Transcript from an interview with Carole Boston Weatherford

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Carole Boston Weatherford. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Carole Boston Weatherford

Meet Carole Boston Weatherford

My name is Carole Boston Weatherford. I'm the author of more than two dozen books. My books include historical fiction, poetry and I also write some adult literature, adult books as well. My mission as an author is to mine the past for family stories, fading traditions and forgotten struggles.

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An idyllic childhood

I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and I was an only child for the first ten years so I had friends in my neighborhood. I grew up in an all black neighborhood. I was pretty imaginative.

My dad had lots of jazz records and we had this basement and I had these tap shoes that I used to dance around in sometimes and do like little song and dance numbers to my dad's records. I was a pretty creative kid.

I liked to draw and I can remember having had a picture of mine, a picture that I had drawn, published in Highlights Magazine so I was a little high achiever and very into getting good grades. My childhood was really somewhat idyllic.

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A multicultural void

When I was growing up, there was no multicultural literature. There probably wasn't even the term "multicultural." I was an avid reader but I probably only read maybe two books that included girls who looked like me, and one of them was a book that was published in the 1940's that my mother recommended that I read. It was called Bright April.

I can remember that book. Bright April was a Brownie and I was a Brownie at the time. I could kind of relate. There were some racial issues in the book so I read those books and maybe I also read Sounder.

Sounder was out when I was a kid and there were some YA books — young adult books that I read like Gordon Park's The Learning Tree. But when I was in the picture book stage in elementary school, there weren't books that I read that had characters who looked like me. So that was a void in my life. I was just happy to see that there were so many more opportunities for my kids to read books about children of color.

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…then try, try again

I've been rejected by some of the best publishers in the country — some of the biggest and some of the best. Perseverance has been one of the keys to my success. I prepared myself for this career by reading and by refining my craft, but the perseverance has really been the key.

There were times, I'm sure, that I could have quit. I had manuscripts that had been rejected twenty times before finding a home with a publisher. But I keep going and I believe in what I write about and I believe that it's important enough that someone should publish it. It doesn't always happen, even now, but I persist.

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Remember the Bridge

I worked on Remember the Bridge: Poems of a People for twenty years. Kids often ask me how long it takes to write a book and the shortest amount of time was two weeks, off and on and the longest amount of time was the two decades that I spent working on Remember the Bridge.

That project started as a graduate school photo essay project and one of my teachers, as he was looking at my portfolio at the end of that semester, said this should be a book. I began expanding it and submitting the manuscript. At the time, I was thinking that it would be an adult publication. Got a little interest from one publisher and that just egged me on, but didn't find a publisher at that time.

I resurrected the project after I started writing for children and began shopping it as a children's book manuscript and did find a publisher. But the process, what I did during those twenty years, besides raising my kids and working in public relations, was to write more poems for Remember the Bridge that focused on African American heritage and culture and also to do picture research — to find images to pair with those poems.

I went to places like the Library of Congress, Moylan-Spingarn Research Center, state archives, in search of photographs. The more photographs I found, the more poems I ended up writing because I not only found photographs to pair with existing poems, but I found photographs that kind of cried out for words. I found myself acquiring all these photographs and then writing poems to go with the photographs that had really spoken to my heart.

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Three voices

Moses is different from my other books in that it's my first book that deals with spiritual issues. Moses chronicles Harriet Tubman's faith journey through her first escape and through the soul-searching that she had to do as she tried to decide whether she was going to answer God's call to be a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

The story unfolds through a poem and the poem is written in three voices — God's voice, the narrator's voice and Harriet's voice. And much like my first poem about the four seasons that I wrote in first grade and like my first published poem, I'm Made of Jazz, the inclination to structure the narrative in three voices kind of came out of the blue.

When the book was published and I read it, it was almost like another hand was at work, almost like I couldn't believe that I had written it. Something magical, mystical was going on when I wrote that book. The book didn't come easy. I worked on it off and on for seven years. But from the point that I decided that the narrative was going to unfold through three voices, something very mystical was going on.

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I, Matthew Henson

There are a few reasons that I wanted to tell Matthew Henson's story in I, Matthew Henson. First of all, because he did a great thing. He accompanied Commander Perry to the North Pole in the 1909 expedition that was at that time viewed as the most successful expedition to the North Pole. Secondly, he's African American and I do tend to focus on African Americans in my work. He's a Marylander and I'm from Maryland. So those are three reasons that I wanted to focus on him.

Also, the centennial of the expedition is coming up in 2009 so I wanted to do a work that would mark the centennial of the 1909 North Pole Expedition. Matthew Henson, as I said, was born in Maryland and he was orphaned at an early age and wound up walking to Baltimore's Harbor because he worked in a restaurant and had heard sailors talk about the ships coming and going, and he wanted to be a sailor.

He walked to the harbor and found work as a sailor, traveled around the world for several years before his captain died, and he wound up as a clerk at a story in Washington — grounded, so to speak. He was working as a clerk at this men's haberdashery when Commander Perry came in, buying hats for this Nicaraguan expedition. It so happened that Perry also needed a manservant and he inquired of the owner, and the owner recommended Matthew Henson for the job.

Matthew Henson signed on right away. When he got to Nicaragua, he proved himself to be really helpful to Perry. He was really meant to just be cooking and laundering Perry's shirts, but when the chain man fell ill on the expedition, Henson became the chain man. From that point on, he became indispensable to Perry and accompanied him later on the North Pole expedition.

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Birmingham, 1963

I wanted to write the book, Birmingham, 1963 because, although the story of the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church had been covered in other children's books about the Civil Rights movement, there had not been a book devoted entirely to that tragic event which claimed four young girls' lives.

The girls were ages 11 to 14 who were killed in the bombing. Because the event itself was so jarring, I wanted the book to be illustrated with photographs. Photographs make documentary history more real to kids so the book is illustrated with photographs.

On the verso page, there's a photograph from the Civil Rights Movement and on the recto page, there's always a photograph of some commonplace item from a girl's life in the 1960's. On the recto page, there might be a pair of patent leather shoes, some records, 45's as they were called, berets or jacks, things that a girl might have in her life at that time.

History is only relevant to the extent that it is made personal so I let the poem be in the voice of a ten-year-old girl — someone who happened to be experiencing what would be in the life of a ten-year-old, a pivotal event. She was experiencing her tenth birthday which I can remember for me was a big deal because I got into double digits.

On this day when she's marking her tenth birthday and was also to present, perform in the Youth Day program at church, this tragic event happens which forever mars that day in her eyes. She sees her father cry for the first time. She sees the bomb claim the lives of four girls whom she looked up to — they were older than she.

She sees her city kind of torn apart by violence in the aftermath of the bombing, and can't understand why. The girls' story is what is really one poem in the book, but then the book itself ends with four poems it attributes to the girls who actually died in the bombing. I wanted to end by calling their names, recognizing them, paying tribute to them.

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Billie Holiday

I think Billie Holiday, my muse, said, "Hey, you need to write about me." I initially resisted because I was skeptical that perhaps teenagers would not know who she was and she's been dead almost 50 years and perhaps she wouldn't appeal to teenagers.

I went to a museum in Baltimore called Great Blacks in Wax and I was standing at the Billie Holiday Exhibit when an eighth grade walked up and said, "Ooh, Billie Holiday." I looked at the girl and I asked her, "How old are you?" and she told me how old she was. I said, "And you know about Billie Holiday?"

She said, "Yeah, she could really sing." I looked at Billie Holiday and I thought, "Okay. I'll do it," so that's how the project came to be. Before writing a single word, I updated my collection of CDs. I've got lots of Billie Holiday on vinyl, but didn't have much of her music on CDs so I updated my CD collection with a lot of her early recordings.

I listened to those recordings on my 100 mile commute to work every day for about two or three months. After my semester was over at Fayetteville State University, I got down to the business of reading some biographies of her and some oral histories and actually doing my research.

As I did that research, episodes of her life suggested musical backdrops for different things that happened to her and I decided that the poems that I wanted to write about Billie Holiday's life would be titled after her songs. I had these song titles and I would read about an episode from her life, find a song title that was suggestive of that episode and then I wrote.

The poems poured out of me at an unprecedented pace — two to three a day, almost as if she were whispering her recollections or singing her recollections in my ear. By three months, I had written the entire collection. It's about eighty poems. I'd never written anything that fast, not even a picture book. When I submitted it, something else amazing happened. Not 24 hours after submitting it, the editor called and said he wanted to acquire it. It's almost as if Billie Holiday said, "I told you so. I told you so."

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Civil rights in the classroom

I see teachers using my books in the classroom to introduce historical figures or historical events to their students so my books can be the jumping off point. For example, Birmingham, 1963 might be the jumping off point for a discussion of the Civil Rights Movement. My poems have such a powerful punch that they automatically make kids want to know more.

They want to know, first of all, did this really happen, because today's kids can't fathom things like segregation. They can't believe that America allowed such a system to exist, and rightly so. I'm glad they can't believe it because it was ludicrous.

Once they read my books, they can then begin to read maybe longer works, novels, for example, chapter books set during the same time or they might do research projects or just social studies, just the social studies core area about the Civil Rights Movement or about segregation or the slavery era and other periods and people that I write about.

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"The things I want to know are in books. My best friend is the man who'll get me a book I [haven't] read." — Abraham Lincoln