Alice Faye Duncan: Interview, Cover Reveal, and the Gwendolyn Brooks Bio That’ll Knock Your Socks Off
Today’s cover reveal is interesting because rather than talk with the author about an upcoming book and its cover, I’ll be talking with writer Alice Faye Duncan about a book of hers that’s out later this month, alongside a cover reveal for a picture book biography that’s drop dead gorgeous. As of this writing, MEMPHIS, MARTIN, AND THE MOUNTAINTOP: THE SANITATION STRIKE OF 1968 has already garnered a star from Kirkus. I sat down and asked Ms. Duncan about this and her other upcoming book:
Betsy Bird: First and foremost, let’s jump into MEMPHIS, MARTIN, AND THE MOUNTAINTOP, which you have coming out with Calkins Creek this month. The book examines the sanitation workers strike of 1968 and the subsequent assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. through the eyes of a girl who went on to be a teacher. How did you come to this story?
Alice Faye Duncan: In 2005 I searched for a children’s book about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I wanted to share it with students at a Memphis school. When I could not find one in the library, I sat down to write the book myself.
I was born and raised in Memphis. So, I started my research with local eyewitnesses like Ernest Withers, a Memphis photographer, who knew Dr. King and documented the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South from 1955-68.
My story took on many forms from 2005 to 2015. My story also endured many rejections from publishers. At last, it found a home at Calkins Creek where Carolyn Yoder is my editor. Thirteen years have passed since I first put a pen to paper, concerning this book. I believe big dreams and weighty ambitions require long gestation periods. With a lot of patience and determination, I waited on these words to find me.
BB: I feel like a lot of kids know that MLK was murdered, but not a lot really look into what he was marching for at the time. Unionism doesn’t get a lot of mention in his tale. How much of your story talks about the strike itself and how much the assassination?
AFD: Freedom is not free. This is the book’s main theme. The Memphis strike, which lasted 65 days in 1968, is a testament to this truth. As a historical fiction, I wrote the story of a black family where the striking father, mother, and daughter, engage in non-violent protests on behalf of black union workers who earn, “starvation wages.” I call the labor union by name in my text. The workers were represented by AFSCME Local 1733.
My main character is nine year old, Lorraine Jackson. Her family’s tireless pursuit for workers’ rights is my focus. However, Dr. King’s death is the last resounding note that expresses my theme. Anything worth having requires a sacrifice.
BB: The book is a mix of poetry and prose. What inspired you to select that way of telling the tale?
AFD: My goal is to use my words like a musical instrument. Poetry helps me achieve that. In MEMPHIS, MARTIN AND THE MOUNTAINTOP, I attempted to write a book that sings like a song. To this end, between Lorraine’s personal narratives, I placed short poems that demand to be spoken aloud. In this book with all of the writing power available to me, I have tried to “move” the reader aurally, emotionally, and intellectually. Did I achieve my goal? We shall see.
BB: I was delighted to see R. Gregory Christie is behind the art here. Had you worked with him before? Were you a fan of any of his books prior to this?
AFD: I traveled to New York City for summer vacation in 2012. That year the Manhattan Transit Authority (MTA) commissioned Gregory Christie to paint a jazz illustration called, “Jazz Soiree.” MTA posted a copy of the painting on a variety of local trains. While taking a subway to midtown, I looked up, saw the painting and snapped a picture of it with my phone. I tagged the picture on facebook and said, “One day I will own an original Gregory Christie painting.” Gregory is not presently in my personal art collection. But, look at us. I have a book that was co-created by his genius. How fortuitous and wonderful is that?
BB: I’m also incredibly delighted to hear about your upcoming biography A SONG FOR GWENDOLYN BROOKS. Wracking my brain, I can’t think of a single Gwendolyn Brooks picture book bio at this time. Can you tell us a bit about it? It looks like it may be a bit bio and a bit poetry.
AFD: A SONG FOR GWENDOLYN BROOKS is the very first picture book biography to explore the poet’s life and the efficacy of her words. I wrote it as a collection of nine poems that follow Gwendolyn’s transformation from alienated child to fledgling writer, and Pulitzer Prize poet. My biographical poems are colored with blues and jazz rhythms that match the beat of Gwendolyn’s life on Chicago’s South Side. Within my poetry, readers will also find original poems that Gwendolyn Brooks wrote during her childhood in 1928. A SONG FOR GWENDOLYN BROOKS is the third biography in Sterling’s series, “People Who Shaped Our World.”
BB: I’m excited to see the picture book debut of artist Xia Gordon here. Do you know how she was selected for this book? What do you think she brings to the material?
AFD: Xia Gordon is a freelance illustrator and comic artist, who has worked with the New York Times, Buzzfeed and Vice News. My editor, Christina Pulles, went searching for an artist whose use of color and light, possessed something fresh and refreshing. She found a match in Xia.
Sunshine and light are running themes in my text. Notice the book cover. The illustration communicates the warmth of the sun on Gwendolyn’s ebony face, while the illustration also captures Gwendolyn’s self-acceptance and her internal fire. When discussing poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks, I call her a shining black candle. She was and is a beacon for the ages. Xia Gordon captured my sentiments. The book cover–shines.
BB: And finally, a toughie. What’s your favorite Gwendolyn Brooks poem and why?
AFD: When she was alive, Miss Brooks coined the phrase, “Gwendolynian.” She used it to refer to anything that was signature to her writing or personality. With that, I love her poems that are replete with alliteration and rhyme. And no one can beat her at writing sonnets in perfect meter. That’s Gwendolynian! However, as she relates to Dr. King, Memphis and 1968, my favorite quote comes from her poem, “The Second Sermon on the Warpland.”
In 1968, Miss Brooks wrote succinctly, “A garbage man is dignified as any diplomat.” And Dr. King said, “All labor has worth.” It comes to me at this moment that the poet and preacher sang the same song, at the same time, and in the same key of love. Now, I’m wondering if Gwendolyn knew Martin. If so, surely, I must write a book about that.
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for . . . here is A SONG FOR GWENDOLYN BROOKS:
Thanks to Alice for the interview, and to Sterling Books for the jacket reveal.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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