Telling the Story in History: An Interview with Russell Freedman

Russell Freedman received the first ever Cybils Award in nonfiction
for Freedom Walkers (Holiday House), an account of the Montgomery,
Alabama bus boycott of 1955. What impressed the judges was the way
Freedman told the story through the lives of the ordinary men and
women, teens and adults who participated.

Even the icons of the Civil Rights Movement are portrayed as fully
human. Freedman shows readers Rosa Parks as a thoughtful change agent
who refused to give up her seat, not because she was tired from
working all day but because she knew it was a political act that might
start a movement. Martin Luther King Jr. is a young minister, just
starting out, unsure if he should put his family at risk.

Freedman is the author of more than 50 distinguished
nonfiction books for young readers. Over the telephone, Carolyn Lehman asked him questions for the
panel of nonfiction judges (she also wrote the above introduction):

Carolyn Lehman:  What drew you to research and tell this particular
chapter of history?

Russell Freedman: I wanted to write about the Civil Rights Moment for
a long time and I looked for good approaches to it.  The first was my
Marian Anderson book (The Voice that Changed a Nation, Clarion; 2004).
Then I decided to look into the Montgomery bus boycott. When I found
out that there were people involved that no one heard of I was hooked.

The Civil Rights Movement was one of the significant events in my
adult life time. These two books have given me the chance to write
about it in depth.

Carolyn:  Kids who read the book told us they were surprised to
discover that Rosa Parks did not act alone, that her resistance was
planned and supported. They’d never heard of most of the other people
in the book. What’s going on when we make icons of a few historical

Russell: Kids get a distorted view of what history is.
Making history is not just the activity of a few heroic people. It’s
mass moments of ordinary people building up enough steam to do
something about it. That’s true of any historical event.

I was particularly drawn to Jo Ann Robinson. I don’t think she’s had
her due. I liked her sense of righteous indignation, her outrage.
Others were arrested before her for not giving up their seats, but
when it happened to her (in 1949), she decided to do something about
it. She was really the pioneer in this. She started the organizing.

Fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin (who was also arrested) has been
even more forgotten.

Carolyn:  Reading Freedom Walkers, it never seemed that
research got in the way of telling a good story. How do you find that

Russell: That’s the secret in writing history. You are
telling a story, not telling research. The secret lies in telling the
story in a way that the reader feels that the events are happening
right there on the page.

Carolyn: We noticed the scrupulous citations at the back of
the book. Every quote is accounted for.  This wasn’t true for every
book we read.

Russell: The sources are what give credibility to
nonfiction. When I started writing in the 1960s, dialog was made up
in nonfiction for young readers. Some authors created imaginary
scenes. It destroys the readers’ confidence in the integrity of the
writing when they realize that’s what’s happening.

I have a lot of dialog in this book. But every time I say somebody
says something, you can look in the back and know how I know that
person said that. One of the things that made this easy was that so
many of the principals wrote autobiographies, so I could quote from
them and have an authentic voice.

Carolyn: We were impressed with the historic photographs you
chose, the way they brought to life the experiences of everyday
people. Can you comment on the process of finding and choosing the

Russell: It was very difficult. For the first six months,
the boycott was not a national news story. But there were two
freelance photographers on the scene.

By going to Montgomery to the Rosa Parks Museum I was able to get
Xerox copies of some of their photographs.Then I had to track those
photographers down. One of them is now represented by Time/Life. The
other died in a plane crash shortly after the Civil Rights Movement.
It was especially hard to find a photo of Jo Anne Robinson. It took a
lot of detective work and a lot of email correspondence to get the
photographs and permissions.

Carolyn: What was your first book? How did you get involved
in writing nonfiction?

Russell: First, I worked as a reporter for the Associated
Press and then as a television publicity writer in New York City. One
day, I saw an article in The New York Times about a 15-year-old blind
boy who invented a typewriter for writing Braille; before that, people
used a stylus to punch the raised dots.

Then I found out that Louis Braille was 15 years old when he invented
Braille in the early 1800s. That got me curious about other young
inventors. I found there were a lot of them and I wrote Teenagers Who
Made History
(Holiday House, 1961). That was my first book.

One morning I woke up and thought, "I’ve become a nonfiction writer
for children! How did that happen?"  I love doing this. It’s much
more fun than working.

Carolyn: Do you have a website? And do you use the Internet
for research?

Russell: I don’t have a website, but I do use the Internet,
especially for photographs.

The Library of Congress and Associated Press are sources I use for
every book. I used to spend days in the prints and photograph room of
the Library of Congress. Now I can do it at home on line.

But I use the Internet with great caution and great skepticism.
Anybody can put up anything they want.  There isn’t an editor
intervening. It’s very dangerous to believe everything you see there.
You can’t look up the chapter notes.

Carolyn: What childhood experience shaped the man you are today?

Russell: Tennessee Kent, my fifth grade teacher, said,
"Russell you should be a writer." I took her word for it.

Carolyn: Anything else you’d like to say to book bloggers and
young readers?

Russell: Yes. A book can often be the best friend you have.
It makes you part of the larger world.