With the Might of Angels by bestselling author and Coretta Scott King Award winner Andrea Davis Pinkney presents a moving fictional account of school desegregation in the Civil Rights Era. We sat down with Andrea to ask her a few questions about the book, newly available in paperback!
About the book:
Twelve-year-old Dawnie Rae Johnson's life turns upside down after the Supreme Court rules in favor of desegregation in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. Her parents decide that Dawnie will attend Prettyman Coburn, a previously all-white school -- but she'll be the only one of her friends to enroll in this new school.
Not everyone in Dawnie's town of Hadley, Virginia, supports integration, though, and much of the community is outraged by the decision. As she starts school, Dawnie encounters the harsh realities of racism. But the backlash against her arrival at Prettyman Coburn is more than she's prepared for, and she begins to wonder if the hardship is worth it. Will Dawnie be able to hold on to the true meaning of justice and remain faithful to her own sense of integrity?
Q&A with author Andrea Davis Pinkney
What inspired you to write this story?
Andrea: Dawnie Rae’s story comes from my own personal experience. I was the first African American student to integrate my first-grade classroom. It was scary, exciting, and hard. There were some nice kids, and some real meanies! Thankfully, I had a loving family and made very good friends who helped me through the experience. I wanted to share that story with others, so I created a fictional character whose life and times are similar to my own. Also, my cousin’s name is Dawn, and my middle name is Rae. Dawn and I love our names, because we don’t meet many people whose folks gave them these names. As soon as I started writing this book, I knew what the main character would be called!
Why did you choose to tell Dawnie Rae’s story through a series of diary entries?
A: Writing in a diary is like talking to a good friend who lets you share your deepest secrets, fears, frustrations, and joys, without judgment. Like a trusted buddy, a journal won’t make fun of you, or tell anybody about what you’re truly feeling. By having Dawnie tell her story through the pages of her “diary book,” readers can step into her heart’s hiding places.
What’s the most interesting thing you came across while researching this book?
A: I’ve written several books about civil rights and integration, and I’ve done quite a bit of research about that time period. While I knew African Americans were denied equal schooling, were made to ride in the backs of buses, and weren’t allowed to eat in certain restaurants or swim in public pools because of their skin color, what I didn’t know was that when a person of color went to a department store, they couldn’t try on the clothes, and had to slip paper inside the shoes before trying them on. Isn’t that the most ridiculous rule ever? I discovered this while conducting research for Dawnie Rae’s diary. It made me so mad that I put it in the book to point out how stupid it was!
Why did you feel it was important to integrate real people into Dawnie Rae’s diary?
A: One of the things I love most about writing historical fiction is that it’s based on true facts and real people. In the case of Dawnie Rae’s story, there were so many brave women and men who helped bring about changes that made conditions fair for all people. I wanted readers to know who these folks were. That’s why civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thurgood Marshall appear in the story. And it’s the reason Dawnie Rae writes letters to baseball great Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in major league baseball.
In the author’s note at the end of the book, you share that you come from a long line of civil rights activists. How did that help to shape this book?
A: That’s right, my own mom and dad were civil rights activists. Dad marched with Dr. King. Mom was a member of the League of Women Voters. I grew up hearing their stories, and learning civil rights history during our dinner table conversations. Dawnie Rae’s parents are very closely based on my own mom and dad, and her little brother, Goober, is based on my own baby brother, PJ.
What do you hope young readers will take away from this story?
A: We all have times when the road ahead is uncertain, when people are ridiculing you, and when you feel alone, or scared or sad. Dawnie Rae Johnson shows us that even in the darkest times, we can hold our heads up, and with the support of loving family members and good friends, we can walk ahead, one step at a time.