**Thank you to Ariane Peveto for writing this post about Warriors Don’t Cry — my very first guest post! Ariane is a poet and writer. Read more about her at the end of this article.**
What better way to celebrate Black History Month than to take a close look at Melba Pattillo Beals’ memoir Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High and the lessons it can teach writers?
While Beals’ book is not traditionally thought of as a children’s book, the abridged young readers edition offers an honest, heartfelt account of a girl’s journey towards adulthood during the turbulent Civil Rights Era. One of the Little Rock Nine (the first African-American students to integrate into a formerly all-white school in Little Rock, Arkansas), Beals chronicles her life as a “warrior.” Warriors Don’t Cry shows how she struggled with this role but eventually came to own it. The story is as heartbreaking as it is beautiful, and Beals’ work has a lot to teach kidlit writers about the craft of a good story. Let’s take a look!
1. Use Foreshadowing to Amp Up Tension
Melba begins her story by saying that her Grandma India always said her birth foreshadowed a great task assigned by destiny. She was born on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack during WWII, and an infection nearly ended her life just days later. A janitor who happened to eavesdrop on the doctor helped the family realize what they needed to do to save her. Years later, when she is chosen as one of the children to integrate the school, her grandmother knowingly declares, “Now you see, that’s the reason God spared your life. You’re supposed to carry this banner for our people.”
Warriors Don’t Cry starts with great foreshadowing of the battle that will shape Melba’s entire life, a foreshadowing that’s expertly crafted from an arrangement of her memories and the story of her birth. From the get-go, there’s dramatic tension that keeps readers engaged, wanting to see what’s going to be special about this girl.
2. The Importance of Family and Community
Many children’s books tell stories about kids who are on their own, either by choice or fate. However, most children spend their time in the context of their family. Family provides identity for kids and has a profound influence on many aspects of character and behavior. Melba finds strength to face brutal treatment at school in her mother and grandmother, two women who are awesome forces to be reckoned with, even on the printed page. As a child, she is surrounded by a community of extended family, neighbors, fellow churchgoers, and classmates.
Exploring how your characters interact in various situations with different groups of people can be a valuable form of discovery. And putting a character in the context of others encourages children to think about their own communities and how they relate to them.
Warriors Don’t Cry also includes many adult figures that are trustworthy, helpful, and safe. At a recent SCBWI event, children’s author Darby Karchut discussed what editors are currently looking for and what they’re avoiding in the stories that cross their desks. One of the top things that editors aren’t wanting to see more of right now are stories with dead/absent/evil parents. Positive adult models are apparently in demand in publishing at the moment!
3. Use Space to Build Dramatic Pacing
Warriors Don’t Cry covers a lot of ground. By the time the reader reaches the last page, several years have gone by. With that amount of time to condense into a small space, many events and details have to be left out or summarized.
However, Beals spends quite a bit of time on certain events to emphasize their importance. In the whirlwind of the story, these events force the reader to slow down as the passage of time nearly grinds to a halt. This is where tension starts building. Some weeks are abridged in a sentence. By contrast, Melba’s first attempt to go to school spans twelve pages. Her first full day of classes stretches over twenty pages. When readers finish these scenes, they are as exhausted as the girl they’re reading about! Allowing a few key moments in a story to be drawn out can create a greater impact on readers, encouraging emotional investment and building dramatic tension naturally.
4. Expectations Are Powerful
After Melba tries to go to school for the first time, her life changes forever. All of her family’s routines are knocked over and most normal activities suddenly become impossible. Her one light at the end of the dark tunnel is going to watch the wrestling matches with her grandmother, their long-standing tradition. At the matches, she feels like she’s an equal with all of the spectators regardless of their skin color, she and her grandmother can behave quite unladylike for a time, and she can secretly meet with the boy that her family doesn’t want her to date.
Then her grandmother tells her she can’t go.
Expectations, whether in the form of routine, promises, or tradition, are enormous to children. Forgotten or unmet expectations can be powerful narrative devices in your story, either as a crisis moment or for building tension. Develop routines and traditions for your characters to bring them to life on the page, and explore how your character deals with having these expectations met or broken.
Thanks to Eva Langston for letting me share about this incredible book! Warriors Don’t Cry is a valuable book for young readers and offers a lot of good lessons for writers. I highly recommend picking it up if you haven’t read it before, as well as seeking out other books like it for Black History Month. Happy reading and writing!
Ariane Peveto is a poet and writer who has called the United States, Japan, and England home for a time. She’s always willing to develop new interests even though she keeps busy enough as an artist, costume seamstress, cake decorator, and paper enthusiast. Now a freelance editor, she has worked as a writing tutor and instructor. She holds a master’s degree in English and studied abroad at the University of Oxford with a focus on literary craft. The stories that she finds in the world keep her traveling and keep her eyes open.
You can find Ariane on her webpage or on Twitter @ArianePeveto.
Did you enjoy this post? Check out my other Great Children’s Literature Study posts!
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