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Profile of 1977 Newbery Medal winner Mildred D. Taylor

by Phyllis J. Fogelman

mildred taylor“A natural writer” is an overused expression I don’t particularly like, but in speaking of Mildred Taylor it seems absolutely appropriate. Mildred’s words flow smoothly, effortlessly, it seems, and they abound in richness, harmony, and rhythm. Her stories unfold in a full, leisurely way, well suited to and evocative of her Southern settings. Her ability to bring her characters to life and to in­volve her readers is remarkable. In short, Mildred is one of the few people of whom I have felt: This woman was born to write. So I was astonished when one day she confessed she had never particularly liked writing, nor did she feel she was exceptionally good at it. “But,” she added, “once I had made up my mind, I had no doubts about doing it. It was just something that would happen someday. By the time I entered high school, I was con­fident that I would be a writer.” It is this combination of natural gift and determination, a complete kind of knowing, that makes Mildred such a remarkable and forceful storyteller.

As an editor, I am tempted to go on talking about Mildred Taylor, the author, forever, but it seems more appropriate here to set forth some facts about her life. Mildred was born in Jackson, Mississippi. When she was three weeks old, her father was involved in a racial incident that brought home to him once again the precarious position of Blacks in Mississippi, and on the same day he decided to leave the South. Although her mother cried, taking things out of his suitcase as fast as he put them in, he would not change his mind; and that night he was on a train headed for Toledo, Ohio. By the time Mildred was three months old, he had found a job and sent for his wife and two young daughters.

Consequently Mildred grew up in Toledo, but the family’s roots were in the South, where they returned as often as pos­sible. Mildred attended Toledo schools which, although inte­grated city-wide at the high-school level, used a system of grouping by so-called ability levels that worked against Black children coming from inferior neighborhood schools. As a result she often found herself the only Black student in the college preparatory courses, and because of this she competed all the harder. English was her best subject, and her senior class prophecy was certainly on target: “The well-known journalist Mildred Taylor,” it read, “is displaying her Nobel Prize winning novel….”

As Mildred tells it, “I’m afraid I was one of those students who was a class officer, an editor of the school newspaper, and a member of the honor society, when what I really wanted to be was a cheerleader. I remember how disappointed I was when I failed to make the cheerleading squad and my father telling me that I had greater things cut out for me. Believe me,” she adds, “that wasn’t much consolation then!”

RollofThunder_hardcoverMildred often speaks of her father as a determining factor in her life, the person who more than anyone else gave her a sense of worth and conviction, and this was particularly true during the years when she was becoming aware of the different direc­tions her life might take. He taught her that all possibilities were open to her if she made up her mind that she could accomplish what she wanted.

Mildred has said that looking back she can see she made all her important decisions about life while she was quite young. The first, of course, was about writing — made when she was nine or ten. She was also determined to see the world; at six­ teen she decided she would join the Peace Corps upon gradua­tion from college. She wanted very much to be sent to Ethiopia, and from then until she was graduated from the University of Toledo, she devoured everything she could get her hands on about the Peace Corps and Ethiopia. Going to college wasn’t really a decision; it was just something “I always took for granted, for I needed those four years of study to achieve my other two goals.”

As it turned out, the Peace Corps did send Mildred to Ethiopia, where she taught English and history, and she recalls those years as the happiest in her adult life. She fell in love with Africa — the variety of the landscape, the sound of singing in the fields, the people who accepted and cared for her and she has always hoped to return. As the end of her stay in Ethiopia approached, Mildred had terrible nightmares about having to leave, only to awaken each morning filled with joy that she was still there.

When she returned to the United States, Mildred recruited for the Peace Corps and then taught in one of its training programs. The following year she enrolled in the School of Journalism at the University of Colorado. Black Studies programs were just getting underway and upon receiving her master’s degree, she worked in the Black Education Program as study skills coordi­nator.

Mildred had continued to write all along, but it wasn’t until after two years in the Black Education Program that she realized she needed to concentrate more on her writing. She wanted a change of scene as well, so she moved to Los Angeles and found an eight-to-five job that called for minimum effort during the day and left her evenings free for creativity. During the California period she found out how very lonely writing is. Mildred totally separated herself from people — she went to work, she returned home, she wrote — and found that she needed something else. As she puts it, “Writing alone made me too weak emotionally; I needed an outside social force, some­ thing in which I could also be creative but which would be people-oriented in a different way. It was then that I decided to return to school to receive a degree in international training.” Mildred is currently doing an internship at an international house, learning the complete operation of it so that she can set up such a house sometime in the future.

It was before Mildred returned to the east coast to begin her studies in international training that she came to our attention at Dial. She had entered the Council on Interracial Books for Children competition and won first prize in the African-Ameri­can category in 1973 for Song of the Trees. The winning manuscripts were sent to a number of publishers, and while Mildred was in New York for the awards ceremonies, she visited several who had expressed interest in her manuscript. Dial was one. We felt an immediate rapport with Mildred, a feeling that was evi­dently mutual. We were immensely impressed with her dignity and self-possession and with her seriousness and sense of re­sponsibility to herself as a writer. She not only was willing to make revisions, she welcomed any suggestions she felt would improve her book.

Her growth as a writer has been extraordinary and wonder­ fully exciting for us. Every small bit of editorial guidance offered was eagerly received and acted upon. When revisions on Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry were complete, all of us who read the manuscript were struck by the dramatic way in which Mildred’s talent had come to fruition. Her power as a writer was astonish­ing even to us. In retrospect one can see how the first book was the seed, the preparation for the second, but at the time we marveled at her growth. The ability to grow so remarkably attests once again to Mildred’s determination and discipline.

Which brings me back to Mildred Taylor, the person. Work­ing with Mildred over the past few years, Regina Hayes and I have learned to appreciate the great warmth and richness and humor of her nature. She is a person of strong convictions and loyalties — particularly to her unique and marvelous extended family.

Sitting at lunch a few months ago, Mildred held both of us totally spellbound as she described a Taylor family Christmas — the mouth-watering spreads of homemade pies and cakes, hams and turkeys each branch of the clan prepared; the visits throughout Christmas week to each household; the stories and anecdotes told around the fire; the hoghead souse — a special delicacy which her father had always prepared for the holidays. When she finished, we heaved great sighs of regret knowing we’d never experience such a holiday. So you can imagine our reaction when Mildred called recently to invite “the whole Dial family” to be guests of the Taylor family in Toledo following the ALA convention this summer. A chance to be part of that clan even for a day is an irresistible invitation!

From the August 1977 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

To commemorate Black History Month, we are highlighting a series of articles, speeches, and reviews from The Horn Book archive that are by and/or about African American authors, illustrators, and luminaries in the field — one a day through the month of February, with a roundup on Fridays. Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth17 and look for #HBBlackHistoryMonth17 on Facebook.com/TheHornBook and @HornBook. You can find more resources about social justice and activism at our Talking About Race and Making a Difference resource pages.

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Comments

  1. An astounding writer. I adore everything she has written. Her books were so much a part of my son’s early life that when a challenging situation would arise, and we needed a compass, we would say to each other, ” What would the Logan family do”?
    Some books make your life, well…just better. All of Mildred D. Taylor’s have.

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