I adore Rita Lorraine Hubbard’s debut picture book, Hammering For Freedom. So when she joined the 20/20 Vision Picture Book marketing group, I was excited to discover she’d written another powerful picture book biography.
The Oldest Student; How Mary Walker Learned to Read, tells the inspiring story of Mary Walker who learned to read at the age of 116 years old! Rita Lorraine Hubbard does an incredible job of sharing Mary’s story with expert word choice. Her words, paired with Oge Mora’s stunning illustrations make this book a powerful work of art. This is a beautiful, inspiring, and heart warming story of persistence and hope.
I’m excited to interview Rita here on Writer’s Rumpus.
Kirsti Call: Your book, THE OLDEST STUDENT, is a powerful and heartwarming story of persistence and hope. What inspired you to write the book?
Rita Lorraine Hubbard: I’ve always been fascinated with people from history. It amazes me that they had NONE of the conveniences we have, and yet they somehow managed to achieve their goals – and inspire others in the process. I had heard the legend of Mary Walker when I was in elementary school and my class visited the Mary Walker Foundation. I remember touring her modest little one-room cabin. I was amazed to see the coarse little bed she slept in, the one lonely rocking chair that must have given her hours of comfort, and her beloved bible sitting on a stark wooden nightstand. Even back then, I wanted to know more. After I became an adult, I decided to circle back and find out why in the world this sweet little lady waited 116 years to learn to read. You see, I had thought she made a choice to wait, but I was very wrong. The twists and turns and circumstances of life are what caused the delay. It wasn’t easy piecing her life together, especially since she wasn’t “on the map” until she decided to learn to read at the age of 116, but it has been an honor writing her story. I feel everyone is entitled to be inspired by her story the way I was.
KC: How did you choose which details to include?
RLH: Mary Walker lived to be 121 years, and that’s a whole lot of living to stuff inside a 32-page picture book. But I remembered a lesson from somewhere along my journey to becoming published: only include what will move your story forward. That’s what I tried to do. I placed what I thought represented the essence of her life in the forefront: her enslavement, her emancipation, her growing family, and finally, the “departure” of her family members that meant she was alone and needed to make a change so she could read for herself. I placed the rest of what I discovered in the back matter because I still felt the information was important for readers to know.
KC: What did you learn from your research for this book?
RLH:I reaffirmed that “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” As I mentioned in one of my previous answers, I wondered why in the world Mary had waited so long to learn to read. I had thought she simply made a choice to delay her learning. But then I discovered her circumstances; I learned about the hardships and the disappointments she faced. Now I can do nothing except admire her.
KC: What else are you working on?
RLH: I’m working on the true story of an African American Civil War regiment that was mustered into service in Tennessee.
KC: What is your advice for aspiring authors?
RLH: Write the stories YOU love. Don’t try to figure out what’s trending and then duplicate it. Decide what inspireS YOU, and then write about it.
Rita Lorraine Hubbard is the author of THE OLDEST STUDENT and HAMMERING FOR FREEDOM, and has also penned a number of nonfiction books for teens and adults. She learned about Mary Walker during a visit to the Mary Walker Foundation many years ago. She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and runs the children’s book review site, Picture Book Depot, and the historical site, The Black History Channel. You can find her online at ritahubbard.com.