Sharon G. Flake tweeted that people should run out and get Black Angels (Putnam Juvenile, 2009) when it debuts. She said: “U won’t want 2 put it down.”
Sheila P. Moses said: “This novel and the character Luke will move readers like Huckleberry Finn moved us on the Mississippi River 100 years ago.”
Nikki Giovanni described it this way: “. . . Black Angels needs a cup of hot cinnamon tea, a blanket across our knees and a little bit of our time to go on a marvelous journey to America’s best self when we struggled to free the future of hate and fear.”
When you’ve got award-winning authors buzzing, you know you have a winner. Novels that explore the Civil War are not new, but Linda Beatrice Brown examines that time through such a fresh and compelling lens that it’s like looking at that period for the first time. In Black Angels, released today, she takes us on a harrowing journey with Luke, Daylily and Caswell — three orphans finding a way to survive.
Brown’s characters defy typical notions of family. These children are not kin by blood, but rather forge a rich and enduring bond through the trials they face together. That they come from different places makes their connection even more powerful. Twelve-year-old Luke ran away from a plantation in hopes of fighting for freedom. Nine-year-old Daylily was freed, but must navigate a scary and treacherous world. Caswell, 7, is white and the child of a slave owner whose home was burned by the Yankees.
Part of the magic Brown weaves is through the growth of these characters. They are children facing unimaginable challenges, but as they scramble to withstand the dangers of the Civil War and meet a special Black Indian woman, they go on a journey of self-discovery. Hope, love and understanding bloom. Full of heart, intensity and meaning, Black Angels is a young adult novel that you don’t just read, you feel down deep.
So I’m with Flake, run out and get a copy. Get two if you can and share one with a library or school in need.
Here we talk to Brown, a distinguished professor at Bennett College and acclaimed novelist, about her writing life and her amazing new young adult novel, Black Angels:
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was 14.
Before writing for children, you wrote two successful novels for adults, Rainbow Roun Mah Shoulder and Crossing Over Jordan. Please tell us about your journey to publication.
I was first published at the age of 19 in an anthology, Beyond the Blues. I won a creative writing contest at Bennett College while I was a student. After I graduated, I published several single poems and then a chapbook, A Love Song to Black Men. I started my first novel in the 1970’s and it won first prize in a competition. Part of the prize was publication with Carolina Wren Press in NC.
What called you to write for children?
I had written and published poetry for children and it was natural to move into fiction.
I read that your teaching experiences inspired you to write a novel for young people about the Civil War era. Could you talk more about that inspiration? How long have you been working on Black Angels? How did the story come to you?
I specifically wanted to explore what happened to children during the Civil War since I had taught about it in my Black Studies courses. I worked on Black Angels on and off for about 10 years. The story evolved form Luke to the other characters. The voice started out as the voice of Betty Strong Foot, the Black Indian woman in the story.
Your core characters — Luke, Daylily and Caswell — are so memorable and moving. Did you hear a particular character’s voice first or did you all of the characters come to you at once?
The hardest part was moving from novels for adults to novels for young people. A lot of what you want to say to adults you have to “imply” for young people. However it was very rewarding.
I would say it was most rewarding whenever I felt a chapter worked well. That was when it was truly exciting and fun.
What was your process for developing and shaping Black Angels? What was the toughest part of writing it? What were the most rewarding moments?
My process involves listening. Listening to my inner voice and the voices of my characters. Envisioning and meditating are also techniques I use.
On your website, you say a central theme of Black Angels is learning to be family. You weave a beautiful story of family created not through blood, but through a bond formed as the main characters count on each other as they face terrible trials and adversity. Could you talk about that more? Why was that important to explore?
It was important to explore family this way because in our time there are many kinds of families and many people need to find ways to bond with others, especially those torn apart from traditional family by wars and conflicts.
How much research did writing Black Angels require? Did you know from the beginning that you’d focus on the impact of the Civil War on youth?
Yes, I knew I wanted to write about the impact of war on children. I did a great deal of research through the years as I was teaching, and then intensified the research once I decided to wrote a novel.
Please tell us how Black Angels found a home. Where were you when you got the news about your deal? What did you do? How did you feel?
It took a good while to find a publisher for Black Angels. My agent was indispensable. I thought about self publishing but then Penguin Putnam became interested. I was at home when my agent called me and I was VERY excited and happy. It is a great feeling to know that your book will be published and “live out in the world!”
I was excited to read that you’re at work on a sequel to Black Angels. Any hint about what that book will explore?
The sequel will be based in the American Reconstruction period and there will be two more children in it. That is all I am going to reveal right now.
Just as family is central in the lives of your characters, family seems central in your life too. I love the wonderful pictures on your website. Does that strong connection to family inspire your stories?
My family has been an inspiration to me all my life. There were many books for children and adults in our home. My mother was an artist and musician and my sisters were very creative. My father taught me a lot about social justice because he worked for the Urban League. They were always very supportive of my writing.
What is your dream for Black Angels? For your writing career?
My dream is that my book will inspire and teach children all over the world. I wanted to help children and adults to understand the need to settle conflicts of ethnicity, race, and culture in some way other than conflict and war. I would love for the sequel to inspire even more understanding.
The Buzz on Black Angels:
“Luke, 11, tries to run away from Massa Higsaw’s place to join Union soldiers but instead becomes the leader of two children even younger than himself: Daylily, another slave, and Caswell, the white child of a slave owner. The small band manages to avoid danger, taking refuge with a woman of mixed heritage who may be a spy for either side. Eventually, the three make their way to Harper’s Ferry, Daylily and Caswell finding a family to take them in while Luke follows his plan to join the Union. They vow to meet again at Betty Strong Foot’s cabin in the future. This is an unflinching look at how early childhood ended for children of slavery and the toll the Civil War took on all in its path. The pace of the story conveys the fear and urgency felt by the compelling central characters, and the coarse vernacular of the time contributes an air of authenticity. The transition to the future meeting, ten years hence, is somewhat abrupt, but it serves to provide a satisfying conclusion to the story.”
For more about Black Angels and Linda Beatrice Brown, please visit www.lindabeatricebrown.com.