Shana Keller is the author of the new children's picture book Bread for Words: A Frederick Douglass Story. She also has written the picture books Ticktock Banneker's Clock and Fly, Firefly!. She lives in North Carolina.
Q: Why did you decide to focus your new picture book on how Frederick Douglass learned to read?
A: When I read through an old biography about Frederick Douglass, I realized the amount of effort it took for him to learn how to read and write is one many children can relate to. So I thought it would be neat to share how one of the greatest orators and activists of all time learned.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: I started reading a biography about Douglass written by William S. McFeely. From there, I went back to the actual autobiographies Douglass wrote himself. Then, I read even more books, including children’s books, about Douglass. A few mentioned, but none focused solely on, this great achievement of his.
As the story developed, I took a trip to Baltimore and met with an amazing docent named Bradley. He works with the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park & Museum. He answered many of my questions and gave me a tour of the museum (which I highly recommend).
Q: What do you think Kayla Stark's illustrations add to the book?
A: I am so glad Kayla wanted to work on this project! Her style, from my perspective, puts everyone on equal footing. Despite the heavy topic of slavery and enslavement, there’s an optimism in her drawings and an underlying sense of togetherness I see in the children in the story. It’s very inspirational!
Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?
A: That despite some of the worst odds on the planet, people can succeed. I hope children get a sense from this story that our power comes from our own ingenuity. Where there’s a will, there is a way.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Multiple historic picture books with a focus on African American history.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: If teachers or parents want to demonstrate and connect how Douglass learned—they can show their students four letters from a foreign language (one they aren’t familiar with). Have them trace those letters as Douglass did, and keep track of the time to see how long it takes them to memorize all four.
For fun, you can ask them how long they think it would take to learn the entire alphabet.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb