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 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.
At first, I wasn’t sure I could even write for children much less about such a difficult topic. In the letter I sent to publishers along with my first nonfiction 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 editors 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?
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 just that during the summer of 2007 when, just as I was about to begin my term on the Newbery Award Committee, I was told that I had to withdraw it from the publisher until my service was over or withdraw from the committee. Bummed doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings. Knowing I couldn’t give it back to the editor till January 2008, I put it away for the time being.
And then I began blogging with my 4th grade students and all sorts of ideas came bursting out including one of putting my manuscript on a private blog for them to read during our unit on forced immigration. And so I did and so they did and it turned out to be great. A few years earlier 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 was different —- they were reading it for themselves. And so, over the next few years, my class and others (as my colleagues wanted in on this) read and responded to the online version of my story of Margru.
When my Newbery work was done I fully intended to return to the job of turning the story back into nonfiction, but discovered I had a problem. I didn’t want to. I’d spent a long time going across the border to fiction and now I didn’t want to go back. I liked the version I now had and didn’t want to change it. But if I didn’t who would want it? I felt stymied about what to do: try to find someone who would like the fictionalized version or take another stab at turning it back into nonfiction?
In May of 2009 I was at a dinner hosted by Candlewick Press and sat next to the publisher, Karen Lotz, who asked me what my summer plans were. I started to tell her the whole saga and within moments she had clearly decided she wanted the book. I couldn’t quite believe it, but recall saying to someone as I left the restaurant in a dazed tone that I thought I’d sold my book. And indeed I had — the deal was announced a few months later.
Sarah Ketchersid became my editor and gave me quite a few pages of revision notes. But they were relatively small things — the manuscript basically worked for her. In fact, she helped me figure out a couple of things that had stymied me till then and I was very grateful.
Next came finding an illustrator; I was thrilled when Robert Byrd agreed to take on the project having known his work for “my” Newbery Medal, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!. Then there were sketches to consider, the book’s design, copy editing, fact checking, permissions, an author’s note, and more. Seeing the final art was awesome — Bob’s work is absolutely extraordinary and I couldn’t be happier with it.
And so here we are, at long last –with the published book!