Five questions for Lesa Cline-Ransome and Andrea Davis Pinkney

The new chapter book series She Persisted (Philomel, 6-9 years) is spun off from the picture books of the same name written by Chelsea Clinton and illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. Each entry explores the life of a strong and courageous woman who has helped change the world, with the first two focusing on Harriet Tubman, by Andrea Davis Pinkney, and Claudette Colvin, by Lesa Cline-Ransome, both illustrated by Gillian Flint. While picture-book biographies of diverse, wondrous women are, happily, in current abundance (click the tag Women’s History Month and follow #HBWomensHistoryMonth on Twitter and Facebook), the She Persisted chapter books help fill a niche for slightly older readers.

1. You’re both known for writing about persistent women — how was this experience unique?

Lesa Cline-Ransome: Typically when I am writing a biography, I am looking at subjects whose lives have extended decades, but Claudette was only fifteen when she made a decision that would send ripples across the world and set off a movement. The power of her story is that even at her young age, she had already developed a keen awareness of the racial inequities, discrimination, and injustice that plagued her community and found the courage to do something about it.

Andrea Davis Pinkney: There are many wonderful books for young readers about Harriet Tubman, including Lesa’s picture book Before She Was Harriet. I’ve also written about her in my book Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters. The She Persisted early reader format presents a wonderful opportunity to expand the canvas on Harriet Tubman’s life and times. When Harriet was the same age as the readers of this book, she ran away from her mistress, hiding in a pigpen for almost a week before she returned. A few years later, she took a vicious blow to the head while attempting to block a lead brick that an evil overseer hurled at an enslaved neighbor. Her bravery shows young readers that even a kid can stand up in the face of cruelty and injustice.

2. Andrea, with so much lore about Harriet Tubman, how did you approach bringing the details of her life — and what isn’t known about her — to light for this particular audience?

ADP: When I was in fourth grade, I played Harriet Tubman in my school history assembly. Even then, it was important to me to present the sensory details that brought the ugly ways of slavery into focus for my classmates. In writing this book, I sought to reveal some of the gut-wrenching moments of Harriet’s childhood, and later, her failed marriage to a man who belittled her. It’s my hope that kids will be emboldened to say, “Like Harriet Tubman, I will not put up with cruelty and people who try to crush my spirit!”

3. Lesa, it’s almost the opposite question for you — how do you distill the life of such a vital (and still living!) but overlooked civil rights figure into chapter-book form?

LCR: Claudette Colvin is not a well-known name in civil rights history, which is precisely why her story is so important. Hers is just one of the countless stories that help to fill in the missing pieces of history. Even though some people felt that a teenager should not be the face of the Montgomery bus boycott, Claudette did not let that silence her, and it was her compelling testimony in the landmark Browder v. Gayle case that ultimately led to the desegregation of public buses in Montgomery, Alabama. The challenge in telling her story was in capturing both her vulnerability and growing maturity, which is the essence of teenage years. Claudette was shy and insecure. By highlighting her tentative steps toward activism, my goal was to remind young readers that courage is not the absence of fear, but finding a way to confront what makes you most afraid.

4. The meaning and implication of “persisting” can change with the times. Lesa, what did you learn about Claudette Colvin’s persistence in the 1950s that you didn’t already know, and how can young people apply it today?

LCR: Throughout history, Black women have been at the forefront of every major social and political movement in this country. In my research I discovered that Claudette drew strength from historical figures such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman when she made her bold choice to take a stand against injustice. There is true power in knowing who came before you and understanding how the past intersects with the present and the future.

5. Andrea, similar question — Harriet Tubman’s persistence is well known in American history; how can young people best honor her courageous, and incredibly dangerous, work?

ADP: The Kamala Harrises and Amanda Gormans of tomorrow are reading the She Persisted books today and asking, “What can I do to make a change in this world?” At the back of each entry is a section called “How You Can Persist.” I invite readers to craft a legacy quilt made with “patches” created from family photos. Or to host a “Harriet Happening,” to celebrate the achievements of Harriet Tubman—and countless other sheroes who are part of the “Persisterhood.” When I visit schools, I remind students that Harriet Tubman relied on the North Star. By simply reading about Harriet and other notable women, we keep their stories alive. Books are a North Star for all of us. They offer direction and let us reach for a glistening future.

From the March 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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