By MARINA WATERS
Four hundred, hardcover books awaited Nashville author Andrew Maraniss at a circular table in the library of Jonesborough Middle School last Wednesday. With Sharpie in hand and a line of students waiting for their moment to meet a real live author, Maraniss began scribbling his signature just inside the cover of his first book.
Maraniss is the author of “Strong Inside”, a story about the first African-American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. The story follows Perry Wallace through the Civil Rights era at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where Maraniss also attended. And on Wednesday Feb. 23, Maraniss visited and offered each student a copy of his book as part of Humanities Tennessee’s Student Reader Day Program. But Maraniss’ book is about more than just the struggles his character faced on the hardwood; it’s a tale of a trailblazing athlete who is still relevant to this day and time.
“The story is about the courage that it took for him to be this pioneer,” Maraniss said. “So it’s appropriate right now because it’s black history month, March Madness basketball tournament is about to get going, it’s a Tennessee story and this movie Hidden Figures that’s out right now is about these people that no one had ever heard of before.
“I consider Perry Wallace a hidden figure also. Most people have not heard of him. Yet he accomplished something that was very important.”
Apart from sharing Wallace’s story with the kids, Maraniss also shared the amount of work that went into writing his book. It took the “Strong Inside” author eight years to write and do research for the book. Jonesborough Middle School principal Brandon McKee felt having an author visit to talk to the students about being a writer was a good opportunity for the school.
“Everyday they read things all the time, but they never meet the author,” McKee explained. “They get to see that point of view: ‘Why did the author write this book? What was the purpose of writing this book?’ They get to hear that story and how their stories can come into a book and they can sell that book. And everyone gets to share that story.”
The story Maraniss came ready to talk to the students about was originally a book for adults and was later adapted into a kid’s book. But for Maraniss, making the story into a young reader’s edition was a perfect fit because Wallace is a kid himself throughout the lunch sit-ins he witnesses as a kid in Nashville and through the discrimination he endured in his career. But Maraniss also said the story is relatable to kids and the struggles they face today.
“I feel like this is the most important audience of all. It’s not the adults that I’ve been speaking to for a couple years, it’s the young people,” Maraniss said. “So I think it’s a story that teenagers can relate to because he’s overcoming a lot of challenges. Whether the reader is into basketball or not, whether the reader is African American or not, I think all kids are going through different struggles of their own and maybe sometimes feeling excluded or different. And how do they deal with that? Perry Wallace is someone who is sort of a role model, regardless of what you’re background is.”
Sharing this story that first started out as a topic for a paper he wrote in college isn’t the only mission for the author; Maraniss also considers the importance of encouraging kids to read in all of the trips he takes while traveling to schools.
“I think it’s important to get books in students’ hands. Literacy is such an important issue,” Maraniss explained. “With my book, I’ve heard a lot of librarians say that their reluctant readers, those kids might be interested because it’s a sports book. It’s not just a book about basketball or sports at all, but the cover is a cool action shot of a basketball player so maybe kids that are into sports and watch sports on TV but don’t tend to pick up a book, maybe this book will appeal to them and get them to be readers. And they’ll start to read other things to once they start to realize they enjoy reading.”