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.


some housekeeping

Well, it’s August, and we’ve made it as far as Ruby in Summer Reading, hahaha. Lord it has been a busy time. I’m declaring Summer Reading can go into fall and even winter — I won’t abandon it. I hope you stay tuned.

In the meantime, there is this:

from the research trip and getaway I made last week to Maine, to Rachel Carson’s cabin by the sea. More on this soon. 

I’m juggling (delightedly, gratefully) a particularly rich time in my writing life right now. Here is just yesterday’s work:

I finished researching niggling details and sent in final revisions, author’s note, acknowledgements, dedication, etc etc, to a picture book I’ve written about Rachel Carson that publishes next fall (Random House), art by the stupendously talented Daniel Miyares — all very exciting.

I sent in a revision of the galley letter that will go in front of all KENT STATE galleys — which will be here very soon. That book publishes (Scholastic Press) in April 2020. Also exciting. We have an amazing cover for this book that I can’t wait to share when the time is right.

I prepared for Scholastic’s sales conference in NYC next week, where I’ll be speaking about KENT STATE to sales reps from across the country. I’m scripting myself for this 5-8 minute talk, and selecting some slides.

I spoke with my agent about illustrators for a picture book I’ve worked on for many years that may be sold soon. The editor in question wants to take it to acquisitions with an illustrator and vision in mind. Very exciting! So many books take me such a long time to figure out.

I worked back-and-forth with Scholastic audio on listening to auditions and selecting a reader to be Molly for the audiobook of ANTHEM. Also very exciting! We’ve been bouncing this around for some time — we have decided on Norman, and we have our narrator, and we were trying to get Molly just right. I think yesterday we found her.

I corresponded with my uber-talented and patient webmistress about moving A LONG LINE OF CAKES off its prominent “new book” position on my home page and moving ANTHEM into its place, and I set up a training time with her, so I can make these changes myself in time.

I answered a backlog of email.

When I showed up mid-afternoon to get my hair cut, here is what I heard: “Your hair is very emotional today!” hahahahaha. Yeah. It’s an emotional time. And so very busy. I know how lucky I am. 

I got mostly off the road late last year, which has given me the opportunity to write more and have days like I had yesterday, and like I hope to have more of going forward.

I’ve been writing professionally for 35 years now, in one capacity or another, and working in this book business for a little over 20 years now, publishing books since 2001, and this is the first time I’ve had TIME stretching out ahead of me.

Part of it is age, and stage, part of it is getting off the road, and part of it is finishing up major projects, like the Sixties Trilogy (which I sold in 2008) followed immediately by KENT STATE. 

It’s also the first time in 11 years I haven’t woken to a publishing deadline. Everything is turned in, finished. It’s luscious. I don’t want to give up that feeling! But I have work to do. So — what now?

I have two proposals to write, both for big writing projects. I spoke with my agent this week about those. I have picture books to go back to. A bunch of other writing and home projects I’m eager to paddle around with, in what’s left of this summer.

Also, there is housekeeping.

I have a new website! Is it not GORGEOUS? Thank you, Cyndi Craven! We are still tweaking, and having fun with it, and I am ever grateful for such a professional looking site. I hadn’t updated my website design in 9 years, since COUNTDOWN was published. Ulp.

Check out the BOOKS page, so lovely, and see how each book’s page (click on REVOLUTION for an example) now has excellent information for readers, teachers, librarians, parents, and more. I see this new website as a beautiful workhorse for me into this next part of my writing life. I’ll have to do a separate blog post about it at some point.

I’m moving this Blogger blog to my WordPress website soon, just fyi. It’s already there, actually, and you can go sub there soon as well, although I won’t be completely away from Blogger for some time yet, so no worries if you want to hang out here on Blogger with me while we transition everything.

My idea is to “own my own content” and eventually be off social media platforms and have everything about me at my website. I was off social media for four years, and it did me good. I’m trying to figure out a way to return that works for me. Hence, having all content in one place. More on that as we transition.

In the meantime, I am once again (mostly against my will, hahaha) at FacebookTwitter, and Instagram (you’ll find me here most often because I like the visual storytelling, and it feels less nekkid-making). 

And I’m at Pinterest, never left Pinterest, as this is where I catalog resources for my work in progress, so it’s a work tool, it’s messy, but it’s process, and maybe useful to readers… it’s certainly useful to me, and I love this tool for that reason.

And I’m here, once again, at the blog, and very happy about that. Thanks for hanging out with me.

xoxo Debbie