As a novelist and college professor, Connie Porter had enough book ideas to keep her computer whirring well into the next century. So when Pleasant T. Rowland first telephoned, Porter told her that writing children’s books was the last thing she could think about. She had never written for young people, Porter pointed out, and had never really wanted to.
But Rowland persisted. Before long, Porter signed a contract with Rowland’s Pleasant Company, agreeing to write six books about a courageous little girl named Addy.
But if the substantial, six-figure advance Porter received would make most fiction writers mutate into strange shades of green, the editorial constraints presented to Porter might have been tougher to take.
“The character was completely mapped out,” Porter said. “They had even decided on an over-arching plot line.”
Because Addy, an escaped slave, represented Pleasant Company’s first venture into ethnic diversity, Porter was also working under the watchful eye of an advisory committee of historians, educators, museum directors and filmmakers. Like Porter--and indeed like Addy--all the committee members were African American.
But Porter liked the project. “I liked the approach to history that they were taking,” she said. She thought the idea of meeting an African American family in the waning days of slavery and following the family to freedom in Philadelphia was an intriguing way to make a painful slice of the past come alive for young people.
“When I was growing up, there were no books with African Americans in them,” nevermind books about the slave experience, Porter said. Except, she recalled, for one brought home by one of her brothers featuring “happy slave girls dancing around the master.”
So much for historical veracity, or a character an African American girl might want to identify with.
In 9-year-old Addy Walker, Porter wanted to create “a girl whose life is difficult--she struggles, and not everything comes easily.” Because “not everyone is a star pupil,” Addy would be a girl who sometimes faltered in school. The Addy character would have “more of an edge” than the other American Girls produced by Pleasant Company.
Readers say she succeeded. “I shared Addy’s pain, fear and yearning for freedom,” said singer Melba Moore. The Rev. Willie Taplin Barrow, chairman of the board of Operation PUSH, hailed Addy as “one of America’s bravest and brightest heroines.” Journalist Barbara Reynolds, an editor at USA Today, praised Porter for making slavery “not just a history lesson, but an experience peopled with families and children whom we come to know and care about.”
No doubt Porter, 35, brought a hefty dose of her own pluck to her fictional slave child. She was raised in a housing development outside Buffalo, the second youngest of nine children. Their father worked in the local steel mill, and the family shared a three-room apartment, as well as a sense of determination that saw most of the children finish college--and many of them, graduate school.
Her family experience, in fact, bears a strong resemblance to the characters in “All-Bright Court” (Houghton Mifflin, 1991), the only novel Porter had published before she took on the “Addy” series. It was a review of “All-Bright Court” that piqued Rowland’s interest in Porter.
But “Connie’s imagination transcended her own experience,” said Janet Silver, Porter’s editor at Houghton Mifflin. The book did “quite well for a first novel,” Silver said, selling between 10,000 and 15,000 copies in hardcover. The six-book “Addy” series, by contrast, has sold more than 1 million copies in the last six months. Book sales have long since surpassed Porter’s generous advance, and now she takes home hefty royalty payments.
Very often, these figures strike Porter as amazing. She has continued to teach writing at Emerson College, a small private school here. She lives in an inner-city neighborhood and, when not riding the subway, drives a 4-year-old subcompact car that earned its huge dent the first week she owned it.
While marveling that “I don’t think any of us knew how it would take off,” Porter said the testimonials of 7- to 12-year-old girls--her reading constituency--are what most persuade her of her character’s success. “One little black girl came running up to me, and she said, ‘Wow! Here I am.’ ”
Porter believes that her character’s resiliency accounts for a large part of her appeal. Fleeing from slavery in 1864 with her mother, Addy discovers “a strange kinda freedom” when the family arrives in the North. She encounters limitations that Porter contends strengthen Addy’s credibility.
“I wanted Addy to be an active child, but not a martyr,” Porter said. “Her mother and father are not about to let her save the world.”
But neither is Addy a victim. “We do a disservice to slaves if we look back at them as having had one-dimensional lives,” Porter said. “You know, if we say, ‘Oh, poor, poor Addy.’ ”
Julius Lester, a professor at the University of Massachusetts and the author of a number of children’s books about slavery, lauded Porter for “humanizing a period of time and people who were subjected to something we still don’t know how to deal with--slavery.” Many people, Lester said, “are still carrying shame around about this subject,” and characters like Addy may help lift some misunderstandings.
Porter’s use of dialect in the books has made some critics and readers uncomfortable. Some white parents report that they correct the grammar when they read aloud to their children, not wanting to support stereotypes of African American street talk.
But Porter said that “as a writer, I feel strongly that characters come to you in a certain way. I don’t think they should be obliged to speak the way the audience does.” In the mid-19th Century, she went on, “the dialect was extremely strong.”
Because Addy was a Southerner with very little formal education, Porter observed, “I don’t think she would have come up speaking Victorian English.”
Now that the Addy books are finished, Porter is at work on a novel she had postponed to take on this 2 1/2-year project. But the 9-year-old refuses to vanish from Porter’s imagination.
“She’s so real to me,” Porter said, smiling, “that sometimes I dream about her.”