Marina Budhos is the author of The Long Ride, a new middle grade novel for kids. Her other books include Watched and Ask Me No Questions. She is a professor of English at William Paterson University, and she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey.
Q: You note that The Long Ride is based on the busing plan implemented in your Queens neighborhood in the late '60s and early '70s. Why did you choose that as a topic, and how did you come up with your character Jamila?
A: I had been working on some memoir material around my growing up in an unusual international and interracial community. The surrounding neighborhoods, however, in Queens, were very segregated and polarized around race, particularly when school integration plans began coming into place.
And while I did not personally go through the integration plan that this novel is based on, it was something that roiled the community and our schools. Thus, I was interested in capturing that story, that moment.
As well, I am mixed (half Guyanese-Indian and half Jewish-American), with a father who taught in a largely African-American high school, in a neighborhood many of my own friends would never go to. Many of my other friends were mixed and so we had a lot of experiences about being in between, at school, in neighborhoods.
Finally some of the scenes in the novel were drawn from my own junior high, which was a place where different kids from different neighborhoods collided, and yet were very segregated within the school.
Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "Readers will find a powerful window into the past and, unfortunately, a way-too-accurate mirror of the present." What do you think of that assessment, and how would you compare your characters' experiences with those of their counterparts today?
A: In so many ways I feel as if the 1970s, and the story of integration is the hidden story, the untold story. Children grow up with the iconic images of Ruby Bridges being escorted in by federal marshals to get the chance to go to school.
But it was in the 1970s that most school districts around the countries tentatively began experimenting with all kinds of ways to integrate.
It was one of the largest social experiments, where we were trying to raise a new generation of children who would go to schools that would be different from those their parents went to. We were using schools to redress all the racial inequities in our society.
Now integration and resegregation is truly on the front burner again—somehow those efforts in the 1970s did not hold. Here in NYC, for instance, the Board of Education is proposing that they make sweeping changes to again re-integrate schools.
In my own local school district, where we pride ourselves on being diverse, there have been great struggles around true integration and now yet another effort to achieve intentional integration.
Colleges and universities are also roiling about their capacity to create truly integrated campuses.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything surprising?
A: I did a combination of drawing from memory and talking to a few people about their experiences with the local plan.
I also did some reading up on research that’s been done on integration in the 1970s, and as well, delved a bit into newspaper articles and watched any YouTube videos of protests. The family of a childhood friend gave me their archive of all the PTA bulletins, clippings, materials around our local plan, and that helped me with the texture of the times.
I think the only thing that surprised me is that I found out that this story that was personal to my growing up was actually occurring all over the country. If a person grew up at a certain time—the ‘70s and early ‘80s—they were touched by integration, because that was when so many of the plans were rolling out.
And so I think there is a whole generation that has been touched by this history, this social change, but their experiences haven’t fully been told.
One other thing I learned that really surprised me was that at that time, no other institutions were integrated—not workplaces, neighborhoods, professions.
So children were the only one who were living mingled lives.
That created such a generational gap, a kind of dissonance, where children’s reality was so different from their parents. All the burden was placed on schools and on children—to me this then raises the question of how can we think more holistically about integration?
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?
A: One, I want them to know what it’s like to be a mixed-race tween/teen on the cusp of growing up, and yet having such great challenges in terms of fitting in. Mixed-race kids simply can’t be boxed in and yet the middle years is often all about social boxing in.
Two, I wanted to capture this era—full of good intentions—but these grand plans often fell on the slender shoulders of children, and were not carefully or thoughtfully executed.
It isn’t that we shouldn’t aim for integration—of course we should--but we should be honest about the difficulties; honest about how little we ask of the adults.
Finally I wanted to pay homage to the early, pioneering mixed-race families. I don’t feel that’s an experience that’s been much written about.
But in my era, for families such as mine, every single decision bore the weight of race and identity. Sometimes these families had to forge forward without the support of any extended family or community. They were also families who bravely integrated neighborhoods on their own.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a new YA novel, tentatively titled Sanctuary. It’s about a family that comes to take sanctuary in a Jewish synagogue, and it is told from the point of view of the teenage girl and the boy who escorts her to school every day.
She just wants to have a regular teenage life, but she can’t, of course; and the boy, who has trouble putting himself forward in life, has to learn what it means to give refuge to someone else.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The Long Ride is actually my first middle grade novel. I wanted my readers to know this is a voice and perspective that I can do, and that I quite enjoyed writing. It felt as if I was returning to some purer version of myself and my own sense of voice. I’m just dying to get into classrooms to talk about the book too.
I am in the midst of developing a fun ‘70s pop quiz—high and low, a mix of fashion, music, movies and all the serious things that were also going on at this time—the Vietnam War, integration, the bankruptcy of cities.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Marina Budhos.