By Lynn Rubright, Patricia McKissack
Lynn Rubright has been a professional storyteller for more than forty years. “I first discovered that I was a storyteller when I had my boys, Dan and Ted,” says the author. “I’d tell them stories like Jack and the Beanstalk over milk and cookies and Ted would say, ‘Tell it again, Mommy.’ That’s what started my career as a storyteller.” Many years later, Rubright’s first book for children, Mama’s Window was published by LEE & LOW BOOKS. Loosely based on episodes in the childhood of Reverend Owen Whitfield, Mama’s Window tells the story of Sugar, a young boy who is determined to see his late mother’s dream come to fruition.
Rubright first learned of Owen Whitfield when she received a Creative Artist’s Grant from the Missouri Arts Council to create a one-woman show on St. Louis writer, artist, and social activist, Fannie Cook. “While I was researching Fannie Cook’s papers I met Shirley Farmer, the daughter of Reverend Owen Whitfield,” Rubright says. “Shirley Whitfield was the Whitfield family historian. She spent a great deal of time trying to learn more about her father and the time that he led 1200 black and white sharecroppers onto Missouri highways in January, 1939. They were protesting a new farm policy, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, that had come from the New Deal administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.” A loophole in this policy allowed plantation owners to keep government money they owed the sharecroppers, if they fired their current sharecroppers and hired new ones to take their places. “Fannie Cook met Owen Whitfield at the Urban League headquarters in St. Louis. He told her the story of the poverty-stricken sharecroppers and how he convinced them to ‘stand out on the highway so that the whole world can see what we are up against down here,’” comments Rubright. “Cook became involved with trying to help them.” Lynn Rubright’s one-woman show became “Oh Freedom, After While.” It was presented at the Missouri Historical Society and later made into a video documentary. “Most people had forgotten that the sharecropper protest had taken place, but the video has reminded them. To this day it tells the story of how Reverend Owen Whitfield led the people like a modern day Moses, out onto the highway.”
Inspired by Cook’s writings on Owen Whitfield, Rubright began thinking about Mama’s Window in 1991. She spent the next thirteen years researching, writing, and re-working the story. Her research took her to northwest Mississippi, where Owen Whitifield was born in 1884, and northeast Arkansas and southern Missouri, where Whitfield and his family lived on and off. “In Clarksville, Mississippi, I found a man, John Ruskey, who makes canoes and takes people down the Mississippi River in them,” says the author. “We paddled through bayous, small rivers, and a lake, just like in Mama’s Window. The water was the color of coffee with cream, and John swam in it, even though there were snakes and vines there! My descriptions of the swamp and the water in the book are based on my river trip with John Ruskey.”
Rubright also spent time with John Fewkes, a cultural historian. He took Rubright to the swampy areas of northwest Mississippi. “I took pictures of the swamps, shacks, and old boats of all shapes and sizes,” comments Rubright. “Figuring out how Sugar’s boat worked and how the swamp surrounding their shack opened up into the bayou which opened up into Sun Lake was very difficult for me as a writer. I wanted it to be right. . . .and even drew myself maps.” “Fewkes also introduced me to a wonderful elderly retired preacher, Reverend. Polk. He told me many stories about the poverty he lived in as a child in the Mississippi Delta region,” the author says. “He told me about having to fish for catfish, turtles, and frogs to avoid starvation, and how his auntie would wrap chunks of ice in quilts to keep it from melting.”
Lynn Rubright loves to read Mama’s Window with children. “I had great fun sharing the story of how Mama came to be with some fifth graders in Webster Grove, Missouri,” the author recalls. “The children had many questions about the book, and I told them that many parts were autobiographical. The children were very surprised to hear this, since the story is about Sugar and Uncle Free, living in a tiny African American community in northwest Mississippi. I am a Wisconsin girl who grew up in Chicago. I explained to the children that while some of the book was autobiographical, other parts were carefully researched. I also often consulted with well known children’s author Patricia McKissack, who wrote the Afterword for the book.” Even Rubright’s eight-year -old grandson weighed in with a review. He told her, “Grandma Lynn, I loved your book, Mama’s Window!”
The story of Mama’s Window is one of hope, dreams, and perseverance. “I hope that readers of all ages will find that Mama’s Window will carry them along like a current in a river,” says Rubright. “I want them to think about how we sometimes must do things we do not want to do, especially in the midst of loss or grief, when we feel angry and alone. But if we are strong and disciplined, as Sugar came to be, things that are hard for us sometimes turn out for the best. Even if we don’t see it at the time.” Lynn Rubright’s strongest hope for the book is simple. “I mainly want readers to enjoy the book. I love that delicious feeling deep inside that nudges me to steal a few minutes, or an hour, every day to sink into a good book. That’s what I hope for most of all—that readers will find Mama a good read.”
About This Title
Interest Level:Grades 4 - 8
Reading Level:Grades 4 - 4
Middle Grade, Identity/Self Esteem/Confidence, Overcoming Obstacles, Families, Dreams & Aspirations, Coping with Death, African/African American Interest, Poverty, Persistence/Grit, Bullying, Childhood Experiences and Memories, Collaboration, Conflict resolution, Courage, Disability, Empathy/Compassion, Friendship, Kindness/Caring, Mentors, Mothers, Pride, Protest, Respect/Citizenship, Responsibility, Self Control/Self Regulation
African American English Collection Middle School, English Guided Reading Level S, Diverse Background English Collection Middle School, Realistic Fiction Middle School, Realistic Fiction High School, English Fiction Grades 3-6, English Fiction Middle School, English Fiction Grades 6-12, Fluent Dual Language , Fluent English, Historical Fiction Grades 3-6, High-Low Books for Preteens (Grades 4-6), High-Low Books for Teens (Middle and High School), Death & Grief, Appendix B Diverse Collection Grades 3-6
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