Monday, November 6, 2017

Q&A with Jonah Winter

Jonah Winter is the author of the new children's picture book Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of R.B.G. vs. Inequality. His many other books include Barack and Lillian's Right to Vote.

Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and why did you structure the book as a legal case about inequality?

A: When choosing a subject for a picture book biography, I gravitate towards people who’ve had an important impact on the world and/or whose story is particularly compelling and would be useful for children to know about.  

Certainly, these factors went into my decision to take on RBG. That and the fact she’s one of the people I admire most in modern American history. 

There’s no one else I can think of whose story even compares – in terms of the courage and determination and moral gravitas she has displayed from the very beginning of her life. There is nothing icky about her – no side of her character or history or politics from which one needs to avert one’s eyes.  

Throughout her career, but especially since she became a Supreme Court Justice and thereby a more nationally recognized figure, she has been a constant beacon of reason, justice, and progressivism. She has provided a constant counter-balance to the awfulness of right-wing politics in America. 

Thank God we have her – she is a national treasure. Keep eating your Wheaties and doing that Canadian Air Force workout, Justice Ginsburg! We need you! 

The legal case structure of the book…: Whenever possible, I try to find a structure or approach for each book I write that mirrors the subject matter.  

With Gertrude Stein, I structured my picture book like a piece of Gertrude Stein’s writing – whimsical and nonsensical, lots of repetition. With Dizzy Gillespie, I structured my book like a Beat Generation poem, presumably to be read aloud with Gillespie’s music playing in the background.  

With the books on the Negro Leagues and on Latino Baseball Pioneers that I wrote and illustrated, I structured the facing pages like two sides of a baseball card, with the front (image) on the left page and the back (stats/mini-bio) on the right.  

With my book on Josephine Baker, I structured the first half of the book (her sad childhood and early adulthood) like a blues song, and the second half like a 1920s jazz-age fast-paced Charleston-esque ukulele number, bursting out at the seams – as a way of reflecting her progression from the despair of being a black American subjected to racism and white terrorism and blackface… to becoming a beloved, celebrated world-famous Jazz Age icon in France.  

So, after deciding that I would devote much of my book on Ginsburg to the injustices as a woman and a Jew that she was subjected to from the beginning, it just clunked me on the head like an apple from a tree that I should structure the book like a court case, with “Exhibits A, B, C,” etc.  

It would be a way of plunging my young readers into the world of courtrooms and the law – and an effective device for structuring the long list of injustices she has endured… on her way to becoming a Supreme Court Justice and an emblem of justice.  

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I read books, articles, interviews, speeches. I hadn’t realized, before I started doing my research, about just how important a figure she was in the women’s rights movement of the 1970s. She practically WAS the women’s rights movement!  

And I certainly hadn’t realized the degree of bullshit she had to endure and fight to get to where she is today. Though I’m not Jewish or female, what I found out about her really inspires me to the degree that she’s now a role model – her toughness, especially. I wish I had even one fraction of that toughness.  

Q: What do you see as RBG’s greatest achievement?

A: Some public figures are easier than other to associate with one famous great achievement. For instance, Thurgood Marshall and Brown v Board of Education. Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1965.  

But I think Ginsburg is harder to pin down to just one great achievement. Her achievement is more a cumulative one, I think. Her presence on the Supreme Court, as a constant outspoken voice of justice and human decency (I’m trying to avoid using the word “liberal,” since I believe that word would diminish what she is), is her greatest cumulative accomplishment.  

Also, I think she will be remembered as one of the great women’s rights leaders of the 20th and 21st centuries – a figure who moved the cause of women’s rights forward throughout her long and varied career. If I had to do a Top Five, she would be right up there with Gloria Steinem and Hillary Clinton.  

Q: What do you think Stacy Innerst’s illustrations added to the book?

A: Stacy Innerst’s illustrations? They make the book a Caldecott contender! They’re brilliant. I could not be more pleased.  

He has such a delicate touch – and a style that perfectly suits the subject matter. He conveys the seriousness and dignity of Ginsburg, while miraculously keeping something playful and childlike in the style.  

Sometimes, with picture book bios, illustrators don’t quite get the face or character right. They just don’t. And as someone familiar with the subject, you can see it in an instant. “Huh,” you say to yourself.  

Maybe this doesn’t matter to some people, but it matters to me as a picture book bio author. If you’re not conveying something essential about the figure in your illustrations, then what’s the point of the picture book bio?  

Well, this is where Stacy knocks it out of the park. He serves the subject matter – as opposed to the subject matter serving him. But he does so without sacrificing any artistry, style, or his own personality as an artist. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: “Well, I could tell you, but then I’d have to….” Because of the competitive nature of the nonfiction picture book world, I can only speak in the most general terms. 

But I will say that, ever since The Secret Project came out and received such glowing reviews, I have realized that it is possible to broach really dark moments from history in a picture book – and that it’s possible to end a picture book on an alarming, negative, or chilling note.  

I know there are many who disagree with this, who think that, for instance, the making of the atom bomb is absolutely too dark and mature a topic to introduce in a picture book. I think these people underestimate children and their ability to absorb so-called “difficult” topics.  

So, I will continue on the path I’m on, broaching topics that deal with injustice, racism, sexism, bad things people have done. I’ll leave the feel-good, heart-warming stories to authors inclined to write that sort of thing.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There are plenty of things you should know! I’m not sure where to begin….

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jonah Winter.

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