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Suzanne McCabe
Scholastic Editor-at-Large

“Rejoice in the Legacy”

The African American Experience: A Conversation With Andrea Davis Pinkney

Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb: “The two of them flew to the Savoy Ballroom, the hippest dance spot in Harlem.”
Image: © Brian Pinkney, from Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa

“Ella’s voice was its own instrument,” writes Andrea Davis Pinkney in Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa. Pinkney captures the spirit of that voice, “like a runaway leaf flying high on a breeze,” in her own prose. The best-selling author of more than 20 books for children and young adults, Pinkney is also an editor at Scholastic. I recently spoke with her about her award-winning work and the legacy of other American American writers, including Walter Dean Myers, whose books she edited. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Q: What are some of the most memorable books you read as a child?

A: Let me say, first of all, that I was a person who struggled as a reader. I think back to “round-robin reading,” which was my greatest humiliation. I hated it. Thankfully, I had teachers who understood that I needed books that were accessible to me and that were highly visual. One of my favorites—and it’s still my favorite—was Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss. As I look back now, I think it’s because of the musicality of that book. It wasn’t like reading to me. It felt like poetry. It felt like music.

There’s a line in Hop on Pop that says, “We all are tall.” Now, as an adult and as a parent, I think that one line packs so much. We all have a gift that we bring and something that makes us special.

You have two children who are teenagers. What books did they enjoy most when they were younger?

They liked books about real people who did things that really happened that were cool. They were always trying to find nonfiction books that were intriguing to them—about presidents, women who changed history…. But they would often say to me, “A lot of these books are like yucky spinach.” They’d want to read about Susan B. Anthony, but in lively prose. It was an inspiration for me as an author to stop delivering yucky spinach.

Is that what led to books like Ella Fitzgerald?

That book actually comes out of the Hop on Pop experience. As does Duke Ellington. I believe that musicians are storytellers in many ways. They tell their stories through their music, through their singing.

In the case of Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, it was an opportunity to present these two notable African Americans, and to also pack in a lot of information about other things—the history of Harlem, the Harlem Renaissance, music, African American achievement.

When you were writing about Ellington and Fitzgerald, did you listen to their music in the context of the African American experience?  

One of the great things about being an author is that you can be lying on the couch listening to Duke Ellington’s music and, technically, you’re working, you’re writing a book.

With each musician, I started with what they were like as a child. Kids today are watching The X Factor, The Voice, and American Idol. That’s how Ella Fitzgerald began her career. She entered a talent contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem at age 17. She won the contest and decided that she wanted to become a singer.

In the case of Duke Ellington, his parents begged him to practice piano. He hated it. He really wanted to be a baseball player. It says in the book: “He quit his lessons and kissed the piano a fast good-bye.”

That’s true of a lot of kids. I go into schools and ask, “How many of you take piano lessons?” “How many like it?” “How many don’t like to practice?”

Those were the beginnings for Ella and Duke that led to who they became. Duke Ellington later found a piano in a nightclub. He taught himself to play Ragtime music, and his career evolved from there.

The power of self-expression is evident in much of your work. Could you tell us about The Red Pencil, your most recent book?

The Red Pencil is set in 2003-’04 in Sudan, at the start of the Darfur genocide. It’s the story of a 12-year-old girl, Amira, who wants more than anything to learn to read and write. But she is dissuaded by the beliefs of her traditional farming family. This is still the belief of many families today, that girls should marry and tend to the farm.

The war comes, and Amira and her family are made to go to a refugee camp. Amid the horrors, Amira is given the gift of a red pencil, and it changes her destiny.

The book was inspired by my own children learning about war in middle school. I asked my kids: What are you learning about the Darfur genocide? They were able to explain it to me to the extent that they could. I started to think, How does a young person understand the impact of war? I wanted to make that situation more accessible.  

What did you enjoy most about working with Walter Dean Myers, and what do you see as his greatest legacy?

Walter and I worked together in many different ways. I was his editor at Scholastic, and I currently manage his backlist. I also knew Walter as a fellow author and member of the children’s publishing community. So we had many ways in which our work and our passions and our mission overlapped.

When Walter became the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in 2012, his platform was “Reading Is Not Optional.” By that he meant, with all the advances we’re making in technology and education, literacy is the key. It’s not an option. We have to instill the importance of literacy in young people.

Walter was also a big believer in the importance of reading as a family. As parents, we must model reading even if we’re not competent readers. We must engage our children in the act of reading. 

Walter visited many detention centers, jails, and incarcerated children and parents, especially fathers. While there, he really drove that point home. He always had his eyes on the prize of literacy and the idea that it’s important for mothers and fathers to read to their children. Reading begins at home. It’s an act of familyhood.

In 2014, you were chosen to deliver the May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture. What did you tell attendees?

To give you some background, Arbuthnot was a kindergarten teacher. She was an early believer in the power of reading aloud and making reading accessible from the time a child is very young. When you’re chosen to deliver the lecture, you have to come up with a title. I chose “Rejoice in the Legacy.” I conveyed—as an African American author, reader, editor, and mother—that there is a long legacy of African Americans in the United States reading, writing, and speaking.

I talked about something that I grew up hearing, the beauty of what I call “the fine black line.” That is the lineage of African Americans reading and writing. Think of Frederick Douglass, who was self-taught. In his autobiography, he wrote, “The more I read, the more I was led.” The act of reading leads us to understanding.

There are many, many writers along the fine black line, from Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright to Virginia Hamilton, Patricia McKissack, and Walter Dean Myers. We can all rejoice in the legacy of African American reading and writing.

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