Don't Split the Pole: Tales of Down-Home Folk Wisdom by Eleanora E. Tate
An Authors Guild Back-in-Print Edition ©May 2014
Published by iUniverse, Inc. www.iuniverse.com
Eleanora E. TateEleanora E. Tate, author of eleven children’s and young adult books, has been an author in schools, libraries, on university campuses and at conferences around the country (and in Canada and Bermuda) for over 40 years. She’s on the faculty of Hamline University’s Masters degree seeking low-residency program “Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults” in St. Paul, MN. She previously taught children’s literature at North Carolina Central University, Durham, NC and has been an instructor with the Institute of Children’s Literature at West Redding, CT.
Her book Celeste’s Harlem Renaissance (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2007), is a recipient of the 2007 AAUW North Carolina Book Award for Juvenile Literature, and an IRA Teacher’s Choice winner. In addition to Don’t Split the Pole, her other books are The Secret of Gumbo Grove; Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.!; Front Porch Stories at the One-Room School; Just an Overnight Guest (made into an award-winning television film); African American Musicians; To Be Free; A Blessing in Disguise; The Minstrel’s Melody; and Retold African Myths. Two books are audio books. Another was both a Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies and a Bankstreet Child Study Book Committee “Children’s Book of the Year.”
She was a Bread Loaf Writers Conference Fellow; a National Association of Black Storytellers (NABS) Zora Neale Hurston Award recipient, and a former NABS national president. Her short stories have appeared in American Girl Magazine, Scholastic Storyworks Magazine, Gold Finch Magazine, African American Review, and in numerous short story book collections. Her latest essay “Harking Back to Hargett Street” is in the 2013 anthology Twenty-Seven Views of Raleigh.
1. Your writing career spans decades. At what point did writing and promoting writing in others go from being a hobby to a career? Were you ever worried about taking on writing as a career?
My writing birth arrived in third grade when I wrote my first story. By sixth grade I envisioned myself as a published writer, striding along the streets of Paris, France, Isadora Duncan style scarf wrapped around my neck and also trailing behind me, flaunting a big Afro and in a swirling gown ( or mini skirt and boots!), notebook and No. 2 pencil in hand. It was either that or being a revolutionary in a bandana wrapped around my head, in boots, denim jacket and jeans, bandoleer strapped across my bosoms, telescopic rifle in my hands, face frowned up with determination. Maybe I am both in my writing.
In on-the-ground life I became news editor of The Iowa Bystander Newspaper, a Des Moines Black weekly. A few years later I joined The Des Moines Register and Tribune Newspapers, writing articles for news side, poems for its Picture Page (that award-winning full back page of pictures and text), and fiction for its Picture Magazine. I never considered my writing to be a hobby. It was and continues to be my life quest. I did think I’d make lots more money, though.
2. Your stories in Don’t Split the Pole: Tales of Down-Home Folk Wisdom are based on proverbs and sayings. Why?
I was born by the Mississippi River in northeastern Missouri where Missouri, Illinois and Iowa meet. Everybody I knew as a child used proverbs, sayings, similes and hyperbolic anecdotes in their every day conversations in the language common to our area. This regional vernacular was so rich that I tried to emulate it in my Missouri based books Just an Overnight Guest (1980, 1997), Front Porch Stories at the One-Room School (1992, 2007), and The Minstrel’s Melody (2001, 2009).
After I moved to South Carolina in 1978 I was introduced to and fell in love with that state’s unique, vivid language, history, and traditions. The result was my South Carolina books The Secret of Gumbo Grove (1987), Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! (1990), and A Blessing in Disguise (1995, 1999).
In Don’t Split the Pole I wrap a story around a saying I’d heard that had an impact on me. Although the sayings are as old as dirt, I place them in the contemporary time period to show readers that they have meaning in today’s world.
Although my story “Slow and Steady Wins the Race” differs from Aesop the Ethiope’s “Slow and Steady Wins the Race” fable, my theme is the same, and still features turtles.
My other stories and sayings in the book are: You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks; A Hard Head Makes a Soft Behind; Never Leave Your Pocketbook on the Floor; Don’t Split the Pole; Big Things Come in Small Packages; and What Goes Around Comes Around. All but one story are set in North Carolina.
Sayings explain the reasons why things are, or ought to be, and pass along wisdom not only to children but also to adults. That’s probably partly why scholars call them “traditional literature” and lump them with fables, folk tales, myths, and legends (and yes, fairytales, too, around which there is still much discussion). In my original manuscript back in 1997 I included footnotes about the origins of the ones I wrote about, but they were removed due to space limitations and politics.
Well, I plan to write a full essay about those origins now!
3. How were you introduced to folktales?
I loved to listen to my grandmother (who raised me) tell stories about her own youthful, green salad days. She talked with such authenticity and her language was so picturesque that her adventures were as thrilling as many books I read, like The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. She also shared stories handed down from the African and African American oral storytelling tradition, her versions of Grimms’ fairytales, neighborhood gossip, and unusual newspaper stories.
Once she told me about a Missouri woman who was ten feet tall! I thought this was just another yarn until as an adult researcher I found out about a very real woman named Ella Ewing, nicknamed “the Gentle Giantess.” She was born in 1872, grew to be eight feet, four inches tall, and had hands ‘as big as frying pans’. Because of my grandmother’s love for story I was compelled to have my fictional narrator Margie Carson tell about Ella Ewing’s life in my book Front Porch Stories at the One-Room School. Thank you, Momma!
I still collect stories. A fellow in Tennessee in 1976 gave me his account of “Old John and the Bear” that I included in Just an Overnight Guest. Many years later I finally uncovered a similar version.
My plat-eyed ghost tale in The Secret of Gumbo Grove was based on an encounter a woman told me she’d had with one in South Carolina. I also read Ambrose Gonzales’ book The Black Border: Gullah Stories of the Carolina Coast (1922) and DuBose Heyward’s short story “The Half-Pint Flask” to get a better feel for Ole Plat-Eye. Years later the late Dr. James Haskins, a master writer, researcher and good friend, included my plat-eye account in his book The Headless Haunt and Other African-American Ghost Stories (1994). His research revealed to my delight that a “plat-eye” legend existed in the West Indies, probably having migrated earlier from west Africa centuries ago!
My book Retold African Myths (1993) consists of age-old, often religious stories that existed primarily in oral form for centuries on the African continent that I “retell” in my own style and voice, based on the European published “variants” that my Perfection Learning Corporation editor and his consultants (including famed writer Pat McKissack) selected. What I love in this collection are the word lists and extended activities that lead students to each of the eighteen selected kingdoms, cultures, and past and present histories.
I can’t stress enough that no single culture or country can claim that the “first” folk tale was exclusively its own. Wherever those ancient people gathered with a common verbal or sign-making vocabulary, they told tales, and eventually created popular shorter versions that grew into their lexicon.
Because of modern media technology, Walt Disney, and writers eager to create something new and sellable from the old, tracing folk tales, myths, legends, fables, fairytales, and, of course proverbs and sayings back to their origins can be difficult. Still, I advise writers to search for primary materials as best they can, and credit their sources.
4. What are some of the most important lessons you learned that serve you in your life?
You know what? While conducting a teacher in-service years ago, I asked teachers that same question. We were discussing proverbs and sayings, of course. But I’ll come back in a bit to what one teacher revealed.
For me the most important lesson still is A hard head makes a soft behind that my grandmother often said to me. You should think about what you’re about to do and be prepared to suffer the consequences if you make the wrong choice.
The “hard head” back story: When I was four or five years old my grandmother and I walked to the local ice cream parlor. I loved chocolate chip ice cream and lime sherbet, even in the winter. She warned me not to climb upon the bar stool because in my snowsuit I’d lose my balance and fall. Of course I tried anyway, and BAM! Landed on the floor HARD on my butt. In that special grandmother who-still-loves-you-anyway tone, she said, “See? A hard head makes a soft behind.” Of course she didn’t say “behind.”
Worse, no ice cream for me! Since that time I’ve learned to think and look first before placing my behind anywhere.
Anyway, back to those teachers in my in-service. After some thought, one teacher responded, “Never make a major decision in the dark. I know. I have five kids now.”
5. Although the children’s book landscape has changed over the years, there is still a lack of diversity within their pages. Beyond simply inserting more diverse characters for the sake of diversity, what do you think is needed to create a more diverse landscape within children’s literature?
Creating “a more diverse landscape” can’t happen if the effort is directed only to children’s literature. It’s just symptomatic of the “diversity” problems in the larger world. Children’s literature has been around for less than a thousand years, but racism and sexism and the other negative “isms” have been present in their many insidious forms in the world since Day One, and evolve to fit racist and sexist et al. purposes.
For the moment, let’s assume that all is right with the world otherwise, and that the only problem left is “lack of diversity in children’s books.”
If this was the case, the best way to have more children’s books with more characters reflective of the human race (i.e. diverse) is to have more writers and editors who reflect that humanity to do the writing and editing.
But the problem is much deeper than that. The problem goes to the core of human relationships. Some writers question why they need to include characters different from those that they want to write about in their manuscripts. After all, they’re writing about “their” world. I’d hate to have an editor insist that I add accessory characters to those I already have “just because.” I’m writing about “my” world, too, but my characters represent different ethnicities and ages and have purpose in my books. I’ve had wonderful editors who understood this, and I’ve had editors who haven’t. They were good people, but they just couldn’t comprehend.
White writers and editors write and edit the majority of every other culture’s books for children, but they can’t know everything about everybody all the time! Yet, being in charge, having privilege, and not used to so much ingrained compromise, too often they produce books that may be racially and/or culturally problematic, certainly insensitive. Though readers may see the weaknesses, these writers and editors might not. What they will recognize is that they are in charge.
Even words evolve. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s the word used to describe people of color was “minority.” It was personally sad to me to hear about a school being “85 per cent minority.” Excuse me? Wouldn’t that make the school a “majority” of whoever most of the student population was?
In the 1980s and 1990s the “trendy” words were “multicultural” and “multiculturalism”. Now it’s “diverse” and “diversity”.
Writer, educator and scholar Dr. Violet Harris produced a succinct definition of “multicultural” that I agree with: “Multicultural can include race, ethnicity, gender, class, and other elements that denote difference.” And “culture,” she writes, could refer to “beliefs, attitudes, values, world-views, institutions, artifacts, processes, interaction, and ways of behaving.”
Dr. James Banks, another scholar and educator who I met some years ago and also admire, is a leading advocate for “multi-ethnic” education and curriculum, which would (and as it should) include children’s books that offer clear voices and characters.
I obviously don’t care for the words “diversity,” “diverse” and “minority,” because people are quick to say what these words should do but have yet to offer precise definitions of what they mean.
Though they may not realize or acknowledge it, all writers send their characters through their own social, cultural, emotional, racial lenses. There are also those writers who write about cultures other than their own, yet don’t have enough knowledge about that culture to do it well. Yet they’ll have fits when their published terribly written work is justifiably criticized.
Add to that lens a society’s stereotypes about culture and ethnicity, and you end up with turmoil in the world and in books. It’s an insidious circle.
In the meantime … read my books.
6. How do you hope your books will impact the next generation of readers? Is there something you wish your readers would learn or understand through you?
I offer a glimpse into African American life in the United States through my lens. Those lives, whether biographical or fictional, encompass a variety of lifestyles. I stand by what I write. I see it, I envision it, I live it, I hear it told to me by people who’d lived it, I research it through narratives of those who’d gone before me, all of which is part of my personal history. This is real to me. I study history because I want to know what happened with my people before I came on the scene.
When I speak about “my people” and “my ancestors” I mean folks who were kin to me as well as those who weren’t. People of African descent -- enslaved, free, from the African continent before enslavement, now -- experienced triumphs and tribulations that were and continue to be very real and important to me.
Did you know that there are younger generations of “Black” writers and illustrators who laugh at children living in “the ghetto” and ridicule them? Yet they want these children to read their books and look up to them.
I am different in my thought and philosophy from such people, who are just as negative as the writers and illustrators who don’t want to include people of color, disability, gender and the rest of humanity in their works.
7. Does writing and getting published still hold the same excitement as it used to? How do you celebrate when a new manuscript is complete, published, or back in print?
Several of my other books have been reprinted. Seeing Don’t Split the Pole: Tales of Down-Home Folk Wisdom reach re-publication in May 2014 gave me a quiet sense of satisfaction. Now all of my books, I think, are back in print.
8. How can readers discover more about you and your work? (blog, twitter, web page, etc.)
My web site is: http://www.eleanoraetate.com
My latest essay, “Harking Back to Hargett Street,” appears with twenty-six other writers in the anthology 27 Views of Raleigh (2013, Eno Publishers).
Here are some online interviews:
Interview with author Tamera Will Wissinger:
Interview with author Kelly Starling Lyons: http://sweethoneychildbookclub.tumblr.com/eetinterview
Interview with Author Jennifer Bertman:
A few of my favorite magazine and book essays:
Bond, Dr. Ernie, editor; “Author Spotlight;” Literature and the Young Adult Reader; Pearson Education, Boston, 2011.
“Novels with Long Roots,” essay, Book Links Magazine, American Library Association, January 2000.
Harris, Dr. Violet, editor; “From the Oral to the Written,” essay, The New Advocate Journal, spring 2003.
“From Book to Movie,” essay, North Carolina Literary Review, online edition, spring 2012.
My posts are also at Hamline University’s Creative Writing Program’s http://www.thestorytellersinkpot.blogspot.com/ with my most recent post published April 23, 2014, “A Few Essential Ingredients for My Writing Stew.”