Celebrate African-American Music Appreciation Month with When Grandmama Sings

President Obama has issued a proclamation naming June 2015 as African-American Music Appreciation Month. I recently sat down with the Jazz Collaborative to discuss When Grandmama Sings. Following are excerpts from that conversation.

Cover for emailing  (1)

JC: Your book, When Grandmama Sings, intermingles jazz with Southern history. Describe the story.

MM: When Grandmama Sings takes place in the 1940’s. Belle’s grandmother is a local singer in a small town in Mississippi. She gets an opportunity to go on a tour of the South and she takes Belle with her.

When Grandmama Sings shows what life was like for black entertainers who traveled from place to place. Grandmama is protective of Belle but she doesn’t shelter her from the harsh realities of life. They encounter separate hotels for blacks and whites. They can’t eat in a restaurant after a show because of the color of their skin. Grandmama meets with injustice in New Orleans when a club owner wants her to perform without pay. And when she performs in a big venue in Atlanta the audience is segregated: whites sit on the main floor and black people have to sit in the balcony.

JC: But after the tour great things happen for Grandmama.

MM: Absolutely. I love happy endings. I want students to know that life isn’t fair or equal at times. Regardless of how you are treated, if you remain focused on the gift you have inside of you, no one act or person can put your light out.

JC: What defines the relationship between Belle and her grandmother?

Trust defines their relationship. Bell travels with her grandmother and helps her read signs, menus, newspapers, etc. Even though she is a child, Belle is providing a valuable service to her grandmother. Grandmama trusts Belle to read everything to her. And Belle trusts her grandmother to take care of her.

JC: I love the relationship between Belle and her grandmother. Tell us about your relationship with your grandmother.

MM: My grandmother and I were very close. When she visited her sisters in other cities, she took me with her. My earliest memories are of me sitting in a chair beside my grandmother and she is teaching me how to read. When I was older my grandmother taught me how to cook. I will always cherish those moments in the kitchen with her teaching me her secret recipes. I wanted to show the same closeness between Belle and her grandmother.

JC: Why is it important for children to read books like When Grandmama Sings during African-American Music Appreciation Month?

MM: With budget decreases in schools and arts programs being cut, students are not being exposed to music and art programs. It is important that students learn to appreciate different types of music. They should know that certain types of music were born out of struggle. If students hear music and can read about the challenges the artist faced, they will have a better appreciation of what it takes to build a career.

JC: Students loved your program on When Grandmama Sings where you introduced female blues and jazz singers. Why is it important that they actually hear the music from that era?

MM: Students are familiar with music of today: rap, hip hop, and pop songs. It isn’t every day that they hear a different type of music. By introducing them to blues and jazz singers, I hope the music will speak to something inside of them. They will see that stories can be told through music.

JC: When Grandmama Sings is a recipient of the Living The Dream Award. What does this honor mean to you?

MM: It is extra special because students voted on the books. I am honored that When Grandmama Sings touches the hearts and minds of students.

JC: What does African-American Music Appreciation Month mean to you?

MM: It means that adults and children can learn about the rich heritage of African American music. African Americans played an integral role in all types of music: blues, jazz, soul, rock & roll, musical theater, opera, classical, and choral music. This month is a great time to learn about their contributions.

JC: Any final thoughts about music?

MM: There is strength in music. The songs of the Civil Rights Movement provided strength and hope during the entire struggle for equal rights. There is joy in music. A song has the ability to lift people to a higher realm. That’s joy! There is power in music. Music has the power to change moods. Music, in all of its styles, is part of our lives. It is like the different color strands in fabric that when woven together creates a beautiful garment.


JC: Thanks so much for talking to us. If people want to learn more about your books, where can they reach you?

MM: http://margareekmitchell.com

Book information, as well as contact information, is there.

Uncle Jed’s Barbershop Speaks To A New Generation

Recently I visited Schertz Elementary School near San Antonio to talk about Uncle Jed’s Barbershop. My main goal when visiting with students is to inspire them to dream big dreams for their lives. Students were excited to share their dreams. My heart is filled with joy because Uncle Jed’s story is just as relevant today as it was when it was first published.


Uncle Jed’s Barbershop tells the story of Uncle Jed who goes house to house cutting hair in the 1920’s and 1930’s. His dream is to open his own barbershop. However he meets with setback after setback. But he doesn’t give up on his dream. He finally opens his barbershop when he is 79 years old.

When I ask students to share their dreams of what they want to be when they grow up, I find that students fall into three categories: those who are eager to share, those who are shy and don’t want to voice their dreams, and those who have no dreams at all.

I try to draw out the shy, reticent ones to let them know that their dreams matter. And even if their friends laugh at them, it doesn’t matter. You see, my friends laughed at me too when I said I wanted to get my books published. But I didn’t listen to them and set about pursuing my dream.

When I encounter students who have no dreams I try to get them to think about what they like to do. As they think about the things they like soon the light comes on and there is a secret dream that they have but they don’t think they can accomplish it.

So I tell them my story, complete with the heartaches that made me want to quit and the successes that came because I didn’t give up on my dream.

Then we discuss Uncle Jed’s Barbershop and the setbacks Uncle Jed encountered on the way to achieving his dream.

By the end of the visit students realize that they can dream of accomplishing a goal. And they can achieve it, regardless of the challenges they encounter.

I know because of the many letters I receive from students. I also hear stories from people who met me at their schools years ago and are pursuing their dreams because of my encouragement.

I am overjoyed that a new generation of students is now hearing the Uncle Jed’s Barbershop story in a variety of ways: literature textbooks, required reading lists, social studies textbooks, financial planning lessons, entrepreneurship lessons, studying about relationships with older people, philanthropy education, lessons on the Great Depression, etc.

Because of the many lessons that have been developed from Uncle Jed’s Barbershop I am getting invitations to schools to tell students the story behind the story. If you would ask a student what they remember most about my visit, they will tell you that I encourage them to dream and to believe those dreams can come true, whether they are saving to buy a video game, or planning to go to college, or dreaming of becoming a scientist.

Students in other countries are also reading Uncle Jed’s Barbershop. The book has been translated into many languages. Students in China, South Korea, Israel, Japan, and other countries are hearing about Uncle Jed and his dream. I recently received an email from a father in Israel who told me how much the book impacted him and his daughter and the discussion that ensued because of it. Regardless of where they live, students are learning to dream big dreams for their lives. And in the process, they are learning something about the history of the American South.

Chinese Uncle Jed - Copy

The team of David Wohl, Kenneth Grimes, and Susan Einhorn has adapted Uncle Jed’s Barbershop into an award-winning musical featuring Broadway veterans. Students and their families can now see the story come to life on the stage when it comes to their cities.

TeenSpeak Memphis – A Special Place

I had a wonderful visit with teens in Memphis this week.  We discussed having a special place to go when life turns upside down.

In my YA novel The People In The Park, Lauren seeks refuge in the park.  This is how she describes her special place.

River Landing.  A small but beautiful, scenic park with huge sprawling trees that stood guard over the playground and gazebo and lined the winding walking path was tucked into a natural preserve off downtown Fairfield.  One side of the v-shaped three-mile walking trail meandered along the Missouri River.  The other side bordered the railroad tracks.

The special places Memphis teens mentioned that they go to think about their lives were also in nature.  Parks, hiking trails, lakes –  Each had the ability to calm and provide serenity.

Stephanie says, “I like to draw.  So any place I can sit and draw is a place I can get lost in and take me away from my troubles.  My favorite place is a flower garden.”

Arie’s grandparents have a farm close to Memphis.  She says, “I can go there and escape from life.  The wide open spaces make me realize that there is more to life than petty problems.”


Caryn says,  “I like to go to the lake. Any lake.  And just sit and stare out at the water.  When I leave I feel refreshed.”  She adds, “I could identify with Lauren because her special park has a river.  There is something about water that soothes your soul.”

When life gets hard nature beckons Memphis teens.  It is a place to be alone with their thoughts.  A place to renew & refresh.


TeenSpeak Atlanta – Allowances


Teens in Fayetteville, a south suburb of Atlanta, are reading The People In The Park and talking allowances.  Their reaction to  Lauren’s father being arrested, his bank accounts being frozen,  placing his daughter on a $100 a week spending budget, and taking away her credit cards is sparking lively conversation.

Most teens in Fayetteville do not receive an allowance.  They got one when they were younger and just learning about money.  As they grew into their pre-teen years there wasn’t a need for allowances because their needs varied from week to week.

By the time they reached their teens it was understood that their needs would be met.

Teens thought that Lauren was being unreasonable and complaining about having to get by on $100 a week.  “Lauren needs to learn that family is more important than money,” says Christina.

Dani says she could spread $100 over 3 weeks if she had to cut back.  She goes on to say, “It was great Lauren’s father got in trouble because Lauren needed to learn how to exhibit discipline in how she spends money.”

Leslie considers herself a really smart shopper.  She actually makes her own clothes.  Therefore Leslie says, “I wouldn’t spend $100 a week.  I would keep it in my bank account because I wouldn’t know how long it would be before things returned to normal.”  Leslie thinks if she had to cut back she could get by on $10 a week.  “If someone needs $100 a week to get by, they are really using it on stuff they don’t need.”

TeenSpeak Houston – Allowances

Teens in Sugar Land, a south suburb of Houston, talked about allowances recently.  Teen reporter Zariah and her friends discussed how much money they need to get through a week.  The discussion was prompted by a section in my YA novel, The People In The Park.  The following conversation takes place between 16-year-old Lauren (Kitten) and her father when he informs the family that they will have to cut back on their spending:

“We’re going to have to downsize for the moment,” he said.  “I’ll need whatever money I can scrape together to hire lawyers.  Kitten, you still have your personal savings account.  Use it wisely, because I don’t know how long it’s going to be before I can clear my name.  Try not to use over one hundred dollars a week.”

One hundred dollars a week?  That was nothing.  I couldn’t get by on one hundred dollars a week.

“And don’t use your credit cards.  Give them to me.”  He held out his hand.  “I’ll return them when it’s okay to use them again.”

Stunned, I opened my wallet and handed him my credit cards.  “My gas card, too?”

He nodded.  “You’re going to have to pay for gas out of the hundred dollars.”

“After paying for gas and lunch I’ll barely have any money left.”

“This is only temporary.  We all have to make sacrifices.”

Teens in Sugar Land had a strong reaction to this conversation.  Most teens thought that spending less than $100 a week wouldn’t cause undue hardship.

Zariah says, “WOW!!  It’s very fortunate to have that much money.  Spending less than $100 a week is easy.”  She goes on to say that she does not have a weekly allowance and has never had to cut back on the money she spends.   If she really wants something most of the time she can get it by doing extra things at home.  She ends by saying, “It would be challenging to cut back because I wouldn’t be able to get the things I want.  But cutting back for Lauren is good.  She will learn how to spend money wisely.”

However, Miranda has an allowance of $50 a week.  She says, “If I got $100 a week I would save $50 or spend it on shoes or treat myself to something.  It depends on what’s going on that week.” She has never had to cut back on spending.

Another friend states, “I can identify with Lauren.  Spending less than $100 a week isn’t enough for me to get what I want.  I wouldn’t be able to do that!”

Zariah and friends cannot imagine not having the means to purchase what they want whether they have an allowance or not.   They can sympathize with Lauren regardless of the amount of money they receive weekly because they have never had to cut back and cannot imagine how their world would change.


TeenSpeak Atlanta – SCANDAL & SHAME

Teens in the Atlanta area are weighing in on Scandal & Shame as it relates to Lauren in The People In The Park.

In the book Lauren arrives home from school and sees her mother crying.  The TV is tuned to a news channel.  Lauren says:

I sat there mesmerized as the news anchor said, “Peter Williams, Founder of Williams Ortiz L.L.P., was arrested this morning. He is accused of bilking clients out of millions of dollars.  An early estimate puts the figure at $300 million.  Arrested along with him were other top officials of the law firm, including Samuel Ortiz, Chief Financial Officer, and Roger Moffit, Managing director.  It is not clear the role they played in the fraud, what is known…” the anchor continued.

But my mind stopped when the reporter said Roger Moffit.  My Dad.  Roger Moffit.  It couldn’t be.  There had to be some mistake.

Roger Moffit, who always taught me right from wrong.  Roger Moffit, who always told me that stealing is wrong.  Not that Roger Moffit.  It must be somebody else.

Later Lauren continues:

How could I hold my head up at school tomorrow knowing my daddy’s picture was broadcast all over the world as being a crook?  There’s no way I could go back to school.  But my friends were there.  What would they think?


TeenSpeak Atlanta reporter Christina reports that Lauren’s reaction to her father’s arrest is spot on.

Most teens said they would be highly embarrassed if the same thing happened to their father.  They didn’t know if the scandal or the shame they felt would be worse.  Sabrina even went so far as to say that the shame would be so great that she would not even go back to school.

Another teen said she could not bear facing her friends and teachers.   The shame of the situation would make her get on a plane and go to a place where no one knew her.

Christina said her reaction would depend on which relative was on the news and what crime they were accused of.  If it was something really, really bad like murder or cheating people out of millions of dollars, she wouldn’t be able to show her face ever again.

Christina sums up by saying, “Family members can make teens embarrassed to know them.  We are always told to be on our best behavior.  But how are we supposed to feel if a parent engages in criminal activity?

“I think parents should set the example and display the high standards that they want us to display.”



3 Ways To Inspire Students On School Visits

My chief mission on school visits is to inspire students to dream big and believe their dreams can come true.  When I volunteered in schools, I discovered that many students had no dreams beyond going to school every day.  They didn’t connect the present to the future.  They didn’t realize that doing well in school now could make possible a great life in the future.  In the process of working with the students I learned that first and foremost they needed someone to believe in them.  Someone to tell them they were smart.  Someone to encourage them to believe that they could do great things in life.

Now when I visit with students to talk about my books, regardless of whether they are in elementary, middle, or high school, I try to connect with them before I even mention my books.  I do this by:

1) Telling My Story – I let them know that on the way to achieving dreams there will be setbacks.  But they shouldn’t let those challenges deter them from their dreams.  They should keep their dreams in sight and forge ahead regardless of the difficulties they encounter.  I share with them the rejections I received and all the great things that have happened because I didn’t give up when I received rejection letters.

2) Engaging Them – I actually try to talk to students individually.  I love talking to small groups of students.  In small settings I can ask questions and get feedback on how they think.  I also ask about their dreams for the future.  In small groups students feel free to share their hopes and dreams.  In large groups it never fails that some students will laugh at a particular student’s dream that has been shared.  I let students know that they matter.  And I encourage them to dream big dreams for their lives.

3) Talking About The Story Behind My Books – In my books I tell stories about ordinary people who achieved extraordinary things for the time period in which they lived.  I do this to let students know that they too can make a difference in the world.

By the time I read one of my books or an excerpt from one, I have captured their attention and hopefully inspired a few to see beyond their present circumstances and dream of a better life.

I recently saw the following comment that a college student had written online about my first book, Uncle Jed’s Barbershop.

“When I first read this book way back in elementary school I loved it and still do.   I am a college sophomore now.  The first day I got this book I met Margaree King Mitchell and she was so nice.  She had come to our school to have a book signing and she wrote ‘Never Give Up On Your Dreams’ in my book.  I’m following that dream by going to college.”

Needless to say, this made my day.  And it makes what I’m doing worthwhile.  If I can just touch a few students (although I hope to touch all) and convince them that they can be and do anything they desire in life, then I am fulfilling my mission.

Grove Photos


The Real People In The Park


Every morning I walk in a park similar to the one in The People In The Park.  The horseshoe-shaped walking trail is 3 miles.  Set in a small college town near Kansas City, the park borders the Missouri River on one side and railroad tracks on the other.  On the other side of the railroad tracks is the college.

I first saw the park while attending a concert at the college.  Lush green trees created the perfect backdrop for the river.  It seemed so peaceful.  I just had to walk there!  At the time I was walking in another beautiful setting at a community college.  But it paled in comparison to the serene waters of the river.  First I walked in this oasis once a week.  Then two times a week.  Soon I had to be there every day.  So every morning I make the 10 mile trek to the park to start my day in a beautiful inspiring setting.

In spring the sweet smell of newness fills the air.  In summer the park is filled with children, walkers, students, and festivals.  In fall the bright colors of the leaves create a kaleidoscope.  In winter the trees are barren but the water in the river still flows.

Stately black wrought iron benches line the trail and face the river. I never saw anyone sitting on the benches.  So I started bringing a book and after I finished walking I’d sit on a bench and read, or think, or plan my day.

I was fascinated when I first started walking there.  Everybody seemed to know everybody.  They would walk awhile and stop to chat when they met up on the trail.  Belong long people would stop and want to know what I was reading.  That’s how my relationship with the people in the park started.  Through books.  Sometimes I had a novel.  Other times an inspirational book.  Through books I learned about the people in the park.  What they believed.  What they wanted out of life.  Their celebrations.  Their heartache.  Their pain.  They shared with me their life stories.  Now I know the people in the park and am considered one of them.

I’ve had interesting conversations with the people in the park.  There are interesting people who walk there.  For instance, there is a former member of the Platters singing group.  He proudly brought me newspaper articles about him.  So fascinating.  He models now.  When he got a commercial he shared the news.  He was proud to be a spokesperson for a bank.  When the print ad came out, he brought me a copy.  I shared in his joy.

An opera singer.  A playwright.  Teachers.  A former professional football player.  Entrepreneurs.  Doctors.  Parents of students at the Air Force Academy.  I’ve met them all.

Couples get married.  Birthday parties.  Family gatherings.  Company picnics.  Concerts.  It all happens in the park.

When my book, The People In The Park, was published, word spread through the park like wildfire.  The most frequently asked question I received was, “Am I in it?”   I answered, “No.”  The reactions were either disappointment or joy.

One day I was sitting on a bench thinking about a new story.  My thoughts were interrupted by a retired policeman who inquired about my book.  He had heard about it from someone in the park.  He pulled out his wallet and said, “I want a book.”   I don’t have the heart to tell retired people to go to the bookstore or order online.  So I took his money, promising to get a book for him.  At that moment, a woman neither of us knew was walking towards us on the trail.

When she saw him give me money she almost fell in the Missouri River.  I can only imagine what she was thinking since I am African-American and the retired policeman is Caucasian.

The walkers have changed in the  5 years I’ve been walking there.  Most of the people I knew in the beginning have moved on and new faces are becoming regular walkers.  But the character of the park hasn’t changed.

The park serves as a mini-community of friends.  A place to discuss the latest local and national news.  A place where people aren’t shy about expressing their political and religious views.  Regular walkers recognize me and speak and inquire about my day.  Nobody is too busy to stop and share a morning greeting.

One morning I was sitting on a bench reading and a man stopped to talk.  He had never talked to me before.  He said, “My wife died.”  I was shocked.  I’d just seen his wife and talked to her the week before.  He told me the details.  She had simply gone to sleep that Sunday night and never awakened.  After a few more words, he said, “I just wanted to talk to somebody who knew my wife.”  My being there in that moment comforted him.

Her sudden passing was hard on the people in the park.  She was in her mid-40’s and had a 13-year-old son at home.  The walkers rallied around him and shared in his grief.  He doesn’t walk in the park anymore.  Too many memories.

I wanted a community just like this one for Lauren, the main character in my book.  The people in the park are there for Lauren while her parents are consumed with their problems.

The people in the park I walk embody the true meaning of community.  When I lived in a big city and walked in a park not once did I see people stopping to chat with someone who crossed their path.  The people in this park look out for each other.  If a week or two goes by and they haven’t seen anyone, they inquire of others about them.

Last year I was out of town for 2 months straight.  When I returned to the park everybody wanted to know, “What happened to you?  We missed seeing you.”  Now when I’m going to be away, I always inform the regulars that I’m leaving town.

The people in the park where I walk hold a special place in my heart.  Through them I’ve come to understand the true meaning of the kindness of strangers.

I’d love to write their stories for real one day.



The People In The Park – A Novel For Teens

A couple of years ago my nieces were visiting and the topic turned to the books they were reading.  They hesitantly named books they had read.  Then they became quiet.  After a moment they lamented that it was hard to find books to read with characters they could identify with.  Books with characters like them.

They’re great students with good grades.  They’re intelligent young ladies preparing for college.  They lead well-rounded lives with a lot going on.

But they can’t find books with characters like them!


– leaders

– sassy

– smart

– trendy

– feisty

– fun-loving

– thoughtful

– well-versed in the issues of the day

Yet they can’t find books with characters like them.

They hurt.  They mourn.  They have disappointments.  They have crushes.  Their hearts are broken.  They have conflicts with parents.

African-American teens are no different from other teens, sharing common experiences.  Teens are complex beings, leaving childhood behind and on the verge of adulthood.  There is more than one thing going on in their lives at any given time.

They navigate:

– friends

– family

– school

– extracurricular activities

– church

– community

However, they can’t find books with characters like them.

African-American teens live in a diverse society – a world inhabited by people of many cultures.  They navigate this world every day.

They should be able to read about those experiences.

So to my nieces and all teens who can’t find books with characters like them, here is The People In The Park, with love.


Book Blurb:

Lauren Moffit is privileged and overprotected by her wealthy parents.  She is one of the few African-American students in a prestigious prep school in a predominately white neighborhood.  The world is her oyster.

Nothing can prepare her for the devastating scandal that rocks her world when her father is charged with investment fraud.  Spoiled and self-centered, she struggles to keep her head high.  But it’s not until she hears the stories of the people in the park, where she takes her daily run, that Lauren realizes she can rise above her family ‘situation.’