Keila shares the story behind her new picture book, some amazing Alleanna Harris illustrations, and thoughts on diverse representation in children's nonfiction books.
Meeg Pincus here, founder of Solutionary Stories. I was so compelled by this book that I had to reach out to author Keila Dawson and ask for an interview for our blog. Talk about a solutionary story! Victor Hugo Green is somebody kids need to know about, and his story is so important for a full picture of American history.
Keila provided some great insights about the book and why we need diverse representation in children's nonfiction—plus, she provided several of Alleanna Harris' amazing illustrations to feast your eyes on! Take a look...
Keila, I love this important book! Victor Hugo Green was a true solutionary. How did you become inspired to tell his story?
Thanks for having me on your blog, Meeg! And also for all you do to promote diverse stories and nonfiction books.
I heard a BBC broadcast about Victor Hugo Green and his Green Book, and I realized Green was one of those “unsung heroes” history omitted. And I was determined to learn more about him. I enjoy history and uncovering untold stories, so the same day I learned about Victor Green, I fell down a research rabbit hole!
Thank you, Keila! (And I know those research rabbit holes well!) You put your research to good use in your wonderful author’s note, which really grounds the story and connects its historical experiences to today. I'm so glad you share about modern-day solutionaries in the vein of Green and about continuing issues of safety and rights for Black Americans, given systemic racism still in place. What are you hoping young readers come away from this book thinking, feeling, and/or doing?
I believe children can use true stories as a bridge to connect the past to the present so they can think about how to build a better future. For example, readers can find things that happened in this story set in the past and link those events to what they see today. And then think about what has and hasn’t changed over the last 57 years since the end of legal segregation. With that knowledge, I visualize today’s youth constructing new roadways that lead to a more inclusive and equitable future for all.
I’d like children to feel empowered and determined when facing challenges. And to never underestimate their own ingenuity and the power of community. Victor opened the road and ran into roadblocks, but he never gave up. And he didn’t act alone. Change happens by engaging others. Actions may start small like within a family, a school, or a neighborhood, but every small accomplishment, over time, can and has led to meaningful change.
Yes, that bridge building is everything in effective children's nonfiction! So important. And speaking of roadblocks, can you share your biggest challenges in writing and/or researching this story?
I couldn’t find a lot about Victor Hugo Green himself, so I knew the story had to be about Green, his guide, and what it meant to Black travelers. I researched historical events and people around his lifetime, the same thing I do when researching an elusive ancestor in my genealogical research. Creating the timeline helped me get a feel for what was happening and how those events inspired, motivated, and/or affected Green and other Black travelers.
To get a sense of who he was as a person, I read his guides that are in the public domain through the New York Public Library. They included things he wrote and things his staff wrote about him. I also had to do a lot of re-learning about history—things that I didn’t learn in school. I found several academic publications about what travel was like for Black Americans during Green’s lifetime that mentioned other travel guides they used, including the Green Book. That research provided me with details I used in the story to make it interesting to young readers.
The visual of that timeline is so compelling! And while we're on the topic of broader context, part of the Solutionary Stories mission is to help promote and increase diverse, inclusive representations in nonfiction kidlit. What would you like to see more of (or less of) in our genre when it comes to representation?
I’d love to read more untold, true stories about real people and or historical events. These stories fill in the gaps of our knowledge and often give credit where credit is due. When we don't acknowledge the accomplishments and achievements of marginalized people or the history that impacted their lives, it perpetuates stereotypes and narratives of one group being superior to another.
And what a great message for kids when they see adults learning something new or re-learning what we thought we knew that turned out not to be true! Also, adults can encourage kids to read widely, ask questions, and find reputable sources to find answers. As parents, educators, and citizens, we should practice what we preach.
Thank you so much, Keila, for sharing your thoughts and time with us here at Solutionary Stories—and for sharing this book with the world!
More about Keila:
Keila V. Dawson is a former community organizer, teacher, and advocate for children with special needs turned picture book author. Her books include Opening the Road: Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book (2021), No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History (2020), The King Cake Baby (2015), and the forthcoming No World Too Big: Young People Fighting Climate Change (2023). Dawson is a New Orleans native and has lived and worked in the Philippines, Japan, and Egypt. She lives in Cincinnati. Learn more about her at www.keiladawson.com, on Twitter @keila_dawson or Instagram @keilavdawson.