A few weeks ago, my eleven-year-old son came across that heart-breaking photo of the little boy who drowned when his refugee boat capsized. As hard as it was, I sat he and his nine-year-old sister down to talk about the Syrian refugee crisis. The conversation was scary for all of us, but it also got me started thinking about the way books can create opportunities to have these conversations with the young people in our lives.
So when I picked up Lisa Lewis Tyre’s Last in a Long Line of Rebels, I just knew I had to talk to her about her amazing book, about tackling tough topics with middle-grade readers, and about how her home-town has reacted to a book that examines slavery’s legacy in a small Tennessee town.
Me: What made you decide to write a middle-grade book that addresses racism?
Lisa: Actually, I didn’t set out to write a story that deals with race. I knew I wanted it to be a story about Lou trying to save her house and some Civil War gold, and I knew that I wanted to include a Civil War diary, but that was about it. As I sat down to write, I thought it would be interesting to start each chapter off with an excerpt from the diary to show how things in the present day had changed. That decision led me to introduce Isaac Coleman and his story line. It felt like a very natural progression.
Me: What has the response been like in your home town?
Lisa: Incredibly supportive! I’ve had emails and messages from my high-school teachers, old classmates, even one from a fellow who said he used to visit my dad’s bar in the 70s. It’s been very humbling the way everyone has rallied around REBELS.
Me: The way Lou thinks about and processes the injustices she encounters in the story felt so natural and real, not at all preachy. And I loved that in some ways the adult characters were figuring things out right alongside Lou. Does this in some way mirror your own thoughts about growing up in the south?
Lisa: Lou is a lot wiser than I was at her age. When I graduated, there wasn’t a single African-American in my high-school. I had this idea that everyone’s life experience was the same as mine.
I didn’t really see racism in action until I was in college. I became friends with an African-American girl named Cynthia who lived in my dorm. We went shopping at the mall, and suddenly I noticed security following us. That had never happened before, not when I was with my white friends. We didn’t use the term “white privilege” back then, but I recognized the injustice of it. It was a teachable moment for me.
Adults don’t have it figured out, me most of all, but I think we have a responsibility to try to learn. And to listen.
Me: What’s the toughest question you’ve been asked (by a child or adult) about this story?
Lisa: No one has asked me anything particularly tough yet, but one editor asked me a sad question. There’s a scene where the family is sitting around discussing someone’s use of the N-word. One kid has never heard it. The editor wanted to know if that was realistic. That hurt my heart. My daughter hadn’t heard it and I would hope that she’s not alone.
Me: What tips do you have for talking with MG-aged children about such complex topics as racism, faith, and the less savory aspects of our own US history?
Lisa: I’m a firm believer in discussing the hard things. My great, great, great grand-father was a Confederate soldier. I’ve used that fact to talk to my daughter about slavery, the Confederate Flag, etc. How could people have thought that was okay? What are we accepting today that our ancestors will look back and question?
As a mom, I want to make a safe place for my daughter to ask questions about faith, race, whatever! Be honest about the family history and use it to promote dialogue. Lou’s dad wants to protect her from the ugliness of racism, but that’s not an option for a lot of people. Encourage your kids to find their voice and not be afraid to stand up for what’s right even if it’s unpopular.
Thank you, Lisa, and best of luck with Last in a Long Line of Rebels!
About Last in a Long Line of Rebels (from Indie-Bound):
Debut novelist Lisa Lewis Tyre vibrantly brings a small town and its outspoken characters to life, as she explores race and other community issues from both the Civil War and the present day.
Lou might be only twelve, but she’s never been one to take things sitting down. So when her Civil War-era house is about to be condemned, she’s determined to save it either by getting it deemed a historic landmark or by finding the stash of gold rumored to be hidden nearby during the war. As Lou digs into the past, her eyes are opened when she finds that her ancestors ran the gamut of slave owners, renegades, thieves and abolitionists. Meanwhile, some incidents in her town show her that many Civil War era prejudices still survive and that the past can keep repeating itself if we let it. Digging into her past shows Lou that it’s never too late to fight injustice, and she starts to see the real value of understanding and exploring her roots.