Sharon Dennis Wyeth

Author. Poet. Memoirist.

Making Women’s History Come Alive

Women’s history month makes me reflect on the significance of personal history. The “history” we study in school is crucial, of course; it contains the story of the world we share, the people and events that have shaped our era. But history would not have come alive for me as a student without the personal stories I collected from family.

In “The Granddaughter Necklace,” I include a story my grandmother Mildred told me. She said that when she was six-years-old, her family gave her away to relatives. My grandmother was one of thirteen children. Her father was a traveling wallpaper hanger during an era when careers for African Americans were severely curtailed because of racism. My grandmother’s mother was the daughter of a middle class couple, but with thirteen children to feed and a husband who had to travel for employment, my great-grandmother was overwhelmed. So she gave my grandmother away to a relative who had only one daughter. My grandmother’s life was not a happy one in the new home she was sent to. That’s something I left out of “The Granddaughter Necklace.” The relative who became her guardian treated her like a servant. She desperately wanted to escape but she was only a child. She finally managed to leave when she was a teenager, but holding down a job to support herself meant she had to drop out of high school.

It wasn’t until I was nearly grown and about to leave home for college that I learned how unhappy my grandmother’s early years had been. Letting on to me that her family had been so poor was an act of trust on the part of my proud grandmother. But that trust drew us closer. I admired her even more. She’d survived her difficult childhood. She wasn’t bitter. She’d worked hard to make sure that her own family would have the comfort of home she’d missed when she was growing up.

In 1911, the year my grandmother was born, a terrible fire took the lives of women and girls in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. Most of these women were immigrants, working for low wages in unsafe conditions. Yet, 1911 was also the year the grand ocean liner the Titanic was launched to great fanfare. It was also the year Marie Curie, a Polish woman with French citizenship, won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Women in the United States wouldn’t have the right to vote until 1920 when my grandmother was nineteen and the Nineteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution. It wasn’t until 1964, that the Civil Rights Act, prohibiting job discrimination on the basis of sex and race, was passed. By then my grandmother was fifty-three. She was destined to live almost her whole life without protection under the law from discrimination. I ask myself how my grandmother’s life might have been different if she’d been born in a later generation. Yet her legacy is one of hard work and optimism, generosity and cheerfulness. When I was in high school, she went back to school to get her own delayed diploma. She was with me when I graduated from college. I was with her when she retired from her government job. When I think of “women’s history,” I think of my grandmother, and the memory of her life makes the world she was born into come alive.

My grandmother, Mildred Lewis

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Thinking About Diversity

During my visit to Tyee Park Elementary School in Washington State at the end of January, a student asked a striking question that makes me think about diversity. I had finished reading my new book “The Granddaughter Necklace” that’s inspired by stories I gathered about the women in my African American family. This book also includes a story about one of my Irish ancestors. Two of the characters in the book are depicted leaving home. My grandmother Mildred left her home in West Virginia at an early age to live with a relative further south and my ancestor Frances left Ireland to start a new life in the United States. After I’d finished reading, a boy in the audience raised his hand and asked:

“Are you from Guam?”

This question seemed to come out of the blue for me; I’m from the northeast and not used to meeting many people who come from locations in the Pacific. Not grasping the question, I asked the student to repeat it.

“Are you from Guam?” he asked again patiently.

“No,” I responded. “Why do you ask?”

“I’m from Guam,” he announced proudly. His bright eyes fixed on me. At that moment I wished I was from Guam or at least had been there! His question was a great compliment. Something about me and my story reminded him of home.

This instance was also a reminder to me that the diversity on the rise in our schools embraces a great deal more than the “Black” or “White” American composition that comprised the public schools I attended as a child. And just as there’s variation in our population, there’s variation within each of our “groups.” One boy from Guam is still one individual boy with his own unique story, his irreplaceable glistening eyes, his question.

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More on Good Times in Seattle, Washington

It’s February and I’m still basking in the glow of the A.L.A. Midwinter Conference at the end of last month in Seattle, Washington. One of the high points of my time in Seattle (a great place to visit!) was my presentation at Tyee Park Elementary School an hour outside of the city. I met the principal, faculty and four hundred students (!) at Tyee Park. While I was there I read “The Granddaughter Necklace,” talked about writing and responded to questions from students. One student asked what “came first” in ‘The Granddaughter Necklace’ “the words or the pictures?” I told her that the books started with my text which the illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline read before he began the paintings that appear in the book. I added that Bagram’s paintings were another whole way of capturing the story I had written; his very own creative response and his own way of telling the story in pictures. The editor of the book and the art director also had a great deal of input. It was my editor Arthur Levine’s idea that I think of an object to tie together the individual stories in my book. I came up with the idea of a necklace immediately. I think it’s because for a long time I’d wanted to write a story inspired by a set of old beads that were discovered at the site of the African Burial Ground in New York City. When I saw those ancient beads, I’d wondered where they came from originally and who had worn them. My other inspiration for the choice of a necklace was a set of crystals I own that were worn by my grandmother Mildred and mother Evon. Every time I take them out of my jewelry box and hold them up to the light, I think of these two women and what they contributed to my life. However, if my editor Arthur had not suggested that I think of an object to tie together my stories, the necklace in “The Granddaughter Necklace” might never have existed, which means it would have been a different book altogether and obviously one with another title!

“The Granddaughter Necklace” now available to readers was a collaboration between myself, illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline and the people at our publishing house who contributed their guidance, support and encouragement. This team includes the people whose job is to let people know about the book and to make sure it’s available to readers at stores and libraries and online. Working together as a team to make something wonderful is what I find most exciting about being a picture book author.

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Sharon has a new book, The River and Me. Learn more at American Girl about Evette and her passion for nature!