Transcript from an interview with
Philip M. Hoose
Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Philip Hoose. The transcript is divided into the following sections:
My elder daughter Hannah, was in kindergarten, and had an idea to sell the art that the kids in kindergarten at her school accumulated all year long, rather than just sending it home and disposing of the art, to sell it in an open auction and try to raise money for a homeless shelter in Portland, Maine where we lived. They raised more than $500 for the Preble Street Resource Center. I was so proud of her, and I kept thinking there must be hundred of stories like that where young people are trying to cause good change and, and succeeding.
So, I spent a year researching such things and accumulating such stories and wrote a book called It's Our World, Too!: Young People Who Are Making a Difference, about young social activists throughout the world. That's how I got started.
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Creating a great story
Well, the task, the trick, the job of a non-fiction writer — whether one is writing for adults or children or anybody — is to induce them to turn the next page. You can only do that through time-tested, tried and true tricks. It was the same for Shakespeare as it is for me. You need good characters and you need good relationships between and among the characters, you need suspense, heroism, villainy.
So in any of these books, The Lord God Bird, I worked hard, researched hard to pick a topic, to pick a creature, and a story to write about. I think the destruction of the habitat, the Southern forests, was full of suspense. There was a chance they could've made a different decision, they could've made a park, a National park of the Singer Tract. There was a bill in Congress to do it.
They had chances to pull back. But they didn't. And, the tension in that decision — the people who were on both sides of that decision — that's what made that book, that's what made it. The will it make it. You feel little Nell's head on the railroad track and you see the cow catcher getting closer and closer. And that's what you have to look for, whether you're writing for seven year-olds or forty-seven year-olds. You need to find those characters, you need to find that suspense. It's the same for any writer and for any age.
No matter what point you're trying to prove — if indeed you're trying to prove one — you need a good story, you need that tension, and you need those characters, and you need those relationships, no matter what.
The task, the burden, the trick, the joy of non-fiction writing is that it has to be true. But it's no different than, in my opinion, than it is for a fiction writer. You still have to grab that reader. And through those assets that you have, you know — the characters and the relationships.
I wrote The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, but I also wrote about James Tanner and the difficulties that he had. I wrote about Arthur Allen, the great professor at Cornell, and the challenges that he had and the difficulties that the conservationists had in even finding the bird.
In even trying to achieve that habitat, just trying to get to it, to find it, and then to hack your way into the woods and then you're waist high in a swamp.
It's those obstacles, those difficulties. I researched that in advance.
I could've written about the ivory-billed woodpecker. I could've written about the passenger pigeon, or the Carolina parakeet or the great auk, the do-do, or any of the birds of this area that became extinct, but that one was the best story.
Those characters were fresh and they were alive and they had difficulties and by presenting those difficulties, I staked my fortune on coaxing readers into turning page after page after page after page.
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Tracking the Lord God Bird
I wrote The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, which is about the extinction of the ivory-billed woodpecker, because for a third of the century, I have worked for the Nature Conservancy.
We try to save species by saving habitats, and I wanted to dramatize the tragedy of extinction through one character. I was looking for sort of a "Gone With the Wind" of an extinction story and a Clark Gable of a character, and found it in the ivory-billed woodpecker, which lived in a dramatic setting in a big southern river swamps of the South.
I was able to document the cutting of the habitat, the great Southern swamps and the effect that it had on one creature. It was a bird that I really wish I could've seen. It was just a dramatic bird. It was called "the Lord God Bird" by people who would see it swoop onto the trunk of a tree and clamp itself, with this beautiful black-and-white pattern and red head. And people would say, "Lord God, what a bird!"
That's the title of the book, and I still think that extinction is tragic and preventable and worth everybody's attention, which is why I wrote the book.
I approached the research for The Race to Save the Lord God Bird partly by reading. I spent a lot of time at Cornell because James Tanner, the human protagonist in the book, was a student at Cornell and he grew up to know the most about the ivory-billed woodpecker and spend the most time with it.
I spent many a day at Cornell going through those old files, but I also hit the road. I was in Mississippi quite a lot, and Louisiana, the last place where it was really credibly known was at the Singer Tract in Louisiana, so I spent a lot of time down there.
I also took three trips to Cuba, in researching the ivory-Billed woodpecker, because there was a, a population of ivory-billed woodpeckers in Cuba. Actually the bird meant more to Cubans than it did to people in the United States. There were five postage stamps bearing the ivory bill's likeness in Cuba. They called it, it's still called, "Carpentera Royale" The Royal Carpenter, the big-billed woodpecker.
I got to visit the habitat where the bird was, or conceivably is, but I doubt it.
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Looking for themselves
I wrote a book, We Were There, Too!: Young People in U.S. History, because a girl made a remark in my presence. She said, "There's nobody my age in my middle school history book."
I said to her, "That can't be true." She said, "Go find one, and see." So I did. And there, she was wrong. There were two teenagers in six hundred and seventy some pages of the history book Sacajawea and Pocahontas.
Both teenage Native-American girls who led white adventures, guided them. And because the adventurers kept diaries, they persisted in history. But other than that, there was nobody. I called her back. I had her phone number and I called her back and said, "You know, you're right. How does it make you feel?" And she said, "It makes me feel like I'm not even real and I won't be real until I'm maybe 20 or 21. I'm not real enough even to count in history."
It really got me. I don't know why, but it really got me. I spent the next six years of my life researching kids in history, young people in history, young people. People don't know this, but Columbus took four voyages to the new world, the so-called new world, and about 25% of the tripulantes that he took with him were teenagers and younger, all boys.
And by the fourth voyage, more than half. And the median age of the tripulantes, who sailed with Columbus in this part of the world was 15. These were huge families with lots of kids.
Look anywhere in history, the survival rate among youth in the Mayflower was much greater than it was for the adults. There were kids trapped in the Alamo, kids on the Underground Railroad, you name it. They just don't look. You have to put on kid-colored glasses and, and figure out and see those stories for what they are.
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Finding Claudette Colvin
One of the 76 stories in We Were There Too! was about Claudette Colvin, a teenager in the civil rights movement, who not only did what Rosa Parks did a year before she did it in the same town, Montgomery, Alabama, on the same on the bus system, but then had the guts a year later to join with three other women plaintiffs and sue the city and state, saying that the bus segregation laws were unconstitutional.
One thing that really appealed to me about Claudette's story is that she was a mid-teen when she kept her seat a year before Rosa Parks did. She was 15. She wasn't 19. I liked that. If only I could talk with her, if she was still alive and she still had a fresh memory. Some people are able to remember in great detail the events of their youths.
I kept thinking, "Boy, if she is such a person and she's still alive and she's still in good health and she would talk to me, what a book that would make." You could put a teen, a teenage girl, into incredibly important events, episodes to U.S. history. And she turned out to be alive, and she turned out to have a great memory, such a memory.
I think what Claudette's story has to say to young people, in part, was that those years, those Jimmy Crow years, were real and they were horrible for a lot of people who went through them. And there were losses on both sides. I hoped to give a sense of the pain, the embarrassment, the humiliation, the pain that those who went through it — African-Americans in particular — endured, by giving the story of one girl, who remembers it now very acutely.
Some of the stories that she told me were, when she wanted to get a new pair of shoes, her mother would have to take a paper sack and put her shoe up and just trace the outline of the show so Claudette could carry it to the department store, because they wouldn't let her try shoes on.
How humiliating, how embarrassing. What kind of message does that give a young person, at that time? I fear that the pain, the emotion, that the feeling of those years is going away. Yes, it'll stay. You know, Martin Luther King Day, Black History Month, there'll be stories of Rosa Parks and Dr. King and so forth. But these stories, they curl in on each other and they simplify and they reduce to a few characters.
What I wanted to do, in that book, is to portray anew for young readers the pain of Jim Crow. I wanted to come back, I don't want us to forget those stories, and I'm sure Claudette doesn't either. That's what I wanted and I lucked out by finding a person who had such a central role — a role that had not been described much — and who had such a phenomenal memory of the personal experience. The triumph of Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, is you get a teenage girl, who was just this change agent, and you get a girl and what do teenage girls talk about?
They talk about their parents, they talk about their friends, they talk about their hair. They talk about what life is like to be a teenager at any time. And through her, we were able to put the girl in a great historical story. As she has often said since, she felt, she said, "History kept me in my seat, stuck me to my seat." She felt Sojourner Truth pressing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman pressing down on the other. She's very eloquent about that.
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Twice toward Justice
Claudette Colvin and I ended up collaborating on a book entitled, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. And the Twice Toward Justice part referred to two events. One was her refusal to surrender her seat to a white passenger on March 2nd, 1955. The second was her participation as a plaintiff, one of four plaintiffs in Browder vs. Gayle, which was a federal lawsuit filed in federal court, which challenged the constitutionality of the bus segregation rules in Montgomery and Alabama.
In Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, the basic structure of it is a weaving of Claudette's own voice, her first-person voice, with my own narrative. We ended up doing it that way because Claudette's voice is so personal, the experiences are so searing, they're so tough sometimes and funny sometimes and dramatic and very personal, that you just had to leave her voice in.
To not put her voice in would rob the reader of something very personal and very immediate. However, Claudette, though she knows a great deal about the civil rights movement and the times in Montgomery, in which she grew up, she's not a historian. I think it required some historical context, so we went back and forth. That's why we adopted that format.
We tried to put even more perspective in by adding informational sidebars, so that a reader really would know what was going on, as well as what it felt like to be going through such an amazing time. There are some archives in Montgomery and also at the Library of Congress, which bring that story to life. I was very mindful that I had to almost over-document that story. Because people wouldn't believe it. "Why," readers would ask, "have I never heard this person? If this story is really true, if there was an earlier Rosa Parks, and it was a teenage girl, why have I never heard this story?"
I could just hear that question thundering through all that I did and I realized that I had to document it to the nines, and I was fortunate that there are archives mainly in, in Montgomery that helped me there.
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Why Rosa and Not Claudette?
Claudette Colvin knew Rosa Parks. She knew Rosa Parks through her family. She also came to know Rosa Parks because after Claudette was arrested in March of 1955 for refusing to surrender her seat, she, as a 15-year-old, did not want to give up. That's what separated Claudette from everyone who had gone before her. There had been a number of people over the years that had refused to surrender their seats. Always the police came, always they were hauled downtown. Always they paid a fine and went home and licked their wounds with their family. Claudette was different. She wanted to fight, she wanted to fight the chargers.
And it came. This was a year after Brown vs. the Board of Education, and the African American community was in more of a fighting mood than it had been before. So the NAACP, through Mrs. Parks in a large part, because Mrs. Parks was the head of the youth committee, raised money for Claudette's legal defense. They got a lawyer, Fred Gray and fought charges in court and lost the fight and appealed the charges and lost again. The appeals, those local court cases, did a great deal for the African American community in Montgomery to prepare them for what was to become the Montgomery bus boycott. It got the churches involved in raising money, working collectively to raise money for Claudette's legal defense. They went to court a couple times, so they got to see how the courts would react and, and realize that local courts were not gonna do them any good at all.
So they shifted the scene to federal court. So they gained a great deal of strategic information from Claudette Colvin's experiences. But they did not use Claudette as the face of the Montgomery bus boycott. They waited until Rosa Parks did the same thing Claudette did. Why did they not do that? They're probably a whole lot of reasons, all nested in one. Certainly, Rosa Parks, a 41-year-old, seamstress, well known to African-Americans around Montgomery, gave them some sense of comfort. But Claudette feels, and I think with some reason, that they were not going to invest in a teenager. They didn't know her. She came from the wrong side of the tracks within the African American community.
Her parents were not known. Many rumors got cast around about Claudette. Claudette thinks that her skin tone mattered a lot, that she was too dark, that her hair texture figured into it. She has a lot of feelings about why she was not sort of selected to represent, to be the image of the bus boycott. I think in the end, the thing that hurt Claudette the most, even more than that, was not so much that she didn't get to be the Rosa Parks and stand up there at those big rallies, it's that her courage and her sacrifice — she risked her life twice for that movement — was never acknowledged.
She left Montgomery in 1958 with no money, a young child, and had never been acknowledged. In fact, her contribution would never be known, were it not for a great reporter from The Birmingham News named Frank Sikora, who was assigned to do a 20th anniversary retrospective on the Montgomery bus boycott, found Claudette's name and address in an old file and realized that, yes indeed, he remembered there had been somebody before Mrs. Parks.
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Reading From Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
My name is Philip Hoose, I'm the author of this book, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. It is the story of a young woman who lived in Alabama, a young African-American girl, of 15, who lived in Montgomery, Alabama during Jim Crow times in the mid-1950s. I'm going to read a passage from this book. The setting is March 2nd, 1955. Claudette Colvin has refused to surrender her seat on a Montgomery city bus to a white passenger and the police have just boarded the bus to deal with this situation.
"One cop grabbed one of my hands and his partner grabbed the other, and they pulled me straight up out of my seat. My books went flying everywhere. I went limp as a baby, I was too smart to fight back."
"They started dragging me backwards off the bus. One of them kicked me. I might've scratched one of them because I have long nails, but I sure didn't fight back."
"I kept screaming over and over, 'It's my constitutional right.' I wasn't shouting anything profane — I never swore, not then, not ever. I was just shouting out my rights. It killed me to leave that bus. I hated to give that white woman my seat, when so many black people were standing. I was crying hard. The cops put me in the back of a police car and shut the door."
"They stood outside and talked to each other for a minute, and then one of them came back and told me to stick my hands out the open window. He handcuffed me and then pulled the door open and jumped in the backseat with me. I put my knees together and crossed my hands over my lap and started praying. All ride long they swore at me and ridiculed me. They took turns trying to guess my bra size. They called me 'nigger bitch' and cracked jokes about parts of my body."
"I recited the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm over and over in my head, trying to push back the fear. I assumed they were taking me to juvenile court, because I was only fifteen. But we were going in the wrong direction. They kept telling me I was going to Atmore, the women's penitentiary. Well, instead we pulled up to the police station and they led me inside. More cops looked up when we came in and started calling me 'thing' and 'whore.'"
"They booked me and took my fingerprints. Then they put me back in the car and drove me to the city jail, the adult jail. Someone led me straight to a cell without giving me any chance to make a phone call. He opened the door and told me to get inside. He shut it hard behind me and turned the key. The lock fell into place with a heavy sound. It was the worst sound I ever heard — it sounded final. It said I was trapped."
"When he went away, I looked around me. Three bare walls, a toilet, and a cot. Then I fell down on my knees in the middle of the cell and started crying again. I didn't know if anyone knew where I was or what had happened to me. I had no idea how long I would be there. I cried and I put my hands together and prayed like I'd never prayed before. Meanwhile, schoolmates who had been on the bus had run home and telephoned Claudette's mother at the house where she worked as a maid."
"Girls went over and took care of the lady's three small children so that Claudette's mother could leave. Mary Ann Colvin called Claudette's pastor, the reverend H. H. Johnson. He had a car, and together and they sped to the police station. When they led mom back there, I was in a cell. I was crying hard, and then mom got upset, too. When she saw me, she didn't bawl me out, she just asked, 'Are you alright, Claudette?'"
"Reverend Johnson bailed me out and we drove home. By the time we got to King Hill, the neighborhood where I lived, word had spread everywhere. All our neighbors came around and they were just squeezing me to death. I felt happy and proud. But I was afraid that night, too. I had stood up to a white bus driver and two white cops. I had challenged the bus law. There had been lynchings and cross-burnings for that kind of thing."
"Wetumpka Highway that led out of Montgomery ran right past our house. It would have been easy for the clan to come up the hill in the night. Dad sat up all night long with his shotgun. We all stayed up. The neighbors facing the highway kept watch. Probably nobody on King Hill slept that night. But worried or not, I felt proud. I felt proud. I had stood up for our rights; I had done something a lot of adults hadn't done. On the ride home from jail, coming over the viaduct, Reverend Johnson said something to me I'll never forget. He was an adult who everyone respected, and his opinion meant a lot to me."
"'Claudette,' he said, 'I'm so proud of you. Everyone prays for freedom. We've all been praying and praying, but you're different. You want your answer the next morning, and I think you just brought the revolution to Montgomery.'"
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