Today, I’m beyond thrilled to welcome acclaimed children’s author Andrea Davis Pinkney to the Mixed-Up Files!
Andrea is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of nearly 60 books for young readers, among them The Red Pencil and A Poem for Peter, as well as several collaborations with her husband Brian Pinkney, including Sit-In and Hand in Hand, which received the Coretta Scott King Book Award.
Her latest book, Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It, is a series of dramatic monologues narrated by three members of the Little family, Loretta, Roly, and Aggie. B. The novel has received four starred reviews to date – from Kirkus, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist. Entertainment Weekly called the book “prescient” and a must for your anti-racist reading list. The book is illustrated by Brian Pinkney and available from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
A glimpse into Loretta Little Looks Back:
“Right here, I’m sharing the honest-to-goodness.” — Loretta
“I’m gon’ reach back, and tell how it all went. I’m gon’ speak on it. My way.”— Roly
“I got more nerve than a bad tooth. But there’s nothing bad about being bold.” — Aggie B.
Loretta, Roly, and Aggie B., members of the Little family, each present the vivid story of their young lives, spanning three generations. Their separate stories–beginning in a cotton field in 1927 and ending at the presidential election of 1968–come together to create one unforgettable journey.
Through an evocative mix of fictional first-person narratives, spoken-word poems, folk myths, gospel rhythms and blues influences, Loretta Little Looks Back weaves an immersive tapestry that illuminates the dignity of sharecroppers in the rural South.
Inspired by storytelling’s oral tradition, stirring vignettes are presented in a series of theatrical monologues that paint a gripping, multidimensional portrait of America’s struggle for civil rights as seen through the eyes of the children who lived it.
Q&A with Andrea Davis Pinkney
MR: A hearty welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Andrea! First and foremost, I must tell you how much I adored Loretta Little. Not only was the format highly original, each of the three narrators—Loretta, Roly, and Aggie B.—has a remarkably distinctive voice. As a writer, this is no mean feat. What’s your secret for getting inside a character’s head?
So happy to be here, Mixed-Up Files! Thank you for inviting me to your party. I’m glad you enjoyed Loretta Little Looks Back. Actually, I don’t get inside characters’ heads – they inhabit my thoughts. And they bury themselves in my heart, too. I feel like Loretta Little Looks Back wrote itself. These kids just started talking to me, each in their own brassy ways. One by one, they walked up, stared me down, and spoke. And they wouldn’t stop! That’s when the writing began. Roly, Loretta, and Aggie B. compelled me to share their stories with other kids like them who are passionate about what they believe is right.
Balancing fact and fiction
MR: Speaking of Loretta, Roly, and Aggie B., I read in your author’s note that the characters are based on members of your family. Aggie B., for instance, is a composite of your aunt Katherine and your mother, Gwen. Real-life historical figures are featured in your novel, too, including civil-rights activists James Forman, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Charles McLaurin. The rural setting—Ruleville, Mississippi—is also real. What is the biggest challenge of blending—and balancing—fact and fiction?
Yes, this book’s branches come from the roots of my family tree. They spring from the lives and times of the kinfolk who raised me. I come from a long line of grass-roots civil rights organizers. When I was growing up, I heard my family’s stories on porches and at the supper table. Many of these ended up on the pages of this book. My late father marched with Dr. King, and my mom was one of the first Black members of the League of Women Voters, so blending fact and fiction came naturally.
MR: In this novel, you cover life-changing historical ground—particularly, the struggle for Black Americans to secure the right to vote. To point out one example, young social activist Aggie B. becomes one of the youngest members of SNCC (the student wing of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, organized by Ella Baker and SCLC’s founder, Martin Luther King, Jr.), and she later sustains a brutal beating as a result of her activism. What parallels do you see between the events you describe in Loretta Little Looks Back and the current call for racial equity via the Black Lives Matter movement?
One of my favorite scenes in Loretta Little Looks Back happens in 1964, when young Aggie B. accompanies her Aunt ‘Retta to a local SNCC meeting that is seeking volunteers to register to vote. It’s the Jim Crow south, so folks are reluctant. When they ask for a show of hands, nobody is brave enough – except Aggie. She says: My hand had a mind of its own. It raised itself so far, I thought my palm and fingers would fly off the top of my wrist! I knew that being only twelve years old, I was too young to register to vote. But my hand didn’t care about the age a person needed to be to help make things better.
This scene is punctuated by a painting of Aggie B. with an exaggerated hand that reaches its way off the page to bring visual power, affirming that the future is the hands of our kids. This is exactly what kids are doing today. They’re raising their hands to becoming change-agents. It’s young people who are out there right now on the sidewalks and streets, letting the world know their voices are important. These are the voters of tomorrow. It’s up to us adults to pull up a chair, and let them talk to us – and to listen!
Trust, hope, and stars
MR: Loss is an important theme in Loretta Little. The loss of a parent, of a spouse, of land, of basic human dignity, of hope… As Aggie B. says, “You can only see stars when the sky is the darkest.” What is the message you are trying to convey?
The Little family endures so much injustice. They transcend and triumph, too. One of the narrative elements that appears throughout their stories is the concept of “can’t see,” which refers to the dark hours right before the sun rises, when there are still stars in the sky, reminding us of hope. Daybreak always comes. Trusting in that is what hope and stars are all about.
Brian Pinkney and “the three C’s”
MR: As most kidlit afficionados know, you and your husband, illustrator Brian Pinkney, have published nearly 60 books between the two of you — Brian is you collaborator in art, and in life. [The Pinkneys have been together for 30 years and have been dubbed a “Picture Book Perfect Author-Illustrator Couple” by NPR.] How do you maintain a work/life balance? Also, how do you and Brian decide which projects to tackle? I’m guessing arm-wrestling is not involved. 🙂
Working with the one you love can be a beautiful experience — or a fast track to disaster! Brian and I have come up with some great strategies for making books while staying happily married. We have a weekly “meeting” each Saturday at our dining room table to review our projects, and to sit down together to talk about them.
Before and after the meeting, we don’t discuss work at all. Our weekly meetings are when we brainstorm project ideas. We have a running list. The ones that keep bubbling to the top are those we work on first. Others can linger for as long as a decade, and then, suddenly, something happens and we move ahead with one or two of those. At every stage of the creative process, we abide by “the three C’s” – Courtesy, Communication, Commitment. These simple words have been the key to keeping our love at the center of our creative lives together. We steer clear of arm-wrestling!
Andrea’s many hats
MR: In addition to writing children’s books, you are the Vice President and Executive Editor at Scholastic. This is a tricky balancing act as well. How do you separate “Andrea the Editor” from “Andrea the Writer”?
I like accessories, which is why I enjoy wearing a few different hats — author, editor, and publisher. These “hats” are all completely different. I’m seldom wearing more than one at the same time. As an early riser, I start writing when it’s dark outside around four in the morning, until around six, when the sun starts to rise. By full daylight, the “writer hat” comes off, and I slip into publisher/editor mode.
Writing is a solitary discipline that’s very introspective. As an editor and publisher, my primary purpose is to serve other writers. I’m the one who holds the flashlight while they do the digging. As a graduate school professor who teaches writing, I’ve become very accustomed to working with students, helping them tell their stories. The same rules apply with authors. I’m like the midwife. They’re the ones doing the hard work.
MR: And finally, I’m curious: There are three narrators in Loretta Little Looks Back. Why did you choose to single out Loretta in the title?
Loretta is the family griot, the storytelling presence that ignites the story, and keeps the narrative threads moving forward – she’s a powerful root of the Little family tree. Since the book is written as a series of theatrical monologues, Loretta is the first to present herself to the audience of readers. And she was the first to introduce herself to me on a cold early morning when she stepped up to my consciousness and said, “This is me, talking to you.”
MR: Oh! Last thing, Andrea. No MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…
Preferred writing snack? A Red Delicious apple.
Coffee or tea? Scalding water with lemon.
Favorite song? This Little Light of Mine.
Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Big NAY!
Favorite word. Love!
Favorite place on earth? London, England.
You’re stranded on a desert island, with only three items in your possession. What are they? My husband and our two kids (who are neither “items” on “in my possession” but we have so much fun together, especially in island settings).
MR: Thank you for chatting with me, Andrea—and congratulations on the publication of Loretta Little Looks Back. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too!
Thank YOU, and happy reading!
And now… a fabulous
For a copy of Loretta Little Looks Back, comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account–for a chance to win!
ANDREA DAVIS PINKNEY is the New York Times bestselling an award-winning author of numerous books for children and young adults. Her work has received multiple Coretta Scott King Book Award citations. She is a four-time nominee for the NAACP Image Award, and has been inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame. Andrea is the recipient of both the Regina Medal and the Arbuthnot Honor Award for her distinguished and singular contribution to the field of children’s literature. She has been named among the “25 Most Influential People in our Children’s Lives” by Children’s Health magazine, and is listed among the “25 Most Influential Black Women in Business” by The Network Journal.
Andrea is the librettist for the Houston Grand Opera’s The Snowy Day, an opera based on the beloved bestselling children’s picture book classic The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. She has served on the creative teams for several theatrical and audio productions based on works for young people, including those drawn from her acclaimed books, Martin Rising: Requiem for a King, The Red Pencil, and Rhythm Ride: A Trip through the Motown Sound. Andrea lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and frequent collaborator, illustrator Brian Pinkney, and their two children. You can find Andrea on Twitter and Facebook.