At Midwinter 2010 in Boston, the winner of the inaugural YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults will be announced. To celebrate this award, the YALSA blog will be publishing interviews with some of the shortlisted authors. Our last interview is with Phillip Hoose, author of Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. Don’t forget to tune in on Monday, January 18th to see who wins the first-ever YALSA Nonfiction Award!
The Nonfiction Committee on Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice: “Hoose recounts the largely untold story of Claudette Colvin, who was arrested and jailed at the age of 15 after refusing to relinquish her seat on a bus to a white woman. Interviews with Colvin create a vivid picture not only of the Montgomery bus boycott but also the Browder v. Gayle case, in which she was a key defendant.”
YALSA Blog: Congratulations on being included on the shortlist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults! What was your reaction to being included on the shortlist for this first-ever award?
Phillip Hoose: First, I’m thrilled that at last there is such an award. It’s long overdue recognition of those who have been telling true stories artfully. Of course I feel honored to be a finalist, especially in the first group.
YALSA Blog: How did you learn about Claudette Colvin’s story?
Phillip Hoose: In 2001 I published We Were There Too! Young People in US History, a collection of 66 stories documenting the contributions of young Americans to the national story. It took nearly six years to research and write. I happened upon Claudette’s story when I got to the Civil Rights Movement. People kept telling me about this girl of fifteen who did what Rosa Parks more famously did , but who acted nearly a year before Mrs. Parks and with brutal consequences. I was immediately attracted to this story and wanted to know more . I thought, ‘If she’s still alive, and if she can still remember not only what happened but how it felt to make the choices she did and suffer the consequences, what a book that could be.’
YALSA Blog: You mention the time you spent talking with Claudette before she agreed to work with you. Why did you keep persevering? What did you gain by working with Claudette?
Phillip Hoose: I kept at it because hers was the best story of all the youth activism stories I had heard. And I have heard hundreds. Here was a girl whose courage had much to do with sparking, informing and successfully concluding one of the most important and dramatic episodes in U.S. history
I gained a chance to let readers hear Claudette’s voice and to set the record straight. Almost no one knew what she had done, especially when it came to taking part in Browder v. Gayle, the class-action lawsuit that ended legal bus segregation in Montgomery and brought the bus boycott to a close. Claudette had become a footnote in most quality civil rights volumes, usually cited in unflattering contrast to Rosa Parks. I gained a chance to introduce readers to a real person, nuanced and dimensional, and delightful. And I also gained a chance to offer an intimate account of the ugliness and pain associated with racial segregation.
YALSA Blog: Many teens already know about the Montgomery bus boycott. How do you tell this well-known story and make it new for readers?
Phillip Hoose: By putting a girl inside it. Who hasn’t wanted to ask a historical figure what it felt like to do whatever they did? Here was a chance to actually talk with a girl who had much to do with starting and successfully concluding the Montgomery bus boycott, an iconic episode in US history. Being able to talk freely and at length with Claudette Colvin gave me the greatest chance to write living history I’ve ever had, and probably ever will have. I was able to ask her what it FELT like to risk her life for her people–twice. I could ask her about her friends, her parents, her sibs, her teachers, her fears, her faith, the sources of her anger, the joys in her life. I could ask her where she found the courage to keep her seat with police advancing down the aisle to remove her and the driver hollering for her to get up. How did her classmates react to her stand? How did it feel to be alone in a cell? The story is made new for young readers because it is told through the experiences of someone their age, with who m they can identify.
YALSA Blog: What was it like to win the National Book Award for this book?
Phillip Hoose: Oh, it was wonderful. To be recognized for hard work that you really believe in is an absolutely great feeling that may never wear off. The best part was getting to take Claudette Colvin up to the podium with me. She has arthritis and walks with a cane, but we took our time and made it together. I said her name and people cheered. Who gets a chance like that?
YALSA Blog: What is the appeal of writing nonfiction, especially nonfiction for young people?
Phillip Hoose: I’ve been doing it for a long time, and I love it. For me, the challenges and opportunities are the same as for a fiction writer. We’re both trying to induce the reader to turn the next page, using strong characters, interesting relationships among them, suspense, drama, villainy, heroism, a longing for love, adventure and approval. But we have an added burden: the story has to be true. To find a dramatic true story with a young protagonist is heaven for me.
YALSA Blog: What five words would you use to describe Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice?
Phillip Hoose: Suspensful, righteous, brave, unyielding, impolite
YALSA Blog: Is there a nonfiction book you particularly admire?
Phillip Hoose: Tons of them. For adults, I loved The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes. For younger readers, I admire Growing Up in Coal Country by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. My own people were coal miners; my grandpa took care of mules underground as a teen.
YALSA Blog: Can you tell us anything about what is coming next from you?
Phillip Hoose: It’s a book about a bird, one that is approaching the brink of extinction but which has not quite reached it, as had the Ivorybilled Woodpecker in my book The Race to Save the Lord God Bird. In other words, there’s still a chance.
YALSA Blog: Thank you, Phillip!