Joyce Hansen

(b. 1942)

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(b. 1942–2010), novelist and educator.

Joyce Hansen's interest in writing was influenced by her mother, who had wanted to become a journalist, and her father, whose photography and storytelling fueled her appreciation of the beauty in the lives of ordinary people. After graduating from Pace University with a bachelor's degree in English, New York native Joyce Hansen became a teacher at a school for adolescents with learning disabilities. Confronted with the evidence that even poor readers would complete books that were interesting to them; believing that literature was a way of helping young people have hope, develop responsibility, and understand their environments; and knowing that positive stories of everyday heroism, of those who lived in less than ideal environments but who grew up healthy and whole in loving families and communities, particularly those who were black and Hispanic, were few and far between, Hansen decided to write stories for middle school students such as those she taught. Membership in the Harlem Writers Guild supplemented her careful reading of other writers and conscientious attempts to find her own artistic voice. Using her own life experiences and names, stories, and perspectives from her family, friends, and students, Hansen began to publish novels that reviewers praised for their convincing characters, authentic language, realistic settings, and optimism tempered with common sense. In The Gift-Giver (1980), Amir, a foster child, living in the same crime-ridden Bronx neighborhood as Doris, the underachieving daughter of overprotective parents, gives Doris greater understanding of the importance of friendship, of seeing “into” things in order to understand one's world, and of self reliance. In the sequel, Yellow Bird and Me (1982), Doris passes on Amir's lessons when she discovers that Yellow Bird plays class clown in an effort to mask his learning disability. While these and other sociopolitical themes inform her writing, Hansen's books are not didactic. Hansen fleshes out the elements that she believes are intrinsic to the African American experience—the importance of family, self-esteem, determination, and optimism—through characters, dialogue, and settings that are well drawn and credible. When Marcus, the protagonist of Home Boy (1982), stabs another student, scenes of his fearful flight are juxtaposed against scenes of his earlier life in St. Cruz, the destruction of the American dream for his emigrant family, and reconciliation with his father as he turns his son in to the police. Marcus, the social delinquent, is also Marcus the troubled and loved son, friend, and neighbor whose own will to reform is supported by members of his community.

In 1986, Hansen began publishing young adult novels about slavery and the Civil War in an attempt to make history come alive for her students. Which Way Freedom? (1986) and its sequel Out from This Place (1988) give detailed descriptions of slave life in the Gullah area of South Carolina during the Civil War for Obi, Easter, and Jason, three youngsters who come to love and depend upon one another when sold to the same owner. They provide examples of strength, courage, and resilience that can inspire and teach contemporary readers; however, the characters are not larger than life and do not always behave in stereotypical heroic fashion. Obi, for example, knows that Easter and Jason would slow him down so he plans to escape without them. Contrary to many depictions, the Union soldiers do not welcome the fugitive slaves but often return them to their slave owners or force them to do menial and backbreaking work without pay. The novels aptly illustrate why escape plans were fraught with failure and why some slaves chose to remain in bondage. Hansen's interest in the Civil War period led to nonfiction with the publication of Between Two Fires: Black Soldiers in the Civil War (1994). In 1995, the African Studies Association awarded Joyce Hansen its Children's Book Award for The Captive (1994), a historical novel that considers the problematic concepts of African participation in the slave trade and Puritans who owned slaves. Among her other historical based works are Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York's African Burial Ground (1997) and I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl (1997). Joyce Hansen believes that writers have the enormous responsibility of arresting ignorance, of providing insight and perspective, and of entertaining. Her work is praised for its powerful use of language to those ends.


Subjects: Literature.

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