When her fifth child, Jonathan, was born with cerebral palsy, Harriette Gillem Robinet wanted to find a way to inspire him.
“I wanted to find books of courage,” says Robinet. “And I found there were almost no books for disabled children at all.”
So, she wrote the books.
Robinet had been writing for years for magazines. But in books, the 73-year-old was ahead of her time. So, before she was an author, she was first a “highly rejected” writer.
“I wrote the paperbacks when Jonathan was 3 and they got published when he was 11,” she says. “One was rejected 22 times and the other 18 times ... but you just keep on keeping on.
“Many people said they were beautiful books but they didn’t think people were interested in books about the disabled.”
She kept writing, with encouragement and occasionally typing help from her husband, McLouis Robinet. She had to. “It was an outlet for me.”
And finally, the book industry was ready. Jay and the Marigold was published in 1976, Ride the Red Cycle in 1980—both picture books about children with disabilities.
Then, Robinet hit a dry spell until she found her future in the past. “On the same morning,” Robinet says, “I read in a writer’s magazine how to write historical fiction and I walked over to the radio. It was Oct. 8 and I heard it was the anniversary of the Chicago Fire.”
It clicked. The result was Children of the Fire, the story of Hallelujah, a young girl left in Chicago by her dying mother who brought her here via the Underground Railroad.
Since then, there have been nine books of multicultural historical fiction for middle schoolers, largely based on Robinet’s own struggles as a black woman growing up in Washington, D.C., during the Civil Rights era.
History is a keystone in Robinet’s life. Her maternal grandparents were house slaves at the estates of James Madison and Robert E. Lee. Her paternal grandparents were also slaves. And her father taught junior high history and geography.
“All that you are goes into everything you write,” she says.
While some characters and dialogue come from Robinet’s imagination, the settings, plot and historical elements are researched thoroughly. She often discovers facts ignored by white historians. “It’s nice to find something that’s history ... that’s on an asterisk,” Robinet says.
When researching Children of Fire, Robinet found that it was a black man who funded a significant portion of the city’s reconstruction after the Chicago Fire. Robinet’s book brought him to life and she has Hallelujah helping the man rescue bags of cash from the bank.
The Oak Park author doesn’t shy away from difficult issues. “I think children, by the middle grades, are ready for some meat,” she says. And her child characters must work through their problems. She doesn’t like books in which the characters solve problems with magic.
The award-winning author is also the mother of six adult children and four grandchildren. Her latest work, due out in 2006, is Liberty Time in Boston Town, a story of African slaves who ask England for liberty during the Boston Tea Party.
Drew Carter is a writer living in Forest Park and works for Wednesday Journal, a sister publication.