Judy Alter is the author of five books currently in the Stars of Texas series illustrated by Patrick Messersmith and published by State House Press. She writes fiction and nonfiction for readers of all ages. In 2005, she received the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Western Writers of America. She is the director of TCU Press and lives in Fort Worth, Texas.
The Stars of Texas series focuses on important people in Texas history who might not be as well known (and heavily published about) as Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, and David Crockett. The series is aimed at fourth graders studying for the Texas history section of the TAKS test. There are free activity books and teacher’s guides available on-line.
In examining the series, I discovered that these biographies can be very useful for students beyond the Texas borders. The covers are not dramatically illustrated to appeal to today’s students (in my opinion) so if I don’t draw your attention to the series, you might never discover something of use to you. I emailed and chatted via cell phone with Judy today while enjoying my "snow day" in Nashville.
Diane: Did you develop the concept of this series or did the publishers seek you out?
Judy: The idea for the series actually came from the then-sales rep for Texas A&M University Press. He talked to a school wholesaler who said they really need books about the "second-tier" Texans who are on the TAKS test fourth graders take. He knew I was a children’s writer, so came to me–wanted me to write the books and TCU Press to publish them. I explained that this was sort of incestuous, and we couldn’t do it. So we went to State House Press and they liked the idea.
Diane: Who chooses the topics? Are they strictly limited to people tested on the TEKS for 4th graders or will you be expanding the series? I know Ann Richards’ biography will be released this May, 2008. Who is next? Is Lyndon Johnson upcoming? Who would you like to include?
The press chooses the topics, and I don’t think they’ve moved beyond the test list, but that’s always a possibility. There is one book coming out this season about the late former governor, Ann Richards that has been written by April D. Stumpf. I’m currently writing a biography on Ninnie Baird.
[see this website if you are unfamiliar with Ninnie Baird]
Diane: I was most interested in reading about Audie Murphy because his impact extends beyond Texas school curriculum to encompass military heroes, Hollywood actors, and more. What was the hardest aspect of writing about Audie?
Writing about Audie was indeed difficult–I’m not keen on praising a man whose biggest claim to fame was the number of men he killed. Then when he went to Hollywood, he wasn’t always what you’d call likeable or admirable–womanizing, drugs, drink, etc. But what made it all palatable was to think how unprepared this kid from the cotton fields of East Texas (a poverty stricken and uneducated family) was for where life took him.
Diane: Do you "like" all the characters you write about? Okay, I confess. I disliked Miriam "Ma" Ferguson: First Woman Governor of Texas. I think she was presented fairly, but after reading about her, I was able to form my own opinion on her and I don’t like what she represented. Tell us how you felt.
As for liking the people, yes and no. I probably liked Ma better than Henrietta (who was so strait-laced!) but Henrietta was also a woman of great strength. I identified with Ma as a mother but did wish she’d
stood up to Jim more. I didn’t particularly like Mirabeau Lamar because of his Indian policy, his failed finances, etc., but I really admired his stance on education. I guess it’s a mixed bag–I admire lots about
them, but lots of these people also had great flaws, as we all do. We’re trying to show them realistically.
Diane: I was most intrigued with the information on Martin de Leon: Tejano Empresario. We don’t have many biographies on Mexican descendants’ discriminations during this time or about empresarios.
Judy: I agree. Martin de Leon was fascinating. When you learn how his family suffered, you can understand some of the origins behind racial tensions in Texas today.
Diane: It brings light to discrimination and would be a very useful inclusion in Hispanic culture studies.
Thanks for the great insights, Judy. We had a great discussion of all the characters in the series and how they were imperfect people yet had served important roles in history. We agreed that Mirabeau B. Lamar had committed atrocities to the Cherokee, that Ma Ferguson should have stood up to her husband more, that Henrietta King didn’t respect the drinking and dancing of her workers’ cultures, and that we’d both like to see a biography of Barbara Jordan next. Readers, you can contact her by email to continue this discussion.