Author Interview with JL Powers

I recently spoke with JL Powers, author of two novels for young adults, The Confessional and This Thing Called the Future. She is also the editor of That Mad Game: Growing Up in a Warzone, an anthology of essays.


I first learned about her work when I spotted The Pirate Tree, a blog about social justice literature for children. The blog is a fantastic resource and Powers is one of its co-founders. I chatted with her to explore the concept of social justice in her own work and find out more about how the blog came about.

Can you tell me about your background, and in what ways your writing life intersects with your commitment to social justice?

My dad is a geologist and took a job in El Paso in the early 1980’s. My parents are very religious and made some interesting choices about where and how they wanted to live. We moved into a barrio near the US-Mexico border, so all of our neighbors were recent immigrants, many undocumented, and refugees. This is how I grew up.

I remember in high school, my mom walked a family through the documenting process. It took a decade. The family lived in a chicken coop, trying to raise seven kids on $25 a day. The documenting process could be onerously expensive, so my parents would lend people money for the paperwork and then hire them to pay it off. My parents have always been very aware of the systemic problems that prevent people from living legitimate lives.

I am often drawn back to the work my parents are doing. My parents are immersed in their community, and when problems come along everyone does their bit. This has really influenced my work as a writer.

As an adult, the issues that have been in my heart are homelessness, hunger, immigration, economics and politics of disease, war and conflict, and how children are impacted as the most vulnerable members of the human race. I don’t set out to write social justice books but what captivates my own heart and the questions I feel like I have to pursue.

When I wrote my first book, The Confessional, I was living in El Paso and teaching at a high school. Many of the boys at my school had crossed over the border and it was interesting to see the dynamics among them and their national loyalties. Violence could so easily start. There were many questions swirling around about “us” versus “them,” – of class, race, sexual identity, and citizenship.


My second novel, This Thing Called the Future, began during the time when I was working on my PhD in African History and spending extended periods of time living with families in South Africa. I started to think about what it would be like to be a young person growing up in a place where many people are dying of an illness that is transmitted through sex, and the political and community ramifications of HIV.

I’m really captivated by forces of exclusion and inclusion. Growing up in an immigrant community surrounded by people who were legal and “illegal,” though I am white and American, created the trajectory of my writing career.

You blog at The Pirate Tree, “a collective of children’s and young adult writers interested in children’s literature and social justice issues.” How did the blog get started? What are your hopes for the site?

Around the time I gave birth to Nesta (he’s 2 and a half) I thought I’d like to do something to highlight social justice issues in children’s literature. But I didn’t want to carry it alone, so I contacted a few writer friends.

I was already in touch with Ann Angel, Lynn Miller-Lachmann and Nancy Bo Flood. They invited the others (Varian Johnson, E.M. Kokie, and Peter Marino).


All of us are very concerned about literature not only as entertainment, or important educationally, but as something that has the potential for transforming individuals and entire groups of people. Literature is fundamental to how people grow, and grow as citizens. There is probably no more effective way to transform the hearts and minds of people than art.

I am not interested in didactic books. I don’t ever want to say that social justice books are the ones that should be published. Any book can be analyzed for how it supports or tries to tear down and transform the status quo into something better. At The Pirate Tree we’re trying to look at the best books. We want the site to be a useful place for educators, teachers, parents, and other writers to find books that are dealing with tough issues in good ways.

What are some of your favorite children’s books with social justice themes?

My all time favorite young adult novel is Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. It is set in 1969 in a small barrio in New Mexico and is about the lives of very poor teenagers during the draft in Vietnam. I’ve read it a dozen times.

I also love A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer and Deborah Ellis’ work.

What issues would you like to see more attention given to in contemporary children’s literature?

When I moved to the US-Mexico border at age eight, I was an avid reader. But I was always reading about other places. No one wrote about the border or about immigrant communities. So I wanted to go to a “real place” like in the books I read.

I didn’t grow up in “the mainstream.” I couldn’t read about the place where I was from and that made me feel bad about myself. This experience has shaped why I write about places that aren’t mainstream.

Often, the books that are published are written to provide a window into a world outside the mainstream for kids who don’t have that experience. There’s a belief that the kids who live in the communities these stories are about aren’t going to be reading the books. It’s really tragic. Literature is about creating citizens of our nation. These children are going to be the majority in the United States and we will regret if we don’t make books a part of their lives.

Have you seen hopeful developments getting these narratives published and into the hands of more children?

From teachers and librarians there is a real hunger for these books. Part of the problem is getting information about these books in front of the people who are looking for them.

I think the Common Core is helping, since it gives teachers the ability to buy books, both fiction and nonfiction, that they didn’t have before. It is opening up avenues for teachers to use these books in classrooms. I have heard from small independent publishers that there is a noticeable rise in their sales.

Are there sites or resources you would highlight for writers and parents interested in social justice and multicultural children’s literature?

Here are some of the publishers I would recommend:

The International Board of Books for Young People is a great organization that gives awards and provides funds to support children’s publishing around the world.

The Children’s Literature Assembly and the Assembly of Literature for Adolescents are helpful resources as well.

Thanks Jessica!

Less than 8 percent

Diversity is a concept with many vantage points. Here is one that is startling: In 2012, only 216 of 3,600 children’s books published in the United States were by authors and/or illustrators of color. Only 271 children’s books had significant content about people of color. That’s only 6 percent of authors and/or illustrators and less than 8 percent of content.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which gathers these figures, notes the situation was even more discouraging in 1985 when they started to keep track:

When CCBC Director Ginny Moore Kruse served as a member of the Coretta Scott King Award< Committee that year, we were appalled to learn that, of the approximately 2,500 trade books that were published that year for children and teens, only 18 were created by African Americans, and thus eligible for the Coretta Scott King Award.

Match these numbers up with the demographics of our country– the majority of young people will be people of color in just 5 or 6 years– and the urgency for greater racial diversity in children’s literature is more than apparent. Add to this the layers of other types of diversities needing greater representation in books, such as class, gender, and sexual orientation, and it’s clear that children’s publishing will need to make a significant push.

We need all of our children to be able to find books that share characteristics of themselves and their families when they visit the library. It’s so powerful to get to see a part of yourself, your family, and your culture in books! AND, we need all of our children to find books about many, many different life experiences. It’s so powerful to get to know people through books! (Author Mitali Perkins has a great post and discussion on her site about the idea of books as “windows and mirrors.”)

Thankfully, the CBC Diversity Committee is drawing needed attention to this issue. The Committee encourages “diversity of race, gender, geographical origin, sexual orientation, and class among both the creators of and the topics addressed by kid lit” in addition to other significant goals. (Take a look at this Publisher’s Weekly article about its launch.)

On May 16th I attended a panel that the Committee co-hosted with Charlesbridge in Watertown, Massachusetts. It was titled “Diversity on the Page, behind the Pencil, and in the Office” and featured author Mitali Perkins, illustrator London Ladd, editor Katie Cunningham of Candlewick Press, editor Monica Perez of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and editor Alyssa Mito Pusey of Charlesbridge. Ayanna Coleman of the the CBC Diversity Committee moderated.

It was a lively discussion that touched on definitions of diversity in children’s publishing, barriers that currently exist in the industry for producing more diverse stories, and strategies for getting more multicultural books into the hands of more kids. I was grateful to attend and look forward to future discussions. Since then, I’ve also found the Committee’s website is a helpful hub of information on this topic, including articles, links, and booklists.

Even if we don’t sit at the editor’s desk, all of us who have a relationship to children’s books have an ongoing role to play in shifting these statistics– whether as parents and friends of children who decide which books to purchase and share, or as writers and illustrators who choose which characters we include in our stories.

In my next few posts I’ll pick up on this theme through interviews with two children’s book creators who have taken inspiring steps toward inclusiveness in their own work: author JL Powers and author/illustrator/publisher Janine Macbeth. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, take a look around the Committee’s Goodreads booklist for some terrific book recommendations.
Also- here’s a great opportunity from publisher Lee & Low Books for new children’s writers of color: The winner of their New Voices Award receives a cash prize and a publishing contract. Submissions are due by September 30th.

I wasn’t planning to talk about The Lorax

I wasn’t planning to write about Dr. Seuss. Volumes have been written about The Lorax. And it’s a bit obvious, eh?

But I’ve found that lately when I read contemporary books about the natural world with my children, and as I try to make sense of how these books inspire environmental activism, it’s a challenge not to talk about Dr. Seuss. In my family, The Lorax has become an important reference point.

When we recently visited the Harvard Museum of Natural History and saw the skeletons of extinct birds, my kids commented, “People weren’t being careful like the Once-ler and the birds went away.”  The Lorax provided a way to absorb meaning from the enormous word “extinction.”

When we read Claire A. Nivola’s *stunning* portrait of oceanographer Sylvia Earle, Life in the Ocean (Frances Foster Books, 2012), we took in the mesmerizing image of a galaxy 3,000 feet down, where “every spoonful of water in the deep ocean, Sylvia says, is brimming with extraordinary forms of life.” We digested the statement, “Sylvia Earle believes that if we do not learn about the ocean world we will never really care about it or take care of it,” and we couldn’t help but talk about what went down with those Bar-ba-loots.

The Lorax came up again the other night when reading Sofia’s Dream by Land Wilson and illustrator Sue Cornelison (Little Pickle Press, 2010). It’s an imaginative, starry-eyed story about a girl who befriends the moon and takes a “giant leap” to see the environmental problems on our planet from the moon’s perspective. As we reached the conclusion, when Sofia commits herself to action, my kids recalled a certain Seuss character clutching a seed. (There’s a lot more relevant backstory on this book: Read more about Wilson’s approach to sharing this book and teaching kids about the environment. Also, the publisher Little Pickle Press has taken the significant step of structuring itself as a “B Corporation,” a new type of corporation that has social and environmental standards attached to it.)

Life in the Ocean and Sofia’s Dream are fabulous. They don’t need The Lorax to get their stories across. Rather, what I want to point out is that I’ve found my children are absorbing these texts in dialogue with the narrative elements of The Lorax. Seuss’s book is a seminal text, one with special powers to shape how they understand and describe environmental challenges. It’s now a part of their lexicon, whether they encounter an oceanographer exploring the deep sea or a girl looking at our planet from space. And I know their experience of this book is not unique.

Granted, The Lorax hit my kids hard, my two-year-old son in particular. It was the first and only book that has made him cry. (“I don’t want the Lorax to go away. I don’t want the Once-ler to make the water dirty for the fish. I don’t want the fish to leave.”)  Dr. Seuss is a genius for so many reasons, but here’s the one I’ll talk about: He created such a round, real villain that my two-year-old felt like he could talk directly to the Once-ler about taking responsibility for his actions. Because while my son liked the idea of a child replanting the trees, he wasn’t convinced that the Lorax would come back unless the Once-ler helped out too. So my son turned to the back page where the Once-ler peeks out a window and spoke in no uncertain terms: “Once-ler. Don’t make the water dirty. Don’t make the Lorax go away. Help clean up.”

It’s like magic when this happens – a book that still speaks to us, even when it’s closed… A book that even talks to the other books we read. (Don’t we all wish for a little sprinkling of that pixie dust in our writing?)

So this makes me wonder: What are the *big books* for the children in your life, the ones that have helped shaped their vocabulary about activism? Which narratives have the unique ability to help children digest complex environmental and social systems into a language they can use to talk about change?

Author Interview with Jen Cullerton Johnson


Jen Cullerton Johnson’s wonderful book, Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace, pushes picture book boundaries to share the life of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman and environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize. It was illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler and published by Lee & Low Books in 2010.

It makes sense that a book about someone who rewrote so many of “the rules” should be told through an innovative form…  but easier said than done in a picture book.

In addition to the lovely qualities of this book – sensory details, energetic illustrations, strong themes – here are some of the boundary-pushing reasons why I’m so excited about this book:

1) The story arc moves beyond the “try once, try again, try a final time and succeed” paradigm that is common in picture books. While this form is highly effective for certain stories, it would only smooth over the lived life of an activist like Maathai. Johnson embraces the complexity of Maathai’s story by including a number of ups and downs, charting the ebb and flow of Maathai’s work to describe a realistic path for a movement leader.

2) Seeds of Change doesn’t shy away from tough topics. We even learn about how Maathai ended up in jail when greedy businessmen and corrupt police officers conspired against her.

3) Here’s a picture book where the protagonist shares a power analysis! After organizing and founding the Green Belt Movement (leading to the planting of over 30 million trees!), then facing jail because she disrupted the existing power structure, we get this:

Wangari realized that the people who had put her in jail didn’t like the changes in the land or in the women. The people in charge of big companies wanted to keep the land for themselves, and the government was frightened of too many advances made by women. If she wanted to help save her country and countrywomen, Wangari would have to go out into the world to spread her message. She would have to leave her home once more.

This to me is the heart of the book’s genius. It doesn’t back away from what made Wangari Maathai who she was, the times she lived through, and how she took a stand.

Johnson is so successful at pulling all of this off, so I asked her some questions. In addition to being a writer, Johnson is an environmental educator and a founder of the website www.greenliteracy.org.

Author Interview with Jen Cullerton Johnson:


What drew you to Wangari Maathai’s story?

Environmental problems are complex, challenging, and messy. Solving environmental problems involve the capacity to balance social justice and deep ecology, think out of the box and have compassion for multiple points of view. Wangari Maathai’s work as an environmentalist and women’s rights champion inspired me to think differently and more openly about the world and how world problems are solved. Wangari took two complex issues, women and the environment, and was able to come to a solution: teach women to plant trees and by doing so, women will become financially independent and deforested areas will be reforested. Amazing, right?

On the same level, I wanted my students to know that when you speak truth to power, when you use your voice and not cower, there is possibility for change not only in yourself but in others and in the landscape around you.

So often in children’s picture books there’s a “try once, try twice, try a final time and succeed” structure. In your story you include an unsettling 4th obstacle after she has had some success. How did you decide to use this structure? Did you have any models for it in other books?

This is an interesting question. I structured the book to reflect points that illuminate important passages in Wangari’s life. I did not intend for it to be a three times then one succeeds. In fact, looking at Wangari’s life there seems to be many moments when her failures bring about success and sometimes her success proves failure.

However, I am very proud of being published by Lee & Low for their determination to tell aspects of Wangari’s life story, including those that some might not find suitable for a picture book. I refer to when greedy business men paid corrupt police officers to arrest Wangari for the changes she brought not only to women’s rights and the environment but to a whole social movement of change for Kenya.

I firmly believe that inviting children into conversations about deep issues in our society, in this case, women’s rights and the environment, will allow them the opportunity to reflect on what they think and share their ideas. Conversation creates community, and in this moment, our children are making their way in a very global community.

So often contemporary children’s book are far below 1,000 words, yet this one is 1,500 words. At what point did you expand the text, and how did that impact the story you were able to tell?

Wangari was a powerful speaker. I wanted children to hear her voice, and not an echo of it. So most of the dialogue in the book comes from Wangari’s memoir Unbowed as well as other academic sources.

Seeds of Change is a unique book. It is a slush pile wonder. I wrote it and sent the manuscript to two publishers who both wanted it. Lee & Low was the first who wrote me back within three weeks. Jennifer Fox was the editor on the book. She is an amazing and dynamic woman. With her guidance, I brought the word count from 750 to 1500. I think the extra word length added more dialogue and an author’s note.

You are also a founder of the website www.greenliteracy.org. Can you tell me about it?

Green Literacy addresses how to teach a critical perspective concerning humanity’s impact on the environment using children’s literature, especially picture and middle grade books and visual media, whose themes relate to the environment and show how teachers can use them to spark critical dialogues.

Through this kind of exploration young people can begin to develop their own ideas and voice with weighty issues surrounding our planet. Giving young people the opportunity to discuss environmental issues by way of the safe and familiar format of a picture or middle grade book, or multimedia will help them value their contact with nature and the principles derived from scientific environmental education.

Young people who are able to make a connection to environmental themes through Green Literacy, with both fiction and non-fiction picture books and other media at a young age, can grow into ‘older’ nonfiction— like newspaper and magazine articles, news broadcasts, graphs and charts in environmental reports. Thought provoking multimedia such as videos and film clips lend themselves to a shared experience in a similar way as picture or middle grade books.

Thank you Jen!

A is Actually for Activist


From all of us looking for activist books for our babes, thank you Innosanto Nagara!

A is for activist is a recently self-published ABC board book by Nagara who is both the writer and illustrator. He is a founding member of Design Action Collective, a worker-owned cooperative design studio in Oakland.
Here’s an ABC book where the letter “X” doesn’t fall back on those tired old images. Rather, Nagara draws on its power:

               X is for Malcolm.
               Malcolm X.
               History’s lessons 
               can be complex.
               Remember Parks.
               Remember King.
               Remember Malcolm.
               And let freedom ring!

And that’s just one letter!  All 26 letters have tight little narrative structures that flow seamlessly from bright, vibrant illustrations. Democracy… equal rights… justice… diversity…  Nagara packs so much into this small book.

I recently learned about A is for activist from a friend who described her favorite image. It’s the “R” page, a quiet but fierce candlelight vigil that stretches far into the horizon.


Where else – but in a children’s picture book – do we get to see Rosa Parks and Henry David Thoreau at the same march? (Check out the illustration’s map on the book website for a helpful who’s who.)

Activists from throughout history stand beneath this text:

“Radical Reds!” the headlines said.
“Ruinois Rioters!” the Rumors spread.
“Rabble Rousing Riff Raff…”
                                                 …Really?

Intense, right? It’s a stunning spread.

So will a young child be able to digest all of this?

Nagara very skillfully speaks to the very young directly. Here’s an example from the “T” page where tulips, a tiger, and a butterfly stretch on the page:

               T is for Trans.
               Tulips, Tassels, Tigers.
               Tractors and Tiaras.
               Trust in the True:
               The he she they that is you!

What a fabulously child-focused way to gently deliver a message about identity.

Also, a curious black cat makes an appearance throughout the book, so young kids can play the game of finding the animal on each page (for example, next to the Zapatista on the Z page).

Surely some of the topics will go over a young child’s head, particularly one in the ABC board book stage.  But this is a book that will still be relevant for many years beyond; it has layers.

Moreover, what Nagara so importantly does is not wait until the ABC book stage is over to begin a conversation about “Actively Answering A call to Action” and all that comes after. 

For that, I’m grateful.

Infinity and Social Change

A few months ago my four year old began to pull me into some *deep* discussions about the biggest possible number (Is infinity bigger than a bazillion?). Surely, I thought, there must be a picture book that can help us… But my web searches turned up empty.

So I was thrilled to read a recent blog post by Kate Hosford, author of the new picture book, Infinity and Me, which focuses precisely on this topic. My daughter and I immediately got our hands on a copy.


Infinity and Mefollows a girl’s exploration of infinity. While firmly rooted on the ground in her new red shoes, Uma asks those around her- her friends, her grandma, the school lunchroom cook, her music teacher- what infinity means to each of them.

In response, the characters offer reflections that take us far outside the vocabulary of numbers and equations: a family that continues through generations, a noodle that can always be cut smaller, an endless circle of music. After listening to everyone else and mulling over some of her infinite questions, Uma defines infinity for herself. She recognizes her love for her grandma is “as big as infinity.”

Gabi Swiatkowska’s illustrations are floating and lovely. My daughter and I were very satisfied.

Since I’ve set out in this blog to focus on picture books that explore social change, the topic of infinity may seem a bit far afield.

Most of the social change picture books I’m reading hone in on a particular person or event, for example, Seeds of Change: Wangari’s Gift to the World by Jen Cullerton Johnson about the environmental leader Wangara Maathai (which I will discuss in a future post). Biographies can relay the qualities of an activist and how they persevere in the face of adversity. Historical events can teach us about where we’ve come from and how to identify important moments of struggle and change.

But social change activism is also about process, one that involves listening to and respecting multiple points of view. Teaching this process seems an important part of any childhood social change toolkit.

Hosford concludes her author’s note with the following: In this book, Uma listens to everyone else’s definition of infinity. Then she comes up with one that’s right for her. My challenge to you is to find your own way to imagine this idea. How many ways are there to imagine infinity? An infinite number. Just close the book and begin.

As I reflect on what really grabbed me about this book, I think it is this invitation which is modeled so wonderfully in the story. There are infinite definitions of social change, so activists listen, discuss, imagine, act… and then circle back through again.

This process can be hard. It involves uncertainty. We don’t know where we’ll end up.

But to talk about social change- like infinity- is to find ways to discuss an outcome that we can’t quite predict or imagine. And, like Uma, we need to learn to do this while still keeping our feet (or shiny red shoes) on the ground.