"Midnight Teacher" Review and Interview with Author Janet Halfmann
Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School by Janet Halfmann is an incredible treasure of a story, bringing readers into the life of this little-known and exceptionally brave teacher who ignored the law of the mid-1800s, which made it illegal to teach enslaved people to read and write. As a lover of history, I have to say a huge thank you to Halfmann for the fine details she brings to this book. I can feel the nervousness of the pupils (and teacher) as they sneak out to attend school in the darkness of the night, knowing that their punishment could be very severe if caught. What a testament to the strong will to learn, teach, and help one another! This story also shows young readers how one person can make a difference beyond their own actions as those Lilly Ann taught were then able to teach others in their families and communities.
I’m so pleased to share an interview with Wisconsin author Janet Halfmann. Congratulations on another beautiful book, Janet! I was delighted to read this story and learn something from American history that I didn’t know. I was also a little sad, because I had never heard of Lilly Ann Granderson until now. So, a huge thank you for continuing my education. I am so very curious to know where you learned about this amazing woman and what led to your decision to craft this story. Can you tell us a little about this?
For a long time, I have been interested in the creative ways enslaved people used to learn how to read and write despite laws and punishments preventing it. I’ve also been fascinated by early teachers of the enslaved. I learned about Lilly Ann Granderson from short mentions of her in my reading and research, usually under the name Milla Granson. It intrigued me that she was known as the “Midnight Teacher” because she taught from midnight until two in the morning. Through further research, I found out that Milla Granson was actually Lilly Ann Granderson.
All of the accounts I found told her story only up to a few years beyond the end of the Civil War. I was determined to flesh out her life so her amazing story could be shared with the world. Luckily, through googling her under every one of her possible names and following every lead, using ancestry and other records, getting a family obituary of her daughter, etc., I was able to do just that. My hope is that someday her name will be a household word for the risks she took and the amazing legacy of learning she created.
Did you write the entire story before you submitted your book proposal to publishers? Please explain how the process works for shorter works of nonfiction like Midnight Teacher.
Yes, I wrote the entire story for "Midnight Teacher" before submitting the manuscript. Usually, I would submit simultaneously to three or four publishers, but in this case I submitted only to Lee & Low Books since they had published my book "Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story". They were interested in "Midnight Teacher" but asked me to do several edits before the manuscript went to an acquisitions committee. Then it went through more editing before I was offered a contract. After that it went through several more edits, plus two readings by a history professor and a review by a sensitivity reader. Through it all, I was so happy that my editor Jessica Echeverria believed in the story as much as I did.
The illustrations by London Ladd are such an important part of telling this story. Did you get to see illustrations as they progressed through the development process or do you only see the illustrations when they are complete?
Right at the start, the editor shared with me whom she was thinking of for the illustrations, and I agree that they are truly amazing. However, I only saw the illustrations when they were already in color. I wish I could have seen them earlier, because some changes needed for accuracy would have been easier to make.
You’ve published a long list of picture books and a number of short fiction titles. I truly adore Grandma is a Slowpoke and Good Night, Little Sea Otter. I probably should never ask this but, do you have a favorite?
Different books are favorites for different reasons. "Midnight Teacher" is the book of which I am most proud because I feel very strongly that more minority unsung heroes need to be put in the spotlight. There are so many untold stories that have been all but lost because the documentation is so scarce or hard to find.
"Little Skink’s Tail" will always hold a special place in my heart because it was my first royalty book, and I feel my first big break into becoming known as a children’s author. Right now, "Good Night, Little Sea Otter", is definitely a favorite because it’s the book my two-year-old grandson falls to sleep to for naps and bedtime.
How long does it typically take to write one of your longer fiction books? I imagine that the research phase takes a while. I think that people outside the publishing world have the false idea that picture book writing must be easy because the stories are shorter. Personally, I think the fewer amount of words you have to work with the harder and longer the process can be. Since you write both types of books, how do the two types of writing compare for you?
The time for writing a book varies so widely. "Grandma Is a Slowpoke" was the shortest—mostly in an afternoon—because it was inspired by walks with our grandchildren, and the animals featured are very familiar and had already been researched in previous projects. The Grandma story, however, was an exception, and was fine-tuned many times before it sold. Usually, even for my short fiction books like "Good Night, Little Sea Otter", my stack of research books and materials is very high. The research for my longer books, "Midnight Teacher" and "Seven Miles to Freedom", stretched over years because of the difficulty of finding primary sources, sifting out the facts, etc.
Can you tell us about the different jobs you’ve had? I always like to ask authors this, mainly because authors always seem to have had interesting job histories. I already know from your biography that you worked at Little Golden Books for a number of years.
I worked as a grocery store checker, secretary in a university English department, daily newspaper reporter in Wichita, KS, managing editor of a national magazine for farm and ranch kids, and for many years as a creator of coloring and activity books featuring all kinds of licensed characters—Mickey Mouse, Disney movies, Batman, Star Wars, etc, for Golden Books based in Racine, WI
What was the first book that you sold to a publishing house?
I started my career as a children’s author writing nonfiction books for educational publishers for a set fee. My first assignment was four books on insects—ants, fireflies, grasshoppers, and dragonflies.
If there’s anything that you wish you could go back and tell your “unpublished” self, what would that be?
I would tell myself “every word must sing.” I heard this advice at an SCBWI-WI conference, and I have tried to live by it ever since. I also regret that I wasn’t able to find a way to make a living as a children’s author earlier in my life.
What sort of books do you like to read as an adult and what were some of your favorites as a child?
I like reading books about little-known history, animal lives, organic gardening, and picture books of all kinds. As a child, we had very few books. I read things like the "Michigan Farmer" children’s section and my parents’ old school readers. It wasn’t until I became a mother that I became fascinated by picture books.
Can we look forward to another book from you in the coming months?
"Caterpillar’s Surprise" comes out from Milwaukee’s new publisher KWiL in Fall 2019. It’s the story of a caterpillar, a tadpole, a masquerade ball, friendship, and LOTS OF CHANGES.
Before we move on to the Super Six list, is there anything else you want to tell readers about yourself or your books?
The biggest thrill for me is when a child wants to read one of my books over and over again, or when one of my books instills a love of reading in a child. I also hope that my books inspire children to value every single person as well as the entire natural world.
Super Six List:
Fav Pizza Topping: Pineapple, Canadian bacon, sweet peppers
Book You’re Reading Now: "Grant" by Ron Chernow because I am very interested in Civil War times and Reconstruction. I heard the author interviewed on the PBS NewsHour, and his book promised to be a great story while being accurate and informative.
Coffee, Tea, or Both: Equal parts of coffee and milk
Fav Activity as a Child: Swinging on the tree swing, playing in the haymow with my brothers, cuddling the farm cats
Most Interesting Place You’ve Lived: Summer in Spain during college
Best Place You’ve Vacationed: Sanibel Island in Florida, right next to a huge wildlife sanctuary—the pond behind our cabin got visits from a young alligator and a river otter!
How can readers discover more about you and you work?
Thanks so much, Janet. What a fun, informative interview. I cannot wait to read more of your excellent stories! (And check out whether you've missed any of Janet's long list of wonderful books on her website. Many of them are in the pictures below--but not all!)