Interview with Hester Bass, author of Seeds of Freedom

Ian and Rachel Oeschger

 

Hester BassChildrens picture books don’t often put you on the evening news. They don’t often get you four interviews in one day, or live follow-up TV sessions. But Hester Bass’s new book Seeds of Freedom, about the civil rights movement and the determined but peaceful integration of Huntsville, Alabama, has people talking.

The picture book, published on January 26th by Candlewick, written by Hester Bass and beautifully illustrated by E.B. Lewis, brings to life both the vital and the mundane details of a community struggling to surmount segregation. It tells a story that even people of Huntsville may not be familiar with. Bass and Lewis’s book is raising the issue of equality in the best way possible, with brilliant storytelling. 

We caught up with Hester Bass at the very beginning of her author’s tour, which begins in Huntsville. She spoke to us by phone about the inspiration and research for the book, how she hopes the book will be taken up by its readers, and its abiding relevance.

I&R: The scenes in your book--of Blue Jean Sunday, balloons tied with notes, a girl with paper pictures of her feet--convey so fantastically the struggles and the triumphs in Huntsville at that time. Can you talk a little bit about story telling? Are these Huntsville lore, or discoveries? At what point in your writing and research do these emerge?

Hester: Telling a true story should be as entertaining as an imagined one, since good nonfiction engages the reader, as fiction does, with a “what happened next” anticipation. Stories emerge when connections are made, when episodes string together to form a dynamic structure that carries the narrative forward. In this case, that framework was apparent in the facts. I think of picture books as short films, with each spread a scene change, and there were so many cinematic moments here, as you describe, with each action leading to the next, building to a resolution.

Seeds of FreedomAs to how I found this story, I’d been living in Huntsville for about 3 or 4 years when I saw a historical marker in the parking lot of a private school where I was performing an author visit. It was the site of the first so-called “reverse” integration of an elementary school in Alabama. I had tried to learn as much as I could about my new home, yet this was news to me.

A few months later, I was stuck in traffic beside one of the Huntsville hospitals, and noticed another historical marker, this one noting the former location of Fifth Avenue School, site of the first integration of a public school in Alabama. The dates on the two markers were within the same week in September 1963. I’d never heard about this either and felt there must be a story here, so I went to the public library in Huntsville to start my research.

Eventually I was able to interview people who were there, including Dr. Sonnie Hereford III, a civil rights leader in his native Huntsville, whose son was that first black child to enter an Alabama public school. (A note of interest: Both Herefords are among the models who posed for illustrator E. B. Lewis as part of on-location photographic recreations of some of these historical scenes, that E. B. used as reference for his watercolor paintings.)

It was a surprise for me to discover in my informal research, asking Alabamians if they knew where school integration had first occurred in the state, that this part of Huntsville’s history did not seem to be common knowledge. I do love little-known bits of history, when ordinary people changed their world, and felt this was a story overdue to be told.

I&R: You lived in Georgia as a young girl, before integration. Did your own first hand experience with school segregation influence this book?

Hester: Absolutely. I was taught, as my parents were before me, that all people deserve respect and consideration, that everyone deserves a fair chance to live up to their potential and be happy. It’s frustrating to me when the uninformed express an assumption that all white Southerners were bigots, because that was not my experience.

As a little girl, I recall violent images on television that I did not understand. My parents tried to explain the prejudice of others, and I remember thinking as a child that it seemed ridiculous to be so mean to somebody because of the way they looked. I still feel that way.

I was a first grader in 1962. All my classmates were white. When I saw black children in town, I wondered where they went to school. In fifth grade, a few black students were present on the first day, and I don’t remember anybody saying anything about it. The ratio gradually increased until I think by ninth grade, students were pretty well mixed. So while my school was regrettably slow to integrate, I knew that peaceful integration was possible and not celebrated often enough.

The dramatic imagery and the swiftness of Huntsville’s peaceful integration are compelling, due to the impressive people who were involved. Both sides had to remain committed to nonviolence and ultimately cooperate. It was difficult, and there were setbacks, but these are everyday people who had the courage to seek change through peaceful means and the perseverance to make it happen. It is the people who inspired me most.

I&R: You also lived in Huntsville up until recently, and now live in the Southwest. What's your sense about the legacy of integration in present-day Huntsville and the South in general? 

Hester: I was born in the south, spent much of my early adulthood in the northeast, and now live in the southwest. I recommend traveling and moving around because it widens perspective – and provides a bank vault of experiences for a writer! Yet I find “legacy” in this case is a hard thing to pin down because the viewpoint is still quite close.

Stemming from the 1962 lawsuit referred to in the book, the public schools in Huntsville still operate under a federal school desegregation court order. Dozens of communities in America from California to New York must do the same, in some cases due to factors that could arguably be claimed to be out of their control, such as neighborhoods that retain traditional racial boundaries. Education is the key to progress, and yet education remains part of the problem. Race relations in America seems to have become a tape loop that needs to somehow be cut.

I lived in Huntsville for ten years and found it to be a vibrant community of highly educated people, with a population representing cultures from around the world. Everybody seemed to get along just fine. But I recall from my research, that in the early 1960s when the African-American leaders first proposed to the Mayor that a Biracial Committee be formed to consider the possibilities for negotiating an end to segregation, the response was that no white leaders could be initially convinced to serve because (and I’m paraphrasing) we can all go to the same bank and we don’t really have any of “those” problems in Huntsville. In essence: we all get along fine. Appearances don’t always tell the whole story.

Any look at current news headlines could make one wonder how far we have actually come in fifty years. Perhaps the legacy of integration in the south can be determined in another fifty or maybe a hundred years, when there’ll be no one living who endured the indignities of segregation.

Eventually, through the peaceful events in Huntsville as described in Seeds of Freedom, enough folks came around to the thinking that over a hundred years of “just the way it is” could be, and should be, changed. My hope is that more people today will examine whatever problems they are facing in getting along with each other in their communities, and find the courage and the creativity to do the same. 

I&R: The contrasts in the book and the subtle treatment of historical events like MLK's speeches give the book a real unique voice. How do you envision this book being used and read? Who is your ideal reader?"

Hester: I see it as a book for schools and libraries, for parents to read aloud to their children, and that children can read on their own as an introduction to the civil rights movement. To me, it’s a book of hope, written for all ages, for everyone.

Candlewick Press has produced a Teachers’ Guide with several suggestions for using the book as a tool to help children understand this difficult time in America’s history. I imagine most people have heard the old adage that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and this is certainly one time in history from which I hope we can move forward through education.

My ideal reader would be someone who is as inspired as I was by the peaceful events in Huntsville, who would look around his or her own community and, if something needs changing, take positive steps to improve things. My ideal reader would be someone who takes the last words of the Author’s Note to heart and to action: “Sometimes all it takes is one person to start something good. In your community, that person could be you.”

Ian and Rachel Oeschger live in Wilmington, NC, far away from the Bay Area where they ran an independent bookstore in the 90s. Rachel is a Montessori-trained preschool teacher at a parents cooperative preschool. Ian is a developer at IBM who moonlights occasionally for SIBA and directs a kids coding program at their son’s elementary school.