Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Q&A with Jeanne Walker Harvey

Jeanne Walker Harvey is the author of the children's picture book Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines. Her other books include Honey Girl and My Hands Sing the Blues. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on artist-architect Maya Lin in your new children's picture book?

A: My connection to this story began in college. When I was a senior in college in 1981 at Stanford, Maya Lin was a senior at Yale.  I read in the San Francisco newspaper about the exciting news that her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial had won the national contest that drew over 1,400 entries.

I was amazed to learn that a woman, my age, had won this contest. And I’ve always loved modern art so I thought her design, which was simple yet so powerful, was inspired. 

I closely followed the news of the many governmental hearings in Washington, D.C., and challenges that followed the announcement that Maya Lin’s design had won.

I was so impressed that she stood up to the vehement attacks on her design. It was called “a black gash of shame and sorrow” and “a ditch” and “a hole.” They wanted to add to the design, a flag at the apex where the two walls connect.

She stood by her conviction. And I wanted to share this inspirational story with children, and give them opportunity to learn about Maya Lin and her childhood and background.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from her story?

A:  I hope that children will be inspired by learning how Maya Lin stood up for what she believed and didn’t back down despite criticism. And, I hope they also want to reach for the stars – try for things that others might say are unattainable.

Q: What do you think Dow Phumiruk's illustrations add to the book?

A: Oh! Dow’s illustrations are truly amazing. I think she is incredibly talented. She truly portrayed Maya Lin’s story perfectly with a sense of beauty and simplicity that reflects Maya Lin’s style and views of art and architecture. 

Dow and I are both represented by the same amazing agent, Deborah Warren of East West Literary Agency, which makes it even more special to have done this book together. 

And we greatly benefitted from the incredible insights and editing talent of Christie Ottaviano, publisher of Christy Ottaviano Books (Henry Holt/Macmillan). Writing a children’s book is truly a collaborative process.

Q: What age group do you think would especially appreciate the book?

A: I’ve shared this book with a wide range of ages at schools, bookstores, book festivals, public community libraries, and the Library of Congress (a dream come true!). And I’m always amazed by the sensitivity and perceptions and understanding of even the younger children. 

So I would say 5 to 10 year olds. But I’ve also used this book in middle school classes as it works well to begin a discussion of the Vietnam War.

I was pleased that our book was recently given the distinction of being named a NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People in the picture book category.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on developing several other picture book biographies of creative people, and I’m always hopeful we’ll find a home for them.

And I’m very excited that my next picture book will be published in the fall—Boats on the Bay, illustrated by the talented Grady McFerrin and published by the wonderful Cameron + Company.

I was inspired to write the book because I spend a lot of time walking by the San Francisco Bay and looking out my window, always enchanted by the wide array of boats.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My muse is my cat (or at least she likes to think that’s what she is). Right now she’s perched in my lap (which is better than on the keyboard which wreaks havoc).

When I visit schools and libraries, I always share photos of her and show the children some of the mischief she causes when I don’t pay enough attention to her. But then I figure it’s always good to take a break from writing and play with her – it clears my thoughts and keeps her from pulling the flowers out of the vase!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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