Author interview with Elaine Dimopoulos

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.

Elaine Dimopoulos

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.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Be eco-chic!

Thank you, Elaine!!

Author interview with Miranda Paul

One Plastic BagIsatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia
By Miranda Paul, Illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
Millbrook Press, 2015

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.

Miranda Paul

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?

Isatou Ceesay

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!

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 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.

Thank you, Miranda!

“Vote Yes on Question One”: Maybelle and the Voice of the People

The recent Supreme Court decision to strike down limits on federal campaign contributions, following on the heels of Citizens United a few years ago (here’s an animated analysis), has left me feeling particularly urgent about the need for a childhood social change activism library.

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.


I am very pleased to announce that I am now represented by a wonderful literary agent – Kathleen Rushall at Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.

I am very excited to take this step in my writing career and I am thrilled to work with Kathleen!

I feel incredibly grateful to all of my writer friends who have shared feedback, support, and a good deal of chocolate mint brownies in this process so far. Thanks to all of you!

New posts about activist themes in picture books are coming soon… Stay tuned.

Author Interview with Jane Kohuth

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 Low and 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.

Thanks Jane!!

Author Interview with Janine Macbeth

Janine Macbeth has just released her debut picture book Oh, Oh, Baby Boy!. Macbeth is the writer, illustrator, *and* the publisher. Blood Orange Press, “a literary home for diverse readers,” is her newly-founded independent press.
The result is gasp-worthy. Truly; I saw this reaction to my review copy from several readers.

Oh, Oh, Baby Boy! follows the life of a boy through the eyes of his loving father, from infancy to adulthood. At first, the baby is swaddled and cupped in his father’s hands- oh oh Baby Boy– then in the bath and cooking with the father nearby- smells of spice Baby Boy. 

The boy grows and we feel the father’s presence even when he is absent from the frame. It seems as if we are seeing  the boy splash, play superhero, and laugh with friends up close through the father’s own eyes. The boy becomes a distant profile in the mountains- explore and grow Baby Boy– then nearby again, gently helping a man with a cane off a crowded city bus- strong and kind Baby Boy. 
Soon the young man is preparing to become a father himself. He welcomes a new baby boy into the world– a very unique and beautiful picture book spread that actually depicts childbirth. (You have to get the book to see it for yourself.)
The story winds down with the three generations together, closing with the new father kissing his little son- oh, oh, Baby Boy.

Oh, Oh Baby Boy! is strong visual storytelling. Macbeth’s art pops with bright brush strokes and requires only seventy rhythmic words. An illustrator friend pointed out something about these paintings that is so seamless I didn’t see it at first: brown paper grocery bags are the medium, providing the warm skin color of the characters and crease lines that add extra depth. (Macbeth disclosed they are Berkeley Bowl bags.)

The book has other lovely physical qualities as well, including foil-stamped shiny stars on the end pages and the detail of a nameplate with the words This book celebrates.

The book is wonderful, not only for the sweet and loving story it shares– it should become a baby shower gift favorite – but for the other stories it brings to life as well. 

For one, Macbeth painted her own path to publication. The book was funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign supported by an impressive 260 people.

Macbeth also established her own independent publishing company, Blood Orange Press, with the vision that: children and adults of all ages should have access to stories that recognize and lift up their individual power, dignity, and beauty.

Blood Orange Press is committed to the value of first voice: We support the creation and sharing of stories based on one’s own heritage, experience, and community of origin. We speak for no one but ourselves, knowing that self-representation is an act of power.

What bold and important statements for children’s publishing today.

Oh, Oh, Baby Boy! also includes an author’s note about engaged fatherhood: We’re evolving into new terrains where fatherhood isn’t solely an economic role that occasionally ‘helps’ mothers. Fatherhood is increasingly becoming an equal parenting partnership, whether or not parents are romantically connected.

I recently spoke with Macbeth to learn more about the backstories. Here is her bio from the Blood Orange Press site:

Janine Macbeth’s dream to create children’s books first took root in second grade. Since then, she has contributed to a dozen picture books while at publishing companies and as a freelance artist. She has also worked for over a decade at social justice nonprofit organizations. Blood Orange Press is the alchemy of Janine’s passion for books, art, and racial equity. She identifies as a multiracial artist and woman of color with Asian American, African American, white, and Native American heritage. Janine is also mom of two mancubs, and wife and life partner of their awesome, engaged, and loving father.

Author Interview: Janine Macbeth

How did this story come about?

When I was pregnant with our second son, it struck me how vulnerable a time parenting can be for moms. There is a lot we can do, but we need support too. If my husband can take care of the baby, or do the laundry, or wash the dishes, or cook while I get more rest, then I am able to do so much more.

I was totally inspired noticing the active involvement of some dads. And I saw the beauty of watching my own husband engage with my boys with so much love and compassion. I wanted to lift that up and celebrate that this is possible.

My mom didn’t have that kind of support when I was little. All moms deserve a viable parenting partner if they want it, even if they are co-parenting or in another kind of relationship with the father.

How did you first get involved in children’s publishing? At what point did you decide to create your own publishing company? 

I’ve always loved books. In second grade my classmates said that I would write and illustrate children’s books. But since I couldn’t find authors with my skin tone and characters with my heritage I didn’t think this was a realistic goal.

In college, I studied racial justice and saw this gap in children’s books as something I wanted to fill. Why shouldn’t I make books?

I attended a summer publishing program at NYU. After working at ColorLines Magazine I landed at Children’s Book Press (CBP).  CBP was a multicultural publisher based in San Francisco that was founded in the 1970s and focused on publishing first voice stories. They’ve since become an imprint of Lee & Low Books in New York. CBP was my dream publisher and I volunteered there with the goal of learning how to start a children’s publishing company. I worked there until my first son was born.

Around this time, I shopped a children’s book I had written to publishers but the process left me feeling demoralized and disempowered. For Oh, Oh, Baby Boy!. I decided to take the plunge and self-publish.

What are your hopes for Blood Orange Press? What are some of the other stories you want to draw attention to?

I have a list of books I would like to work on. One of my next steps is to map out a pipeline for the next few years.

Even with the Kickstarter campaign, I am still in debt. Ultimately I would like to sign other authors and illustrators; it’s important to me that I can pay them.

I want everything to be based in a strong critique of what stories are missing and put out positive responses that don’t sugarcoat issues but can help people feel good and create change from a place of vision and love instead of a place of anger. I want to incorporate magic, beauty, and dignity.

Can you tell me about the childbirth image? It is fairly unusual to show childbirth in a picture book. 

I am glad you asked about this one since it is one of my favorites. It was one of the fasted, most effortless and passioned illustrations to create. It came fluidly. The hands catching the baby are the dad’s. Both our sons were born at home, and this spread underscores the importance of a partner’s role ensuring that moms feel safe.

You include a booklist on your website of “Recommended books for People and Children of Color, White Allies, and Progressive Families.” What are some of your favorites?

I love books by Leo and Diane Dillon and Kadir Nelson. Ellington Was Not A Street by Ntozake Shange is one of my all-time favorites.

But one of my sadnesses is that children’s books about people of color often get pigeonholed. In my opinion, too many children’s books depict slavery and poverty at the expense of other historically rooted and realistic narratives. Many of the books that spark curiosity and imagination don’t feature kids of color as protagonists. I look forward to the day when children’s books represent a full range of possibility and emotion.

Where can people buy Oh, Oh, Baby Boy!?

On the Blood Orange Press Website, through AK Press (my distributor), and Amazon. The books is also available to educational and library markets through Ingram and Baker & Taylor. Ask for it at your local bookstores; they should be able to order it as well.

Thanks Janine!

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

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 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!