From the Margins of Disaster

By Ashley Pérez


My third novel is about disasters. The disaster that catalyzes many of the events—a 1937 school explosion in New London, Texas—captured international media attention at the time. A more pervasive disaster—systemic racial inequality and unequal access to opportunity—didn’t raise an eyebrow.

Before the explosion, New London was seen as one of the luckiest towns in the country. A small farming village made suddenly prosperous by the discovery of oil, New London was spared the worst effects of the Great Depression. In fact, tax revenues from oil production were what made the building of the New London school possible. It was described in newspapers as “the richest rural school in the world.” At a time when schools in other communities could barely pay their teachers half wages, the New London school had chemistry laboratories, a home economics cottage with a suite of electric sewing machines, musical instruments and band uniforms for all the children, sports, foreign languages and fine arts, even college-credit courses. These opportunities were remarkable for the time and in that they were made available to the many children of the oilfield workers who flooded the area in search of work.

In the end, more than 200 of these children were killed. The estimate is 217, although it’s impossible to know for sure. Many of the bodies were not identifiable or intact after the explosion, meaning that identifications depended on the recovery of personal objects or body parts that had unique characteristics (scars, birthmarks, and the like). In addition, the oilfield workers in New London came and went at all times of the year, meaning that it was hard to know who was enrolled at the time of the explosion. Some families that lost children simply collected the bodies of their kids, packed up, and drove out of town, heading back toward West Texas or Oklahoma or wherever they called home. A systematic record of recovered bodies was not established until hours after the explosion, meaning that some dead children may not have been included in the final count.

As I learned more about the disaster, I found myself returning to a question: what might the New London explosion have meant for black Americans whose children were spared precisely because of their exclusion from the state-of-the-art white school? The oral histories and documentary materials on the explosion make no reference to African American experiences. This kind of exclusion was typical of the time; news in the black community—whether good or bad—rarely received coverage. In many ways, then, the novel narrates from a gap or a silence in the historical record, imagining possibilities based on other histories and on the dynamics between the characters I invent. (I talk about gaps in the historical record a bit more here.)

My research also led to the discovery that at least one Hispanic child was killed in the explosion, and I began to imagine the unique confluence of circumstances that could make it possible for a Mexican-American child to attend a white school in 1930s Texas. At that time, and for decades to follow, any place in Texas with a significant Hispanic population employed a tripartite segregation system: white schools, black schools, and even more inferior “Mexican” schools that systematically marginalized students and worked to force them out of the public school system altogether. (More on that process here.) Unlike cities like San Antonio or the rural towns of South Texas, New London did not have an established Mexican-American community. The oil boom—and the prospect of work—attracted people from all over the state and country. In Gather, the opportunity to attend the New London School is what brings the Mexican-American protagonist and her twin siblings to East Texas in the first place.

A shared history of school segregation is something that unites the protagonist and her eventual love interest, the handsome son of the principal of the London Colored School. But there are important differences to note, too, about their experiences in school. While African-Americans in 1930s faced gross inequalities when it came to educational resources, the pioneering efforts of many individuals to use education as a tool for advancement meant that finishing high school and possibly even attending an all-black college were at least possible. Not so for most Mexican-American students in Texas, where most kids were essentially forced out of public school by sixth grade.


Enormously overcrowded classrooms in the “Mexican” schools made learning difficult, putting the students further behind their white peers with each year. On top of that, the school districts in Texas often divided each elementary grade into two years (for example, “lower first,” “upper first”) in “Mexican” schools. The result was that–by middle school—these students were often told they were “too old” for the grade they should have been able to join in the (white) middle school. Access to high school was extremely limited; in Houston in the 30s, for example, only a handful of Mexican-Americans (usually lighter skinned) graduated from high school at all despite a significant Hispanic population in the area. These students faced discrimination in white schools, and there was no “Mexican” public high school. Access to university-level study would have been limited to those students who could pass for white.

In addition, unlike African-Americans, whose teachers–also African-American–were usually committed to helping students use education to combat their circumstances, Mexican-American children were almost invariably taught by white teachers who often considered this an “undesirable” placement and were quick to underestimate the abilities of their students.

While these experiences of inequality wouldn’t seem to be central to the novel, in many ways they condition both the possibility of the story and the particulars of its unfolding. And they are the dark current that runs beneath and through the events of the school explosion and its aftermath in the story. For a taste of this novel, which is forthcoming in 2015 from Carolrhoda Lab, check out the excerpt recently published by The Texas Observer.


Images and credits:

The New London School during the all-night recovery effort, March 19, 1937 (Photo credit: Prints and Photographs Collection, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission. 1976/11-7.)

“No Spanish or Mexicans” sign (Photo by Russell Lee. 1949, Dimmitt, Texas. Archived at the Center for American History, University of Texas.)

The Road to Publishing: a Q & A with Andrew Karre of Carolrhoda Books

On Tuesday, Ashley Hope Pérez laid out what it’s like to work with rock star editor Andrew Karre , editorial director of Carolrhoda Books, Carolrhoda Lab & Darby Creek. Today, we have a bonus post, a Q&A between Ashley and Andrew, the last piece in our “Road to Publishing” series. We hope it’s been helpful! All of the posts can now be found if you click on the “The Road to Publishing Series” tab on the menu.

Ashley: What are the rookie mistakes you see first-time authors make during the editorial process?

Andrew: Rushing revisions. There are no points for speed. Although I hope I’ve learned enough to anticipate this and prevent it.

Ashley: What qualities make you look forward to working with an author again on a future project? Any deal-breakers?


Andrew: A spirit of adventure. The authors I most enjoy working with are excited about the process. They like to use me as a sounding board, as a stress-test for their work. They want to hear my questions and suggestions, but they’re quite capable of going an entirely different direction. I’m not interested in authors who unquestioningly adopt my view of YA fiction. I’m interested in authors who will engage with it and articulate their own. In many cases, editing is a bit of a friendly struggle between the author and me wherein my goal is to lose in an interesting way that highlights the author’s strengths.

Ashley: In what way(s) does your approach to the editing process differ from other editors you know or have worked with?

Andrew: It’s hard to say. I only have second-hand information about how others edit. I tend not to write editorial letters. I prefer to write voluminous marginal notes and have lots of phone conversations (or lunches, whenever possible). Maybe that’s unusual? My goal in a markup is to highlight the places where an author is at the height of her powers and then challenge her to meet that standard throughout.

Ashley: Boundary-pushing is arguably your editorial signature. How does that priority influence the guidance you offer authors during the editing process?

Andrew: I don’t really think about that when we’re editing. Editing is about realizing and reconciling a manuscript’s potential and its author’s vision. It’s about pleasing the two of us, first and foremost. Insofar as we worry only about the limitations inherent in the manuscript, I guess the desire to be unbound is present.

Ashley: Beyond writing (and revising) a novel into its best possible form, what should authors be doing from the time they sign their contract to the time of the book’s release?

Social-media-for-public-relations1Andrew: There are a few practicalities every author should take care of–at least by that point if not sooner. Acquire all your digital real- estate. By that I mean, register a useful domain name, grab a good Twitter handle, etc.  Even if you can’t see how you’ll use them, at least you’ll have them. The only one of these that costs anything is the domain, and that’s cheap. Then, read your contemporaries. And if you can, interact with them as a colleague and fellow traveler. Join the conversations online in much the way you’d join a dinner party conversation: wait for your opening, and take it graciously when it comes. Be interesting, first and foremost. It’s not about selling.

Ashley: I distinctly remember a come-to-Jesus talk we had about social media some time between revisions for What Can’t Wait and the book’s launch day. I remember feeling very overwhelmed. Now, four years down the line, I can see lots of benefits from the relationships that I’ve established by existing online and at least intermittently being present in Twitter and other spaces.

At Latin@s in Kid Lit, we’re working to draw more attention to great books for younger kids as well as teens. What are some of your favorite books to read to or with your boys?  Do their preferences ever surprise you?

Andrew: Henry (5) loves nonfiction at the moment. He loves processes and technical details so we read a lot of things in that vein. I really loved Building Our House by Jonathan Bean. In the coverage of the death of Charlotte Zolotow, we discovered her Over and Over, and that’s been fun.  I still enjoy reading Goodnight Moon to Edmund (18 months).

Ashley: What’s one book that you hope to find in your stocking this holiday season?

Andrew: I still haven’t read NW by Zadie Smith and I generally enjoy her work.

Ashley: Any thoughts on the current state of publishing with regard to the percentages of works by/for/about Latin@s?

Andrew: It seems to me that the level of awareness of the need among publishers is high, as is the desire to find and break out new voices. High enough? I don’t know if it’s possible to say. I know I’m encouraged.