Selma Jackson, a 2015 Wheatley Book Awards Finalist, takes us on a much-needed journey
Do you have fond memories of heading South with your family as soon as the New York City school year ended every year? Memories of being surrounded by grandparents, cousins, extended family members? Of days filled with sunlight that seemed never to end? How about plump red tomatoes bursting with juice and seeds that you added a pinch of salt to, squeezed, and ate like apples? And, nights of catching June bugs, placing them in Mason jars, and watching them light up and dim, again and again, while huddling under your bed covers?
These are among the sweet childhood memories that Selma Jackson evokes in Granny's Helper, her debut book for children ages 8 to 11. But the book is filled with bittersweet memories, as well. Several unexpected twists and the harsh realities of racial discrimination are central to Granny's Helper.
Little Selma is unaware of the barriers her parents face because of discrimination against African-Americans, the precautions they are forced to take, and the creative strategies they devise to subvert the discrimination against themselves and their children. These bittersweet memories, of course, are held by the author, who recalls them as such only now, as she looks back through adult eyes at her childhood.
Granny's Helper tells Jackson's story of growing up in the 1950s by focusing on her grandmother's visits from the South every summer to stay with her family in New York City. This, of course, is the reverse of most summer visits in African-American families. It is during these visits that Little Selma learns many life lessons from her blind grandmother about helping others; how to read, write, and ask questions; and overcoming adversity.
Granny also helps Selma learn that although "Only boys who are named after their fathers are juniors....My father named me and your father named you." Selma discovers that -- like the boys in her family -- she, too, can share a special bond with her father through naming. Then, there are the visits the family would take every spring.
"We drove south to my parents' birthplaces of Georgia and Virginia every year between 1953 and 1958."
Little Selma would visit Granny in Hickory, Virginia; and here is how she in counterpoint to Adult Selma, the author of her story, experienced those trips South:
"My parents did not tell us that we could not use the rest stops, eat in the restaurants, or stay in hotels once we were south of Washington, DC, because of racial discrimination. Instead, we were made to feel that we were having a roadside picnic on our trip. If we had to use the bathroom we went in the woods, and we even spent the night at the home of a family in North Carolina on our way to Georgia!"
Granny's Helper offers middle-school readers the story of Little Selma through whom they can see and appreciate the important role that older members of their own families play in their lives as well as to recognize the challenging and unjust realities of the world around them. Ansel Pitcairn's illustrations have the look and feel of watercolor paintings, which enhance the easy, fluid flow of Little Selma's evolving understanding of her grandmother's unhurried yet powerful effect on shaping her into the adult she was to become. The book includes a Questions/Comments section that beginning readers of the 22-page book will find helpful.
Granny's Helper, published by the author, is a 2015 finalist in children's fiction for the Wheatley Book Awards, which opens the Harlem Book Fair in July.
Such affirming recognition of Jackson's book comes at a time when the publishing industry is being challenged to offer writers of diverse backgrounds the opportunity to tell their stories and to open pathways for editors, staff, publishers, and others to enter the industry.
#WeNeedDiverseBooks is a vital call which authors like Jackson not only issue but also heed. Yet, even in the face of exclusion, in an industry which is overwhelmingly white and male, Jackson and many other writers continue to tell stories about children of color -- for all children to read. Our children can only grow more fully and become more informed citizens when diversity in storytelling is valued and becomes a reality. For a list of diverse books for the children in your life, visit www.weneeddiversebooks.org.