Memories of Reading, Memories in Writing
by Joyce Hansen
This essay is from a speech given by YA author Joyce Hansen, at Saginaw Valley State University
I have to credit my mother with giving me my first exposure to literature. As a matter of fact, she wanted to be a writer and at 84 years old, still writes poetry. She named me after the poet Joyce Kilmer, the man who wrote the poem, "Trees." Maybe there is something in a name. Some of my fondest memories are of her reading to me before I had learned how to read. She read the standard nursery rhymes and fairy tales. "Rock-a-bye baby" frightened me, though; I worried about that child falling out of the tree.
My favorite book was Alice in Wonderland. I asked my mother to read it to me over and over again. And I remember that while I listened to her read it, I wished that I knew how to read, so that I could jump down that rabbit hole with Alice whenever I had the notion to.
Finally, the day came when I took those first steps toward becoming an independent reader. In the first grade I met Dick and Jane and Spot and I read, "See Dick run. See Jane run. See Dick and Jane run after Spot." I learned how to read anyhow, and love books. ( I am a bookaholic and know that I cannot go into a bookstore without buying a book. As I grow older I'm beginning to have a frightening thought, that I will not live long enough to read all of those books I've purchased and haven't had a chance to read as yet.)
When I think of my early reading, and how that might influence my writing, Little Women comes to mind. I read it twice; the first time, I was ten . I read all 546 small print pages. Though my Bronx world was far-removed from 19th century New England, I responded emotionally to the book because the March family was similar to my own--warm, loving, supportive and struggling to make ends meet. Children will insert themselves into a story as the writer's and reader's imaginations interact, creating a wonderful and satisfying experience for the reader.
I also went through a period where I read Charles Dickens, and then another period when I read everything written by Daphne DuMaurier. At one point I went through a comic book craze, then I guess by the time I was in the eighth grade, my little girlfriends and I started sneak reading copies of Sepia Magazine--a romance magazine for colored (as we were called then) women. But we were girls and were not supposed to be reading romance magazines. The book that I can never forget was a novel I found around the house when I was about twelve years old. I don't think it was a children's book, though it was illustrated. The title was Lost in the Jungle. I read it many times. Although I don't remember the details of the story, I think the title speaks for itself. I can still see the illustrations. It was a lurid little book with every stereotype imaginable--Africans with loin cloths and spears cooking up white men in big iron cauldrons, naked natives running through the jungle. Yet, it fascinated and repulsed me at the same time. It fascinated me because it was the first book I'd ever seen with blacks in it. And even though I knew that the Black people depicted in the book had nothing to do with my family and friends and the people I knew, I couldn't put it down. I realize now, that even with a youngster like myself who enjoyed reading and read for the pure pleasure of reading, having books that reflected youngsters like myself with in depth and real portrayals of people like me would have done a lot for my self-esteem--which seemed to diminish steadily during my school career.
Unfortunately, when children do not ever see themselves or a world similar to the one in which they live, depicted in the books they read, then there is no point in opening up a book except to complete a school assignment.
Suppose we had back then some of the books and writers we have now. Walter Dean Myers, Brenda Wilkinson, Nicholasa Mohr, Virginia Hamilton, Pat and Fred McKissack. Books with illustrations by the Pinckneys, and especially John Steptoe's Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters come to mind (my students loved that book and I think it was because they saw children who looked like themselves portrayed in a beautiful and elegant manner). I can only imagine what those kind of books would have done for my self esteem and self confidence.
Fortunately however, I came of age during the Civil Rights Movement and by the time I was a high school senior in 1959, I began to find myself between the pages of some wonderful books.
Black writers were being published, were being discovered and rediscovered, and I devoured everything I could find: James Baldwin, Margaret Walker, Richard Wright. I particularly loved Langston Hughes, and wrote a lot of silly poetry trying to imitate him. I also read books on African and African American that contradicted the message I'd been receiving throughout my early schooling--that Blacks were savages in Africa and slaves in America until they were freed by Abraham Lincoln. A whole new world where I was finding myself, opened up to me. It was at this time that I fantasized about becoming a writer.
When I wrote my first children's book, I was inexperienced and not sure of what I was doing. However, I remembered Lost in the Jungle, and I vowed that I would never be careless and vicious with my pen, and I would be vigilant about creating and or reinforcing stereotypes. I guess I wanted to write as another black writer has said, the books that I would have liked to have read as a child.
My reading of Charles Dickens taught me the importance of creating unforgettable characters and characters that children can bond with emotionally. Alice in Wonderland, taught me the importance of humor and silliness as you try to absorb the youngsters in the world of your book.
The black writers and poets I read taught me the importance of narrating stories that reflect in real and profound ways, that which is specific to African Americans, while at the same time exploring issues that affect all of us as human beings. Reading Langston Hughes helped me to understand the importance of language and humor too. When Hughes puts words into his characters mouths, they come alive and speak directly to us. I wrote The Gift-Giver (1989) in what one critic called a modified black dialect as a result of having read Langston Hughes.
My aim in my first three novels, The Gift-Giver (originally published by Houghton in 1980), Home Boy (1982) and Yellow Bird and Me (1991), was to give those young people who rarely see themselves reflected in the literature they read, characters, settings and themes that they could relate to. I wanted to write about preteens and teens who are like themselves --- having the same dreams, hopes, fears, pain and joy. And in The Gift-Giver and Yellow Bird, I also wanted show another perspective of a black, inner city urban community --- a non-sensational, non-dysfunctional view.
All my books are influenced by 22 years of teaching in the public school system in New York City. The Gift-Giver is a combination of situations and characters based on my own Bronx childhood and upon the students I had in my 7th grade class when I began teaching in 1973. It is somewhat autobiographical --- like many first novels. I recalled my own childhood as I created the story, so that underneath what seems to be a contemporary middle grade novel is actually a nostalgic memory of my years growing up in a Bronx neighborhood in the late 1940's and early fifties. However, as I developed my story, it was the voices of my students that I heard as I tried to bring my characters to life. And my next two novels, Home Boy and Yellow Bird and Me would not have been the books they became, had I not been a public school teacher.
Yellow Bird and Me, a sequel to The Gift-Giver was inspired by the students I taught when I was a reading teacher in a Special Education program. And Home Boy was also inspired in part by my experiences in special education and the contact that I had with many immigrant students there and the unrelenting violence that seems to be so much a part of young lives.
My first historical fiction, Which Way Freedom? (originally published by Walker, 1986, and reissued by Camelot in 1992) was set during the Civil War in the sea islands of South Carolina. It tells the story of two youngsters who run away from the farm in South Carolina where they have lived and worked as slaves all of their lives. One of the youngsters, Obi witnesses the war as a Confederate captive and as a Union soldier.
Which Way Freedom? was inspired by an adult book, The Chaneysville Incident, by David Bradley. Bradley's book contained one of the most moving scenes I'd read anywhere describing the arduous trek to freedom of a group of runaway slaves.
The Bradley novel reminded me of the yet to be told stories of the African-American experience--stories that all American children, no matter what their ethnic background, need to hear. I was struck by the dramatic and narrative material that could be gleaned from African American history and how alive and exciting that material could be made for the young reader. Too many youngsters (and adults) are ignorant of a past that informs so much of their present.
When I began Which Way Freedom? I'd never written a historical novel, though I enjoyed reading historical fiction. My other books drew on my own experiences and memories. Those books were my story. I am no historian. Where do I start? Do actual historical events dictate everything that happens in a story? How much flexibility does the storyteller have? Heretofore, I'd played it safe and followed the rule, write what you know. How could I write what I did not know? There were only two things that I was certain of: Somewhere in this story there'd have to be an escape scene as moving and dramatic as David Bradley's. (I managed the escape scene. It's not as good as Bradley, but his was a model to strive for.) I'd write a Civil War story that was truly from an African-American perspective; a story that dealt with some of aspect of slavery and the war that had not been extensively written about.
Characters are the heart of a story. Since this would be a novel for young people the main characters would be children. Who would these characters be? How do I write about something as large and catastrophic as the American Civil War from the point of view of children in bondage.
I immersed myself in the war and slavery, researching far more than I could use in one story. After the preliminary research, I was able to decide on a setting. I chose the low country of South Carolina. This area, at the time I wrote the book, was the only southern region I'd ever visited. I'd seen Fort Sumter, the Battery, Charleston Harbor and several of the sea islands. I'd heard the cadence of the people's speech and I'd seen the women weave baskets and other articles from grass and palmetto leaves the same way their African ancestors had done. My maternal relatives were from Charleston, so there is a connection rooted in the stories my mother told us about her girlhood.
I was fascinated by the unique and rich African-American culture of the sea islanders, though I was only there for a short time. Six years after that visit, I had a chance to use the setting in Which Way Freedom? Once I had the framework of a setting to operate in, I could begin to narrow the story and get a sense of where I was headed. I didn't want to write the typical big plantation slave story or Gone with the Wind revisited. In the course of my research I found out that many of the enslaved men and women worked on relatively small farms with three or four other slaves. In South Carolina, the richest and largest plantations were on the sea islands, and these were rice plantations. And when I stumbled upon information about the 200,000 Black troops who fought for the Union I had my story.
One idea began to crystallize as I read and that was the realization that African Americans contributed much to their own freedom--this spirit is what I wanted to convey to my young readers--a brave, proud people who did not just sit and wait to be freed. I have tried to capture that spirit in all of my subsequent historical fiction and non-fiction. I also try to find the human emotions behind the facts and figures gleaned during research. I begin with an idea of the characters, a time and a place, but the rest of the story is dictated by the events of the period. Though my characters might not participate in those events they will in some way be affected by them. In Out From This Place (1994), the sequel to Which Way Freedom? I had difficulty finding the story, same setting as Which Way Freedom? But now covering the first year of Reconstruction. I found a passage in one of the history books I was reading, about a group of freed men and women who had been working for the U.S. Treasury Department, during the war with the promise that when the war ended, the government would give them they land they'd been farming. But President Andrew Johnson restored all confiscated lands to their former owners. The freed men and women armed themselves and refused to leave the plantation. I had my story, based around this event.
Between Two Fires: Black Soldiers in the Civil War (1993), was challenging. It was my first non-fiction book, and it was about war. Though the historical fiction also dealt with war--the novels focused on the characters, their relationships, and their ultimate survival. I do not like war and I asked myself before I began, how could I write about something I hate. In order to write that book I had to do the same thing that I try to do with my fiction--I had to think of it as a narrative and find its soul and spirit. I had to find the men who fought in the war and tell the story from their point of view. Understanding the importance of narrative and story, even in non-fiction, helped me to write my two recent non-fiction books--Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York's African Burial Ground (1997) and Women of Hope: African Americans Who Made a Difference (1998). For both of these books as well, I had to find the soul and spirit and weave a narrative thread to hold it all together.
Another recent book, The Captive (1994), is based on a slave narrative I read many years ago, entitled The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. I read this book several times. The first time I read it, I was absorbed by Vassa's first person account of his kidnapping from his small village which was part of the African kingdom of Benin and his enslavement, first to a series of Africans and finally to a British slaver where he was taken to Barbados--the first stop on a long odyssey.
Vassa was young, resilient and wise beyond his years. He was forced to fashion a new life for himself, since there was no chance of his returning home. Because of his natural intelligence, along with the support of a rich cultural heritage, he was able to survive and in the end triumph, despite the horror of his experience.
The Captive is based on Vassa's narrative. I wanted to write a slave narrative for the contemporary young reader, using Vassa as the prototype for my character, Kofi. (The slave narrative is a uniquely American literary form. We have a whole body of literature, from abolitionist pamphlets to books such as Frederick Douglass' narrative written and or told by people who were held in slavery.)
Kofi, like Vassa, comes from an African kingdom, my character comes from the Ashanti kingdom in present day Ghana, West Africa. I wanted to expose my young readers to African civilization. The African American experiences does not begin with slavery--it begins with the ancestors, the artists, singers, dancers, musicians, farmers, artisans, holy men, historians and healers, mother and fathers whose cultures did not die in the holds of slave ships.
Too many youngsters see Africa as either the home of Tarzan, a jungle full of animals and savages, or a country, not even a continent, where people are warring and starving.
My character, Kofi, is the son of a great chief, which he reminds everyone whether or not they will listen. Though he is enslaved, he does not think of himself as a slave. In the end, Kofi proves himself to be a great man because he does what all truly great men and women do, he takes on the responsibility--like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass did, of helping others secure their freedom. Kofi realizes in the end, that slavery is wrong no matter who practices it or how benign it seems.
Several years ago I was reading a book, Been in the Storm So Long, when I came across an excerpt from a diary kept by a woman, Emma Holmes, who lived in Charleston, S.C. Holmes, writing, in 1865 lamented the fact that all of her former house slaves were leaving. She feared that she would only be left with Ann, a girl, and former slave, who was "lame, solitary, very dull, slow, timid and friendless." When I read that I felt that I had found a story. One day I would imagine this girl's life. Three years later, I got the chance to turn that description into a story. I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly (1997, a book in Scholastic's Dear America series), was inspired by that description in Emma Holmes' diary. My main character Patsy, like Ann, is lame, friendless, shy, stutters when she speaks, and everyone thinks that she is dim-witted. But Patsy is not as slow as everyone thinks. She has secretly taught herself to read and write. She records in her diary the events on the plantation where she has always lived, as blacks and whites respond to the traumatic changes that the end of slavery has wrought in their little corner of Mars Bluff, S.C.
The period of Reconstruction changed not only the south but the entire country. The United States changed from an agricultural society to an industrial nation. A new leadership, black and white, grew up in the south.
I tried to capture the turbulence, uncertainty and hope of this period in my novel--people are being paid wages for their labor, many are leaving their houses of bondage to seek relatives, there is the hope for a future as full American citizens. Some believe that they will get land and gain independence from white control, and there was the most important goal of all schools and education, and for a brief period black men voted and participated in the political process. Sixteen Black men served in Congress during this period. And one of the important legacies of Reconstruction was a public school system in the south for both white and black children.
Yet, there was another side to this story. There was the violence against the freed men and women, and policies that kept the freed blacks essentially landless laborers trapped into the sharecropping system, slave codes became black codes, and prison labor became a new form of slavery. Sadly, by 1877 Reconstruction had ended, but the struggle for full citizenship had not. The modern civil rights movement was sown from the seeds of the Reconstruction era. It's crucial that youngsters understand the narrative thread that ties together our collective history.
I feel a special responsibility to put something between the covers of my books to help youngsters grow and understand an increasingly difficult world. See Dick and Jane run is not enough. Lost in the Jungle is not acceptable.
Selected Books by Joyce Hansen
Between Two Fires: Black Soldiers in the Civil War. Franklin Watts, 1993.
Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York's African Burial Ground. Henry Holt, 1997.
The Captive. Scholastic, 1994.
The Gift-Giver. Clarion, 1989.
Home Boy. Houghton, 1982.
I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl (Dear America). Scholastic, 1997.
Out From this Place. Camelot, 1994.
Which Way Freedom? Camelot, 1992.
Women of Hope: African Americans who Made a Difference. Scholastic, 1998.
Yellow Bird and Me. Clarion, 1991.
Please note: Joyce Hansen gave this speech in February, 1998, at Saginaw Valley State University, to an audience of University students, students from local public schools, and members of the community. Jean Brown and Elaine Stephens coordinated her visit at SVSU and in the area middle schools. Brown and Stephens received a grant from the Saginaw Community Foundation to sponsor Joyce Hansen's visit. She spent three days working with students in local schools and at SVSU, working with pre-service and experienced teachers. I appreciate Joyce Hansen's contribution, and the work of Jean Brown and Elaine Stephens in to bring it to us.
Copyright 1999. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: Hansen, Joyce. (1999) "Memories of Reading, Memories in Writing." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 3, pp 61-64 .