Tell us about Sugar in three sentences or less.
Sugar is about a spirited, curious girl who wants to play with friends, listen to stories, and have fun. Instead, Sugar [my heroine], an orphan and ex-slave, has to work hard, all day, on a sugar cane plantation [tending cane]. When Chinese workers come to the plantation, Sugar—enchanted by cultural differences and similarities, reaches out to the new community and discovers friendship and dares to dream a new future for herself where she can be free to explore the world and fulfill her dreams.
In both Sugar and your first book for children, Ninth Ward, you write strong, [resilient] female characters. Why do you think this is important?
Sometimes life brings unavoidable hardships like a hurricane in Ninth Ward and lingering aftereffects of slavery in Sugar. But what always matters [to me] is how a person responds—how they use love, hope, and faith to remain resilient and strong. For me, Lanesha and Sugar as characters mirror the beauty and heroism of all girls and the society (neighbors, teachers, parents, foster parents, and friends) that support them.
How did you come to the idea of writing about the post-abolitionist South?
A friend emailed me a review of Lucy Cohen’s book, Chinese in the Post Civil War South: A People Without a History. Ed knew I’d been traveling frequently to Sichuan University in Chengdu, China to teach creative writing. He also knew I’d be captivated by an American history I’d never known. I kept dreaming of Chinese and African Americans in post abolitionist South, working side by side. Then, one day, I visualized a little girl, hands on her hips, complaining, “How come I have to work? How come I can’t play?” Sugar was born.
Why is writing historical fiction for children so important?
While teaching historical facts is important, fictional techniques allow readers to empathize with characters and feel, sense the events via concrete details. Readers “know” history in a fuller, more alive sense. I do believe all of us need to understand our historical past, our nation’s historical past to better understand ourselves, our common humanity and our country.
If readers can take away one thing from this book what would you want that to be?
Young people should believe that they, like Sugar, can make their dreams come true. Being resourceful, unafraid of new cultures and experiences, opens horizons and enriches our common humanity. So to every reader, I say, ”Be bold, be brave, expand your horizons!”