Thursday, August 23, 2007

Interview with Delia Ray, author of Singing Hands

Singing Hands
by Delia Ray
Reading level: Ages 9-12
Publisher: Clarion Books (2006)
ISBN-10: 0618657622

Twelve-year-old Gussie Davis is a CODA, a the hearing child of deaf parents, in 1948 Birmingham, AL. Gussie is mischievous and rebellious. One day during church service at St. Jude's Church for the Deaf, where her father is the minister of a Deaf congregation, she begins humming loudly and assumes only her sisters know her misdeed. However, on this day, a hearing visitor (another CODA) has come to visit her parents.

Gussie's parents decide to send her to a "hearing" church but she continues to misbehave when she skips out of Sunday school and uses her collection money to buy snacks. Her behavior even gets out of control at home. What begins as an innocent prank leads Gussie into stealing an old love letter from Miss Grace, one of her parents' boarders. Finally, when it is time to take a trip to visit her aunt in Texas, her father decides that her punishment for her misbehavior is to forgo the trip and involve her in his missionary efforts. Although she is disappointed that she can't visit her aunt, she is pleased that she will get to spend some much-needed "alone" time with her father. Yet, Gussie becomes even more irritated when her father includes Abe, a young boy from the black deaf church, who will be attending the school for the Deaf.

There are several sub-plots in this book that will make it enjoyable for many readers, such as Gussie's sudden concern with popularity, her relationship with both the deaf and hearing boarders who live at her house, the lost-love story of Miss Grace, and her connection with Abe and the racial pressures during that time.

All in all, Gussie discovers that she is a good person who sometimes does mischievous things. And, she realizes the importance of her father's service to the community. I could hardly finish the pages through my tears (not of sadness but of joy). The ending is powerful and brings the entire story of subplots together emphasizing the lessons that she has learned from her parents and the joys of sign language.

The amazing part of this book is that it is based on Delia Ray's family... her mother (who inspired the character Gussie) and her grandfather was a Deaf preacher and a leading pioneer in the Deaf community. To learn more about the book's origin, visit:

********Also, check out my interview with Delia Ray below. *******

SPW: When researching for this book, you mentioned (in your author's note and on your website) that you visited the Birmingham St. John's Church for the Deaf and the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. You mentioned that you were just realizing that your grandfather was a pioneer in the Deaf Community. Can you talk about how the Deaf Community helped you when they learned of your book?

DR: It's true that only as an adult did I begin to realize what an indelible mark my grandfather had made on the Deaf Community. My first inkling came in 1986, when he became the first non-athletic alumnus ever inducted into the Alabama School for the Deaf Hall of Fame. When I later read the publication printed for the ceremony, I learned that in 1952, Pop became the first deaf minister to lead an opening prayer before the US Senate and that he had been awarded an honorary doctorate by his alma mater, Gallaudet, for his many years of "eminent leadership and stewardship among the deaf."

Of course, once I became aware of the scope of my grandfather's work, the Deaf Community became a crucial part of my research. In the initial stages of research, I made a trip to Birmingham to visit my grandparents' old neighborhood and the church that my grandfather had established--Saint John's Church for the Deaf. Seeing the neighborhood was heartbreaking because the Fletchers' beautiful, rambling old house with beveled-glass windows that I used to visit as a little girl had been torn down to make room for a hospital parking lot. But it was a wonderful experience to attend Sunday service performed in sign language at Saint John's and see many of my grandparents' old friends and parishioners. I also was able to interview several elderly members of the congregation who had been students or teachers at the Alabama School for the Deaf.

They became valuable resources about what life used to be like at ASD as they described everything from their first bouts of homesickness the lifelong companions they made to details about the dormitories and dining hall. It was one of my grandparents' old friends who first told me about how she and her buddies at school used to have to sneak and sign to each other in secret because the supervisors would punish them for using sign language instead of speaking and lip- reading "like hearing folks" in the classrooms and hallways. She also described the performances the school used to put on for the community and visiting family members, when deaf students were often required to sing out loud. She laughed as she recalled how her thoughtless hearing brother used to make fun of their singing voices after each performance, but that disturbing detail stuck with me and became an important inspiration as I developed the climax of my story. It wasn't until these interviews that I learned about the misguided teaching beliefs that were practiced in the early years of deaf education.

Another key to my research was spending time at what is now called the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Talladega, Alabama, where my grandfather had been a student and later served as the visiting minister. The staff there was very generous in allowing me to wander through their lovely campus, founded in 1858, and spend hours combing through early records and photographs. I not only found many old yearbook and school newspaper photos of my grandfather, but countless other artifacts that helped me to recreate what daily life was like for a child at ASD during the 1940s. Some of the most helpful resources were back issues of "the Alabama Messenger," the school's monthly publication that included content ranging from commentary on deaf issues to reports on various clubs, sports teams, and holiday parties.

SPW: Do you still use sign language? (Have you taught it to your daughters?)

DR: I used sign language quite a bit when I was visiting with the Deaf Community in Birmingham and promoting Singing Hands. However, this experience reminded me how rusty my signing skills have become and how much I would love to improve. My three daughters, my youngest in particular, have always been interested in learning to sign and I've taught them the little I know. But writing this book made me want to go back and take classes and practice so that I can teach them more! This won't be difficult since I recently learned that the ASL program at the University of Iowa, just four miles from my home, currently enrolls more students than any other language program (including French or Spanish!).

SPW: Was there one favorite event or situation that you either learned about your mother or grandfather that stands out to you?

DR: Just like Gussie, my mother actually did sneak out of the Cathedral Church of the Advent on several occasions, and walk two blocks to the Tutwiler Hotel to buy a Coke and Nabs with her stolen offering money. My mother accompanied me on a school visit in Washington, D.C. recently. I had introduced her to my audience of fourth and fifth graders earlier during my talk and when I revealed that yes, my own mother had actually pocketed her offering money from church a few times when she was young, the entire audience of kids turned around at once with shocked faces and stared at my mother who smiled back sheepishly from her place in the back row. I think children feel comforted when they read about good kids who make mistakes and still pull through to triumph in the end.

Another favorite story from the book actually came from my grandmother. When my grandmother was a young girl, her father read a newspaper story about a deaf boy who had his hearing miraculously restored when he was riding an airplane and the plane suddenly dropped in altitude. Unbelievably, my great-grandfather decided to give this a try and hired a pilot to carry his daughter up in an airplane and steer through drastic changes in altitude. Of course, when the plane landed, my grandmother still couldn't hear, but she claimed that this was a defining moment for her and her father because he finally accepted her deafness once and for all. In Singing Hands, Gussie's mother Olivia Davis tells this story and it has become one of my favorite moments in the book.

SPW: When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?

DR: Even as a young girl, I knew I wanted to be a writer. My best friend and I used to entertain ourselves by writing books of poetry and creating our own version of Greek myths, which we then tried to sell to friends and family members, without much success! Still I continued to love the process of inventing and fine-tuning stories and after college, when my father worried that I would never be able to make my living as a writer, I decided to become an editor instead, which seemed a much safer choice at the time. Fortunately, through my work as an editor, I stumbled into an opportunity to write non-fiction books about history for children, and eventually found my way to writing historical novels for kids. If you'd like to read more about this, there's a bit more information about my early writing projects on my website:

SPW: What advice would you give to young people who are reading your books for the first time?

DR: Mainly, I'd like my readers to turn the last pages of my books, feeling like they've just finished a good story. And hopefully, along the way, they've also gained a new awareness about people who lead different lives than their own. I also hope that, like Gussie, readers will find some small opportunity in their own lives to reach out to someone interesting like Abe or Belinda or even Mrs. Fernley, and try seeing the world through very different eyes.
Delia Ray's next book Here Lies Linc is about a character named Linc who lives next to a cemetery, has made friends with the cemetery groundskeeper, and spends his vacations searching through grave stones. To read more about her upcoming novel, visit

1 comment:

mightyheidi said...

I am in love with this blog! Thank you for creating this. We would love to interview YOU for our Deaf Kids' Art Network newsletter. Is there a way to reach you by email?

To check us out, you can visit our blog on to make sure we aren't completely crazy people.