This interview is the first in a series on this year’s four finalists for New-York Historical's Children’s History Book Prize. Join us on our History Detectives blog over the next few weeks as we talk to the authors to learn more about their amazing books. Our jury of teachers, librarians, historians, and middle-grade readers will help us select the winner, who will receive a $10,000 prize. We hope this prize elevates the winner and encourages authors and publishers to continue to create challenging, engaging, and well-researched history books for kids!
This week, we’re chatting with author Wade Hudson about Defiant: Growing Up in the Jim Crow South, his coming of age memoir set in 1950s and '60s Louisiana, where he stood up against racism, spoke up for civil rights, and found his footing as a young person fighting for a better future for all Americans.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: You have written many books! However, this is your first memoir. How was the process of writing a memoir similar to or different from other works that you have published? Was there anything about the personal nature of the book that changed the writing experience for you?
Wade Hudson: Writing my memoir was quite different from writing my other published titles. Firstly, the thought of making one’s life available for others to read and/or see can be frightening. It certainly was for me. Can I be comfortable doing that? That was the question I had to answer. After answering that question positively following a few weeks of contemplation, I then had to grapple with another question: Would my life be an interesting read for others? Finally, I had to also consider that in telling my story, I would also have to tell the story of those who were a part of my life experiences. Obviously, I didn’t live in isolation on some remote island. I guess my point is that there were so many questions that I had to answer before accepting the task of writing about my life growing up in a small town in the south in the 1950s and 1960s that I didn’t have to answer when writing other books.
DCHM: It sounds challenging to share such personal experiences like the opening of the book. You begin with a memory in a solitary confinement cell. In the next chapter, you bring the reader back in time to your childhood before moving forward through your young adulthood. Why did you decide to structure the book in this way—beginning with an event that occurred much later in your life?
WH: Actually, my excellent editor at Crown Books for Young Readers, Phoebe Yeh, suggested that I start the book that way. I had initially written the manuscript chronologically. Phoebe felt that starting my story with the arrest was a better way of engaging the reader from the start of the book. She was right!
DCHM: Clearly, the inspiration for the book is your own life. Beyond your own memories, were there any primary sources that were particularly useful to your research and writing process?
WH: Yes! I did a lot of research before I sat down to write the manuscript for Defiant. I wanted to tell my story in context. That is, include what was going on around me, events that were playing out nationally that were influencing me, shaping me, enlightening me or that made me bitter and angry. The protests, the marches, the violence and the brutality, the successes and the failures. So, I read, and in many cases reread, a number of books written about the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s.
I also wanted to know more about the history of Louisiana and the town in which I grew up. I didn’t know much because the text books on Louisiana history that we read in school were, of course, written from a white heroic perspective. I wanted to know the “real” history. How was the world in which I had to live constructed? That Jim Crow world? Specifically, I wanted to know how it was constructed in Mansfield, my hometown and in Desoto, the parish where Mansfield is located. That research provided me with so much information that I didn’t know and allowed me, I think, to offer a fuller and more complete picture of my world. In doing that research, I discovered how important Native peoples were to the history of Louisiana and how, of course, they were exploited. There are so many Native American names of schools, towns and cities, bodies of water, etc. in Louisiana. Yet, Native people are rarely included in the history of the state.
DCHM: It sounds like such a rich learning experience for you. Are there any memories or passages that you decided not to include in the book? If so, is there one you could share with us? Why did you decide to leave it out?
WH: Yes, there were. There always are when one writes a manuscript. The general reason for excluding a passage from a book is that it doesn’t help to advance the story. Sometimes, a person or an experience has a profound meaning or connection to the writer. So, sometimes, we writers tend to linger a little longer with what has a special meaning to us, but that special meaning may not be germane to telling the story effectively. And because Defiant was written for the middle-grade market, what is and isn’t included must consider that reality as well.
DCHM: Speaking of the middle-reader audience! For any of our young readers who notice injustices in their own communities and the world around them today, what advice would you give to them?
WH: Speak up! Don’t remain silent when you see it or experience it. Ask questions. Do research to find out more about that injustice. Connect with others who recognize that injustice and desire to something about it. We need more activists as we face so many tough challenges today. And there are so many ways that one can be an activist. Protesting, which gets the spotlight, is only one way. In Defiant, I share how I wrote a letter when I was 14 to the attorney general of the United States about the injustice I saw in my hometown. That was a form of activism, too. Finally, know that young people have always stepped up to confront injustice, And I’ll end with the words of the late civil rights leader John Lewis, “never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble."
DCHM: What three words would you use to describe Defiant?
WH: That’s difficult. Really difficult! But I’ll try. Enlightening! Honest! Hopeful!
All photos courtesy of the author, unless otherwise noted.