Award winning writer Joyce Carol Thomas, the author and illustrator of more than 50 children's books and winner of the National Book Award for Children's Fiction in 1983, was born in 1938 in Ponca City and was the fifth of nine children born into a family of cotton pickers. Although Thomas was about 10 when her family moved from Ponca City to California, she has always considered herself an Oklahoman and her memories of life in Ponca City and the surrounding areas have inspired much of Thomas' award-winning fiction, poetry and plays. Four of Thomas' novels are set in Ponca City: Marked by Fire (1982), Bright Shadow (1983), The Golden Pasture (1986) and The House of Light (2001).
"I grew up in Ponca City, where my family lived on the black side of town," says Thomas. "There was a park dividing the black side from the white side, and to get to the white side or downtown you had to walk through that park. For the first several years of my life I rarely went over to that part of town. So you see, this Oklahoma community was a very sheltered place for me."
Thomas remembers the strength of the African American community in Ponca City. "In my community there were many beautiful moments connected with church and the extended responsibility of adults for children. This was very evident in my life and my friends' lives. Any adult could chastise you if you were caught doing something you weren't supposed to be doing. There was also a sense of pride in the achievements of any child, and everybody shared in that."
Thomas credits her storytelling ability to her mother. "She was a great storyteller," says Thomas. "Every year when we went out to pick cotton in Red Rock, the women told stories at night to entertain us. My mother, who was the lead teller, specialized in really scary stories. I remember that one of the women would slip away and put on a sheet, and when my mother reached the scariest part of the story, this woman would run out of the house in her sheet and scare us half to death."
Thomas was still in grade school when she won her first writing prize — a school essay contest — but Thomas says that the local paper would not include her in the winners because "they just didn't value what black children did. We simply weren't considered to be in competition with the white youngsters." Rather than become angry or discouraged, Thomas preferred simply to face the situation and move on. Since those early days Thomas' fiction, poetry and plays have received recognition and awards. Her first novel, "Marked by Fire," won the National Book Award for Children's Fiction in 1983, Thomas has won three Coretta Scott King awards from the American Library Association, she was Oklahoma Poet Laureate from 1996 to 2000, she won a Teacher's Choice Award in 1999 and now Thomas is being inducted into the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame this week at a ceremony at the Philbrook Museum of Art. After her induction, Thomas will be appearing as part of the Oklahoma Landscapes project and will be launching a statewide reading campaign focusing on Oklahoma authors.
The Ponca City News reports that Thomas was in Ponca City in 2001 to autograph copies of her books at Brace Books and to talk about her latest book “House of Light,” that takes place in Ponca City and centers around Dr. Abyssinia Jackson, a regal, nurturing woman possessed of remarkable healing powers. "Part lively novel, part sermon, this story of the black community in Ponca City, Oklahoma, pulls you in with the beat of the prose, the love and sorrow of the people, the changes that transform things," wrote Booklist.
Thomas' first novel, "Marked by Fire," which won the National Book Award for Children's Fiction in 1983 is based on a girl who is struck mute after being raped. "Despite a brutal rape and her subsequent abandonment by her father, the girl is buoyed up by her network of stalwart female friends," writes Jennifer Duke-Sylvester. "She overcomes these difficult events to become a strong young woman and pursue a medical education." Thomas says the book was based on a true story. "Once there was a young girl who got raped in the yard behind the schoolhouse. Before the rape, she'd had beautiful penmanship, but after the rape she couldn't write at all. She had to learn to walk again and to hold a pencil. That something like this could happen must have made quite an impression on me. I'm sure I was thinking, 'Where is God in all this?'"
Thomas balances the darkness in her stories with messages of hope and redemption and her stories have a strong religious aspect. "People will do horrible things to other people, and there is no way to explain it away. So I write about these things as a kind of warning, to tell young people there is a darkness in the world," says Thomas. "I know that life can be ugly, but it also can be beautiful."
We honor Joyce Carol Thomas for her remarkable achievements and take pride in the fact that Thomas uses her years growing up in Ponca City as background for many of her books. Congratulations to Joyce Carol Thomas for her induction into the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame. Ponca City is proud of you.