2009 National Book Award Winner YPL
Interview with Phillip Hoose

Phillip Hoose

Claudette Colvin:
Twice Toward Justice

Melanie Kroupa Books, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Photo credit: Portland Press-Herald

Interviewed by Willie Perdomo

Willie Perdomo: Your books tend to be about the voices that are ignored, marginalized, or simply forgotten. From one book to the next, how do you choose what you’re going to write about?

Phillip Hoose: Yes, I look for voices that deserve to be heard but haven't been. Claudette Colvin was in danger not so much of being totally erased from history, but of always having her story told incompletely and in unflattering comparison to someone else’s—Rosa Parks’. I kept thinking, I’d love to hear Claudette Colvin’s side of the story. I’ll bet it would be a lot different.

It was very much the same with We Were There Too: Young People in U.S. History. A girl I interviewed for a previous book complained that people her age were totally absent from her U.S. history book. “How does that make you feel?” I asked. “Invisible,” she replied. She said she felt as though she wouldn’t qualify as a real person until she became an adult. It really got to me. I spent the next six years writing a history book of and for young people.

I work on the staff of The Nature Conservancy, whose mission is to forestall species extinctions by preserving habitats, so extinction is often on my mind. I had known about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker for decades before I decided to write The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, but going down to see the Singer Tract in Louisiana where the great birds made their last stand made me feel a profound sense of loss and longing. I became determined to tell the story in a way that others would feel it, too.

Hey Little Ant was also very personal: One day I saw one of my daughters casually flattening ants in the driveway and asked her how she would like to be one of the ants. She shrugged. It gave me the idea for a dialogue between an ant about to get squished and a child about to squish it.

The stories I choose have an intensely personal voice at the center. Before I met her, I kept wondering what it would have been like to be around Claudette Colvin in 1955. Could we have possibly been friends? Would it even have been possible for me to have met her? At what price? What was it like to be her friend? What was it like in her family with so much tension in the air? Who supported her? Who abandoned her? As soon as I discovered Claudette Colvin while writing We Were There, Too! I set about trying to reach her. It took years to find her, and then even longer to establish the strong connection that allowed us to work together on this book. But we persisted. And now she will be with me in New York at the National Book Award Ceremony.

WP: How much of a moral responsibility did you feel toward Ms. Colvin while you were working on Twice Toward Justice?

PH: I try to convey the truth of every story I tell. Because Claudette was willing to trust me with her feelings and experiences, I felt a strong obligation to get her story right. Beyond that, I felt a responsibility to the story of the Montgomery bus protest. It was incomplete. An important voice was missing. I wanted to add it, as accurately and powerfully as I could.

WP: Do you think politics can be separated from art? How much of your work is connected to the idea of community service?

PH: I don't think it's possible for me to write about things that don't matter. Each of my nine books has been connected with building and preserving community in one way or another. I try to inspire activism through stories. The same elements that make fiction powerful animate non-fiction too: strong characters with deep feelings, interesting relationships among them, obstacles, suspense, conflict, desire. I think people learn mainly through stories. I hope and trust that a reader who comes to know Claudette Colvin through my book will respond to the girl inside the historical event, to how she felt as well as to what she did. As for politics, yes, maybe they'll be inspired to reach out in some way themselves, or, at the very least, see the world differently and treat those in their own communities with greater care.

Willie Perdomo is the author Where a Nickel Costs a Dime and Smoking Lovely, which received a PEN America Beyond Margins Award. He has also been published in The New York Times Magazine, Bomb, CENTRO Journal and African Voices. His children's book, Visiting Langston, received a Coretta Scott King Honor. He has been a Pushcart Prize nominee, a Woolrich Fellow in Creative Writing at Columbia University and is a 2009 fellow in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He is co-founder/publisher of Cypher Books. willieperdomo.com