When children’s book author Alice Faye Duncan was working toward her master’s degree in library and information science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, she served as a graduate teaching assistant for Professor Glenn Estes. “He had such a passion for children’s picture books,” says Duncan. “He was a children’s picture book scholar and this enthusiasm inspired me. I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to try writing picture books.’ So I did.”
That experience lit a fire in Duncan that burns brightly three decades later. The idea stuck that she could write poetry and pair it with pictures to tell important stories, and she plowed forward with her newfound passion.
“Picture books and poetry have a common benefit,” she once said. “They allow the writer a small intimate stage to tackle sensitive topics. Picture books keep heavy messages short and accessible to children and adults.” In her books, Duncan looks for moments in history that define generations but are not often discussed—and especially aren’t typically told in picture books.
Becoming a Writer
As a child of Memphis teachers Kenneth and Earline, Duncan penned poetry in her notebooks from an early age and fostered one dream: to be a writer. Earline paid for Duncan’s undergraduate degree in English from the University of Memphis, where she graduated in 1989.
Duncan recalled that her Aunt Curly, Evelyn Hayes, was one of the first African American library workers in the Memphis Public Library system, and working in a library appealed to the young English major. A cousin balked when Duncan suggested she could be a librarian assistant, saying Duncan should shoot higher and get her master’s degree to become a librarian. There was only one issue—Duncan’s father told her she’d have to pay her own way.
That’s when she found, and was awarded, a minority fellowship through the Tennessee Higher Education Commission that enabled her to attend UT for her MLIS in 1991.
Upon earning her graduate degree, Duncan returned to Memphis and was hired to work as a librarian in children’s services at the public library, with one caveat. She needed one more class—a children’s literature course from the University of Memphis—to work in the children’s section. For her project in the course, she asked if she could write a picture book, and her professor enthusiastically agreed. The book, Willie Jerome, is about an aspiring young trumpeter who plays what his sister calls “sizzlin’ red hot bebop” on the roof. His talent is recognized when those around him stop to listen.
The professor said it was very quiet and it did not have conflict,” remembers Duncan. “By that time, I had joined a writers workshop, and they also said I needed more conflict. I kept reshaping the story and I just started mailing my book to publishers, anyone I could find in the children’s book market. Out of those maybe 25 publishers I sent Willie Jerome to, one offer came back from Macmillan.”
By that time she’d penned a second book, Miss Viola and Uncle Ed Lee, in which a young man helps the neat-and-tidy Miss Viola come to appreciate their less-than-tidy neighbor, Uncle Ed Lee. Macmillan purchased both stories.
Becoming a School Librarian
On her way to becoming the writer she’d always dreamed she would be, Duncan still needed a day job. When her father found out what she was making annually as a public librarian, he asked her why she wasn’t a school librarian.
“Since my mother and father were schoolteachers, I was determined that I was not going to be a schoolteacher. I was going to be a writer. And I had already sold those two books to Macmillan. But I kept looking at those numbers, and schoolteachers were making $10,000 more a year than me,” she says. Her quandary coincided with a nationwide teaching shortage in 1993 that prompted Reader’s Digest to sponsor a licensure program for teachers in other professions. All Duncan had to do was take the Miller Analogies Test and pass a writing exam—both of which she easily managed. Suddenly she was a schoolteacher.
“I taught fourth grade that first year and it was very trying,” Duncan says. “I knew I couldn’t teach for 30 years. I wanted to be a librarian—I wanted to write books and teach children about books,” she said. Again, her timing was just right. That year the supervisor of her school’s library told Duncan about an elementary school librarian position nearby. She applied for the job, was hired, and has been a school librarian for the past 29 years.
Telling Important Stories
Duncan has published a variety of children’s books including Honey Baby Sugar Child (2005), Christmas Soup (2005), and Just Like a Mama (2020), along with adult titles like Hello, Sunshine: 5 Habits to UNCLOUD Your Day (2014) and A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks (2019).
Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop (2018) took 10 years of significant researching and revising to complete. Through the eyes of Lorraine Jackson, a nine-year-old girl who marches in the 1968 strike to support her father, a sanitation worker, Duncan delves into the Memphis Sanitation Strike and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
“I was very committed that children needed to understand the story of Dr. King’s assassination,” says Duncan. It remains a story close to her heart, and it helped her to approach her two most recent books, which were released last month–one about Juneteenth and the other about the Tent City civil rights movement (in Fayette County, Tennessee).
Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free: The True Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth, with art by Keturah A. Bobo, introduces Opal Lee, now 96 years old, who spent years gathering signatures to petition for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday. The book explains the origins of Juneteenth in the day the news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln made the proclamation.
Duncan interviewed Lee for the book and drew on a variety of sources to explain the history of Juneteenth and how it was celebrated by Black communities throughout Texas. It was a holiday not often observed outside of the state until the late 1900s, which is when Duncan started seeing Juneteenth celebrations in Memphis. Duncan’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect: on June 15, 2021, President Joseph Biden declared Juneteenth—June 19—a federal holiday. Duncan proudly added a note about the new holiday to the end of the timeline in the back of the book, on a page facing a recipe for Juneteenth Red Punch Strawberry Lemonade.
Evicted: The Struggle for the Right to Vote, with art by Charly Palmer, tackles the voter rights movement in Fayette County, Tennessee, that started in 1959. Sharecroppers who had registered to vote were evicted by white landowners from the land on which they lived and worked. More than 700 families were evicted, resulting in a tent city that was created when a black landowner allowed displaced families to pitch tents on his land. Eventually a federal court ruled that white land and business owners could not deprive anyone of housing or business services because of their voter registration status.
“There are not enough good words that can be expressed about people who dare to activate their vision, who dare to activate their agency,” says Duncan. “And that’s what you want children to do, to know that you have agency in and of yourself—that you can make dreams come true,” she said.
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