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Author interview with Teri Kanefield: Giving a long-forgotten civil rights heroine her day

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"...A teenager took control of the situation when adults couldn't..." 

Barbara Rose Johns was a high school student in 1950's Virginia. After complaining about her school's shoddy state - obviously so much worse off than the local white children's school - she had a teacher respond that she should do something about it. So she did. She organized her schoolmates into a band of leaders, tricked the principal out of school, forged his initials on official notes, rallied classmates with speeches at her own secret school assembly, organized a strike, convinced NAACP lawyers to come speak with a group of teenagers, suffered through her house being burned down, and eventually saw her grievance rise up to become a part up the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education group of cases that led the Supreme Court to declare school segregation unconstitutional. 

The Girl From the Tar Paper School: Barbara Rose Johns and the Advent of the Civil Rights Movement by Teri Kanefield is an organically compelling and expertly-done non-fiction book for upper elementary and middle school grades, a lovely depiction of a real life black, teenage, female heroine, and a great fit for Common Core needs, being chock full of photographs, first-hand accounts, and original documents. It's also one I personally enjoyed very much, and when I had a surprise run-in with the author at my library last week, she agreed to an interview. Here she talks about primary-source research, her inspiration, and what's up next. 

   

 

Q: Why did you become a children's book author?

  TK:  I loved books as a child, and always wanted to write them.  I like writing for children because when a book touches a child, I think the touch goes deeper. 

What made you interested in taking on this story?

   I learned about Barbara while reading Simple Justice, a book about Brown v. Board of Education. I was completely taken by Barbara's courage to stand up against injustice in a time and place that made it dangerous for her. I was grabbed by the story of a teenager taking control of a situation when the adults couldn't. 

Were there any obstacles you encountered in the research?

Gathering photographs was a real challenge. When I first started asking for photographs, all I heard was, “There aren’t any.”  I spent time in the Library of Virginia scrolling through microfilm, hunting for the photos published in the Richmond Afro-American, a now defunct newspaper. Then I had to figure out how to access their archives. The most important photo in their archives, from my viewpoint, was the photo of Barbara at the podium when she gave her riveting speech in the church. Turns out that photo was misfiled. It took the archivist weeks to find it.

Each photograph in the book has a story behind it. I knew, for example, that Barbara was a student at Spelman College. It occurred to me that colleges take pictures of students for picture identification and yearbooks, so I got the idea to contact the Spelman archives. The archivist dug up a photo of Barbara when she was nineteen that even her family didn’t know existed. When her sister, Ms. Cobbs, saw the photo for the first time, it brought tears. 

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Any favorite details you unearthed? 

The most interesting part of working on the book came from my research trips through Virginia when I learned details about life in a segregated rural town in the 1940s and 1950s. Because I came from so far away geographically and culturally (I live in San Francisco!) each detail I learned felt like it was given to me as a gift. Barbara's sister told me how she and Barbara cut down trees and hauled the timber to town when they needed extra money. One of Barbara's former teachers told me she could buy clothes at the general store, but could not try them on. Such details helped bring the period and place alive for me.

Would you share with us what your next project is? Why did you choose it?

I have two upcoming nonfiction projects.

In November, I have a book coming out called Guilty? Crime, Punishment, and the Changing Face of Justice. 

I'll tell the truth here:  All through middle school and high school, I was bored by government and civics classes. It wasn't until law school that I realized, hey! This stuff is interesting. I wanted to write a book so young people could see that thinking about the law can really blow your mind. The book asks: What is a crime? Why do we punish people? The book invites readers to question basic assumptions like "jail is for the bad guys." 

Right now I'm researching and writing a biography tentatively entitled The Extraordinary Susanna Wright, about a woman who lived on the American frontier. She was a lawyer, a scientist, a poet, and community leader. There is a lot of myth and imagination and folklore about the American frontier. This book (I hope!) will offer a new view of the frontier as a place where women could achieve their full potential because away from the settled cities, there was less structure, and often not enough men to do what was then thought of as "men's work." 

I chose the project because of my interest in the history of women's rights, and because Susanna's life events (1695-1785) offer a new look at the birth of America.

Any general thoughts you have about common core or the increase in trade non-fiction books in schools?

I think the move toward common core standards is fabulous because of the emphasis on depth in thinking and learning. I also think the move toward using more trade nonfiction books is an excellent idea. As much as I loved reading as a child, I'll confess that I didn't much like reading textbooks. Textbooks, at least the ones I learned out of, tended to skim the surface and list facts. They weren't particularly engrossing. Nonfiction books including biographies can -- and often do -- treat a subject in more depth than a standard textbook. Also, stories are more fun to read than facts. I mentioned that I didn't find lessons on government or civics interesting until law school. In law school, you learn by reading real-life cases, and it's fascinating. Why not let kids do the same?

There's more information about Barbara and why she was forgotten here .

For more great non-fiction books, check out these catalog-linked Lists:

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