Larry Dane Brimner
Larry Dane Brimner is the recipient of the 2018 Robert F. Sibert Award for the most distinguished informational book for children for his title Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961. He is known for his well-researched, innovative, and award-winning nonfiction for young readers, and is the author of multiple acclaimed civil rights titles, including Strike!: The Farm Workers' Fight for Their Rights; and Black & White: The Confrontation between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene "Bull" Connor.
An Interview with Larry Dane Brimner
Q. You have written a number of civil rights and social justice titles for Calkins Creek. How does Blacklisted! relate to your previous books?
A. Blacklisted! is first and foremost about the suspension of rights guaranteed under the constitution. The First Amendment allows for freedom of assembly, the freedom of association. When Congress subpoenaed nineteen Hollywood men to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, it already had pried into their private lives to collect information on the communist associations of these writers, actors, and producers. The committee refused to allow these men to explain themselves in their own words, instead demanding yes or no answers to its questions. When they didn’t respond as the committee wished, they were accused of being in contempt of Congress, tried, and sentenced to federal prison. The Supreme Court went so far as to uphold their convictions, citing that national interests were more important than constitutional guarantees. Although Blacklisted! doesn’t directly address the issue of racial inequality (it does so obliquely) as my other books do, it is about rights denied. It is about the United States not living up to the promises made in its historical papers.
Q. Why did you choose to write about the Hollywood Ten and the blacklist?
A. I tend to be drawn to stories that deal with justice, equality, and fairness, or the lack thereof, especially as it relates to U.S. history. In the case of Blacklisted!, we had a committee of Congress that conducted itself like judge and jury but that wasn’t subject to the conventions of any court of law. The committee questioned the Hollywood Ten, presented evidence against them, compiled files of suggestive but not conclusive evidence of communist associations, and allowed friendly witnesses to testify against them. Yet, it would not allow the men to mount a proper defense. They were not allowed to cross examine the friendly witnesses to find out what their motivations were. Their personal statements frequently weren’t allowed to be read, and seldom were these statements placed into the official record of the committee’s hearings. All in all, it was governmental authority being misused and, all in all, it was something tailor-made to the kind of topic I like to tackle.
Q. How does the subject matter of Blacklisted! apply to today’s young people?
A. It applies in numerous ways to today’s world and today’s young people. At a very basic level, the book is about what can happen when two systems of government, the United States (capitalism) and the USSR, or Russia (communism), are at odds with each other. Following the violent Russian Revolution of 1917, the U.S., fearing there might be an uprising of workers in this country, wanted to tamp down the Communist Party USA. Today, rightly or wrongly, we are still as distrustful of Russia as Russia is of the U.S.
The gulf between the ultra-rich and everyone else is vast, which also glances at the past. During the 1930s and the Great Depression, many in the country blamed the poor economy on immigrants, especially those of Mexican descent, and accused them of taking jobs away from Americans. Today, our southern neighbors are blamed for the country’s woes, and some Americans are demanding that a wall be built along the border to protect the country from these invaders. Little attention is paid to the contributions these immigrants, both documented and undocumented, make to the national economy.
From Hitler’s rise in Germany by denouncing the press, the arts, and other forms of communication to religious discrimination to people protesting against the government, young people can draw parallels between then and now.
Q. What is your research process?
A. I usually begin my research by trying to find a few picture books about my topic, because they’re clearly and succinctly written. That wasn’t possible for this particular subject, so I began by reading articles online, noting references used. My online research also pointed me to locations—museums and archives—I thought I would need to visit to get a better feel for the topic and to collect primary source documents held in the collections. Next, I turned to academic materials to gain an overview of the subject matter. Academic books and articles, although secondary sources, gave me an idea of what else was going on at the time under study. They also contained information critical to my own research: back matter in the form of source notes, which I eventually found and used. Finally, I turned to what I call the meat-and-potatoes of research—the primary sources; that is, autobiographies of people who lived through and participated in the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, archived newspaper clippings of the day from various sources, letters, notes, advertisements, and announcements of the Hollywood Ten’s speaking engagements. The U.S. National Archives and the FBI were most helpful in obtaining documents pertaining to the committee’s activities and correspondence, as well as surveillance records. Once I’d waded through most of the materials and found my door into the subject, I began to write while surrounded by my notes and piles of all the most important sources.
Q. Why should young people today study history?
A. The old saying that “history helps us avoid the mistakes of the past” is only partly true, since we seem to keep repeating the same ones over and over. But a study of history gives us a sense of who we are as citizens and how we got to where we are. Women marched for the vote and, later, burned their bras for equity in the workplace and in society (something that still needs work). Young people took to the streets in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, to demonstrate their unhappiness with the status quo, and others in the late 1960s burned flags and draft cards to denounce the Vietnam War. These demonstrations helped bring change. They helped focus public attention on issues that were conveniently ignored by those in power. Today, young people are demanding and marching for sensible gun legislation because their legislators have failed to act. History not only shows young people the mistakes society has made, but it also reveals what actions have worked to create change. It serves as a guide. Ultimately, history is people, and who isn’t interested in people?More About This Author