|Joyce Carol Thomas in 2004|
(San Francisco Chronicle photo)
Thomas, who grew up working cotton fields in Oklahoma, published her first novel for young readers, Marked by Fire, in 1982. "Set in her home town of Ponca City, Okla., the book introduces a memorable and resilient character, Abyssinia Jackson, who appears in several subsequent books and becomes something of a mythic figure," Schudel writes. "Marked by Fire was quickly recognized as a modern classic of young people’s literature. It won both the National Book Award and the American Book Award and became a part of classroom studies throughout the country. It was later made into a musical play."
"Although she had lived in California since she was 10, Thomas found a never-ending source of literary inspiration in the rural fields and small towns of her native Oklahoma," Schudel writes. "She sought to draw portraits of black life different from stories in modern urban settings or in the time of slavery." Thomas told the African American Review in 1998, “I know of black boys and girls who squirm uncomfortably in their desks at the two-dimensional, unrelenting portrayal of young people as either victims of slavery or perennial do-ragwearers hanging out on a stoop next to a garbage can. There are black American stories somewhere between slavery and ghetto that also deserve telling.”