This post is part three of our four-part series on this year’s finalists for New-York Historical’s annual Children’s History Book Prize. Read all four interviews, then help us choose the prizewinner by voting for your favorite! Our online polls open in April, and the winning author will receive a $10,000 prize.
This week, we are chatting with authors Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy about This Promise of Change. The autobiographical account written in verse tells the story of Jo Ann Allen and 11 fellow classmates who were part of an early effort to desegregate schools in the South. In 1956—two years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that declared school segregation laws unconstitutional—the group enrolled at the all-white high school in Clinton, Tennessee. With her co-author, Boyce (née Allen) recounts that tumultuous year in poems. Read on for their combo and solo answers via email and learn more about their process, and the challenges and rewards of telling this story.
Writing a book together seems both challenging and fun! How did you decide to work together on this project?
We’ll answer this together: It was so fun and rewarding for us both!
Although the story of what happened in Clinton has largely been lost to history, Jo Ann spent more than 25 years talking about these events to young scholars in schools and churches. Frequently at her presentations, people said, “You should write a book.” It had always been her dream, but seemed too daunting a task.
In February 2015, Jo Ann’s daughter-in-law, Libby Boyce, posted on Facebook about the Clinton 12, the 12 African American students, including Jo Ann, who desegregated Clinton High School.
One of Libby’s childhood friends saw this and thought, “This could make a great children’s book.” She was Caryn Wiseman, a children’s book agent, and Debbie’s agent. Caryn got in touch with Libby, who put her in touch with Jo Ann, who said she’d be open to working with one of Caryn’s clients
When Jo Ann looked at Debbie’s books, she thought “This is who I’d like to work with.” She was particularly taken with The Year of Goodbyes, Debbie’s book about her mother’s childhood in Nazi Germany facing hatred and violence just because she was Jewish—an experience that resonated with what Jo Ann.
When the two talked on the phone, Debbie thought, “This is who I’d like to work with.” She was particularly taken with Jo Ann’s clear-eyed perspectives on what happened; her utter lack of bitterness; her warmth, humor, and empathy; and her amazing memory.
How did you divide the research and writing?
With Jo Ann on the west coast and Debbie on the east coast, we started with phone calls and emails. Snail mail, too! Debbie’s research took her to the Library of Congress and to newspaper and other archives; Jo Ann’s took her to the extra bedroom in her home, where she had scrapbooks and folders of materials from those days back in 1956. Debbie got on the phone with some of the participants in the story; Jo Ann telephoned others. And in the spring of 2017, Jo Ann and Debbie met in person when each traveled to Clinton.
And what a trip it was! In between interviewing Clinton 12 members, conducting archival research, and driving around town, there was lunch at Hoskins Drugstore—a place that wouldn’t serve African Americans when Jo Ann lived in Clinton, and that now carried DVDs of a documentary film about the Clinton 12.
This is both a national story and a personal story. How did you balance the two angles in your book?
Keep in mind for the Clinton 12, this was not about making national news (nor making history for that matter). The decision made by these young people, along with their families, was a personal one. It was an effort to correct an unfair and unjust practice based on skin color and Jim Crow laws.
Besides paying city taxes, which also covered schools, their parents were paying out of pocket to send them to an all-black school inconveniently located 20 miles away in another county—whereas Clinton High was a five- to ten-minute walk away for most. Given how African Americans were treated during that time, the students and their families did not make their decisions easily or lightly. The national story came once the press learned that a “first” was about to happen in this small town. The media’s angle was to report on what they perceived would be a dramatic, possibly bombshell, effort to desegregate the school, which many likely assumed would be followed by failure. As it happened, there were white segregationist protests, riots, and violence in Clinton, but there wasn’t failure. In contrast, a year later, the attempted desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, was a fiasco. The focus on the drama and tragedy in Little Rock meant Clinton was no longer a blip on the radar. You will find little to nothing in history books about the Clinton 12.
So on the question of balancing the personal and national angles in the story: Perhaps one could say that we tried to put them together like pieces of a puzzle.
It’s unusual to read a non-fiction book written in poetic verse. It was an unexpected and beautiful way to read history. How did you decide on the genre and format for the book?
We’ll respond to this together, too. First, thank you for your response to our decision! The book includes various types of poetry, including free verse as well as structured and metrical forms. This wasn’t a casual decision, and it came after efforts to write the book in prose. It took a while to figure out how we might best serve the story. Jo Ann and Debbie both love poetry. And we began thinking about poetry for this story because as a young girl and teenager, Jo Ann was musical—playing piano, singing, and listening to the radio and recordings. As an adult, besides working as a pediatric nurse, she took gigs as a jazz singer.
But it wasn’t only that poetry fit Jo Ann; it also fit the story. Poetry is great at conveying emotion, and this is an emotional story. But even more to the point—and exciting to us as book creators—particular poetic forms seemed especially well-matched to particular scenes and developments in Jo Ann’s story. The winding and unwinding motion of the villanelle in the chapter-poem “The Night Before,” matching Jo Ann’s preparation for her first day of school . The history and discipline of the sonnet format, used, for example, in “This Time”—when Jo Ann and her friends are exercising discipline over their emotions and actions. The rap poems, in “What Are They Thinking?” and “Notes to Myself in the Squad Car,” with their staccato rhymes and propulsive drive, matching Jo Ann’s determination and impatience at those junctures in the story. We could go on!
There are many detailed and vivid scenes of the discrimination that you, your classmates, and your families experienced. For some middle readers, these scenes and words may be upsetting or even surprising. Why did you feel it was important to include them in your book?
From Jo Ann: History should be written as it occurred. It shouldn’t be changed, ignored, not documented, or forgotten. I feel passionately that students should “walk in the shoes of others.” While telling this story to young fourth graders, I have witnessed students cry, not only because of the sadness of the story, but also because those were students who could relate to discrimination and bigotry. Telling the story as it actually happened helps us all relate to humankind with more understanding. It can sometimes change young minds to become active in fighting injustices. History can and should be a tool to make things better.
From Debbie: As the person in our duo who did not live through the experiences detailed in our book, I wanted readers to get as close to Jo Ann’s experience as possible—as nearly close as I did. That means really standing in her shoes, really seeing and hearing what she did. Yes, there was much ugliness. But if we who did not live through this are shielded from the reality of the experience, then I’m afraid we are susceptible to misconceptions. I think middle grade readers can handle truths. Also, I hoped that all readers would come away understanding that lukewarm “tolerance” is a far cry from true acceptance.
Your story of going on national television to talk about integration is a memorable part of your story. It was also an experience that seemed filled with conflict for you personally. Can you tell us a little more about how you felt during your trip to Washington D.C. as a teenager?
From Jo Ann: I am hard-pressed to remember how I was chosen to go to Washington, D.C., to be on the television show College Press Conference along with my new classmate Carol Peters. She was in my homeroom and had been very kind to me. She and I were going to participate in the interview of the then Attorney General of the United States, Herbert Brownell, Jr. What I do remember is both my excitement as well as anxiety about taking this trip. However, I mentally prepared myself as best I could by discussing the issues I thought were important to talk about with the Attorney General. The morning of the television show, we were driven early to the TV station. I handed my list of questions to the person in charge. It didn’t take long: no go on any of my questions. I remember holding back my tears and fighting to maintain my decorum. I was very upset that the questions that were most important to me and my 11 African American friends and classmates regarding desegregation were tossed in a matter of minutes. I was allowed one question: “Attorney General Brownell, will the president be speaking to us about desegregation?” His answer, “I don’t know about the president, but I will.”
Disappointing trip? Yes! Glad I went? Yes! On returning home, the situation of the desegregation of Clinton High School was quickly deteriorating and within a matter of a few school days, white students began to stop coming to class and those who had been attempting to be friendly began to pull away, including Carol Peters. I have not seen or spoken with her since that time. This was and remains my biggest and saddest disappointment.
Desegregation of schools has progressed significantly since 1956. However, there is still a lot of progress to be made. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for young people who want to make a difference?
From Jo Ann: I believe wholeheartedly in the power of young people. There are many who have found their voices and are speaking up about social and economic injustices and environmental injustice, as well as other important issues. We need more young people to be involved in their right to have the world they deserve. The only way that can happen is for each student to learn more about the issues that he/she cares a lot about and then to be inspired enough to set about making changes for the better. It takes commitment, hard work, and courage yet the world needs you to always do what’s right. It is your future!
From Debbie: Be like Jo Ann was in 1956. By which I mean, be educated, be bold, and speak out. Listen to others. Take thoughtful action and join with others. Accept help from allies. And try to hang on to hope, even when things look bleak. And definitely hold on to love.
Written by Maggie Bordonaro
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