When I was a young girl, I was an avid reader. I did not have the distractions that are seemingly everywhere today. I picked up anything I could get my hands on, but I was most attracted to stories with a main character that was trying to find their place in the world. If the writing was very good, I was drawn into the story and felt deeply connected to the protagonist. I had the best of two worlds. I spent my formative years living in an apartment building in Brooklyn, and every summer I would go to sleep away camp in the Catskills. I loved the excitement of playing outdoor games with friends in our building’s courtyard, but always looked forward to the calming peace of the woods and lake at camp. It’s no wonder that I would seek out books with these familiar themes.
When I was doing research to prepare for writing my debut book A Flag for Juneteenth, I googled, listened to podcasts, and read books about slavery in America. I also looked at pictures of enslaved people which helped me to imagine their personalities and lives. One picture of a little girl that I found on the Library of Congress website seemed to embody the spirit of my heroine, and I kept her image in mind as I developed the character.
I wanted my main character’s name to be unusual, one that would be new to my readers. I envisioned this character to be a prophet, one who could bear witness to the announcement of the end of slavery as a legal institution in America and could also foretell a future free of bondage. I googled biblical female prophets and an image of a beautiful Black woman appeared on my screen. Her name was Huldah. As soon as I saw her, I knew that this would be the name of my main character. Eve, the name of Huldah’s baby sister, is also biblical. It is derived from a Hebrew word meaning “to breathe”, or “to live”. In my story Eve is an infant. She will have the opportunity to live her life without the burden of enslavement. One other character in my story has a name. Mr. Menard is the oldest man on the plantation. He has the last name of Michel B. Menard, the first plantation owner in Galveston Texas where my story takes place. I thought that it was important to demonstrate that enslaved people were often given the last name of their enslavers to erase any connection to their own family lineage.
I thought about ways to help young readers to be interested in an event in history that is rarely taught in schools, and to feel connected to a reality so far removed from their own. I knew that I would need to draw them in early in the story and decided to start with my main character feeling excited about her upcoming birthday celebration. Huldah is a mature, curious, insightful little girl. She has the very ‘grown up’ responsibility of caring for her baby sister during the day while her parents labor on the plantation. The reader meets Huldah for the first time on the day before her 10th birthday, which fell on a Sunday that year. Sundays were a day for rest and reconnecting with family and community. Huldah’s mom baked Huldah’s favorite tea cakes for her upcoming birthday, a luxury she may not have had time for when the long work hours started again the next day. The characters in my book are purposefully faceless. I am hoping that my readers will see themselves in the story and connect with the characters on a deeper level.
I am incredibly proud to have illustrated this book with quilting, an art form that was used by my ancestors to tell their own stories. When planning the illustrations, I tried to keep the text in mind, and made decisions about what aspects of the text I thought needed to be enhanced. For example, the first page describes tea cakes, a type of traditional cookie that enslaved people made using simple pantry ingredients. I thought that it was important to help my readers visualize a teacake, so I set out to create them using one of the brown fabrics from my stash that had some color variations. Teacakes were not fancy back then, but they were delicious and smelled amazing, so I used hand embroidered lettering to show the movement of the scent wafting through the air. The illustrations took a little over a year to create. It was an enormous undertaking and a very emotional journey. Because the people in this book have no faces, I had to figure out how to give Huldah depth and to showcase her personality in other ways. I also needed to make her consistent and recognizable in every illustration. That is no easy task when working with fabric on such a small scale! I remember telling a friend that I felt as though Huldah had become like a daughter to me. I felt a deep connection to the character.
When teaching about this troubling time in American history, I feel that is critical to highlight the beauty and resilience of African and African American people during their enslavement, as well as to showcase how important strong family and community ties was to them then and continues to be today. As educators we should not leave out what life was like for enslaved people when they were not laboring. Although difficult, these were people who did all that they could to connect with their immediate and extended families, and to build a sense of community despite such oppressive circumstances. By humanizing them we build empathy and help our young readers to see their commonalities rather than their differences. Hopefully this will encourage them to want to learn more about this significant time in American history.
About the Book: This powerful title shares a unique story of the celebration of the first Juneteenth, from the perspective of a young girl.
A Flag for Juneteenth depicts a close-knit community of enslaved African Americans on a plantation in Texas, the day before the announcement is to be made that all enslaved people are free. Young Huldah, who is preparing to celebrate her tenth birthday, can’t possibly anticipate how much her life will change that Juneteenth morning. The story follows Huldah and her community as they process the news of their freedom and celebrate together by creating a community freedom flag.
Kim Taylor sets A Flag for Juneteenth apart from other Juneteenth books by applying her skills as an expert quilter. Each of the illustrations has been lovingly hand sewn and quilted, giving the book a homespun, tactile quality that will appeal to readers young and old.
About the Author: Kim Taylor is a speech language pathologist and Department Supervisor at a large school for deaf children. She is also an expert quilter whose works have been exhibited at several venues throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Kim’s quilts reflect African American life, and she tells stories through her materials. After researching the origins of the Juneteenth celebration, she created a Juneteenth story quilt which she has exhibited and presented in dozens of local schools. Realizing that many teachers and students were unaware of the holiday, she was moved to write this book. She lives in Baldwin, New York.
To see more of Kim’s quilts, visit her website at MaterialGirlStoryQuilts.com or visit her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/comfortzne1.
Thank you, Kim, for this beautiful post about empathy!