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Portland author wins National Book Award for civil rights narrative

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Portland author wins National Book Award for civil rights narrative

PORTLAND — For four years, Portland author Phillip Hoose sought an interview with Claudette Colvin, an African American woman who in 1955 at the age of 15 refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man.

The 62-year-old author said he had long been drawn to Colvin's story, which had been reduced to a footnote in the civil rights struggle. And deliberately so.

Hoose said the NAACP did think a 15-year-old girl would be a compelling example for the nation. That example would come nine months later, in the form of then 42-year-old Rosa Parks. 

Not only was Colvin passed over to become the "face" of the civil rights struggle, but Colvin's daring will to fight her arrest and, in the process, the Jim Crow South, had been all but forgotten.

"There were these little paragraphs in history books that portrayed (Colvin) as unfit," Hoose said. "Here is a woman that has been totally bruised by history. It mad me mad."

Hoose, an Indiana native who moved to Portland in 1985, eventually got his interview with Colvin in 2007, after four years of communicating with her through a journalist at USA Today, which had run several short features on her. 

On Wednesday, Nov. 18, the book produced by Hoose's effort won a National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

"Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice" was one of five books up for the award, presented at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City. Knowing he had a 20 percent chance of winning, Hoose said went to the men's room, looking long into the mirror to collect his thoughts. Resolved to take Colvin, a 70-year-old with arthritis, to the stage, Hoose said he plotted a course in his mind, returned to the table and awaited the announcement. 

When his named was called, he hugged his wife and daughters and told Colvin to take her time getting to the stage.

"I told her we have all the time in the world," Hoose said. 

As the two made it on to the stage and people began to recognize Colvin, the round of applause turned into a rousing ovation. 

"It was quite a reaction," Hoose said. 

Hoose, the author of nine books, was nominated for a National Book Award in 2001 for "We Were There, Too!: Young People in U.S. History." His personal best seller was "Hey, Little Ant," a children's book about ethics and peer pressure written with his then 9-year-old daughter Hannah, which has sold more than 150,000 hard-cover copies and is available in 10 languages. 

Hoose said he knew Colvin's story had the potential to reach a wide audience, if only he could clear one major hurdle. 

"I wanted people to regard it as a book they wanted to read, rather than a book they should read," Hoose said. "I wanted people to realize it was the story of a girl with a lot of action, strong feeling, a strong plot and a lot of danger and drama."

When Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the Birmingham bus, Hoose said she was widely regarded a vulgar little girl. But through the course of more than 14 interviews, Hoose said he found Colvin to be anything but that.

"She's regal in a lot of ways," he said. "She's valiant, brave, smart, stubborn and principled."

A year after she was arrested, Colvin was one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, a landmark case that struck down the segregation laws of Montgomery, Ala., and swept away the legal underpinnings of the Jim Crow South.

Hoose said the book was written over the course of two years. When it was finished, he traveled to New York and took a little more than a day to work with Colvin, who helped tighten up and confirm the facts. At that point, Hoose said he felt he had a winner on his hands. 

"I knew I had a chance of reaching a wide audience," he said.
"I thought it was one of the great, under-told tales of history."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net