She published her first book, Song of the Trees, in 1975, and her last, The Land, was published in 2001. What’s unusual about Taylor’s books is that all nine of them make up a single series, and the series is based on her own family history.
Born in Jackson, Mississippi, but raised in Ohio, Taylor visited her extended family in Mississippi every summer. Because she spent each school year far away from her roots, she likely saw her family in a different light than all of her cousins did. Although she was part of the family, her own experiences were different, and this perception probably gave her an interesting and curious perspective.
Taylor grew up in the newly-integrated town of Toledo, Ohio, and at school she was the only black child in her class. Her opportunities for learning were great, and she earned an English degree at the University of Toledo and went on to earn a Master of Arts degree at the University of Colorado.
After leaving Colorado, Taylor moved to Los Angeles, where she wrote novel after novel about the Logan family from rural Mississippi. Though she had traveled far and wide and lived in Ohio and Colorado and then California, Taylor continued to write vividly about the place of her roots. Aside from her vacations to visit, she only lived in Mississippi for the first three months of her life.
What is it about family history that has such a pull on our hearts and souls? And how can authors tap into that richness with their writing?
All of us have deep roots, whether or not we have taken the time to learn about our families’ histories. And oftentimes, these stories are not fully fleshed out. Maybe we’ve heard a story about how great-grandpa Frank flew an airplane in World War II, but that’s all we know. We don’t know if he left a girlfriend back home or lost his best friend in the war or anything else. This leaves plenty of room for imagination, longing, healing, and adventure.
Some authors feel squeamish about using family for inspiration, but as we see with Mildred D. Taylor’s novels, writing can be cathartic. It can be a way to make sense of tragedy or to find triumph in trials.
You don’t have to explain how much of a story relates directly to your family and how much is fiction. In fact, in many cases, authors probably don’t know where family legend ends and newly-created fiction begins. Characters can be made up, names can be changed, and stories can even be transported to new settings. But setting, it seems, can be one of the richest gifts of family history.
Taylor’s Logan family series has so much to offer to its readers. The family relationships are solid and healthy. The plots are riveting. The themes and conflicts are realistic and applicable to events happening in the world in 2017.
Tolman Hall will be releasing a literature study unit for one of the books in this series, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry before the end of 2017. Consider including this unit study in your students’ literature curriculum this year.