Monday, August 26, 2019

Author Interview with Anna Jean Mayhew: Part I

As a fan of historical fiction, I love it when a book seems so real that it could have happened just like the author described it. That's how I felt when I read Tomorrow's Bread which I reviewed last week. (If you haven't already read my review, please do that first. This interview will make more sense if you do.) Some of my questions about what was real and what was fictionalized were answered in the Author's Note, but not all. As you'll see in this interview, A.J. Mayhew drew from facts and her imagination. There is no better way to write a book. 


CAROL Your books bring to life Charlotte’s history. Can you give us a few words about how growing up in Charlotte shaped your books? 

A. J. In 2008 I returned to my hometown of Charlotte for a high school reunion, and for some reason decided to drive through the heart of the city rather than taking my usual route on the perimeter. It was then that I saw how much open land remained where Brooklyn used to be. I couldn't help wondering why, 40 years later, the city hadn't built on the land they appropriated in 1968. That curiosity led to the writing of Tomorrow's Bread.

CAROL How did your first book, The Dry Grass of August influence Tomorrow’s Bread ? Was this your idea or did your publisher request another book? 

A. J. I got a two-book deal when my agent sold Dry Grass to Kensington Publishing, in 2009; at that time I was given a year to write the second book. But I don't write fast, never have, and I didn't finish Tomorrow's Bread until the winter of 2017. The only real influence of the first novel on the second was that I'd done a lot of research for Dry Grass about black/white history in North Carolina; that came in handy as I started the second novel.

CAROL Where did you get the titles of your novels?

A. J. Both my titles came from poems. The Dry Grass of August is a phrase from Robert Penn Warren's poem, "Star-Fall," and Tomorrow's Bread is from "Democracy" by Langston Hughes. I wish I could write poetry, but I absolutely cannot, have tried. I read it quite a bit, though, and have a deep appreciation for the art form.

CAROL You seem to gravitate towards historical fiction. Please comment on your process of research. Any sticky points? Recommendations for other historical fiction novelists?

A.J. When I began to write Dry Grass it never occurred to me that I was writing historical fiction; I had a story to tell. The fact that it was set in the 1950s and would require a lot of research was of no concern, at least not until I began to have to check facts, to determine whether my memories were accurate. The internet is both a boon and a pit of misinformation. I learned quickly not to trust what I found online unless the source was valid (and sometimes it wasn't easy or even possible to track down an original source). Journals I'd kept over the years (some of them going back to my twenties and thirties) were helpful. Encyclopedia yearbooks were a boon when I discovered them. Old magazines helped me get into the mindset of someone living in the early fifties, especially my female characters. I saw how publications like Good Housekeeping, Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, etc., geared their advertising toward the stay-at-home mom. Magazines aimed at people of color were harder to find, but when I began to write Tomorrow's Bread, I found Ebony and Jet to be of incredible value.

There's a thing I do that might be useful to other writers: When I'm perusing magazines of the period of my story (the 50s for Dry Grass and the 60s for Bread), I find photos of my characters and create a scrap book; for Dry Grass it was a physical book; for Bread it was digital, on my computer. For example, here's a photo of Uncle Ray, sitting on the front porch of 1105 Brown Street, with the old rocking chair behind him.

And here's my doctored photo of 1105 Brown Street, with the magnolia tree dominating the front yard:

And the duplex they find:

CAROL That's what I use Pinterest for!



Next week, A.J. returns with more thoughts about writing historical fiction, writing as a white author, and what she's working on next. I'm giving away my copy of Tomorrow's Bread and the contest ends on September 5. Each time you leave a comment I'll add another entry in your name. Make sure you leave your email address if I don't have it!

Monday, August 19, 2019

TOMORROW'S BREAD: A Review and Giveaway

Congratulations to Gail Cartee who won The End of the World and Beyond on last week's giveaway.

When I began researching Half-Truths someone--I'm afraid I don't remember who it was--told me about how Brooklyn, an African American neighborhood in Charlotte that was leveled as a part of urban renewal.  Tomorrow's Bread by Anna Jean Mayhew, breathes life into that vital, bygone neighborhood. 

This story of a community affected by urban renewal is not unique to Charlotte, NC; but it is told in such well-researched detail that people living in Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis --any area that was torn down and cleared out--will resonate with the book. As A.J. points out in her Author's Note, there were homes that would meet the definition of blight. 

This photo, taken in the old Brooklyn neighborhood, was typical of the image often presented of Charlotte's historically black neighborhood near uptown. In reality, the area was made up of mixed-income residences and businesses.  COURTESY OF CHARLOTTE-MECKLENBURG LIBRARY

But, there were also business, churches, theaters, and spacious brick homes that were destroyed.
Business district in Brooklyn.


This historical novel for adults is told through three different points of view. We see the destruction of the neighborhood primarily through the eyes of Loraylee, a single black mother who lives with her son, uncle and grandmother. Loraylee is in love with a white man, but in the sixties, it is against the law for them to get married. Everyone in Loraylee's family is attached to their friends, fellow church-goers, schools and businesses in Brooklyn; all four can't imagine life elsewhere. Her hard-working and matter-of-fact manner made her a person I would have liked to know. 

Reverend Ebenezer Gabriel Polk ("Eben") is the faithful pastor of St. Tim's and unofficial church historian of the church cemetery and the 151 slaves that were buried there. His third-person account of watching his cemetery and community bulldozed is gripping and poignant. (Personal note: Since I have included  a cemetery disinterment in Half-Truths, I was interested in how Mayhew incorporated that into the story.) Eben's own family history (most likely descended from President Polk), his sorrow over his deceased wife and his brother's tragedies, and his commitment to his community weave throughout the book. 

Persy, a white woman who has had struggles of her own, is the third point-of-view in the story. Her childless and loveless marriage contrasts with the loving family relationships in Brooklyn. Her husband is on the committee for urban renewal and she is as helpless to stop him as she is to heal their failing marriage. Although Persy is mainly on the periphery of the story, her life intersects with Loraylee's when they both are at the beach, and Persy is instrumental in saving Loraylee's son's life in a near-drowning. 

Half-Truths takes place about ten years before Brooklyn's urban renewal. Although it is in a different area of the city, Black leaders were concerned about how urban renewal would not provide relocation to the families and businesses. In this article, local NAACP leader, Mr. Kelly Alexander (who makes a cameo appearance in Half-Truths) stated some of his concerns.  


Next week, I am interviewing A.J. on my blog. Leave me a comment on this blog and I'll enter your name in the giveaway. Enter again next week, and you're in twice! Tomorrow's Bread could be yours! Make sure you leave your email address if you are new to my blog. 

Monday, August 12, 2019

The End of the World and Beyond by Avi: A Review and Audiobook Giveaway

Congratulations to Susan Rice who won One Red Sock on last week's blog. 


I'm a pretty big Avi fan, so when I found The End of the World and Beyond in the Recorded Books catalog, I knew it was a book I'd want to pass along. (I heard Avi speak at the SC Reading Association conference and still quote his thoughts on revision.)

This story of twelve-year-old Oliver Cromwell Pitts takes place in 1725. When the book opens, he is a prisoner on board an English ship taking him to the colonies. Instead of being hung for thievery, Oliver has been sold into slavery. The book is told in first person, uses the language of the times, and is aptly narrated by James LangtonHere is a brief link to the recording so you can get a taste of the book. 

Before boarding the ship, "Goodwill," he and his beloved older sister, Charity, are separated. Finding her is Oliver's driving goal throughout the story.

While on board, Oliver is padlocked to six other prisoners. Their ordeal to survive with chains around their necks, is described in detail. At one point Oliver observes, “Truth is always held up as a shining ideal. ...truth can also be horrific." He develops new empathy for Negroes who are slaves for life. Although his future is dismal, he hopes he'll be able to be freed after his years of service.

The boat docks in Annapolis where the captain proceeds to sell the prisoners. As much as it is an anathema to him, he realizes he must sell himself or become the property of the city. Since he is young, he is passed over and feels shame over being sold for a lot less than the other felons. Locked up for a time because no one purchases him, he concludes that London jails and American jails are both awfulMisery has no geography, and he "remains a tethered bird in a locked cage."

Eventually, he his bought by a cruel master, Mr. Fitzhugh, an alcoholic tobacco planter. Oliver is released from jail and into an unknown, dreadful world. Even on the way to the tobacco farm, escape was always in his mind. "But fear overwhelmed me. My iron collar showed I was an enslaved felon." When he realizes that many people were attempting to running from their masters he observes that this doesn’t speak well of America. 

Oliver's antagonist, Mr. Fitzhugh, is shown vividly through his dialogue and actions. He threatens Oliver, “You are my property... I only do what I want, when I want. If you try to stop me, I’ll kill you." Fitzhugh's ever-present loaded pistol and knife in his belt demonstrate how he is the epitome of being a malicious bully.  

When Oliver gets to his master's house he feels as if he is at the end of the world. There he meets the other servant, a Negro teenager named Bara. Fitzhugh says to Oliver, "Consider yourself lucky. Bara will never get free."

Oliver observes that Bara "is self-contained. It was if most of what he had was within and he had little desire of letting anything out." Bara shows Oliver how to survive Fitzhugh's cruelty and advises him not to resist. "He becomes enraged at resistance. He wants you to fight back." He also suggests that the master will make someone helpless so that he becomes even more helpless as he believes the lies.

Oliver's discovers that his sister Charity is in Philadelphia and his desire to find her leads him to several reckless decisions. Bara is frustrated with him, but together they make a difficult and harrowing escape. When the two part, Oliver feels as if he is saying goodbye to his brother. In fact, Bara was the best friend and mentor Oliver needed. The book chronicles Oliver's physical and psychological maturation.

The ending will surprise you. But, take my word for it, this is a terrific book and classroom resource. It will open middle grade and young adult readers' eyes to slavery and indentured servitude before the Revolution. 


Leave me a comment by August 15 and leave me your email address if you are new to my blog. Start following this blog or share it on social media and you will earn an extra chance to win. 

Monday, August 5, 2019

Two Socks, One Giveaway

Congratulations to Gwen Porter who won "A Boy Like You" and to Linda Townsend who won "A Fist for Joe Louis and Me."


If you didn't win last week, here's another chance at winning an adorable picture book, also courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press. 

Little Sock

This debut picture book by Kia Heise and Chrispher D. Park, is one that children (and their parents or caregivers) will enjoy reading. 

Little Sock is bored. Every day it's the same old thing. He gets worn, gets dirty, and gets washed. "All the other Socks seem happy, but Little Sock dreams of something different." He's heard of a place called Sock City where every day is a new adventure and he is determined to find it--even though it means going through a scary, dark tunnel in the back of the dryer. 

On the other end of the tunnel Little Sock finds Sock City and lots of different Socks,

and determines to go back again. 

Only next time, he'll bring a friend. 

One Red Sock

This is the second book I've reviewed by author-illustrator Jennifer Sattler. Like BULLY, ONE RED SOCK also is light on text but full of bold, larger-than-life illustrations which will amuse young readers.

How many purple hippos do you know who live in a room full of colorful dots? And how many can't seem to find a red sock to match the one she already has on? Young readers will enjoy meeting this unique hippo, identifying colors, and learning the rhymes.

In the end, after trying out a rainbow of colored socks, Ms. Hippo decides to wear one that has polka dots to match her room.

Jennifer was featured last week on Kathy Temean's blog. Check out the link to see more of Jennifer's illustrations and her entire process!


Since my youngest grandson is turning one this week, LITTLE SOCK is on its way to his house. I think his older sister will enjoy reading it to him. 

Four-year-old Eleanor, "reading" Five Little Ladybugs
to her brother, Luke. According to my daughter,
Luke listens the best when she reads to him.
ONE RED SOCK is up for grabs though! Leave me a comment by August 8 and I'll enter your name in the giveaway. Just make sure you leave me your email address if I don't have it.


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