age range: grades 2-5
genre / format : narrative nonfiction; picture book
topics: school integration; Civil Rights Movement
Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s website
Micheaux Nelson and Bostic’s information-packed picture book examines an overlooked story of civil rights . . .[An] affirming look at “three unlikely leaders in small shoes” who “took great strides.”
— Publisher’s Weekly, starred review
An unmissable story about everyday courage whose notes about the importance of overcoming discrimination remain timely.
— Foreword, starred review
A welcome spotlight on the undersung history of three girls whose bravery and endured torment carved a path for generations.
— Booklist, starred review
What a treat to interview my dear writing friend and critique group member, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson. Vaun, please tell us about your book.
Small Shoes, Great Strides: How Three Brave Girls Opened Doors to School Equality is a nonfiction picture book about public school desegregation in New Orleans. Escorted by United States Marshals, first graders Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost and Gail Etienne made history on November 14, 1960 by bravely entering the previously all-white McDonogh 19 Public School amidst ugly protests. It was an important step in the struggle for fairness in education. The significance of simply going to school was not understood by them at the time and, for decades, the women didn’t speak much about it. In recent years, the McDonogh Three (as they came to be known) have begun to talk, and I am honored to help share their story.
What inspired you to write this story?
I love history, specifically under-told stories in black history. I am especially attracted to fascinating contributors about whom I know nothing, whose stories compel me. Learning that the McDonogh Three entered their school on the same day as Ruby Bridges made me ask, “Why didn’t I know about Leona, Tessie and Gail?” When I realized they integrated McDonogh 19 ten minutes prior to Ruby Bridges at Frantz Elementary, I was even more intrigued and so resolved to tell their story. All due respect for Ms. Bridges’ accomplishments and contribution, I feel discrepancies in history should be acknowledged and corrected. I hope I accomplished this.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research and / or share a few interesting tidbits about your writing process with this book?
Being able to meet and interview Leona, Tessie, Gail and retired U.S. Marshal Herschel Garner was unforgettable. I was blessed to hear this story from the individuals who lived it, and I’m indebted to them all for their generosity. In addition to interviews, I used books, newspaper and magazine articles, audio and video resources, Orleans Parish School Board minutes and other school documents. The fact that hurricane Katrina destroyed considerable New Orleans school district records, as well as many personal artifacts belonging to my subjects, complicated and frustrated my research. As to the writing process, after immersing myself in the material, I construct the story line to be as straightforward and accessible for my target audience as possible. I employ back matter to expand on the information without having to interrupt the primary narrative. This allows more advanced readers to satisfy their curiosity for what broadcaster Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story.”
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
- school desegregation
- the Civil Rights Movement
- the U.S. Marshals Service
- Brown vs. Board of Eduation
- separate but equal