Children’s book author and lifelong Memphian Alice Faye Duncan has a word for us.
During the course of this enjoyable conversation, I found myself inspired by her perseverance, her fluency and pleasant disposition. Not to mention that I was impressed that she has a dozen books to her credit.
Duncan discovered an affinity for children’s books somewhat early on in her career. As a graduate student at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, her mentor’s love of children’s books proved contagious, planting the seed that eventually would be- come a full bloom writing career.
Upon graduation, she landed a job at the Memphis Public Library as a children’s librarian. However, additional hours were required. So back to school she went at the University of Memphis. There, she encountered Mrs. Mahood, who would unwittingly become the portal to her future as an author.
Mrs. Mahood invited writer Charles Turner to visit the class. Turner told them they could write a children’s books and send them directly to editors without an agent.
This gave Duncan the idea to write a children’s book, a picture book titled “Willie Jerome” as her thesis. After a rewrite, it got picked up by McMillan Publishing, along with another book option, “Aunt Viola and Mr. Ed Lee.”
She advises, “The key is writing well. If you have written well, they can envision the right illustrator for your work.”
Asked about the high and low points in her career, she says, transparency is important. So many people want you to buy into the IG-Facebook façade but there is a process.
For example, her latest book “Just Like A Mama” was released in January of this year. It tells the story of a child who comes to live with Mama Rose. There’s some intentional ambiguity about whether Mama Rose is an auntie, grandma, etc.
Duncan says this is because, “Trying times require us to make families. A whole passel of children is with aunts, great aunts or grandmas stepping in to serve in the role of mothers because biological mothers can’t be there for whatever reason.
“The fortunate child has someone there to mother them,” she said.
This book was written in 1993. It was rejected and sold a few times. Finally, it sold in 2017 after being rewritten several times. Process.
She points to the high point as being when “Memphis, Martin and the Mountaintop” was published in August 2018 and was then awarded the 2019 Coretta Scott King honor medal.
She started it in 2005, writing about five or six iterations before finally finding an editor at Boyd Mills.
With her good succinct direction, Duncan says, “I was able to create something beyond my own vision.” (Note: a good relationship with a good editor is important!)
She also reminds writers that it takes longer to produce these books because they are illustrated. Typically, publishers allow for a year to get illustrations finalized. Again, things well done take time.
Duncan was was just as forthcoming about the low point: “The last book I sold before ‘Memphis, Martin and The Mountaintop’ was published in 2005. From 2005 until 2015, I was writing but none of my manuscripts were selling.”
Naturally, self-doubt started creeping in. “I started to feel that my early success was luck and maybe I’m not really capable.”
(Here comes the powerful word!)
“But,” she continues, “during that time my facility with language and words was being refined. It looked like nothing was happening but something was happening. The book I would have written in 2005 was not the same as what I wrote in 2015.”
And she knows her readers benefit from her season of refinement.
“Now that it’s a season of flourishing (I understand that) big dreams require longer gestation periods. All things are divine and in their time. And you don’t control the time!”
And by the way, she will have a book coming out every year for the next four years!
Duncan never stopped writing during this period. She just kept going and growing.
“While writing is not easy, it’s a calling. If I didn’t have to work, I could live as a disciplined writer. Ideas come to me frequently. Usually I’m wrestling with about three or four writing ideas at a time.”
She is looking for the obscure stories that have not been shared with young readers. When she wrote “Martin, Memphis and the Mountaintop,” there were no picture books about Dr. King’s assassination.
She also is heavily influenced by the lyricism of poetry and feels a particular kinship to Paul Laurence Dunbar. She says, “Words are my work and my pathway to words began with poetry.”
Over the course of this Boss Up series, we have talked a lot about paths. Some are straight-line, some are circuitous. Hers was a bit of both. The point of all of this being, you will get there. Your destiny is yours!
Duncan has five books still in print. She also has lesson plans and PDFs of her books available for free via her website – her contribution to the community of parents and teachers as we all wrap our minds around distance learning and homeschooling.
(For current books, upcoming releases, lesson plans and more info, visit www.alicefayeduncan.com.)
BOSS UP! – A 5-part series in celebration of Women’s History Month