Author Interview With Civil Rights Activist Doreen Rappaport

To continue our mini-blog series over MLK’s 50th anniversary of “I Have A Dream,” today, we are featuring a quick Q&A with author and civil rights activist Doreen Rappaport. A writer of many critically acclaimed children’s books, such as Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Martin Luther King Jr., she is best known for books that celebrate multiculturalism and the stories of those she calls the ‘not-yet-celebrated.’
doreen rappaport
Having recently used her book, Helen’s Big World: The Life of Helen Keller, as the inspiration for our program at CS 21, in which students learned how to write their own biographies of beloved figures in history, we feel fortunate today to have the opportunity to share a little bit more about Doreen Rappaport, and the experiences in her life that prompted her desire to empower children through history.
helen's big world
Doreen

                              (Student reading biography to Mrs. Rappaport)

1.) In 1965, you went to McComb, Mississippi to teach in a Freedom School. Are there any prominent memories you have which explain this shift in your life?

It wasn’t a shift in my life. It was a natural progression from my background. I am Jewish. Before I went to Mississippi, I was very aware of anti-Semitism, not just Hitler’s campaign and extermination of the Jews, but of prejudice in the United States against Jews and other minority groups, including women. My father felt it necessary to change his name when he tried to break into the music field, thinking that Rappaport was too Jewish. And at that time, he was probably right. I also had been teaching music in junior high schools in a variety of communities and was beginning to learn more of the “real” history of the United States. In McComb, I did voter registration. We went to visit people in their homes. We visited sharecropper shacks. I remember being welcomed in a black home, talking to the man and woman about going down to register at the courthouse, and being aware that I was asking them to risk everything–possibly losing their rental parcel of agricultural land and their lodgings– by doing this. I also knew their home could be shot into. They might be shot. The fragility of their lives versus the ease of my life was overwhelming.

2.) On your website, you say: “I want to write stories that empower kids to know that other people empowered themselves.”

Can you tell us about a time when you felt that a student truly took the message to heart?

A kindergarten girl raised her hand after we had been discussing my book, Martin’s Big Words. She asked, “If he’s called Martin Luther King, why isn’t his wife called Coretta Scott Queen.” It was not only a delicious comment by a five year old, but it sparked a conversation on women’s equality with men, and those kindergarten girls had lots to say about what they were going to do “when they grew up.”

With the publication of my book, Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust, I have received many emails from Jewish children thanking me for writing this book and uncovering these “heroes.” They didn’t know that there was so much resistance by Jews during the Holocaust and they felt proud to learn this.

3.) Out of all the books you have published, and had the ability to share with the youth in America, which has been the one that has stuck out the most to you in terms of meaning and content?

I don’t have a favorite book. I am proud of all of these books. When I go into predominantly black communities,I feel great when kids respond to my black trilogy, tracing black resistance from the kidnappings in Africa through the monumental modern civil rights movement. I see the pride that the children take in learning about slave resistance, about Ida B. Wells refusing to move from her seat, facing down the train conductor, and being so vehement, she had to be carried off the train. I see children respond to the Montgomery bus boycott realizing that kids their age, and YOUNGER, walked to school and church and their friends’ houses for over a year in all kinds of weather. Eleanor Roosevelt’s struggle in overcoming not just her unhappy childhood but the limited vision presented to her as a woman in the early 20th century reminds me of my own struggle in the 50s and 60s to wrest free from destructive stereotypes of how women should behave.

Thanks again to Ms. Rappaport for sharing with all of us a little more about the person behind her many books. We are grateful to her not only for her continued support and participation in our programs, but also for providing books that continue to help BtB achieve our mission. For more information about Doreen Rappaport, check her out on her website.

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Matt de la Pena’s Rules for Revision

Yesterday, Matt visited the 10th graders at CHAH for a workshop on revision. Here are some of his tips:

1. Start the story where it really starts. Look at your first few lines and ask: is this where the action starts, or am I warming up to it?

2. The language should be as good as the story itself. Go through your story line by line and revise each until it feels good, rhythmic. Matt revised each line “about 20 times” before his novel We Were Here was finally finished.

3. Slow down during the good parts. Think about telling a friend a particularly juicy story; when you get to the best parts you slow down, you exaggerate the details, you draw out your language just a bit more. Make sure your writing does the same thing.

4. Look at the world through the character’s eyes. What would an artist notice that someone else wouldn’t? What would a loner pick up on? Let your character’s perspective drive the description.

5. Take risks in your endings. “I challenge you to be strange.”

Matt de la Pena visits the Community Health Academy of the Heights

One of our coolest ongoing programs is with the three 10th grade classes at the Community Health Academy of the Heights (CHAH) (check out our other programs at CHAH) where students have been reading Matt de la Pena’s novel We Were Here. Written as a series of court-ordered diary entries, the story contemplates self-discovery and self-worth as the narrator, Miguel, tries to sort through his experiences at Juvi, his complicated family relationships, and what life means. Miguel’s frank, unapologetic voice inspired a couple of students to declare Matt “the best author” ever and, with his fantastic ear for character, it’s not hard to see why they think so.

On his first visit, Matt read the students a short story where a man describes his life in just two words: car wreck. Shifting to workshop mode, he asked the students to come up with their own two word descriptions which later became the basis for a short story. Today, Matt returned to the classroom to teach a lesson on revision; we were all excited to see how the student’s tales had evolved from their two-word-seeds.

“My favorite part of the writing process is revision,” Matt explained at the beginning of the lesson. “I revise my work over and over and over again because I know it will exist forever between two covers.”

He stunned the class by adding he revised We Were Here nearly 30 times before it was finally published. He revised his first book, Ball Don’t Lie, over 100 times!

Several brave students volunteered to read their drafts aloud and have them discussed. Matt laid out the workshop protocol: start first with what’s working, pointing to specific moments in the story, before moving on to the parts that need smoothing out. It’s not always easy to have your work on the chopping block, but the 10th graders took his advice seriously and some great workshopping ensued. Matt wrapped up the class with some tips for revision – check back tomorrow to see the whole list! (In the meantime, check out Doreen Rappaport’s Rules for Writing Biography.)

Matt and Mr. Dickhudt’s 10th grade class

Fooling around

 After the official visit, Matt stopped in for a quick hello and book signing with some 7th graders who were eager to meet him.

Thanks from all of us to Matt for a great visit!