Alice Faye Duncan is the author of the new picture book biography Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free. It focuses on the life of the woman who inspired the Juneteenth holiday. Duncan's other books include the new picture book Evicted!.
Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book biography about Opal Lee and Juneteenth?
A: Opal Lee is the legacy of Dr. King. She has used her entire life in service to others. In the city of Fort Worth, Texas, she feeds the hungry. She helps the unhoused get shelter and promotes racial unity under the banner of the Juneteenth holiday.
Born in 1926, Grandmother Opal Lee is light in a world that can be gloomy, ghastly, and so unfair. The editors at HarperCollins offered me the opportunity to write about Opal Lee because they loved my book Memphis,Martin, and the Mountaintop.
Q: Did you need to do much research to write the book, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free is a picture book biography that also serves as a history of Juneteenth. My special area of study is the American Civil Rights Movement. So, to write this book for the primary grades, I had to be schooled in the history of American slavery.
It surprised me to learn that the Union won the Civil War because of the participation of Black soldiers. I never learned this important fact in elementary school.
Q: What do you think Keturah A. Bobo's illustrations add to the book?
A: Keturah's splendid illustrations remind me of Clementine Hunter's folk art. The pictures are spare, colorful, and match the tone of the text, which is written as a "call and response." When children read or listen to the book, I want them to leave the story filled with the joy of a Black church service. This is my hope.
Q: How would you describe Opal Lee's impact on American history?
A: Grandmother Opal Lee has used the last five years of her life to walk across America encouraging politicians to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Her goal was accomplished during the summer of 2021.
While she did not start this movement, Opal Lee's walks galvanized the initiative. And like Coretta Scott King who gave us the King holiday, Americans can attribute the national Juneteenth holiday to Opal Lee's efforts.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: September 2022 is the release date for my new picture book, Yellow Dog Blues (Eerdmans Press). Two-time Caldecott winner Chris Raschka is the illustrator.
This book is a blues fable about love, loss, and the joy of living. Children will understand the book to be about a missing hound. Adults will understand the book to be about the unfortunate end to an endearing friendship. Everything about the book is fun and reflective, just like the blues.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Opal Lee is not my only new book at this time. Evicted!: The Struggle for the Right to Vote was released on Jan. 11. This timely book explores the trials that were conquered in order for Black Americans to earn the right to vote.
Here is my one last word. Teacher guides for both new books are available. You are free to post them here on your blog. And, I am available for virtual school visits starting in the new school year--2022-2023.
Thank you kindly for sharing my work with others.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Alice Faye Duncan.