Amy Nathan e-interviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke (January, 2012)
Amy Nathan, who grew up in Baltimore and is a Harvard graduate, writes non-fiction for young people, from Yankee Doodle Gals: Women Pilots of World War II and Count On Us: American Women in the Military to Young Musician's Survival Guide and Surviving Homework: Tips That Really Work!
Her latest, Round & Round Together 'describes the nearly decade-long effort to integrate Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, weaving the story into that of the civil rights movement as a whole, providing an easy-to-follow overview of the struggle against Jim Crow.'
Amy says that 'all my books have something in common: They introduce you to amazing people whose stories have inspired me and, I hope, will spur you to keep following your dreams, no matter what kinds of obstacles may pop up from time to time that may seem to block your way.'
Q: Of all possible venues, what led you to choose Baltimore's Gwynn Oak Amusement Park to focus on Civil Rights protests?
A: I came across the event that is the central focus of Round and Round Together by chance about four years ago. I had just finished writing Take a Seat - Make a Stand, a book for kids on a little-known Civil Rights hero, Sarah Keys Evans (whom I also found out about by chance, but that's a story for another blog entry). My brother knew I had been immersing myself in Civil Rights history and thought I'd be interested in a new book that had just been published in Baltimore, Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland by C. Fraser Smith. We grew up in Baltimore, the title was intriguing, and so I ordered a copy. I was fascinated by its descriptions of events and people I hadn't known about. One incident in particular captured my attention, a brief mention toward the end of the book about the end segregation at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park. That park had been located not far from the house where I lived as a child.
What really made me whip out my yellow highlighter, however, was the fact that this park finally dropped segregation on August 28, 1963, the same day as the March on Washington. This coincidence seemed ready-made for a book for kids: On the same day that Martin Luther King, Jr., was in Washington speaking of his dream that one day black and white kids would treat each other as brothers and sisters, an example of black and white kids getting along was happening about 40 miles away at Baltimore's Gwynn Oak Amusement park. That day, 11-month-old Sharon Langley became the first African American child to go on a ride at the newly integrated park. She took a spin on the park's merry-go-round, sitting between two white youngsters. They all had fun together, as several major newspapers noted the next day.
I started doing research and discovered something the Smith book hadn't mentioned: That merry-go-round was now on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in front of the Smithsonian.
Another discovery: Nobody had yet made the connection between the merry-go-round at the Smithsonian and the role it had played in the hopefulness of August 28, 1963. I set out to write a book that would point out that connection and explain how it had happened.
As I continued doing research, I realized the story of the protests that ended segregation at that park could be woven into the story of the Civil Rights movement as a whole. Maybe by writing about a topic of inherent interest to young people - amusement parks - I could entice them to learn more about the history of the struggle against discrimination, and also introduce them to a symbol of the Civil Rights movement that they could visit next time they went to D.C..
At first, I thought of writing a short picture book, but as I explored the interconnections between what happened in Baltimore and elsewhere, I saw that the topic required a YA treatment. I'm working now on crafting a picture book version of Round and Round Together for young kids.
Q: In your research for Round & Round Together, which historical event(s) spoke to you most?
A: I was moved by all the Civil Rights events I read about, amazed by the dedication and courage of so many people who: participated in demonstrations, sit-ins, Freedom rides and boycotts; risked being arrested and beaten; filed endless court cases; defended arrested protestors pro bono; had the courage to speak up and testify; and through it all managed to maintain their commitment to a nonviolent approach even in the face of astonishing provocation - not only in Baltimore but all across the South and in northern cities, too. I was impressed also by the fact that it took more than a few famous leaders or a few well-known protest events to bring about change - that it took thousands of people taking part in a great many protests in many different cities and towns, big and small.
Q: Did you meet with any resistance while gathering information for the book?
A: It wasn't always easy locating people who had taken part in 1960s Baltimore protests, but when I did manage to find people, they were very helpful, agreeing to speak with me on the phone to share their memories of those long-ago days.
Q: Do you have any plans to write a follow-up on a similar theme?
A: I'm working on a picture-book version of Round and Round Together.
Q: Others of your books shine a spotlight on women's role in the military - have you any plans to write about the feminist movement?
A: I've tried in most of my books to highlight strong, independent-minded women. Round and Round Together is no exception. It features quite a few tough-minded women who played important roles in the struggle against segregation. For example, Baltimore's branch of the NAACP was led for 35 years (1935 to 1970) by the energetic and indomitable Lillie May Carroll Jackson. Her daughter, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, who served for years as a volunteer NAACP lawyer, helped start a new phase of Civil Rights activism in Baltimore as a teenager in the early 1930s with a successful boycott of white-owned stores located in the black community but that refused to hire blacks (the 'Don't Buy Where You Can't Work' campaign). My books on dancers and musicians have also featured strong women who had to battle discrimination of various kinds to launch their careers. So, of course, did my National Geographic books on the WASP pilots of World War II (Yankee Doodle Gals) and on women who served in the military (Count On Us). My future books are bound to do the same.
Q: Is the annual All Nations Day Festival still held in Baltimore?
A: The All Nations Day Festival was a private event held each year at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park over Labor Day Weekend starting in the early 1950s. Baltimore's chapter of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) protested at these festivals from 1955 to 1962 because even though the festivals supposedly celebrated "all" nations, no Africans and no African Americans were allowed to participate. After the park dropped segregation in August 1963, an integrated All Nations Day Festival was held at the park in September of that year. A few years later, in 1972, Gwynn Oak Amusement Park closed forever after being devastated by Hurricane Agnes. However in 1996, nearly a quarter of a century after the park closed, Baltimore's Community Relations Commission began holding its own Baltimore International Festival each summer to "bring together the diverse cultures" in the area and "tear down some of the barriers which have traditionally kept us apart," as Alvin O. Gillard, the Commission's director noted in the Baltimore Sun in 2007. Last year's festival featured food, music, dance, art, and an international soccer tournament.
Q: Have you been approached to script any of your stories for television or the theater?
Q: What satisfies you most in writing for young readers?
A: I like introducing young people to stories and people that haven't been featured before in books for young people. I also like trying to make complex topics more accessible to young people.
Q: What do you think the courageous folk who fought to allow black children to ride the Gwynn Oak carousel would be fighting for today?
A: I think they would be fighting for the same kinds of things they were fighting for back then: an end to prejudice, discrimination, and a lack of fairness. Sadly, the battle against those evils is not yet won.
Q: Can you tell us anything about what you are currently working on?
A: I'm working on a follow-up to a book I wrote for Oxford University Press, The Young Musician's Survival Guide (2000, Second Edition 2008).Find out more about the author, all her books, and her many awards at AmyNathanBooks.com.
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