Q&A with Carole Boston Weatherford, children’s book author

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At 6 years old, Carole Boston Weatherford and her mother were driving home from school when she said, “Mommy, I made up a poem.”

Even though they were only a few blocks from their home in Baltimore, Weatherford’s mother pulled to the side of the road and took out pen and paper. Her mother knew how important it was for her daughter to see her words written out.

When Weatherford kept making up more poems, her father – a high school printing teacher – used her poems as typesetting exercises for his students. He knew how important it was for his daughter to see her work in print.

“They lifted the ceiling off my dreams, so it was not within my realm of possibility that I would not get published,” said Weatherford, who is 66 and a professor at Fayetteville State University.

Weatherford has since published over 60 books, mostly for children and often focused on major events or people in Black history. They’ve earned acclaim and prestigious awards from some of the top literary associations in the country and have raised awareness of some of the country’s untold moments.

But her 2021 illustrated children’s book, “Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre,” is making an especially big impression among readers and literary groups alike. The book, illustrated by Weatherford’s longtime collaborator, Floyd Cooper, has won a slew of awards, including being longlisted for the National Book Award and winning four American Library Association Youth Media Awards in January.

The awards are like the Oscars for children’s literature, and Weatherford won both a Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Book Award, which recognizes an African-American author of “outstanding books for children and young adults.” Cooper, who died shortly before the book was published, also won a Caldecott Honor for his illustrations, an award that Weatherford said “probably would have really set him over the moon.”

“We wanted to honor our ancestors, while at the same time frame the story in a way that young people could learn about the history,” she said. “Also empathize with the people who perished and also those who survived the massacre, as well as with their descendants.”

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Carole Boston Weatherford is the author of dozens of children’s books, including the award-winning illustrated children’s book, “Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre.” Gerald Young/Lerner Publishing Group

Weatherford splits her time between Willow Spring and her hometown of Baltimore, where she cares for her 96-year-old mother. Some of her books have been written in collaboration with her son, Jeffery Boston Weatherford.

For Weatherford’s passion for shining a spotlight on what she calls “family stories, fading traditions and forgotten struggles that center on African American resistance, resilience and remarkability,” she is The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Month, which honors people who have made significant contributions to North Carolina and the region.

Weatherford talked to The News & Observer about writing children’s books, critical race theory and how motherhood transformed her life. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

How did “Unspeakable” come about?

I had collaborated with Floyd for the 2008 book “Becoming Billie Holiday,” and we had been kicking around ideas ever since then. In the summer of 2018, I contacted him about a possible collaboration on a book about the Tulsa Race Massacre because I knew Floyd had hailed from Tulsa.

What I did not know was that his grandfather had survived the massacre, and he had kind of forgotten that until he began working on the illustration. The stories that his grandfather told him came rushing back. I reached out to him because I like to work with illustrators on what might be considered a heart project, a passion project, for them, and I thought this would be such for him.

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Carole Boston Weatherford and her son, Jeffery Boston Weatherford, at a conference in 2016. She has written some of her books in collaboration with him. Photo provided by Carole Boston Weatherford.

What does the term “critical race theory” mean and represent to you?

Critical race theory is a term that is applied in graduate school studies. Particularly in the study of law and looking at racism as a systemized process and how that affects the justice system. It’s not taught in K-12 schools, it’s not taught in undergraduate schools, but what is taught are other critical skills: critical thinking, critical literacy and cultural literacy.

Cultural literacy just has to do with being knowledgeable about your own history and our collective history, and intersections between your group, your demographic group, with other demographic groups.

But what is happening, because critical race theory has been turned into a buzzword and a boogeyman, is that it’s getting conflated with critical thinking and getting conflated with critical literacy and cultural literacy and those three babies are getting thrown out with the bath. In that respect, the war on critical race theory is dangerous.

How do you see your work and missing fitting into the “criticals” that K-12 kids are processing?

My books tend to provoke questions among young people, and the questions are so appropriate that I could not have scripted them. Questions like, “Did that really happen?” because young people just can’t believe some of the injustices that grown-ups have allowed to pass for the status quo for so long. Other questions are “Why were African Americans treated so unfairly?”

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Carole Boston Weatherford as a young girl. Photo provided by Carole Boston Weatherford. Photo provided by Carole Boston Weatherford.

What have books meant to you?

I could probably chart my development through books. Even as a baby, my mom said I loved books. The library was one of my favorite places when I was in elementary school, both the school library and the public library, and I participated in all kinds of little reading contests back then.

I didn’t encounter many books that had characters that look like me, but I nevertheless was exposed to some African American literature because the teachers in my segregated elementary school were very resourceful and exposed me to different works, like poetry by Langston Hughes, whom I consider a literary mentor, even though I never met him.

I continued to pursue and to teach myself about African American culture. … I continue to love poetry. It’s always been my first love. And I continue to buy works by African-American poets in particular.

Did you want to be a poet when you grew up?

No, I didn’t plan to be a poet because I didn’t know it was a career. I did not know that being an author was even a career. I knew that I loved to read, but I did not know that the books that I loved to read were one, written by people who are alive, and two, that they were getting paid to do that work.

So being an author wasn’t in my culture. I didn’t decide I wanted to be an author, or poet specifically, until I was in my twenties and had my first poem published in a local magazine in Baltimore. And after I saw that poem in print, I just declared myself a poet and set a goal that I was going to be a published poet and have a poetry book one day. I thought it would be a book for adults, and I did publish for adults, and when I became a mother, I began writing for kids. And it’s been very rewarding.

How do you see your role in your community?

It’s not the way I thought of community when I was growing up. When I was growing up, I thought of community as the place where I lived and the neighborhood.

But now my community is really the world. It’s all the kids who are reading my books, kids whose schools I might visit or kids whose faces I never see. They might be reading my books not only in Atlanta but maybe in Zanzibar, so I see myself as almost a parent figure. Because I’m first and foremost a mother, and once you’re a mother you see yourself as that.

But I see myself as an elder who is imparting information to kids and telling stories that I don’t want to see forgotten. I feel like that’s my contribution. Like Floyd said, “Give kids the gift of truth.” Then challenge them to think for themselves and to envision a better world.

What is the achievement you’re most proud of?

Being a mom. But professionally, some of the awards are very important to me, the awards I’ve gotten from the American Library Association like the Coretta Scott King award, the Newbery Honor and other awards. The NAACP Image Award, which I’ve won twice. Being inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame is important too.

If I had to choose books that I’m proudest of, it would probably be “Becoming Billie Holiday” and “You Can Fly.”

“Unspeakable” too because it’s just been such a phenomenal, phenomenal book and Floyd and I – I just think it was predestined. Floyd passed away soon after the book came out, and I just think, what if I had delayed writing that manuscript? I may have run out of time, so I just think that was the project that we were intended to come together and work on during our time on this planet together.

And then finally, since things come in groups of threes in stories, “You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen,” because that was my first book with my son.

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Carole Boston Weatherford (left) and her mother, Carolyn. Weatherford says her mother is her role model and influenced her into becoming a writer. Photo provided by Carole Boston Weatherford. Photo provided by Carole Boston Weatherford.

Who is your role model?

My role model is my mom. I could probably say my dad too; he’s passed away.

I just look at how blessed I was to have those two people as parents, because my mother had the forethought (to encourage my writing) and my father had the skillset to give me the audacity to think that I, a little Black girl who never met a real-life author growing up, could become a real-life author.

From the time my first poem was published in a magazine to the time my first book was published, it was a period of maybe 15 years, so that’s a lot of rejections. But because my dad made sure I had already seen my work in print, and my parents had always encouraged me to pursue my creative interest. I kept at it, despite multiple rejections.

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From left to right: Carole Boston Weatherford, her granddaughter Jordin, her granddaughter Cara, her daughter Caresse Mitchell. Photo provided by Carole Boston Weatherford. Photo provided by Carole Boston Weatherford.

What is a turning point in your life that helped define where you are today?

Becoming a mother was liberating for me — I knew if I was going to be a good mother that I was going to have to fulfill myself as a woman, as a person, as a human being. Fulfilling myself meant that I was going to have to figure out what I wanted to do, and I was going to have to have the courage to go after it.

For me, that meant going back to graduate school for a second time and obtaining an MFA in creative writing at UNC-Greensboro. When I started graduate school, I had two kids in diapers, and I was the only African-American student in that MFA program for the two years that I was there.

Becoming a mother gave me the courage to pursue a creative career that I knew in the back of my mind was impractical. Because I had kids and I loved the library and exposed them to books and to the library, through my children I was introduced to a whole new crop of children’s books that were more diverse than the books I was exposed to as a child.

When I saw this new crop of children’s books, a light bulb went off in my head and said, “Maybe I could write for children.” I did decide I was going to try my hand at it – and lo and behold, 60 some books later, here I am.

Get to know Carole Boston Weatherford

What did you think you were going to be as a kid? I wanted to either be a fashion designer or librarian. And for a hot minute, I designed clothes. I had some custom clients and I had some clothes in boutiques in Baltimore. Then I kind of reached the epiphany that I didn’t want to move to New York.

Which famous person, living or dead, would you invite to dinner and why? Of course I’d want to bring my dad back. Besides my dad, I’ll say Billie Holiday. She’s my muse. I’d love to sit down with her. I will probably ask her to sing some of the songs that she didn’t record.

Looking back, what would you say to your younger self? Toot your own horn. Girls are often taught to be quiet, do the right thing, speak when spoken to, be modest — but you’ve got to toot your own horn, otherwise nobody knows what you’re doing. Otherwise nobody will hear you.

This story was originally published February 25, 2022 3:31 PM.

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Kimberly Cataudella (she/her) is a service journalism reporter for The News & Observer.


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