With so many books about fantastic superheroes, wimpy kids, and children trying to survive wars in dystopian worlds, parents, teachers, and librarians are looking for something different to add to their young readers’ lists. I always recommend a good historical fiction. Recently I read great reviews about a new book titled, Crow, by Barbara Wright. As it happens, Barbara lives in my town and I was able to attend a reading and book signing at our local indie bookstore, The Tattered Cover. Intrigued by the excerpt she read I had to get a copy of Crow and after I read it, I knew I wanted to put it in the hands of every kid I know.
Crow has received several starred reviews including this one from the December 12, 2011 issue of Publishers Weekly:
Barbara Wright. Random, $16.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-375-86928-0
Adult author Wright, in her first book for children, presents a hard-hitting and highly personal view of the Wilmington race riots of 1898
through 11-year-old narrator Moses. Though the story initially meanders, the pace builds as Wright establishes the Wilmington, N.C., setting, with its large black middle class, and Moses’s family life, which is primarily influenced by his slave-born grandmother, “Boo Nanny,” and his Howard University–educated father, an alderman and a reporter at the Wilmington Daily Record, “the only Negro daily in the South.” Wright sketches a nuanced view of racial tension and inequality from Moses’s sheltered yet optimistic perspective, such as a bike shop’s slogan contest that is only open to white children, or the farmer who fires Moses after he helps another okra picker determine his true pay. A Daily Record editorial ignites racial backlash and catalyzes a series of attacks on hard-won rights, thrusting Moses and his father into the violence of the riots. This thought-provoking novel and its memorable cast offer an unflinching and fresh take on race relations, injustice, and a fascinating, little-known chapter of history. Ages 8–12. (Jan.)
After reading the book, I got in touch with Barbara and asked if I could interview her for The Mixed-Up Files blog. I was thrilled when she agreed to meet me again at our lovely Tattered Cover for coffee and questions. Here’s how our conversation went:
Without being didactic, the story is a great lesson in strength, courage, and hope. Barbara, given that you and Moses are very different, how were able to get inside his head, hear his thoughts, and tell his story?
Moses as a character was a real challenge. First, he’s a boy and interested in all kinds of things I am not—trains, fire trucks, schooners, building things. I wanted to give the reader a sense of what it was like to be a boy in a Southern port city at the turn of the century. When possible, I tried to stay local. There were black firemen in Wilmington, so it made sense that Moses would be proud and look up to them. The African-American conjoined twins Millie-Christine are based on historical figures who were born in the county next to Wilmington. Blackbeard, the pirate, plied his trade in the waters off the coast of the Outer Banks, just north of Wilmington.
Since Moses is from a different time period, I had to be careful with the historical details. I couldn’t say, “He zipped up his jacket,” because zippers didn’t exist. I couldn’t say “He slammed the screen door,” because screens were not widely used then.
The hardest aspect of Moses’s character was race. I wrote the novel to discover how the concept of prejudice filtered into the mind of a bright, curious boy who was raised to believe he was the equal of any man. To do this, I had to get deeply inside his skin, and at times, the plot took turns that surprised me. At one point, Moses witnesses something really degrading and horrible and he thinks that he’s responsible when in fact he has nothing to do with it. This scene broke my heart, but I felt absolutely sure he would feel this way.
As amazing as Moses is, I have to admit, my favorite character is the wonderfully wise Boo Nanny. My own copy of Crow has many pages tagged with what I call Boo Nanny-isms. My favorite is where she’s looking for shells on the beach with Moses and he asks her how she knows so much about the ocean, and she says: “I’ve got my own two eyes. All you gots to do is look. Now, your daddy could talk a possum out of a tree, but sometimes he can’t see what’s dead straight in front of his nose if it ain’t in a book. Knowing’s first and foremost ’bout seeing what’s in front of you.” Was there something in your own life that inspired you to create Boo Nanny?
I probably identified more with Boo Nanny than any other character. We’re both grandmothers with inquisitive grandchildren. I love Boo Nanny’s folk remedies, her deep intelligence and wisdom that comes, not from book learning, but from character and the unspeakable horrors that she has endured in slavery. I came up with her name because she loves ghost stories. It wasn’t until a month after Crowwas published that I realized that my high school nickname, still used by friends from that era, is Boo. Perhaps my subconscious was at work.
I wanted to create a complicated family. Moses’s father is a community leader and college graduate while Boo Nanny cannot read or write. Moses loves them both but has to learn to navigate between two very different viewpoints.
In order to make the story completely accurate, I know you spent years researching the 1898 events that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina. Tell us where and how you found your information.
A key source for me was We Have Taken A City, written by H. Leon Prather, Sr.. This historical account of the riot was published in 1984 and did not receive the attention it deserved. It was not until 2006, when the NC Legislature financed the voluminous Riot Report that people began to take notice of the long-forgotten incident.
As part of the research, I went to museums and looked at old photos. I also read the oral histories of former slaves in the Library of Congress, which were recorded and transcribed as part of the Depression-era WPA. An original late-19th Century diary written in long hand by a white boy in a nearby town was particularly useful. Thank goodness his handwriting was easy to read. This is where I picked up Moses’s fascination with bicycles.
On one of my frequent trips to Wilmington, I read the historical markers that are placed along the docks for tourists. It was here that I learned about the tunnels under Wilmington that figure in an important plot point in the novel.
What led you to the decision to become a writer?
After graduating from college, I went to Seoul, Korea to teach English to Koreans at a private language school. At the time, Korea was a third world country, and few Americans lived there, outside of the military base. I started writing on Korean culture for a hotel magazine. When the editor left, I took over, and had a whole magazine to fill each month. I started writing, and never stopped.
After Korea, I made a trip around the world, going to Southeast Asia, and then Nepal, where I met up with a group of 10 people who traveled overland in a converted army truck with roll-up canvas sides. We blazed trails across Afghanistan and Iran and camped out in the desert. I kept a diary, which I have held on to only as a reminder of how truly bad writing can be.
When I returned, I got a job as a fact checker for Esquire Magazine in New York, where I was exposed to some of the best writing in the country.
Most people don’t know this, but the top magazines have someone verify every fact that is printed in the publication. Sometimes the facts are hidden. My worst mistake came when I had to check a shopping column for men. I verified the features of a Swiss Army knife: Two knife blades? Check. Scissors? Check. Corkscrew? Check. “A fish scaler to scale freshly caught trout?” Check. What was my mistake? Trout have no scales! Who knew?
Do you have any thoughts or suggestions on how a teacher would be able to use Crow in a classroom? Will you be doing classroom visits in person and by way of skype?
Crow offers all kinds of possibilities for teachers to combine language arts with social studies lessons on slavery, Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era. I believe that students, by getting to know Moses and his family intimately, will be able to relate on a deeper level to what happened at this time in history.
The Random House Educator’s Guide for Crow is linked through my website
and offers innovative activities and ideas for middle school teachers on how to use Crow to get students talking about hypocrisy, racism, inequality and character.
The website also provides links to lesson plans on the Wilmington Race Riot and Jim Crow era, as well as two short videos that provide historical context for Crow, a power point presentation on the Race Riot, and additional resources.
I have classroom visits lined up in North Carolina, Kansas, Missouri and New Mexico. So far, I haven’t explored the possibility of Skype, but that’s an excellent idea. I’ll look into it.
Wow, you’ve made it easy to access great information in the classroom!
Finally, a question that always interests us MG lovers here, what were some of your favorite middle-grade books when you were a child?
I will never love a book as much as I love Little Women. I read it when I was ten or eleven, an impressionable time. I longed to become Jo, the writer, and marry the warm-hearted Professor Baer, and I pretty much did. I devoured Nancy Drew mysteries, thrilled to have a clever, spunky role model. I adored To Kill a Mockingbird. No amount of re-reading diminishes its impact.
Thank you so much for joining me and for answering so many questions for our Mixed-Up Files readers!
Jennifer Duddy Gill is the author of The Secret of Ferrell Savage and Mary Vittles, Atheneum (Simon & Schuster), released 2014.