Vaunda Micheaux Nelson Talks with Roger

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Writer and librarian Vaunda Micheaux Nelson has made something of a specialty of bringing hitherto under-recognized African American heroes into prominence, witness her 2009 picture book, Bad News for Outlaws, about Bass Reeves, and her 2012 Boston Globe–Horn Book winner, No Crystal Stair, about the pioneering Harlem bookseller (and the author’s great-uncle) Lewis Michaux. In Small Shoes, Great Strides: How Three Brave Girls Opened Doors to School Equality, Nelson and illustrator Alex Bostic celebrate three very young heroes — first graders — in the fight to desegregate a New Orleans public school in 1960. 

Roger Sutton: What was your own initial first-grade experience like?

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson: Well, we grew up in a rural area and our school was small — it was just one class per grade. First through eighth grade; we didn’t have a kindergarten. As far as I know, we were the first black family to go there. I’m the youngest of five, so I believe my oldest brother was the first black child to enter that school. That would have been in the early 1950s. By the time I got there, I didn’t have a lot of major problems, but there was name calling. In first grade I got into a couple of actual fights; got in trouble at school and got spanked at home. But for the most part, I really loved school and I had friends there. I went to a black church, so I had these two worlds, which, I think, helped me learn to be comfortable with all kinds of people.

Photo credit: Drew Nelson

RS: Where was this?

VMN: A little town south of Pittsburgh — Elizabeth, Pennsylvania. By the time I got to seventh or eighth grade, the school system was bigger, but when I started it was just a really tiny little school. There were more black students in middle school and high school, but still very few — fewer than ten kids in the whole school. My experience was basically good, though there were some little things that reminded me that I was the only black child in the class. Like when you’re sitting in class and they’re talking about slavery, everybody looks at you, that sort of thing. I think I did okay because of my family. I had this safe space at home.

RS: And you had that black community at church. 

VMN: Yes, I had church and my family — I had a very big extended family. My parents taught us how to let it roll off in a lot of ways: “Yes, it can be hurtful, it can be bitter, you’re going through difficult times. But you are a strong person, and you can handle this. The people that give you trouble are probably not people that care a lot about you, and you don’t really need that in your life.” I asked my mother, “How do you deal with these people who are mean to you?” She always said, “You be as nice as you know how to be.” And that can be hard, but I tell you, when I tried that, most of the time it worked. Just to be nice when someone’s being really mean to you, they don’t know how to respond to that.

RS: So how did you find out about these girls in your book?

VMN: One of the many gifts I received from writing Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal, was developing a close relationship with the U.S. Marshals service people. Jim Dunn, who is on the board of the U.S. Marshals Museum, sent me an email in early 2018 saying that he might have a story I’d be interested in. He knows how much I love black history and that I like to tell stories that have not been told much. He told me about the McDonogh Three: Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost Williams, and Gail Etienne, who were the first three black children to attend McDonogh No. 19 Public School in New Orleans. Jim had met them in New Orleans in 2010 at a civil rights event marking the fiftieth anniversary of the day the girls integrated the school. I did a little research, and then he introduced me to the three women through email. I ended up going to New Orleans to interview Leona, and then we all attended an event in Fort Smith, Arkansas, related to the Marshals Museum, where I had a chance to interview all three. I am so grateful to Jim Dunn — he basically gave me this story. And of course the women themselves were gracious and generous.

RS: One of the really wonderful things I have seen in biographies for children in this century is that so often authors spotlight subjects not many people have heard of. It’s not like you’re writing another biography of Albert Einstein for kids. You’re starting from the children’s book on up, paying attention to people who need more attention paid.

VMN: I certainly love reading a new book about someone whom I admire, to see what new information I can get and to see an author’s take on it, but you’re right. When I discovered Bass Reeves, for instance, I was blown away with his story. I thought, Why don’t I know about him? Why doesn’t everyone know about him? It was like I was compelled to tell the world. And then the same thing happened to me with Let ’Er Buck!, about bronco buster George Fletcher. I thought his story would matter to more than just his hometown of Pendleton, Oregon. And my great-uncle's story needed to be told in No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller. It wasn’t just family history; this was a story for the world. When I found out about these three women and the fact that they had integrated their school on the same day as Ruby Bridges — in fact ten minutes before her — I thought, I need to set the record straight. They were first! I was compelled again to tell this story. Especially when I learned that they were the only children in that entire school for a year and a half.

RS: To shy-of-other-children me that sounds like heaven, I’ve got to say!

VMN: Despite the turmoil outside, they said they felt they got a great education; they had a loving teacher. It didn’t get bad until they went to third grade at T. J. Semmes Elementary. And then it was really, really bad. I was amazed by this story. This is the kind of project I love. That’s usually what starts things; I find out about something that interests me because I am curious, I love a story about a person who overcomes things and grows and gives people new ways of thinking and seeing the world. And then I want other people to know about that person. That’s how it worked for Bass, George, Lewis — and now Leona, Tessie, and Gail. 

RS: The librarian in you kicks in again.

VMN: Research is wonderful and it’s horrible. I love finding out this stuff, but it is so frustrating when I hit a wall. When I start writing, first I do all this research, I saturate myself with the information. And then I sit down to write. Writing that first draft is when I realize how much I don’t know. That’s when I have to go back to the research world — put that research hat back on and go out searching for those answers. Often that’s when it becomes frustrating for me because I have lots of questions that I can’t find the answers to.

RS: I noticed this in writing book reviews: I would read the book, obviously, and would think about it, but when I sat down to write the review, I would find that my opinion was not what I thought it was going to be. Writing itself generates more questions.

VMN: It does, and actually it’s interesting you say that because that’s how I feel about being on book award committees. I often enter with a particular opinion and ideas about a book, but once we start talking about it, I begin to have different questions and realize that what I first thought has changed.

RS: I love that about writing. You start out knowing what you’re going to say, and what you write changes what you have to say.

VMN: Me too. It does change what you have to say, and it changes what you think. That’s why I need it. Even if I wasn’t publishing, I need to write. Because it helps me to understand things. Helps me to understand what I think and what I know and what I don’t know. I remember when I was a teenager and I was really mad at my mom, I went to my room and wrote her a letter. I told her, “I’m the youngest; I’m probably a mistake, and you never wanted me as much as the other kids.” I wrote all this stuff, but as I was writing I would get to: “But I know that you only do this because you care about me.” I changed my view. And by the time it was over, I was saying, “So I’m sorry, and I know it was my fault.” I was not mad at her anymore — I accepted the fact that I did something that wasn’t right. Then I’d tear up the letter and throw it away. I needed to do that to get to a place of understanding. For me a book is like that. I start off somewhere and by the end of it, I’m changed. I love that experience, that journey of getting from here to there. I’m thrilled when the end product comes out, but sometimes I’m sad when it’s over. There’s this feeling of loss because I’ve been going to that place for so long. My writing is my escape. It’s a place I can go to get away from all the craziness of the world around me. It’s a world I can control. But when it’s over I need a new journey because I feel a little lost at that point.

RS: When do you think you’re done with a book? Is it when you’ve sent the manuscript off to your editor or when the book is published?

VMN: When the book is published. I want to hear what my editor says because there may be things I've missed. One of the things I love is when an editor asks me a lot of questions. Questions I thought I’d answered on the page but hadn’t. So I have to say that I’m really grateful for that time period between acceptance and publication because I want to make the book the best that I can. I’m learning, the manuscript is growing. There’s a lot of laughter and tears. At that final back-and-forth I’m usually still clinging a bit. I’ve had an editor say, “Vaunda it’s time. Let it go. It’s done. It’s wonderful. Let it go.” It is hard sometimes, because I’m letting go of this journey. I’ve got to move on; those characters don’t need me anymore. But I still need them on some level, and so I need to find a new character.

RS: What do you think Alex Bostic’s pictures bring to the story you tell?

VMN: Alex’s illustrations deepen the reader’s understanding of Leona, Tessie, and Gail; their bond with their teacher, Miss Meyers and the U.S. Marshals; and their bond with one another.

I would like to see editors and art directors get more credit for the huge parts they play in shaping our books. I’m grateful for their work and guidance. One example in this book is the opening spread; “Covered Windows” is a result of a conversation with my editor, Carol Hinz. And I love what art director Danielle Carnito did with the design in Small Shoes — the color and texture choices, the end papers and all — and how she and Alex handled the protest scenes and made use of the shoes theme.

RS: Do you worry about your books in this era against so-called critical race theory?

VMN: Well, I don’t really worry. I just tell my stories and put them out there. The way I feel, the people that appreciate them will and if people don’t then they don’t.

RS: Right, but we now have legislators not even giving children a chance to like or not like them as they would.

VMN: Writing my books is my escape, so I don’t want to deal with that. I’m not really a political person. I know that’s important, but I spend a lot of time focusing on things that bring me joy — my writing does, my family does, my friends do, old movies do, and I like music. I have my husband give me the headlines. He stays up to date. I’ll say, “Give me the DNN,” meaning the Drew Nelson News, instead of CNN news. I operate on a need-to-know basis. I like to escape into my book world. I have control there. I can find joy there. I put my books out there and then I go to the next book. Maybe people might feel that I’m putting my head in the sand, and if they do, they do.

RS: But look at what you’re bringing back out with you. No one could accuse you of being disengaged when you write the books that you do. We all have our different ways of contributing to the world.

VMN: Thank you, Roger. I feel I am making a contribution and that brings me joy. I am writing something that gives recognition to people I feel deserve it and also helps young people and adults grow a little in their thinking. I hope that happens. I believe it does on some level; maybe not with everyone, but so be it.

RS: As you say that I’m struck by something that’s making me think differently about your books. Or making me think of something new. Which is that in reading one of your biographies or novel biographies, I never have felt that you are trying to turn me into a better person.

VMN: I hope not. I know that when I read books that I feel are kind of preachy and didactic I’m a little put off. I try hard to be balanced in my thinking and in what I produce. There are two sides to every question and to every story. I try to keep that in mind always.

RS: The other thing you’re also keeping in mind is that you allow these three girls their own stories. It’s not Vaunda picking through the evidence to make her point.

VMN: That may have to do with the fact that I started out studying journalism and communications. I worked for a newspaper for about three years, a local daily paper, so what you’re talking about may be the journalistic end goal of objectivity that you’re taught you need to have. I don’t know how many people have that attitude in today’s world. I’ve always felt that that was important. In Small Shoes, Great Strides, I talk more about school segregation in the back matter and how white segregationists established a private school for their children. But I felt it was important to say that not all white citizens fought desegregation, even if they didn’t agree with it. There were people who wanted to send their children to public schools and tried to get other white parents to send their kids. They knew that desegregation was inevitable, and they wanted to move on.

RS: What are Leona, Tessie, and Gail up to today?

VMN: Tessie is retired. Gail is still working for the U.S. Postal Service. Leona created The Leona Tate Foundation and afterward acquired the old boarded-up McDonogh 19 school, restored it, and turned it into what they’re calling the TEP Center — the Tate Etienne and Prevost Center. It’s an interactive museum. They’ve set it up so that people can watch a video about the integration of the schools. There’s the classroom with the three desks and interactive stuff where you touch the desk and Leona tells her story, and then you touch the next desk. You can walk up the same steps the girls did on that day.

RS: Wow.

VMN: That’s on the first and second floors, and the rooms above provide affordable housing. Leona partnered with other organizations to fund the center. I’m scheduled to go down there November 15th to do a talk and sign books. Hopefully the three women can be there. Two of them still live in the New Orleans area, and Gail lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I’m sure people there would love to have their signatures too.

RS: How old are these women?

VMN: They’ve all just turned sixty-nine. They’re one year younger than me. Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954 and the three women were born in 1954; Leona suggests that it was fate — they were destined, six years later, to be the ones to walk into their school in New Orleans.

RS: It’s amazing that it took so long. You make and pass a new law you think is going to change things, but it took six years.

VMN: They were dragging their feet; they didn’t want to do it. They were forced to, finally, and it’s clear that it was a token integration. There’s still a lot to do. The schools aren’t perfect. But this was the start.

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. 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 MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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