An Interview With Andrea Davis Pinkney About With the Might of Angels
About the Author
Andrea Davis Pinkney is the author of more than twenty books for children and young adults, including the Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters; Duke Ellington, a Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor Book; Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation; and the New York Times bestseller Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down. She lives in New York City, where she also works as a children's book editor.
An Interview With Andrea Davis Pinkney
What inspired you to choose "With the Might of Angels" as the title of Dawnie's diary? What is the origin of that phrase?
"With the might of angels" is a spiritual phrase. It means that each and every one of us is protected in some way. I immediately knew this would be the title for Dawnie's story. Despite the many challenges Dawnie Rae faces, she always has the loving arms of her family, the support of her community, and friends who are rooting for her to succeed. I believe angels are always among us, disguised as people who care deeply about our well-being, and are here to guide us through troubling times.
Like Dawnie Rae, you were the only black student in your school. You've said that experience led to feelings of "anxious apartness." Would you tell us more about that phenomenon?
I will never forget my first day of first grade, when my daddy walked me to an all-white school in my district. I was the only black student in Miss Lewis's class, and I felt completely alone. This was more than a decade after schools became integrated, but many schools, because of their locations, were either predominately white or black.
When I went to school, I saw nobody else in the building who looked like me. I remember thinking, I don't like this.
Thankfully, I didn't have to endure the terrible abuses Dawnie Rae suffered. My struggles came in more subtle forms, with kids wanting to touch my hair, and making "chocolate milk" jokes about the color of my skin. Fortunately, my teacher was a mighty angel, who did not tolerate any kind of prejudice. She made me feel welcome immediately, and reprimanded anyone who treated me or any other student badly.
Growing up with parents who were both active in the civil rights movement, do you remember meeting any prominent figures in the movement, or do any certain events stand out in your mind from that time?
Mommy and Daddy were both active members of the NAACP and the National Urban League, two important civil rights organizations. Also, my dad was one of the first African American student interns in the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., and later went on to work for the United States Department of Labor, where he advised several presidents on fair job practices for minorities. There were many nights when our home telephone rang, and the caller was a government official asking to speak to Daddy. What stands out most in my mind was spending summer vacations attending the NAACP and National Urban League annual conferences. While other kids were at the beach or summer camp, I spent my summers listening to speeches about black pride!
All the way through Dawnie Rae's diary, the reader tries to measure herself against Dawnie Rae and the courage she exhibits. The prevailing question becomes, What keeps Dawnie Rae going back to the school where she suffers so many indignities? Why does she do this? Where does she get her strength?
Dawnie Rae is whip-smart and brave — and she doesn't shy-back for anybody. More than anything, Dawnie Rae wants to become a doctor when she grows up. The white school in her town has the facilities to help her reach this goal. There are new text books, advanced classes, and a science lab. Dawnie Rae endures so many torments because she knows that this all-white school has what she needs to make her dream come true. Each day, she summons strength from her own deep desire to succeed
There are many things Dawnie Rae misses about her all-black school, though. She misses Negro History Week (the predecessor to Black History Month), when her teachers and fellow classmates paid tribute to the contributions of black Americans. And, she misses being in a school where everyone accepted her for who she was, and where she had lots of friends. Mostly, Dawnie Rae misses going to a school where everyone took pride in being black.
What was the most interesting or surprising detail that you discovered about life in Dawnie’s time?
I love researching because it uncovers so many intriguing things. While I knew quite a bit about segregation and racial discrimination in the South, I didn't know that African Americans could not try on clothes or shoes when they went to purchase them in department stores! Or, if a store allowed a black customer to try on shoes, the store clerk had to put paper inside the shoes before an African American person could put the shoes on their feet. How humiliating! When I read about this, I kept thinking, What message does this send to a child?
Dawnie Rae's father is a wonderful character. Your own father, Philip J. Davis, was a civil rights activist. How did the memories of your dad influence your depiction of Dawnie's daddy?
Dawnie Rae's daddy is based on my own father, who was loving, strong, and had a great sense of humor. Daddy was deeply religious and committed to seeking progress for African Americans. He was the kindest dad ever, who instilled his beliefs for racial equality in me, my younger brother, P.J, and my sister, Lynne. Daddy believed that helping others is the greatest gift we give to the world. I agree.
If youngsters were interested in reading one or two other books about this period in American history and the people who influenced the times, what titles would you recommend?
I absolutely suggest the following books, which are among my favorites on the topic of civil rights:
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip M. Hoose
A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson
Remember: The Journey to School Integration by Toni Morrison
Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary by Elizabeth Partridge
You have said, "There’s something we call book magic, the exact moment in a book when a child becomes so engaged in a book that nothing can pull them away." Would you tell us some of the books that brought you that magic as a child?
My magical books — those that made me ignore my mom when she called me to dinner — were the books below:
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The Friends by Rosa Guy
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Contender by Robert Lipsyte
I still love these books today!
What is one question you'd like to ask children after they've finished reading Dawnie Rae's diary?
Now that you've read With the Might of Angels, what will you do when you see someone who is different, or an outcast, and who is the brunt of jokes and ridicule? Will you welcome them into your circle? Will you stick up for them? Will you be an angel coming to that person in the form of a friend?
Discussion Guide for With the Might of Angels written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.