The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving
By Deborah Wiles and illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue
FREEDOM SUMMER tells the life-affirming story of two young boys, one black and one white, who defy racism during and after the turbulent passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Discovering that laws do not necessarily change people or their prejudices, the boys find that friendship and loyalty can make a difference.
Deborah Wiles Biography
Freedom Summer is the first published work of children's author Deborah Wiles. Born in Alabama into an Air Force family, she spent her childhood in a small Mississippi town with an extended family full of Southern personalities. Today, she writes about them and they live on in her stories, including the recently published Love, Ruby Lavender. She has worked as a journalist, radio commentator and creative writing teacher. Deborah currently teaches writing and oral history workshops for children, as well as writes her own books. She and her family live in Frederick, Maryland.
Jerome Lagarrigue Biography
Lending a special visual resonance to the story of FREEDOM SUMMER are the illustrations of Jerome Lagarrigue. Born and raised in Paris, France, in a family of artists, the award-winning Lagarrigue is also the illustrator of the picture book, My Man Blue by Nikki Grimes (NY:Dial Books,1999), and his work has also appeared in The New Yorker and on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, he currently teaches drawing and painting at the Parsons School of Design, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Author Deborah Wiles Tells How the Story of Freedom Summer Beganin Her Own Childhood
"In the early 1960s, the American South had long been a place where black Americans could not drink from the same drinking fountain as whites, attend the same schools, or enjoy the same public areas. Then the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law, stating that: 'All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of any public place, regardless of race, color, religion, or national origin.'
"I was born a white child in Mobile, Alabama, and spent summers visiting my beloved Mississippi relatives. When the Civil Rights Act was passed, the town pool closed. So did the roller rink and the ice cream parlor. Rather than lawfully giving blacks the same rights and freedoms as whites, many southern businesses chose to shut their doors in protest. Some of them closed forever.
"Also in the summer of 1964, civil rights workers in Mississippi organized 'Freedom Summer,' a movement to register black Americans to vote. It was a time of great racial violence and change. That was the summer I began to pay attention: I noticed that black Americans used back doors, were waited on only after every white had been helped. They were treated poorly, all because of the color of their skinand no matter what any law said. I realized that a white person openly having a black friend, and vice versa, could be a dangerous thing.
"I couldn't get these images out of my mind, and I wondered what it must be like to be a black child my age. I dreamed about changing things, and yet I wondered what any child - black or white - could do.
"This story grew out of my feelings surrounding that time. It is fiction, but based on real events."
Q&A with Author Deborah Wiles
What attracted you to writing children's literature? "I had things I wanted to say - elemental things. I wanted a way to say them, and an audience who might be able to hear those things. I think children are the most wonderful audience, and it is a privilege to be able to write for them."
In your opinion, what elements and values are the essential ingredients of quality children's fiction? "To quote writer Richard Rhodes: 'Story is the primary vehicle human beings use to structure knowledge and experience.' I think a good story will impart its own value. Each child will use a particular story to make sense of his or her world in his or her own way. We never know what that story will mean to a child. I consider myself an ethical person and I'm sure that shows in my writing, and I write from the deepest place in myself I can touch. I want to share that place with children."
The story is set during the Civil Rights era. How would you relate that setting to present day events in the eyes of children? "The struggle for civil rights continues, not just in this country, but around the world. The events and dates may be different, but the struggle for tolerance, justice, honor, and dignity in a crazy world is still with us."
What makes literature such an effective medium for influencing social change and attitudes? "Literature comes into your lap. It lives with you. It is full of powerful words, and 'words are a form of action, capable of influencing change' (a quote I love from Ingrid Bengis)."
In this age of multi-media distractions, how do books play a role in children's lives? "There is nothing like the pull of a good story, well told, in a quiet place. It is soothing, even if it is rip-roaring adventure or tear-inducing sadness there is a soothing, intimate quality to words on the page, to reading it is a way to be with ourselves and be still for a little while, and that is more important today than ever. Story is the way we figure out our lives, the way we structure our experiences, the way we grow and change and learn."
Name a work of fiction that made a lasting impression on you as a child and as an adult. "To Kill a Mockingbird touched me deeply, and still does. Also The Grapes of Wrath, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle... and Pippi Longstocking!"
What does winning the 2002 Once Upon A World Children's Book Award mean to you? "It is a great honor! It means that my highest hopes for Freedom Summer are being recognized: the book is finding its way in the world, making a difference. To have it recognized by the Simon Wiesenthal Center-Museum of Tolerance, an organization dedicated to justice and tolerance and human dignity, is more than I would have ever hoped for, and gives me great joy."
Are you working on a new book at the moment and if so, what is the subject? "I'm working on a new novel called Hang The Moon, which will be published by Harcourt next year. It takes place in 1966 Mississippi and deals with the themes of justice and tolerance and human dignity! And family. And a journey two girls make from Mississippi to Memphis to find Elvis Presley, who, one of them is convinced, with some reasonable proof, is her father."
The purpose of the Once Upon A World Children's Book Award is to promote issues of tolerance and understanding among children. Do you ever envision a time when such an award will no longer be necessary? "I am not smart enough to know what the future might bring, but I prefer to look at what is working, at all those who work for peace, who change the world one word at a time, one action at a time, one heart at a time. The work you do at the Simon Wiesenthal Center is a big step toward peace."