Lift Every Voice: History Comes Alive

It was an adult book — The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley — that inspired me to try my hand at writing historical fiction for children. I’ll never forget the author’s harrowing description of one of the characters fleeing a pack of slave hunters.

I have always been a history buff, especially African American history, which is really American history. After reading Bradley’s novel, I decided to attempt to make a piece of history come alive for youngsters who weren’t necessarily interested in reading about the past. I began with only two ideas in my mind—to create as riveting an escape scene as Bradley’s; and for my main character, an enslaved teenager, to have freed himself by the end.

While the Bradley book provided inspiration, it was the quality of the previous Coretta Scott King awardees that helped me create fully drawn characters and an interesting plot while enlightening and entertaining young readers. I read Julius Lester, Walter Dean Myers, Mildred D. Taylor, Sharon Bell Mathis, Alice Childress, Virginia Hamilton, and many more.

I was still very unsure of myself, even after all my research and studying. I felt that I had a long way to go before even being considered for a Coretta Scott King Book Award. I just hoped that readers would be able to relate to my main character, Obi, and recognize him as the proud young man he became, despite the degradation of his enslavement.

My book Which Way Freedom? was published in 1986, and in 1987 l received a letter from Henrietta Smith, written in her graceful, lovely script, informing me that I was an honor award recipient for this book that I had been so unsure of. I read her letter several times to make sure there hadn’t been some mistake.

I’ll never forget how deeply grateful I was to be included among so many writers I admired, and to have written a story that reflected the purpose and standards of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards.

And I still have Henrietta’s letter, thirty-two years later.

From the May/June 2019 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: CSK Book Awards at 50. Find more information about ordering copies of the special issue.

j_hansen
Joyce Hansen
Joyce Hansen won a 1987 CSK Author Honor for Which Way Freedom (Walker) and three subsequent honors. Her most recent book is 2010's Home Is with Our Family (Jump at the Sun/Disney).

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