Barb Rosenstock is the author of the new children's book Dorothea's Eyes, which is about the photographer Dorothea Lange. Her other books include Ben Franklin's Big Splash and The Streak. She lives in Illinois.
Q: Why did you decide to write about Dorothea Lange, and how did you research the book?
A: I have always loved the photo "Migrant Mother," but didn’t really even know Dorothea’s name. I sometimes think about the “invisibility” of the people behind the images and words we see or read every day.
I ran across her name about three years ago in a women’s history book on influential artists and bought an adult biography of Dorothea. Once I found out that Dorothea overcame polio and expressed that she felt “invisible," I knew that was the beginning of a picture book.
I then started researching the book in the typical way at libraries, scholarly articles, museums, contact with experts, etc. In this case, both looking hard at Dorothea’s actual photographic output and delving deeply into her interviews in print and on video were very important to understanding her approach to her photography and her feelings about herself and her work.
Q: The book includes some of Lange's photographs, at the end, but most of the book consists of text and illustrations. How did you and the book's illustrator, Gerard DuBois, try to convey the sense of her photography through words and pictures?
A: I tried to use words that had visual meanings and tried to get the reader to “see” the way Dorothea did, with their eyes and with their hearts. I also tried to communicate her sense of herself that I got from watching videos of her speaking about her photography.
I’m sure you’re aware that on picture books the author and illustrator do not collaborate directly, only through an editor, so I really can’t speak for Gerard’s thought process as I’ve yet to meet him!
I do think his work subtly conveys the historical times as well as the passion Dorothea expressed in telling people’s stories through the visual medium of photography. He also showed her invisibility, which was quite a trick in visual art.
I’ve been very lucky to be paired with Gerard and other super talented illustrators. I only hope my words live up to their pictures.
Q: You note at the end of the book that Lange was the only woman included among FDR's first New Deal photographers. What do you hope young readers take away from her story?
A: I do want children to know that there was a time (fairly recently) that many careers were just not open to women. Dorothea’s passion for photography opened up the field for others who followed before those Depression years ended.
I write picture book biographies like this one to let kids know that all our famous artists, politicians, athletes and scientists were just regular kids, regular people who followed a passion. As I heard someone say recently, “It’s not like Abraham Lincoln knew he’d be Abraham Lincoln.”
I think these stories can really turn kids onto history and make it personal, make it “stick” rather than a dry set of dates and events without relationship to their current lives.
Q: Do you think there's a particular age group that would especially enjoy this book?
I think my picture books tend to skew older than the “typical” 4-8 year old audience. I believe in “talking up” to children and letting their brains work a bit to figure things out. I still enjoy that kind of learning myself. So, I guess I would say about 2nd to 4th graders would be ideal.
Picture books are also a great model for writing and storytelling in the older grades, so I think Dorothea’s Eyes would be a good introduction to the Depression or FDR’s social welfare programs even up through high school.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Thanks for asking! I have six books coming out in the next three years. Blue Grass Boy, a biography of the bluegrass musician Bill Monroe, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, and Prairie Boy, a story of Frank Lloyd Wright’s childhood, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal, both published by Calkins Creek.
There’s a picture book set in India called The Secret Kingdom from Candlewick, illustrated by Claire Nivola, Otis & Will Discover the Deep, a book on early exploration of the oceans, illustrated by Katherine Roy, and two more books with Mary Grandpré, Vincent Can’t Sleep, as well as a book on Chagall, which was just sold.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’m working on some fiction, a picture book here and there, the beginnings of an historical novel. We’ll see if anything comes of it. I can’t wait to see where the next idea or the next book takes me.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb