At 8 years old, Hope Michelle Ayers experienced the death of a close aunt, strained racial relations and the integration of a Decatur elementary school. Now, four decades later, those childhood experiences influenced Ayers’ first book, “Gabriel’s Balloon.”
“The underlying premises of the storyline were imparted into my soul when I was merely 8 years old. That was the year my Aunt Queen, the most prominent member of my mother’s family, died,” Ayers said.
It was also the year the saga surrounding Tommy Lee Hines, a mentally challenged teenager charged with raping a white woman, erupted in Decatur and triggered clashes between the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Ku Klux Klan.
“I still vividly recall my discovery of the coverage by ‘Jet Magazine’ and how my heart nervously pounded when I realized my own father was one of the droves of marchers captured in the photograph illustrating the article,” Ayers said. “The fact that love is an action word was probably imparted into my psyche as I flipped the pages of that ‘Jet Magazine.’ ”
It was also the year Ayers’ mother enrolled her in the third grade at Somerville Elementary School.
“I was the only black child in my classroom and, perhaps, the first person of color many of the students had actually ever seen in person. My teacher’s name was Lynne Dozier,” Ayers said. “Yes, I remember her name, which is proof that kindness is much more impressive on a child’s mind than disregard and meanness. I remember how she attended to me, first with care and protection and then with focus.”
Dozier, along with three black women Ayers’ calls “the Emmas” — Emma G. Warren, Emma Kate Gray and Emma Smothers White — formed the basis for the teacher in “Gabriel’s Balloon.” From her Aunt Queen, Ayers created the character of Benjamin.
“Every life concept I needed to know to write this book I discovered in third grade. I am grateful for the 8-year-old Hope, the only black person in her class, the little bookworm who spent many of her childhood days sad over the loss of a loved one and most of her nights as a frightened girl because of the racial tensions surrounding her hometown,” Ayers said.
On Saturday, the Decatur Fellowship of Historic Black Churches will host a book discussion featuring Ayers, at First Missionary Baptist Church, 233 Vine St. N.W., at noon. The event is free. Ayers, who works as an attorney and adviser for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency and Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration, described the invitation to speak at her childhood church as humbling.
“My faith in God means everything to me, and the concepts of faith, hope and love are all interwoven into the storyline of ‘Gabriel’s Balloon,’ ” Ayers said. “This invitation is a welcoming, a support and an embrace that feels like love more than anything else.”
To preview the event, Ayers discussed her introduction to reading, the inspiration for "Gabriel’s Balloon" and the role Decatur played in the book.
What inspired the story of “Gabriel’s Balloon”? I was initially inspired by a colleague’s work of art, a depiction of a young man in the foreground and three elderly people in the background. The friend who created the piece asked me what I thought was happening in the scene and the story was birthed by my answer to his question.
When did you develop a love for books? To say that, as a child, I was an avid reader is to put it quite lightly. I read every possible moment. Novels, biographies and autobiographies were my favorites, but I would read anything. For almost my entire childhood, my parents maintained a running subscription to “Ebony Magazine,” “Jet Magazine” and “Reader’s Digest.” I loved those publications. I was always intrigued by the inspiration behind the stories.
When did you develop an interest in writing? My interest in writing was truly sparked during my senior year at Decatur High School, when I took first place in an essay writing contest. I remember part of the prize was a ride on the Alabama Reunion Train and, also, a highlight in The Decatur Daily.
Who are some authors that influenced your work? Alex Haley, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Countee Cullen, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, William Shakespeare, Ernest J. Gaines, Walter Mosley, Louisa May Alcott, John D. Fitzgerald, Gloria Naylor, Bebe Moore Campbell, Nora Roberts, Jane Austen and Terry McMillan.
What do you hope readers take away from “Gabriel’s Balloon”? I wanted to write a story that, through the main character’s plight, would compel readers, regardless of age or gender, to aspire to the next level, to go beyond the status quo and to achieve the unexpected — in essence, to seek higher ground. I find myself hoping “Gabriel’s Balloon” awakens the 8-year-old in each reader and that this book releases the best thoughts of love, courage and support while reminding each adult mind that when all is said and done, no matter how challenging life becomes and despite any horrors that happen along the way, love is what matters most.