Profile of 2020 Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement winner Mildred D. Taylor

From the time she was very young, Mildred Taylor knew she would be a writer, and she knew what her subject matter would be. She grew up listening to the family stories told by her father and uncles as they sat by the fire or on the porch of their Mississippi homestead during long summer evenings. I can picture her there — a quiet, serious girl, spellbound, intent on every word.

The stories became part of her; the Taylors were gifted storytellers, and Mildred loved the tales of this family, overcoming hardship with courage and dignity, so different from the way her schoolbooks portrayed Black Americans. She was determined to write books that would set the record straight and portray the strong Black community that she knew.

It would be a number of years before she became a published writer. It came about when she was living in California, working as a proofreader to give herself the freedom to spend nights and weekends writing. Many discouraging rejections followed, but a last-minute tip from a friend about a contest sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children changed her life.

After a frantic weekend spent rewriting, she rushed to the post office to meet the contest deadline.

Taylor submitted a story that featured an eight-year-old girl, Cassie Logan, who is determined to save the beloved trees on her family’s hard-won land. The story won the contest, and Mildred came to New York to accept her award and interview publishers interested in publishing the story. That was when I met her, a beautiful, self-possessed young woman who impressed all of us at Dial with her quiet self-confidence. To our delight, she chose us as her publisher. During the editorial process, her openness to revision and responsiveness to suggestions impressed me enormously. Her story became Song of the Trees, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, the first of what would become ten books about the Logan family.

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Mildred Delois Taylor was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1943. When she was three weeks old, her father was involved in a racial incident at his job, and he left Mississippi that night, heading north. He found work in Toledo, Ohio, and three months later Mildred, her older sister Wilma, and their mother joined him. Mildred grew up surrounded by family, as uncles, aunts, and cousins joined the Great Migration north. Until they established themselves, all were ­welcomed into Mildred’s parents’ home. It was a lively household with relatives and friends coming and going, holidays celebrated with gusto and mouth-­watering feasts, including her father’s famous hogshead souse. Mildred says that her sister Wilma was the outgoing, beautiful prom queen, while she herself was the reticent observer.

Mildred attended Toledo schools and graduated from the University of Toledo, but her Mississippi roots remained strong; the family returned there every summer and at other times throughout the year to gather at the family home on the land where her father grew up.

During her college years, Mildred became intrigued by the Peace Corps’ mission. After she applied and was accepted, she was given her first choice of assignment: Ethiopia. As the sole Black American in the group, she was a source of fascination to the Ethiopian community, and they welcomed her warmly and extended protective arms. Ethiopia was beautiful, and Mildred hated to leave when her two-year stint ended. Upon her return to the United States, she recruited for the Peace Corps before enrolling in the journalism program at the University of Colorado, where she earned a master’s degree and subsequently was involved in the Black Studies program for two years. Despite many tempting job offers, her desire to write won out.

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When the manuscript for Mildred Taylor’s second book arrived at Dial, it was evident that her talent had come to fruition. The manuscript was a rich, compelling novel, with fully realized, unforgettable characters. I remember thinking, “Can this be as good as I think it is?” Well, it was! Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry went on to win the 1977 Newbery Medal. The Taylor family turned out in force; thirty family members attended the Newbery-Caldecott banquet at which Mildred accepted her award, wearing a stunning white dress she had designed herself. Sadly, her father had passed away before the book was published, but he had the satisfaction of knowing it was happening.

Let the Circle Be Unbroken followed Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, winning the first of the four Coretta Scott King Book Awards Ms. Taylor would receive. During this period, she spent a year in Providence, Rhode Island, working at an international house. She subsequently returned to Colorado, where she acquired the magnificent property outside Boulder that she refers to as “the family ranch.” She built a house there, a log cabin (with all mod cons) surrounded by soaring views of mountains. There she raised her daughter, struggling as all mothers do to balance the demands of motherhood and work.

The Road to Memphis, Ms. Taylor’s third full-length novel, takes the Logans to the beginning of World War II, during which two of the Logan brothers are reluctant recruits to fight a white man’s war. She then went back in time for her fourth novel, The Land, which tells how the Mississippi land was acquired by their great-grandfather, a skilled cabinetmaker who was formerly enslaved. She also wrote four more short books: The Well, The Friendship, Mississippi Bridge, and The Gold Cadillac.

Many honors followed. In addition to the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Book Award, she has been a National Book Award finalist and received the Christopher Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award. A particularly meaningful honor was the proclamation in 2004 by Governor Haley Barbour of Mildred D. Taylor Day in Mississippi, the scene of so many painful racial episodes for the family.

Eventually, Mildred embarked on her most challenging book, the fifth and, she says, final book in the Logan saga, All the Days Past, All the Days to Come. She and I were reunited for this title, and I can attest to her struggle to capture the tumultuous times, the passions and sacrifices, and the determination that fueled the twentieth-century civil rights movement. These defining moments — which include the Great Migration, the racism of postwar America, and rise of the movement with the sit-ins, the demonstrations, the Freedom Rides, the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr., the voter registration drive with its violent repercussions — are deeply personal and were painful for her to revisit. Many times she wanted to abandon the book, but her sense of obligation to tell the family story drove her on.

It would be a mistake to view the Logan saga as strictly ­autobiographical, yet all the stories are based on true events, and Mildred has said that although Cassie Logan in previous books is based on her sister and her aunt as well as herself, in this final book the thoughts and feelings are entirely her own.

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Over the years, our relationship has evolved. When we met, we were young women at the start of our careers, before such life experiences as motherhood and loss of parents. Now, close to fifty years later, we are the older generation. As her editor, I have coaxed and scolded and encouraged and bullied. Now, with the final book behind us, I believe we have reached the next stage: we are friends.

Mildred Taylor says it is bittersweet to reach the conclusion of the saga, but there is also a sense of relief at having accomplished what she set out to do, to tell the story of a proud, loving family who prevailed with courage and dignity against enormous odds. Receiving the Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement provides a gratifying capstone to her career.

Despite being very private, Mildred Taylor is a delightful, warm person with a wonderful sense of humor and a musical, ready laugh. While her parents and sister have passed away, she is in constant touch with many cousins. She loves occasions when she is surrounded by family. How proud that family must be that the quiet listener and observer, the witness, has become the chronicler of the family’s extraordinary history! 

Mildred D. Taylor is the winner of the Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement; Regina Hayes is her longtime editor. Ms. Hayes was the publisher of Viking Children’s Books for thirty years. For the last seven years, she has been editor-at-large for Viking. From the July/August 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2020.

Single copies of this special issue are available for $15.00 including postage and may be ordered from:

Kristy South
Administrative Coordinator, The Horn Book
Phone 888-282-5852 | Fax 614-733-7269

Regina Hayes

Regina Hayes was the publisher of Viking Children’s Books for thirty years. For the last seven years, she has been editor-at-large for Viking.

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