Andrew Larsen is the author of the new children's picture book biography The Man Who Loved Libraries: The Story of Andrew Carnegie. Larsen's other books include See You Next Year and A Squiggly Story. He lives in Toronto.
Q: Why did you decide to write a children’s picture book about Andrew Carnegie?
A: I generally write fictional picture books from the world of my kids or things from my own childhood. I’m always looking to expand what I write about. I knew I wanted to write a picture book biography.
Monica Kulling writes wonderful picture book biographies. She’s fantastic. She talks about it, and I was fascinated to hear about her process.
Around that time I was doing a reading at a local library. I was outside the library and there was a plaque. It was a Carnegie library. I had no idea what Carnegie had done for readers around the world, that he’d funded all these libraries. I thought, that’s really cool!
Every little bit of reading I did said, Yes, keep going! I thought, in the most basic of ways, who’s not going to like a story about libraries, and the fact that this guy who’s so wealthy was gifting these libraries—it was also a gift to me!
I wanted to write a story that tracked on the issue of immigration. I started writing this a year ago, but so much of what the news is portraying of the conversation coming out of Washington made me so sad. Here’s this guy, who is an immigrant, and is giving something back…
Q: You’ve discussed the emphasis on his giving back with libraries—can you say more about how you chose which aspects of his life to focus on in the book?
A: There have been big books, 700-800 page biographies of him. I read those. There have been documentaries made. He had a full life. He did a lot of different things.
I thought, this is a picture book biography, I’m aiming at kids in grades 1, 2, 3, I’m aiming at teachers of kids that age. Less is more. I wanted to focus on that one aspect--he worked hard, and it paid off for him.
I say to kids, we don’t talk about him so much because he was an immigrant, or because he was a bad boss—people say, why don’t you talk about the fact that he’s a robber baron? I didn’t want to cloud the story. In the back matter is a passage about labor strife—there was back-and-forth with my editor about whether to include that.
I wanted it to be about a story of a guy who did well and wanted to give back. There could be other stories written about him. He didn’t just gift libraries, he gifted church organs. I want a kid to think, wow, that library in my city was given by a man I know about, and he was really rich, and what did he do with his money? He gave it away!
Q: What do you see as Andrew Carnegie’s legacy today, and do you see any present-day philanthropists that you think are similar?
A: The giving pledge that Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett started—it’s really important and good, but I wish there were something that caught the imagination of kids…I wish there were something in popular culture…
Q: What about his legacy?
A: Believing in community, his notion that he would give a hand up not a handout, he gave to the community in a way that it continues to live. I will tell kids, people today are really rich, and what do they do with their money—put their name on a hotel or an airplane, and some even think they could be president. He didn’t put his name on any of the buildings.
To me, that’s his legacy. The fact that his money is still doing things now…I was at the ALA conference in Chicago with this book. I hoped librarians would like the book, but what amazed me was the lineup of librarians all of whom had a story about how a Carnegie library was a place they went to in their town growing up, or where they got their first job.
It’s a living legacy. Even in Toronto, there are seven libraries that are hubs of the community. Each was funded by Carnegie. And they’re sprinkled throughout the world.
Q: What do you think Katty Maurey’s illustrations add to the story?
A: They give it a warm life. On the one hand it’s a factual story I tell, cut and dry. The illustrations are really beautiful, and they make the story more human and relatable. They’re evocative of an earlier time. They’re not drawings in a sense, they’re paintings. They give you a feeling that’s very evocative. She’s done a fantastic job with that.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: The next work I have coming out—I’m unbelievably excited about it—is The Bagel King. It’s inspired by my father-in-law. He would drop off freshly baked bagels on Sunday mornings…
What I’m working on—I did something in October called the Carnegie Project. I went to each of the Carnegie libraries in Toronto and talked to schoolkids about the building and the man and the idea of giving. I would ask, if you were the richest kid in the world, what would you do with the money?
At the end of the presentation, there would be a Q&A. Kids were trying to outdo each other with their notions of philanthropy, but there were some wonderful, quirky, wacky things about what kids would do if they had all the money in the world. I kept notes trying to organize them into something. It won’t be a story, but I want to work with this. It’s about their hopes and dreams.
One kid, probably in grade 3, with big glasses, well-spoken, it was quite clear he was a smart kid, said he would use three-fourths of the money hunting for dragons, and one-fourth to set up a university to study dragons. I thought, this is just perfect, and why not!
I’m going to try to mold [these ideas] into something—it goes from those kind of ideas to simple ideas. The moral is, the best things, you can’t buy.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: [Your] community often has a story to tell. The story of Carnegie was one I stumbled upon, just being curious about my neighborhood. Our communities, houses, buildings, have amazing stories.
One of the Carnegie libraries I was in, in Toronto, had pictures of the children’s room in the 1920s. Kids were amazed. Most of the kids, their parents were new Canadians. In the 1920s their families were far away—and here the library has pictures of kids their own age, in the same room, reading. It’s something I find very potent. There are lots of stories waiting to be told.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb