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My Writer's Journal

Behind the Books: Jubilee Journey

JUBILEE JOURNEY, 1997; paperback, 2007
After WHITE LILACS was published, I went on to work on other books, but a couple of things got me to thinking about it again a few years later. One was an interracial marriage and the birth of a biracial child in my family. What would Erin's life be like? How would she identify? What challenges would she face?

About the same time, people who read and enjoyed WHITE LILACS had begun to ask, "Whatever happened to Rose Lee Jefferson?" And I began to wonder about that, too. To answer the question, I decided to write a companion book, not a sequel that continues Rose Lee's life as a young girl but to pick up the story seventy-five years later with a whole new generation. In 1996 Rose Lee, now 86, writes to her great-granddaughter and invites her to attend the Juneteenth Jubilee in Dillon, Texas. Emily Rose Chartier is thirteen, growing up in a biracial family in Connecticut when she receives the invitation, and she and her brother begin their own journey to visit the great-grandmother she's never met.

One of the great benefits of living in Denton, Texas, was the use of the library at the University of North Texas, where I had access to oral histories had been collected from residents of Quakertown--the real name of Freedomtown in my novels--that provided me with plenty of material from which to weave a new narrative. By the time JUBILEE JOURNEY was published, that biracial child who had inspired the book had been joined by a baby brother. The book is dedicated to them: Erin, who is in college now; she has her mother's beautiful dark skin, huge brown eyes, and seriously curly hair; and Joe, a senior in high school, blue-eyed and brown-haired like his dad. They have stories of their own to tell.

Jackets paintings for both books were done by well-known artist Jerry Pinkney. The books were reissued in paperback with new and very different covers in 2007. Read More 
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Behind the Books: White Lilacs

Moving is a pain, even if it's just a few blocks away, as my last move was. But moving to a new town in a different state takes the pain to a level of trauma. It can also bring a whole new perspective to a writer's life.

In 1990 we moved from Albuquerque to Denton, Texas, a college town north of Dallas. Once the old house was rejuvenated, my office established overlooking a pear tree, and the kitchen functional, I began to wonder where I was going to fit in a town where women wore dresses and had their hair done regularly. I was still fumbling to find my place when on a chilly February day I wandered to the park near our house where I often walked the dog and discovered a ceremony in progress: the dedication of a historical plaque, honoring an African-American community that had existed on the site of that park from soon after the Civil War until the 1920s. I stuck around to listen to the speeches about the black people who had lived there and the white people who had driven them away. Before the speeches were done, the character of Rose Lee Jefferson had taken up residence in my head.

But I had a lot to learn about Texas in the 1920s, as well as about black Freedomtown and white Dillon, as I renamed them. And not just Texas, but all of the South. And I took some big risks: Choosing to write in the voice of a 13-year-old African American girl was a stretch--would I be roundly criticized for it? In fact, the book was warmly received by the black community. I was even invited to speak at the Sunday morning service of a black church, an experience I'll never forget. Some of the white people, however, were less enthusiastic. They were still proud of the statue of the Confederate soldier on the town square. I was the outsider, the Yankee who had come to criticize them.

WHITE LILACS was published in 1993. It's still in print, and still in use in many school districts--and not just in Texas.  Read More 
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