Inspired by the author’s own childhood in Mississippi in the ’60s, Revolution is an unforgettable story of big changes—for a nation and for the two young characters at the heart of this book.
Why did you choose to tell the story of the Freedom Summer through the eyes of a white character, especially one who isn’t initially a firm believer in civil rights?
I chose to tell the story as I witnessed it in 1964. I was a white kid in Mississippi in 1964, and I didn’t understand what was happening. I couldn’t be called a “believer” in civil rights per se, as I didn’t know what that meant. Children have a finely honed sense of justice and fairness, however, and I knew something was wrong and unfair, although I couldn’t articulate it. At first, when “everything closed”—the pool, the rollerskating rink, the ice cream place, the library, the movie theater—all I could think was, now I won’t be able to do these things—how unfair! I hadn’t realized that there were kids my age who had never been able to do these things, because of the color of their skin. I always say this was the summer I began to pay attention.
When I wrote Revolution, I wanted Sunny to have such an awakening. I wanted her to begin to pay attention. I wanted her to expand her thinking, and thereby her world. Everything she hears, sees and experiences serves that awakening.
You don’t shy away from depicting the violence directed at blacks and the whites who are trying to help them. Why do you think it’s important for Sunny to observe this violence firsthand?
I need the reader to observe it! Sunny and Raymond are the eyes and ears of the reader, and through them the reader experiences Freedom Summer, as well as what it’s like to grow up with hopes and dreams within a loving family; what it’s like to weather storms together, to be scared together, to face hatred and change together; what honor and dignity look like; what it’s like to not understand what’s happening in your world, to seek out answers.
You spent much of your childhood in Mississippi. Were you able to draw on any personal experiences when writing Revolution?
I was born in Mobile, Alabama, and spent my growing up summers in Mississippi, at my grandmother’s home. I went to college in Mississippi in 1971, where there were still “colored” and “white” drinking fountains on campus. I grew up as an Air Force kid—which I write about in Countdown—so going home to Mississippi (where my parents were born and bred) was like entering another world, but one as familiar to me as breathing. I loved it fiercely—still do. I was largely sheltered from any civil rights unrest. Our little town was very rural, and there was no Freedom House in Jasper County, but I have vivid memories of “everything closing,” and of the small moments I observed as I began to pay attention. I saw, for instance, how Annie Mae, who worked for my grandmother, was treated in town. I wrote about this in my first book, Freedom Summer. I was confused and longed to talk about these things and understand what was happening. In creating Sunny, I gave myself a way to be part of the Movement.
The articles and photographs never overwhelm the story, but rather provide glimpses of the historical backdrop. How should young people approach these documentary materials?
They serve as a way to look at the larger world while the more intimate story plays out in the book. As writers and readers, we often look at a story—especially historical fiction—as happening in one small pocket of the historical world, when in reality so much is happening that’s important to a story, that defines it. The Beatles coming to America in 1964 is a defining feature of Sunny’s life and friendships, and I want you to see it. I want to see it, as I am such a visual learner and reader. I teach writing in schools, where I tell students and teachers about the awakening moments for me as a writer, when I learned that I could access the whole world in telling my story—an outer story and an inner story, if you will.
What was your favorite thing you learned during the research process for Revolution?
It astounded me, first of all, how little I really understood about Freedom Summer, especially as I had written a picture book called Freedom Summer in 2001, which had required me to do some research into the Civil Rights Act. As I dug deeper for Revolution, to write a documentary novel, I was most surprised to find what a local movement Freedom Summer had been. Yes, SNCC organized Freedom Summer, working with other civil rights organizations. Yes, they came into Mississippi—1,000 strong in 1964, mostly white, mostly college students—to register black voters, and yet the philosophy of SNCC was to help the local people who were already ready for change—already working for it—stand up and be supported and learn the tactics they could use after SNCC left to continue to work for change.
What would you say to young readers who want to make a positive change in the world?
Ask questions. Pay attention. Educate yourself. Find your people and stand for what you believe in. In Revolution, Sunny is almost 13 years old, and she makes a difference. Raymond, who is 14, certainly makes a difference as he learns to work in his community, learns to channel his frustration and anger, and learns that his dignity has no price. He teaches Sunny this, too, without saying a word to her. This is how we make a difference, one choice at a time, over and over again.
What can readers expect from the final installment in the Sixties Trilogy?
Book three takes place in 1968, in the San Francisco Bay area, and takes us into the turmoil of that year with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the Democratic National Convention, the Vietnam War, the counterculture, rock and roll (baby!) and the antiwar movement. I can’t wait to be steeped in this world and to find my story. I’m convinced that stories help us to understand ourselves and change the world.