Summer 1997

Vivian's Front Porch
Author Creates Literature Children Can Visit

by Randy Jones
photos by Steve Zumbro

"I consider literature a place that children can visit," says author Vivian Owens ('72/M.S.Ed.), explaining what shapes her writing. "In order for children to walk through [a] book, they have to feel secure in traveling on through." In her quest "to bring literature to children that will be friendly," Owens has written two suspenseful adventures she hopes all children, but especially African- American girls, will want to enter page by page.

Vivian Owens ('72/M.S.Ed.)

Many authors, Owens believes, create a place in their fiction that repels children, in part, because they strive too hard to be relevant. "A lot of it is so traumatic in its scope that a child doesn't want to go there; the child can't solve the problems presented," she says. By contrast, in Owens' Nadanda, The Wordmaker and The Rosebush Witch, both of her protagonists are African-American girls who "are self-empowered so that they will be able to solve [their] problems."

Although reluctant to criticize any literature written for African-American children because there is so little of it available, Owens says, "It has become so traditional that you take children to the worse places, and in doing so [authors often] are giving [children] their environment. But why should African-American children be left in such uncomfortable places? Why not places to which they can aspire?" she asks.

Owens' stories revolve around middle-class, African-American families living in small towns, much like the out-of-the-way town in central Florida where Owens grew up among a lively and loving family during the days of state-sanctioned segregation. Her father, "a wonderful storyteller," was a minister and amateur inventor. And three months of each year, both her grandmothers and her maternal great-grandmother would visit.

From this familial matrix of parables, stories and invention, it is not surprising that Owens eventually turned to storytelling herself. But this was not her first ambition. The Tuskegee Institute chemistry major aspired to be a scientist when she grew up. Only after she decided to go into teaching, earning a master's in education at JMU while also raising three children, did she "become engaged in children's literature."

Nadanda, which Owens self-published in 1994 through her company, Eschar Publications, focuses on the troubled relationship between Nadanda and her widowed mother, an African arts dealer. "It's a story about relationship-building," Owens says. The narrative is propelled by the powers Nadanda conjures in an African doll whenever she utters strange words before it. Gradually, language empowers Nadanda, Owens suggests, and enables her to resolve her issues with her mother - mainly, Nadanda's mistaken belief that her mother wishes Nadanda had died instead of her father.

The book, intended for children ages 10 and up, was named by Writer's Digest in its 1994 National Book Awards as the best self-published children's book of that year.

Owens' more recent story, The Rosebush Witch, opens with a visit to the house of Lona Davis' storytelling grandmother, a familiar event from Owens' girlhood. Surprisingly, for an author concerned with creating secure places, this book features a witch who sits outside Lona's "bedroom window, frightening her into a state of discomfort and jumpiness," according to Owens. Nonetheless, the "story has a scientific basis," states Owens, who believes that "children will close this book relieved that there really is an explanation for the murky figures in the dark recesses of their bedrooms."

Nadanda book jacket, designed by Richard V. Watson

Although Owens' fiction celebrates African-American culture, especially "the oral tradition of Southern black storytelling," she believes her books transcend a strictly African-American readership. Both books, after all, deal with the fears and anxieties that children of all races share. In this regard, she insists her books are multicultural because they let children of other races "visit an African-American child, and say, 'Oh, so this is what you are like.'"

But clearly, Owens is writing out, primarily, to African-American children, who, she believes, are rarely represented in fiction. "Only 2 percent or less of children's literature published every year will contain black characters or have any African-American center," she says. For this reason, she suspects many black students stop reading by fourth grade.

Nadanda, The Wordmaker and The Rosebush Witch are not Owens' first entries into publishing. This longtime chemistry and physics teacher has complemented her children's fiction with two educational "parent-helper" books, also published by Eschar. Both Parenting for Education and Create a Math Environment have been endorsed by the Department of Education as part of its Resources in Education program.

The urge to write two educational books stemmed from Owens' many years of classroom experience, which continues. She teaches at Stuarts Draft High School and Wilson Memorial High School in Augusta County. I "realized there were things that I could share with parents that might help" them with their children's education, she says. This idea also led her to begin conducting "education workshops [for parents] that teach techniques for helping their children with learning."

When talking with Owens, whose voice conveys a luminous, confident presence and gracious humor, one tends to linger in a front-porch, general store, dusty small-town kind of way. One suspects that whether it is a classroom, the book-crammed study in which she writes or the fiction she creates, any place infused with Owens' spirit will be secure and inviting. You may find yourself asking for a story.

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