Publishers' Preview: Spring 2021: Five Questions for Carole Boston Weatherford

This interview originally appeared in the March/April 2021 Horn Book Magazine as part of the Publishers’ Previews: Spring 2021, an advertising supplement that allows participating publishers a chance to each highlight a book from its current list. They choose the books; we ask the questions.

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Unspeakable indeed was the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, but poet Carole Boston Weatherford joins forces with illustrator Floyd Cooper to bring the horror home.

1. What particular challenges does a picture book format present in conveying ­painful history?

I had two tasks: making the massacre age-appropriate and doing justice to its victims. I took a forensic approach, first conjuring Black Wall Street, a testament to African American advancement. Then I documented the massacre itself, relying on Floyd Cooper’s illustrations to carry some of the weight. I simply told the truth. If African American children in 1921 could be victims of the massacre, then today’s children can hear their story.

2. What kind of thinking goes into choosing line breaks?

My breaks regulate phrasing and impact, based on which words I want to emphasize and the relative strength of positions in a line — the strongest being at the end. I place words — often nouns or verbs — that I want to stress at the beginning or end of the line.

3. What do you like most about working with Floyd Cooper?

I approached Floyd about Unspeakable when I was writing the first draft. I knew he was a Tulsa native and would bring passion to the illustrations. I love his cinematic style and sepia-toned palettes and am in awe of his subtractive technique. From the sweeping scenes to the expressive eyes, this may well be Floyd Cooper’s masterpiece.

4. Which poets made you a poet?

Langston Hughes, specifically “I, Too.” Countee Cullen’s “Incident” had a profound, lasting impact. In high school, I discovered Pablo Neruda and Nikki Giovanni. And Ntozake Shange showed me that poetry was meant to be performed.

5. How well do you think the Tulsa Massacre is remembered in Tulsa today?

I’m sure Tulsans know more about it than most other Americans. The Greenwood Cultural Center and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission are preserving the history of Black Wall Street and raising awareness of the massacre. I hope more people will learn about it by reading Unspeakable.

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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