"As a writer, I basically have two goals. One is to write what I know. And what I know is growing up in America as an African-American of middle-class socio-economic orientation. My second goal is to write with a loving eye on all children. No matter what the story that has to be told, or the issue that has to be dealt with, it can be dealt with within the spectrum of love, that understanding of the reality of the human condition, and a basic knowledge that we are all human, and, in that, we share something together. We just absolutely do! And I would hope that my bookd, what I write , can appeal and wrap their arms around all children."
A glimpse of Sandra Belton
The Library Journal said, "Belton's prose is lyrical and loving, outstanding in its depth
of emotion and evocative depiction of poignant historical moments".
When she was growing up in Beckley, West Virginia in the 1940s and 50s, African-American kids weren't allowed in the swimming pool, in restaurants or on the school bus, but the door of the library was always open. Sandra gobbled up books like the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew, but they were all about white kids. She couldn't find stories about African-American kids, about "kids who look like me." She decided she'd write some.
So began her much-loved Ernestine and Amanda series, about two young African-American best friends. Her own experiences became seeds for her writing. The seed for her novel, McKendree, was planted as her doctor father took her with him to the nursing home for African-American people. When she was a child, traveling black musicians who played for white people weren't allowed to stay at the hotels, so black families housed and fed them. That was the seed of her award-winning, From Miss Ida's Porch, full of stories like one about the night Duke Ellington came to town.
She believes children can learn about injustice by experiencing life through the eyes of her characters. "She successfully blends together fact and fiction, and in the process, creates a distinctive mood and memorable, believable characters," Horn Book said. Kirkus Reviews added that, while Belton deals directly with significant and difficult social issues of the day, her "novel translates
well to classroom use, presenting the issues within absorbing stories."
African-American kids in a Beckley African-American neighborhoods are
gathered on Miss Ida's porch after dark, listening to grownups tell stories. Mr. Fisher tells them that, used to be, African-American musicians had to find a black family to stay with when they came to town to play, because they weren't allowed to stay in hotels.
"How come, Mr. Fisher?" Frieda sat on the stoop in front of Mr. Fisher.
"Nowhere else for them to stay! Couldn't stay in hotels. Hotels didn't allow no
black guests! Famous or not. When our folk came to town to give a speech, put on a show, or whatever they came to do, we had to be the ones to give 'em a bed."
"Puts my mind on a time back in '39. I was working in West Virginia then. Working in the mines. Lived in a nice town close to where I worked..."
Mr. Fisher's remembering was making him smile. "Anyhow, a big dance took place in the town every year. Folks came from all around to go to this dance. That year, 1939, the dance was really going to be special. Duke Ellington was coming to town. The great bandsman himself was coming to play for the dance."
The best time noises were still there, but they had changed. You could hear the chirping bugs. One of the Tolliver kids was crying, probably asking for something he couldn't have. Mr. Willie was playing his radio. Jazz.
Mr. Fisher was still remembering. "Yessir. The great Duke Ellington was coming to play for us, for our dance, and there was not one hotel in the state that would put him up and take his money for doin' it. If he had a mind to rest himself in a bed, it was goin' to have to be in the home of some black person."
"Did he stay with you, Mr. Fisher?" Punkin asked.
"Not with me exactly, but in the house where I was living. Mrs. Lomax's house. Mrs. Lomax had a big, fine house, and she kept it real nice. I rented a room on the third floor."
Mr. Fisher started to grin, like he always did when he got to a part he liked to tell. "I was there when the great man arrived with three of his bandsmen."
"So you got to meet Duke Ellington?" T-Bone was impressed. We all were.
"I not only met him, I was there when he sat at the piano in Mrs. Lomax's parlor. Duke's playing heated up that little room! I'm tellin' you it did. He was some kinda good!"
Mr. Fisher grew quiet, a remembering quiet. He stopped smiling too. "Humph! Imagine that! A man like that. Talented, famous, everything! Not being able to pay his own money to sleep in a crummy little hotel room, just because he was black!"
A research activity to go with this passage: Mr. Fisher is talking about the 1930s. If a famous African-American musician comes to your town, can they stay in any hotel they want? What has made the difference?
A writing activity: Write a passage in which children are talking about something in the news. Mix the conversation in with ordinary details about their day.
~ Go to the Activities page for other ways to learn from these writers. ~
Five ways to get the most from this web site:
1. Listen to an hour-long illuminating visit with Sandra Belton. Enjoy Sandra Belton's voice, stories, readings, and advice about writing.
2. Read/download the transcript of the conversation with Sandra Belton. Read it while you listen. Mark passages you'd like to come back to.
These are outlines of the program. They will help you find the passages you want.
4. Using the script and/or table of contents, find short tracks you can play during classroom activities or presentations. It's easy! Here's how you can do it.
5. Explore activities that help you use this website to teach storytelling and writing skills.
Sandra Belton's books have received many awards:
Young People's Literature Award, finalist of the Friends of American Writers, Children's Books of Distinction Award, for From Miss Ida's Porch; Notable Children's Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies, National Council of Social Studies /Children's Book Council for May'naise Sandwiches and Sunshine Tea; Best Children's Books of the Year selection, Bank Street College of Education, and Notable Children's Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies, NCSS/CBC, 2001, for McKendree.
"West Virginia gives you something rich in your spirit. It gives you something deep to draw from. I cannot imagine having grown up in a more spiritual place, actually. Something about the mountains. There’s a gentleness, there’s a calmness. Maybe it’s a realization of being there among things that are so clearly defined by things greater than human beings."
-- Sandra Belton