Chasing Freedom: the Story Behind the Story

Posted January 12th, 2015

It all started in China. Yes, you read that right. The origins of my book about Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony has everything to do with China.

Trip to ChinaLet me explain.

In 1988, I was asked to write a few monologues for theater pieces on American History that would be performed in a series of theaters in China. Later, after the scripts were complete, I invited several friends to join me in auditioning for the cast. I had no aspirations to join the cast myself, but my friends, who were all performing artists, certainly did. As for me, I simply thought the audition process would be a lark and I looked forward to spending a fun day with a few friends. And it was fun. And funny. As it turned out, the joke was on me. None of my friends made the final cut for the cast, but I did! As a result, I ended up going to China later that year. But, back to this story.


The historical figures I chose to develop monologues about for the show were Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Susan B. Anthony.

I was working in library acquisitions at USC at the time and was able to take advantage of the seemingly endless collection of books to be found in the Doheny Library Stacks. I dove into my research with gusto, and was excited to learn that my chosen subjects were contemporaries, and that their lives frequently intersected. I found that bit of information fascinating, and wondered just how deeply interconnected they were. In any event, I had no time to satisfy my curiosity, and so I limited my research to the biographical information I needed to know about each in order to write my short monologues. However, I did have occasion to mull over certain questions that occurred to me: I wondered what it would be like if Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony had a conversation. What would they talk about? What would it sound like?

After a time, I tucked those questions away and, eventually, forgot all about them.

Talkin' about BessieIn the intervening years, I wrote a book about aviator Bessie Coleman, the first African American licensed pilot. This is a biography written in verse, and told from multiple perspectives. While the information about Coleman was factual, the format I created to tell her story was a work of fiction. Talkin’ About Bessie has enjoyed considerable success, winning the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration and an Author Honor for the text.

Not surprisingly, the editor began asking me to consider writing another book about a historical figure. I told him thanks, but no thanks. Every year or so, he’d raise the subject again.

Finally, in 2008, he asked if I would consider writing a book about Harriet Tubman. I laughed, thinking to myself that everyone and his mother has written a book about Harriet Tubman. Why would I write yet another? And so, again, I found myself saying thanks, but no thanks.

Chasing FreedomTwo weeks later, however, the idea I’d had way back in 1988 resurfaced. What about creating a conversation between Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony? That would be a new and unique treatment of Harriet’s story. Would my editor be interested in that idea? The answer, of course, was yes. And so, with that, I got busy.

I began gathering research materials in Cincinnati, Ohio, with a visit to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the most extensive collection of memorabilia from that period. I spent several days hunched over rare suffragette meeting notes by Susan B. Anthony, slave narratives, and other valuable literature relevant to the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, and the suffrage movement.

Nikki Grimes, John Parker HouseLater, I traveled to Ripley, Ohio, to search out some of the original homes that served as stations of the Underground Railroad, including the John P. Parker House. After a week of research, I headed back to California to begin the long process of poring over thousands of pages of biographies, histories, and other reference work on my subjects, and the historical period against which their stories played out. Bit by bit, the manuscript came together. And now, finally, this story has gone out into the world!

I hope Chasing Freedom brings this time in history alive for my readers, and that they realize we are all part of one another’s story.

Tai Chi Morning: Snapshots of China

Posted August 8th, 2012
Tai Chi Morning

Tai Chi Morning

“Where do you get your ideas?” is a common question authors hear, and I’m no exception. Starting this month, I’ll be offering a weekly blog called “Backstory,” in which I’ll share the origins of each of my books, as well as the funny, quirky things that happened during the process of creating them.

In 1988, I joined a team lead by visual artists Gene and Marylou Totten on a performance tour of China. Originally, I was only intending to write some of the dramatic monologues members of the team would perform on the planned tour.  However, several times during the course of working on the scripts, the director encouraged me to audition for the team that would make the trip. I pooh-poohed the idea, but eventually decided to audition on a lark, never expecting to make the cut. In fact, I invited several friends who were actually performing artists to audition themselves. I figured I’d tag along, for fun, and maybe one of them would make the team. As it happened, none of my friends made the team, but I did! Somewhere, God was laughing. Before I knew it, I was packing my bags for Beijing.

Years later, I drafted a collection of poems from my reminiscences of that journey. When I sent the manuscript to my agent, I included photographs I’d taken, as well as maps and an itinerary of the tour, thinking they might be useful as inspiration for the illustrator, whomever that might be. (I never expected the publisher to use a photograph of me on the cover. I cringe every time I see it!  Ugh.)

I sold the manuscript and the search for an illustrator began. I had an artist in mind, but I had no real hope of securing him. I suspected he was incredibly busy, knew that he would be expensive for the publisher in question, and wasn’t certain he would even be interested.  I mean, what were the chances that I would get the great, Caldecott-winning Ed Young on board?

Tianenmen Square

Me and friend Carol Tammen in Tianamen Square

I needn’t have worried. Some things are simply meant to be.

I ran into Ed at a conference, told him I would love to work with him, someday, and learned that—gasp!—the feeling was mutual! I wasted no time in telling him that I had a particular project in mind, though I didn’t specify what it was. “I’ll have my publisher send it to you, if that’s okay,” I told him. “We’ll see where it leads.”

It led to something pretty special. Ed signed on to illustrate Tai Chi Morning and took on the job of designing it as well. Incorporating the photographs I’d taken, and adding his own sketches, Ed designed the book as a travel journal. How perfect was that? As it turned out, Ed was in China about the same time I was, and many of his sketches matched or complemented the scenes in my photographs. Can you say serendipity?

Oh, and did I mention that Ed is a Tai Chi master? I think I had him at the title!

God has a great sense of humor.

On the plane to Beijing, we were treated to the movie The Last Emperor. It was a perfect introduction to the ancient land we were about to explore, first hand.

The poems in Tai Chi Morning are my attempt to capture some of the once-in-a-lifetime experiences I had in the land of the Forbidden City. In fact, one of my favorite poems in this collection was inspired by my visit to that very place.  I’ll close with that.  If you’d like to read more, I hope you’ll find this title and share it with the young people in your life.

“The Forbidden City”

Golden Lion

the bronze figure in the poem

The Forbidden City
where royalty was once

hidden from view
is a place to tiptoe.
I follow the buzz of bodies
swarming over acres
of paved walkway
and greet a bronze lion
guarding the ancient temple.
I pat his burnished head,
close my eyes and hear
the footfalls of the last emperor
echoing through the courtyard.
His ghostly shape
waltzes in front of me.
He lifts a wavy finger
to his royal lips
and whispers