Monday, February 3, 2014

Nonfiction Monday: Interview with Susan VanHecke

Under the Freedom Tree
written by Susan VanHecke; illustrated by London Ladd
2013 (Charlesbridge)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Check out Nonfiction Monday for more nonfiction reviews.

Today I have posted an interview with Susan VanHecke who is the author of the terrific picture book, Under The Freedom Tree. You can find more information at

1.  How did you first learn about the Freedom Tree? 

Quite accidentally, actually. I was thumbing through a local lifestyle magazine here in southeastern Virginia when I flipped to a photo of a truly majestic tree. The caption said that this was where area slaves heard the Emancipation Proclamation guaranteeing their freedom in 1863, the first Southern reading of the document, according to some historians.

The tree, Emancipation Oak, is just twelve miles from my house; I couldn't believe I'd driven by it for years without even knowing it! Curious, I started researching and learned the whole amazing story of the contrabands and how they launched the beginning of slavery's end by taking freedom into their own hands, assisting the Union, and helping the North win the war.

2. Your use of free verse narrative is very compelling. Why did you decide to tell the story in this way? 

After researching, I tried to sit down and write the story in prose, but it just wasn't working. Sure, I could recount the facts, but prose just wasn't capturing the drama, the emotion, of all those bold, daring events that happened near and under Emancipation Oak. It felt too distant. I struggled with the manuscript for a couple of years, in fact, every time setting it aside in frustration.

Then one day while I was reading a collection of the late author Virginia Hamilton's speeches and essays, I ran across her concept of "rememory." She defines this as an "exquisitely textured recollection, real or imagined." That really struck me, both an "imagined recollection" and one that's exquisitely textured.

I decided to make a personal visit to the tree, and there, under those spreading branches, in the leafy light, I understood just what Hamilton meant. I could imagine that, standing there, I was recollecting all that had happened at the Freedom Tree, even though, of course, I wasn't alive during the Civil War.

That opened the floodgates for me. I wrote with feeling, hopefully with texture, and it just so happened to be in the form of free verse poetry.

3.  What is the origin of the phrase "better forward than back"? Did you create it or did you find it in your research?

I came up with that phrase. I tried to imagine what might have been running through Frank, James, and Shepard's minds as they stepped into that rowboat under cover of night. What's worse: an uncertain future rowing to the Union line or a certain future of bondage and oppression if we remain with the Confederates? Hope on the horizon or despair if we return to the Confederate camp? Better forward than back seemed to sum that up well.

4. In your research, did you find out what happened to Frank, James, and Shepard after the end of the war?

All three remained in the Hampton, Virginia, area after the war. Frank Baker and James Townsend worked as day laborers and raised families. Shepard Mallory eventually owned his own home, worked as a janitor, and was married several times. Interestingly, one of his weddings was attended by Confederate Colonel Charles Mallory, his former master!

5. Were you able to visit the Freedom Tree site? What impressions did you come away with?

Emancipation Oak still stands today at the entrance to Hampton University. It's a grand old tree, with branches that sprawl over a hundred feet in diameter. The National Geographic Society has honored it as one of the Ten Great Trees of the World. If you ever have an opportunity to visit it, I highly recommend it. Or you can visit it virtually at

Interesting note about Emancipation Oak. I learned that it was in the same waters where Frank, James, and Shepard reached the Union line—just two miles from the tree—that the first Africans were brought to the English colonies in 1619. We can imagine that the Freedom Tree was probably a newly sprouted acorn when those first Africans arrived for the purpose of slavery. But like the slaves' determination and quest for liberty over the centuries, the Freedom Tree grew strong and mighty, and is still an inspiration for us all.


  1. This sounds like a wonderful book. Thanks for an interesting and informative interview and for telling me about the book.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing the book, Jeff! I hope teachers will enjoy using it in the classroom. There are several teacher resources at, including a Common Core-aligned Educator's Guide with pre- and post-reading questions, sequencing and matching manipulatives, and storytelling activities, and a Readers Theater script. Thanks again!

  3. Wow! This is a wonderful interview with very insightful questions and answers! Thank you so much for sharing it at Booknificent Thursday! I'm pinning it to our new board!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.