Sharon Robinson Talks with Roger

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After several books for young readers about her father, the barrier-busting baseball player Jackie Robinson, Sharon Robinson has now written a memoir of her own thirteenth year. 1963 would be a year of change for Sharon, not just the kinds that confront every new teenager, but those taking place on the larger stage of our country and the Civil Rights Movement. She was there.

Roger Sutton: Let's go back to when you were thirteen, in 1963. Quite a year, huh? Turning thirteen is something anyway.

Sharon Robinson: Yes, it's a big deal, entering the teenage years.

RS: You said you'd already started puberty before age thirteen, but still that marker of being thirteen is a big one.

SR: You try to go along with your peers, and when you're a little advanced, it's quite embarrassing.

RS: When I read about your horse and your soda shop in the basement I thought, "Wow, that must have been a pretty nice life!" Were you aware of how nice your life was at the time or was it just your life?

SR: I traveled in many worlds, so I realized our world was unique. At thirteen, that uniqueness wasn't what I wanted. As a young child I thought it was amazing to have that kind of freedom, a freedom to explore nature the way we did. To be able to just get on my horse and go for a ride and not have to worry. My brother had that same kind of freedom with the woods next door—that was his spot, away from the house.


RS: Michelle Martin just wrote a piece for us about how rarely Black kids are shown out in nature in children's books. But you lived that way.

SR: I did, and I'm really thankful for it. You're right, that is unique. My friends who were Black and who lived downtown were less into nature. But they were certainly more adept in urban life and socialization. They were more advanced than I was on that level, but they wouldn't have thought about nature the way I did.

RS: How did you move between those two worlds? If you think of it as two worlds—maybe you don't.

SR: It started when I was very young, because one of our primary caregivers lived in Harlem, and she would bring me into the city, to her apartment in Harlem. I felt comfortable in that world. And my dad would bring me back and forth to New York, so I felt comfortable with him in that world. I was used to floating between worlds—we kind of bridged them. Because we had space at home, people loved to come to my house for parties. That brought people into our world socially, our Black friends. I was also able to bridge worlds because I was an athlete, so I could be on the basketball team, softball team, do track and field.

RS: Our advertising manager was teasing me, saying, "You know who Sharon Robinson is, right?" I said, "Of course." He said, "Well, what do you know about baseball?" I said, "Nothing."

SR: Oh, is that right?

RS: I don't know anything about sports. But you had your own sports. In the book, you complained about having to play half-court basketball.

SR: There was that restriction on us as girls. But for me it was probably a benefit, because I wouldn't wear my glasses. I would've been in trouble if we were playing full-court. I also had that trouble playing baseball.

RS: You said you could see people but not faces without your glasses.

SR: Right. I could see figures, but I didn't have that clarity. I couldn't see the board in school unless I wore my glasses. I really was quite nearsighted and should have been wearing them all the time.

RS: I still remember in first grade when I got glasses—before starting school you don't really know you need glasses because you don't have to read anything too far away. You think it's just the way the world is.

SR: My mother and I talk about it—she was disappointed that I had to wear glasses, so that made me even more self-conscious about it.

RS: But you know—I think I would like your mother.

SR: You would love my mom. I love my mom. We are managing this aging thing because we are basically friends. That came about in my adult years, and I'm very grateful it did. The aging process is so hard. She needs a friend, and I need to think of her as my friend as well as my mother. It's very different than when we were younger.

RS: I became really impressed with her when, in your book, you're upset about having to go to an eighth-grade dance where you and your friend will be the only two Black girls. You're uncomfortable, you're self-conscious, and your mother says something like, "Sure, I understand, but you're making it sound as if they're doing this whole thing just to upset you, and they're not." You had to admit she was right, but you didn't want to tell her that.

SR: She's a straight shooter, always. She does not take excuses. I do appreciate that. In terms of my parents' parenting style—it was my mother who pushed me and had very high expectations, and my dad who loved me unconditionally. A child is lucky if they have that combination.

RS: Did you ever try that trick of asking Dad when Mom said no?

SR: Of course. The thing with my mom and dad—my dad didn't handle our social lives, so we always asked our mother for everything. Then she would get frustrated and say, "Ask your father." That's why the idea of him testing the ice before we were allowed to go skating was such a big deal, because that pushed him into having to handle the child domestic situation, which my mom usually would have done. I tell that story in my picture book Testing the Ice.

RS: You've written about your dad in a couple of books, but what was it like putting yourself at the center of this story?

SR: It took me a while to be comfortable with that, but I ended up enjoying it. To be able to study your own life at such a turning point—luckily, there's a lot documented, so I didn't have to search too far. I was really fascinated by everything that happened in that short period of time, both in terms of the Civil Rights Movement and my own family. I've often talked about the March on Washington, sort of nonchalantly: "Yeah, we went as a family." I hadn't really studied it or thought deeply about what it meant to be a part of that. In writing this book I had to get serious and think: What was it like? How did you feel when you fainted at the March on Washington? How did it feel, being afraid for my dad going down South and wanting to go there myself? It was a foreign world to me—I had fears from what I heard on the news, but I hadn't experienced it.

RS: And in the book we have the background of you going to the March. We know who that girl is—it wasn't just anybody going to the March. It was one particular thirteen-year-old girl.

SR: I'm hoping that will help bring history alive for children today. For me, history came alive at our dining-room table. I did not enjoy history in the classroom. Memorization, facts, and dates—I could care less. But putting it in context with real life was what made it fascinating to me. And it was contemporary history—the Civil Rights Movement, segregation, it was so different from what my brothers and I were going through, yet my parents always said, "You are also breaking down barriers. You also are desegregating." I didn't think of it that way, because what others were doing was so huge, and what we were doing seemed minor by comparison.

RS: Right, because of your father's position and your relative affluence, you were shielded from a lot of what was happening to other African Americans.

SR: And shielded by geography as well, living in Stamford [CT], with a little bit of New York.

RS: You're still friends with Candy, right? Your friend in this book?

SR: Oh, absolutely. Candy and her sister Kimberly. And Twanda, another friend from that period who I'm still friends with.

RS: She was the older girl, in the Jack and Jill club?

SR: Yes. We lost Natalie, whose mother was so important to us—she was the leader of our Jack and Jill group. She was the one who really wanted us to understand the Civil Rights Movement as it was unfolding, as well as my parents at home.

RS: Did you have a sense of living through history when you went to the March?

SR: I had a sense that we were part of it, but it wasn't until a year later, after Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson got the Civil Rights Act passed, that I saw how the March was part of the process to get there. In the moment, it was just what was happening. It didn't feel like those battles from history that we read about in school—even though it absolutely was a battle. I didn't know then that it would be covered in history books—though it's still not covered properly in history books.

RS: Well, this book could help.

SR: I hope so, I really do. I grew to love history, and I love historical fiction. When I'm learning about the background of a character I already love, I learn it better. That's what I'm hoping will happen with this book, that kids will not only understand the past better, but maybe be able to understand protests that are going on today. People speaking up and having the right to speak up; realizing it's wrong to separate people, through illegal acts of segregation or segregation we have today. We still have racial segregation. We have economic segregation. We have cultural segregation. The world that I'm describing in 1963 is different from the world now, and yet it's not. I want kids to realize that we still have to fight against segregation, even self-segregation, and try to realize that getting to know people who are different from us and sharing in other cultural experiences enhances us, it doesn't make us less American. Makes us more American.

RS: Are you hopeful for race relations?

SR: I find it very hard to feel really hopeful, though I generally am a positive person, and I feel hope always. Today I am hopeful that people will be so frustrated they will get out to vote. That's where my hope comes from. But I'm also fearful of the general turn of the world. The general conservatism and the losses we're facing as a result of that.

RS: I know. It seems like we've lost so much ground in just a couple of years.

SR: We've lost so much ground. I realize history is cyclical, and my hope comes in that this, too, shall pass. But we have to fight back. So, I have hope when I see the Parkland students organizing a march on Washington—part of their inspiration came from the 1963 Children's March in Birmingham, Alabama. Or I see that strong Women's March just after the election of Donald Trump. I know that we will fight back. We are fighting back. That's where my hope comes from.

RS: What part of thirteen-year-old Sharon do you think lives most strongly in you now?

SR: That same quest for freedom, and a determination to have a strong voice, and to teach kids to have a strong voice. I see it when I talk to kids—if they ask me about protest, the purpose of it, should they be out protesting, I remind them that their purpose now is to get educated. We talk about ways to lift our voices, and part of that is building self-esteem and confidence. I lost my voice as an older teenager and had to find it again, and that's why I work so hard with teens now. When I was a nurse-midwife my primary work was with pregnant teens, helping them see that this is a part of their path now, but it cannot stop them. They have to continue to go to school. They have to be able to provide for their child, and they have to know where to go to get help and support in that process. Moving from that into working as educational consultant with Major League Baseball and Scholastic—I give kids that same message, helping them understand that obstacles and barriers are a part of life. You've run into this struggle and described the process of coming out of it—now when you run into another struggle in life, I want you to think back and know you'll be able to get beyond this one as well. That comes from the little girl who was determined to ride bareback, to challenge her older brother when he was acting out. It was so painful to my parents, yet I was empathetic to my brother's struggles. I just wanted him to get it together! I feel that same urgency now, with kids. They have so many challenges in their lives, but I don't want them to feel like they can't get beyond them. I want them to know we listen to them and we care about them. I'm getting ready to head back out on tour—the tour up to this point has been more adult-based, but now I'm going back into the schools, and I just love having conversations with kids, whether it's about the process of writing and why writing is important, or the importance of finding your voice and being able to advocate for yourself in school, in life, at home.

RS: You've certainly, with your book, shown them someone who did face obstacles, little and big, and got through them.

SR: I'll tell you, Roger, that was one of the fun parts about writing this book, that way of looking at myself. You have vague memories of the growing-up process and getting to the point where you could speak up. I found my diary and a certificate from eighth-grade social studies for the work I did with the Civil Rights Movement—it was very reassuring to me. It was reassuring that I was able to do those things at thirteen, because it showed me a strength that has been vital to me all of my life. Because I was strong, I was often asked to handle things that were very adult. Losing my brother in a car accident and having to go with my dad to tell my mom. Or going to get my brother out of jail and get him some help. Marrying early. All of that strength started developing earlier in my life and it carried me through my adolescence. It was a difficult adolescence, but it showed me how strong I was. In writing this book and thinking about thirteen-year-old Sharon, I can see where I learned that strength from the struggles of others and from a family who taught us that struggle was part of life. We've got to stay in the battle, stay in the struggle. When it hit me personally, I was able to do it.

RS: What would you say writing about yourself taught you about yourself?

SR: It taught me that I like myself. I like the thirteen-year-old Sharon.

RS: Probably more than thirteen-year-old Sharon liked herself.

SR: Probably more. My grandmother was able to reach me in my early teen years. She was one of the real directors in my life at thirteen. She kept me focused on what my path was—even when I was starting to veer off it, she was able to bring me right back. That was really important, because when you hit bumps as a teenager, you can't always go to your parents.

RS: Right.

SR: Once in a while you don't want them to know what you're doing. You don't want them to know what you're struggling with. But to have my grandmother to could confide in—I remember being really upset with her because I thought we were totally confidential and then she told my mother I was using her phone to call a boy in New York.

RS: Oh!

SR: "How come you told her, Grandma? I told you I would pay you back!"

RS: Are you that now, for a young person?

SR: Oh my God, all the time. Just yesterday a young man sent me a text—a picture of him teaching his fourth grade class. I met him when he was ten years old, doing a workshop on writing with kids in Harlem. He and I bonded that day, and I became a mentor of his, right down to the time his baseball program called to tell me that he was angry and acting up. He had been attacked by a gang of boys who had taken his coat. His friends had all run away and left him, so he was now acting out this anger. I picked him up, and we went out to lunch and talked it out. I bought him a new coat—but not an expensive coat that might get him attacked! He stayed in touch with me all these years; he's now in his late twenties. I'm lucky because of the program I do with baseball—I've done it for twenty-five years. I hear from kids all the time, to let me know how they're doing, to ask me questions, ask for help. One of our Breaking Barriers winners went on to become a Jackie Robinson scholar—he just graduated. Another winner, from a number of years back, met up with me at the National Book Festival. It's amazing—and easier with other people's kids than it is with your own.

RS: Amen.

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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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