Conversation: Phillip Hoose, National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature

BY Tom LeGro  November 24, 2009 at 12:52 PM EST

Books about the Civil Rights movement are filled with seminal figures who rise to the rank of legend when the moment arises, but for every hero’s great act there are scores of smaller demonstrations of courage that get eclipsed. In one case, a 15-year-old girl’s story was nearly forgotten if not for an inquisitive reporter, and years later, an author curious about youth’s role in defining our culture.

Last week, Phillip Hoose won the National Book Award for young people’s literature for telling that girl’s story in “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice.”

Listen to an interview with Hoose:

Colvin’s story is one that will sound familiar: A black female boards a bus in 1955 in Montgomery, Ala. She is asked to give up her seat to a white passenger, but she refuses and is arrested. But this isn’t Rosa Parks’ famous story; this one belongs to Colvin, and it happened nine months earlier. Why it wasn’t told is the basis for Hoose’s book.

“In addition to what happened, it was as much about how she felt and why she did things…how her friends took it, how her parents took it,” Hoose said. “So it was this story not only of historical events, but of a girl’s journey through those.”

Colvin was forced off of the bus by police, who claimed Colvin had become unruly. Soon after, she became pregnant by an older man, allegedly by rape. Civil Rights leaders who had come to her aide eventually decided that there were too many complicating factors to make her the poster child for challenging segregation. They wouldn’t have to wait long before Parks, who fit more in line with the story activists were trying to tell, took her seat at the front of the bus.

“It wasn’t so much that Claudette Colvin was in danger of being erased from history,” Hoose said. “She was in danger of being a paragraph per history book. Book after book about how she was the wrong person and adults who organized the Montgomery Boycott had to overlook her and chose Mrs. Parks instead.”

Alienated from both the black and white communities, Colvin left for New York in 1958 and didn’t speak a word of her ordeal. It wasn’t until 1975 when a reporter for the Birmingham News got the assignment to write on the anniversary of Parks’ arrest that Colvin’s story resurfaced. The reporter, Frank Sikora, contacted Colvin’s mother, who gave her daughter’s phone number in New York. Sikora got the story and has remained a confidant over the years.

For Hoose, it took four years and Sikora’s help to track down Colvin. The result is the award-winning book for young readers.

At the awards ceremony last week at an upscale Wall Street restaurant, before the prizes were announced, Hoose asked Colvin, “Will you go up with me?” She said, “Yes,” and when the book was announced, they took their time climbing to the stage. When they reached the podium, “The room roared with applause,” said Hoose.