I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s in Jackson, Mississippi. I didn’t really know about prejudice, but I remember well when our schools were integrated. I was in the fourth grade. We went home for two weeks and came back (I still attended a neighborhood school) to new students and new teachers. Mrs. Love was my new 4th grade teacher, the first African American teacher I had ever met. She beamed with joy and kindness. Her name completely expressed who she was. Her classroom was fun and engaging. The color of her skin made no difference to me. I was just so happy to be back in school.
In Ruby Lee and Me, the schools of Shady Creek, North Carolina, were being integrated. Sarah would attend school with her best friend Ruby Lee, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Sarah is dealing with a huge load of guilt. Her sister was hit by a car and hurt badly, and Sarah thinks it was her fault. While her sister is in the hospital, Sarah stays with her grandparents. She messes things up with her good friend Ruby Lee and calls her the “N” word. Apologizing in the midst of small town racial issues is difficult. Can Sarah save her friendship?
Sarah and Ruby Lee meet their new seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Smyre who reminded me of Mrs. Love, the new African American teacher in a previously all white school. I was curious about author Shannon Hitchcock’s process to publishing this book. She shares some of her story in the end pages. Like me, she was raised during this time period of school integration. Her favorite teacher, like Mrs. Love and Mrs. Smyre, was Mrs. Pauline Porter.
I contacted Shannon and interviewed her by email.
When writing about the past for children of today, I focus on the universal. RUBY LEE & ME is about the love Sarah has for her sister and her best friend. Those are feelings kids still experience today, and along with the universal, I sprinkle in a generous dose of history. Kids may be surprised that Ruby Lee couldn’t swim in the town pool, or eat in Bubba’s Grill, but hopefully, they’ll be outraged on Ruby’s behalf. Historical fiction touches our hearts because we experience the past through characters we care about.
Interracial friendship is at the heart of RUBY LEE & ME. I hope the book sheds light on how hard it was for blacks and whites to be friends in the 1950s and 60s. That may even lead to a discussion of how things have changed and remained the same. For instance, have today’s students faced friendship challenges with kids who are disabled, or of a different religion, or maybe speak a different language? We all struggle to understand people who aren’t like us.
My advice for writers is to read, read, read, especially books that have been published in the last five years or so. I’m also a big proponent of SCBWI. I met my editor at the Orlando SCBWI conference, and sold RUBY LEE & ME to her after revising on spec. I also love taking writing workshops because authors never stop learning.
From her post on Nerdy Book Club, April 4, 2016: The 1960’s were a turbulent time in my family and in my town. Though Brown v. Board of Education became the law of the land in 1954, our public schools remained segregated until 1967. I started first grade that year, and my school’s first African-American teacher taught in the classroom beside mine.
Mrs. Porter had a special gift for working with reluctant readers. So every afternoon, she changed classrooms with my teacher and worked with those of us struggling to read… I shudder to think what might have happened if I’d never caught up.
Thanks, Shannon, for your bravery in writing this book, for sharing a piece of your own life story, and helping students to see how things have changed, and how some things, like friendship, love, and understanding, are universal.