For her debut middle grade historical novel, Finding Langston (Holiday House, Aug.), acclaimed picture-book author Lesa Cline-Ransome was inspired by Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of American’s Great Migration (2010). In it, Wilkerson charts the stories of three African-Americans—Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Foster—and the challenges they faced making their way out of the South during the Great Migration.
“I was so moved by their stories. And being African-American, I realized it was also the story of my family,” says Cline-Ransome. “I started thinking about a way in which I could tell one of those kinds of narratives and weave it into one of my own personal stories. That’s how I came to the story of Langston.”
In Cline-Ransome’s novel, 11-year-old Langston leaves Alabama with his father in 1946, following the death of his mother. They move to Chicago, where the boy doesn’t fit in. He wears overalls and has a Southern accent, and the other children in his all-black school bully him. But then he finds refuge in a place he’d never been before: a library. There he also discovers the work of the poet for whom his mother named him.
“I’m halfway through the book doing research, looking at libraries in Alabama in the 1940s, when all of a sudden it hits me,” says Cline-Ransome. “ ‘Oh, my God, in rural Alabama at that time, blacks didn’t have access to libraries.’ There were two or three libraries that blacks were allowed to use in all of Alabama. Here I’d been thinking maybe my character didn’t live near a library. Well, there was no library for him to go to.”
As to how Cline-Ransome hopes her readers will respond to her first historical novel, she replies, “I would like them to take away an appreciation for the transformative power of books and words. I grew up with a mom who really loved to read, and we spent a lot of time in the public library. So for me, being in a library and reading books gave me a view into another world and gave me a certain level of strength.
“Simply by reading, [Langston] not only finds an escape but he finds a way to tap into an inner strength and reserve that he didn’t know he had,” Cline-Ransome adds.