Thursday, May 6, 2010


Dear Julius Lester,

You don't know me, but I talk about you all the time. That's because you have been an important part of my writing journey. Allow me to explain.

Back in 2003, I saw something that changed my life. It was The Quilts of Gee's Bend art exhibit at the Whitney in New York City. I was captivated by the quilts, fascinated by the quilters and their history. After a couple of years of immersing myself in all things Gee's Bend, I started writing a story.

Eventually that story became LEAVING GEE'S BEND, my debut historical novel for children. It's about a ten year old African American girl in 1932 Gee's Bend, Alabama, who sets out to get medical help for her sick mother and records her ensuing adventures in a quilt she is making.

But I am not African American, and I did not grow up in poverty. So, when I got the offer from Putnam, I was terrified. What if I got it wrong?

Like any good word-loving gal faced with a challenge, I turned to books. Among them, yours: ON WRITING FOR CHILDREN & OTHER PEOPLE. And there I found your voice, your experience, and these priceless words:

"To equate identity with race and culture is to deny the power of the imagination which can be the empathatic bridge between nations, cultures, and indviduals. Instead of placing barriers around a culture and denying others permission to enter, we should be thankful that people from outside our group are interested, curious, want to learn, want to feel a sense of belonging with us. Cultures are not private reserves but humble offerings."

So when people ask me about my experience writing across culture, I tell them this: Julius Lester said I could. So I did.

And I have to tell you, it has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. Thank you for the gift your words have been to my writing career. I will do my best to live up to them.



Readers: Julius Lester has written many stories for adults and children, one of which is the Newbery Honor winning TO BE A SLAVE. He blogs periodically here.


  1. Great food for thought. Thanks, Irene.

  2. This is so beautiful. Isn't it amazing how people we've never met can influence and bolster our work?

    I will take these words with me when I finally return to my Gitano research...

  3. Bravo Irene. You're an absolute star, and you've got Leaving Gee's Bend and so much more exactly right. xoxo Stacey Barney

  4. That quote is wonderful. Thanks for sharing.

  5. What an open-hearted, welcoming quote. I feel as though we *all* have to use our imaginations and cross boundaries to write, unless your writing is peopled exclusively by characters that are the same sex that you are. One of my favorite compliments was from a Native American woman I'd written about who said that I understood her the way she understands herself. We may not have similar experiences, but we can reach an understanding.


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