Wednesday, Oct 6, 2010: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Zora and Me

Candlewick: Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T. R. Simon

Candlewick: Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T. R. Simon

Candlewick: Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T. R. Simon

Candlewick: Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T. R. Simon

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: Zora and Me

In this edition of Kids' Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere--we present Zora and Me, a debut novel by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon, which goes on sale on October 12. The review and interviews are by Jennifer M. Brown. Candlewick Press has helped support the issue.


Candlewick: Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T. R. Simon

Books & Authors

Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon: At Home Where You Are

Victoria Bond and T.R. (Tanya) Simon, who met 10 years ago in publishing, come across much as narrator Carrie Brown and young Zora Neale Hurston do in the authors' debut novel--best friends who complement each other. Watching their easy, teasing rapport, we had the feeling that their own friendship might serve as the model for the one at the core of Zora and Me.


What aspects of Zora Neale Hurston's childhood give structure to your novel?

T.R. Simon: The Loving Pine was the real pine from her childhood. Her siblings are her real siblings. The sorts of things she does are the things that she did. We changed it, but we always took the spirit from Zora herself.

Victoria Bond: I always tried to conform to Zora's vision of herself as a girl. I never wanted to stray from that.

TRS: The limits on Zora were the limits on our character. And again, we were really mindful of who Zora became as an adult.

VB: It's an origin story. These are three prequels to the life of Zora.


The Florida swamplands are so integral to the story, too.

TRS: I was obsessed that they live in this unviolated, natural context that's also home to the razorback pig, providing them with wonder. My father's from the South, so the land was a big thing with him. He grew up a sharecropper, and he always said that one of the saddest things for him in the Great Migration was that along the way we began to lose our connection with the land. Despite the history of slavery, the connection to the land is very meaningful to black life. The rhythms of the natural world, the way animals are born and die, the way the crops are sown and harvested--it was so important to me as a child.


The narrative voice is very polished, while the dialogue celebrates the poetry of spoken language. How did you decide to differentiate between the two?

VB: I think we always want the best of both worlds in a way. You want the loveliness and the flavor of speech as it's spoken. At the same time, the construction of the narrator, especially in considering the two books to come, is really important. The construction allows you to emphasize that this is a loss of innocence story, and to reflect on how people would relate to each other, and especially the way the kids would speak to each other. I think Zora was a master of it in her work, and also in her life, in her ability to speak many languages and dialects. She said something about when she first started collecting folklore for Mules and Men, she spoke like a graduate of Barnard, and that didn't facilitate the way she gathered the folklore. When she went back to the language of her childhood, she was able to gather them more easily. What language, what mode of expression is more real? They're all equally real, they just have different purposes.


How did you come up with the mystery at the center?

VB: That was your [Tanya's] nugget. It's a passing story; it's a mystery. Zora thinks it's the gator, but it's this larger, more complicated race story.

TRS: There was a headless body by the tracks in Zora's autobiography.


There's the mystery, but then there's also the question of how Zora, Carrie and Teddy process the facts that they are uncovering.

TRS: My daughter is four, and I constantly watch her negotiate overstimulation with the absorption of material, and how theory connects with reality. It's an ongoing process for all of us. For those of us who continue to try to make theory lived experience, we gain wisdom. That's what they're gaining, the three children; they are wiser at the end of the story than they were at the beginning.

VB: One thing that's prevalent in all passing stories that I've read is all of the people who pass are materialists. They want those gloves, they want to get in that theater. They want to have this access that is to them the glory. But as James Weldon Johnson says at the end of The Autobiography of an Ex Colored Man, "I gave up my birthright for a bowl of porridge."

TRS: Was it worth your very soul, the deed to your being? No.


And yet unlike Gold, young Zora always seems to know who she is.

VB: So many things about Zora stay with me. But one of them is that your sense of self is a constant, it's not a variable. The more I read Zora, the more that has been my outstanding feeling about her, and I think what she's impressed upon my spirit: Don't be moved by these winds.

TRS: Zora is something else that's very rare today, which is a true Artist with a capital A. She never compromises herself. The viciousness of racism is still putting limits on what she can achieve, but she doesn't waiver in her beliefs. Her art is not for sale.

Then there's that defining moment at the dinner table, when Zora stands up to her father.

VB: That's part of the world not being perfect. For as loving as Mrs. Hurston is, Mr. Hurston is that foil. It's necessary to have an idea of the kiln, the fire that she was burnished in. Her father did not care for her.

TRS: And her sense that I may be the greater intellectual of all these children, and when will that be recognized? I think that so many women were in exactly that situation--Jane Austen, the Brontes.

VB: Yes, the Bronte sisters dealing with their gambler psycho brother. I'm sorry, I roll my eyes at people who've been dead for 200 years.

TRS: I think we're not done fighting these battles.


It says a lot about Joe Clarke and Mr. Ambrose that they trust each other to bring about justice in their own communities.

VB: We tend to think of history as black and white, and it's mostly gray. That's the thrust of Zora's literary production and why it's so valuable to us today. She saw people not as black or white, but as a group of individuals that were the product of a time and place. Black people and white people liked each other and lived side by side.

TRS: That was very important to me. The adults are flawed, but they're not dysfunctional. They don't see what's going on entirely. The child's universe absolutely exists, and it has sight that the adult universe can't have, has stopped being willing to have, so hence the magical element. But at the end of the day, when confronted with the truth, the adult worlds--black and white--act with a sense of communal moral justice.



Candlewick: Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T. R. Simon

The Guiding Hand of Mary Lee Donovan

Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon call Mary Lee Donovan "an editorial force of nature," but to hear her tell it, she gives guidance in her quiet way by "massaging the writing" through comments or questions. Bond called them "serious questions," such as "Who knew what when?"--a key consideration in the solving of the mystery at the center of Zora and Me. "It was a tough balance to strike, feeding enough to the reader that you keep them compelled to read on, but not so much that you give too much away," Donovan said. She said the most noticeable shifts in the manuscript were clarifying the relationships, "in particular the relationships of people in town, like Mr. Ambrose and Joe Clarke, the owner of the store, and the roles they played and who they were. Especially since Mr. Ambrose was white," Donovan explained, along with the relationships between Gold and Joe Clarke and Ivory. "Mr. Pendir's character was also something they worked a lot on, as well as how he presents himself," she added.

So much of the book requires subtlety--how the children conduct themselves around adults, how the citizens of Eatonville conduct themselves in Lake Maitland among whites. As Carrie observes in the book, Mr. Pendir is not the only one who wears a mask; Gold certainly does. And so does Mrs. Hurston when she purchases the towels in the store and answers the shopkeeper about why she's purchasing them. "It's about what's being said and what's not being said, and they're of equal volume," Donovan pointed out. And that relates to the question Simon believes was most important from Donovan: "Do we need this, or will the reader know?"

As to the continuum between the Zora in the novel and Zora Neale Hurston, Donovan said she asked a few questions about facts, "more for myself than for them, just to judge for myself if certain liberties were okay or where poetic license had gone too far." While Donovan said it would be nice if Zora and Me led readers to Hurston's work, that's not why she wanted to pubish the planned three-book series. "It's a slice of life that I don't know that I've ever read before in children's literature," she said. "It's life-changing and mind-changing, a beautiful piece of writing. "




A Groundswell of Support for Zora and Me

Zora herself would have trouble spinning a tale of this many pre-publication accolades: booksellers have already proclaimed debut novel Zora and Me an ABC 2010 New Voices Selection, a SIBA 2010 Okra Award Winner and a Fall 2010 Indie Next Top Ten Pick.

As for national publicity, the October issue of Essence magazine (with a circulation of one million) will run a book/author feature, and the NPR program Here and Now with Robin Young, which airs on WBUR-FM and is syndicated to more than 100 markets, is scheduled for next week. Later in October, Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon will do a blog tour. In addition, full-color ads ran in the September 1 issues of Booklist and School Library Journal.

In October, Bond and Simon will be doing readings and signings of Zora and Me at educator night receptions: October 13 at 5 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Park Slope, Brooklyn; October 14 at 7 p.m. at B&N on Manhattan's Upper East Side; and October 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Bronx B&N.

On February 16, 2011, Bond and Simon are scheduled to appear in the New York Public Library Children's Room as part of an African American History program. And on April 16, 2011, they will be at the University Central Florida Book Festival in Orlando, Fla.

Candlewick has made available to teachers a discussion guide for Zora and Me.



Book Brahmin: T.R. Simon

On your nightstand now:

Oh God, here's my actual weirdo stack! Virginia Satir's Peoplemaking, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird (always!), M.T. Anderson's Feed, Marc Aronson's Race, Caroline Zweck's Mindset, an old copy of Women Who Run With Wolves, Irvin Yalom's Love's Executioner, Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone, and Peter Levine and Maggie Kline's Trauma Proofing Your Kids.

Favorite books when you were a child:

Hesse's Siddhartha (I was 12, it was the late '70s...), Caddie Woodlawn because I'm a tomboy, The Hound of the Baskervilles because I'm attracted to brilliant and emotionally unavailable men, and James and the Giant Peach because I thought insects might be a bit more understanding than my mother.

Your top authors:

Anne Lamott, Richard Ford, Alain de Botton, Marguerite Duras, Zora Neale Hurston, Leo Tolstoy

Books you've faked reading:

Proust (cheated with Alain de Botton); The Master and Margarita, Jonathan Safran Foer, Gravity's Rainbow (Pynchon I can't even fake!)

Books you are an evangelist for:

Status Anxiety, The Lover

Book you've bought for the cover:

I'm unmoved by superficial beauty in every context.

Book that changed your life:

Man's Search for Meaning (of course), Where the Wild Things Are (because I realized I wasn't the only child plotting to devour her parents and being sent upstairs without supper)

Favorite line from a writer:

"At the level of our daily lives, one man or woman meeting with another man or woman is finally the central arena of history."--Athol Fugard

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Anna Karenina


Book Brahmin: Victoria Bond

On your nightstand now:

Moby Dick

Favorite book when you were a child:

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle

Your top five authors:

Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Charlotte Bronte, Rita Dove

Book you've faked reading:

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Book you are an evangelist for:

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson

Book you've bought for the cover:

Anything with James Baldwin's face on the cover.

Book that changed your life:

Golden Slippers: An Anthology of Negro Poetry for Young Readers, edited by Arna Bontemps

Favorite line from a book:

"And like any artist without an art form, she became dangerous." --Toni Morrison, Sula

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith



Book Review

Review: Zora and Me

Zora and Me by Victoria Bond (Candlewick Press (MA), $16.99 Hardcover, 9780763643003, October 2010)

At its core, this exquisite debut novel is the story of a beautiful friendship. It is also a riveting mystery, in which its setting, the swamplands of Eatonville, Fla.; its era--a time when the Jim Crow laws ruled the South--and the innocence and mythology of childhood all play a part. Finally, this masterful novel imagines, through its integration of carefully researched details, the childhood that shaped Zora Neale Hurston, and suggests how the seeds were planted for the woman who would become a groundbreaking anthropologist, folklorist and novelist at the center of the Harlem Renaissance.

Carrie Brown, Zora's best friend, narrates the story with the benefit of hindsight ("It's funny how you can be in a story but not realize until the end that you were in one"). Her voice makes a striking contrast to Zora's ("Zora didn't have any trouble telling a fib or stretching a story for fun," Carrie observes). Carrie tells it like it is, and wastes not a word. From the beginning, she metes out information in a way that invites us to piece together the mystery at hand and also the complex world outside of Eatonville ("the first incorporated all-black township in the United States," an endnote explains). Carrie begins their story just before the start of fourth grade. She and Zora always seem to be at the right place at the right time for an adventure, and they lag behind a group of men following an out-of-town welder who plans to best the legendary alligator Ghost. Unfortunately, Ghost gets the best of the welder, then disappears. Zelda will not discuss the death of the welder, but in the schoolyard, she spins a tall tale about Mr. Pendir, a carpenter by trade, who once outsmarted three gators and lives near the Blue Sink, her favorite swimming hole. She claims she saw him standing on his porch with the head of an alligator: "Mr. Pendir is a gator man--man body, gator head!" How else does one explain Ghost's disappearance?

Along with the "gator man," Zora and Carrie endow their surroundings with the stuff of legend. In addition to Blue Sink, of which Zora, Carrie and their friend Teddy now have a healthy fear, they also invest Loving Pine with a larger-than-life quality. "Just because something can't talk,... doesn't mean it can't give and get love," explains Zora. The Loving Pine becomes a central backdrop for many of the children's awakenings. It's where they first meet a traveling turpentine worker, Ivory; and it's also where they later come to understand the puzzle pieces of their mystery. Ivory strums his guitar to a song about "the looking and finding folks." Carrie asks him which he is, and Ivory responds, "Sometimes the problem is trying to find somebody who don't know they lost or don't want to be found." They warn Ivory to "be careful of... gators in these parts." He thanks them and goes on his way, saying, "I've outlived creatures much more dangerous than old gators." In their "community without strangers," as Carrie puts it, Ivory stands out.

Zora, Carrie and Teddy are surrounded by loving adults. Chief among them is Joe Clarke, who runs Eatonville's general store, and also acts as the town marshall. Joe Clarke, along with Zora's father, were among those who tried to save the welder from Ghost, and it's while Zora and Carrie are at his general store that they learn a body was found dead by the railroad tracks: "It don't have no head.... Probably a turpentine worker," reports Chester Cools. A smashed guitar was found a few feet away. And then Zora and Carrie know: It was Ivory. "Only a monster could do what was done to Ivory," Carrie thinks. Mr. Ambrose, "the old white man who had helped deliver Zora into the world," is another trusted adult. His presence at Zora's birth grants him a privileged position in the Hurston family and in Eatonville in general. Like Joe Clarke, he helps gently guide Zora through the complexities of the clues she's uncovering. Both Joe Clarke and Mr. Ambrose's exchanges with the children attest to their concern for their safety as well as the integrity of Eatonville.

Each chapter unspools like a scene on the stage. Simon and Bond reveal the tensions between blacks and whites in the Jim Crow South for the first time at the Hurstons' dinner table, when Zora shatters the upbeat mood by bringing up the body they found by the tracks. Mr. Hurston refuses to discuss it; she insists. The situation escalates to the point where he says, "Do you--do you think you white?" Zora responds, "Saying what I know and wanting answers... doesn't make me white. I know who I am. I'm Zora." And a trip to Lake Maitland to buy towels reveals a more insidious side of race relations, both in Mrs. Hurston's behavior in the shop (when the shopkeeper asks Mrs. Hurston who the towels are for, she says they're for some folks in town for whom she's started doing housework), and when they meet a woman named Gold. "She was the sun," Carrie thinks. Gold makes a beeline for Zora and Carrie, and Carrie thinks, "Whatever it was that made her so beautiful must have been inside of us, too." But Mrs. Hurston says after Gold leaves, "She best be careful about being too friendly with people she gave up her place with." Both of these scenes get to the heart of Zora Neale Hurston's body of work. No matter where she went or whom she encountered in her life, Hurston would remain true to her roots and to her convictions.

In the end, this is an elegant coming-of-age story. Though Zora and Carrie's childhood is steeped in myth, myth alone cannot explain the death of Ivory or the horrors of racism. There are indeed creatures more dangerous than old gators. The girls' pursuit of the truth does not end there; knowing the truth, they are equally committed to doing what they must to keep Eatonville safe. And that changes them irrevocably. As Mrs. Hurston tells them, "The folks who protect where they come from always have a place to come back to. But more than that--they always have a place to take with them." What powerful armor for a child to carry with her. With this gracefully crafted book, Simon and Bond demonstrate not only how Hurston carried that armor with her throughout her life and work, but how all of us can, too.--Jennifer M. Brown


Image: Alan Lomax, "African American Children Playing Singing Games, Eatonville, Florida." June 1935.


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