INTERVIEW and GIVEAWAY
Between the Lines
by Claudia Whitsitt
Claudia Whitsitt's Between the Lines is recommended for children ages 9 and up. Claudia is currently on tour with Mother Daughter Book Promotion Services. The tour stops here today for my interview with the author, an excerpt, and a giveaway. Please be sure to visit the other tour stops as well.
Between the Lines tells the story of three girls who become friends during the racially-charged aftermath of the 1967 Detroit Riots.
Hattie Percha is crushed when the riots start on her tenth birthday, and when she must move away from her treasured childhood home and friends, attending public school for the first time, she’s afraid her life is over. Then, she meets Beverly Jo Nichols, her first black friend, and Crackers, a fearless tomboy. Despite opposition from Hattie’s mother and a racist teacher, the unlikely friends join forces. As the self-proclaimed Dream Girls, they challenge bigotry and intolerance, willing to do whatever it takes to hold onto what’s most precious to them all, their friendship.
Sunday, July 23, 1967 ~ Detroit, Michigan
Mom calls me a dreamer like it’s a bad thing. This morning when I woke up, I said, “This is going to be the best birthday!” A little smile curled on her lips and she cocked her head my way and said, “Hattie, my faithful dreamer.” I know my daydreams are a problem when I’m at school (not that I’d ever admit that to her). I get lost in my thoughts a ton and have to remind myself to pay better attention. But now? In the summer? Who cares if I’m dreaming? And why doesn’t Mom think my tenth birthday will be perfect? She’s already made my bed for me, and Mary and Joanne, my two best friends, are coming over later for a party. We’re going to have my favorite foods—Sloppy Joes, angel food cake with fluffy chocolate frosting, and Sanders vanilla ice cream—then go swimming and have a sleepover. My birthday bash will be loads of fun!
Plus, no chore list. Besides making our beds on our birthdays, Mom says, “No jobs on your special day.” I don’t have to sweep the kitchen floor or wash the dishes. I don’t have to lend my little brothers a hand when they are trying to build with Lincoln Logs and their clumsy little fingers knock their forts apart before they finish. I hate how they cry, so mostly it’s just easier to help them. But today? I’m taking the day off.
But I can’t figure out this “dreamer” thing. When Dad or Grandma refer to me as a dreamer, they act like it’s a good thing, and Dad sometimes says, “You’ll do great things one day, Hattie.” I feel all warm inside when he says that, and my heart swells like a balloon. All this talk makes me think dreaming can be both good and bad, depending.
I peek out my bedroom window. Sunshine is flooding our backyard, and I love the way the brilliant rays make the pool water sparkle. I pull on shorts and a shirt, tie my hair back into a ponytail, and head for the front porch, right after I grab a handful of dry Frosted Flakes and my writing tools.
I like to think of myself as thoughtful, meaning my head is full of all kinds of ideas. Ideas for stories, and questions about why things are the way they are. For instance, why do we have to move? I sit on the cool concrete porch steps and make a sour face at the SOLD sign Dad moved to the driveway while he’s mowing the lawn. I overheard a confusing conversation between him and Mom the other night. I wasn’t eavesdropping on purpose, but their bedroom is right next to mine, and I like to lay awake when I’m done reading at night and listen to the house sounds—the hum of the refrigerator, the whir of the window fan, the creaks and moans of the wooden floors and the plaster walls.
Mom said, “Michael, are you sure there aren’t any Negroes in the new neighborhood?”
“Yes, dear,” Dad says. “I don’t know why you’re so worried about the neighbors. I work with Negroes. I teach them. They’re just like us.”
That’s weird. There aren’t any Negroes in our neighborhood now, so moving for that reason makes no sense. I don’t even know any Negroes other than the lady who came to help Mom with the ironing a few times. She was really nice and smiled at me. Anyhow, the only part I understand about moving is how we’ve outgrown this house. My brothers share the upstairs dormer, the three oldest, that is. Baby Larry shares my room with me. We’re jammed in here like a colony of ants in a too-small hole.
The good thing is that when we move, I’ll have a bedroom of my own. The bad thing is, I’m leaving my best friends behind, and I might have to go to public school. I went there for Kindergarten. McCall Elementary wasn’t all that bad, I guess—I was just a crybaby and wanted to be home with Mom. That’s the other problem with me. Besides being a dreamer, I’m shy. Like want to hide in a corner or closet shy. I love cubbies and curling up in tiny, out-of-the-way places. It feels safer. I’ve been a Catholic school girl since the first grade. The thought of being on the waiting list to get in to St. Mary’s when my brothers have already been accepted makes me jealous. And the thought of going on my own to a brand-new public school, where I’m not sure of the rules, is beyond frightening. I’ve heard Mom say that kids don’t learn as much in public school, so why is she letting me go there? Come to think of it, I’m not all that brave either.
I squint through my glasses at the sun. I hate my glasses; they’re light blue and have these sparkles on the wings where the earpieces join, which Mom thought were pretty, but they make me feel like everyone is looking at me. Mom said it’s normal to need glasses around the time you turn ten. I probably need them because I read and write so much. Neither Mom nor Dad wear glasses, so I didn’t inherit my nearsightedness from them. I’ve just strained my peepers from overuse.
Dad pushes the mower across the front lawn, tips his head toward me, and smiles. I set down my pad and pen, wave and grin, then play with the branch of a yew. The needles are soft and pliable; they break when I bend them, and the smell of fresh evergreen stays on my fingertips. I love the aroma. (I’m working on my vocabulary. Because I’m going to be a writer, I need to know tons of words.) The scent of the freshly mown grass and the seasonable temperature—it’s already heating up—mean my birthday is bound to be a slice of paradise.
I pick up my pencil and turn to a fresh page in my notebook and write the word “paradise” in cursive five times. I love cursive. It’s so pretty. What will I write about today? An odd noise barges into my thoughts.
Pop! Pop! Pop! It reminds me a little of a car backfiring, yet it’s different. Dad stops and the clacking mower blades quiet. Now, the crack of sound is sharper, closer.
A look of fear crosses Dad’s face before he swallows and composes himself. “Hattie,” he says in a serious voice, “go inside. Those are gunshots.”
My eyes open wide. “Gunshots?”
He looks worried, more than I’ve ever seen him, and I don’t want to leave him.
“Go inside. Now. And make sure your brothers stay put. No one comes outside.”
“What about you? Are you coming in?” I wait, but he’s listening hard for the sounds. “Come in,” I plead. “Please.”
His face changes before my very eyes. He’s faking. Trying to act calm. I’ve seen him act like this before when he received the phone call that my Grandpa died, and when he broke the news to mom. He took a big breath then. He’s gulping for air again now. “Be right there,” he says. “Please do as I ask.”
I gather my writing supplies, spin around, open the screen door, and pause to gaze at the few wispy clouds floating on a sea of blue. Please, God. Let this be some kind of horrible mistake. Not gunshots on my birthday!
I step inside. My feet feel different, like they aren’t really hitting the floor. My brothers are sprawled out on the living room rug playing army men and shooting the enemy. “Pshew, pshew, pshew.” All la-di-da, life goes on like. I want to tell them to stop, to listen to the real shots being fired down the street, but I’m paralyzed and stand there like a baby bird who’s lost her voice.
I stand there for an eternity. I have no idea where Mom is, but I’m guessing she’s in the basement putting laundry into the washing machine. Finally, the side door slams. I wait for Dad to come and say, “false alarm,” and tell me the noises we heard were from some kind of construction project down the road, like a jackhammer. But Dad doesn’t come. Footsteps sound on the back steps, and he stays in the kitchen when Mom comes upstairs. She turns on the water at the sink. She’s probably washing the dishes. I hear Dad tell her to “turn off the water.”
It’s like I’m suspended, watching my brothers from up in the sky. Waiting. Waiting. Today’s my birthday. Nothing bad is allowed to happen. Maybe tomorrow or the next day, but not today.
Praise for the Book
"Between the Lines is a powerful piece of historical fiction that must be added to the reading list of every middle grade student." ~ 5 Stars, Lori L., Goodreads
"Teachers and parents need to purchase this novel … Parents could use this novel to engage their kids in discussions to help develop a sense of social responsibility, friendship, and morality … Ultimately, this story is inspirational." ~ 5 Stars, Amazon Customer
"This book is a must read for everyone, no matter what age … I would recommend it highly to be in the curriculum of every 5th and 6th grade classroom." ~ 5 Stars, Sandra W., Amazon
"My daughter and I read this book together and loved it. It is a story that will stay with both of us for many years to come!" ~ 5 Stars, aleblanc, Amazon
"Between the Lines tells a really heartbreaking but uplifting story, about race and loyalty and friends, in a way that any kid will relate to. A perfect gift book for that hard-to-please youngster!" ~ 5 Stars, Jimmy, Amazon
Interview With the Author
Hi Claudia, thanks for joining me today to discuss your new book, Between the Lines.
For what age group do you recommend your book?
Between the Lines is best suited for ages 9 and older. Although the characters are ten years old, even adults are enthralled with this story.
What sparked the idea for this book?
The nub of the idea occurred to me as I reviewed the historical events that impacted my life. The issues that touched American lives forty-eight years ago with the Civil Rights movement still touch our lives today. My goal was to create an engaging story that would reach the hearts of readers by teaching them about the past while sending a universal message about tolerance and friendship.
So, which comes first? The character's story or the idea for the novel?
For this particular story, the idea came first, but the characters’ lives came into play immediately. I’m a character-driven storyteller, so I couldn’t move forward until I filled the roles of the Dream Girls. They are distinct and loveable characters, and based on friends who are still an important part of my life today.
What was the hardest part to write in this book?
Hattie, the main character, is a very introspective and shy girl, so there were times when it was difficult for me to move the story forward with action. She struggles with internal conflicts sorting out her parent’s values from her own. I had to find ways to keep the reader interested while Hattie sorted out those problems. A tricky dilemma!
How do you hope this book affects its readers?
More than anything, I hope that readers take away the message - the power of kindness is essential in creating a better world. In the news, we are constantly barraged with stories of cruelty and mistreatment. It’s my wish that readers will think about their relationships as they read Between the Lines, and focus on compassion and tolerance in their interactions with family, friends, and acquaintances. I believe we each can make a difference in the world, and it starts with the simplest of actions - offering a compliment, a helping hand, an open ear.
There are many positive messages in this book, life lessons in themselves.
How long did it take you to write this book?
From idea seed to finished product, Between the Lines took fifteen months to complete. I’m a perfectionist!
What is your writing routine?
On the best writing days, I wake up early, grab a cup of coffee, and hole up in my study. I write all day, rarely taking a break. I’ll grab lunch and eat while I’m writing. If I can get six to eight hours of solid writing in, I’m the happiest. Staying in the story for so long grounds me to the characters, the plot, and the theme. When I get too far away from the story, I have to reinsert myself inside the character’s heads and reenter the scene, and that sometimes slows me down.
How did you get your book published?
I made the decision to independently publish the book as I promised my students I would write them a book (My other novels are for adults!) and I didn’t want them to be fully-grown by the time I found an agent and publisher for the story.
What advice do you have for someone who would like to become a published writer?
Writing is a craft that requires focus, effort, and passion. You must practice daily in order to improve, and find a place to receive constructive feedback. Attending working conferences, working with editors, reading, and learning about the craft are absolute musts. Never rush to publication without being sure your work is ready. This means hiring a professional editor and seeking tons of feedback prior to publication.
Great advice! What do you like to do when you're not writing?
When I’m not writing, I love to spend time outdoors. In the winter, I love to downhill ski. When the weather is warmer, I love power-walking, working in the yard, and swimming. I could swim laps for days. There is nothing more inspiring than physical activity.
What does your family think of your writing?
My husband and five children are a huge support and my biggest cheerleaders. Even my daughter-in-law is a fan! I’m very fortunate to have so much encouragement right in my own home.
Please tell us a bit about your childhood.
I grew up in Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s. At the time, Detroit was a thriving city and great place to live. Our life was simple - we rode bikes, played outdoors for hours, and spent most of our time with our neighborhood friends. My five brothers (you’d think with all those siblings, I would have a sister!) and I attended Catholic school, and my parents encouraged all of us to achieve great things. I knew anything was possible if I worked hard enough to make my dreams come true.
Did you like reading when you were a child?
Like many kids, I grew up on a steady diet of books. The library was one of my favorite hangouts as a kid, and I spent hours reading. I always took a book to bed and often read by the meager beam of the hall light trickling through the crack in my bedroom door. Once Mom closed my door at night, I’d pull out a flashlight from under my bed so I could finish a chapter. J
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Much like Hattie, the main character in Between the Lines, I was in the fifth grade, and a friend and I decided we wanted to be writers. We would spend hours sprawled out on her bedroom floor writing our very first stories, then reading them to each other. I loved crafting characters and the adrenalin high of creativity.
Did your childhood experiences influence your writing?
Certainly an author brings the sum total of their experience to their writing. Life events influence how I perceive the world and whether I’m conscious of them or not, the lessons, relationships, and events of the past seep into my stories. It’s a unique process, the way the subconscious influences me. Sometimes I need distance from my story or writing before I can recognize how my past has affected my writing. I find it quite fascinating, the way real life sneaks into my stories.
Which writers have influenced you the most?
This is one of the most difficult questions I face. There are so many writers who have influenced me. My high school reading sticks with me the most though - such an impressionable age. I loved the classics, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and Louisa May Alcott, to name a few.
Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
I love hearing from readers and have had many more opportunities to do so since the release of Between the Lines. Since the book’s debut, I have had the opportunity to speak to over 2500 students. I spend a great deal of time in classrooms meeting with student readers and book clubs. Readers are quick to tell me the scenes they loved the most, or which scene made them laugh or cry. Their words inspire me.
Fantastic! What can we look forward to from you in the future?
Inherited Issues, the fourth book in The Samantha Series, a mystery/suspense series for adults, will be released in June 2015, and I’m currently working on the sequel for Between the Lines. The working title is Beyond the Lines. I’m in love with this story!
Thank you for taking the time to stop by today, Claudia. Best of luck with your future projects.
About the Author
Claudia Whitsitt spent a lifetime teaching special education and writing before becoming a full-time author. She believes in the power of friendship, small acts of kindness, and paying it forward. Nothing makes her happier than spending time with her children, which includes not only the five she raised but the countless students who touched her life over the years.
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