Sylvia Patterson looks forward to high school for all the normal reasons-being treated more like an adult, learning more about the world, joining clubs, and enjoying football games and dances. But in her year, 1957, and her town, Little Rock, things are anything but normal. To comply with federal law, the school board has decided to integrate Central High School, whether the governor of Arkansas or the citizens of Little Rock like it or not.
Sylvia is shocked when her teacher, Miss Washington, asks her to consider being one of the first black students to attend Central. It is an honor reserved to very few, but it is also a heavy burden that Sylvia may not be able to carry. She would be separated from lifelong friends (including a new boyfriend), excluded from social activities at school, and worse, subjected to threats and, possibly, violence. Sylvia is torn between wanted to bring about change and wanting to remain safe and happy in the life she has always known.
Before Sylvia makes her final decision, smoldering racial tension in the town ignites into flame. When the smoke clears, she sees clearly that nothing is going to stop the change from coming. It is up to her generation to make it happen, in as many different ways as there are colors in the world.
1. What inspired you to write a historical fiction novel about the Little Rock Nine and school integration?
I was a little girl in 1957 and I watched the events in Little Rock unfold at home on our fuzzy little black and white television. Somehow the combination of horror at what I saw, and the courage of those nine students, who were just teenagers, stuck with me. They were just kids. I don't think I could have done what they did. I've collected 1957 memorabilia and music for years, and I was never really sure why I did so. All those Life and Look magazines came in really handy when it became clear I needed to write a story about those times.
Students today take so much for granted. They need to know about those who came before them and the sacrifices that were made. We cannot embrace our future without giving honor to our past. We must teach the children so they will always know and never forget.
2. The main character, Sylvia Patterson, a very normal, level-headed girl, despite the racism and violence surrounding her, is selected to be one of the few students to integrate into the school but decides not to. Why did you take the main character out of the integration into Central High School?
I have enormous respect and give all honor and appreciation to those nine students who actually underwent the indignities of those days. There is no way I would ever try to lessen their importance and impact on history by inserting a fictional character into their reality. They "own" that piece of history, and rightly so. Therefore, I never had any intention for the main character in the book, Sylvia, to actually be one of the Nine.
During that time in 1957, there were originally almost two hundred students from Little Rock who were considered to be the first to integrate Central High School. That list gradually diminished into the Nine. The stories of those other students, who are unnamed and unknown to history, gave me the background material for a fictional girl who is on the early list. But, like the real people who removed themselves (or were removed) from that list for dozens of possible reasons, Sylvia watches the events unfold from a distance.
3. How do you think children will react to a book about the once horrific situations surrounding race, integration and politics? Do you expect that they’ll find any similarities 50 years later?
To students who think the events of 1957 have no relevance to their lives, I point them to current injustices in Africa and Asia and South America. Because I approach most subjects through the experience of a teacher, I ask them to investigate the lives of teenagers and their schools in other parts of the world. I ask them to talk about the current pre-presidential politics and the involvement of politics in education. Closer to home, I'd ask them to talk about the racial division that still exists in school lunchrooms and Advanced Placement classes and testing, as well as fairness in punishments or praises give by adults in the educational system. We still have much to accomplish.
4. What did your research entail in creating the characters of Sylvia and Rachel? Were they based on fact or fiction?
Both characters are completely fictional. But all fiction is based on some kind of reality. I grew up in a small, close-knit church, and went to a public school with teenagers like Sylvia's friends in the book. My school was integrated, but separated by culture and race--not officially, but socially. My best friend until the third grade was a Jewish girl. She's not Rachel, of course, but I learned so much about the Jewish culture from my friend. Her family eventually moved away to a neighborhood where her family felt more comfortable, and our neighborhood gradually changed from one that was integrated with Italian and Jewish and African-American families, to one of mostly African-Americans who proudly took meticulous care of their first new homes. Great fiction comes from powerful realities.
5. The depiction of Reggie and Gary, and their rightful anger of the injustices they lived and witnessed, was well portrayed. Was Reggie based on a real character? If not, why did you make him responsible for burning down the Zucker’s store?
Again, both characters are completely fictional. I think I chose Reggie to be the perpetrator because he was the character that the reader would least suspect to be the villain. The social reality of the time would of course make the reader suspect the Smith Brothers, but that would be too predictable and does not make for good writing.