Phillip M. Hoose is a widely acclaimed author of books, essays, stories, songs and articles, including the National Book Award-winning "Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice." He is also the author of the multi-award winning "The Race to Save the Lord God Bird," the National Book Award finalist "We Were There Too!: Young People in U.S. History" and the Christopher Award-winning manual for youth activism "It's Our World Too!" The picture book "Hey, Little Ant," which began as a song by the same title, was co-written with his daughter Hannah and has more than one million copies in print in ten languages. His newest book, “The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), is an inspiring story of young heroes at the beginning of World War II.
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
From the 2010 National Book Festival
Can you tell us about your newest book – Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice? How did you learn about Claudette and her experiences?
I wrote We Were There, Too! a large collection of the great contributions young people made to our national story. That book took me six years to research and write. As I got to the civil rights movement, it became clear that young people were at the forefront After all, Brown v. Board of Education was all about schools, all about young people. I saw that thousands of young people had been heroic; they took all sorts of risks and abuse. I was looking for stories to bring that experience alive for my readers, and I had a wide network of people helping me. I started hearing about this one riveting story: a 15-year-old in Montgomery who did what Rosa Parks famously did but a year before Rosa; a teenage girl who was arrested and fought charges but was not celebrated. In fact, she was shunned. I thought, wow, if this is true, what a story—especially if I could find her, and if she could remember and describe what it was like to be 15 and have the courage to challenge Jim Crow. If she could still remember what it felt like, what a tremendous story. Here was a person who was not known, not credited—even as Rosa’s story has become part of the national canon.
How did you go about finding Claudette?
At first, I was not even sure if she was still alive. There were a few articles about her, starting around 1980. I discovered she lived in New York City, but her phone number was not listed, and no trick I could think of allowed me to find it. But in 1995, USA Today did a big article on her—it was the 40th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott—and that article had quotes from her. So I called the reporter. I asked if he could relay a message to her. “I will,” he said. A few weeks later, he told me she’d said, “Maybe I’ll talk with him, when I retire.” Claudette was still working as a nurse’s aide at night. For the next four years, I’d check in with the reporter once or twice a year, to see if Claudette had changed her mind. I never gave up, but my focus was on other projects. But one fall night I came home, and there was a red light flashing on the phone—and there was just one message: “Claudette says she will talk with you. Here is her number. Good luck.”
It took years to find her, and then even longer to establish the strong connection that allowed us to work together on this book. But we persisted. And now we’re coming to speak together at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.
You have written many books. Do you have any special favorites among them?
No, they are ALL my favorites
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
Having a deadline really forces you to discipline yourself. I’d say deadlines are my best friends.
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing or illustrating?
My advice is to write and write and write. Don’t think that you have to write immortal publishable words from the start. Write, keep practicing and share your work with others. Don’t be embarrassed – just share and write!
Can you suggest a fun topic to get them started?
Imagine that you are a pigeon – maybe even a presidential pigeon – and you live in the White House or the monuments of Washington, DC. Write about your life as that pigeon.
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
As a child I loved Ferdinand the Bull by Munro Leaf and Half Magic by Edward Eager.
How do you decide on themes for your books?
All of my book ideas stem from things I care a lot about - for example, birds, music, justice, baseball and young people.
How important is research in the development of your books? Can you explain the process as well?
As a non-fiction writer, I couldn’t do my job without research. For my earlier books I often went to libraries – but now I can do more research online. The best kind of research on contemporary topics, is to talk with real people. The wonderful thing about researching Claudette Colvin, is that I could just call her up and talk to her or go visit her.
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
First, read to them as long as they will let you – starting early! And try not to censor the books and materials they read too tightly – let your horizons expand with theirs.
Can you tell us about any new books that you will be working on during the coming year?
I can tell that I’m writing about another bird – and that it is NOT an extinct bird.
If you weren’t creating children’s books, what do you think you would be doing?
Do you have a website where young people can learn more about you and your work?