In this Artist Spotlight, we talk with children’s book author and librarian Terry Lee Caruthers about her new book The Big Day, her entry into children’s books, and her East Tennessee roots.
Star Bright Books (SBB): What inspired you to begin writing books for children and young adults?
Terry Lee Caruthers (TLC): A Christmas legend. In December 1995, I was requested to give a storytelling performance for a woman’s group at an area church. While I was preparing, I ran across a two-sentence Christmas legend used as filler in a newspaper circular. Intrigued, I tried to find more information. When I could not, I decided it was a tale that I would have to write myself. I did and titled it A Gift of Thanks. That was the first book I wrote, and I hope that one day it will find a publisher.
SBB: Your book ideas often spur from real people and real events. Why?
TLC: I attribute that to my innate curiosity. An article will catch my eye, and the next thing I know there is a story germinating in my head. Sometimes they are fact-based like a picture book manuscript I wrote on Beauford Delaney titled Shoes Led The Way or my “A Glimpse of Knoxville, Tennessee History” picture storybook series that’s currently in progress. Other times they are fictional like the middle grade novel I am currently working on. The idea was inspired by an NPR StoryCorps episode.
SBB: Tell our audience about your Knoxville, Tennessee, roots and how they inspire your storytelling.
TLC: I am a lifetime resident of South Knoxville, an area near and dear to my heart. The Tennessee River separates it from the east, west, and north areas of the city. That’s why in South Knoxville’s early history it was referred to as “South America” and was slow to develop, even after Chapman Highway was built in the 1930s as the gateway to the Smoky Mountains. Nature still abounds from its kudzu-covered ridges to the limestone rock formations peeking out from the sides of the highway to the ubiquitous sinkholes that deter any type of development.
Even though I live in a 1940s city subdivision, I can glimpse deer, fox, coyotes, rabbits, possums, raccoons, and the occasional bobcat wandering through my yard. On rare occasions, even a black bear. I guess that’s why I love it. I sit in my swing on the screen porch and let nature inspire me, like watching the crows bully a red-tailed hawk. It’s a description that I’ve used in at least two of my writings.
SBB: What message do you hope to convey to young readers through your work?
TLC: As a librarian, I want to covey the importance of facts, even in fiction. Everything I write is researched through verifiable sources. For instance, I have a middle grade Civil War manuscript titled The Faithful Dog that I’m currently submitting to publishers. It was inspired by an actual event following the Battle of Shiloh. Even though this is a fictionalized account, I researched several genealogical databases to find background information on the dog’s family, as well as articles and books regarding the military unit they were associated with. As a result, the novel has a ten-page bibliography!
SBB: Your latest work, The Big Day, tells a fictionalized version of events that took place on September 6, 1919, when Agnes Sadler became the first Black woman to vote in Knoxville. Can you describe the impetus of the book?
TLC: Upon discovering Agnes Sadler’s name in a 1919 newspaper article [about the first women voters in Knoxville], I kept thinking what a momentous day that had to have been for her. Of course, at that time I knew nothing about Mrs. Sadler. I did, however, know that I had managed to discover a significant person in our city’s history. Then as I drove home, the words “It’s big day” began rattling around in my head. That night, Tansy made her appearance and I began drafting the story of Big Mama.
SBB: Why did you feel Agnes Sadler’s story was one worth telling and pursuing?
TLC: I lived though the feminist movement in the 1970s. When I attended the University of Tennessee I minored in women’s studies. Susan Becker’s history classes were eye-opening, exposing me not only to the role of women in our country from its founding, but [also] the role of people of color, both male and female. I became impassioned about it. What is truly frustrating is that, even today, so much of this history remains hidden. Lost. Untold. When I was indexing that newspaper article and saw that little ‘c’ beside Agnes Sadler’s name, it took my breath away. Here was a woman who had a pivotal role in the history of our city, and she had been lost for nearly a hundred years. I immediately shared the news with Bob Booker, Knoxville’s local civil rights icon and author of several books on our local Black history.
SBB: You’ve developed an acquaintance with Agnes’s descendants through The Big Day. What does that mean to you?
TLC: When I started researching Agnes Sadler’s life, I had so hoped to be able to connect with her family and share the significant role she had in Knoxville’s history. I’ve often wondered if she knew herself. I had just about given up when a research breakthrough connected me with her great-grandson. I was delighted to share, not only this historic moment, but [also] the information I had gleaned about her that is contained in the book’s biography. Perhaps that’s the librarian in me, being able to connect people with information.
SBB: Can you reveal what you’re working on now?
TLC: Many, many things. I have a variety of picture books that I’m seeking publication on. Then there’s my middle grade novel titled Red and Me that is under review by my critique group. It has been described as a cross between To Kill A Mockingbird and Old Yeller, with one agent calling its characters “timeless.” Hopefully, it will soon find a home with a publisher. One of my unfinished projects that I’m currently concentrating on is a middle grade novel titled If Love Was a Smell. I’m about two-thirds of the way through and hope to finish it by the end of the year.
Great interview. My head spins at the volume of work you are currently working on.
Having had the pleasure to read some of your writings, I know how the authenticity of people and places is important to you. Research is 75 percent of the work involved in writing a book. How do you do it all?
I hope all your projects will come to fruition.
I am one of your fans
Thank you, Francie, for sharing these thoughts. We’ll pass this message along to Terry and appreciate you reading the Artist Spotlight!