Five questions for Alice Faye Duncan

Alice Faye Duncan’s picture book Just like a Mama (Millner/Simon, 3–7 years), illustrated by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow, explores the special bond between a young girl and her “right now” caretaker Mama Rose, who is “just like a mama to me.” The story was inspired by Duncan’s own family and is intended to “celebrate fictive kin, adoptive parents, and guardians who have chosen to love and care for a child.” March is Women’s History Month, an especially good time to express appreciation for women and female-identifying people in our lives; follow #HBWomensHistoryMonth for more.

1. This is a sweet story about the everyday lives of a young girl and her caregiver — but its subtext adds layers. How did you decide to tell Carol Olivia Clementine’s story as a picture book, and how has it been received?

Alice Faye Duncan: In my first year teaching, I taught a fourth-grade class with forty students. There was a child in my class who did not live with her mother. The child’s grandmother would send her to school dressed in silk ribbons and starched cotton. While she was without her biological mother, love attended my student. How could I celebrate the saving grace that held her up? I composed a picture book and poem. This lyrical book proved to be the most effective means of expression.

The response to Just like a Mama has been delightful. Parents and teachers report that children want to return again and again to Mama Rose and the reprimand — where Carol Olivia is not permitted dessert until she eats her veggies. As for the subtext, with various social maladies on the rise in society, teachers say Just like a Mama affirms for students who enter families that they are chosen, cherished, and loved. The book also inspires empathy in the hearts of children who do not share this life experience.

2. The book portrays Mama Rose as both nurturing and tough with high expectations. Was this a difficult balance?

AFD: It was a necessary choice because life is a balance. Carol Olivia must make her bed and clean her room. Like most kids, she groans and loathes the idea of chores. However, when the dreaded tasks are done, the expressive affirmation from Mama Rose is the thing that spirits the girl onward with joy. Mama Rose and the booming affirmation bolster the reader, too. I hope the message is clear that great expectations are markers of true love.

3. Are there people in your life who are “just like a mama,” and/or do you fill that role for others?

AFD: At the end of my course, if my life amounts to anything, it will be because a devoted mother nurtured me. A family of aunts and a community of teachers wrapped their maternal arms around my life to affirm me. I regret that I did not adequately thank many of my teachers when I had the chance. Just like a Mama stands as a tribute to them. I also use my life as a tribute. The wisdom that I have been given is the wisdom that I offer to my students.

4. How does your writing process differ between picture-book biographies (Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop; A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks) and this story, which recalls your family’s experience but is fictional?

AFD: Research. Stories like Honey Baby Sugar Child and Just like a Mama only require memory and feeling. History books like Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop require memory, feeling, and repeated visits to libraries and museums. Whatever the genre or topic, a well-written picture book can require several years of a writer’s life. I wrote the first draft for Just like a Mama in 1993. Can you glean the great lesson? Dreamers don’t quit. 

5. It feels intentional that on the “Mama Rose is my home” page near the story’s end, the two are sharing a book. Does that resonate with your own feelings?

AFD: The arrangement of pictures in Just like a Mama is the genius of the illustrator — Charnelle Pinkney Barlow. However, my mother did read to me. She was often tired from teaching school and she might fall asleep in the middle of a sentence. This experience moved me to master words for myself in Ms. Johnson’s first-grade class. Today my mother is eighty-three years old. She calls me every morning to read a passage from one of her favorite devotionals. Sometimes I remind Mama of those bedtime stories when her weariness failed me. When I was four I used to cry — but we laugh about it now.

From the March 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Dr. Michelle H. Martin
Michelle H. Martin
Dr. Michelle H. Martin is the Beverly Cleary Professor for Children & Youth Services in the Information School at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Horn Book
Horn Book

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