Saving American Beach: An Interview with Author Heidi Tyline King
Have you guys noticed that this blog has sort of slipped into a regular two-interviews-per-week model? I’m quite fond of it, actually. It allows me to pick the brains of clever creative folks doing clever creative things. For example, they might highlight historical figures in picture book biographies that even five years ago would never have seen their stories come to light in this way.
Heidi Tyline King’s new bio Saving American Beach: The Biography of African American Environmentalist Mavynee Betsch has the great good fortune to be illustrated by the one and only Ekua Holmes. It is also one of the very few children’s books I’ve seen to offer context on reparations, something we don’t see as a topic in much of our kids literature quite yet. The plot description reads as follows:
“This heartfelt picture book biography illustrated by the Caldecott Honoree Ekua Holmes, tells the story of MaVynee Betsch, an African American opera singer turned environmentalist and the legacy she preserved.
MaVynee loved going to the beach. But in the days of Jim Crow, she couldn’t just go to any beach–most of the beaches in Jacksonsville were for whites only. Knowing something must be done, her grandfather bought a beach that African American families could enjoy without being reminded they were second class citizen; he called it American Beach. Artists like Zora Neale Hurston and Ray Charles vacationed on its sunny shores. It’s here that MaVynee was first inspired to sing, propelling her to later become a widely acclaimed opera singer who routinely performed on an international stage. But her first love would always be American Beach.
After the Civil Rights Act desegregated public places, there was no longer a need for a place like American Beach and it slowly fell into disrepair. MaVynee remembered the importance of American Beach to her family and so many others, so determined to preserve this integral piece of American history, she began her second act as an activist and conservationist, ultimately saving the place that had always felt most like home.”
I took some time to ask Ms. King a thing or two about not just the book but the subject and storyline:
Betsy Bird: Thank you so much for joining me today! So first and foremost, can you tell me a little bit about how you discovered The Beach Lady’s story to begin with?
Heidi Tyline King: My daughter wrote an elementary school essay about her for an amazing Floridian project. Her story stayed with me and I finally realized that every child (and adult) should know about her.
BB: There was a time when a picture book biography of a figure who wasn’t already famous was a nonstarter. Publishers had no interest in looking at such books. These days we’re seeing a distinct uptick in the number of nonfiction picture books that honor lesser known or previously unsung figures. To your mind, what is it about MaVynee Betsch that appeals to readers?
HTK: I have always enjoyed writing about ordinary people who do extraordinary things. MaVynee was far from ordinary, but she isn’t famous. She really struggled to save this beach—it wasn’t easy. I believe that readers are drawn to MaVynee’s pluck and perseverance along with her unique personality.
BB: I’m quite curious about the research that this book entailed. Did you travel at all? How easy was it finding information? Did you hear back from her family?
HTK: I love research! In fact, I get so lost in research that I have to make myself write! I read every article and book I could find on MaVynee and American Beach. I interviewed people who knew her. I visited American Beach. I spent time at the Florida State Archives looking for photographs and documents. Some information was easy to find and duplicative but part of the writing process is sifting through and deciding what to use and what to leave out.
BB: Recently I was watching an episode of John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight about reparations, particularly as it applies to Black beachfront property. It seems to me that MaVynee’s story is particularly timely today. At the same time, this book also presents us with a Black environmentalist figure (something that is almost completely lacking when we pull out books to celebrate Earth Day each year). Was any of this in your mind when you were writing this story?
HTK: At the most fundamental level, the only thing I was thinking about at the time was how I wanted and needed my daughters to know about this amazing woman and role model. I wanted them to see that people move through life with heavy burdens that we don’t necessarily know about. MyVynee certainly went through a rough time in her life AND YET she persevered. She was determined to save a beach, so she did. Her resilience is what drew me to her most of all.
The other thing I focused on was music. MaVynee was an opera singer. The beach is full of music and I felt like she had an affinity for the beach because of this reason. Her story also follows the arc of an aria, which is a type of opera, so that made it all the more interesting to bring in music.
After the story was written, it became clear that there are other layers of interest: environmentalism, activism, fighting against discrimination, the Black history of that particular beach… These topics make it a much more complex and layered story in a way that wasn’t intentional but definitely added depth to the story.
BB: Was there anything you would have liked to have included but were unable due to space or content issues?
HTK: MaVynee supported myriad animal and environmental organizations. I had a great sentence about bonobos, bottlenose dolphins, and birds of paradise from Borneo that I eventually cut from the book because it didn’t advance the main story. I also didn’t include the fact that she has a whale named after her and a butterfly guide dedicated to her!
BB: Were you aware of the art of Ekua Holmes prior to being paired with her on this book? How do you feel the final product turned out?
HTK: I was not. I completely trusted my editor, Stacey Barney, to make the right match, but I will admit that I was a bit anxious until I knew who she had chosen. It turned out to be an amazing collaboration. I had several visual elements in mind that I had passed along to Stacey early on – collage, particular images and layout ideas – that Ekua took and made her own. She is an amazing artist and her work is a perfect complement to the many layers of MaVynee.
BB: Finally, what are you working on next?
HTK: My next nonfiction picture book is about John Bonner Buck, the father of bioluminescence who discovered why fireflies flash. While I am focusing on his biography, it’s also about how amazing science is—the glory and wonder of it all!
Many thanks to Ms. King for answering my questions. Saving American Beach is on shelves now.
Filed under: Interviews
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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