[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.
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.