diversity and my books, part 1, freedom summer

[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, and for more on Freedom Summer see this essay by Henry Louis Gates (also at The Root). You can buy this book, Freedom Summer, at Indiebound or Amazon or B&N or at your local independent bookstore. There is likely a copy at your local school or public library as well. More about the book itself is here on the website. Part 2 of this series is here.]

When I started writing Freedom Summer, in the late 1990s, I didn’t think about the word “diversity.” I just wanted to tell the story of what happened the year the pool closed in Mississippi, the summer of 1964, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

I was eleven. I went “home” to Mississippi the way my family did every summer, and suddenly everything had changed. We couldn’t go to the Cool Dip for ice cream, or the movie theater, or the public library in Bay Springs — everything had closed, it seemed, including the Pine View Cafe and the Pine View Pool and the roller skating rink next to it.

This was the Pine View Cafe. It’s gone now. It was across the highway from the pool and roller skating rink. They served a delicious blue plate special every day… to white folks only.
The pool is on the left beside those tall pines. This is the roller skating rink next to it. It never occurred to me as a kid that there were only white kids in that pool or skating around that gleaming wooden floor… until the passage of the Civil RIghts Act, which was an awakening for me at age 11.

“Why?” I asked. And no one could explain it to me. I never forgot my confusion and, later, my dawning awareness of how white people were doing all they could to keep black people from “invading” their public places. Growing up summers in Mississippi — a land I loved because my people were there… people who loved me and couldn’t wait for my return every summer — growing up in Mississippi, along with a checkered childhood where I lived around the world in a military family, gave me a perspective on life and injustice that has colored everything about who I am and the writing I do.

There was nowhere more special to me on earth than Mississippi, and nowhere more hard to understand. I have spent a lifetime writing about Mississippi, injustice, and the American South in an effort toward not only understanding, but in an effort to tell the truth about privilege and prejudices and to help usher in a world where fairness and justice-for-all actually exists. That effort extends to me and my own privilege and prejudices as I dismantle, unpack, and think about my own life and daily choices.

This is why you’ll see my dive into Freedom Summer once again in Countdown, Revolution, and Anthem, and why you’ll see my dream world reflected in my books The Aurora County All-Stars and A Long Line of Cakes, books that imagine a Mississippi where black and white live together in (relative; they’re novels, everybody’s got their stuff) harmony, which I’ll profile in future diversity posts this month.

I’m writing for ten-year-old me, I always say, who needed, as a white kid, to understand the landscape of privilege, and of racial prejudice, and to realize that she had choices, and still does. And of course I write for anyone who needs to find my stories — I trust that you will.

When a book leaves my hands, it no longer belongs to me, but I hope you will read these books and laugh, cry, share, and see yourself in them, as a human, and as someone who looks or acts like you, in the many characters who populate these stories.

I have always said, “the only story I know how to tell is my own,” so the main point of view in my books has always been that of the kid I was at ten, or twelve, or sixteen: white, middle class, curious, questioning, and wanting to learn, desperate to understand, and trying to discover her place in the bigger conversation and continuum. I’m still that kid at heart.

Of course there are black characters in my stories about the South, and they need their own voices as well. In Freedom Summer, John Henry wants to swim in the pool that his best friend Joe swims in every day, now that the new law says the pool will open to “everybody under the sun, no matter what color.”

“Is it deep?” asks John Henry. “Real deep!” answers Joe. “And the water is so clear, you can jump to the bottom, open your eyes, and still see!”

“Let’s be the first ones there!” says John Henry, as the two friends make plans to show up the next morning to swim together. “I’ll bring my good luck nickel. We can dive for it!”

The original Freedom Summer cover. The one at the top of this post is a refreshed cover created for the 50th anniversary edition of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer.

Things don’t go as planned, needless to say. It took me 30 years to write Freedom Summer and 45 years before I (quite literally) hacked my way back into the piney woods to find my pool. What had happened to it?

My research told me that many pools at that time — across the country — had been emptied and filled in with asphalt (as in Freedom Summer — that was my artistic choice) or turned into parking lots (Revolution) or filled in with earth and turned into parkland (like the pool in Lynchburg, Virginia’s city park), but mine had simply been abandoned. When I show photos of what that abandoned pool looks like today, you can hear a pin drop, even in a room filled with 350 students and their teachers.

It seems unbelievable today that people of color and whites could not swim in the same pools or eat in the same restaurants, or partake of the same public services, but today we are still struggling with the 400-year-old legacy of slavery in this country. It has just changed flavors. When I first started taking Freedom Summer into schools, in 2002 or so, a few teachers wanted to know why I wanted to bring “that history” up again, when their students were colorblind. No one asks me that question today. We are — slowly — making progress. I am, too. And there is still so much work to do.

Freedom Summer was published by Simon & Schuster/Atheneum in 2001, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue, and edited by Anne Schwartz. Its first review was a star from Kirkus and it has been a perennial best-seller as well as a core standard in many county school districts over the years. The largest portion of fanmail I receive is from students writing a new ending for Freedom Summer — the book ends on a “what happens next?” note. It’s so interesting to see their takes on it, which, most of the time, translate into their own hopes and dreams for a different future.

Freedom Summer was my first published book, at a time long before our current conversations about diversity and inclusion, and at the beginning of a writing career about those very themes in everything I write. I’m proud of the book, and of the team that published it, and of every librarian, teacher, and bookseller who has placed this story, and its context, into the hands of young readers.

Next time: the Aurora County novels and my sometimes-stumbling path to writing, in long-form fiction, about diversity and inclusion for young readers.

This blog also publishes at goodreads; you can find me getting started there, and if you are reading at goodreads, the blog post is here on my website, where you can comment or subscribe in an email.


summer reading: Freedom Summer (and deadlines)

Whew. I’ve had deadline-brain. I turned in the revision and backmatter to the Kent State project (book, now), which publishes in April 2020, and that intensity, on the heels of bringing-in the last bits for ANTHEM, Book 3 of the Sixties Trilogy (publishes October 1, 2019), shoved me right over. Tilt.

Noodle-brain, I started calling it. For days. I’m slowly pulling it back together, and so back to Summer Reading. Let me finish writing a bit about my first book, FREEDOM SUMMER and then on to RUBY next time.

I often say that Mississippi was/is the landscape of my heart. It is certainly the geography of my childhood. Both my parents were Mississippi born and bred, so it become our homeplace each year, as we lived all over the globe in an Air Force family. I started school in Hawaii (before it became a state!) and I graduated high school in the Philippines, at Clark AFB.

Mississippi was the place where everyone knew me and couldn’t wait for me to return each summer, to pinch my cheek and tell me how much I’d grown, and to celebrate their most famous citizen (or so it seemed to a young girl then), my dad, who had left this tiny town of a few hundred people in the middle of nowhere, and gone out into the world to become a pilot and a war hero. If the town had been big enough for parades, I thought they’d have had one for my father’s return each summer.

Those childhood summers were idyllic for me, with nothing to do, and nowhere much to go, except to the cemetery to visit all the relatives, to play piano in the unlocked (and un-air-conditioned) Methodist church, to ride to the Cool Dip for ice cream in the next town over, and, if you were lucky, to go roller skating and swimming at the Pine View.

Here’s what the Pine View Cafe across the road from the pool and roller skating rink and pond looked like before I was even born, probably:

We ate there once that I remember. It was the first time I’d heard the term “blue plate special.”

This was the roller skating rink, and next to it (hidden by cars, but on the left in front of those pines) was the pool.

In 1964, the year I was 11, the Civil Rights Act was passed, and the pool closed. The roller skating rink closed. The Pine View Cafe closed. The Cool Dip closed. The Bayless Theater in Bay Springs, the county seat a few miles away, closed. The public library closed.

It would be years before I began to understand what had happened. And even more years before I wrote about that time in FREEDOM SUMMER. And even more years before I revisited that pool.

I have been to see it many times since, have photographed it in all seasons, and show those slides when I speak at schools or conferences, after I read FREEDOM SUMMER on slides. And always, there is a hush. You can hear a pin drop. The proverbial pin.

My pool (as I have taken to calling it) was abandoned in 1964. (In the book I have it filled in with tar/asphalt, the way the pool in Greenwood, Mississippi was turned into a parking lot.) I can’t stop visiting this town, every time I go to Mississippi. I still have precious family in Mississippi, although my parents have both died, and I still feel pulled to this geography of my childhood, this time and place, this trying-to-understand.

I’m still trying to write about this time, which I’ve done specifically in REVOLUTION (Freedom Summer in novel form, and Book 2 of the Sixties Trilogy), and in THE AURORA-COUNTY ALL-STARS, and in A LONG LINE OF CAKES, in which the Pine View Cafe becomes The Cake Cafe. Possibly I will write about this time in our American history for as long as I live, in one way or another. It shows up in all my novels, in some form.

FREEDOM SUMMER got me started. Here’s how.

In 1997 I went to the (then called) IRA — International Reading Association — conference in Atlanta (I lived in D.C. at the time, and went to support a friend). I met Anne Schwartz there, who was then at Simon&Schuster/Atheneum. My good bud Deborah Hopkinson introduced us and said, “Debbie is working on a book about the civil rights movement for children.”

I wasn’t. I had been writing and submitting manuscripts about my southern childhood for many years, and had collected a sizeable batch of rejection letters, but I hadn’t sold a book yet.

At IRA, I’d sat up late the night before with Deborah and another writer buddy Jane Kurtz, and each of us had talked about the book we’d write if we got only one book to write in our lifetimes. I talked about the summer the pool closed. “But that’s not a book for children,” I said. And Deborah said, “Why not?”

On the exhibit floor that day, Anne shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, “If you write that book, I want to read it.”

And four years later, S&S published FREEDOM SUMMER.

Perhaps I’d become a better writer in the ten years I’d been practicing and collecting rejections. Perhaps it was an editor’s challenge and invitation. Perhaps it was good friends believing in me. Perhaps it was a story I knew was mine to tell, and mine alone, and perhaps all those things came together in a moment that I was prepared for by all the days of my life trying to figure it out. I don’t know.

I’m grateful for this book, though. It has helped. I will read it to anyone who will listen. And I will learn from it, for all the rest of the days of my life.

summer reading: Freedom Summer

I’ve about forgotten how to blog. :> But it’s summer, and summer always meant reading, to me, along with bike rides in the woods and friends over to play, swimming pools, baseball, family camping and fishing, and trips to my grandmother’s house in Mississippi, where we’d have nothing to do but breathe, try not expire in the heat, and listen to the kinfolks swap stories and gossip. Nothing and everything. I grew up on stories.

I had a stack of library books that rotated in and out of my bed, my brother’s tree house, my bath (until they were dunked under accidentally), the dinner table (until they were confiscated), and the car. I read everything I could get my hands on, even encyclopedias, even Popular Mechanics. Even stuff I didn’t understand at 12, like Dracula. It scared the pants off me.

And now I write about those summers, in books of my own. I have a newly-designed website ready to share this summer, and as I do, I want to revisit my books, as much to reacquaint myself with their characters and stories, as to share them with you. A book and a story each week for the summer weeks, from June into August.

So let me begin at the beginning:

Freedom Summer was the first book I published, with editor Anne Schwartz, at Simon & Schuster, in January 2001. Anne’s imprint was Atheneum Books for Young Readers. Jerome Lagarrigue illustrated my 760 words, and we were off into a whirlwind year of unexpected excitement. More to come about that!

Jerome had illustrated his first book, My Man Blue, by Nikki Grimes. This would be his second. He was 28 years old, from France (his father) and Brooklyn (his mother), and wasn’t even born in 1964, when the book takes place.

I was convinced he wouldn’t be able to understand the Southern time and place I was writing about, but I couldn’t have been more mistaken.

Smart Jerome interviewed his grandmother, who lived in Richmond, Virginia in the Sixties, who had seen her share of racism and civil rights unrest, as an African-American woman living in the American South; she had stories to tell. And Jerome did his homework. As did I. As did Anne.

We lovingly put together, together, the story of the friendship of two boys, one black and one white, and what happens when the segregated pool is supposed to open to “everybody under the sun, no matter what color” in July 1964 after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Freedom Summer was published almost 20 years ago. It still sells and sells, out there in the world, a story about friendship and fairness and the decisions two young boys face together in the segregated South of the Sixties.

In 2014, at the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, S&S issued an anniversary edition of the book, which is the cover you see here.

Next up: the story of how Freedom Summer came to be, how it grew from a piece of my own childhood personal narrative, to a book for young (and older) readers.

But for now, I’m going to pull the book off the shelf and read it again, out loud, this time doing something I haven’t done for years: turning each page as I read aloud, and taking my time, listening to the cadences of the language just for myself alone, and admiring Jerome’s art.

For years I couldn’t read this book without tearing up. Now I have it memorized, and rarely have the book in my hands when I read it. I’ve put the pages on slides (PowerPoint, today), and I have “read it” many, many hundreds of times, over the past 18 years, to children in pre-K through college, in schools and libraries and bookstores across this country, and even around the world.

Today I watch young people and their teachers have the same reaction I did as I read it years ago, when “John Henry’s eyes fill with angry tears. ‘I did! I wanted to swim in this pool! I want to do everything you can do!'”