Book Links July 2006 (vol.15, no.6)
by Nancy J. Johnson and Cyndi Giorgis
Born in Mississippi in 1943 and raised in Ohio, Mildred D. Taylor grew up immersed in family stories. As a child, Taylor visited her great-grandfather’s house built at the turn of the past century, a house that didn’t have running water or electricity. Memories of those visits found their way into a series of stories about the Logan family, most notably Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the 1977 Newbery Medal winner. Taylor’s stories reveal struggles, racial tension, and tragedy, as well as triumph, pride, and family honor.
NJJ & CG: How did you begin writing for children?
Taylor: I had been trying to write stories for years that were based on narratives told by my family, and everything was always rejected. A friend of mine told me about a contest that was sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. The story I submitted was one I had previously written from several points of view [eventually published as Song of the Trees]. I tried writing it from a boy’s point of view because the story was based on my father’s life, but that didn’t work. So I decided to retell it from the girl’s point of view. It won that honor and got my foot in the door.
NJJ & CG: Was your father a storyteller?
Taylor: He was a great storyteller. The whole family used to tell stories. Whenever we went south to visit relatives, I heard stories. All of my books are based on something that happened to a family member or a story told by a family member, or they are based on something that happened to me when I was growing up.
NJJ & CG: Do you hear your father’s voice when you write? Does that propel your own writing?
Taylor: It really does, because I was never an outspoken child. I was always quiet. But when I’m writing a story, I hear the voices—maybe not my father’s voice—but I always hear the characters, they way they talk and how they express themselves.
NJJ & CG: What do you remember about writing Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry ?
Taylor: I was married and living in Los Angeles while writing that book. My mother had to have surgery so I went home. I was writing the last chapters at that time. The intensity of those chapters made writing them very difficult. I was worrying about the book when a song came to me, which was “Roll of Thunder.” I had prayed over the book because it was too hard. When the song came I ran upstairs and told my father, “You’ve got to hear this.” I sang the song for him—everything came through in that song. I told him that day, this book is going to win the Newbery. Unfortunately he did not live to see it published. I knew it was going to be a breakthrough book. It will always be the most special book I have written.
NJJ & CG: What compels you to continue writing family stories?
Taylor: In addition to family, I write about history because I was very affected by it as a child. When I was in school, many people did not know about the true history of black people in America. Both my mother’s and father’s families owned land. They’d had land since the 1800s. I wanted to tell the truth about what life was like before the civil rights movement.
NJJ & CG: Which of your books stands out when you think of today’s readers?
Taylor: I get letters from teenagers who love The Road to Memphis and Let the Circle Be Unbroken. What readers are drawn to is the family and the fact that the characters grew up during hard times. Also, they like the romances in those books. I think they are learning many positive things about black people, in addition to what life was like and what people had to endure.
NJJ & CG: How about responses from readers? Is there one that lingers?
Taylor: A boy once wrote to me but did not reveal whether he was white or black. What was moving was that he said my work could be noted as a contribution to the civil rights movement. He said if it were not for my books, he wouldn’t know what the civil rights movement was about. My books gave a face to it and now he understands why there is a Martin Luther King Day. Another letter arrived just a couple of weeks ago. It’s handwritten and says: “I am 87 years old and can hardly see. I have just finished listening to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It is the best thing I have ever heard. I sat up late each night to hear the tape from our library. Thank you so very much for the great story. I live in Mississippi and remember well the era of your book. Thank you so much for writing it.” It brought tears to my eyes to know what I have written affects people of so many different generations.
Nancy J. Johnson is a professor of English education at Western Washington University. Cyndi Giorgis is an associate professor of children’s and young adult literature at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas.