I don’t know what it is with Minnesota, but there’s a lot of great children’s book people from that state, and John Coy is a shining example of all that is great and good in the land of lakes. Each year John quietly adds new quality work to an already outstanding career. Ask anybody in the business about John Coy, and you always hear the same thing: Big Respect. But on the basketball court, they say: No Hops. Today I’m happy to talk about his timely book, Their Great Gift: Courage, Sacrifice, and Hope in a New Land, featuring the photographs of Wing Young Huie.
Hi, John. In a way, this book began on a basketball court twenty-five years ago. That is, through friendship. Give us a little bit of background on your relationship with photographer Wing Young Huie and the genesis of this book.
Wing and I met each other playing pick-up basketball in St. Paul. We were often on the same team and he’s got a deadly outside shot. I learned quickly that getting him the ball with the game on the line was a good way to keep the court. Later I played with him in a weekly game for years and we’d go out afterwards as a group. I’ve been a fan of Wing’s extraordinary photography for a long time.
That’s great. I share that in common with you. I play in an old men’s baseball league — hardball, still — and I value so much that companionship of men from assorted backgrounds. It’s an escape and a release and a pure joy. But tell me. Why did this particular topic of immigration speak to you?
This book had a much different process than any of the other picture books I’ve made where I have not known the artist. I was having lunch one day with editor Andrew Karre and he said, “I’ve always wanted to do a book with Wing Young Huie.” I told him that Wing and I were friends and that I’d love to do a book with Wing. Andrew suggested I write something that would work with Wing’s photographs. Wing has over 35,000 photographs, but I knew he had many of recent arrivals in Minnesota and I’d always wanted to do a book about arriving in a new land.
For Their Great Gift, the photos came first. It was your task to write something that pulled it all together. Is that right?
Actually, the text came first. I wrote it thinking about the stories I’d heard of different people in my family coming here. After Wing saw the text, he and I got together and he suggested changes to make it broader and more inclusive. I talked with people who had come here from other countries and incorporated their suggestions as well. Our goal early on was to make the story open so people could bring their own thoughts, experiences, and questions to it.
In order to write this, you had to think deeply about the nature of America, and the role that immigration has played in our country’s development. What did you discover in the process of writing this book? Did anything surprise you? Did you feel sadness? Inspiration? Pride?
This is a subject very close to me. My uncle didn’t speak any English when he started school and I was brought up hearing stories about how difficult it is to give up a life in one country and start anew in another one. I also heard about
how hard the immigrant experience could be and how some people were not welcoming to new arrivals. As I got older I read more about it and realized this is a very old story in the United States — who is welcome and who is not. I also became interested in how often aspects of being an immigrant are passed down in families, often without us even being aware of them. In terms of emotions, yes sadness, inspiration, pride, but most of all a deep appreciation of the struggle so many people go through to get here, so often so the children and grandchildren will have greater choices. Just typing that sentence about sacrifice brings tears.
I don’t think most people can fully appreciate how difficult it is to write simply about a topic of great complexity. What was the process of winnowing down like for you? I mean, after you removed your forehead from the plasterboard.
I’ve been thinking about this story for twenty years. I’m sure some of that winnowing was going on in my mind, but I also knew the power of Wing’s photographs.
You had that ace up your sleeve.
Right away, I knew the less text the better so that people could bring their own family stories to the topic by seeing the photographs.
Interesting, so the text had to be sparse, leaving an open space for readers to enter with their own stories. But even so, you still had to try to arrive at the essence of the immigrant experience. And that means throwing away a lot of images and pages and pages of text.
Yes, that’s exactly the process. Wing and I would discuss a single word for over an hour trying to get it right. Once Wing and I settled on text, he began the process of choosing images for particular pages. We had a wonderful team with his gallery director Stephanie Rogers and editors Andrew Karre and Carol Hinz and designer Danielle Carnito at Lerner. Since we all live in Minnesota, we could get together and discuss text, images, fonts, and design. Together, we went through many discussions before arriving at the place that felt right.
There’s a great power to Wing’s photographs, the simplicity of just “giving face” to the contemporary immigrant experience. Do you think that’s the ultimate takeaway for this book? A recognition that these are real people seeking the same basic things for their families?
I always want readers to choose their own takeaways. I will say that when I read this book, I have never had kids and adults pay more attention than I do with Their Great Gift. Wing’s images are so powerful that they speak directly to us and cut through so much of the noise around us.
Okay, let’s address it. Were you ever concerned, in this time of heightened sensitivity to “cultural appropriation,” that this wasn’t your story to tell?
Yes, this was a discussion that Wing and I had from the beginning. I started out telling the story from my own personal experience and then tried to move outwards to make it as broad and open as possible so that others could see themselves in the story. I am very grateful to all the people who shared their stories in the process.
Did you any have specific sources you went to for inspiration? Books, speeches, images? I’d guess that you started writing this book . . . by reading?
This book started in listening to people’s stories. The more we’re able to listen to other people’s stories, the more we’re able to understand who we are.
As a writer, I had this experience only once, when I wrote Bystander. I could imagine the book being discussed, to the point where I thought of it as a “talking book.” I saw the novel as a means rather than an end, sensing that the conversations after would be more important than reading the book. I feel that way about your book too, John — a good way to begin an important conversation.
I think that there are a number of conversations happening that are long overdue. Sometimes the conversations aren’t easy, but that’s what happens when there are things we haven’t been talking openly about for a long time. I’m appreciative of people who’ve made their own sacrifices to bring these conversations forward.
Your book ends with a question. Did you always know that’s where you were going to end up?
That question was there in the first draft. I’d given a talk at a young authors’ conference and discussed the people who’d come before me that allowed me to be in the position I was. I asked students to think about who in their family had made a significant sacrifice to provide them the opportunity they had. And then I asked them to think about what they were going to do with this gift.
You’re a good man, John Coy. Before I let you go, could you please tell us a bit about Gap Life, your new book for YA readers?
Thanks for asking. It’s the story of Cray Franklin whose parents will pay for college but only if he studies what they want. That’s not what Cray wants and he struggles to find his own way. I’ve been fascinated by how many people have told me stories about not being able to study what they wanted and how deep this goes. Cray meets some remarkable people who help him get to places he didn’t expect.
I’ll add it to the reading list. And again, congratulations on Their Great Gift.
The “5 Questions” Interview Series is a side project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function, which works swimmingly.
Authors and illustrators previously interviewed include: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, and London Ladd.
Coming soon: Elizabeth Zunon, Bruce Coville, Matt Faulkner, Robin Pulver, and more.