Tag Archive for James Preller One Question

One Question, Five Authors #5: “How has your work been affected by today’s political climate?” 

Welcome to the fifth edition of the “One Question” series.

My thanks to the five respondents below: Tanya Lee Stone, Jennifer Sattler, Lesa Cline Ransome, Barbara Dee, and Travis Jonker. For your answers . . . and for your fine work.

This is an issue that fascinates me, since it’s been the crucible for so many of us these past few years: How do we proceed under these conditions? As citizens, as artists, as storytellers, how do we respond? Does the job description, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, change?

Note: If there’s a published author or illustrator who’d like to participate in this series, please feel free to email me at jamespreller@aol.com. I’m also on Facebook. There’s a link to the previous ones in the series in the right sidebar under “categories.”

 

Tanya Lee Stone

For the past ten years, my work has focused on filling in some of the gaps in our histories; namely, true stories about women and people of color. Those stories have always been important, but perhaps now more than ever it is essential that they are more widely spread and that readers understand that we are all connected — in our pain and in our triumphs.

In Girl Rising, for example, which deals with the fact that 130 million girls globally are not being educated, I hope I have made it difficult for readers to ignore the fact that these are not “other” girls in “other” places — they are kids just like them — with similar hopes and dreams. And with this awareness of connectedness, I hope, comes increased activism. To that end, I structured the third part of the book around guiding readers toward activism without becoming too daunted by such large issues of slavery, early child marriage, and lack of access to education.

Lesa Cline-Ransome 

I have always enjoyed writing books that celebrate history, culture, heroic figures and the power of perseverance. When I began writing nearly twenty-five years ago, I was interested in finding the untold stories of everyday heroes—Satchel Paige, Marshall Taylor, and Pele, who rose above obstacles. Later I wrote about historic figures like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who had endured their share and more of injustices and hardships. My hope was that all children who read of these struggles would begin to understand how the pains of our past were met with fierce resistance.

And then the election of 2016 happened. And suddenly the distant past seemed not so far away as hate crimes rose and civil rights and protections of marginalized communities were rolled back. Each book I write now feels like less of a focus on history and more of a roadmap to how we must continue to have a voice. The word resistance has now taken on a new urgency, reminding young readers, not of our distant past, but of a world that continues to need voices to speak out against injustice. Now, more than ever, I am using the power of story to chart the progress we’ve made through the years, while reminding readers, there is still a mighty long way to go.

Jennifer Sattler

Right after the election in 2016, I was wondering, like everyone else I know, what on earth I could do to effect change. I can’t go door to door, or make cold calls. That’s not who I am. But then I read somewhere (I wish for the LIFE of me I could remember where) a woman saying, “Do what you do but with a new sense of purpose.” That really resonated with me. So, I wrote Bully. I needed it to still feel like one of my books. I didn’t want to preach or be overtly political. After all, my books are for young children, so I wanted to address something that a lot of them were now dealing with now more than ever.  Most of the books on bullying that I’m aware of have this sympathy for the bully and, honestly, VERY unrealistic expectations for kids to deal with the situation. The bully always comes around and becomes a friend. This has not been my experience . . . ever. As a mother, as a kid who faced bullies, and as a woman. I want kids to feel empowered. And most importantly, not alone.

 

Barbara Dee

In January 2018 my publisher offered on a full manuscript of a middle grade novel — plus whatever MG I wrote next. I’d never had a two-book deal structured this way before, and it struck me as both a vote of confidence and incredible pressure, because at that point I didn’t even have an idea for another book. As I waited for my editor to send notes about Book 1, the news last winter was full of stories about sexual harassment (including some about prominent kidlit authors). These stories horrified me; and the more I researched the origins of such behavior, the more I was convinced that we needed a #MeToo story set in middle school. I began writing very fast, telling myself it was just a draft for Book 2. But before I got to the end, I knew that this story, both timeless and very much a product of the Trump era, needed to be out in the world as soon as possible.  Fortunately, my publisher agreed to flip the order of the two books, releasing Maybe He Just Likes You next fall.

 

Travis Jonker

In my role as school librarian, the current divisive political climate has made me more vigilant about the books in our collection and the books I read aloud with students. Themes of inclusion, kindness, and diversity have become even more of a focus. And it doesn’t always have to be an overt, “Hey, kids, here’s a book with a lesson about kindness.” Usually the more subtle the better. Now as a newly published author, I feel stories that in some way talk about universal themes — and I know I’m not making news here — tend to be more engaging. My favorite line from an Andrew Smith book is that, “The best books are about everything,” which I think means that good books reach for universal topics — love, death, fear, etc. In the podcast interview I did with Mo Willems, he said that every Elephant & Piggie book was addressing a “philosophical question.” So I definitely think about how a story I’m writing connects to larger ideas. With The Very Last Castle, the rough plot came first, but it wouldn’t have become a book without the themes of community and courage that came later in the writing process and gave the story depth. But I honestly can’t say any of that is a direct result of the current political climate. However, I do think it’s made me more sensitive to themes of inclusion, kindness, and diversity in the books I read and share.

 

One Question, Five Authors #2: “Tell us about one book or comic you loved as a child.”

Welcome, readers, to the second installment of “One Question” — the interview series where I do as little work as possible. Personally, I always enjoy hearing authors talk about books they love — particularly those books that made a difference early in their reading lives. The books that helped light the fuse.

Much thanks to our five guests below: Paul Acampora, Rachel Vail, Don Tate, Audrey Vernick, and Julie Fortenberry. Click here to read the debut installment if you missed it the first time around.

 


Paul Acampora

In those years that astronauts were still wandering around on the moon, I discovered The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary. The book featured Keith and Ralph, a couple boys about my age (at the time) in an off-the-beaten-track world that seemed a lot like my own. Keith and Ralph had families and rules and squabbles and accidents. They wanted adventures and they made mistakes. They were just like the cousins and friends and classmates that surrounded me. It’s true that Ralph is a mouse who rides an awesome red motorcycle, but that’s not really the point. Rather, The Mouse and the Motorcycle made it clear to me that real-life adventures were possible. And if Beverly Cleary is right (spoiler alert: she is) adding friends to the mix makes real-life adventures almost inevitable. When I grew up, I did indeed get my very own awesome red motorcycle just like Ralph’s. I don’t have the motorcycle anymore, but I still have the friends which means I’m still having the kind of real-life adventures that books are made of.

 

Rachel Vail

One book I really loved as a kid was Blubber, by Judy Blume. I remember wondering as I read: how did she KNOW? Not just about the overt, senseless, casual cruelty of some kids, but also about MY complicity in the cruelty: the rotten, rotting feeling of seeing somebody be mean to a less powerful kid, and deciding to do nothing. Choosing just to go along, because otherwise I’d be putting myself in danger. And it felt like that, no exaggeration: like danger. Judy Blume captured the complex ethical calculus of being a kid, making choices — the truth of it, the power and the cost of it. Humor and relatable details made the story feel real, but the empathy I felt for every character is what made it feel TRUE. I was particularly moved by the respect Judy Blume was showing to me as a kid, as a reader, as a person. (I felt she was writing for me, in particular, of course. Her writing is that intimate.) She was telling it to me straight, and trusting me to think through what it all meant. There were no tidy resolutions, no morals to print on a poster. It was just, here’s how we sometimes treat one another, and how it really feels. What do you think?

 

Don Tate

I wasn’t a big reader when I was a kid. It is embarrassing to admit — especially to kids! I had trouble with comprehension and retaining what I’d read. So I tended towards the visual. My favorite book was our Better Homes and Gardens Illustrated Medical Encyclopedia. I loved it because of the cool illustrations. I also loved our Funk and Wagnalls Young Students Encyclopedias. They were heavily illustrated. Inside, I learned about all kinds of things, but I was drawn most to the diversity inside. I learned about people from all over the world, I saw people who looked like me. In high school English literature classes, I pretty much refused to read what was presented to me as classics. The Grapes of Wrath, Greek and Roman Myths, Poe, I just couldn’t get into those. I sketched my way through those classes. I didn’t become a reader (for enjoyment) until I was in my early 20s, when I discovered the book Black Boy by Richard Wright. It was a memoir about his life. In Richard Wright, I saw myself. After that, I became a lover of reading. I read all of Richard Wright’s books, and especially loved Native Son.

 

Audrey Vernick

I was a voracious reader as a child, in part because I lacked the kind of friends I read about in books. I had friends, but our relationships never seemed to measure up to the epic friendships in the books I loved most.

The book that hit me right in the center of this spot was The Secret Language, written by the legendary children’s editor Ursula Nordstrom.

Victoria was only eight years old when shipped off to boarding school. What?! Boarding school? My brain had to grow and shift to entertain this new-to-me reality. Vicky was shy and miserable and hated boarding school (this reader, who faked sickness to get out of day camp, could relate to that). And then, impossibly, a strange and funny girl, Martha, befriended Vicky. And shared with her secret words — leebossa, ick-en-spick, ankendosh.

When I think about this, I’m almost inclined to feel sad for young-me, but the truth is I found literary friendships very satisfying. They fed me something I needed — in a way that actual eight-year-old friends could not.

Unexpected friendships. That’s still a pretty sweet spot in my reading — and writing — life.

 

Julie Fortenberry

The Little Golden Picture Dictionary (the original 1959 edition) left a lasting impression on me. I still have my copy. Each page has eight words with descriptions like, “alligator—The Alligator has sharp teeth,” and “kitchen—Mother cooks in the kitchen.” (Later editions have been updated to correct a few unenlightened words and descriptions.)

I’m still fascinated by the little Tibor Gergely illustrations. (Gergely was mostly self-taught, but studied briefly in Vienna. In 1939 he emigrated to New York where he illustrated several New Yorker covers.) It’s so obvious that he loved his job. The pictures are detailed but uncomplicated. And like a lot of Golden Book illustrators, Gergely’s style is both realistic and cartoony. His illustrations of people and animals are great, but even his illustrations of mundane objects (glove, iron, pie) are still intriguing to me.

I don’t remember anyone reading this book to me, so I guess I was able to decipher most of it on my own. I think it was the first time I saw the world arranged in an orderly way. The whole book is very tidy and sunny, like the best kind of kindergarten.