A Conversation with Heidi Tyline King and Ekua Holmes, Creators Behind Saving American Beach

Saving American Beach, a critically-acclaimed picture book biography, centers on MaVynee Betsch’s life and her activism to preserve an integral piece of American history.




Peri Frances, the niece of MaVynee Betsch, interviews Heidi Tyline King and Ekua Holmes, the creators behind Saving American Beach. This critically-acclaimed picture book biography centers on MaVynee’s life and her activism to preserve an integral piece of American history.

Peri Frances: Tell me how you first came to know of my aunt MaVynee and the story of American Beach.

Heidi Tyline King: My daughter had to write an essay in elementary school about a notable Floridian. I believe that the key to enjoying the writing process lies in choosing the right subject, so I encouraged her to spend time digging around for someone she found fascinating. She fell in love with MaVynee Betsch. MaVynee’s story stayed with me. I wanted to write a book about someone whom I considered to be a role model for my three daughters. I also felt that she was a hidden figure in Florida history, one that deserved to be celebrated.

Ekua Holmes: I first became aware of MaVynee Betsch, the Beach Lady, when I received the manuscript from Penguin. I was stunned that I had never heard of her and at once felt in love, challenged, and honored by her story.

Peri:  Why did you choose a children’s book as the vehicle to tell the story of MaVynee and American Beach? Had you previously written for children, or was there something about her story that you felt particularly lent itself to a book for young readers?

Heidi: Could there be a more compelling character? Add science! History! Activism! Conservation! Resilience! Music! A setting loved by all! As my first book for children, my manuscript was rejected fifteen times, with most editors commenting that MaVynee might be too much of an “adult figure” for children to understand. But I saw the way my daughters connected with her, and I knew other children would, too. I also felt that MaVynee didn’t go out looking for a fight. Rosa Parks, when asked why she started the bus boycott, said that all she was trying to do was get home from work. It was the same with MaVynee. All she was trying to do was save a little piece of paradise.

Peri: How did you research and prepare? Did you visit American Beach? Did you speak with any family members or people who knew MaV, or was it more so reading the books and articles written about her?

Heidi: I spoke with people who grew up with MaVynee and frequented American Beach. I visited American Beach, spent time combing through the Florida Archives, and read numerous articles and books about her life. I also spent time discussing MaVynee with Russ Rymer, who knew MaVynee personally and wrote an excellent book about American Beach.

Ekua: For research I used traditional channels—book, articles, photo searches on Google, and Heidi’s in-depth research too. On my first visit to the beach I was fortunate to catch the manager of American Beach Museum, Yuwnus Asami, as he was about to close and leave for the day. He was gracious and warm and stayed late to talk with me about the museum, MaVynee’s dream for it, as well as the artifacts on display. I was able to hear her voice recordings, look closely at photos of the family, and see the famous seven-foot loc that she bequeathed to the museum upon her death. It was a small space but was cleverly designed to take advantage of every corner and angle. My friend filled in other anecdotes and stories.

Peri: Did you have any trepidation about how to approach topics like racism, segregation, slavery, development, and gentrification in a book for young people?

Heidi: To tell MaVynee’s story fully, it was essential to address serious subject matters directly but also with a sensitivity. The depth of cruelty that white people inflicted on African Americans is unfathomable. MaVynee’s description of the rope in the ocean became a symbol to me, a white Southerner, of how far people were willing to go in the days of Jim Crow (and even today) to enforce racism. But children—they see through the constructs devised by adults. They get that a rope in the ocean to separate people is wrong. The best children’s literature always confronts hard topics as a way to help right wrongs and to shape children into critical thinkers.

Peri: The title of the book is Saving American Beach, and the refrain “something must be done” is utilized several times. The builders and developers eyeing and speculating are more active than ever on American Beach, although there’s also good news, like the preservation of Little Nana by the North Florida Land Trust. What do you think is the “something” that must be done now to save American Beach?

Heidi: What places like American Beach need now is publicity and further protection. The story of African American beaches, the horrors of the slave trade that occurred on that beach, the racism that was the impetus for the beach in the first place, the environmental value of American Beach to the Eastern Seaboard, and MaVynee’s resilience and activism in saving the beach are all stories that the greater public should know about. And while American Beach, including Nana, one of the largest dunes on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, is protected as part of the National Park Service, Florida’s and other states’ coastlines continue to be lost to development. More than ever, we need stronger laws and protection for these valuable natural resources.

Ekua: As a Black American, I have become aware of so many lost stories, lost lands, and stolen culture. The known forces that separate us from our legacy and our proud past are enormous and well-financed. Perhaps the question is: What “something” are you going to do? In addition to investing in historical Black spaces, institutions, and cultural facilities, books like Saving American Beach can inspire new generations of creative cultural soldiers like MaVynee. She used everything she had to do the “something” in her life that called out to be done. Our responses to this question are personal and imperative.

Peri: Heidi, how did you come to choose Ekua as your illustrator for this project, and Ekua, what was it about the project that spoke to you?

Heidi: From the start I envisioned collage as a fitting medium to portray MaVynee, and Stacey Barney, our editor, and Cecilia Yung, our art director, knew Ekua’s work and were intent on getting her to participate in this project. I was thrilled and honored when Ekua agreed. Ekua is an extremely talented and well-regarded artist, and to have her sign on as illustrator is a writer’s dream. We agreed to a later publication date so that she could fit the project into her calendar, but it was so worth the wait.

Ekua: This book boasted the Atlantic Ocean, a beautiful white sand beach, an oversized sand dune, and a determined woman as main characters. I shared the opportunity with a close friend. He had grown up visiting American Beach as a child. He had met MaVynee, even interviewed and photographed her. What are the chances that this was just a coincidence? Soon after, I decided to travel there to see for myself. I remember very clearly that first visit. I felt her presence and understood how the beauty of the beach must have moved her. Maybe it was the brilliant blues of the changing sky or what seemed like endless sands colored by the history and purpose of MaVynee’s journey.

Peri: Ekua, the illustrations are very evocative; in some of them I remember the outfits and accessories MaVynee is depicted wearing in the book. Did you study her pictures to capture her style, expressions, and movements so well?

Ekua: It’s not often that I have come upon a character so bold and confident in personal style and character (purpose). From her voice to her stature, MaVynee, as I assessed her, turned heads, quieted rooms, and delivered words in a compelling voice that would not be silenced. It’s who she was. Her love for the earth and its creatures was so complete, she gave away her inheritance and more to save it. She walked her talk. If that is our standard and we come even close, the world can sharply shift in a new direction. I hope that her family feels that I captured some of her grit and elegance in the illustrations of Saving American Beach.

Peri: What is the most important thing you want readers to take away from Saving American Beach? What do you feel is the lesson to be illustrated by the story of American Beach and the example of my aunt MaVynee?

Heidi: Ordinary people overcome to do great things, and in their own way. MaVynee was regal, genuine, resilient, and right.

Ekua: Everyone can make a change where they stand. Passion, purpose, and a determined spirit can move mountains and save beaches. In the words of Abraham Lincoln Lewis, “Everything you do makes a statement.” Speak wisely.

Download the educator guide to Saving American Beach here!



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