Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Q&A with Rita Lorraine Hubbard

Rita Lorraine Hubbard is the author of the new children's picture book The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read, which focuses on a woman who learned to read at age 116. Hubbard's other books include Hammering for Freedom and African Americans of Chattanooga. She is a former special education teacher. 

Q: How did you learn about Mary Walker's story, and at what point did you decide to write a picture book biography about her? 

A: I learned about Mary’s story way back in elementary school, when my class visited a small foundation that had been devoted to her life. I got to see a replica of the cabin she lived in, the cot she slept on, and the bible she carried with her. 

But I didn’t think of writing her story way back then because I was too young to realize the significance of a centenarian learning to read. 

It was only when I began research for my first book, African Americans of Chattanooga, that I stumbled across her name again and decided to take a closer look. I fell in love with her story, and here we are!  

Q: How did you research her life, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: The city library’s local history department keeps clipping files, so this gave me a good start as far as early articles, photos and the like. 

I also looked up the original owner of the Mary Walker Foundation. The founder had passed away, but his son was very generous, and gave me a booklet the foundation had published that included a transcript of an interview Mary did in the mid-to-late 1960s. This transcript allowed me to fill in many details. 

Q: What do you think Oge Mora's illustrations add to the book?

A: Her illustrations give the book a “legendary” feel. It’s like you’re reading a Cinderella story…only it took this Cinderella way more years to finally live happily ever after. 

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?

A: I want all children to understand that obstacles will present themselves in our lives, but that they should hold on to their dreams and goals. Because as Mary said, “It’s never too late…” 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A nonfiction picture book bio about an African American physician who built a hospital during a time when blacks were not allowed inside white hospitals. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It is my dream to one day illustrate one of my own books. I’m only just getting reconnected with the doodler deep inside me, but again, as Mary said, “It’s never too late.” 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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