PW: The events in your new picture book, Goin' Someplace Special, are taken from your childhood in Nashville during the racially segregated '50s. What prompted you to revisit this particular time in your life?
PK: I've been working on this book for a very, very long time. I wrote a history of the civil rights movement with [my husband] Fred, which was a very text-heavy book and quite an emotional experience for us. I wanted to simplify the emotions involved in that whole time period.
I did not want this to be an angry book and I did not want it to be a mean-spirited book. I wanted it to be a book of personal triumph, so that a young person reading it would not just see me as a black child in the South dealing with segregation, but as any child dealing with a challenge—a learning disability or physical challenge or anything that sets them apart. I wanted them to be able to read this book and say, "I can triumph over this outside adversity, too." I hope I've achieved that.
PW: Was it fun to team up again with Jerry Pinkney, with whom you have not collaborated since Mirandy and Brother Wind?
PK: Oh yes! We've been waiting for the right book to come along, and this was it. Jerry just brought so much to the spirit of the book. I sent him pictures of the house I grew up in in Nashville—it's on the back cover—and of course he gave 'Tricia Ann her wonderful look. We don't have anything else in the works right now, but I'm hoping it won't be this long before we work together again.
PW: You write in the author's note that the setting was inspired by Nashville, but has been fictionalized. Can you explain?
PK: I thought this through very carefully, as segregation is a very, very difficult subject to write about in picture book format. When I first wrote the story, I made it all Nashville, but I was trying to be too true to the layout of the city—you would have to zigzag all over to touch down in the different places I mentioned. So I fictionalized the city. This lets the story become more universal. Plus I didn't want to use real place names. I didn't want young people to have negative feelings about places still in existence today that of course have different management and a different outlook on citizenship.
PW: Do you attribute your early love of the library as a factor in your decision to become a writer?
PK: I certainly do. The library was a welcoming place, and because of that I went there. I became a strong reader and student, majored in English in college, and taught eighth grade for seven years in Missouri.
But when I went to the library to read as a child, there was very little to read that had me in it—there were no pictures of me in picture books, no little girls like Mirandy and Nettie Jo [from Nettie Jo's Friends] and Flossie [from Flossie and the Fox ] for me to read about. And as a teacher, I still noticed that. A lot of my children would say, "I don't like to read," but what they were really saying was, "I don't have anything to read that interests or represents me."
PW: Is Goin' Someplace Special your most personal book to date?
PK: Yes, it is. It came from a very personal spot, and writing it was a catharsis. It helped me to get through all of that and leave it behind and just move on. We walk around through life with all these little pinprick hurts, and I needed to rid myself of that. This book has the tone that it does—that tone of triumph—because it's a personal triumph.
Look at how far I've come! I have to give those librarians in Nashville credit—the library was segregated at one time, but in the mid to late '50s the board of directors decided to integrate it, quietly and with no fanfare. It opened its doors at the same time I was old enough to go to the library. And guess what? The story has come full circle—my son Robert is now a librarian at the St. Louis Public Library. To me, that's like the cherry on top of the ice cream soda!