My Inspiration for Writing Fly
By: Brittany J. Thurman
My great-grandparents lived in a two-room white house on a hill. I still hear tires against the gravel of their driveway. I still feel the tremor of the mesh screen door slamming, then bouncing, then slamming shut as I stepped inside. This was a home full to the ceiling with memoires. Thick with phantom laughs and steamy cheese pudding on top an oven half open to cool off.
My great-grandmother, Grandmommy, sat in the back room, which was really the front room. This- adjacent to the front porch, which I always assumed was the back. A porch swing with rusty metal chains clanked against the rail. This was the sound of homestead.
“Come ere, give me some sugar,” Grandmommy said. As I scooted up to her orange recliner, Grandmommy’s lips sailed into a smile. The closer I got, the more I smelled snuff. The metal tin she kept beside her recliner for (if ya know, ya know) had my stomach churned. Grandmommy always pulled me into a hug and kissed my cheek, then my forehead. It was as if she wanted to imbed her love, adoration and might (all of it) into me. And I always, always, always stiffened, then pulled away because…snuff.
One of my favorite spreads in Fly is that of Africa looking up to her grandmother, Nana, who is surrounded by a flight of birds. Look closely, one of them has flown away, off on its own. We don’t know if Africa’s Nana is still with her, or if Nana has been gone as long as my own great-grandmother. Now a memory full to the ceiling.
What we do know on this spread of purple is that Africa and Nana, no matter how far apart, have a bond. It is one comprised of love. It is a bond composed of giving up a little of ourselves for those rising up in the next generation.
While writing Fly, there were so many aspects of my own life that inspired me. I thought through and cried over my struggle with identity and anxiety. Fought to show a Black girl cool, confident, collected - on her quest to fulfill her goal. I delved into the communities that surrounded me growing up as a Black girl from Louisville’s West End. For me, community has and was always about showing up for your neighbor. Giving, even when you don’t have much to lend.
But, what I thought about as much as these other themes are my ancestors and my elders. Those whose love seeps deep. Whose eyes told stories without saying words. And those words, “Come ere, give me some sugar,” and “I have a gift for you.’ echo through my head to this day.
Even though I always, always, always pulled away from Grandmommy’s kisses, I understood at seven how lucky I was to know my great-grandmother. Now older, I understand. My Grandmommy recognized how special it was that she had a relationship with her great-granddaughter.
I envision that at some point, Africa and her Nana also had a moment like that. And in that moment, Nana knew how quick time slides, how vital it was to impart what we know onto the generation next. What we love onto those who are rising up, so those gifts are not lost forever. Equally as important, I wanted to emphasize that sometimes, from one generation to the next, to the next, to the next…things do get lost. Recipes, Songs. Photos, Memories. Double Dutch and the feeling of flying, gone. At some point, we have to reclaim what has seeped through the cracks from one generation to the next.
This is what Africa recognizes in Fly. This is what she does. She reclaims. She rediscovers. She reimagines, through the help and memory and strength of her Nana (ala my great-grandmother). She can, she is, fly.
I have always had an affinity for stories told by my grandmother. Those same stories hold space in my writing today. My love of writing comes from my love of reading. As a kid, I could not get enough of going to bookstores and libraries.
I am a former children’s specialist, and I am dedicated to ensuring children’s literature truthfully reflects the world in which we live. I hold an MFA from Carnegie Mellon University, where I studied Dramatic Writing. I hold a BA from Kingston University, London, England, where I studied theater.
I’m not sure how many books I’ve read as a children’s specialist, but I estimate hundreds of stories to thousands of kids across the City of Bridges. Currently, I reside in my hometown of Louisville, KY. You may find me biking along the waterfront, enjoying a musical or play, hanging out with my family, grilling in the backyard or snuggled up with a good book.
Follow Brittany on Instagram
Twitter - @janeebrittany
KidLit in Color author Gabriele Davis Interviews Andrea Loney about her middle grade biography, VIP: Stacey Abrams, releasing January 18, 2022.
Hi, Andrea! I am thrilled to chat with you about your new—and very timely—middle grade biography. Can you give our readers a brief overview of your book and how you came to write it?
VIP: Stacey Abrams – Voting Visionary is a part of the HarperCollins VIP series of chapter book biographies about innovators and trailblazers throughout history. My book covers Stacey’s life from her childhood, to her educational pursuits and political career, and it ends with her triumphant victory in the 2020 election and its shocking aftermath. I also include information on the historical context of the book’s events including the history of civil rights, voting rights, and more.
This project came to me as a work-for-hire assignment from HarperCollins. They gave me the topic, a projected word count, and a very tight deadline, then they asked for a sample chapter. I gave myself a day or so to panic because as a picture book author, I’d never worked professionally on a project that long, and my previous biographies had taken me years to research and write. But my agent had faith in me, the editor had faith in me, and I’d always been dazzled by Stacey Abrams’ work. So I decided to take a chance and try it out.
Young readers might be surprised to learn that outspoken and indefatigable Stacey Abrams was once a shy, quiet child. Did you discover any other surprising things about her?
I think my favorite Stacey Abrams fact that wasn’t included in the book is this: her one and only school fight took place in the first grade and it was over her admiration for Jimmy Carter, one of the kindest and most conscientious presidents our country has ever elected. I love that Stacey was literally fighting for social justice before she’d even lost all her baby teeth.
What was your research process like?
Since my deadline was so tight on this project AND since we were in the pre-vaccine thick of the pandemic, I was unable to travel for research. I made great use of my library cards, digital archives, and Google.
I found every book, article, website, documentary, and video I could on Stacey Abrams, and other topics in civics, such as the voting process, voting rights, civil rights, the census, and more. I managed the information in OneNote, Scrivener, and a clipboard stacked with articles. Whenever possible, I downloaded the Kindle version of books so I could easily search for my notes and annotations
I created a timeline of the lives of Stacey and her family, and a parallel timeline of historical events. I also kept a spreadsheet of facts, quotes, events, and other important information with the citations, page numbers/urls/timecode of my source information.
Lastly, I followed Stacey Abrams on social media and checked the internet regularly for any news that might affect the book (for example, after the Capitol Building Insurrection took place on 1/6/21, I had to make changes to the book reflecting its significance in the history and future of voting rights in the United States).
Your book mostly highlights Stacey’s activism and political accomplishments; however, the first couple of chapters focus on her proud, close-knit family. Why was it important for you to include this information in the book?
In general, when writing biographies for kids, I think it’s important to start with the main character’s childhood. Kids might not always be able to relate to powerful politicians or charismatic media personalities, but they get what it means to be a little kid navigating the small world of their own home and the bigger world outside of it. The Abrams family history, values, and mission inform and drive Stacey’s life’s work. The whole idea that we’re not just individuals, but important parts of a greater community that works together for the common good? For Stacey, that mindset began in her family home, but it echoes through every chapter of her life as she grows up and establishes her place in the greater local, state, and national community.
You include a story about how Stacey learns to not be intimidated by people who are smarter or more accomplished than she is, but instead to be open to learning from them as a way to grow and improve. That’s such an important message to share. What else do you hope readers will take away from this biography?
As a teacher, I meet many awesome young teens who are quiet, shy, and nervous about being judged by others – and with cell phones, social media, and everything else out there, I do understand. But I really want kids to see that Stacey’s confidence did not come instantly, and that even though she’s an extremely intelligent individual, she knew she’d still need to learn from others if she wanted to progress in the world. Sometimes she was scared, sometimes she was confused, and sometimes she was even embarrassed, but she took a chance and tried anyway. I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from Stacey Abrams’ journey is that even if you feel like an outsider, you can accomplish astounding things in this world just by being yourself. In fact, the more you lean on your individual strengths and passions, the more powerful you can become.
Illustrator Shelley Rodney does an excellent job of capturing Stacey’s passion and determination as well as the strong foundation provided by her family. Did you have a chance to offer input or to work with her directly? If so, what did that process look like?
Isn’t her work amazing! I adore the artwork for this book! But as a rule, I don’t interact with illustrators directly – the editor moderates those communications so we can both do our best work. Once we had some sketches, I made a few comments on the PDFs, but not many. And when the final copy of the book was done, I went through the entire PDF to make sure that there was nothing amiss with the images and words.
Your publishing credits include acclaimed fiction and nonfiction picture books. This is your first middle grade work. What advice would you give to picture book writers looking to expand into middle grade?
Ooh, that’s a good question. My first piece of advice for anyone would be to read at least 20 – 100 middle grade books to get a feel for the voice, structure, and mindset of middle grade readers. So much of picture book writing is about placing the perfect words in the perfect order for 32 pages. But the writing process is very different for a 10,000+ word manuscript. While the individual words are still important, the structure is even more important. You definitely want to set the story up in a way that will keep young readers turning the page. As I was writing this manuscript, I tried to keep the language clear and conversational, so it almost felt like I was just gossiping in the hallway with a sixth grader about the adventures of our friend Stacey.
Is there anything else you’d like to share—about this or any upcoming works?
I am so excited for kids to read this book! I also have three more books coming out this year – a chapter book series called Abby in Orbit about a third-grade Afro-Latina-American girl living on the International Space Station in the 2050s, and Curve and Flow: The Elegant Vision of L.A. Architect Paul R. Williams, which is a picture book biography of the famous Black “Architect to the Stars.”
Andrea J. Loney’s picture books include TAKE A PICTURE OF ME, JAMES VANDERZEE (Lee & Low Books New Voices Award), BUNNYBEAR (ALA Rainbow List), and DOUBLE BASS BLUES (Caldecott Honor). Her upcoming works include the middle grade biography VIP: STACEY ABRAMS VOTING VISIONARY (HarperCollins, January 2022, the futuristic chapter book series ABBY IN ORBIT (Albert Whitman & Company, September 2022), and picture book biography CURVE AND FLOW: THE ELEGANT VISION OF LA ARCHITECT PAUL R. WILLIAMS (Knopf, Fall 2022).
To learn more about Andrea, please visit her website and social media pages.
To Order VIP: Stacey Abrams: Click Here!
Kathlyn J. Kirkwood - Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round: My Story of the Making of Martin Luther King Day- Kathlyn J. Kirkwood
Interview by Alliah L. Agostini
I had the pleasure to interview Kathlyn J. Kirkwood, debut author of middle grade memoir, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round: My Story of the Making of Martin Luther King Day. Ms. Kirkwood shares more about deciding to tell her story, some surprising tidbits about the making of MLK Day, her thoughts on inspiring activism in our children, and more.
Collectively, your story and book were decades in the making. How does it feel to finally be able to share your story with the world?
WONDERFUL! I feel wonderful and eternally grateful that I am able to share not just my story, but really the story of millions of unknown foot soldiers who have given of their time, energy, money, and bodies to effect change in the United States and across the world.
You didn't always intend to write a book about your experience. How were you ultimately compelled to do so?
It was a church friend, Jeanne Arradondo, who first suggested I write the book. At the time, I was presenting to teens and young adults at various workshops about my time in the Civil Rights Movement in a segment titled “How Dr. King’s Day Came to Be.” Jeanne attended one and afterwards recommended that I write a book. Even with that, it was still MANY years before I sat down to actually write it. In fact, I was working on another book—that’s still sitting on my shelf—when my first-born daughter told me that I needed to focus on what is now known as “Ain’t Gonna.” She told me I would be upset if someone else wrote my story.
How did you decide to tell your story in verse?
Throughout this book writing and publishing processing, I have been blessed with many mentors and angels. One of those was one of my Highlights Foundation editors, Deborah Hopkinson. After reading an early manuscript that was written in prose, she recommended that I try writing the book in verse. That was such a magical moment for Ain’t Gonna because in prose, the story wasn’t landing in the way I wanted, but once I started writing in verse, everything really clicked into place.
Your book is targeted toward middle grade readers, who are a little younger than you were when you were involved in the movement, and I understand you work with 3rd and 4th graders, as well. What about this age group do you find particularly inspiring?
They are still young and eager to learn and are receptive to new things. Part of what makes the Team Kirkwood Literacy Lab so much fun is watching how our kids, some of whom are dealing with very mature situations in their personal lives – homelessness, abuse, poverty – continue to have childlike wonder at experiencing new tastes, ideas, and concepts.
I was so moved by some of the personal artifacts you included in the text, including your photos and the letter to persuade your parents to allow you to go to the march. When you decided to keep them, did you have an inkling these were going to be part of history?
Not at all! I’ve always been one to keep records and not throw much away. When I first started writing the book, I didn’t even remember that I had these things. Both the letter to my mom and the petition in the book were found somewhat randomly—I was cleaning out the garage with my husband and happened to walk down memory lane looking at some things in my college trunk. Lo and behold, I opened a planner from decades ago and to my utter surprise and joy was the petition that can be viewed on page 74 in the book.
The book contains some incredible facts about people whose involvement many probably didn't realize were so instrumental to shaping the holiday. Whose names do you think need to be better amplified as the story of making the King holiday is told?
Definitely, Katie Hall. As the book describes, it was her bill proposing having MLK Day on a fixed Monday that overcame a lot of the cost-related objections. Another name is Stevie Wonder. Obviously, he’s a well-known musician and philanthropist, but I can’t tell you how many people, after reading the book, were surprised at his contribution to the cause and the role of his much- beloved “Happy Birthday.”
As both an author and an educator, how would you best recommend teachers (and families) use your book as a resource?
I wrote this book with my own literacy program in mind. Under my non-profit, Better B, LLC, my husband and I “bring books to life” to our kids by taking aspects of the books we read and creating interactive and sensory experiences. I wanted to make sure teachers and families would be able to do the same. The book contains a lot of historical and educational information that can serve as a launching pad for lessons around activism and legislation – I must call out the wonderful Chenjelani Whatley for the How a Bill Becomes a Law infographic – and the importance of advocating for change.
This is a two-part question. You acknowledge your family's commitment to social justice and activism as part of your own inspiration to get involved in the movement, and even brought your own daughter along as you fought for the King holiday as an adult. How would you encourage families to inspire a spirit of activism amongst their children?
For me, activism is part of civic duty. We owe it to each other to push for change that makes the world in which we live a better place. I would encourage families to find causes that matter to them and their children – whether it is water preservation, climate change, education, animal rights, food deserts, library funding, etc. There are so many causes out there. Helping children to understand at an early age that they can shape the world they live in is the best way to inspire long-lasting activism.
And for children who are interested in activism but may not have the same level of parental interest or engagement, how would you suggest they help get involved?
One of the lessons that I hope my young readers take from “Ain’t Gonna” is that activism can take many forms; they can shape what their own activism will look and feel like. With that in mind, they can get involved by learning all there is to know about a particular subject and its impact. They can share that information with family and friends. As they get older, they can talk to their parents about volunteering their time and other ways they can increase their own activism.
There are likely many other people who have important narratives to share, but may not decide to write a book. How might you encourage others to see the importance of their own narratives and make sure they, too, are remembered?
We all know the adage: “History is written by the victors.” It’s important for our stories to be told so that history does not forget. If people choose not to write a book, I would encourage them to share their story so that others may document it and maybe someday, someone else will write their story. Whether it be in diaries or journals, or through the passing down of an oral history, the most important part is the telling and sharing.
How do you think we should best honor Dr. King both on his birthday, and in our daily lives?
By adhering to two of his statements. First, “[o]ur lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” As I mentioned earlier, we have an obligation to find a cause that matters to us and work to make change for the better. We honor Dr. King when we fight for change and don’t let obstacles or fear, stop us from speaking up against injustices and wrongs that we see. This leads directly into a second quote that I think sits at the foundation of all activism: Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?’” By changing our perspective to a focus on how we are helping others, I think we would honor Dr. King who lived this principle and ultimately made the ultimate sacrifice to a purpose and cause larger than himself.
Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, Kathlyn J. Kirkwood is a retired college professor who now focuses on writing for children and volunteering with underprivileged third and fourth grade students in the Nashville area through her nonprofit Better B, LLC’s Literacy Lab. She has developed several innovative workshops that help young people learn about the world beyond their immediate surroundings and inspire in them a love of reading.
Visit Kathlyn online at https://www.kathlynjkirkwood.com and Instagram, @kathlyn.j.kirkwood
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round: My Story of the Making of Martin Luther King Day is available now in bookstores and online.
KidLit in Color author Valerie Bolling was thrilled to have had the opportunity to interview prolific picture book author, Alice Faye Duncan. This is an interview you don’t want to miss! So let’s begin …
CONGRATULATIONS, Alice, on your twin book birthday! Two books releasing on the same day – TODAY, January 11, 2022 -- is truly special and a reason for celebration.
I’m curious to know how these books, EVICTED! — THE STRUGGLE FOR THE RIGHT TO VOTE (Astra Publishing), illustrated by Charly Palmer, and OPAL LEE AND WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE (HarperCollins), illustrated by Keturah Bobo, are connected and what makes them different. In other words, why should we have them in our personal, public, and school libraries?
My books amplify unfamiliar moments in American History.
EVICTED! — THE STRUGGLE FOR THE RIGHT TO VOTE is the story of Black sharecroppers in Tennessee, who laid the foundation for Freedom Summer and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Children are unaware of this critical history (adults too). I live fifty miles from what was called the “Tent City Voting Rights Movement.” The dead would not let me rest until their story was written. EVICTED! is composed of poetry and narratives for middle and high school students. The main character is James Junior, a selective mute, who learns to raise his voice for justice.
OPAL LEE AND WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE is the official children’s biography of the Texas activist and grandmother, who petitioned Congress to vote and make Juneteenth a National Holiday. The book is also a history of Juneteenth written as a “call and response.” To engage readers further, the text includes a recipe for red Juneteenth punch. OPAL LEE is suited for ages PK- 3rd grade.
Here are summaries of both books composed as Diamante Poems.
What a creative, poetic way to summarize your stories, Alice. In addition to being a poet, you’re a master of nonfiction. Why do you love this genre?
Non-fiction is a boon to my soul because research for each book starts me on a journey to places unknown. I am sure of one thing. During the writing process, I will meet people (dead and alive) who have something urgent to say for now and later. The message is for me, first. Then I pass it on to the reader. Here is a Golden Shovel poem. I wrote it to inspire writers from all genres. The reference source is Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Paul Robeson.”
I’m loving these poems! And it’s clear you love research. What, specifically, did you learn that you didn’t already know before researching these books?
Writing OPAL LEE AND WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE gave me an understanding of how the Union Army won the Civil War. When the Emancipation Proclamation freed the enslaved living in the Southern states, Black soldiers joined the Union. And research supports that because of the additional Black forces—the Union prevailed.
Writing EVICTED! —THE STRUGGLE FOR THE RIGHT TO VOTE gave me a full understanding of Ella Baker and the “herstorical” impact she made to the Civil Rights Movement. I call Miss Baker a “King Maker” because she “discipled” Dr. King, encouraged him to build on the momentum of the Montgomery Bus boycott, and to use that energy to abolish legal segregation completely. Dr. King listened … and it worked.
What suggestions do you have for parents and teachers to help young readers engage further with your books?
Here are some ways to make my two books INTERACTIVE AND FUN:
EVICTED! —THE STRUGGLE FOR THE RIGHT TO VOTE
OPAL LEE AND WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE
I agree with you, Alice: “Every day is a good time to celebrate liberation and democracy.” Please let us know what we can expect next from you.
I have two new picture books in the works. They include YELLOW DOG BLUES (Fall 2022—Eerdmans Press) a fable about love and loss illustrated by Chris Raschka. And there is CORETTA’S JOURNEY (Fall 2023—Astra Publishing) a cosmic biography of Mrs. King and her life as rebel, activist, and prophet.
I look forward to reading those books and anything else that you write, Alice. Thank you for sharing details about your most recent books, insights about nonfiction, and a poetry lesson. Again, Happy Birthday to both of these wonderful books!