My newest book, Liberty (it publishes in a few short days, on October 11), is set in New Orleans during WWII. I adore this city, which has the kindest citizens in the world. But in the 1940s, New Orleans shared similarities with other southern cities. My main character, Fish Elliott, has a pesky neighbor named Olympia who is a bit younger than he is, and is always wanting to “help” Fish with his inventions. Though she frustrates the heck out of him, he comes to realize that Olympia is a good and loyal friend. A good friend who can’t attend the same school Fish does, or use certain restrooms or even ride in the front of the trolley cars.
I am passionate about bringing history to life on the page for today’s readers in a meaningful way. And that means being honest with them. There is a scene in the book where Olympia is pushed off the sidewalk by a middle-aged white man. I felt no pleasure in writing that scene and wish I could’ve left it out. But far worse things happened to young girls of color and that needs to be acknowledged or I might as well be writing fairy tales. My job was to find a way to show that mistreatment in a way my 8+ year old readers would understand.
Most times, when I’m finished with a book, I am content with where I’ve left my characters. I rarely imagine what happens next for them. But with Fish and Olympia, it was different. I like to think that, as they got older, their youthful friendship influenced both of them to work toward changing the status quo. Maybe they sat down at lunch counters. Or stood up to march.
I sure hope so.