An Interview with Patricia McKissack about A Picture of Freedom
Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Linda M. Pavonetti: Readers of Clotee's diary are treated to wonderful character development. As you turn the pages you can feel Clotee getting stronger; more self-assured; more committed; and more determined as the action unfolds. Yet, you have said, "Finding Clotee's voice was the most difficult problem I had to overcome." How did you discover Clotee's voice and find your way into her character?
Patricia C. McKissack: Clotee's voice was difficult for me because I wanted her diary to sound authentic. I couldn't have her vocabulary too sophisticated, yet I had to give her more command of words than an illiterate person might know in order to tell a good story. Finding that balance was challenging. I achieved it by allowing Clotee's skills to grow throughout the book. If you'll note, I sometimes had Clotee misspell words such as clumbsy for clumsy; confusing words such as compression for expression, suspection for suspicion, and abolistines for abolitionists. Throughout I tried to show her growing, learning, developing her skills so her voice matures naturally.
RFA & LMP: You've written over 60 books for children, and you and your husband have co-authored some of the finest nonfiction for children. Still, A Picture of Freedom is your first full-length work of fiction. How did the writing of Clotee's diary differ from the writing of your other books?
PCM: Writing Clotee's diary wasn't much different from some of the non-fiction books I've co-authored with my husband, Fredrick McKissack. I researched for this book the same way I would a non-fiction book. I wanted Clotee's story to be believable and the only way to do that was to base it on historical facts. The difference between this story and a biography, for example, is that I was able to control all the action. In biography the events in a person's life can't be changed. In this fictional story, I could change events and create characters and invent a whole world in which to place them. I liked that!
RFA & LMP: How did the research you and your husband did for your nonfiction book Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters help in the writing of Clotee's diary?
PCM: I used all the "left-over" research from Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters to create Clotee's story. Our many trips to Virginia while researching the Christmas book helped me set the stage for Clotee's diary. For example, I saw the two story kitchen at Shirley Plantation and the live oak. Other elements are in both books: the Big Times, the use of songs to communicate, and the cake walk.
RFA & LMP: What did you enjoy most about writing Clotee's diary?
PCM: The most enjoyable part of writing Clotee's diary was creating a character and then watching her/him become a real person. Clotee, Hince, Aunt Tee, Spicy, the Henleys - all the characters are fictional, but by the end of the book, they seemed very real to me.
RFA & LMP: What is one thing you hope young readers will take with them after reading A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl?
PCM: I hope young readers will realize that while the characters are fictional, the action is real. Slaves were forbidden to read or write, yet they risked their lives to learn. Clotee didn't realize it at the time, but when she learned how to read and write, she had taken the first step toward the freedom she could not define. Why isn't education valued to that extreme today?
RFA & LMP: What is one question you'd like to ask your readers after they have finished reading A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl?
PCM: Why do you think Clotee saw herself when she wrote FREEDOM at the end? When you write freedom what do you see?
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.