Saturday, July 8, 2023

Q&A with Emma Carlson Berne




Emma Carlson Berne is the author of the new children's picture book biography Rose Spoke Out: The Story of Rose Schneiderman. Berne's many other books include Shabbat Sabotage. She lives in Cincinnati.


Q: Why did you decide to write a children's picture book about union organizer Rose Schneiderman (1882-1972)?


A: I love writing biographies and I was on the hunt for an interesting subject. I was poking around various accounts of women union organizers and activists on the Lower East Side in the early 20th century and came up on many mentions of the organizer Clara Lemlich.


But off to the side, not mentioned as often, was Rose. I was curious about this person – who was she and why was I not reading more about her? Being nosy is a writer’s best quality – and this nosiness into Rose’s life made for some fascinating reading.


Q: How did you research Rose’s life, and what did you learn that especially intrigued you?


A: The highlight of my research for sure was reading Rose’s own incredible memoir.


She was a really good writer, which was a pleasant surprise since I’ve certainly read plenty of dreck from people who’ve lived interesting lives but aren’t necessarily great at getting those experiences down on the page. She talks all about her life in Poland and the daily details of her family’s move to the Lower East Side.


I read other scholarly material about Rose and other organizers as well – and I also spend a huge amount of time looking at fascinating pictures of tenement and factory life from that era. The streets are incredibly crowded – everything is incredibly crowded.


Q: What do you think Giovanni Abeille's illustrations add to the book?


A: One of Abeille’s illustrations I particularly love is the page that shows the women workers carrying their own sewing machines to work on their shoulders.

These machines were both heavy and expensive and women had to buy their own and lug them to and from the factory every day. Abeille drew the machines so that they are blocking the women’s faces, which I think speaks to the dehumanizing experience they were enduring.


We also had to make some hard decisions about just how to depict some of the really violent and raw parts of Rose’s life – she was beaten by police, many of her friends died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and the historical photos of that are incredibly gruesome and graphic.


 Some of these details didn’t make it into the book, but some did and I think Abeille did a fantastic job showing the reality of the hard, ugly parts of Rose’s life without frightening us too much.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book calls it “An inspiring portrait of a woman committed to making a difference and whose influence is still felt to this day.” What do you think of that description, and how do you see her legacy today?


A: Oh, I couldn’t agree more with this description. Rose was almost supernaturally brave. She used to get in trouble all the time – both in school and at home – for talking out and arguing in class. Her mother would tell her she had a big mouth. She’d argue with anyone.


I love this image of her on a ladder out on the streets (she was really short, hence the ladder), telling all the women workers coming out of the factories how to organize unions. She was part of a great early Jewish tradition of Socialism and Marxism that my own family was part of. I love thinking that some of my Roth relatives might have known women like her.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m hard at work on another picture book biography that I’m really excited about. I can’t say too much right now except that the subject couldn’t be more different than Rose, but is just as complicated and fascinating.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thank you so much for highlighting Rose’s story, Deborah! More people deserve to know about her.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Emma Carlson Berne.

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