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Joyce (Viola) Hansen (1942-) - Sidelights

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Joyce Hansen is the author of nonfiction as well as of novels for younger readers that have been praised for their convincing depiction of black children in both contemporary and historical settings. Novels such as The Gift-Giver, Yellow Bird and Me, and One True Friend portray the lives of urban children living in New York City, while Hansen's trilogy Which Way Freedom?, Out from This Place, and The Heart Calls Home dramatize the experiences of young blacks during the time of the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction. A former English teacher in New York City schools, Hansen strives to create realistic settings and authentic dialect, as well as produce lively storytelling, as a way to reach out to young readers with positive messages of support and guidance. "I take writing for children very seriously," she once told Something about the Author (SATA). "So many children need direction—so many are floundering. I write for all children who need and can relate to the things I write about—the importance of family, maintaining a sense of hope, and responsibility for oneself and other living things."

Hansen was born in 1942 in New York City and grew up in a Bronx neighborhood that provided many of the experiences in her first novel, The Gift-Giver. During her girlhood, as she recalled to SATA, "New York City neighborhoods were thriving urban villages that children could grow and develop in." In The Gift-Giver, which describes a foster child who influences others in a positive way through his caring nature, Hansen attempts to recreate the secure atmosphere of the immediate and extended family she experienced as a young girl. In doing so, she also emphasizes the positive forces at work within urban areas to counter such perils as poverty, violence, and drugs. "We forget that there are many people in our so-called slums or ghettos that manage to raise whole and healthy families under extreme conditions," Hansen maintained. "Not every story coming out of the black communities of New York City is a horror story."

Hansen was influenced to become a writer by her mother and father, both of who provided what the author described as an atmosphere "rich in family love and caring." Her mother, who once had aspirations to become a journalist, passed on to Hansen an appreciation for books and reading; part of a large family and raised during the depression years of the 1930s, Hansen's mother was unable to finish high school although she showed potential as a student, because she had to help support the family. Hansen views her mother as "my first teacher." From her father, a photographer from the Caribbean, Hansen learned the art of storytelling. "He entertained my brothers and me with stories about his boyhood in the West Indies and his experiences as a young man in the Harlem of the '20s and '30s," she once commented. "I also learned from him to see the beauty and poetry in the everyday scenes and 'just plain folks' he captured in his photographs."

Hansen received a bachelor's degree from Pace University in 1972, and later earned a master's degree from New York University. In 1973 she began a career teaching in New York City schools, where she worked as a special-education instructor for teens with reading disabilities. Her work, which predominantly involved black and Hispanic students, made Hansen aware of the positive results gained by providing students with literature they can identify with. "Literature can be a great teacher, yet large numbers of Black and other youngsters of color never have a chance to explore themselves or their lives through the literary process," she explained in an article for the Interracial Books for Children Bulletin. "All children need sound, solid literature that relates to their own experiences and interests," she added, especially those "children who, for whatever reason, have learning difficulties."

Hansen's own efforts as a children's novelist have been greatly influenced by her students. She explained in Horn Book that if she hadn't taught, "I wouldn't have been moved to write some of the stories I've created thus far." Hansen also explained that, as is the case with the innovative nicknames derived by her students, she was "influenced by their creativity—the way they twist, bend, enliven, deconstruct, and sometimes even destroy language." While Hansen's objectives as a reading teacher propelled a major part of her writing, she understood the necessity of relating stories that students like her own would respond to. She tested her writing by asking, as she recounted in Horn Book, "what I am going to do . . . to make a reluctant reader want to read [a story]. . . . I imagine I hear Tatoo whispering in my ear, 'Miss Hansen, you know I'm not going to read all of that description'; or Milk Crate muttering, 'Boring, boring, boring'; or Skeletal yelling, 'This ain't like us.'"

As a result, Hansen's novels have been praised by critics for their convincingly drawn characters and accurate depictions of atmosphere and black dialect. Regarding The Gift-Giver, which is told through the language and observations of fifth-grader Doris, Hansen "paints an effective, inside picture of childhood in a New York ghetto," commented Judith Goldberger in Booklist. The novel tells the story of Doris's friendship with Amir, a shy and quiet classmate from whom she learns valuable lessons in friendship and caring for others. According to Zena Sutherland in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, the novel's strengths are "well-developed plot threads that are nicely knit, a memorable depiction of a person whose understanding and compassion are gifts to his friends, and a poignantly realistic ending."

In Yellow Bird and Me, a sequel to The Gift-Giver, Hansen relates the story of Doris as she, in turn, helps a troubled classmate overcome a learning disability and discovers his talents as a theatrical performer. "Smoothly written and easy to read," according to a Kirkus Reviews contributor, the novel utilizes colloquial black English with "strength and vitality." Furthermore, the contributor continued, the novel is "rich with the distinctive personalities in Doris's world . . . [and] is particularly valuable for its emphasis on friendship, generosity of spirit, and seeing what's below the surface." Continuing the story begun in The Gift-Giver, the novel One True Friend is composed mainly of letters, as fourteen-year-old Amir and twelve-year-old Doris write back and forth after Amir moves to Syracuse, New York, to live with his new foster family. Now reunited with his younger brother, Ronald, Amir is determined to locate the rest of his family in order to honor his mother's dying wish; Doris, for her part, describes a new friend whose life is threatened by a drug habit. Noting that Amir "is a genuinely sympathetic character," a Kirkus Reviews contributor added that One True Friend is "a good-hearted and honest treatment of kids' feelings as they cope with their own separate challenges." While School Library Journal contributor Miriam Lang Budin noted that Hansen "crowds a plethora of subjects" into her story and that "portions of the writing are unnaturally stiff," Amir is "a likeable kid" who shoulders his burdens responsibly. Frances Bradburn described One True Friend as "both sad and hopeful," adding in her Booklist review that Hansen's tale "dramatizes the struggle for survival" and "the primal pull of family."

Hansen's novel Home Boy, also set in New York's inner city, relates the life of a troubled Caribbean-born teen named Marcus, who stabs another boy in a fight. Alternating between scenes of New York and Marcus's native Caribbean, the novel reveals the damaging influences of the boy's family, his involvement with selling drugs, and the pressures of adjusting to life in a foreign city. Inspired by an actual newspaper account of a Jamaican boy who stabbed and killed another youth in a New York City high school, Hansen modeled Marcus as "a composite of the many young men I've met through teaching," she once told SATA. Despite its tragic overtones, the novel finds positives in the efforts of Marcus's girlfriend to get him on track, in addition to the affirming support of his reconciled parents and Marcus's own will to reform. The novel "revolves around Blacks and inner city life," wrote Kevin Kenny in Voice of Youth Advocates, yet holds appeal for many readers in its exploration of such universal themes as "quests for dignity, pursuits of familial and personal love, and the search for individual understanding."

After writing three works set in New York City, Hansen made a notable departure with a trilogy of historical novels that take place during the U.S. Civil War and the Reconstruction period that followed. Again influenced by her former students, Hansen evolved into historical fiction after she "began to think about how much drama there is in the black experience that is unknown to our youth and how historical fiction is a good way to make history come alive for young people," as she wrote in Horn Book. Although vastly different in location and time period than her previous fiction, Hansen's historical novels similarly offer strong characterizations, in addition to authentic depictions of atmosphere and dialect.

Which Way Freedom? tells the story of a young slave named Obi who escapes from South Carolina and joins a black Union regiment during the Civil War, while Out from This Place follows Obi's female friend Easter as, with the young boy Jason, she moves forward with her life after the civil war. The concluding book, The Heart Calls Home, finds Obi and Easter reunited after a long search. While Obi wants to marry and move west, Easter remains dedicated to gaining the education needed to contribute to life in her new home of former slaves on the sea island of Santa Elena. In her story Hansen includes the couple's letters, in which each attempts to change the mind of the other while both attest to their love and caring. The Heart Calls Home, by illustrating the prejudice faced by former slaves, reflects the "courage and hope that illustrates the strength and resilience" of freed black throughout the South, according to Bradburn in Booklist. In each of the novels Hansen intersperses authentic black Gullah island dialect with documented and little-known details of everyday life for slaves in their struggles before and after freedom.

Initially, Hansen had some difficulty making the transition to historical fiction. As she explained in her essay in Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS), "I was writing about a place and a time of which I had no direct knowledge." She continued, "I had to research my story very carefully because I wanted to be certain that my historical background was correct. At the same time, I wanted the novels to be exciting and interesting for my readers. I had to learn how to combine historical fact with fully drawn, realistic characters. For me, stories begin with characters." To her surprise, Which Way Freedom? was named a Coretta Scott King Honor Book in 1987. Hansen wrote in SAAS, "I wasn't sure that I could successfully write a historical novel—I certainly didn't expect it to win an award. It was truly a high point for me."

The success of her historical fiction gave Hansen the courage to explore other types of writing, particularly nonfiction. Between Two Fires: Black Soldiers in the Civil War describes in detail the two-fold battle African-American men faced as Union soldiers during the Civil War: fighting for freedom and also battling daily acts of racism. Elizabeth M. Reardon, writing in School Library Journal, applauded Hansen for her "well-researched and well-written volume" and appreciated the way the author "personalized this history, making readers feel the heartbreak of loss and the triumph of spirit of these men."

The Captive, based on an early slave narrative, brought Hansen a second Coretta Scott King honor. In what Horn Book contributor Lois F. Anderson called a "well-crafted and compelling survival story," Hansen relates the tale of a West African boy sold into slavery. After twelve-year-old Kofi, an Ashanti chieftain's son who is also the narrator, is sold into slavery in 1788, he endures a difficult boat crossing to America. Kofi is then forced to be an indentured servant in Salem, Massachusetts. While there, he learns to speak and read English, and eventually escapes. An African American sea captain helps Kofi, then defends the boy's right to freedom. As a ship's pilot, Kofi eventually returns home to West Africa. According to a critic for Kirkus Reviews, "the practices of the slave trade, in both Africa and New England, are explored in unusual detail." Similarly, a Publishers Weekly commentator wrote that the well-researched and enlightening story "offers a deeply moving Afrocentric perspective on the brutal inequities of American life in the nation's earliest, perhaps most idealistic years—and now."

Hansen has continued to produce nonfiction focusing on African Americans. Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York's African Burial Ground, written with historical conservator Gary McGowan, describes the 1991 discovery of an African burial site in Manhattan and explores what the artifacts excavated reveal about the lives of black people in colonial New York City. She also joins McGowan for Freedom Roads: Searching for the Underground Railroad, an effort to separate fact from legend about the secret network that led many blacks north to freedom in the years prior to the Civil War. In addition to archeological evidence, the authors review court records, narratives collected during the Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviews of the 1930s, and traditional narratives, creating what School Library Journal reviewer Elizabeth M. Reardon praised as "a fine asset to any study of the Underground Railroad." Noting that the book is "highly readable," Deborah Taylor concluded in Horn Book that Freedom Roads contains "unsolved-mystery aspects [that] will engage young readers."

Hansen has also explored the lives of several women of color who have achieved particular reknown. Her Women of Hope: African Americans Who Made a Difference features brief biographies of thirteen black women, among them Maya Angelou, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mae Jemison, and Alice Walker. Moving from American women to women of more geographically distant black cultures, her African Princess: The Amazing Lives of Africa's Royal Women profiles six African heads of state. Beginning with the ancient Egyptian queen Hatshepsut, Hansen moves toward the present as she profiles fifteenth-century Matamban Princesss Nginga and modern U.S. ambassador Princess Elizabeth of Toro. Describing each woman's life within the context of her own time, Hansen shows that "these intelligent and dedicated women all overcame obstacles, took risks, and often challenged the status quo," explained Mary N. Oluonye in School Library Review. Praising Hansen's "lively, well-researched" biographies, Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman added that the author "is always careful to distinguish fact from surmise," inspiring readers of African Princess "to find out more."

Hansen once commented in the New Advocate on the responsibility involved in writing books for a young audience. "As [children] seek to understand an increasingly confusing world, their minds are malleable and vulnerable. Because of this, the responsibility of writers is enormous. Our job is to arrest the spread of ignorance, to inform, to provide insight and perspective, to entertain. Our words are powerful and those of us who are fortunate enough to have our words read must not abuse that power and privilege." As a writer who is often read by young audiences, Hansen strives to meet that responsibility. As she wrote in SAAS, "I still work very hard on my writing and try to make each book better than the last. I am still learning."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Children's Literature Review, Volume 21, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1990.

Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 15, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993, pp. 157-69.

Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1995.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, January 1, 1981, Judith Goldberger, review of The Gift-Giver, p. 624; December 1, 1999, Frances Bradburn, review of The Heart Calls Home, p. 696; June 1, 2000, Gillian Engberg, review of "Bury Me Not in the Land of Slaves": African Americans in the Time of Reconstruction, p. 1871; December 15, 2001, Frances Bradburn, review of One True Friend, p. 731; May 1, 2003, John Peters, review of Freedom Roads: Searching for the Underground Railroad, p. 1590; September 15, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of African Princess: The Amazing Lives of Africa's Royal Women, p. 238.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1981, Zena Sutherland, review of The Gift-Giver, p. 94; March, 1994, p. 223.

Horn Book, September-October, 1987, Joyce Hansen, "Young Adult Books," pp. 644-646; May-June, 1994, Lois F. Anderson, review of The Captive, p. 325; July-August, 1998, pp. 512-513; January, 2000, review of The Heart Calls Home, p. 76; July-August, 2003, Deborah Taylor, review of Freedom Roads, p. 480.

Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, 1984, Volume 15, number 4, Joyce Hansen, "Needed: Quality Literature for Reluctant Readers," pp. 9-11.

Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1993, p. 530; December 15, 1993, review of The Captive, p. 1590; September 15, 2001, review of One True Friend, p. 1359; March 1, 2003, review of Freedom Roads, p. 386.

Kliatt, November, 1999, Claire Rosser, review of The Heart Calls Home.

New Advocate, summer, 1990, Joyce Hansen, "Whose Story Is It?," pp. 167-173.

Publishers Weekly, November 22, 1993, review of The Captive, p. 64; November 19, 2001, review of One True Friend, p. 70.

School Library Journal, September, 1993, Elizabeth M. Reardon, review of Between Two Fires: Black Soldiers in the Civil War, pp. 255, 257; January, 1994, p. 114; May, 1998, p. 156; June, 2000, Starr E. Smith, review of "Bury Me Not in the Land of Slaves," p. 166; December, 2001, Miriam Lang Budin, review of One True Friend, p. 134; September, 2003, Elizabeth M. Reardon, review of Freedom Roads, p. 232; November, 2004, Mary L. Oluonye, review of African Princess, p. 164.

Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 1983, Kevin Kenny, review of Home Boy, p. 36; August, 1993, p. 177.

ONLINE

Joyce Hansen Web site, http://www.joycehansen.com (March 7, 2005).

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