Monday, March 25, 2013

Segregated 1960s Inspired Augusta Scattergood's 'Glory Be'

Sometimes characters linger with us long after we've closed the covers of their books and put them back on the shelf. That's what happened to me with Augusta Scattergood's memorable protagonist Gloriana June Hemphill, or Glory, as she's known to everybody in her small Mississippi town.

A former librarian (she reports to have been a fifth-grade library monitor when she heard her calling), blogger, and children's book reviewer, Augusta has devoted her career to getting good books into the hands of young readers. Glory Be (Scholastic, 2012) is her debut novel. And with it, Augusta taps real-life experiences of growing up in small-town Mississippi during the 1960s, creating a captivating middle-grade story that some have called The Help for kids.

Set in 1964 during "Freedom Summer," an effort by civil rights organizations to register African American voters across Mississippi, Glory Be tells the story of 11-year-old Glory, who is counting down the days until she can celebrate her birthday at the local swimming pool. But everything is different this year, with her older sister crazy for Elvis and a new boy in town. And things are getting more complicated with her best friend, Frankie. When the swimming pool is closed for "repairs," Glory doesn't believe it. What follows is a tale of family and growing up in a world that isn't always fair.

Question: You're a Southerner who grew up during the tumultuous Freedom Summer of 1964, when things were changing across the nation but particularly in Mississippi and the Deep South. How much did your experience play into Glory Be

Augusta Scattergood: I've always been intrigued by what happened in our country in the '60s and have read a lot about it. But when we were Glory's age, neither I nor any of my friends who lived in small towns in the South were brave enough to speak up like she did. We were pretty much oblivious to the situation. Although we lived in a very segregated world, 11-year-old girls didn't ask many questions then.

In the '60s, we didn't live under a 24-7 newsfeed!

While I worked in a public library under pressure to close and in schools under federal order to desegregate in the late 1960s and early 1970s, not many of Glory's actual experiences in the book came from my own memory.

Recently a fifth-grade boy asked me about "Sixties culture" and how did I use that in my book? (Pretty good question for an 11-year-old!) Now that comes right from my own memory. The Pep Squad, the football, the hair, the clothes, and the music – that part of the book I lived and breathed!

Q: Writers are told to "write what you know." But sometimes when we tackle subjects that are so well-known to us, so dear to our hearts, the burden of getting it right is tremendous. How did it feel writing Glory Be? Did you feel pressure to get it right, or did the process come naturally for you?

AS: I felt a lot of pressure! I hope I got it right. But then again, getting it right is pretty subjective, isn't it?

I especially wanted to write something that would be accessible to younger readers. Many books set in this time and place are not so easily read, discussed and eventually, I hope, understood by younger middle-grade readers.

Q: Glory is a typical almost-12-year-old whose primary concern is making sure the swimming pool is open for her annual birthday party. I think Glory Be succeeds because of this approach – keeping the issues so personal and so appropriate for a child reader to relate to and connect with. Was it hard finding the right angle into your greater idea for Glory Be?

AS: All along, I knew that part of the story. Having read and heard about pools closing, not just in the South but all over the country, I wanted Glory to worry about what might happen to her pool.  And I always envisioned her with an older sister who was pulling away, as a preacher's kid who had the community's eyes constantly watching her, and being cared for by someone she loved.

But, alarmingly, when I first put pen to paper, I thought I was writing a short story about a wedding planner babysitting two bratty sisters who sneaked and played their game of Junk Poker. It got very convoluted. Pretty soon, I  realized I didn't know how to nor did I want to write for grownups!

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Glory Be?

AS: One of the best things about moving from one side of the library shelf to the other, from all my years as a school librarian to seeing kids' and teachers' reactions to my book. Remarkable pictures of a book project in Mississippi and book trailers done by a class in Ohio amaze and delight me. They've really taken Glory Be to heart. That's really all I ask. That kids who read the novel not only learn a little, ask a few more questions, and smile at some parts. Actually, that's quite a bit to ask!

Q: What do you hope to achieve with your writing? And what will we see next from you?

AS: I love writing for middle-grade readers, their teachers and parents, and the generation who lived in the '60s. One thing I always do is remind young readers to talk to that generation. I hope my books help make connections.

Next up? My second middle-grade comes from Scholastic in the fall of 2014. My amazing editor and I are working hard on revisions right now. And I'm beginning to tinker with a third manuscript, also historical, set in the South. About all I can tell you with certainty is that the narrator is a girl named Azalea. And she has friends and family, and enemies. Always need those enemies!

I'm not too great at talking about my stories until I hold the actual book in my hand. Then you can't shut me up.