As a child, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson was captivated by the stories her mother read at bedtime. She soaked in the poems her father recited. Those early experiences gave her a deep appreciation for the power of literature and language. Today, part of Nelson’s mission is to share that gift with others: “I hope to give children some of what my parents gave me — the opportunity to grow, to be made stronger, through story.”
As an author, Nelson has achieved that and more. Her books, exploring sensitive topics like slavery, elderly memory loss and discrimination, are filled with hope and heart. Her work has received many honors — Always Gramma was named a Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies and Beyond Mayfield won a Parents’ Choice Gold Award. Her picture book, Almost to Freedom, won a Coretta Scott King Honor Award for illustration and was made into a play.
On day 16 of our campaign, we are proud to salute Vaunda Micheaux Nelson:
How did your parents help put you on the path to writing?
My parents brought books into my life on the day I was born; my mother found my name in a novel she was reading. And my love of books began at bedtime, which was story time at my home. Though I often joined my four siblings in the resistance against the dreaded hour, I can admit now that most times I was secretly anxious to go to bed to hear Mom read the next chapter of our current adventure involving Uncle Wiggily, Tom Sawyer, or the Bobbsey Twins. Dad would recite story poems from memory, like “Oh, Captain, My Captain” and “Paul Revere’s Ride.” He read Langston Hughes and other poets. And he recited poetry he’d written himself, though he didn’t tell us it was his until years later. Mom got us library cards and, twice a month, took us to the bookmobile. We had no library in our small town. Many parents stop reading to their children after they start reading on their own. I will be eternally grateful that mine never did. They both loved literature and made it an integral part of our lives. They taught me the power of language. This made me want to be a writer.
What inspired you to write for children?
I had always loved children’s literature, and was working at Pinocchio, a bookstore for children in Pittsburgh, when I wrote my first book. At the time, I was a sponge, soaking up all the children’s books I could. I came to understand why they were so appealing to me. The really good stuff has a complex simplicity, a subtlety, a depth of feeling and meaning, an economy of language, rarely seen in adult literature. What a challenge! It is a challenge I reach for every time I sit down to write.
Also, I know what a difference books have meant to the fullness of my life. It is gratifying to think that something I write may touch a young reader in a positive, permanent way.
How did your first book, Always Gramma, come to be? What was your journey to publication?
When my grandmother became ill years ago, my parents couldn’t talk to us kids about it. They didn’t have a language for it themselves, so they were as frightened and confused as we were, probably more. Consequently, when I grew up, I couldn’t talk about it very well either. I didn’t really understand everything that had happened and what I did understand had become so internalized that trying to deal with it was difficult.
I needed to write Always Gramma. The process of writing the story helped me to move beyond the sadness, beyond the pain of what my grandma and I had lost to the disease, and to focus instead on what we had — the wonderful things we shared, and the love that illness or even death can never take away.
Most editors thought the story was too sad. Certainly, the sadness of the illness cannot be denied. But the real story moves beyond that. Always Gramma is simply about a relationship between two people in which one of them changes, but the love goes on. The love is stronger. It wins in the end.
I received a terrifically helpful rejection letter from Patricia Gauch of Philomel Books. She gave me advice and a critique that led to a good revision and to publication with Putnam.
Please talk about your Mayfield series. What inspired you to write it? Will you write more middle grade novels?
When I was a child there was a man in our neighborhood we all called Old Harry. He was scruffy and unshaven, sort of a local hobo. And he terrified us. Naturally, we circulated horror stories about him, and we all ran and hid when he showed up. He never did anything to justify our fear; he just was.
Years later, I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Old Harry was dead by then, but the character of Boo Radley made him live again for me, and I felt ashamed. I wondered, who was Old Harry really? I never tried to find out then. And I should have known better. As the only black child in my class at school, my own spirit had felt the pain of rejection. I never forgot Atticus Finch’s words: “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”
The wonderful thing about writing fiction is that you can create the world as you would like it to be. Readers have asked, “Is Meg Turner you?” There’s a lot of me in Meg, many of her experiences and feelings were mine. But Meg is better than I was. She made the leap between Old Hairy’s feelings and her own. She connected with her Old Hairy, and her actions helped me to forgive myself for not connecting with mine.
It can be said that both of the Mayfield books are about discrimination. In Mayfield Crossing, I had hoped to leave readers with some awareness that change can happen — not overnight — but through a compounding effect of individual acts of kindness and courage. Beyond Mayfield is less about how to stop people from hating each other because of differences (racial or otherwise) than it is about how the individual reacts to this kind of hatred, how victims of hate survive this treatment without letting the goodness of their own hearts be damaged, without becoming hateful themselves. In this book, I was pursuing answers to questions about the possibilities, the capabilities, of the human heart.
I do hope to write more middle grade novels, because I love reading them, and I love living in the fictional world that writing a novel provides, a place to escape to when I feel frustrated by things I can’t control in the real world.
What was the racial landscape of the children’s book industry like when you entered the field? How has it changed? What gains in the field have made you proud? What do you hope the future brings?
When I entered the field in the 1980s, many of the greats were around — people like Virginia Hamilton, Ashley Bryan, Mildred Taylor, Patricia and Fredrick McKissack. I discovered most of them during my saturation time at Pinocchio Bookstore. And I was thrilled because, as a child, the number of books by and about African Americans for my age was limited.
I’m not sure if my memory is correct, but it seems that shortly after I came to the field, the ‘multicultural” movement hit the schools. Prior to this movement, many schools where inclined to purchase titles featuring black characters if the book had won an award, or to provide materials for their small population of black students. If there were no black children enrolled, some schools didn’t see the need. The idea that all children benefit from exposure to materials about cultures not their own changed this. This trend, I’m sure, opened the door to more African American titles being published and purchased. It was good. But, I remember at some point feeling a little tired of the word “multicultural” and the impression that the problem was fixed. Some educators added books featuring Chinese, Native American, and African characters to their collections, displayed books in February, and felt they were covered. I think we’re doing better on this. Books by and featuring African Americans are being read and discussed more throughout the year. Things have improved and I am glad for this. My hope for the future is for the numbers of quality titles being published to keep growing. In fairness to publishers, this certainly can’t happen unless people buy them. So it’s up to everyone — editors and publishers, teachers, librarians and parents.
Although I enjoy and have written books that deal with the African American experience, I’d like to see more black characters in stories that simply embody the American experience. I suppose Ready? Set. Raymond! helps to fill this gap. I hope to do more.
I’d also like to see a hot new series with a black main character. A series that flies off the shelves like Harry Potter did. I’d love to see kids of all races lined up at bookstores waiting for the clock to strike midnight when the next book hits the shelves.
How does your experience as a children’s librarian inform your work?
Easy access to new books and other librarians, seeing which books work in story time, listening to what kids are saying about particular books and authors, having the opportunity to introduce children to books that they might not discover or seek out themselves are all wonderful aspects of my library work.
The best thing though is this: Over the years, as I’ve watched and assisted kids in their search for everything from Garfield, Captain Underpants, and Harry Potter, to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Maniac Magee, and The Book Thief, I’ve learned not to be a snob about what kids should or should not be reading. Every book can’t be filet mignon. If fact, most are closer to hamburger, but there’s nothing wrong with a good hamburger. Part of my job is helping kids to see the difference so that when they get a taste of filet, their ideas about great books are forever changed. As a writer, I strive for filet, but I don’t despair if I end up with hamburger, as long as it is nourishing to my readers.
What do you hope young people take away from your stories?
I hope my characters and their stories will provide readers with something they may need at that particular moment in their lives. Every individual enters the reading experience with his own needs and desires. I hope to be able to speak to readers on a personal level.
I hope to give children some of what my parents gave me — the opportunity to grow, to be made stronger, through story. To make them laugh and cry and get angry and maybe change their minds about some things. To make them care about something, someone, beyond themselves.
Your moving award-winning picture book, Almost to Freedom, was made into a play. How did that opportunity come to be? What was it like seeing your book come to life on the stage of the SteppingStone Theatre in St. Paul, MN?
A few years ago I received a message from my agent, Tracey Adams, that the theater was interested in adapting my book for the stage. SteppingStone has successfully done many plays based on children’s books, and I was lucky enough to have them discover Almost to Freedom and see the possibilities. Writers are often concerned (and justifiably so) about changes that will be made when their work is adapted. But everyone involved in the production seemed to respect the intent and spirit of my story. I loved their handling of it.
I attended the play with folks from my publisher, Lerner, and I met the cast, the director, and the playwright, Kim Hines. It was an amazing night. Beautiful spirituals were woven throughout the play, and I heard the clear voices of those young singers in my head for weeks afterwards.
Juneteenth is a wonderful collaboration with your husband, Drew. Please tell us about that process. Will you do other books together?
My editor asked me if I would be interested in writing a book on Juneteenth, as part of their On My Own Holidays series. I wanted to do it, but the deadline was short. I had heard of Juneteenth, but didn’t know enough about it, so I knew there would be quite a bit of research involved. Seeing my uncertainty about accepting the project, Drew offered to work with me on it. My husband is a great writer and loves history. He’s always my first editor anyway, but having him more closely involved in the process was a true gift. I’d done historical fiction before, but never a nonfiction book. Drew is very good about questioning the accuracy of a thing. When I give him anything to read, I must be prepared for it to come back bleeding with comments and corrections. Sort of like Mikey on the cereal commercial — “Let Drew read it. He catches everything.” Needless to say, it was fabulous to work with him. I’d write a section, he’d edit. He’d write, I’d edit. And we talked and laughed and disagreed and compromised. Did I want to strangle him sometimes? Yes. Did he want to strangle me? Yes. Would we like to do more books together? You bet.
What have been the proudest and toughest moments of your writing career?
I am proud every time I finish a book that I feel in my gut is good, and I’m proud every time someone says they love it! I was especially proud when, after I had read some of my father’s poems as part of a presentation on Possibles at a regional IBBY conference, Marianne Carus approached me and asked if she might consider some of the poems for publication in Cricket. I was proud of my dad and proud to be his daughter.
The toughest times have been the struggles through brick walls in the research process, times of low confidence when I feel I’ll never finish a book that is important to me and, even if I do, who will care? And times when I think I’ll never be the writer I want to be.
If you could go back and whisper in your ear when you were just starting out, what would you say?
“Open a retirement account now.” I love writing for children, and I love my library work, but I have to admit there isn’t much financial security in either profession. If I had a nice fat IRA, I would have more flexibility, more time in my schedule to write and be with my family.
Can you please give us a preview of your next book? When will it debut?
I have two books coming out in the fall of 2009. Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal is a picture book biography coming from Lerner (Carolrhoda Books). I am excited to finally see this nonfiction book come out. From the time Drew introduced me to Bass Reeves in 2003, I’ve come to admire him so much I can’t wait for kids to get to know this incredible man. And I’m thrilled that Gregory Christie is the illustrator.
Just as exciting, Random House is publishing Who Will I Be, Lord? with lovely art by Sean Qualls. It’s a picture book with personal meaning for me since it’s based in family history.
What’s your greatest joy?
There are so many! Family, friends, good books, moments of discovery, the New Mexico sky, and bread pudding, to name a few. I am blessed.
The Buzz about Juneteenth:
“As the school year lengthens well into June and as Juneteenth celebrations gain footing across much of the country, books on this grassroots holiday, which celebrates the belated arrival of emancipation news to Texas slaves on June 19, 1865, are sure to become increasingly popular. This entry in the On My Own Holidays series offers a solid introduction to the holiday for independent readers or for presenting to small groups. At times the historical overview sacrifices nuance for concision (not every abolitionist, for instance, “believed that blacks and whites were equal”), but the understated narrative draws children in with a dramatization of Galveston slaves receiving the long-delayed news, followed by powerful accounts of the history of slavery, the Civil War, and the incremental emancipation process. Schroder’s pastel illustrations can appear muddy, but at their best, leaping, embracing figures convey the resilience and rejoicing of celebrants then and now. Information about Juneteenth traditions–such as red velvet cake and red soda pop as symbols of bloodshed in the battle for freedom–will help young readers plan jubilees of their own.”
The Buzz about Almost to Freedom:
“A compelling story told from the point of view of an enslaved child’s beloved rag doll. Made for young Lindy by her mama, Miz Rachel, the hand-stitched toy is the girl’s most prized possession. She tells her, “Your name be Sally. We gonna be best friends.” When the child’s father is sold and Lindy is beaten for asking Massa’s son how to spell her name, the horrid conditions of the cotton plantation become intolerable. One night Miz Rachel wakes Lindy and they run for their lives. They are reunited with Mr. Henry and the fugitive family heads North to freedom. They are given shelter at a station on the Underground Railroad, but must flee from slave catchers in the middle of the night. In the frantic scramble, Sally is left behind. The doll is lonely for her friend and worries for the safety of Lindy and her folks. When another child and her mother are sheltered in the basement, the doll joins her new best friend on her trip to Freedom. This accessible story is told in language that is within the experience of a young child and makes its impact without frightening or overwhelming readers. It is ultimately a story of hope and resilience, love and friendship. The evocative oil paintings are expertly rendered and effectively convey the powerful emotions of the tale. A fine addition to most collections.”
— School Library Journal
“Lindy’s beloved rag doll, Sally, tells how Lindy’s family escapes on the Underground Railroad to find freedom “in a place called North.” The doll’s narrative and Bootman’s dark, dramatic paintings bring close the child’s daily experience: the cruel separation and physical punishment, and then the adventure of running away and hiding. At times it’s hard to distinguish Sally from Lindy–why not just let the child tell the story herself? But then there’s an anguished twist in the plot: the child and her doll are separated. Lindy gets away, but in the turmoil she leaves her doll behind. When another escaping child finds Sally and hugs her to herself, the story comes full circle. That’s a powerful way to express the sorrow of loving families torn apart, and Bootman’s stirring portraits, many of them set at night, in rich shades of purple and brown, show that the small rag doll bears witness to historical events of cruelty and courage.”
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