ever goes through — which surprised and humbled me. Again, when a book leaves my hands, it no longer belongs to me. It belongs to the person who reads it, who makes meaning out of it, and who closes that dialogical circle or conversation that I started. That is the most we can realistically hope for. And that’s the truth.

But it’s also true that this lovely story came out as publishing began to implode in 2007/2008. Harcourt was hit early. My editor and many others lost their jobs, Harcourt became Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, people in the industry — authors and agents, too — sought cover, and the noise was deafening. It took years to shake out. Maybe the dust is still settling. There was so much fallout, and many books (and people) got lost in it.

It would be 11 years before I went back to Aurora County. I wrote other books in the interim. By the time I started writing A Long Line of Cakes, I was hyper-aware of the hefty and long-overdue discussion now occurring surrounding diversity, inclusion, #ownvoices, and “who can tell the story” in children’s literature, and I had matured as a writer — something I still work at, and will always work at, I know.

A Long Line of Cakes was published by Scholastic Press and edited by David Levithan. The truly lovely cover art is by the equally lovely Joanne Lew-Vriethoff. It was published in 2018, at a very different time in publishing than All-Stars‘ 2007 year, or Little Bird’s 2005 year, and certainly different from Ruby’s 2001 year.

There were many fewer books published back then, and you could expect they’d be reviewed. Schools had budgets for books and author programs and they had librarians; independent bookstores weren’t yet fighting for their lives; social media hadn’t raised its powerful head; the conversation surrounding just-about-everything online wasn’t a boxing match; and the surprise of a book that came into the world without a peep was rare. These are generalities, I know. And there are upsides to the digital revolution as well.

All to say, I wish more people had found A Long Line of Cakes, and had discovered its rich and poignant story. But again, when a book leaves my hands…. I have learned to keep my eyes on my own paper, to do the work, to write the story that only I can tell. I have been hard at work doing just that for the past two years that I’ve been more off the road than on, and for that, I am grateful. I rejoined social media channels in Nov. 2018, after a four-year hiatus, when the silence surrounding Cakes felt deafening. Could I have helped that book make its way in the world? I’m still not sure about the social media noise-to-effectiveness ratio, but I like being over here on my newly designed website, in territory I own, once again writing these Field Notes.

I surfaced at Scholastic after the implosion of publishing in 2008 and I have written three other novels with David, which I’ll talk about next time, all of them about the 1960s — the Sixties Trilogy, documentary novels, the first of their kind. Along the way this past 12 years, I have learned so much.

I have learned how important it is to listen and to champion stories about diverse characters, especially those written and illustrated by diverse, #ownvoices writers and illustrators, people of all colors and abilities and identities. I have learned to question my storytelling — can I do better? Yes. — and to ask for help from those who know more than I do when I’m in unfamiliar territory, to give up stories or storylines/ideas that don’t belong to me anymore, if they ever did, to educate myself — an unending proposition — and to hold myself accountable for the stories I do tell. I have learned that I have a story perspective that’s valuable and useful to add to the conversation and I can stand for that voice.

I still tell my own story, in my own voice, and still include characters of color, because that is the world I inhabited in Mississippi, and the world I inhabit today, and the world my readers inhabit as well. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up black, or a boy, or a baseball player, or a funeral home director, or a dog, or a school teacher, or a chicken thief, or a baker, like everyone in the Cake family in A Long Line of Cakes, but I have my own life experiences and a diversity of relationships over the years, including in my childhood, to guide me, research to help me, expert readers and writers and critiquers, and — just as important, I think — there is the art of what we do to see me through, the creation of my particular art, which is mine alone to be messy with, to master, to share.

So, in A Long Line of Cakes, I revisit Aurora County and I push my artistic envelope a little further — something I try to do with each book, for my own growth, and something I try to do as I learn more about how to be brave and say what I want or need to say about certain characters and stories. It felt so good — and so scary — to further the stories of House and Cleebo and Honey and Ruby and Melba and Declaration, and while doing so to create new stories for new characters Emma Lane Cake and her five brothers, four dogs, two parents, and a bakery in the middle of Halleluia, Mississippi.

It felt good to touch on the story I told in All-Stars about Jackie Robinson, and Sandy Koufax and civil rights, and to delve into Pip’s backstory and Norwood Boyd’s history, and to think about where we human beings are from, and to write about what constitutes a family, all families, even those temporary families, or families made of two men who live together for a summer with a little boy who grows up to become an itinerant baker with a huge family, a telling fog, and a curious wash of magic that surrounds them, cares for them, shelters them, and brings them back home.

Because that’s what we’re doing here, in the words of Ram Dass. “We’re all just walking each other home.” That walk is diverse and inclusive, simple and complex, hideous and beautiful, strange and wonderful, tragic and fortunate, and it’s all happening at the same time. Every moment. Every day. We are stories. And we will figure out the way home by uncovering and discovering, every one of us, each of our voices, each of our stories.

Next time: The Sixties Trilogy. You can’t write about the Sixties without writing about diversity… or lack thereof.

the book of love

“The Book of Love” by The Magnetic Fields, written by Stephin Merritt, and posted by me today, for Jim Pearce. I took a long, surprising, winding road to this valentine of mine, and didn’t even know I was headed in this direction. But here I am and here we are, and so, my love: Thank you for the wedding rings.