“We have these predestined moments in life that shape us. They determine the whole trajectory of what we will achieve.” Zibby is joined by lifelong librarian and children’s book author Alice Faye Duncan to talk about her latest book, Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free, which shares the story of the grandmother of Juneteenth. The two discuss the main lesson Alice wants to teach young readers about historic heroes who are still alive today, as well as why she has decided to leave teaching after twenty-nine years. Alice also excitedly shares which project she is working on next about a blues fable set in the Mississippi Delta and why she was exceptionally conscious about picking its illustrator.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alice. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free.

Alice Faye Duncan: Thank you for the invitation.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. What a beautiful book. First of all, the illustrations, you must be so thrilled with. They’re just amazing. Your illustrator is Keturah Bobo. Is that right, how I said that?

Alice: Yes.

Zibby: Beautiful. Honestly, this story — why don’t you tell listeners, first, what it’s about? Then I’ll go off about all the things I loved about it.

Alice: Sounds great. Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free is the story of Miss Opal Lee, who was called the grandmother of Juneteenth. The reason that they call her the grandmother of Juneteenth is because in 2016, she started a commemorative walk across the nation encouraging national politicians, congressmen, and senators to vote for Juneteenth to be a national holiday. People would say, what is Juneteenth? Juneteenth is that day two years and nineteen days after the Emancipation Proclamation that the enslaved discovered in Texas that the Emancipation had been signed and that they were free. It is considered, figuratively, the last day of the institution of American enslavement.

Zibby: Wow. Opal Lee’s story herself, it doesn’t all end with the happy day. Why don’t you talk about how you chose to depict the tragedy, honestly, that came next with her house burning down and all of that? Keep going with the story.

Alice: I do believe that we have these predestined moments in life that shape us. They determine the whole trajectory of what we will achieve. What happens to Opal Lee is, she’s living in Fort Worth, Texas, when she’s twelve years old in 1939. Her family moves to a new neighborhood where they are the first black family in the neighborhood. They are terrorized by segregationists. They burn the home. A mob comes, burns their home. They vandalize the things in the home. Her mom and dad move the family away. The irony of it is that this tragedy happens on Juneteenth day, 1939. What happens to Opal Lee when she is a child, you would think she would become filled with anger and hated because of what was unequivocally done to her and her family. That experience leaves something else with Opal Lee. It’s the thing that makes her, when she grows up, become so committed to justice and so committed to racial reconciliation. The embers burn, but in her heart, they don’t burn with rage. They burn with a commitment to galvanize us all under the banner of unity, love, and justice and hope.

Zibby: I love that. You had a line that struggle — hold on, let me find it so I don’t misquote you because it was so beautiful, about the combination — you said, “I learned a big lesson that Juneteenth day. Freedom is a golden coin. Struggle makes it shine.” I love that.

Alice: My father would say — my father was a survivor of the Vietnam War. My father would say, where there is no cross, there is no crown. That’s what that phrase means. It means that in order to achieve anything, liberty, your dream, your hope, the career of your choice, little children have to learn that without the struggle, there is no achievement. Without the rain, there are no flowers.

Zibby: That’s what I was going to say next. “Good and bad work together like the sun and rain.” This whole page with that quote could be on someone’s wall. That’s beautiful. It’s a good reminder. It’s really important, all of these messages. That’s an understatement. Extremely important, have applications in so many different ways for all of the resilience and the perspective and even the gift of her story to Opal Lee’s storytelling itself, wanting to share the story and the message and not let people forget and how to motivate people, how to see the positive in the most horrific situation ever.

Alice: Exactly. Something else that is very important when we think of Opal Lee or when we think of anybody who is doing heroic things in their feeble humanity — we are feeble humans, but we’re capable of doing really heroic things. The thing that’s important is that when you want your children to live bravely and when you want your children to be courageous, then it’s necessary that we show them models of people living in a life who are doing courageous things and who are doing brave things. To have Opal Lee be ninety-six and still living in the world with us, this Juneteenth, little children can read about her life, but then they can also turn on the television and see her engaging little children around the nation in her walk, engaging dignitaries, engaging her neighbors. In her neighborhood, she is a civic worker. She provides food for those who are hungry. She provides clothing for those without clothes. She helps folks to find shelter. She is a real civic worker. She is not someone who has done this for fame and claim. She did it because in her heart of hearts since the late seventies, early eighties, she has believed that Juneteenth is one holiday that can unite us under the banner of liberty and unity.

Zibby: Amazing. She’s amazing. So is the book. This is not your first book, nor your last. You already have another one coming out very soon. Tell me about the next one that’s coming up.

Alice: You saw me. Did you see me? I was like, I want to talk about it. My very next book is called Yellow Dog Blues, which is a blues fable that is set in the Mississippi Delta. It’s a story about a little boy whose yellow dog, his hound dog, runs away. Ultimately, the theme is love, loss, and learning how to live despite it all and appreciate the joy of what you did have even though it is now gone.

Zibby: Wow.

Alice: It’s wonderful. It’s so wonderful. I pray that you will have me back so we could talk about it. The illustrator is Chris Raschka, who is a two-time Caldecott award winner. He does a lot of books about music, musicians. He’s done a book on Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk. The reason why the book also relates to Opal Lee is that in 2016, I had written the manuscript for Yellow Dog Blues. Traditionally in publishing, they pair black writers with black illustrators and white writers with white illustrators. 2016, a lot of stuff was happening. I was wanting to manufacture my own hope. I was wanting to manufacture my own sunshine. I said, what can I do under the banner of racial reconciliation? I had this story. We know that blues music is American music. We know that we all love blues music. We know that sun and rain shines in all our lives or comes to all of us. I thought, you know what I can I do? Opposed to going the traditional way of a black writer working with a black illustrator, under the banner of racial conciliation, I’m going to seek a white illustrator to work with me so that I will be conscientious about what I’m doing in the creation of this book. Chris Raschka loves music. He loves the blues. Immediately when I sent it to him and I gave him the proposal of the idea, he’s like, “I’m busy, busy, but I will make time for this because I do I think it’s important.” We created something beautiful. Like Opal Lee, Opal Lee had Juneteenth as her vision to do something under the banner of unity, to do something to bring Americans together in this already divisive world, and so that was my tribute to do something under the banner of racial reconciliation, something that says, hey, I want to be intentional about me connecting with others who do not, perhaps, come from my African American culture.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I, by the way, do not think I’ve ever heard anyone so excited about their next project, ever.

Alice: I was like, oh, yeah, let’s talk about — .

Zibby: I know. I was like, this has to be best book I’ve ever read.

Alice: I’m excited. If you give me an opportunity, I will send you some galley copies of the book so that you can see what I’m talking about. What he’s done is — in the Mississippi Delta, cotton was king. Burlap sacks were everything because that’s how they baled the cotton. What Chris does in Yellow Dog Blues is he renders the art with paint and embroidery. He tried burlap on his storyboard, but that was too heavy. What he did was he, instead, replaced the burlap with linen. When you photograph it, it still has that burlap look to it; the embroidery, the paint, the burlap, all of that coming together. You’re talking about the Mississippi Delta, which is an agriculture environment. Then you’re talking about blues, the hard labor of sharecroppers, the memories and the legacies of the enslaved. You’re talking about what we all know, love, loss, abandonment, and learning how to be okay with that. The really bold thing is it’s a story where it is an ending of resolve, but it is not the ending that the kid was hoping for. Isn’t that life sometimes?

Zibby: Yes. Wow, that’s very exciting. I’m really excited that you’re so excited. Why not?

Alice: It’s like you got a new baby. You got a new baby, you want everybody to get geeked about it, right?

Zibby: I was just interviewing someone the other day. She had won a massive prize for one of her books. I was like, “Do you ever get sick of just talking about that book all the time?” She’s like, “Yes.”

Alice: I don’t know…

Zibby: She wants to talk about the next thing.

Alice: Oh, the next thing, yes. That, I understand. Like your children, all of them are lovely. All of them are important.

Zibby: Yes, of course. I read your whole history of how you wanted to be a librarian. You got a scholarship. For a while, you were doing that. Then by happenstance, you got into public school education. Then you went private. Or was it reversed?

Alice: This is my twenty-ninth year teaching public school. It is also my last year.

Zibby: It is? Oh, my gosh.

Alice: Next year, I will be a full-time writer. It’s been a long time.

Zibby: Wow, oh, my goodness. I can see why you are the best teacher. I wish I had had you as a teacher.

Alice: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Zibby: What grade are you teaching?

Alice: I’m a high school librarian.

Zibby: Amazing.

Alice: I’m going to miss my students. Also, I’m looking forward to being creative. Here’s the thing. I started out wanting to be a writer first, but sometimes art doesn’t pay. Sometimes your art life and the coins coming from art, it takes it some time to really develop and move beyond fledgling to prosperous. I became a librarian, and a school librarian specifically. The process of that has been so edifying because in doing so, I know the curriculum, and I see the gaps in the curriculum. Now after twenty-nine years of seeing the gaps in the curriculum and only being able to address them on the weekends and on holidays and in the summer when I have long swaths of time to write, now, I call it providence, God, sweet baby Jesus has allowed me this opportunity to now just really luxuriate in thinking about writing and seeing how I can edify kids in another way. I’ve been distributing the books and disseminating the books. Now I can really look back and see how I can write the books.

Zibby: As a librarian for all this time, are there books that, time and time again, kids go to that we might be surprised to hear about or that you recommend that are sort of underrated?

Alice: Let’s see if I can find it. Honey, I Love by Eloise Greenfield, which is a collection of poems that she did almost over thirty years ago. It’s very small and compact. It has two of my favorite poems in it. One of them is Things, which is about the power of writing, how poems never die. A variety of gifts will come and fade, but a poem lasts forever. That’s one of my favorite poems. Then the other poem in here is Harriet Tubman. When I was working, I was still able to do a variety of school visits in my district for open house and family reading night and stuff like that. Another one that I share from this book is called Harriet Tubman. A lot of the little kids in elementary school, they call it by the first line, which is, “Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff.” I love those poems because Harriet Tubman is someone who was tenacious. She was determined. She lived by faith. She walked going to a land, like Abraham, that she knew not of, but she kept on walking. Things, because it’s about writing and about how poems can be permanent, eternal, everlasting, I believe that also.

Zibby: Amazing. Thank you for the recommendation. I’m going to get that now. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Alice: I would encourage them to read poetry every day. Whatever religious practice that they practice, whatever religion that they come from, that religion has a book. Most of all of those religious books are written in a poetic language that is alive and living. It touches us in a very organic way. I would advise, read poetry every day. If you practice a religion, read your religious text because that poetry is organic and alive. What happens is you gain this facility or this ability with the words, but you also begin to hear. You begin to hear with your own ear. You just begin to develop your own voice. I also would recommend reading Gwendolyn Brooks, reading Langston Hughes, reading Paul Laurence Dunbar, reading Eloise Greenfield, reading Mary Oliver. I’m naming you some of my favorite; Mary Oliver, James Whitcomb Riley. James Whitcomb Riley, honey child, honey child, I love him. Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Whitcomb Riley, in fact — of course, I love Gwendolyn Brooks because I have a book about Gwendolyn Brooks. James Whitcomb Riley and Paul Laurence Dunbar I like because they use the vernacular of the house, of the home.

That’s what I also would tell writers. It’s okay to use your mother’s language. Your mother’s language, the queen’s language, it’s okay because that’s organic for you. That is authentic to you. The things that you’re going to talk about are going to be universal because you are having a human experience. I don’t care what culture you’re coming from. You’re having a human experience. Your language is good. It’s very, very good. What you write from the heart will reach the heart. I’m saying that because my mother was a schoolteacher, and I used to — because Paul Laurence Dunbar was somebody I read when I was young, my mother would wake me in the morning saying, “Lias, Lias, bless the Lord. Don’t you know the day is broad? If you don’t get up, you scamp, there’ll be trouble in this camp.” My mama was getting me up every morning with that. I’m an only child. When she would find my little poems around the house, I was writing in an African American vernacular. It’s what I heard often in the home when we were being casual with each other. It’s the poetry that I was reading, but to my mother’s chagrin. “Alice Faye, can we say that differently?” I grew up and I said, “No, we cannot.”

Zibby: You’re amazing. I feel like you need to do more — you should do YouTube videos. You should get out in the world.

Alice: I’ve been busy working.

Zibby: Next year.

Alice: Maybe next year. Hopefully, you will promise you’ll invite me back for September where maybe we can read from Yellow Dog Blues.

Zibby: Maybe we should do a live event or something, like Instagram, and you read to people.

Alice: Let’s do it. Here is the thing. Opal Lee said if she did not speak about Juneteenth, perhaps no one else would, so she took it as her one-woman campaign across the nation. We now have Juneteenth as a holiday. I have that same approach about blues music because I live in Memphis. Memphis is considered the front door of the Mississippi Delta. I believe that if I don’t share blues music with young children, they won’t have an appreciation for this music, which is original American music. I don’t want them to wait to go to college and have to learn to listen to college radio to gain an appreciation for what is very American, very old, and very therapeutic for the human soul. I was like, how can I introduce kids to the blues? Okay, I’ll write a story about a dog.

Zibby: Amazing. Alice or Alice Faye, it was so lovely to get to know you today. Thank you so much. This will be running on Juneteenth. You will help with education, awareness, making a difference, all that good stuff.

Alice: Thank you so very much. Have a super day.

Zibby: Thank you. You too.

Alice: Bye-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


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