[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.