Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, author and teacher Taylor Kitchings witnessed racism in action. He drew on those experiences for his first novel, Yard War. The book tells the story of Kitchings’ experiences from the point of view of 12-year-old Trip, who enjoys playing football in his front yard with his friends. One day, Trip invites his maid’s son, who is black, to play with him. Neighbors start to complain, and Trip is faced with an important decision: Do what’s easy, or do what’s right.
Yard War provides an interesting new angle on racial relations in the 1960s by approaching the issue through football. Kitchings talked to Sports Illustrated Kids about his book, the process, and what the topic means to him.
Why did you want to write about racism? Why is that an important topic to you?
It’s an important topic because I grew up with it, and the novel sort of indicates how I grew up with it. Trip is based largely on me, but I made him a little older. [The events in the story] happened to me when I was about 8 years old. When I was 8, I threw the football in the front yard with our maid’s son, and after we had gone outside and played and done that a couple of times, my mother had to come tell me one night that I could not play with my friend anymore because the neighbors were calling and complaining about it. This was in 1964, where, in the south, people were very fearful, and long-standing standards about blacks and whites were being threatened. The reason I wanted to write about racism was because I had an experience with it when I was a child that really opened my eyes to the extent to which [it appears] in my society here in Jackson, Mississippi. I did not grow up in a racist household, but from my childhood until I went to college I encountered a lot of regrettable episodes. It was a very tumultuous time in the history of the state, and things are a lot better now.
But the thing that impressed me now, many years later when I started writing this book, was that these issues have not been solved in any lasting, real way. There has been progress, but what I finally figured out is that racism is not going to be dissolved by any particular generation. It will have to be addressed by every succeeding generation, and maybe over the process of many generations that final resolution can be achieved. There are many books and movies about racism in Mississippi, but [Yard War] was based on my experience as a kid, and I thought I could give it a specific slant, straight from my real life.
Racism seems to be something that means a lot to you. Did this make it easier or harder to write about?
It made it easer overall, and then it got really hard to bring my character’s emotions into play deeply enough to get across the reader. Trip is conflicted and confused. He’s suddenly surrounded by adults he doesn’t trust anymore. He’s looking at them with new eyes and thinking that they’re wrong about this very important thing. To get into all of that was a little hard for me emotionally, but because of the topic itself, because it was close to me, it was easy. It was easy to jump in, and not so easy to complete, let’s put it that way.
You said that the main storyline was based on your childhood. How were other aspects of the book based on your experiences?
The family is similar to mine in a lot of ways. My dad is a doctor, and I have a brother and two sisters. In the book, Trip has two sisters. The neighbors are combination characters, largely, kind of putting together features of characters I had grown up with. The things that happened in the book happened to my family, just in other contexts, not always as a result of race issues. There were other things that caused writing on the house, mailboxes to be blown up, and threats to the family. Those do come from real life, just in other contexts. So I guess that’s how it all fits together. I had to apologize to all of my relatives because the grandparents [in the book] look like my real grandparents, but they are not [my family]. The grandmother, especially — she emerges as a villain, and was not based on my real grandmother, although she bears a physical resemblance.
There is still a lot of racism in America today. If Yard War were set in modern-era Jackson, what would the differences in the story be?
I really do not believe that if a black kid were playing football with a white kid in a neighborhood in most parts of the city, anybody would think anything about it. In Jackson, anywhere you go you see blacks and whites shopping and eating together, and I would really like to believe that no one would have a problem, and that no one would react to it with the real fear that the people back in ’64 had. The separation of the races was legally sanctioned in 1896 with Plessy v. Ferguson, and that wasn’t reversed until ’54 with Brown v. Board of Education. So until 1954, there was legal racism. Not that it was right, but it had the blessing of the Supreme Court. The races were kept apart, and that was something that generations of white southerners were accustomed to. That was just the tradition. In ’64, it had been years since the inevitable integration of schools had been broadcast to the country, but here in Jackson they managed to put it off until 1970 because it represented such a scary change to people. We’re beyond those times, thank goodness. So today’s racism is a little more subtle, not that it isn’t there. As I said, I think Mississippi has done well and made great strides with many strides left to make, like everywhere.
What was your favorite part about writing Yard War?
I guess it was getting a chance to talk about something that I cared about that much and knew that well. I wrote the book in a relatively short span of time, I kind of did the first draft in six months, and then I showed it to my agent and she suggested some changes, then of course once we sold it to Random House, my editor suggested some major changes and I spent a total of about a year and a half on it. I think one of the reasons I was able to get it done that quickly is that I just felt it. I think describing those football games was one of my favorite parts too, and that’s really just a catalyst for the story. But those football games were just the way we used to play them — three on three, counting one-Mississippi, two- Mississippi and all that. There were trees, you could call interference, and I really did like just going out to pass with the boys, and catching with them. We had all shapes and size players. Many of the details of those football games came straight out of my childhood. If I had to get to one thing that was really the most fun to write, it would be about the football and the relationships among those guys.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been working on something since I was in graduate school in the late ‘80s. I won a fiction award at Ole Miss where I got a master’s degree in English. From that point on, I wrote, and I completed some manuscripts and had some help from people but never a real, full agent until about three years ago, maybe four. Between those grad school days and finding an agent, I completed three or four manuscripts, a screenplay, lots of short stories, and I came close to deals a couple of times, but that’s how long the process has been for me. I’d say I haven’t even really been in the game except for about the last 15 years, and even then it’s been kind of off and on.
Why did you choose to write a children’s book instead of a book for adults?
This book ended up being marketed to 12-year-olds because it’s told by a 12-year-old. And more than thinking, “Oh, I’m going to write a middle-grade novel,” I thought, “I’m going to write this from a 12-year-old’s perspective,” and it turned into a middle grade novel. I was very aware as I was writing of being authentic to a 12-year-old’s point of view, keeping any eyes out of the narration that were not his, and never condescending to a young reader. I began my teaching career with the fourth grade because it was the only job available at the school where I wanted to teach. I was there for four years and really liked it. But what really struck me when we got into the English side of things was how engaged with some of those books my students could get. I think those young readers just embrace literature in a way that nobody else does. It’s so important to young readers. Once I started writing this, I thought it would be great if I could do something that would grab somebody in the fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh grade the way Sarah, Plain and Tall and Where the Red Fern Grows grabbed my fourth graders.
Who are some of your biggest inspirations in writing and sports?
That would be my uncle, [short story writer] Barry Hannah. He did not write for young readers, and should not be read by young readers. But he not only taught me originally how to play football out in the yard, he incorporated a lot of sports into his own stories and novels, putting a unique spin on them. So he was a big influence. [Sports columnist and short story writer] Ring Lardner was a big influence. There are some local writers here like Rick Cleveland that Mississippi sports fans love and know well. He still writes a weekly column for our major state paper, the Clarion-Ledger, and he does a great job of assessing things and capturing the drama of a football or baseball game. Writers like that, I suppose, have had the greatest influence on me.
Have you started working on your next book? If so, what will it be about?
I actually completed a second volume here. What I have in mind is a [Yard War] trilogy, set in the ‘60s, with the same family. [The second book] is told by Trip’s little sister, Farish. She has a minor role in the first novel, and she is going to be the narrator of the second one. She tells a different story with a different focus. It will involve Trip, and the whole family, but it’s a very different story and it’s set three years later. Part of it is how the family is living now, three years after the events in the end of Yard War. I’m picking it up three years after that, and it’s told by the little sister. The third one is still just in my head, but I’m going to start getting some of that down on paper pretty soon.
What advice do you have for kids interested in writing — not only sports-related books but any kind of books?
I would say to start with what really feels the most urgent to you. Write about what really has your excited attention. Write the story you would most be excited to read. Stick to things that you really know. Stick to a sport you’re very familiar with, and realize what details you’re going to have to use in your writing. I think the essence of some of the best writing is that it gets very specific. It’s easy to be general. It’s really tough to be specific. So if you’re a young writer, be prepared to get deep into situations and just really try to imagine things deeply and richly to get them down on the page. It’s tough, and it takes years to master that. But as far as beginning, choose the right topic. That would be one that you really are passionate about.
This interview has been edited and condensed
Photos: Ron Blaylock (author), Jeff Wack (cover)