Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Voices from Our White House: Mark London Williams

Williams Answers Questions About "Escape Map"

Welcome back to the NCBLA blog's new weekly feature, Voices from Our White House, a series of interviews with some of the talented contributors to the art and literary anthology Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out, conducted by NCBLA high school intern Colleen Damerell.

Our White House was created by the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance. A collaborative effort by over 100 authors and illustrators, the book is the product of a desire to encourage young people to learn and read about American heritage. For more information, please visit and

This week we feature Mark London Williams, a journalist and author of the Danger Boy series. His piece in Our White House, entitled "Escape Map," is about growing up during the Cold War. Here's an excerpt:

Back in the '60s, we were so afraid of this "blowing up" that I drew an escape map on my bedroom wall. The map included our house, our neighbors' house, and my grandma's house, too, which seemed the best place to escape to. In those days, her home was on the edge of town, and I guess I thought I'd be safe there.
This all happened in a time—maybe like now—when no one felt very safe. At least the grown-ups didn't, and we kids could tell. It was a time called the Cold War.
We asked Mr. Williams a few questions about his piece:

NCBLA: It must have been scary to grow up during the Cold War. I was born in 1991, the year generally marking the end of the period, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, so I don't have any memory of the Cold War era. Was it difficult writing honestly to children about war and nuclear weapons?
MLW: It's always difficult to write with absolute honesty about potential annihilation -- heck, it's sometimes hard in my "Danger Boy" time travel stories to always write an unflinching account of history, since I don't want to provoke despair. On the other hand, there are many analogous tensions now, with the "portability" of weapons of mass destruction and the ongoing uncertainties about where global violence might erupt next -- and to what degree.

NCBLA: You're probably not drawing escape maps on your walls any more, but are you still afraid that everything could blow up around you? Do you feel safer now that you're older, or does the knowledge that comes with adulthood worry you more?
MLW: One would've thought that "grown ups" might have a better handle on solving some of the world's problems. At least, that's what I hoped when I was growing up in the 60's. Of course in that era, people who proposed visionary solutions to these problems usually wound up dead, at the all-too-convenient hands of some "lone nut" or other.

America's in another thankless war, as it was then, and top of that, environmental problems have gotten worse through decades of neglect.

So despite clear progress on other fronts, there still seems to be enough to, as you starkly note, "worry" about after all!

NCBLA: What are your hopes for President Barack Obama? What does he have to watch out for to keep the country safe?
MLW: To keep the country truly safe, President Obama will have to watch out for the special interests that see their own good as more important than the country's or the world's interests. Since a lot of these interests control cash flows to political campaigns, that will require a lot of intestinal fortitude.

The president will also have to watch out for fundamentalists of every stripe who seek to impose their agendas and beliefs on people here and in places like the Middle East. When you see your reward as coming entirely in the hereafter, and the world you have now as completely expendable in getting there, you tend to make some pretty bad -- if not horrific -- decisions.

Obama will also have to act on a wide array of environmental issues, such as climate change and species extinction , as well as the alternative fuel supply and food supply questions they raise. That will mean standing up to a *lot* of special interests.

And my hope for President Obama is that he's willing to be not-well-liked in the same way another White House occupant, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was when he joked to a visiting band leader of the opposite political party, "Millions of people hate my guts!"

"Change we can believe in" isn't going to be easy. But we'd best get on with it.

NCBLA: If you could have any job in the White House, what would it be?
MLW: Well, being a journalist, I would probably prefer to be communications director or press secretary! Or Secretary of the Interior, so I could propose radical and sweeping wilderness protection. I probably wouldn't last long in that job, though...

NCBLA: If you met John F. Kennedy at the "big cocktail party in the sky," as my English teacher calls it, what would you ask him?
MLW: Hmmm... Is it a 60's era cocktail party? Are members of the Rat Pack there? Is Marilyn? Are we wearing skinny ties and drinking martinis? If Sinatra's there, I might ask him if he thought supporting Nixon because he was personally mad at the Kennedys was, in retrospect, such a good idea.

As for JFK, well, the awful --yet inescapable --question would be whether he had any speculation about who authored his particular demise. I might also ask him what he thought a second term would've been like for him and whether he really was planning to disband the CIA and end the Vietnam War.
All those "what ifs" and "might have beens." In the 60's, we lived through too many of them. Which is undoubtedly part of the reason I grew up to write time travel stories -- kind of a "second chance" at history.

For more information on Mark London Williams, please read his OWH bio and visit his website.

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