Not many miles off the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston, a winding road rises and falls just before it reaches the turnoff leading up a hill to Julius Lester's pale green, clapboard home. Encircled by leafless trees, the house sits on a knoll overlooking a snow-filled meadow, as pale on a late January day as the gray sky that seems to dip down to meet it halfway. In sharp contrast to this frosty setting, the author's welcome is warm and gracious, as he ushers a visitor indoors to a chair by a large window offering a splendid view of the winter countryside.
Comfortably clad in a woolen burgundy plaid shirt, beige sweater, corduroy pants and fleece slippers, Lester settles into a chair to reflect on his 32-year writing career, during which he has created a bountiful 30 books for both children and adults. Lester has a trio of titles for young readers due out from three different publishers. Scholastic Press will release Ackamarackus: Julius Lester's Sumptuously Silly Fantastically Funny Fables, with acrylic and collage art by Emilie Chollat. Coming from Hyperion's Jump at the Sun imprint is The Blues Singers: Ten Who Rocked the World, illustrated by Lisa Cohen. And due fromHarcourt/Silver Whistle is When Dad Killed Mom, a young adult novel written in the alternating voices of a brother and sister whose father is convicted of fatally shooting their mother.
"My work has always had a range to it, but I've never had three so different books come out during the same season," says Lester in his deep, resonant voice. Asked whether he agrees with Scholastic's assertion, in the flap copy for Ackamarackus, that never before has the author's "silly side been seen in print," Lester chuckles and nods. "Yes, this is a total breaking away from what I've been doing over the last several years. Instead of retelling traditional tales with imagination, I created original imaginative stories. This book started with a dream I had, in which I invented a whole new alphabet."
Hardly new to the author is the topic of The Blues Singers, which offers profiles of such greats as James Brown, Billie Holiday and Mahalia Jackson. Lester notes that his work on this title, which Andrea Pinkney, his editor at Jump at the Sun, proposed he write, "took me back to a part of my life I hadn't been in contact with for a while. I used to be a folksinger in the 1960s, and I collected music in the South during this time. As a board member of the Newport Folk Foundation, I had been involved in the Newport Folk Festival and knew a lot of the old-time blues singers, so it was certainly fun going back to listen to that music again."
"My father's voice and the language and the rhythms I heard in church were a major influence on my life."
At first Lester struggled with his narrative, since it was difficult for him to write what he labels "just a factual book, since I am a storyteller." The birth of his granddaughter, now 15 months old, gave him a voice for this book. "Suddenly it occurred to me that I wanted her to know about these singers, and the storytelling element I was looking for opened up," he recalls. Accordingly, Lester addresses the child personally in his introduction, which he concludes with a characteristically original observation: "Honey, if it wasn't for the blues, we probably wouldn't have anything to listen to except our t nails growing."
Yet it is his new, wrenching novel, When Dad Killed Mom, that evokes the most emotional response from the author. Though he explains that he is usually dispassionate when he writes and d s not himself experience the feelings that he creates on the page, this book was an exception. "Emotionally, this book was different for me," he reflects. "These characters, their voices and their story were so clear to me from the very beginning. They had me in tears very often. Once you've reached a certain age and you've experienced the deaths of family members and friends, each death reawakens that experience. Both of my parents and my brother are dead, so I'm the only one of my family left. As I took these young characters through the grieving process after their mother dies, I went through another round of grieving myself. I sat down to begin writing, and I wrote 18 pages in one sitting. I've never before done that. I'm a bleeder: I write three pages at a time and then rewrite for a week before writing the next three. But this was very different."
Though Lester asserts that he didn't decide to become a writer until the last week of his senior year at Fisk University in Nashville, from which he received a B.A. in English in 1960, he spent his childhood surrounded by stories. The son of a Methodist minister who moved his family from Missouri to Kansas to Tennessee, Lester remembers spending much time listening to the stories that his father and his Southern minister colleagues shared. "My father's voice and the language and the rhythms I heard in church were a major influence on my life," he remarks. Similarly, the writer evokes fond memories of the childhood summers he spent at his maternal grandmother's home in Arkansas. "Her place had no electricity, so we'd sit in the dark on her front porch those summer nights, and I'd listen closely to my grandmother and my mother talking about old people they knew, or people who had died. These were so important to me, these voices coming to me through the night."
Lester's college graduation coincided with the beginnings of the civil rights movement, in which he became very involved. "This was really important to me in terms of being a part of making--and changing--history, as well as establishing many relationships," he explains. In 1961, he moved to New York City where he taught guitar and banjo before signing on as host of a radio show for eight years, which led to his own live TV show that aired for two years. When he wasn't on the air, Lester was polishing his writing skills and began publishing pieces in magazines in the mid-'60s. He penned what he describes as "the first book about black power from somebody who was inside the movement," which Dial Press published in 1968 as Look Out, Whitey, Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama.
"It was out of that book that I stumbled into writing for children," observes Lester, whose editor at the time, Joyce Johnson, commented that he wrote very simply and clearly, and suggested he talk to Phyllis Fogelman, editor-in-chief at Dial Books for Young Readers, about the possibility of doing a book for children. At their initial meeting, Lester told Fogelman that he had been scouring the Library of Congress's collection of interviews with former slaves in hopes of finding traces of his ancestors. "I had come across many interesting accounts there and had also been collecting out-of-print books containing 19th-century slave narratives," he recalls. "I told Phyllis that I had been thinking about writing a book about what it was like to be a slave--in the words of a slave. She asked me to write a proposal, which she liked, and I spent the next three months writing the book."
It was obviously time well spent. Published in 1968, To Be a Slave was named a Newbery Honor Book and has sold just under half a million copies in hardcover and paperback. Lester modestly comments that the award impressed him little at the time. "This was a book that I knew I had to write, and I felt very fortunate that it was recognized. But I didn't know enough about children's literature to know that the Newbery was a big deal. What was great was that I realized that I enjoyed writing for children and that I could write for children in ways I couldn't write for adults." In the next few years, the author wrote several other books for adults, as well as Long Journey Home: Stories from Black Histories, another children's book with Dial that was a National Book Award finalist in 1972.
Lester, meanwhile, had donned yet another cap, that of educator. Due to the recognition he gained as author of Look Out, Whitey, he was offered a position at New York City's New School for Social Research, where for two years he taught a course on black history. "And then in 1971, I was asked to come up to interview with the black studies department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and I've been teaching there ever since," he says. "I never thought I'd be here as long as I have, but I just love teaching. And I love the students."
Reflecting his range of interests and expertise, Lester's current teaching agenda includes a course on biblical tales and legends for the Judaic studies department, a course on the 1960s for the history department and a course on religion and Western literature for the English department.
Juggling his roles as professor and writer poses no problem for Lester. "Teaching at the university level, I'm able to set my schedule in such a way that I'm able to give what I need to give to the teaching and also have time to write," he explains. "I don't see the two as a dichotomy. Teaching keeps me in touch with youth, since college students are basically late adolescents. I'm very aware of the cultural influences in their lives, the kinds of things they are thinking about and what is important to them. I even watch MTV."
The author, whose agent is Minnesota-based Neil Ross, is gratified that he is published by a variety of publishers. He notes that his relationships with editors have sprung up through diverse channels, including encounters at conferences and unsolicited suggestions for book projects. "I feel that working with a number of editors improves me as a writer," he says. "I've learned very different things from different editors." Similarly, Lester enjoys collaborating with a spectrum of artists, some of whose work keeps him company each day: one wall of his front hall is decorated with framed illustrations from the covers or the interiors of his picture books.
Represented among the art in Lester's home gallery is Jerry Pinkney, with whom the author has a particularly close working relationship. "Jerry and I have an unusual way of working," he notes. "Often publishers try to keep writers and artists separated, so that authors don't try to dictate how a book should be illustrated. But Jerry and I talk to each other about a book. I would never tell Jerry, or any artist, what they should draw. We have a lot of respect for each other and our collaborations have worked well."
Very well, in fact. One joint effort, John Henry, was a 1995 Caldecott Honor Book and an ALA Notable Book, and won the Society of Illustrators' Gold Medal; Sam and the Tigers, a 1996 collaboration also published by Dial, was also named an ALA Notable Book.
The names of Lester and Pinkney will appear together again on the cover of another picture book, tentatively scheduled to be released in the fall of 2002 by Phyllis Fogelman's imprint at Penguin Putnam. Entitled The Old African, it retells a story that Lester initially relayed in Long Journey Home, based on a legend about Africans who walked into the ocean in Georgia and made their way all the way back to Africa. "I am very excited about this book," notes Lester. "I have been haunted by this story for years. When I sat to retell it, what came out was magical. Absolutely magical."
Lester has recently completed or is finishing six other books, including his third novel for adults, The Autobiography of God, which, in Lester's words, "my agent is sending out to publishers as we speak." This is the book the author cites when asked if there is a book that he had dreamed of writing but had not yet written. "This is one book that I really felt that if I died without writing it, I would really hate myself," he muses. "I've been working on this novel, on and off, for about 15 years, and I finally finished it last summer. It's a book that I had to grow into, but I'm very pleased with it now."
This prolific author has no plans to hit the road when the snow melts to promote his spring titles. "This has been the most creative period of my life, but I'm tired and I just want to stay home," Lester says determinedly. "I live here on 12 acres of peace and quiet. Why should I want to go anyplace else? When my wife and I saw this house in the mid-'90s, it was the one house we wanted, but, as is always the case, it was more money than we could afford. So I said to God, 'If you let me have this house, I guarantee you I will write, write, write.'"
Luckily for his readers, Julius Lester is a man of his word.