You can preorder I LOVE YOU FOR MILES AND MILES where books are sold. Signed copies are available through my wonderful local bookstore, Porter Square Books, and I’ll also include a bookmark, bookplate, and sticker.
Would you like to send I LOVE YOU FOR MILES AND MILES as a holiday gift? Though the book releases on 12/26/17, you can place a preorder and give your recipient the matching holiday card to let them know the book is on its way!
I just started a blog/ezine tour that will continue over the next month:
In an interview with Vivian Kirkfield I discuss childhood fan art, writing books of the heart, and why sometimes French Toast can be a good dinner option for writers.
Jess Keating included me in her wonderful classroom ezine, The Curious Creative, where I talk about humpback whales, flashlights, and my love of rock climbing.
Release date: December 26, 2017
My first picture book, I Love You for Miles and Miles, illustrated by Mike Yamada, is scheduled to release from Farrar, Straus and Giroux on December 26, 2017. Take a look at the publisher’s site for a sneak peek! The book is available for pre-order where books are sold.
To celebrate the cover reveal, Hayley Barrett (author and critique partner extraordinaire) interviewed me on Books in the Meadow, where I discuss the inspiration for this book.
During the past few months, I’ve sought out other authors and illustrators with books releasing this year. I’ve connected with many talented picture book creators and I’m excited to cheer on their books!
Visit Picture the Books to learn about 2017 picture book debuts. On the site you’ll find a variety of titles, as well as an interview series with new voices in children’s literature.
I began this blog a few years ago in order to reflect on activism and social justice in children’s literature. Writing projects pushed blogging to the back burner for a while but these topics are still very much on my mind.
Last month, I had the opportunity to participate in a community organizing event in Boston, where my daughter and I brought a stack of books to Radical Kids’ Storytime. It gave us a chance to go through our shelves, reread some favorites, and connect with kids through these powerful stories.
These days when I take my own children to protests, I think about how important activist picture books are. These stories help prepare us for events, put our actions into context, teach history, inspire us, and start discussions.
I’m starting up this blog again, to discuss books that introduce young children to a variety of forms of protest.
I spoke with Innosanto Nagara in 2013 when A is for Activist first hit the shelves. Inno brought this debut picture book into the world through a successful crowdfunding campaign, which then led to publication with Seven Stories Press in English and Spanish, as well as the recent release of a Swedish edition. I’m always pleased when I walk into the children’s section of a bookstore and see the familiar cover. With 50,000 copies now in print, A is for Activist continues to shine.
So I was thrilled to catch up with Inno this week about his brand new children’s board book, Counting on Community (Seven Stories Press, 2015). It is a wonderful complement to his debut. Again, Inno skillfully couples rhythmic picture book phrasing—”Five chunks of chalk on the sidewalk”—with bright illustrations that invite readers in to participate and play. This time, through the familiar structure of a counting book, readers learn about what it can mean to live in a cooperative and diverse community. Counting on Community is the perfect addition to a childhood activism library.
Interview with author/illustrator Innosanto Nagara
Innosanto Nagara with his son
The way you express “community” on these pages feels very specific and personal. For example, right on the “one” page, a whole crowd reacts to a piñata (“One stuffed piñata for every holiday”) but each person has a unique gesture or expression. Can you talk about the community you’ve illustrated in this book?
This is an image that started with a photo of my son’s birthday party in the yard of our co-housing community. Many of our friends will recognize their kids in the image, and the varied expressions are basically what was captured in the photo. But I did add some additional “characters” for composition and balance. No single image can capture the possibilities of what “community” can look like in a literal sense. But community is about people coming together, so I wanted to lead with an image that represented that concept. Later I illustrate how it can also be about alone time (with chalk on the sidewalk, for instance), the stuff we share, the activities we do together, and the values we live. But most importantly it’s about people in our diversity.
I love the concreteness of “Seven bikes and scooters and helmets to share” with a pile of gear just waiting to be used. This value of living in community is so relatable for a child!
And then I think you take such an interesting turn. To go from the pile of gear to “Eight picket signs showing that we care” is so powerful. You’ve handed everyone a picket sign in the illustration, as if the picket signs, too, had come out of a shared pile. Did you think about the relationship between these pages?
Sharing is a big theme for me. I can’t stand how “the sharing economy” has been coopted by private companies that use their apps to undermine community set standards around environmental, safety, and working conditions. Sharing is about not everyone having to own their own everything. Sharing is about our kids developing core emotional skills and empathy. Sharing is about reducing waste. Sharing is about all of us or none—solidarity. I didn’t grow up in this country, but one of the biggest challenges I’ve had with raising my child in the U.S. has been trying to do this against the tide of individualist messages we are bombarded with. We are lucky to live in community ourselves, and he will grow up knowing that his experience was made possible by the fact that we’ve been able to do it together with others. But you’re right, the idea is that there is a common thread between the idea of sharing our stuff and taking action to ensure access for all.
You chose to leave the picket signs blank. Can you talk about that?
Originally I had thought of putting in timeless slogans representing progressive values. “My Body My Choice”, “Black Lives Matter”, “Food Not Bombs”, etc. But that didn’t work because it would mean reducing the fight for social justice to eight slogans. My previous book, A is for Activist, was where I got to share 26 visions of the movement. Counting on Community is not a counting version of A is for Activist. Where A is for Activist was about the issues, Counting on Community is about how we live. So I decided to leave the picket signs blank and encourage each family to fill them in with the messages they come up with themselves.
Like your text, your artwork is so layered. How do you construct your illustrations?
Thank you. I love the word “layered” because it’s the best way to describe what I’m trying to do. The layers in the text are important because these books need to be interesting to both the children and the adults who read with them. I want the adult to be able to read the book over and over without getting bored and I want the children to be able to find new understandings as they re-read and revisit them at different developmental stages. Bored adults can’t convey a love of reading. Flat images that leave nothing for a child to discover tomorrow end up gathering dust on the shelf.
But to your question on technique, I usually start my illustrations with a sketch or a photo that I hand-trace in a vector illustration program. This allows me the crisp outlines and the ability to work and rework it until I get everything exactly how I want it. Then I take it into a photo editing program, where I literally place each element into it’s own layer. Then I place scans of textures and colors into overlaying layers. Then I add in lighting and shading layers. So literally, the illustrations are created in overlapping layers. I spend days trying to get the balance of composition, text, depth and lighting just right through adjusting these elements in each layer for each image.
On the final page, your play on the word “counting” is lovely (“So what can you count in your community? I can count on you, and you can count on me!”). It’s simple and goes to the heart of the book. Did you start with this idea or did it come about through the writing process?
That was always the core concept. After the success of A is for Activist, people asked me what I was doing next, and for the longest time my answer was, I don’t know, maybe nothing. I didn’t get into this to become a children’s book author. I did it to have the book that I wanted for my child. It turns out it was useful to others as well. But with it’s success, I didn’t want to just write another book just to do it. As I said earlier, I didn’t want to do a counting version of A is for Activist and then a colors version and then a shapes version. So I always said that if the right idea came up, I would do it. But otherwise, maybe nothing. When that idea did hit—the double meaning of the word “counting”—that was the book.
My son is now 5 and is into picture books and chapter books. I hadn’t thought of myself as much of a storyteller so I had been trying to find someone to partner with who had the right story that I could illustrate. But through a series of unusual events, my publisher became aware of a story that I have told about an incident in my childhood in Indonesia. My father is a dissident playwrite, and the story is set in Indonesia in 1978. It is a story about colonialism, power, and art for social change. The title is My Night in the Planetarium but more on that one in 2016.
What are some of your favorite children’s books about activism?
Despite my own book, I don’t necessarily think a book has to be explicitly about activism to be about the core of what activism is, which is agency. That being said, my current favorite book about activism is Joelito’s Big Decision by Ann Berlak and illustrated by Daniel Camacho. Full disclosure, I got to see an early version of it, and was so excited about it I ended up helping with the cover design. But that’s not why it’s a favorite. I love it because it is a story that is both explicitly about a particular action, but also about fairness, and a child’s choices.
I’m also really excited about another book by an Oakland team, I am Sausal Creek by Melissa Reyes and Robert Trujillo. This one is told from the perspective of a creek that flows through Oakland, but it is also about the history of the land and it’s people, colonization, the environment, and ultimately, through resilience, what one can do.
Also in regular rotation at bedtime for us is We March by Shane Evans. It’s a wonderful approach to introducing the fight for racial justice from the perspective of a child whose family prepares to join the March on Washington. What I love about it the most is the conversations that it has started in our home. Why were they marching? Who is that person? What is a leader? Another beautifully layered story that leads to conversations, rather than attempts to conclude them.
There are so many others, but that would turn into it’s own article, so I’ll stop there. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Thank you for the work you do! There is a movement afoot to push the children’s book genre out of the bland corporate monolithic industry that it has been, and this movement can only flourish when people like yourself put in the work to shine a light on it.
I spoke with author Elaine Dimopoulos about her terrific debut YA, Material Girls, released today! This novel is great fun and takes a satisfyingly subversive look at the fashion industry. Material Girls is a wonderful contribution to activism kidlit, portraying what it can take to take a stand. (Warning: This interview contains spoilers.)
The labor organizers in Material Girls have a vision for what a more ethical clothing company could look like. What inspired your writing as you worked on this “make over”? Were there particular campaigns you used as models for the one in the story?
I looked at the standards put forth by the IndustriALL Global Union. Its goal is to secure jobs at healthy and safe work places worldwide, and its members take action wherever they find human rights violations. (In Material Girls, I changed the organization’s name to the IGLF, the International Garment Labor Federation.)
I also looked at some “eco-chic” companies that have been doing it right from the beginning. Reformation is an industry leader that is completely transparent about its materials and methods of production.
In terms of particular campaigns, Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s book Kids on Strike was a huge help. Kids have been mobilizing throughout history! In 1836, at age eleven, Harriet Hanson was the first New England mill girl to walk out in a protest against room and board increases. Kid Blink led the newsies in a strike to get New York publishers to buy back unsold newspaper bundles. Clara Lemlich, a garment worker, had ribs broken in a picket line. Active in labor organization since age fifteen, Johnny Mitchell helped found the United Mine Workers and reform dangerous working conditions. These young historical figures and their campaigns were my role models!
Marla and Ivy, to varying degrees, both wake up to the unjust system around them. How did you think about their backgrounds in relation to their activism? What were some of the experiences they needed in their pasts to be able to have these moments of recognition?
Ivy grew up in Millbrook, a formerly industrial, now economically depressed city. At times, her upbringing makes her uncomfortable about her own wealth and about the way her persona as a trendsetter encourages others to spend money. So she is primed to embrace an economically responsible “trend.”
Marla has a special relationship with the environment, as her childhood was shaped by carefree days spent in the park near her home. Nature influences her design aesthetic; eco-chic fashion is a natural progression.
Also, even though Marla buys into the system at the beginning, she has an independent streak that causes her to speak out for what she believes in. As a trendsetting judge, she frequently goes against the decisions of her fellow judges. This nonconformist attitude eventually makes her a fierce activist!
I’m intrigued by Vivienne’s character in the context of a YA book. While she is older, she is also portrayed as the most radical. And her long-term work lays the foundation for the movement that the young adults join.
Here’s a particularly memorable Vivienne quote:
Change doesn’t happen overnight, Marla. Sometimes it takes a hundred years, sometimes more. Believe me, people saw what we did. For three days, the whole world stopped and paid attention. So they shut us down—so what? I’ll do my time, but they can’t lock me up forever for giving an agent a couple of broken bones. And if they do, then there will be someone else to pick up the fight, and that person will make another small dent. And so on. We pound and we pound until everything comes crashing down.
Can you talk about your decision to include this adult character?
While I would never underestimate the power of young people, sometimes with age comes wisdom. At twenty-four, Vivienne has enough insight to recognize the oppressive system yet is still young and driven enough to do something about it. Marla has been so steeped in the pro-consumerist values of her world that I wanted her to have an older role model who could gradually show her the way.
Thanks for highlighting that quotation; it’s one of my favorite moments. (And it wasn’t in the novel’s first draft—let’s hear it for revision!) In the play A Raisin in the Sun, Joseph Asagai, Beneatha’s African suitor, has a monologue about change being bigger than himself and bigger than any one person. It took my breath away the first time I read it, this prospect of a change agent who isn’t self-serving, who believes he is but one person doing a piece of history’s long work. Vivienne’s similar declaration is my own little tribute to the genius of Lorraine Hansberry.
Material Girls has a lot to say about the many kinds of leaders in a movement for change. Your use of dual protagonists allows for two very different character arcs and a wonderfully complex—and bittersweet—resolution. Why did you decide to use this structure?
Marla came to me first, as a young trendsetter working happily for a fashion house until, at sixteen, she ages out of the system. Soon, I saw she would need a co-conspirator in her attempt to retaliate, one whose influence was far-reaching. Ivy helped me see that the book would be as much an attack on consumerism as on youth-obsessed culture.
I quickly realized the narrative benefits of having two protagonists. Kay Sambell is a literary critic who proposes that writers of dystopias for young people face a creative dilemma. For dystopias to have their “punch” and make the reader consider the perils of an oppressive society (think Brave New World or 1984), they need to have pessimistic endings. Books for children and young adults, however, typically have hopeful endings, a reflection of the expectant, forward-looking experience of childhood/teenhood. So what’s a writer to do?
With two central characters, I had the flexibility to create two different outcomes. My goal was to create a mix of pessimism and hope in a fresh way, remaining loyal to the themes of the novel while leaving the reader to contemplate alternate possibilities.
What are some of your favorite children’s books about activism? Feed by M.T. Anderson. Even though this media-saturated world is chokingly oppressive, Violet still fights the good fight. For younger readers, I would recommend Doreen Rappaport’s biographies, such as Martin’s Big Words. Jeannie Baker’s picture books don’t necessarily feature activist characters, but their conservationist themes might inspire a reader to act. There’s some outstanding middle grade nonfiction, too: Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice and Tanya Lee Stone’s Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream come to mind.
In One Plastic Bag, Miranda Paul relays the story of a very creative local solution, by Isatou Ceesay and her fellow “recycling women” in Njau, Gambia, to the very global problem of plastic trash. The text is lovely, rooted in setting, the narrative driven by Ceesay’s commitment to improve her community. Elizabeth Zunon’s fabulous artwork incorporates vibrant fabric patterns and plastic bags.
I asked Miranda some questions in advance of the book’s release in February.
What qualities make a compelling story about activism for young children?
I think any story, about activism or not, has to have an aspect, emotion, or experience which is relatable to a child. In One Plastic Bag, for example, children will relate to the experiences of losing a pet or animal, the feeling of being “too small,” having very creative or imaginative ideas and worrying about other people laughing at them. I also think that children have a beautiful and natural intuition to do what is right, so including a sense of justice or hope will help engage them with the main character or subject matter. I also think it’s important that the author have a vested interest and experience in the topic. Passion is difficult to fake. (And so is research.)
True stories about activism are complicated. In telling these stories to children—particularly in picture book form—writers must make decisions about what gets left out. I’m curious to hear about your process in crafting this narrative. Were there parts of the story that you had to omit?
There are so many parts of Isatou’s story that had to be omitted—some for space (picture books for the young are short!) and some for appropriateness or relevance. For example, Isatou lost her father when she was young and was forced to become a school dropout. Isatou’s mother isn’t in the book, primarily omitted for privacy reasons. Also, when people mock and laugh at the women, there was actually an incident where Isatou was physically assaulted by someone who didn’t like what she was doing. So, yes, there were many things omitted because they either distracted from the story, which is geared for 5-9 year-olds, or because they brought in situations that would need further (and lengthy) context information. When Isatou Ceesay comes to the U.S. this spring for the book tour, she’ll share (with adult groups) a little more of the story in a personal way through a couple of keynote speeches.
Illustration by Elizabeth Zunon
Unlike so many biographical books, One Plastic Bag shares the actions of an individual who is alive today. How were Isatou Ceesay and other women in the community involved in the development of the book? How do you think they will use this book?
The women were gracious to let me interview so many of them. They opened up to me. At first, I was working on informative articles for online sites and fair trade advocacy. Later, I decided to write a picture book. I read the draft to Isatou at various stages, and about three months before I sent the submission that would lead to the sale, Isatou translated it verbally into Wolof and read it to some of the women in Njau. My hope is that once foreign rights are taken care of, the women and organizations that support them can use this book for awareness and exposure. I’m also hoping that other fair trade cooperatives and advocates will see this book as an example of how telling stories can be a step toward activism.
You’ve compiled a number of online resources for teachers. How can educators use One Plastic Bag in the classroom?
Reading/writing teachers can use the book for Common Core lessons on repetition, figurative language, story arc, tense, Point of View, and more. Social Studies teachers can incorporate it into lessons on cultures, environment/climate, agriculture, and geography. Science teachers can use the plastic bag fact sheets to examine the science behind plastic bags, what’s biodegradable, and other environmental issues related to plastic trash. Math teachers can do currency conversions or equations related to buying/selling the purses in dalasi. Art teachers can connect with Elizabeth Zunon’s art, or explore making a plastic-bag jumprope craft – the instructions are on the Lerner website and on the Teacher Resources page. (Can you tell I’m a former teacher??)
One thing I want to highlight for teachers is the opportunity for students to enter our Earth Day 2015 Recycling Idea contest. Basically, kids will come up with a creative idea to recycle or repurpose an item that they’d otherwise discard, and we’ll choose winners or highlight many of them on the site. More info coming in February at OnePlasticBag.com!
Illustration by Elizabeth Zunon
What are some of your favorite picture books that encourage kids to make change?
Melissa Stewart’s A Place for Butterflies inspired my daughter to make a butterfly garden in our front yard, which is thriving years later. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer (illus. Elizabeth Zunon) has inspired my son to tinker with his ideas. For older kids, Plastic, Ahoy! by Patricia Newman puts into perspective how urgent and necessary it is that we adopt a get-to-work mindset on environmental issues.
You are involved in We Need Diverse Books. How can people who love to read and write picture books support this important campaign?
Buy diverse books, check out diverse books from the library (or request them), review them, recommend them. Writers who are in the majority can mentor or encourage diverse writers and actively work to diversify their writing groups, faculty for writing conferences and events, and create atmospheres that are inviting to people of non-majority experiences. If people are struggling to find diverse books, or books by diverse authors (which is just as important!), the WNDB site has a Resources tab with lists.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
If any of your readers live in DC, MD, VA, NY, CT, PA, IL, WI, MN, and possibly CO, those are the planned states for Isatou Ceesay’s U.S. Visit Tour and it would be an extraordinary opportunity for activists and children’s book lovers to hear her speak. The event calendar at MirandaPaul.com is being updated each week with new event dates/times, so continue to check back or sign up for email updates. I’m so thrilled for her to come, because after working so hard for so long, this trip for Isatou will about getting a little of the recognition she deserves and continuing her work on another level.
Citizen voices are becoming increasingly drowned out in the political system by the unchecked resources of wealthy people and corporations. So which stories can we share with children about how people can work together to amplify their voices? What can we offer to our kids so they will be equipped to push back? (Of course, there are there are many experiential approaches for introducing young kids to activism. Here, I’m focused on picture books that can teach strategies and illuminate pathways for social change.)
Our libraries need to be stuffed full of many possible approaches—from marches to creative actions to litigation. We need to share stories that introduce children to inspiring leaders and community groups and show them what movements look like. Over the next few months, I’ll talk about a variety of picture books that can be a part of this.
I thought I’d start here with an old picture book—old-fashioned but lovely—that teaches children about a very specific policy strategy.
Maybelle the Cable Car by Virginia Lee Burton (Houghton Mifflin, 1952) is on one level a picture book about a beloved vehicle. On another, it is a great introduction to how ballot initiatives work, based on actual events.
Burton is fantastic at personifying vehicles (see also Katy and the Big Snow, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel), and she does this skillfully in Maybelle. The clanging street car goes up and down the hills of San Francisco, “No hill too steep for Maybelle…”
Even though “The City had been so busy growing/she had neglected her little cable cars/and they needed a new coat of paint./Maybelle was always first out in the morning/and last to come in at night./She loved her City… she loved her work/and most of all she loved the people.”
One day, Maybelle learns from a bus, Big Bill, that the City Fathers want to get rid of the cable cars—“you’re too old and out of date/much too slow and can’t be safe…/and worst of all YOU DON’T MAKE MONEY./What they want is Speed and Progress/and E-CON-O-MY… and that means US.”
At this point in the story, Maybelle and “the people” are set in opposition to the “City Fathers” and what they represent as spelled out by Big Bill.
So what will people in the book do about it? Will they sit by and let the City Fathers retire Maybelle and the other cable cars, or will they stand up and speak out?
When news gets out, most are resigned, but one voice poses a challenge: “one person said… ‘Why do we have to?/We, the people, are the City./Why can’t we decide?’”
Significantly,it takes just one vocal person to get things moving.
A public meeting is called and The Citizens Committee to Save the Cable Cars is formed. Support comes in through letters and telegrams. Momentum grows. Ultimately, the Committee petitions City Hall to put a question on the ballot.
Burton’s illustrations help show how many people become involved and the variety of tactics they use to garner support and challenge opposition. People march with the banner, “Save the Cable Cars.” An airplane flies with the message, “Vote Yes On Question One” (a yes vote would save Maybelle and the other cable cars).
And there are speeches. I find this a critical part of the book. “The ‘No’ people had facts and figures/and the ‘Yes’ people answered with more./The ‘No’ people made more noise/but the ‘Yes’ people worked harder.”
Even if one side makes more noise, it’s possible for the other side to raise the volume even higher, to work even harder.
Burton gives us a detailed rendering of Election Day so we won’t miss anything. A series of frames show people coming and going from the polls. Votes are counted with tally marks on a blackboard across multiple images.
When the cable car supporters win, Maybelle is covered with flowers, gives free rides to all, and lets her (cable car) sisters know, “Our day’s not done… it’s just begun.”
I think this book is a valuable part of an activism library for the process it illustrates. Ballot initiatives can be an important strategy for citizens to shape policy at the local level. Sometimes, they can even have far-reaching consequences that impact national policy.
Sure, there’s a 1950s schoolhouse democracy at work in Maybelle. And ballot initiatives can be manipulated by the influx of money in the political system.
But even if the campaign to save the cable cars is rather neat, the story shows what it can look like to put in the time to organize, petition, march, debate, and work hard to win. These tactics still hold true-no matter how much money is influencing the system.
Jane Kohuth’s new book, Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree,is an ambitious project. Not only does Kohuth broach the challenging topics of war and oppression in picture book form, but she also does this within the boundaries of an early reader. In Kohuth’s hands, accompanied by Elizabeth Sayles’ descriptive illustrations, this is skillfully done. Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree is published by Random House, 2013.
What brought you to this subject?
Though I studied Jewish women’s history in graduate school, I never anticipated writing a book about Anne Frank. But the Random House editor with whom I had worked on two previous books (The early reader Ducks Go Vroom and the picture book Estie the Mensch), asked me if I would like to write an Anne Frank biography for the Step Into Reading biography series. It took me a few days to be sure I wanted to take on this challenge. To write a book that was both honest and age-appropriate, about a girl who had written so beautifully about herself, all in one thousand words, was quite daunting. I thought about my own Holocaust education, which took place mainly in Hebrew School. My third grade teacher could have used a book for our age group when she took on the difficult responsibility of introducing this dark period in Jewish history. I felt that Anne Frank, a child herself, would perhaps be someone whom children could connect to and understand. And I hoped children who read the book would later want to read Anne’s diary.
How did you research the book?
I started by reading the Definitive Edition of the diary. I then read biographies, books that focused on the publication and history of the diary, and the handful of children’s books I could find that had been written about Anne (mainly chapter books). I also looked at the Critical Edition of the diary, which contains articles and all three versions of the diary text — the original, the version Anne edited for publication before her arrest, and the version edited and published by Anne’s father. I also combed the internet looking for news articles about the chestnut tree to find out what had happened to it in recent years and what plans were in place for the planting of its saplings. As I read, I made notes and wrote down my thoughts for how I could structure the book.
To tell Anne Frank’s story, you navigate topics of war, oppression, and death – all challenging for a children’s book… What were some of the writing challenges you faced?
Creating this book is the biggest writing challenge I’ve ever faced. It might be better to ask, what wasn’t challenging about writing Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree! The subject matter, the strict rules and space restrictions of an early reader, and the challenge of trying to live up to Anne’s own fine writing all combined to make this a tough (but interesting) experience. My early drafts were many times longer than they needed to be. There was so much I wanted to share about Anne! My breakthrough was perhaps in deciding to think of the text as a poem. Every sentence, every paragraph had to be as spare and beautiful as I could make it.
I think the way you handle the term ‘concentration camp’ is very skillfully and sensitively done: The Nazis wanted to send her to a concentration camp. Anne’s parents knew that when Jews were sent away, they were never heard from again. You don’t define exactly what it is but you get the point across. Similarly, you write, Anne did not survive the war. But her diary did. After acknowledging her death, you bring the reader immediately to a place of hope.
The Chestnut Tree is a powerful symbol of hope and so wonderfully connected to the legacy of Anne’s diary. At what point did you decide to focus on Anne’s relationship to the tree?
Step Into Reading biographies, in part because of their length restrictions, focus on one story or aspect of their subjects’ lives. I needed to choose a focus for my biography, so when I began researching, it was with an eye to finding a lens through which to construct the book. My editor, in an early conversation, mentioned the tree, so I kept it in mind. I noticed that Anne frequently wrote about what nature had come to mean to her, both in diary entries and in separate stories (which have been published as Tales from the Secret Annex). I presented several ideas for how to focus the book to my editor, and we ended up choosing to focus on nature and the chestnut tree. The tree was a wonderful way in which to show that Anne’s story was not just encompassed within her lifetime, but that it continues. Just as the chestnut tree now has a presence around the world, so does Anne, and she continues to inspire new generations to empathy and a desire to stand on the side of justice.
At the end of your story, you state: History is not just dates and places. History is people. It’s children like you, speaking to us. Anne Frank’s voice comes to us from a terrible time, out of a terrible place. It’s a gift that shows us that you can keep trying to be a good person, even when so many people have decided to do evil.
What do you hope children will take away from this story?
I hope that children will see that their voices can matter. Even when they feel powerless and it seems unlikely that anyone will ever hear them, they should hold onto their voices, speak up, write or sing or make art from the truth of their lives. They may help one person or they may end up speaking to millions, like Anne did. I also hope they see that even when the majority of the people around them are saying and doing things that are unjust, cruel, or outright evil, if they listen, if they look, they will hear and see the other people, the ones who are crying out for change and the ones who work quietly every day for good.
What are some of your favorite children’s books that have activism themes?
I’ll focus on books for younger readers.
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney is about the obligation to do something in one’s life to make the world a better place. It makes the reader think about what unique contribution he or she can make.
I also like children’s biographies about women who have changed the world for the better — especially women who have worked on making the world a more just place for girls and women. Here Come the Girl Scouts: The Amazing All-True Story of Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Lowand Her Great Adventure by Shana Corey has stuck with me. Though I was never a Girl Scout, I now have great admiration for what the organization did for girls in a time when women weren’t encouraged to be active, resourceful, and independent, and for what they still do today.
I’m also a fan of the picture book As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom.