Millions and millions of African people were taken captive during the long and horrible time of the Atlantic slave trade. Mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, granddaughters and grandsons, brothers and sisters, friends and enemies were ripped away from their families and taken to the Americas. Untold numbers died. Countless others ended up on plantations. Very few ever went home.
Sarah Margru Kinson did.
Sarah Margru Kinson was a real person, one of four children on the famous slave ship, The Amistad. The Amistad captives were mostly Mende and came from the present-day country of Sierra Leone, a place I knew well as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1970s. The devotion to Africa that Margru expressed in her letters coupled with my own fond memories of Sierra Leone and its people, inspired me to research and tell her story.
After a bumbling first attempt to write about her in a time travel story many years ago, I found more success with creative nonfiction. In the letter I sent to publishers along with that version, I wrote:
My vision of the book is one heavily illustrated with primary sources In fact, I see Margru’s story as a perfect vehicle by which child readers could delve more deeply into Mende life, slavery, life in 1800s US, and more. I have this dream of seeing the narrative in the center of each page surrounded by related newspaper articles, maps, letters, drawings, engravings, paintings, photographs, and other firsthand materials as well as sidebars (say a short glossary of Mende words). That way the child reader would have multiple ways of exploring the book. He/she could begin by reading Margru’s story or perhaps by looking at the images. My fourth grade students adore such books.
Unfortunately, while those considering publishing it found her story fascinating, they complained that Margru was too distant. Readers, they said, wouldn’t be able to connect to her. Since they knew there was little firsthand information about her feelings as a child, they suggested I make it up — that is, write it as historical fiction. I was uncomfortable at first — I wanted to be sure that kids knew that she was a real person and besides, who was I to even try to imagine how she felt about her harrowing experiences? (Aha, you say, now I get her obsession with this genre!)
After many more drafts and discussions with editors, I finally came up with a fictional idea that kept her real, but allowed me a way to bring her closer to the readers too — a scrapbook. With that I was finally able to write it as historical fiction — imagining Margru herself putting that scrapbook together and writing down her story as she did so. This idea worked for one editor, but not her house. The next editor had a different idea — turn it back into nonfiction! Her reasons were valid and her suggestions strong. I was all set to do so last summer when I was told I had to withdraw it from the publisher until I was finished with the Newbery. Bummed doesn’t even begin to describe my feeling. I tried to do the revision, but my heart wasn’t in it knowing I couldn’t give it back till January 2008. So I decided to put it away, read and think, and return to Margru some day.
And then I began blogging with my kids and all sorts of ideas came bursting out including one of putting my manuscript on a private blog for my kids to read during our February study of forced immigration. And so I did and so they are and so far it has been great. I wasn’t sure it would be. A few years ago at the suggestion of an editor I read a bit of the manuscript to a class and found that a very weird feeling indeed. But this is different — they are reading it to themselves.
If you are interested in their progress and opinions you can check them out on our class blog and theirs as well. The manuscript is private as I still am optimistic that some day, somewhere, and somehow it will be published as a book.
ETA October 2010 I sold the book to Candlewick a year ago and so it will indeed be published as a book in a few years.
ETA January 2013 The book will be out this coming October!