Allow me to giggle like silly for a second. It’s not everyday that you get to interview one of your childhood icons.
Ahem. Okay, I’m better now.
I was about eight or nine when I was introduced to Cassie Logan and her family in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Which means I was among the first generation of young girls impacted by the moving story of strength brought to life by Mildred D. Taylor in 1976.
Since then, Taylor has written six more books in the Logan family series. I don’t need statistics or research to tell me that makes those books among the longest running YA series on the market. A testament to Taylor’s vivid imagery and proof that trends be damned, a good story is a good story in any era.
Ms. Taylor, thank you taking time to share with us.
BBS: Did you ever think the Logan story would go on so long?
Mildred Taylor: Yes, I did. It has, however, taken me longer to tell the Logan story than I originally anticipated, and the work is still not finished.
There are still stories to tell. This is because I was blessed to come from a family of storytellers who told many stories about our family and neighbors. These stories of family history were handed down from generation to generation, and as a child I was inspired to pass these stories on. I was, however, a quiet child and knew that I could not carry on the great oral tradition of the storytellers who were dramatists as well as historians, but I believed I could write down the stories.
There were many stories I wanted to tell, and the Song of the Trees became the first book based on a story told by my family. The Logan family, of course, represents my own family and the children of Song of the Trees were based on my father and his brothers and sisters.
BBS: How did that single book evolve into a series? Was it something your publisher requested or were the various stories of this family’s trials and tribulations already lurking in your mind?
Mildred Taylor: By the time I wrote Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, I thought there would be three or four Logan books, for I wanted to tell the history of my father’s generation from the time my father was a boy in the 1930’s, through the days of World War II, to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. I planned for all these books to be novels.
The Gold Cadillac, although not officially labeled a Logan book, is based on my family after much of the family moved north, and is told from the point-of-view of my own generation.
In addition, I wanted to tell a story from my grandparents’ generation as children. That story became The Well.
Finally, I wanted to tell my great-grandparent’s story from slavery to the realization of a dream to own land. That book became The Land.
BBS: While Roll of Thunder, The Road to Memphis and May the Circle be Unbroken are YA, some of the other Logan books are Middle Grade. Why the sub-genre switch?
Mildred Taylor: I really don’t know how all of my books are listed as Young Adult or Middle Grade. Since I have never written for any age group, I simply write the stories, I have left categorizing the books to my publisher.
BBS: In your Penguin profile you say about Roll of Thunder, “I wanted to show a different kind of Black world from the one so often seen. I wanted to show a family united in love and self-respect, and parents, strong and sensitive.”
In last week’s spotlight, Rita Williams Garcia, said something similiar. And I too, wrote my YA novels out of a desire to provide a portryal I didn’t see out there.
Why do you think, a full 32 years after your YA debut, are we still trying to fill “voids” in well-rounded portrayals of African Americans?
Mildred Taylor: I believe that is because just like our nation, the African-American family continues to evolve and that we as individuals are as diverse as our nation. There was a time when African-Americans were all “lumped together” as a group, and often stereotyped as a group. Today we are allowed to be as diverse as our nation, and writers must continue to address this diversity in order to portray “well-rounded” African-Americans.
BBS: What has been the best part about writing for children?
Mildred Taylor: I do not write for any age group. I simply write down the stories. When I was writing my first novel, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, I thought the work should be an adult book because I believed it was on the same level of To Kill A Mockingbird. I discussed that with my editors, but they felt the book would be lost in the adult market. Since the main characters were children, the book was published in the youth market.
That my books have been marketed to – and mostly accepted by – young adults and children has been a great blessing to me as a writer. I find that young people are very open to learning about the past and appreciating even when their parents and other adults sometimes do not, and in some cases, do not even want the history told.
I have received letters from young people saying that by reading books like mine, they now can understand why there was a Civil Rights Movement. They understand better now why there is a special day in celebration of that movement and Dr. Martin Luther King. That my stories have affected young people in such a way brings me great joy and satisfaction.
Mildred Taylor: In my writing, I have always attempted to tell the truth. Because the books are read by children and young adults, I sometimes have been asked to “water down” the telling of my stories, to whitewash history, in essence, to falsify history.
In order for certain reprint rights to be sold, I sometimes have been requested by those wanting to reprint my work to delete all objectionable language. My publishser and I have refused to do that. There have been calls to ban my books because of the words I use and the incidents I portray.
When my books were first published in the 1970’s, people understood the reality of the words which were used and why they were used. They understood the honesty of the hisotry, which was still then in the making. They understood the necessity for the truth.
Recently, however, there has been a backlash of parents, minority parents included, and educators who do not want children to read books such as mine. Some of the people who voice these opinions do not like the “n” word being used, because they believe it brings too much pain to a child reading such a word.
But how can readers understand the true history of the past or the need for a civil rights movement unless they have begun to understand the pain of those who suffered through slavery, discrimination, and segregation? How can readers feel the pain if I pretty up the way things were?
What I least like to do is write down words that hurt. I cringe at the thought of any child being hurt by my words, but as much as it hurts me to write words of pain, I know that they must be written, for they are truthful words about the time I write.
They are painful to me to write and they are painful to those who read them, but they are needed for the full understanding of what life was like for African-Americans before the Civil Rights Movement.
I remember what it was like. I remember the pain of what life was like and I want others to recognize that pain in order for all generations to appreciate why there was a Civil Rights Movement and to appreciate the great freedom of rights and opportunities we enjoy today.
BBS: I know the The Brown Bookshelf is not alone in considering you a vanguard author. How do you feel about that title – being among the forefront of authors who broke the literary glass ceiling with your portrayals?
Mildred Taylor: Being considered a vanguard author is to me a great honor. My concern, however, is that some might consider what I have to say as outdated and no longer relevant to the mores and values of today’s society.
I have received a number of letters from students letting me know how they felt about my books as “required reading.” Although not all students have loved my books, there have been students who told me that they were “put off” by the labels applied to the books prior to reading them – that they were historical books about segregation, books about racial relations – but found upon reading them that the books were more than that. They were about family and loyalty and friendship and values they wished were more a part of their world today.
To me, that is so uplifting to find there are still those who read my books and not only feel a greater understanding about our past, but feel the relevancy of that past to apply to the great turmoil of today’s world.
BBS: Is there an African-American YA or MG author, in particular, you see as carrying the torch, writing similiar to your own or breaking new innovative ground?
Mildred Taylor: I do not read books directed specifically for young adults or children, so I am not current concerning emerging writers in the field.
BBS: What can we look forward to from you? Are there any more Logan-based books planned?
Mildred Taylor: I have always hoped to conclude the Logan saga with the Logan’s family move to the North and the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement. With the passing of many members of my family from my father’s generation – the resources of many of my stories – as well as the passing of my own generation, I hope I can still do that.
I also would like to complete a novella based on my own youth.
One last book I would like to write is about life as it is today for an African-American who has supposedly “achieved” the American dream.