My new middle grade novel Night on Fire grew out of a question that baffled me when I was young: How can good people do cruel things?
My family was from the South—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. I loved them dearly, and some of them were racists. For the life of me, I couldn’t reconcile those two facts.
Over the years, the question continued to haunt me. As I pondered it, a character emerged: thirteen-year-old Billie Sims. She lived in Anniston, Alabama, a pleasant town filled with good people. In 1961 the Freedom Riders came through town, a group of black and white college students challenging the practice of segregation on buses. Some people in town stopped the Greyhound bus they rode, set it on fire, and beat the students as they spilled out. All the while, good people watched and did nothing. Billie’s father was one of them. So was Billie.
With Billie, I stalked the streets of Anniston, an African American friend at my side, seeking answers and hungry for justice. We found our way to a church rally in Montgomery, where the night split open and we rang a bell—for those who had suffered, for those who stood by, for those who were sorry and wanted to do better.
Ask yourself the question. Then travel with me to Anniston.
Sidenote: Here is the Trailer for “Freedom Riders,” the Stanley Nelson documentary that inspired me to write the book