Author Kyandreia Jones kicks off an exciting new Choose Your Own Adventure SPIES middle grade series featuring historical figures with her tale of James Armistead Lafayette, a hero who fought for marginalized peoples and who played an instrumental role in helping America win the Revolutionary War.
When asked to write a Choose Your Own Adventure book about real spies from American history, I was particularly captivated by James Armistead Lafayette’s story because it was a tale that I would have loved as a child. I did not know that there were real-life heroes whose stories teach children and adults alike about loyalty, about liberty and, most importantly, about empathy.
I would have been thrilled to learn about James, a former enslaved person turned spy, who helped America win its independence while his fellow brothers and sisters remained in bondage. As a writer, I was interested in the fact that there isn’t a lot of information about who James truly was. I had to—in part—imagine that James had a very unique role in American history, which inspired me to understand U.S. history from a new, more empathetic perspective. If everyone was cruel, how was it possible for the real James to strike up a deal with General Marquis de Lafayette, allowing James to fight for his own freedom and for his country’s? If James did not make a genuine connection with Lafayette, why did the two embrace when they were reunited after the war? If James was not an important historical figure, why was I inspired to honor his legacy and to educate my readers about his existence? The real James’ relationship with history made me wonder what history would look like if we were able to see it from multiple angles and from different perspectives.
In creating the character of James, some questions that launched his development were: What is loyalty to a slave? What is loyalty to a spy? Is it possible for these two identities to agree in the definition of loyalty, or do these identities allow the reader to constantly redefine what it means to be loyal to one’s mission, to one’s country and to one’s self? In the threads of the book, James must choose between war and freedom, duty and loyalty as well as self and country.
Through these choices, he demonstrates the ways in which his past as an enslaved person contributes to both the richness of his character and the internal struggle he endures. By incorporating these crucial questions and ideas, James becomes a positive example of how to lead with empathy, considering his own feelings and that of those who are different from him. In the book, this also leads James to advocate for Native Americans and to ask his white counterparts to treat him with kindness, respect and consideration as they fight side-by-side in the Revolutionary War.
Throughout the writing process, I connected with James’ courage, his compassion and his clumsiness. (I would definitely concuss myself while trying to be a hero.) Writing, and essentially becoming, James meant facing the hard choices and trusting myself to respectfully depict a real American hero. Thankfully, James has a really strong voice; I learned early on that all I had to do was follow it. Still, it is safe to wonder what I offer James as a black woman that’s different from what a black man would have offered James. I cannot speak to what could have been, but I will say that I offered James a combination of empathy and vulnerability that makes him, I hope, more compelling.
Although I was writing a fictional account of a real American hero, I wanted to write about history in a manner that excited and inspired middle grade readers. In Choose Your Own Adventure SPIES: James Armistead Lafayette, readers decide how James navigates impossible choices with a levity that prompts laughter and quick thinking while also being reminded about the horrors of slavery. It is not easy walking in someone else’s shoes. It is even harder to walk in that of a former enslaved person. However, it is important to recognize that history is often ugly and that American history has had its fair share of ugliness. Some of us may forget this truth because we focus on America’s glorious beginnings. Nonetheless, to shy away from or to ignore this ugliness is unacceptable. Kids have always learned about how Europeans conquered the land we now call America and made it their own. But what about the lives they took? What about the stories they cut off mid-sentence?
I feel that the power of telling James’ story is that it allows us to look at history from a unique point of view—from that of the forgotten, the overlooked, the ignored—and to choose how we would like our version of history to be remembered. That is what I believe is most important for middle grade readers today, who will be thrilled to add James Armistead Lafayette to their list of American heroes.