Children's Literature Reviews for Teaching History

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Interview with Irene Latham

I've always been an advocate for teaching critical thinking in the classroom.  It empowers students when you remind them that words don't just magically appear on the pages of a book -- that instead each word is the result of a real person putting into practice the same skills students are learning in class (researching, asking questions, reading, writing, and revising).  Giving students a glimpse of the work that goes into writing historical fiction can give meaning to their own work.

Today, I'm excited to offer you an interview with the fabulous Irene Latham, author of Leaving Gee's BendHer answers highlight the incredible love and dedication she invested in writing this story.

***The review of Leaving Gee's Bend is posted here.***

What inspired you to write Leaving Gee's Bend?
"I just watched the movie "The Social Network," and one thing I love about it is how it shows that an idea is inspired by countless interactions and impulses that somehow come together to make The Big Idea. It's such a mixed-up mess of string that it's virtually impossible to untangle. It's the same for this book. But I can tell you that the most immediate impulse for LEAVING GEE'S BEND was a trip my husband took to New York City, where we waited in line for two hours on the last day of the exhibit to see The Quilts of Gee's Bend at the Whitney Museum. I was overwhelmed by the colors and the textures and the voices of the women (as I first heard them on a documentary film that the museum had playing in another room). But before I viewed the exhibit were years and years going to sleep to the hum of my mother's sewing machine and hours and hours listening to my husband's grandmother (the real-life Ludelphia) tell the stories behind the many quilts she created."

What sort of research did you do to help you write it?
"Fortunately for me the history of Gee's Bend has been well-documented, in part due to the work of the amazing historians behind the quilt exhibit, and in part due to a certain president named Franklin Delano Roosevelt who hired photographers to document how awful conditions were in Gee's Bend during the 1930's so that there would be photographic proof of how his government housing affected positive change for the area. I spent a lot of time with the personal histories recorded by the women, and I spent hundreds of hours listening to recordings. This auditory research was essential for capturing Ludelphia's voice. I visited Gee's Bend, of course, and spent many hours and Wilcox County Public Library perusing microfiche of 1932 and 1933 issues of the Wilcox Progressive Era (local newspaper)."

What was the most difficult part of writing the book?
"The most difficult part for me was getting over my fear of writing a book in the voice of a 1932 African American girl growing up in poverty when I, the author, am none of those things. The weight of accountability is trememdous whenever one writes historical fiction, and especially so when one chooses to write outside one's culture. I just really wanted to get it right. I almost bailed out at one point, but an amazing writer by the name of Julius Lester helped set me back on course. (I blogged about that experience here.) Ultimately I had to keep reminding myself that I approached this story with love, what made me want to write it was love. And whatever the culture, we all feel the same feelings. I had to trust that the emotional experience of being human would carry the story."

What was your favorite part of the writing process?
"There are a couple of moments that stand out to me. The first happened when I was still casting around for the best way to tell this story and I, just for fun, decided to switch from third person pov to first person -- actually "owning" Ludelphia's voice. And that's when the magic happened. That's when Ludelphia really sprang to life with all her sassy goodness. The second moment that stands out is when I first saw the cover concept. It was an emotional moment for me -- I thought, there she is, Ludelphia, with that foot up in the air, actually doing it -- leaving Gee's Bend. I thought the cover was perfect, and I was so moved by the fact that the art department -- people I didn't even know -- read my book and saw the girl I saw. It was the first of many, many special connections I've made with readers since the book's release."

What were some of your favorite books as a child?
"It should come as no surprise that I loved historical fiction, especially Little House on the Prairie. I really can't think of another series that has influenced as many writers. I also loved horse books like the Black Stallion series and adventure books, and I was a sucker for anything Arthurian. My main requirement for a book was that it be LONG. I loved sinking into stories that went on and on and on."

Ms. Latham's most recent book, a collection of poems entitled The Color of Lost Rooms was just released last month.


  1. Leaving Gee's Bend is a fabulous book! Thanks for a great interview.

  2. Wonderful interview...Thanks for sharing..
    Research Paper