Teaching through literature
Local author publishes young adult book about segregation

Monticello resident Ted Dunagan jokes that it only took him six months to write his first book but it took another decade to finally see his work in print.

"I wrote it by the rules the literary world wants," said Dunagan, whose book "A Yellow Watermelon" will be released by Alabama-based NewSouth Book in early 2008. "I sent the manuscript to publishers, who told me they don't accept (queries) unless they come from an agent. So it took me a year to find an agent.

"Once I got an agent, I figured I'd be sitting on Oprah Winfrey's couch soon. But over the next two years, the book was rejected by 11 different publishers. I got tired of being rejected, fired my agent and decided to self-publish the book. After I did that, I managed to sell enough copies to break even and then one day I heard from the editor and publisher of NewSouth Books, which wanted to buy the rights."

The Alabama native will sign copies of "A Yellow Watermelon" at the Monticello News - where he works part-time as a feature writer and columnist - on Friday, Dec. 14.

"A Yellow Watermelon," which is being marketed in the young adult fiction genre, is set in the deep South in the late 1940s and examines the relationships a 12-year-old white boy strikes up with a black sawmill worker and a young black boy. A secret involving his new friends and "the richest, meanest man in town" sets the stage for a dramatic conflict in a racially segregated community still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression.

"I didn't write the book to be (young adult fiction) but that's the way it turned out," said 64-year-old Dunagan, who has lived on Jackson Lake for the last 14 years. 'My daughter-in-law is a fifth-grade teacher and she's read it to her students and they went bonkers over it."

The book is also making an impression beyond state borders. Dunagan said he was recently contacted by the prestigious New York-based Kirkus Reviews, which plans to offer a critique of the book in an upcoming edition.

"I didn't even know what Kirkus was," he said. "But I've since learned they get between 200 and 400 books a day seeking a review. The review goes to libraries and book retailers all over the country and a review is supposed to be in their Dec. 1 issue."

While "A Yellow Watermelon" is a work of fiction, Dunagan said there are factual elements contained within its covers.

"I pulled materials and facts from my memory," he said. "The setting is a real place - I grew up there. I won't say what's fact and what's fiction. To me, it's primarily a story about segregation and poverty as seen by a young boy in a small Southern town. King Cotton has been reduced to a serf and the Depression is still lingering. The story shows that prejudice can be overcome through friendship, which is a lesson I'd like to get across to young people."

After spending three years in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam era, Dunagan enrolled at Georgia State University and spent three years in Atlanta, leaving college just a few credits short of graduation. He then went to work "in the fragrance and cosmetics industry" with Chanel Inc., where he worked for the next 26 years before retiring in 2002.

Dunagan writes a weekly column for the Monticello News called "I'm Fixin' To," which humorously details life in the South along the lines of the works of the late Lewis Grizzard.

"I had always aspired to be a journalist," he said. "But I had a family and went into the business world. I've found that dreams can come true but sometimes they take their own sweet time."

With "A Yellow Watermelon" set to be shipped to bookstores soon, Dunagan said he's already written a second book.

"I have the sequel already written," he said. "I had to do something while I was waiting for my first book to be published. The next story takes place in the same town and in the same year, except it covers from fall to Christmas. I'm still at the polishing stage, but the publisher said they wanted to take a look at it when I'm done."

Dunagan said he's also got additional manuscripts at his home, but those works are decidedly different from "A Yellow Watermelon" and its sequel.

"I've written several other books but they're not young adult fiction," he said. "You generally don't see somebody like (John) Grisham writing something besides legal thrillers, so I'm going to stick with what's been successful so far. I've got three or four novels in desk drawers, but for the time being, I'm concentrating on "A Yellow Watermelon."

For information on "A Yellow Watermelon," visit www.newsouthbooks.com. For additional information on Ted Dunagan's book signing on Dec. 14, contact the Monticello News at 706-468-6511.