Harriette Gillem Robinet Biography

Harriette Gillem Robinet’s grandfather was Robert E. Lee’s slave until the age of thirteen. When Robinet was a young child, her father would sit on the porch in the summer and tell her stories and encourage her to write every day. Those early experiences indelibly shaped Robinet’s later work. After her fifth child was born with cerebral palsy, Robinet realized that there were no books that he could relate to as an African American child with a disability, so she began writing some. Her first book was Jay and the Marigold in 1976, which she followed with Ride the Red Cycle in 1980. Not an author to be pigeonholed, Robinet also writes historical fiction.

Facts and Trivia

  • Robinet has a unique method for creating characters. She uses a personality chart with sixteen separate traits to make her characters real.
  • Robinet worked as a microbiologist until the birth of her first child. She then wrote articles for several different journals while at home with her children.
  • African Americans were not welcome in public libraries in Virginia and Washington, D.C., where Robinet grew up. She got a library card at the age of thirteen and remembers being followed through the library by suspicious staff members.
  • Robinet’s husband was the first editor of many of her books.
  • Robinet’s advice to budding writers is to always keep a journal handy and write as often as possible.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 877

Inspired by family stories, Harriette Gillem Robinet presents African-American history in fictional narratives. Born on July 14, 1931, in Washington D.C., Robinet is the daughter of teachers Richard Avitus and Martha (Gray) Gillem. She grew up in Virginia. Her family is Roman Catholic. During summers, she played at Arlington, Virginia, where her paternal grandfather had been a slave on Robert E. Lee's plantation. Robinet's great-aunt Anice told her about experiencing both suffering and happiness as a slave and how she and other slaves enjoyed outsmarting whites. These oral histories later shaped Robinet's fiction.

As a child, Robinet was affected by segregation which caused her to suffer unjust circumstances and humiliation. She rode in the back of buses, being forced off if she did not quickly give her seat to a white passenger. She was harassed at public libraries and for riding her bicycle through a white neighborhood on a shortcut to her home during a rain storm. A photograph of a Virginia lynching profoundly affected her. These events also had a great influence on Robinet's development as a writer.

After graduating with honors from Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., Robinet enrolled at the College of New Rochelle in New York. Her educational history is quite different from many other children's authors. By 1953, she completed a bachelor's degree majoring in microbiology. That field was her academic focus while pursuing graduate courses at the Catholic University of America, finishing a master's of science degree in 1957 and a doctor of philosophy five years later. After Robinet earned her first university degree, she was employed for one year as a bacteriologist at the Washington, D.C., Children's Hospital. She then worked as a medical bacteriologist at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center through 1957.

From 1957 to 1958, Robinet was a biology instructor at Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana, where guards prevented her from browsing the stacks at the city library. She had to ride buses seated behind a screen that said "Colored," carrying the screen with her if she had to move back to the rear seats to accommodate white passengers. She became acutely aware of segregation in the Deep South at that time when traveling on staff trips in Louisiana and Mississippi. Robinet also listened to stories her students shared about growing up black and southern as well as their parents' and grandparents' experiences. She collected local folklore and history which later benefited her fiction in the form of factual details which made her characters and settings compelling. When she resumed her schooling in Washington, D.C., Robinet became a research bacteriologist at Walter Reed.

Harriette Gillem married McLouis Joseph Robinet on August 6, 1960, and the couple moved to Oak Park, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. She worked as a civilian food bacteriologist with the United States Army Quartermaster Corps for two years. Her husband was a health physicist at the Argonne National Laboratory. They have six children.

Robinet identifies herself politically as a Democrat. An avid flower enthusiast, she belongs to the American Orchid Society. Robinet was always interested in writing. Her first children's book, Jay and the Marigold, was published in 1976. Because one of her sons has cerebral palsy, Robinet decided to write this story about handicapped children. Four years later, her second children's book, Ride the Red Cycle, was printed. She worked on a manuscript for an adult science fiction novel, Microbes of Gold. In the 1990s, Robinet began to publish novels for young adult readers.

Her fiction tends to be historical, featuring mostly African Americans, and emphasizing the themes of freedom and emancipation. Fire and war are frequent symbols in her books to represent the conflict, abrupt change, and metamorphoses her characters experience. Many of her books have plots based on a mystery. Robinet strives to humanize history. Her fiction is both entertaining and instructive although it sometimes seems didactic. In addition to her books, Robinet has also published magazine articles and she is a member of several writing organizations, including the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime. She has also presented writing workshops at the Illinois Book Fair.

Robinet has received recognition for her work. She was honored with the Notable Books in Social Studies Award, the 1991 Friends of American Writers Young Peoples Literature Award, the Carl Sandburg Award, and the Society of Midland Authors' 1998 Award for Children's Literature. Her 1998 book, Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule won the Scott O'Dell Historical Fiction Award. Walking to the Bus-Rider Blues was nominated for a 2001 Edgar Allan Poe Award sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America for best juvenile mystery.

Prior to writing Walking to the Bus-Rider Blues, Robinet traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1997 to research local history and the same June week in which her characters unravel the mystery concerning their missing money and prove they had not stolen from their employers. A stickler for accuracy, Robinet wanted to experience similar climatic conditions that her characters would have endured and to have a familiarity with the setting which she would fictionalize. Even though modern Montgomery has expanded with new buildings and housing developments and older neighborhoods have been renovated, Robinet could imagine what the city's basic infrastructure was like during the bus boycott in order to create Alfa's world.

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