A lesson in grace Hester Bass
In Birmingham, Alabama, and other parts of the South during the civilrights era, peaceful protestors trying to end segregation, including students, faced the high-pressure blasts of fire hoses and the teeth of police dogs. Martin Luther King Jr. led the protest marches that started in that town to call national attention to segregation. Birmingham was one of the most segregated cities in the nation in the early 1960s, and violent clashes between students and law enforcement marked the protests.
Nearby Huntsville, while also racially segregated, faced a struggle, too, and met it with grace. There, black and white citizens worked successfully together to integrate public schools and businesses without violence. Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama (Candlewick Press, 2015), by children’s book author and Santa Fe resident Hester Bass, recounts the story of Huntsville, illuminating the details of segregated life. Many people don’t know that black children were often not allowed to try on shoes in stores and would bring tracings of their feet with them to show their size. In one part of the story, a family is arrested for sitting in a whites-only restaurant and refusing to leave. It’s a quiet act of protest, but sit-ins such as this begin to have an effect on the town, which starts to integrate. It’s a history lesson told in the present tense, making it all feel fresh and engaging, and it’s enlivened by artist E.B. Lewis’ fluid and expressive watercolor illustrations.
Seeds of Freedom is the second literary collaboration of Bass and Lewis, who shows his work at Matthews Gallery in Santa Fe. Their first is The Secret World
of Walter Anderson, a true story about a somewhat reclusive artist who immersed himself in nature at Horn Island on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi so he could paint. It was published by Candlewick in 2009. “I had been studying Walter Anderson’s work for over 25 years,” Bass told Pasatiempo. “My husband had been the director of the Walter Anderson Museum in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, for seven years. We lived there and got to know the Walter Anderson family. I knew that the way E.B. Lewis works, he likes to go to the places and see the things he’s going to illustrate. He takes reference photography and takes that back to his studio in New Jersey.”
Lewis and Bass met in Huntsville and drove to Mississippi together. “We had all that time to really dig deep into this subject and why I felt that Walter Anderson is someone everybody should know. His centennial show had been at the Smithsonian. He was kind of a mysterious figure. He kept to his own. He didn’t seek fame and didn’t get it. He wasn’t really an outsider artist; he was classically trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, but he preferred to work alone in nature.” Anderson had four children. One of his sons agreed to model as his father (who died in 1965) for Lewis’ illustrations, and his eldest daughter agreed to stand in for her mother. “Walter’s eldest son took us out to Horn Island so we could see it,” Bass said.
The Secret World of Walter Anderson includes examples of Anderson’s own artwork, presented in a concluding author’s note where it doesn’t compete with Lewis’ warm, atmospheric illustrations. “What I love about E.B.’s illustrations is his ability to show the pure joy that Walter Anderson experienced in creating art,” Bass said. The book won an Orbis Pictus Award for outstanding children’s nonfiction. Lewis became interested in Seeds
of Freedom when he overheard Bass discussing the book at a National Council of Teachers of English conference, Bass said. “The lady to my left asked me what I was working on, and I said, ‘I’m working on a story about the peaceful integration of Huntsville, Alabama.’ And she said, ‘ Are you talking about the Fifth Avenue School in Huntsville?’ I said, ‘ Yes I am,’ and she said, ‘I was there. I was a third-grader when Sonnie Hereford was the first African-American child to walk into an Alabama public school.’ E.B. was listening to our conversation and gave me a look that said, ‘I want to work on that book.’ ”
The lady at the conference was Ann Neely, a professor at Vanderbilt University, whose specialty is children’s books about civil rights. “She teaches education students about children’s literature and using it in the classroom,” Bass said. “I’ve spoken to her class several times. She became one of my primary resources and went on to write the teachers guide that Candlewick Press did for Seeds of Freedom.” When Bass approached Candlewick about working with Lewis again, the publisher was delighted. “Normally, there is little to no collaboration between the author and the illustrator,” Bass said. “But Candlewick is a very collaborative, independent publisher, and E.B. really got what I was trying to say. Watercolor is a difficult medium because it’s so fluid and hard to control. E.B. is a master. I’m thrilled with this partnership. I don’t know how many books we may do together, but I’m awfully happy with the two that we’ve done.”
Bass has three children’s titles under her belt, and her next project, now in the research phase, is about author Eudora Welty. “I know several people who knew her and traveled with her. I’ve been to her house several times and talked to her biographer. I’m trying to see if I can do for her what I did for Walter Anderson — just bring a subject children may not already know to life.” — Michael Abatemarco
Many people don’t know that black children were often not allowed to try on shoes in stores and would bring tracings of their feet with them to show their size.