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“You’re Never too Old to Learn” – An Author Interview with Rita Lorraine Hubbard

We are all born with gifts and talents of some kind. Some people sing, some people dance, some people can create things with their hands. I always wrote stories and poetry. 

Award-winning author Rita Lorraine Hubbard is a retired special education teacher of 20 years who now champions unsung heroes whose stories need to be told with courage and heart. Her books, THE OLDEST STUDENT: HOW MARY WALKER LEARNED TO READ; HAMMERING FOR FREEDOM: THE WILLIAM LEWIS STORY; and AFRICAN AMERICANS OF CHATTANOOGA: A HISTORY OF UNSUNG HEROES, have garnered honors and awards that include the New Voices Award from Lee and Low Books, the East Tennessee Historical Preservation Award, the 2021 Floyd’s Pick Honor Book Award, and the 2021-2022 Texas Bluebonnet Master List Award. Rita has an advanced degree in School Psychology and owns and manages The Black History Channel.

Q: Rita, your picture books, The Oldest Student and Hammering for Freedom, are both true stories about amazing individuals who rise from slavery to find their voices. What inspired you to write about William Lewis and Mary Walker?

I heard Mary Walker’s story when I was in fifth grade and our class took a field trip to the Mary Walker Foundation (which is now defunct). I was so fascinated that this lady was freed at age fifteen but it took her one hundred and one years to learn to read, I promised myself that one day I would find out what took her so long. Fast forward to my adulthood, when I was researching a slice of Chattanooga Tennessee’s black history for a philanthropist. While I was doing research for him, I decided to finally pursue some answers about Mary Walker… and that’s how The Oldest Student came into existence.

Image of Mary Walker from the Chattanooga Times Free Press

Hammering for Freedom pretty much came into existence the same way. As I was researching for the philanthropist, I kept running across the name William Lewis in footnotes, early newspaper articles, and old Chattanooga history books. It was as if William was reaching across time and asking me to write about him. So, I did.

Q: In The Oldest Student, Mary Walker lived a life of resilience and determination and learned to read at 116! Such an inspiration. What lesson do you hope children will receive from her life?  

I hope children AND adults will learn that no matter how long a goal or desire may take to come to fruition, it CAN come to fruition. Just don’t give up. Keep believing, keep working toward your goal, and it can happen for you.

Illustration by Oge Mora from The Oldest Student by Rita Lorraine Hubbard

Q: You also have a background in special education and school psychology. Why did you decide to become a children’s book author and does your past experience influence your writing?

I was actually a writer before I became an educator. We are all born with gifts and talents of some kind. Some people sing, some people dance, some people can create things with their hands. I always wrote stories and poetry. I became fascinated with words at the age of four when my sister, who was a year older than me, would bring her spelling words home and I practiced writing them. I chose education as a career when I became an adult because it just seemed a natural fit for my love of children and my love of sharing random facts. When it was time to visit the school library, I quickly realized that there were few if any books by or about African Americans, and I figured if there would ever be any, I would have to write them. I wrote a lot of original curriculum for my students, but I didn’t get into serious writing until after I retired from the school system and had some time on my hands. The rest, as they say, is history.

Q: The Black History Channel is such a rich and diverse resource for Black history and culture in America. What led you to start the online platform? 

In 1995 I won a grant to travel to the National Archives in Washington DC and study early African American achievements. I learned so much and wanted to share the information, but I had no way to do that other than to make copies of everything I found and store it in bins in my home office. Then one day the Internet was born, and when the niche of starting your own website became popular, I transferred the information from the photocopies to my online platform.  It was the easiest way for others to find the information at their leisure.

Illustration by John Holyfield from Hammering for Freedom by Rita Lorraine Hubbard

Q: Are there any discussion questions, curriculum, videos, or other materials that would help readers engage with your picture book?

I have created an Activity Pack that I share with teachers, parents and students when they book a reading. Penguin Random House (PRH) has classroom materials on their website www.penguinrandomhouse.com. Also, Scholastic and Weston Woods have magically transformed THE OLDEST STUDENT into a DVD. The DVD hasn’t been released yet, so I cannot share the link. But keep your eyes open – it’s coming!

Q: What do you find to be the most difficult part of writing today? What is the most rewarding?

MOST DIFFICULT: All the distractions! As a writer, you want to engage with your audience, so it behooves you to have a Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest account. But believe me, each time you log onto these platforms there are pictures and videos and ads and “What I had for dinner” posts, and it’s difficult not to get caught up. In fact, I know I should have an Instagram account, but I cannot bring myself to embrace yet another platform with another million or so distractions. But networking comes with the territory, so… what can you do except comply? 😊

MOST REWARDING: Actually, SEEING your words come to life in a book. Having students from all over the country tweet pictures they have drawn from the book, or messages to thank you for writing it. There's nothing like receiving this type of love.

Q: Are you working on anything now?  What’s next for you?

Yes, I’m working on picture book about a boy who goes on his first swim, and a middle grade novel about a ten-year-old orphan who is a drummer boy during the Civil War.

Q: What is your favorite childhood book?

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White; Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban; Follow My Leader by James B. Garfield

The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read

2020

by Rita L. Hubbard and Oge Mora

"Imagine learning to read at the age of 116! Discover the true story of Mary Walker, the nation’s oldest student who did just that, in this picture book from a Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator and a rising star author. In 1848, Mary Walker was born into slavery. At age 15, she was freed, and by age 20, she was married and had her first child. By age 68, she had worked numerous jobs, including cooking, cleaning, babysitting, and selling sandwiches to raise money for her church. At 114, she was the last remaining member of her family. And at 116, she learned to read. From Rita Lorraine Hubbard and rising star Oge More comes the inspirational story of Mary Walker, a woman whose long life spanned from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, and who—with perseverance and dedication—proved that you’re never too old to learn." -- publisher

Biography Oppression & Resilience

Just don’t give up. Keep believing, keep working toward your goal, and it can happen for you.

Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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