Glenda Armand is a retired teacher and librarian. She is the author of picture book and chapter book biographies and historical fiction. Glenda’s newest book, Black-Eyed Peas and Hoghead Cheese: A Story of Food, Family and Freedom, released in September from Crown Books for Young Readers. Visit Glenda online at glenda-armand.com.
What is your favorite thing about writing biographies and historical fiction?
When I write biographies and historical fiction, I enjoy being all-knowing and all-seeing!
I like having the subject’s entire story laid out before me from beginning to end. With that, I can find themes and evaluate events in the light that hindsight shines on them. I can emphasize the events that proved to be significant milestones.
I would not want to write a story about current events or a famous person alive today. Before I start a book, I need to know how the story ends.
What typically comes first for you? An era? A story idea?
How an idea arrives is different for each book, which is one of the joys of being a writer. As a student of American history, I am particularly interested in the Revolutionary and Civil War eras, so ideas will often come to me while I am reading books from those time periods. For instance, while researching Frederick Douglass for my first book, Love Twelve Miles Long, I discovered African American Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge, who became the subject of my second book, Ira’s Shakespeare Dream.
However, my latest book, Black-Eyed Peas and Hoghead Cheese: A Story of Food, Family and Freedom came about in a completely unexpected way. I was not reading about the Boston Tea Party or the Underground Railroad when the idea for the book came to me. Black-Eyed Peas and Hoghead Cheese, although so personal to me, was not even my idea.
The concept for Black-Eyed Peas arrived in an email. My agent informed me that an editor at Crown Books was looking for someone to write a picture book about soul food. Would I be interested?
I did not jump at the chance because, I must confess, I am not a foodie. However, my family is from Louisiana, and I grew up eating delicious Creole cooking. With that experience and picture books being in my wheelhouse, I thought I would give it a try. Perhaps an “outsider looking in” perspective might work.
Once you’ve gotten the idea, how do you proceed from there?
The first thing I do after getting an idea for a book is to search online for any other children’s books that may have been written on the topic. Sometimes, I find that the idea is not unique after all. If there are already several children’s books on the historical figure or topic, I might decide to pass. Or I might decide that I can add a different perspective.
Many books, including children’s books, have been written about Frederick Douglass, but I thought that Love Twelve Miles Long, with its focus on Frederick Douglass’s mother, did have something to add to the genre.
If I decide to go ahead with a book, I check my personal library to see what books I already have on the topic. I research online and I look for reference books that I might want to buy. Even though I am writing historical fiction for children, I rarely use fiction or children’s books for research. I just want facts and not someone else’s interpretation of the facts. It’s my job to put my own spin on the topic. And I don’t want to inadvertently appropriate someone else’s idea!
For Black-Eyed Peas, I didn’t start my research in the usual way. This book was going to be, in a sense, about me. So I began by making a list of some of the foods my mom used to cook. Gumbo, black-eyed peas, jambalaya, sweet potato pie, pralines—and the dreaded hoghead cheese. I interviewed the cooks in my family. Then I researched each food item that I chose to highlight in my book. I wanted to find out how it became a part of my family’s tradition and African American/Creole culture.
Because life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind our actions don’t always make sense. But stories need to follow a logical path. What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?
One book instantly comes to mind in answer to this question. Song in a Rainstorm: The Story of Musical Prodigy Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins has been the hardest book for me to write. When I learned about Blind Tom over a decade ago, I was immediately fascinated by his story. He was an African American, born into slavery, who became a musical prodigy. Even more incredible, Tom Wiggins was born blind and autistic.
It would be a difficult story to tell because, although there were kind people who helped him realize his true potential, there were many bad actors in Tom’s life. How to tell his story? And tell it as a children’s picture book at that! How could I tell it without seeming to dismiss the cruelty of slavery and exploitation, and the realities of having disabilities? His life story was definitely “muddy,” but I knew that it was a story that should be told. I lived with the story for over ten years before I started writing it.
I believe I finally found a way to tell his story, keep the focus on him and his incredible talents, while acknowledging the sad circumstances of his life. Albert Whitman published Song in a Rainstorm in 2021.
With Black-Eyed Peas, I again had to acknowledge the evil of slavery, while honoring the resourcefulness, bravery, and resilience of the enslaved. The task is not as daunting when your primary goal is to tell the truth. And when the enslaved are your own ancestors, your own family, you make sure that their humanity, their individuality and their love come through.
What is your favorite thing about research?
I enjoy learning. So when I first dig in to my sources, that is when the fun begins. There is always more to learn about a subject; even when the subject hits close to home. When I wrote Black-Eyed Peas, I learned many things about the history of my own family, the Creole culture, and African Americans in general. I learned how deep my family’s roots are in Louisiana, while gaining a deeper understanding of how intricately the story of African Americans is entwined with the history of the United States. I grew to appreciate the extent to which what we eat makes us who we are.
What do your want your young readers to take from Black-Eyed Peas and Hoghead Cheese?
I hope the Black-Eyed Peas encourages young readers to learn more about their own family traditions. I hope they will “interview” family members and learn about their heritage and how their culture is a part of the great tapestry that is American culture. And, also, I hope they learn how to cook!
Keep an eye out for Glenda’s next book, All Aboard the Schooltrain, releasing next January.