After 2020 and all the challenges faced, I’m sure you’re all itching to hit the road to get out and explore. That wasn’t always as simple for everyone as it is today. Keila Dawson’s new book, OPENING THE ROAD: VICTOR HUGO GREEN AND HIS GREEN BOOK, opens our eyes to a time when African Americans who traveled faced danger and humiliation. A picture book is all about focus, which can be a real challenge when you go down that rabbit hole of research. Here, Keila shares a peek behind the scenes at how she found that essential focus.
And…Keila is starting off the new year with a GIVEAWAY! Just comment below for a chance to win. And you can retweet for another chance!
Finding Focus by Keila V. Dawson
After listening to a BBC documentary on the Green Book, a guide written and published by a mail carrier in the 1930s to help Black Americans travel during segregation, I fell down a research rabbit hole. I thought a book about someone who did so much for so many but so few knew about seemed like a worthy story and would add to other books about unsung heroes in history. However, my research didn’t turn up much about the man behind the guide, Victor Hugo Green, so early on the book had to be more than just a biography. That’s when I focused on the events happening during my main character’s lifetime. To make this history interesting to kids, I had to tell the story that wasn’t just about historical events but about the people those events affected.
Writers who critiqued my early drafts all complimented my research and thought the story was fascinating, but that it had too many facts and the events were disjointed. It lacked focus. Heeding that advice, the first major revision went under construction. I learned finding a focus is how I also found the voice and point of view the story needed.
Some authors intrigued with the use of close third person, a point of view that brings readers closer to a character’s inner thoughts and emotions but written in third person, started a study group. Given my story topic and setting that may be new to some children, I wanted to adapt this point of view to draw readers in to the story so they could be up close to the people and situations they encountered. Beth and I were in this group studying close third person and I remembered what she said about it, “This feels like a distant first person if there is such a thing.”
I didn’t have many of Green’s firsthand experiences, but I could learn how others in his community navigated injustice. I found testimonies and accounts of Black Americans living and protesting segregation and discrimination in the story timeframe.
There were a lot of historical events in Green’s life that affected how he lived, but this story centered on the restrictions to his movement and how limiting him to certain spaces affected his freedom. I needed to choose events that moved the story forward while focusing on the roadblocks he circumvented and the larger reach of the guide.
First lines do a lot of the heavy lifting, and I had written different openings. And for each opening there was a different ending. We settled on “Victor Hugo Green was tired of hearing no.”
And I listed the kinds of “no” Black motorists encountered.
Then my editor, Naomi Krueger, suggested we change the title to OPENING THE ROAD. With the lens on driving, road trips, and travel, adding one sentence to the original opening brought it all into focus. “Victor loved traveling the open road, but too often the road was closed to him.”
And for each scene that showed a metaphorical “closed road” there was another that showed how Green and the Black community opened it. From that small tweak, it was easier to review what else I needed to research, write, revise, and repeat.
Thank you so much for having me so I can share my behind the scenes story, Beth.
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