Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘author biographies

When Judy Blume began her career, she wanted to write the kind of books she could have enjoyed reading when she was young–books about kids as real people.

JudyBlumeThe above statement comes from Judy Blume’s Story, an official biography written by Bestsy Lee in 1981. It describes the inspiration behind Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. Blume completed the first draft of Margaret in only six weeks. While critics praised Margaret, not everyone liked it. Schools for example wouldn’t allow it because it dealt with menstruation. Young people read it anyway and the fan mail began. Margaret’s success turned out to be the turning point in Blume’s writing career.

To usher in the new year, tomorrow I’ll review Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret? Then on Friday I’ll return to talk about a tribute book to Blume, Everything I Learned About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume by Jennifer O’Connell. Save the dates: January 1-2!

EARLY CHILDHOOD

In the first chapter of Judy Blume’s Story, Lee writes that Blume grew up in New Jersey, where she was an imaginative child. On rainy days, Blume would play with her dolls and lose herself in a fantasy world. Each of her dolls had their own personalities. Sometimes too she would creep up to the attic to play and imagine a host of dangers that lurked in the nooks and crannies there. Blume also made up adventure stories, mysteries, romances, like those which she listened to on the radio.

Did you know that Blume grew up during World War II? Her memories of the war blur, but she remembers when it ended in 1945. The family were spending their vacation at a boarding house in Bradly Beach. Blume sat in the kitchen in her bathing suit eating a jelly sandwich. Her mother and grandmother were listening to Bing Crosby on the radio. Suddenly his singing stopped. “We interrupt this program to bring a bulletin from our newsroom,” the announcer said. “The war is over.”

Chapter two states that to everyone around her, Blume was a timid little girl with curly brown hair and wide, dark eyes. But inside she was a very different person. She dreamed of being an ace detective called in by the chief of police to solve a murder mystery, a prizefighter, a ballerina… Her greatest fantasy was to become a movie star and she kept waiting patiently for a Hollywood producer to discover her.

On her website, Blume elaborates: “I was small, skinny, a late developer. At first, very shy and fearful. Then, around fourth grade, much more outgoing. I can’t explain the change. I enjoyed drama, dancing, singing, painting and performing. I loved to roller skate (we didn’t have roller blades then) and to ride my bike. I also loved going to the movies, and browsing at the public library. I was always reading something.”

Regards the latter, Lee reveals that the Blume house was filled with books, from the living room to the bedroom to the sun room. Not only was Blume’s mother a great reader, but she was also a great library patron. Blume’s favorite book was Madeleine, one which she stashed in a drawer with her playthings rather than return to the library. Even one of her aunts, a grade school principal, loved books. She would hold Blume on her lap and read to her. Her aunt was the only person Blume knew who had more books than her mother. Blume vowed that someday she would also have a collection of books like her aunt. Yet even at this early age, Blume found something missing in those books. Where she wondered were all the books about real kids with real feelings?

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

I’ll miss you, Dooey-Bird

The above statement was made by Blume to her father in third grade. All of the family except her father were going to spend the year in Florida. The family had rented an apartment in Miami Beach for the winter. Blume’s brother had been sick with a kidney infection and needed a warm climate to get better. It could be good for Blume too, because maybe then she wouldn’t get so many sore throats in winter. Her father, however, couldn’t leave his dental practice. He promised to visit on holidays.

At first, Blume hated Miami Beach. The apartment was ugly and bare without curtains and rugs. Blume and her brother no longer had their own bedrooms but had to sleep on couches in the living room. She missed her friends and her dad. At first too, she was shy and quiet. Little by little, Blume began to make friends with girls from their apartment building. There was also so much to do outdoors: play hopscotch, rode bicycles, swim at the beach, and stay out late. After Christmas vacation, Blume had the opportunity to stage a ballet show for the people in her apartment. Best of all, when the year ended, Blume realized that her worst fears hadn’t come true. Other uncles had died at age forty-two and Blume worried something terrible would happen to her dad. But they didn’t. He lived to see his forty-third birthday! Thirty years later, Blume even wrote a book about her experiences at Miami Beach called Starring Sally J. Freeman as Herself.

Chapter four is titled “Almost a Woman”. In it, Lee talks about Blume’s first party where her parents allowed her to invite boys. Her mother served sauerkraut and hot dogs. Her father took home movies. And her brother took charge of the entertainment. He built carnival booths and thought up lots of different games. Lee also talks about how in sixth grade, Blume belonged to a secret club. All of her best friends were in the club. They called themselves the Pre-Teen Kittens and met after school at each other’s houses. Sipping soft drinks and munching cookies, they would talk about the boys they best liked and about their changing bodies. Blume shares how she wanted her period so badly, she once put a pin in her finger to draw blood, smeared it on a pad, and wore the pad to see what it felt like. On a shopping spree with friends, she also bought her first bra. Again, Blume later wrote a book about these experiences.

JUNIOR HIGH

It occurred to her that the worst thing about being a teenager was feeling completely alone.

The above statement comes from chapter six of Judy Blume’s Story. It refers to the change which happened to Blume during her adolescence. In eighth grade, Blume was trying all sorts of new things. She tried painting, drawing, weaving, designing, and music. Regards the latter, her father taught her to appreciate fine music by playing his records for her in the evenings. Sometimes they would even talk about philosophers, but the time had ended when Blume would share private concerns. Her brother had also graduated high school and left for college. As for her mother, Blume shared only the positive. For her mother’s sake, Blume wanted to be the prettiest, most popular, and best-dressed girl in school. Even with her friends, whom Blume once talked with about everything, she no longer felt comfortable being herself. They all seemed to interested in boys and sports to talk about anything else.

The next chapter mostly revolves around Blume’s camp experiences. Summer camp was an important part of her adolescent life. She liked spending summers away from home. For eight weeks she was free and had no one to answer to. It was at camp she learned the right way to swim. In Miami Blume had taught herself to stay afloat and to treat water, but it took Camp Kenwood to learn how to swim with her face under water. Later, Blume would write about the fear and triumphs of her summer camp experiences in Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. However, camp weren’t always fun. When she was fifteen, she developed a rash while helping a theater crew with construction, got hit in the face by a fly ball while playing baseball, and lost her best friend to the popular crowd. Moreover, it was also this summer that Blume received the news that her grandmother had died.

SENIOR HIGH

JudyBlume2Chapter seven is titled, “Friends”. It highlights Blume’s high school life. Lee writes that Blume was in the thick of things. She worked on the newspaper, sang in the chorus, and attended modern dance. With her best friend, Blume attended the latest plays in New York. They even fancied themselves as actresses. Lunchtime at school was one of Blume’s favorite times. It was crowded and noisy and when everybody got together after separate classes. After school, friends gathered at a local soda shop. They also attended many, many, many parties. Blume fell in and out of love many times too. With her friends, Blume would talk about how many times a boy kissed her, but no one openly discussed sex. Through her high school dates, Blume also encountered her first religious prejudice. When her date found out that Blume was Jewish, he became cold and standoffish.

Finally, the chapter talks about Blume began to test her writing skills. She was recommended for the journalism class by her ninth grade English teacher. This is how she came to work on the newspaper. After two years as a reporter, she was named for feature editor. In this position, she dreamed up story ideas and assigned them to students. Her favorite was called, “People Resemble Animals”.

ADULTHOOD

When I grew up, my need for story telling didn’t go away. So when my own two children started pre-school I began to write and I’ve been writing ever since! My

The above statement comes from Blume’s website. If you wish to know more about how Blume established herself as an author, you’ll find some answers in Judy Blume’s Story. The last four chapters cover Blume’s college and adult life. Chapter eight talks about the death of her father, around the time of what otherwise should have been the happiest day of her life, when Blume got married. Chapter nine through eleven talk about her marriage and her growing restlessness, which led her to write songs, create colorful felt banners for children’s room, and finally to try her hand at writing for children.

You’ll also find more info about Blume at her website. I left out some details from each chapter, choosing to focus on highlights. What I have shared, however, should provide plenty of biographical info for any interested in Judy Blume. My chapter summaries will also hopefully inspire you to seek out her story.

Anyone who likes to read about authors or about famous Native Americans will find much to enjoy about Native Writers by Kim Sigafus and Lyle Ernest. The ten biographies within it provide a solid introduction to the profiled authors, while the page layout is simple but clean. There is a resources page, glossary, and other standard text features. Part of the Native Trailblazer series, Native Writers not only makes for an interesting read, but will also help teach about Native American culture.

Selecting which authors to profile in a biography anthology is no doubt a difficult task. The ten contemporaries selected for Native Writers makes for a reasonably diverse mix. Numerous tribes are represented: Abenki, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Coeur D’Alene, Cree, Kiowa, Metis, Ojibwe, and Salish. To my surprise, several of the authors featured were Canadian. For a book printed in the United States, written by American authors, and in all likelihood distributed mostly in the United States, I’m not sure if this was the best choice. However, being Canadian myself, I appreciate their inclusion. Females are featured almost as often as males. Some names are among the current best-known Native writers such as Sherman Alexie, Joseph Bruchac, and Louise Erdrich. Others are less familiar, which caused me about the decision-making process behind the collection. In my own search for must-read Native American authors, I found multiple others who seemed like worthy candidates. Even so, the ten biographies make a good starting place for anyone who wants to read about contemporary Native authors.

As for the writing itself, it is fairly straightforward. Most of the profiles tell when and where an author is born, provide highlights from his/her childhood and youth, and then focus on the author’s writing career. In contrast to similar series, there is perhaps less of attempt to entertain and more of intent to educate. For example, some biographies start with an interesting or pivotal moment from the author’s life. Those in Native Writers instead focus on how the included authors ended up feeling that they have a responsibility to contribute to a Native American perspective. While this might make Native Writers of less of interest to students outside of the Native culture, it still does have a lot to offer for all audiences.

Speaking of which, the writing feels suitable for students below high school age and yet the design seems more appropriate for older readers. Often, the authors provided explanations of words in the glossary, the text itself, or side bars. This makes it feel intended for a younger audience. However, the design is monochrome and plain. While there is nothing wrong with this, it’s not eye-catching. Anthologies intended for elementary students tend to include color graphics and varied type sizes, along with playful positioning of side bars.

The text features, however, are the most problematic. I’m not sure why the glossary is at the front instead of being part of standard back page fare. While I think it’s fine to define words related to writing, terms connected to Native American culture would also have been appreciated. I have the same quibble or suggestion about the side bars. Also, one of the glossary definitions is wrong, making me question others. (A third-person narrator just means the story is told in third-person or through use of he/she and not that the narrator isn’t a character in the story.) I like that the works of the various authors are listed, but the breakdown sometimes confused me because titles of fiction for young people weren’t always separated from the listing of general novel titles. In addition to the website links under resources, I wish books had also been included as these will date less. The text features did include photo credits, which at times gets neglected, and so kudos here to the authors.

Over all, Native Writers by Kim Sigafus and Lyle Ernest is of uneven quality. The good news is that the strength is in the biographies themselves. I enjoyed learning more about both familiar and unfamiliar authors, as well as about a culture different from mine. If these subjects interest you, Native Writers makes a decent launching point.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

Growing up, I always dreamed of being an author. A few years ago, I started to make serious attempts to fulfill that dream. Or at least that’s what I considered it at the time. In hindsight, I’d call it baby steps.

  • I wrote stories for various ages, submitted them to a critique site, and mailed them to some publishers. The result? My first published stories! Two, to be exact.
  • Those two stories were for young people. Apparently, my natural bent is to write in a style most suited for that age group. This allowed me to focus on that audience and has tied in nicely with Allison’s Book Bag.
  • Except then I stalled, because apparently I feel most comfortable writing longer works, which puts most magazines out of my reach. Even the articles I had started writing for our local newspaper tended to run the length of features.
  • My husband suggested I stop worrying about word count and just write stories at their needed length. The result? We soon decided that writing a novel should be in my future.

While I’m now halfway through revising a novel, the reality is that none of my writing to date has landed me any stable income. Or pushed me to become a published writer. And so recently my husband and I have been talking about work-for-hire. In other words, my submitting writing to editors with the goal of being hired to write for them. While work-for-hire may or may not work out, I do wish to broaden what I write as part of my goal to become an author.

Why am I sharing this decision with my blog readers? First, because through my memes, I’ve gotten in the habit of posting some personal stuff. Second, and the more important reason, is the decision will necessitate that once again I change the content of Allison’s Book Bag.

  • Namely, more of my posts will be copies of reviews that have been published elsewhere. This won’t change anything about how I write them. You’ll still received unbiased critiques. However, some of my review choices will be dictated by needs beyond those that of this blog. A huge one will include writing occasional reviews of books suitable not just for young people but also a general audience.
  • Actually, some of my posts won’t even be reviews. Instead they’ll be related content. This means I’ll post mini-biographies and interviews on a more regular schedule. I’ve also been experimenting with a new feature called Inspired By…. which will feature articles or stories connected to the featured review. This allows me to broaden my creative range, while still maintaining my blog.

Naturally, my decision will effect my posting schedule. Here’s what you can expect in the upcoming year:
Monday: Current Read/Wish List
Tuesday: Author Teaser (Bio/Interview)
Wednesday: Review
Thursday: Current News/Booking Through
Friday: Author Teaser (Bio/Interview)
Saturday: Review
When a book inspires an article or story, I’ll post it instead of the regular Monday or Thursday feature for the week.

One thing about putting oneself in the public eye, even in such a minor way as Allison’s Book Bag, is that change is inevitable. I started this blog as a fun way to share my views on children’s books I’ve read. Over the years, it’s also grown to become part my identity as an aspiring author. As always, it’ll remain my attempt to build a community of readers.

Despite my best organizational skills, sometimes creating teasers can be an organic process. When I started researching into Mildred Taylor’s life, I compiled over five pages worth of information and mistakenly  thought this would provide me with a month’s worth of teasers. Two weeks in, I reached the end of my notes. Yet many gaps in my research existed. For example, I knew little about Taylor’s middle and high school experiences. I also knew little about the origins of any of her books except the first two that she wrote.

My mind full of questions, I started searching for biographies of Mildred Taylor at our local library and found Presenting Mildred Taylor (1999) by Chris Crowe. To a certain extent, Crowe and I had shared a parallel research experience. Like me, he had read tons of articles and taken tons of notes. Like me, as he started to sift through those notes, he realized how many of them gave the same facts and so how little information he actually had. Through these steps, both of us had also come to quickly realize that Mildred Taylor is a private person.

Unlike me, Chris Crowe had been asked by a publisher to write a book about Taylor and so had reason to request an interview with her. It took several months of waiting, but eventually she telephoned him and they talked for an hour. I don’t know what details from her life he discovered through research and which he obtained by talking with her, but Chris Crowe’s biography greatly expanded upon my knowledge of Taylor’s life.

I recommend checking it out, to read the details which I left out. Also, his biography includes a chapter on the historical context to Taylor’s books, a chapter on racism and inequality in the United States, and an analysis of the themes Taylor most often explored. If my research inspires you to look for additional biographies of Taylor, would you please return to post a comment about them?

Official seal of City of Jackson

Official seal of City of Jackson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One cannot read too much African-American literature for young people without hearing the name of Mildred Taylor. Because of segregation in Mississippi, unlike most white people in the 1940′s, Mildred Taylor was born in her family’s home. Her mother acted as midwife. Taylor had one sister, who was three years older. Even though Taylor was born in the South, she grew up in the North.

Before Taylor’s birth, her father had thought about moving North. Life in the racially segregated South was not always pleasant. At times, racially motivated outbreaks of violence occurred. The North would offer the family offer more freedom and better opportunities.

Yet Taylor’s father was reluctant to leave, because he had a stable job as a trucker—considered a good job for blacks in those days. However, a few weeks after Taylor’s birth, her father was involved in a racial incident at work, where he almost punched a white man. He came home angry and packed. His wife, having no idea why yet he intended to leave her and their children, unpacked his bags.

That same day, Taylor’s father boarded a train North. He wanted his children to live in a society that didn’t discriminate against them on the basis of their color. Within a week he found a factory job in Toledo, Ohio, a job that he would keep until his fatal illness in 1976. Just before Christmas in 1943, the Taylors joined in a historic migration, when thousands of black families moved North for greater freedom and opportunity than the South allowed.

CHILDHOOD

Official seal of City of Toledo

Official seal of City of Toledo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Taylors first moved into a duplex on a busy commercial street in Toledo. The two daughters loved their new home because, as far as they were concerned, everything they might have wanted was on their street or in a nearby neighborhood. Across the street was a fish market and a beauty parlor. Down the street were a cleaners, a cafe, and a grocery store. At the other end of the block was a drugstore. Also within walking distance was a hotel. Only a block away was one of the prime attractions of Taylor’s youth, a movie theater. The school and church were also within a few blocks. Besides the convenient location, Dorr Street also boasted a small-town atmosphere where everyone knew each other.

Taylor’s parents liked the duplex well enough too, because it offered ample rooms to accommodate other family members as needed. When World War II ended, two of Taylor’s uncles from the South returned from the war, and married, they moved in with them. Other aunts, uncles, and cousins from both sides of the family eventually followed. Soon all the rooms were filled, including the coal room in the basement. It was not unusual for the sisters to give up their bedroom to relations and to sleep in the living room or dining room. Neither of them minded for they loved being surrounded by relatives. Family was very important to Taylor, as is evident in her stories about the Logans.

 After the family’s move to the North, Taylor’s father attempted to instill within her and her sister an awareness of their past and of their future. Throughout her father’s life, the family regularly returned to the South. The sisters fell in love with the beauty of the South, the memories of their trips, and the family and friends living there. Taylor has described those trips to audiences as a “twenty-four hour picnic”. To prepare for those trips, Taylor’s mother would prepare their favorite foods—fried chicken, cake, sweet potato pie—and pack them into a basket, along with jugs of ice water and lemonade. The sisters could hardly wait until they were out of Toledo to dig into the food. As wonderful as the travel was, the destination was even better. During the day, the sisters would play outside in the warm Mississippi summer sun. Taylor would ride a mule named Jake and a mare named Lady. She would also spend time picking cotton. In the evening, Her parents and relatives would gather to tell stories. Taylor was enthralled by what she heard and has described it to audiences as “a magical time”.

As Taylor grew older, she became more aware of the segregation and racism in the South. On one summer trip she “suddenly felt a climbing nausea as we crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky”. In the South, the sisters had to stay quiet, allow the parents to do the talking, and not ask to use restrooms when they pulled into gas stations. In her biography at Scholastic, Taylor recalls, “Each trip down reminded us that the South into which we had been born . . . still remained. On the rest rooms of gasoline stations were the signs WHITE ONLY, COLORED NOT ALLOWED. Over water fountains were the signs WHITE ONLY. In restaurant windows, in motel windows, there were always the signs WHITE ONLY, COLORED NOT ALLOWED. Every sign we saw proclaimed our second-class citizenship.” It was then that Taylor sadly she realized that her mother prepared food for the road trip not for the fun of it, because they couldn’t stop in restaurants along the way. She also realized that her father pushed the exhausting twenty-hour trip not because he was anxious to get to Mississippi, but because the family couldn’t check into hotels along the way. Chris Crowe observes that for Taylor, there were two sides to the South: the one of racism which terrified and angered her and the one of family and community  from which she developed a sense of history.

Although the Taylors usually visited the South during holidays, sometimes the sisters would attend classes at the community school which her father had attended as a child or would work in the cotton fields. Her father wanted the sisters to experience the Mississippi world as he had experienced it. If not for the lack of freedom in the South, he would have preferred for the family to have continued to live there. Her father also wanted the siblings to be grateful for the relatively comfortable lives the family enjoyed in the North. He believed that unless they understood the lack of black freedoms in the South, they could not understand the freedom in the North.

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Nine years after moving into a duplex, the Taylors purchased a renovated home in a newly-integrated Toledo neighborhood. Taylor believed this new home to be as grand as those on television. It had a breakfast nook, shower in the bathroom, bedrooms on the second floor, recreation room, three fireplaces, and many windows. The house felt so big, Taylor thought she might get lost in it.

A new neighborhood meant a new school and new demographics. In her previous school in Toledo, most of Taylor’s classmates had been black. Now most were white. Actually, when she started sixth grade, Taylor was the only black student in her class. That’s when she began to feel the pressure, as Chris Crowe termed it, of being the “only one”. Being such an obvious minority made Taylor feel that everything she did reflected not just on her or even her family but on all blacks. Taylor felt if she failed, everyone would think she failed because of being black. In addition, she couldn’t just be as good as her classmates, she had to be better. The positive side to this pressure is that it led Taylor to work hard, set goals, and plan ahead. Not only did Taylor know from an early age that she wanted to be a writer and to join the Peace Corps, she did everything she could to succeed in those goals.

Taylor credits the storytelling of her father and her relatives with her decision to become a writer. According to a biography of her on Grade Saver, Taylor calls these family stories “a different history from the one I learned in school”. Family members told about the struggles relatives and friends faced in a racist culture, stories that revealed triumph, pride, and tragedy. Taylor recalls those storytelling sessions in a biography of her at Penguin: ”I was fascinated by the stories, not only because of what they said or because they were about my family, but because of the manner in which my father told them. I began to imagine myself as storyteller, making people laugh at their own human foibles or nod their heads with pride about some stunning feat of heroism.” Shocked by the “lackluster” histories of African-Americans which she found in her history textbooks, Taylor tried to shared her knowledge of black history with the class. Unfortunately, her teacher and peers didn’t believe her but thought that she was inventing stories.

HIGH SCHOOL

In high school, Taylor had the most success in English. Her classmates came to see her as a writer. Taylor herself however often questioned her abilities, especially when she compared herself to white students for whom writing seemed to come easy. It didn’t help that one day Taylor’s teacher read one of her stories as an example of how not to write. Fortunately, another high school teacher recognized Taylor’s talent. After reading one of Taylor’s stories, she recommended Taylor submit it to a citywide writing contest. Although the story didn’t place, it played a pivotal role in Taylor’s growth as a writer. Not only had she written about a family incident, but for the first time Taylor had used the first-person point of view. Noticing a positive difference in Taylor’s style, her teacher advised Taylor to continue with it. In the senior class prophecy in the school yearbook, her classmates wrote, “The well- known journalist Mildred Taylor is displaying her Nobel Prize winning novel.”

High school wasn’t all work for Taylor. In many ways, she had the usual aspirations of high school girls. For example, although she was one of those girls who was a class officer, editor of the school newspaper, and member of the honor society, she also longed to belong to the cheer leading squad. When disappointed on not being selected, her father told her she had greater things cut out for her. He was right.

Living in the North, Taylor was not directly exposed to the Civil Rights movement. However, an incident in her high school also served to prove that racism existed even in the North. When a black student was chosen to be homecoming queen during Taylor’s freshman year, many white students reacted with anger and violence.

UNIVERSITY & JOBS

Although her parents supported her childhood dream to become a writer, they convinced her to get a practical major. There weren’t any black journalists in the local media, but there were black teachers. Her parents felt confident a teaching degree would land her a job.

While at the University of Toledo, Taylor spent much of her free time writing. At first, she patterned her writing after Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, but she soon found emulating their literary styles to be unnatural. Instead at age nineteen she wrote a novel in the first person about a blind white man in Chicago’s black ghetto. The story has never been published.

After obtaining a university degree, Taylor applied to join the Peace Corps. Her family didn’t take this particular dream seriously, believing she would grow out of it. However, as an African American, Taylor had long felt interested in Africa. Of particular interest to her was Ethiopia, one of the few African counties not colonized by Europeans. When Taylor actually received an invitation from the Peace Corps, she received all kinds of opposition from her family including relatives. Her father opposed the decision: She was too young; Africa was too dangerous; and she wouldn’t have any protection. Her uncles also opposed the decision. They felt that because of the treatment blacks received from America, blacks should not feel any call to serve America. While her mom also disliked the idea, she seemed resigned to it. Only Taylor’s sister thought it would be a good adventure. Her father took her to Mississippi over the Easter holiday so she could talk to her grandparents, whom he felt sure would discourage her. When they didn’t, he refused to help Taylor financially and even tried to bribe her to stay home by offering to buy her a car. Thankfully, one night after a church service, he returned home with the feeling that “God meant for you to do this.” While he remained worried about Taylor, he also felt proud of her.

Upon returning to the United States in 1967, Taylor enrolled in the University of Colorado School of Journalism. She became involved in the Black Student Alliance, where she studied black culture, history, and politics. Working with university officials and fellow students, she created a Black Studies program. Upon earning her Master of Journalism, Taylor worked for the Black Education Program as a study skills director. The job was demanding and interfered with her growing urge to write.

THE LOGANS

200

200 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Logan stories closely follow the history of her father’s generation from the time he was a boy in the 1930′s, through the days of World War II, to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Nearly all the events are based on stories Taylor heard from her father or from other family members.

In the same way, most of the characters are based on family members or acquaintances Taylor knew or learned about. She patterned Stacey Logan after her father. Christopher John and Little Man were based on two of Taylor’s uncles. For Cassie, Taylor drew on an aunt and her sister and to some degree herself. Uncle Hammer is patterned after two legendary great uncles who had shown great courage growing up in Mississippi. The mom she based on her grandmother, who had also been a teacher. The father came from Taylor’s father and grandfather.

Although not initially written this way, the saga begins with The Land. Narrated by Paul-Edward Logan, it tells how he left his family in Georgia in the 1870s and eventually settled in Mississippi where he buys the land that became the homestead for all future Logans. The next part of the saga, The Well, is told by one of his sons, David Logan. Taylor wanted to tell a story from her grandparents’ generation as children. The third book of the saga, Mississippi Bridge, is the only book in the Logan stories not narrated by a member of the Logan family. Jeremy Simms, whom readers familiar with the series will know as a white friend of the family, reports a tragedy that he and the Logan children witness in 1931. The fourth sequential book (albeit the first actually written), Song of the Trees, is told from the point of view of a third-generation Logan, Cassie, who narrates the rest of the Logan stories: The FriendshipRoll of Thunder, Hear My CryLet the Circle Be Unbroken; and The Road to Memphis. A ninth book and final book called Logan is supposedly planned. It’ll also be narrated by Cassie and will take the Logan family from their home in Mississippi to their new home in Ohio.

SONG OF THE TREES

Ironically, a deadline for a writing contest inspired Taylor’s first novel. Written in just three days, Song of Trees was a revision of an old manuscript based on a family story about trees cut down. Taylor played with various viewpoints, that of a boy and that of a grandmother, but both felt unconvincing and flat. As she struggled to revise it, new twists to the story began to emerge. When she finally tried writing from the perspective of an eight-year-old girl, the viewpoint worked.

All through the weekend, Taylor rewrote the story, finishing it early Monday morning. Friends at work helped her edit it and retyped the final manuscript. With their help, she met the midnight deadline. When Taylor’s father read the manuscript, he was surprised at how much of the family history had been integrated into Song of Trees: “I never realized you were paying such attention.”

Dedicated to ‘the Family, who fought and survived,” Song of Trees began the epic of the Logan family, about whom Taylor would write seven more novels. Her writing career had begun.

“It is my hope that [this series of children’s books about the Logan family]…will one day be instrumental in teaching children of all colors the tremendous influence of Cassie’s generation—my father’s generation—had in bringing about the great Civil Rights movement of the fifties and sixties. Without understanding that generation and what it and the generations before it endured, children of today and of the future cannot understand or cherish the precious rights of equality which they possess.”–Mildred Taylor, Answers

Winning the contest gave Taylor the chance to meet several New York publishers and to discuss publication of her manuscript. Both fulfilled childhood dreams of hers. She had met with a few other publishers before but Dial proved the perfect match. According to Crowe, publishers Phyllis Fogelman and Regina Hayes recalls that at their first meeting, “Mildred essentially interviewed us.” All of Taylor’s books since then have been based on family stories and published by Dial.

“It is my hope that [this series of children’s books about the Logan family]…will one day be instrumental in teaching children of all colors the tremendous influence of Cassie’s generation — my father’s generation — had in bringing about the great Civil Rights movement of the fifties and sixties. Without understanding that generation and what it and the generations before it endured, children of today and of the future cannot understand or cherish the precious rights of equality which they possess.”–Mildred Taylor, Answers

Cover

Cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY

On the heels of Song of Trees came a second book about the Logan family: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Published in 1976, it won the Newbery Award, which recognizes excellence in books written for children. It was dedicated to Taylor’s father, whom the characters of Stacey and David were based on.

In Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (and all her books about the Logans), Taylor attempted to show a different kind of black world from the one she had seen presented. At school, Taylor heard taught that black people had accepted their fate of slavery, without once attempting to free themselves. Taylor felt embarrassed by the lack of “heroic or pride-building qualities” in black history instruction and in media presentations. What she heard through them and what she learned at home seemed to contradict one another. To repudiate these negative portrayals, Taylor showed a family united in love and self-respect. She also represented parents as strong and sensitive adults, who guided their children without harming their spirits through the difficulties of living in a racist society. In doing so, Taylor drew on the values and principles by which she was reared to write Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry.

“It is my hope that to the children who read my books, the Logans will provide those heroes missing from the schoolbooks of my childhood, Black men, women, and children of whom they can be proud.” Mildred Taylor, Penguin

The idea for Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry came together for Taylor while she was visiting her parents in Toledo on her way back to Los Angeles after accepting the award for Song of Trees. During breakfast with her father and an uncle she listed as the two men told a story she hadn’t heard before of how a black boy started hanging around two white boys and how the three of them had broken into a local store and how the store owner had been killed. What I find most remarkable is that Taylor knew she would win. “I was inspired by the song ‘Roll of Thunder’  which came to me when I most troubled about my book. At the moment the song came to me, I knew the book would win the Newbery Award, and I told my father so.” On that January evening when Taylor expected the call, she kept waiting and waiting, until sometime after ten o’clock. The award allowed her to continue her dream of writing full time.

OTHER BOOKS

In light of all the online sites which feature a biography of Mildred Taylor, I’m surprised at how little information exists about the rest of her books. According to a teacher’s guide on Mildred Taylor, by the time she wrote Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, Taylor thought there would be four more Logan books.

Let the Circle Be Unbroken was written after her father’s death. It represents an important move for Taylor in its use of historical research outside of her family.

The Friendship portrays a friendship between a white man and a black man in 1930s Mississippi that eventually becomes violent. All I could find about its origins is that Taylor based it on a story that her father shared a few years before his death.

According to Crowe, Road to Memphis is angrier, more frustrated, and even bitter. It is reflective of Taylor and her family’s lifelong experiences of living and working in a racist society.

In her Author’s Note for The Land, Taylor explains that her great-grandfather was the basis for the character Paul-Edward. He had bought the family land in Mississippi. As far back as Taylor could remember, she had heard stories about her great-grandfather. Born of an African-Indian woman and a white plantation owner during slavery, her great-grandfather was brought up by both his parents. He  often went with his father and his brothers on their trips around the community.

Although not officially labeled a Logan book, The Gold Cadillac draws on Taylor’s memories of the family’s regular visits to the South. It’s told from the point-of-view of her own generation. Unlike the Logan stories, the plot is drawn from Taylor’s own experiences.

Growing up, I studied the inside jacket blurbs of books to learn everything I could about an author. If the bios provided were too short, I sought one in an encyclopedia. These days, I lean more towards online articles or even full-length autobiographies. This fanatical attraction of mine to authors might have something to do with my dream to be one. As such, you might not share the same interest.Yet many online readers do like to know about authors for the same reason many movie viewers like to hear commentaries. Authors can provide insight into how a novel came to fruition, along with how they feel about their characters and how they established their settings, and perhaps even provide trivial details about their story. It’s also just fun and fascinating to find out more about the person who wrote the story that I just finished. For all those reasons, I eagerly await the day when novels come packed with special features the way DVDS do. In the meantime, I enjoy researching into author biographies to provide you with some tidbits of info about the novelists whose books I feature.For my next review, I will feature a round-up of beloved books from childhood that encouraged me in my dream to become a writer. During the week itself, I will post mini-biographies of the authors of those novels. Save the date of my round-up: August 14!

Author #1: What famous writer resisted a publisher request, because she did not think she could write an interesting story for girls?

Headshot of Louisa May Alcott (November 29, 18...
Image via Wikipedia

In eighteen sixty-eight, a Boston publisher asked the struggling young to write a book for books, because it would have widespread appeal. He was right. When Alcott eventually decided to try, the result was the instantly success and now beloved classic Little Women.Read more of her biography at the Louisa May Alcott website. There, you can also see a photo of the home where Little Women was penned, read information about how to take a tour of the historic Orchard House, and purchase merchandise related to Little Women. Teachers can find educational programs and study kits.If you feel ready to test your knowledge of Louise May Alcott and her book Little Women, check out these quizzes from The Literature Network:

Author #2: Where was Eleanor Cameron born?Canada! Now although Eleanor Cameron was born in Canada, she lived most of her life in California. Her parents moved to Berkeley early in her life. She then lived in Los Angeles until she married Ian Cameron. They moved to Pacific Grove, where she lived for the rest of her life. For some reason, I thought she was British. Ah well.

Eleanor Cameron

Image via Wikipedia

Eleanor Cameron is known best for two sets, one being the Mushroom Planet books. Even as a child, I did not readily take to science fiction. So, this is not her favorite set of mine. Yet having learned of the origin, I am intrigued to reread them. Apparently, one day her son David, an avid Doctor Dolittle fan stood at the side of her table and told her what he had dreamed of: a story about himself and his closest friend, and how they would build a little spaceship and go off and find a planet just their size, just about big enough to explore in a day or two. And so, at her son’s request, the five Mushroom Planet books were born.It surprised me just as much to learn that Cameron was in her sixties when she began writing realistic fiction. One of the results, the Julia Redfern books, are among my favorite books for they featured an aspiring adolescent writer. Cameron’s last children’s novel, the final book in the Redfern series, was finished when she was seventy-seven. You can read an extensive biography of Cameron at Old Children’s Books and my review of one of the Julia Redfern books here on Sunday.

Louise Fitzhugh

Image via Wikipedia

Author #3: What author received criticism for her book about a rude and opinionated heroine who also carried a notebook with her everywhere?In 1964, Louise Fitzhugh published her first novel: Harriet the Spy. She was an only child. Her parents divorced soon after her birth and her father won complete custody, on the grounds that her mother was unfit. Biographies about Fitzhugh suggest that the loneliness of her youth influenced her writings. Her life was unusual in other ways too. For example, she attended an all girls’ school and later three universities, without obtaining a degree. Although she was married briefly, she dated girls after high school and wrote a book about two adolescent girls who fall in love. While this manuscript was rejected, Harriet the Spy became a classic. After only a handful of picture books and novels, Fitzhugh died in her forties of a brain aneurysm. For more info on Harriet the Spy, check out the tribute Purple Socks site.Author #4: Who won a Newbery Honor for her book about the Civil War?Irene Hunt! I couldn’t find much about her except that, after she received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, she worked as a teacher. A number of authors seemed to have this background. Hunt taught French and English in the Illinois public schools and later psychology at the University of South Dakota. She retired from teaching in 1969.Growing up, she loved to listen to the stories that her grandfather told of his childhood during the Civil War. From these stories came her first novel, Across Five Aprils. It was named a Newbery Honor book in 1965. Only two years later, she received a Newbery Medal for Up a Road Slowly. One of my favorite books from childhood that encouraged me in my dream to become a writer, I’m still looking for information regards its origin.Author #5: Who is a famous literary orphan?

Lucy Maud Montgomery ca 1920 – 1930

Image via Wikipedia

Anne of Green Gables! The inspiration for Anne came from a scrap of paper that Lucy Maud Montgomery kept from a young age, describing a couple that were mistakenly sent an orphan girl instead of a boy but had decided to keep her. Montgomery used a photograph of Evelyn Nesbit from New York’s Metropolitan Magazine as the model for the face of Anne. In also drawing upon her childhood experiences growing rural Prince Edward Island in writing Anne of Green Gables, Montgomery made Prince Edward Island famous across the world. Since its publication, Anne of Green Gableshas sold more than 50 million copies.When Montgomery was only two years old, her mother died of tuberculosis. Stricken with grief over his wife’s death, Hugh Montgomery gave custody of Montgomery to her grandparents and eventually moved out West to Saskatchewan. Montgomery grew up with her strict and conservative grandparents in Cavendish. Montgomery credits this lonely time of her life, in which she created many imaginary friends and places to cope with loneliness, as what developed her creative mind.Following the completion of her grade school education, she attended Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown. Completing a two-year program there in one year, she obtained her teaching certificate. Upon later leaving Dalhousie, where she studied literature, Montgomery worked as a teacher in various island schools. She also began to have short stories published in various magazines and newspapers. A prolific writer, Montgomery had over one hundred of her stories published from 1897 to 1907 inclusive. The following year, she published her first book: Anne of Green Gables.An avid fan of Montgomery’s novels, most of her life story is familiar to me. When reading recent biographies, however, I discovered that Montgomery underwent several periods of depression during her adult years while trying to cope with the duties of motherhood and church life, her husband’s attacks of melancholia and deteriorating health, and expensive lawsuits with her publisher. Truly, for much of her life, writing was her one great solace. You can read more about this troubled but beloved author at the Lucy Maud Montgomery Institute website.Author #6: What author survived a near-paralyzing struggle with polio in his teens?

Raccoon

Image by fatedsnowfox via Flickr

Sterling North! Born ina farmhouse on the shores of Lake Koshkonong, North grew to young adulthood in the quiet southern Wisconsin village of Edgerton. When North was eleven, several of his uncles wrote extended biographies about their parents and their pioneer farm life. This writing effort occurred at the same time as the setting of Rascal and may have been inspiration to North who often drew upon his own life for his books.After graduating from Edgerton High School, North began his writing career. He wrote for The Chicago Daily News, The New York World-Telegram and Sun, and for many magazines. North’s most famous work, Rascal, received several awards including the Newbery Honor. It was also made into a Disney movie.Additionally, it was made into a 52-episode Japanese anime entitled “Araiguma Rasukara”. Rascal’s popularity led to many Japanese children requesting raccoons as pets. Japan became such a big buyer of raccoons that North American raccoons are now a serious alien pest in Japan.You can read a fuller biography about Sterling North at the Sterling North Society. The society also features tours and related merchandise. To read more about Rascal’s popularity in Japan, check out: Go Jefferson. The page also provides photos and related trivia.


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