Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Q&A with Tom and Leila Hirschfeld

Tom Hirschfeld
Tom and Leila Hirschfeld, a father-daughter writing team, are the authors of the new children's book It's Up to You, Abe Lincoln, the first in a series. Tom Hirschfeld's other books include Business Dad and How to Master Home Video Games. He is now writing full-time after a 30-year business career. Leila Hirschfeld is a senior at Harvard University who's majoring in history.

Q: How did the two of you come up with the idea for your history series, and why did you begin with Lincoln?

Leila: Growing up, I always loved reading history and especially biographies. Then in high school I took Latin and read some of Julius Caesar's writings on war.  He was an amazing person, whose decisions (like crossing the Rubicon!) made a big difference in the world. My dad and I had been talking about doing a book project together, so we thought a biography focusing on Caesar's 10 most important life choices would be fun to write, and maybe interesting for kids to read.
Leila Hirschfeld

Tom: We sent it to Phoebe Yeh, who is now our fantastic editor at Random House. She liked our tongue-in-cheek approach and signed us up for four books, but she opted for subjects who lived a little more recently than two thousand years ago. Lincoln is such an important, fascinating, paradoxical figure that it made sense to lead with him.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

Leila: We read lots of books about Lincoln, plus many of his letters and speeches. He was an incredibly skilled writer, especially considering he pretty much taught himself! We also went to Springfield, Illinois, to see his home and his law office. We spent time there in his Presidential Library and Museum (it's fantastic) and even met with the curator, who was really helpful.

Tom: One thing that surprised us about Lincoln was how funny he was. Our favorite joke might be when he won over a tough audience by saying, "If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?" He used humor in so many ways: to ward off depression, to persuade through charm, to soften hard decisions, even to distract people when he wasn't ready to make a decision yet. 

Q: What's it been like for you to write together? Can you describe your writing process?

Leila: First we read enough to decide what our subject's most important life choices were. Each of us makes a list, then we put them together and narrow them down to about 10. That might be the most fun part of the process right there!

Tom: Later each of us picks some choices to write about, and finally we swap draft chapters back and forth until they all sound like both of us. Leila's closer in age to our audience, so her input on content and language makes a huge difference.

Q: How did you pick the particular decisions in Lincoln's life to write about in the book?

Leila: We looked for decisions that changed the course of his life, or of American history. They had to be hard choices that ended up showing the kind of person he was.

Tom: To help our readers understand what it was like being in Abe Lincoln's shoes, we ask them at each choice point to guess which one of four options he actually picked. Then we reveal what he did and why, and explore what might have happened if he'd made a different choice.

Q: What are you working on now?

Leila: It's Up to You, Ben Franklin is coming out next year, so we're working with the wonderful people at Random House to finalize the artwork and edits.

Tom: Meanwhile, we're writing It's Up to You, Albert Einstein for 2020. Too soon to say who our fourth subject is, but she's a good one!

Q: Anything else we should know?

Leila: We feel so lucky that we've been able to work on these books together, and we really hope that kids have as much fun reading them as we've had writing them!

Tom: We're all defined by the choices we make--whether we're old or young, presidents or ordinary folks. Who knows, maybe watching someone like Abe Lincoln wrestle with his hard decisions can help our readers a little when the time comes to make some of their own choices.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. I'm glad to say that Tom and Leila Hirschfeld are cousins of mine!

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