Called to writing as a child, award-winning author Carole Boston Weatherford wrote her first poem in grade school. When her father, a printing teacher, printed several of her poems, Weatherford received a special thrill. Little did she know she held the future in her hands.
Weatherford’s Maryland upbringing held another of her destinies too. She has roots in the same county where Harriet Tubman, one of her childhood heroes, was born into slavery and escaped. One day, Weatherford would tell the story of Tubman’s life and relationship with God in a way so powerful and stirring it would win recognition around the globe. That book, Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (Jump at the Sun, 2006), illustrated brilliantly by Kadir Nelson, catapulted her to new ranks.
Acclaimed author of more than two dozen books, Weatherford is a talented poet whose stories draw on the richness of the past, the music of jazz, the beauty of tradition. On her website, she writes that she never gets writer’s block. She has more ideas than she has time to write about. Lucky for us.
We’re proud to salute the work of Carole Boston Weatherford on the 20th day of our campaign.
As a child, what did books mean to you?
I cannot remember a time when books were not in my life. When I was a few months old, a neighbor handed me a book upside down. I turned it right side up. Among my early favorites were the Golden Book, How the Camel Got It’s Hump; the Caldecott winner Chanticleer and the Fox (based on the Canterbury Tales); and Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat.
You wrote your first poem in first grade. How did that early experience put you on the path to publication?
That poem about the four seasons alerted my parents to my gift. My mother wrote down that first poem and later asked my father, a high school printing teacher, to have his students print a few of my poems on the letterpress in his classroom. So, in second grade, I saw my work in print. That was a rare treat in the days before desktop computers and laser printers.
You’ve authored more than two dozen books. How did you land your first deal?
Two friends-poet Ethelbert Miller and Black Classic Press publisher Paul Coates-told me to drop their names when pitching two minority-owned publishers. Name-dropping got me out of the slush pile and opened doors. My first two contracts came within months of each other.
What’s your mission as a children’s book author?
I aim to mine the past for family stories, forgotten struggles and fading traditions.
What do you hope young people take away from your stories?
I want my books to nudge young readers toward justice. I want children to celebrate African American culture, while at the same time acknowledging the most shameful chapters of our nation’s past-slavery and segregation. I hope that my young readers understand that freedom was not free and that people of conscience must speak their minds and live their values.
How do you measure your success?
Of course, awards, book sales and advances are one yardstick. I feel that I have succeeded when a child asks for more information about the trials and triumphs I have chronicled. I want kids to read my books and then dig deeper.
And a sure sign of success was being appointed a distinguished visiting professor by Fayetteville State University in 2002. I’m still on the faculty today.
What were some of the toughest obstacles you encountered when you began your children’s writing career? What were some of the proudest moments?
The biggest mountain was getting editors to read my work and to regard my subjects as more than so-called “footnotes to history.” Before black authors can enlighten and inspire young readers, we must educate those editors who assume that if they themselves are not aware, then the topic is not important or not universal.
My proudest moments almost always involve homecomings: speaking at my elementary school in Baltimore, seeing my favorite teacher in the audience at a fundraiser that I keynoted, or addressing the conference of a writer’s organization that helped me get started.
Your stories sing with poetry and meaning. What called you to become a poet? How does that background inform your children’s work?
The Creator called me to be a poet. I hear words strung together in my head just as a composer hears notes and chords. Scenes unfold in my mind just as they do on a filmmaker’s storyboard. Like poetry, quality children’s literature compresses language, distills feeling, evokes scenes, and can be experienced on multiple levels. The best poetry makes music with words.
Regardless of how my books are marketed or reviewed, most of what I write is poetry. It’s not merely lyrical text; it’s poetry, dear reader. Notable exceptions are Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-ins (Dial, 2004); Champions on the Bench (Dial, 2006); and Sink or Swim: African American Lifesavers of the Outer Banks (Coastal Carolina Press, 1999).
Your award-winning book, Remember the Bridge (Philomel, 2002), took 20 years on and off to write. How did you come up with the project? Please tell us about the journey to publication? What were the challenges along the way? How did you feel when it debuted?
Remember the Bridge began as a graduate school photo-essay and evolved into a two decade pilgrimage into my past. At archives, I pored over prints and photographs to pair with original poems. Eventually, I was no longer looking for images to illustrate poems but writing poems for pictures that begged for words. Paired with my poems, those images form a metaphorical bridge spanning 400 years of African American history. When that book debuted, I put a period on that phase of my life. I turned the page and began a quest for new chapters. Several poems from Remember the Bridge have been anthologized in textbooks.
You write with authority about topics such as jazz, history, social justice. What’s the inspiration for your work?
Here is a snapshot of my formative years in the 1960s. My father’s jazz collection was the soundtrack. I lived in libraries, but found few books featuring children of color. But the all-black faculty at my all-black inner city elementary school gave us regular doses of black history. Not just in February but all school year. At that school, I was introduced to the poetry of Langston Hughes. His words fell on my ears like a song I longed to hear. My parents and grandmothers also shared stories about the color line. And, of course, the Civil Rights Movement was ushering change. That foundation made me want to know even more about my people, even more about the past.
I hope that my stories and poems about history and culture will open minds, spark pride, and give young people the strength to overcome adversity.
Your picture book, Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (Jump at the Sun, 2006), received so many awards and accolades — NAACP Image Award, Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration, starred reviews and recommended lists. Please tell us about how that story came to be and how its success has affected your career.
There are really just three poems in my life: the first grade poem that led my parents to nurture my gift; a never-to-be-revised rush of lyrics-a three-page jazz poem-that became my first published work, convincing me, at age 24, to take this path; and Moses, my offering. Moses began as a story to be read aloud and lay dormant for five or more years until being performed by my husband’s church. That performance showed me the work’s potential as a children’s book. I spent another three years reshaping and shopping the manuscript. Then, Garen Thomas called from Hyperion, seeking manuscripts to acquire. Her editorial hand was light as an angel’s wings. But even after I focused the story, the prose was too cumbersome. Ultimately, I ditched the prose narrative and let the story unfold in a poem for three voices. Those inspired words came together with Kadir Nelson’s soulful paintings and Ellice Lee’s brilliant art direction in a perfect publishing storm. Moses propelled my career to another level.
How has the landscape changed for African-American children’s book authors over the years? What gains have made you proud? What do you hope the future brings?
It’s hard to believe that I’ve been publishing since 1995 when there was somewhat of a multicultural boom. I am proud of the progress made and prizes won by those black authors and illustrators who are still in the game. But when I peruse publishers’ catalogs now, I see fewer books about black subject matter and even fewer by black authors. Like our people’s voices, our books get marginalized, ghettoized. Thus, many of our stories are doomed to obscurity. Of course, I wish the tide would turn, but I’m not sure if or when it will, especially in a celebrity-driven publishing market.
If you could go back and whisper in your ear when you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself about the children’s book industry?
This climb will be steeper than you imagine, but the people you meet along the way will make the journey worth it.
How do you balance the creative side of writing with the business side?
The balancing act is a challenge, especially since I remain unagented. I try to keep lines of communication open with other authors about contracts and contacts and I sometimes consult my entertainment lawyer cousin. Although I was a publicist for two decades, I’m not as much help to myself as I was to others. I’m too busy and too modest for self-promotion. Finding time to write becomes an increasing challenge with school visits and my university teaching responsibilities. The source of the greatest tension
Your wonderful book, I, Matthew Henson: Polar Explorer (Walker, 2007), illustrated by Eric Velasquez debuted last month. What can we look forward to next?
Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane (Henry Holt & Co., 2008), illustrated by Sean Qualls, will be released by Henry Holt in April. And I am eagerly anticipating the September release of Becoming Billie Holiday (Wordsong, 2008), a fictional verse memoir illlustrated by Floyd Cooper and my first young adult title, by Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press. Billie Holiday is my muse; so I have a lot riding on that book.
What’s your greatest joy?
It’s a tie. Traveling with my family and having solitary time and creative space to write. I only wish the two could go hand in hand.
The Buzz on I, Matthew Henson: Polar Explorer:
2007 Parents Choice Award
“This picture-book account of the explorer’s life and accomplishments begins when the 13-year-old orphan signed on as cabin boy on the Katie Hines. After his captain died, no one would hire a black crewman, so he became a stock boy in a store where a chance meeting with Robert Peary changed the course of his life. Henson was hired as his assistant and together they made seven trips to the Arctic between the years 1891 and 1909. The book reveals the extreme hardships they faced: frigid cold, frozen waters, frostbite, harsh winds, and lack of food or funds. The capable assistant would save Peary’s life twice, befriend the Inuit and learn their language, and intuitively lead the team to their destination when faulty instruments had failed them. Using sparse, poetic language, Weatherford tells Henson’s story in the first person, beginning each page of text in a similar manner. The form effectively captures the subject’s determination: “I did not start as cabin boy, climb the ranks to able-bodied seaman, sail to five continents, and learn trades and foreign tongues to be shunned by white crews.” An author’s note provides more biographical information. The mostly full-spread pastel illustrations use a palette of white, gray, pale blue, and brown to show the vast, icy landscape. Powerful words and images make this an excellent choice for units on explorers or African Americans.”
— School Library Journal, Starred Review
“Tough-minded and poetic, this biographical sketch draws much of its power from what it leaves unsaid, obliging readers to align themselves closely with the narrator. The speaker is Matthew Henson, who joined Robert Peary in planting the flag on the North Pole in 1909; the words Weatherford assign him testify to a lifetime spent in resolute pursuit of his ambitions. “I did not start as cabin boy, climb the ranks to able-bodied seaman… and learn trades and foreign tongues to be shunned by white crews who thought blacks were not seaworthy,” he states. “My dreams had sails.” Setting forth a dramatic list of what Henson “did not” do, the story points to extraordinary reserves of courage and perseverance: Henson sails with Peary, “again and again,” through the frozen seas, starves, returns to the U.S. and marries, and tries once more to reach the North Pole. Where the text adopts Henson’s perspective, Velasquez (previously paired with the author for Jesse Owens: Fastest Man Alive) generally views Henson at an ennobling distance, envisioning him communicating with Eskimos (alone of Peary’s men, he learned Inuit) or shielding his face, temporarily a railroad porter in the segregated South. His pastels are especially well suited to the polar scenes, where they suggest both the cold hard surfaces of snow and ice and the frozen colors of the skies. An endnote amplifies Henson’s life and accomplishments.”
— Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
The Buzz on Birmingham, 1963:
2008 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award (Pennsylvania Center for the Book)
“Child’s-eye details ground Carole Boston Weatherford’s story of the Civil Rights movement in 1963, especially in Birmingham, Alabama. Her spare and deeply affecting narrative poem gradually builds to the church bombing in that city that murdered four African American girls. There is a shocking numbness in the matter-of-fact voice of the fictional narrator, a young girl describing significant events in that year. “The year I turned ten / I missed school to march with other children / For a seat at whites-only lunch counters.” That terrible Sunday in May is also her birthday: “The day I turned ten . . . / My brother sopped red-eye gravy with biscuits . . . The day I turned ten / Someone tucked a bundle of dynamite / Under the church steps / Then lit the fuse of hate.” The young narrator goes on to remember each of the four girls, ending with these poignant, painful lines about Carole Robinson: “Carole, who thought she might want / To teach history someday / Or at least make her mark on it.” Archival photographs on each two-page spread provide haunting and disturbing visual imagery (e.g., firehoses on marchers, a hooded Klansman, the heavily damaged church, four smiling faces in school photographs). Extensive notes at the volume’s end elaborate on historical details referenced in the poem and photographs of this compelling work.”
— Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC)
“Exquisitely understated design lends visual potency to a searing poetic evocation of the Birmingham church bombing of 1963. …A gorgeous memorial to the four killed on that horrible day, and to the thousands of children who braved violence to help change the world.”
— Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review
“In understated free verse, an unnamed, fictional girl narrates the events that preceded the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. She relates how she marched with other children to protest white-only lunch counters, went to the Lincoln Memorial to hear King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and was present at the church when “Someone tucked a bundle of dynamite/Under the church steps, then lit the fuse of hate.” The format of the book is small, and it makes the reading experience of an enormously tragic event an intimate experience. The poetic text appears on light-gray pages with photos of childhood objects, like shoes, barrettes, or birthday candles. The fateful Sunday is the narrator’s birthday; she states, “The day I turned ten,/There was no birthday cake with candles;/Just cinders, ash, and a wish I were still nine.” Opposite are full-page archival black-and-white photographs (which are cited in the back matter). The color palette is white, gray, and black, with enigmatic red design elements that appear on the pages of print. The book includes a section called “in memoriam” in which the four young girls who died in the bombing are profiled. The author’s note provides additional historical background, and the end matter includes a list of photo citations. An emotional read, made even more accessible and powerful by the viewpoint of the child narrator.”
— School Library Journal, Starred Review
For more on Carole Boston Weatherford, please visit her website at www.caroleweatherford.com.
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