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Five questions for Sharon G. Flake

Photo: Richard Kelly

Photo: Richard Kelly

Is Mr. Davenport a vampire, as Octobia May insists? The answer is not so cut-and-dried in Sharon G. Flake’s Unstoppable Octobia May, a historical-fiction-cum-mystery-novel with more than a dash of social commentary (Scholastic, 9–12 years). From the 1950s boarding house setting to the vivid characters — some plucky, some humorous, some downright sinister — the story is thoroughly, enthrallingly unique.

1. Were you a mystery reader as a kid?

SGF: Oh my goodness, no. When I was young, I was afraid of my own shadow. I preferred stories with few surprises, where nothing out of the ordinary happened. Since childhood, however, I’ve become more emboldened. I like to tour graveyards, for instance, something my protagonist Octobia May also enjoys. I imagine who the people buried there were, how they may have lived, and what might have caused their deaths. It’s a hobby that gives some people the creeps, I know.

2. Why did you decide to set the book in 1953?

SGF: I’ve always wanted to write a book set in the fifties. It was, I think, the best of times and, simultaneously, the worst of times for many African Americans. As a nation we were feeling optimistic about a lot of things, and our music, dances, modes of dress, and outlooks often reflected that. Blacks were no different from whites in that respect. Yet so much injustice still plagued the nation — much of it around race, gender, equity, and access to power.

I wanted to capture both the optimism of the times as well as the complex nature of race relations in our country — along with the promise, and challenge, America still held for both African Americans and women. A tall order, but one I believe I’ve accomplished.

flake_unstoppable octobia may3. What kind of historical research did you do?

SGF: I spent months at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh (where I live) poring through newspapers, the Courier especially. The black press played a critical role in dismantling Jim Crow; galvanizing the black vote; exposing the inequity of segregated schools; reporting on the valiant role black soldiers played during War World II; and pushing America to end segregation in the military. Because of the black press, America is a better nation — I never understood that more fully than I did while researching this book.

Next I came across an exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History (in Philadelphia) about Jewish professors who taught at historically black colleges during and after WWII. I created the character of Mrs. Loewenthal’s husband, who fled Germany and became a professor at Lincoln University. An expert in the field of Jewish studies helped ensure the accuracy of what I’d written — from Mrs. Loewenthal’s name, to what she ate, to her experiences in Germany.

Finally there was my family. My parents often recalled the fifties with both fondness and frustration. From what people wore, to the jobs African Americans could and couldn’t get, they remembered it all and shared eagerly. My mom has since passed, and the time I spent talking to her, my sister, and my dad about this era means even more to me.

4. Aunt Shuma is such a great character. Is she based on someone you know?

SGF: No, she isn’t. But as I was writing Unstoppable Octobia May, what became clear to me was how determined Aunt Shuma was to be her own woman, and to raise a girl with similar values. It’s the fifties, so women were expected to be polite, have children, obey their husbands, and take care of the home. Aunt Shuma makes it clear that this sort of life is not for her. When she tells her entrepreneurial dreams to women who hold more traditional values, she is met with opposition and dismay. Nonetheless, she is bent on changing the face of acceptable womanhood by enhancing the opportunities for her niece, Octobia May. It was a radical idea for many women in 1953.

5. Just how unstoppable is Octobia May? Will there more be books about her?

SGF: I am already hearing from readers who love Octobia and are very excited about reading more of her adventures. I have also come up with Aunt Shuma’s rules for raising unstoppable girls (of any age) and will share them with folks who message me at my website, sharongflake.com.

From the November 2014 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Kathleen T. Horning About Kathleen T. Horning

Kathleen T. Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books and teaches a popular online course for ALSC on the history of the Newbery and Caldecott medals.

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Comments

  1. Janie Mason says:

    Octobia May truly is an exciting young girl…quite bold! I loved her and her influence on the lives of the residents and her friends, Jonah and Bessie. Aunt Shuma is to be praised for her strength as well. Great book…I laughed. I stopped breathing at times. I questioned. I cried. This book is genius, and unlike Ms. Flake’s previous books. She is truly a gifted writer!
    I can’t wait to view Aunt Shuma’s complete rules for raising unstoppable girls.

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