Sunday, March 31, 2019

Q&A with Natascha Biebow


Natascha Biebow is the author of the new picture book biography The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons. She edits the work of other children's book authors at Blue Elephant Storyshaping, and she lives in London.


Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book biography of Edwin Binney?

A: I was taking a non-fiction writing course and needed a topic. One day, I was watching a Sesame Street show with my son. Multi-colored crayons spun out of a huge sorting machine into the stadium-style yellow and green Crayola boxes. I was fascinated.

Today, children are given crayons almost as soon as they are born. But in 1900s, instead of colorful crayons, markers, paper and computers, children had a slate, clay and chalk. At home, they played with simple or homemade toys.

I imagined that, if you were a child in 1903 when the first box of Crayola crayons was made, suddenly your world would have been transformed. You could draw in bright colors that wouldn’t smudge and your drawing would last a long time. Wow! I set out to find out more about Edwin Binney, their Crayola crayons’ creator.

What I discovered is that Binney’s mission was to create safe, bright and affordable crayons so that children everywhere would have access to drawing in color.

I wanted to create a read-aloud story about the inventor of a toy that I loved as a child and about color, innovation and creativity.  

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

A: I did a lot of research about the story of the invention of Crayola crayons as well as the extended Binney family, company history, background, production and composition of crayons, Binney’s home town in Old Greenwich, Connecticut (his house still stands), and the general historical time period around 1903, when the first eight Crayola crayons were sold. 

My sources included books, articles, videos, and websites, but particularly useful were librarians! I tracked down Binney’s great-granddaughter and interviewed her. I collaborated with Crayola and went to see the factory in Easton, Pennsylvania. I also visited the archives at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., where the company records are held.

I think the fact that I found most surprising was how much Binney loved nature and how he brought bouquets of flowers and produce from his garden in to the Crayola offices and factory to inspire his team.

Also, I was amazed how the Crayola crayons are still made in much the same way today, in Easton, Pennsylvania, as they were in 1903, though some of the new machinery produces crayons at a jaw-dropping speed – it is really cool! 

Q: What do you think Steven Salerno's illustrations added to the book? 

A: Steven Salerno has masterfully captured the story, which is all about color! The book starts out mono-color, with lots of tones of black and gray, because Edwin Binney worked producing carbon black, a substance used in printing inks, shoe polish and electric street lamps in the 1900s.

As Binney embarks on his quest to develop the Crayola crayons, the pictures show a gradual transition to color, until finally, at the end of the book when Crayola invents even more crayon colors, kids everywhere are empowered to draw anything!

I also admire how Steven Salerno captured Binney’s world so accurately, while at the same time infusing it with fun and verve. Between us, we referenced everything possible so as to create a historically accurate version of this special story. If you’re interested in Steven’s fascinating process, you can read more about it on his blog. 

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?

A: Edwin Binney had a knack for listening and making what people needed. He loved nature and it was the inspiration for the bright colors he wanted to create in the crayons. Still now, we are learning so much from nature!

Binney was also a generous entrepreneur who gave back to his community. His flair for innovation, creativity, persistence and ability to listen are all attributes that future generations will need to make our world a better place.

I hope young readers will be inspired to tap into their love of color and create something amazing! In this fast-paced world of ours, where kids are so often on devices, I’d love it if the book were to encourage kids to just doodle with crayons.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have written some new non-fiction picture books and am also writing a series of chapter books, which is a new venture for me. 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: Alice, Edwin’s wife, is the person who coined the name “Crayola” – she was a retired schoolteacher, and encouraged Binney. My favorite Crayola crayon color is periwinkle blue – what is yours?

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

March 31

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
March 31, 1809: Nikolai Gogol born.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Q&A with Jennifer Robin Barr


Jennifer Robin Barr is the author of Goodbye, Mr. Spalding, a new novel for kids. It takes place in Philadelphia in the 1930s. Barr is based in the Philadelphia area.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Goodbye, Mr. Spalding?

A: Back in 2009 I was reading Bruce Kuklick’s book To Every Thing a Season, which outlines the history of Shibe Park. I was taken by a chapter on the Depression Era, and specifically a wall that was built in right field to block the view from the neighborhood rooftops, nicknamed the Spite Fence.

When I dug a little deeper, I realized that almost everything I read was from an adult perspective – and I wondered what it would have been like for the kids on that street when that happened.

Q: What did you see as the right blend of history and fiction as you wrote the novel?

A: For this book it was very important for me to get the history correct – especially since baseball is so well-documented.

From my perspective, as long as it was moving the story forward, I tried to capture as much history as possible. So I’m not sure I'd call it the right “blend,” but rather making sure I wasn't dumping historical facts into the story for no actual purpose, and that every historical element helped to authenticate the era. My editor, Carolyn Yoder, was great at helping to identify these areas.  

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

A: The research was extensive – from days spent in the Free Library of Philadelphia in the newspaper archives, to scrolling through pages of photos, to talking with people who remember Connie Mack Stadium, and a few who even remembered it as Shibe Park. While it was still open, I visited the Philadelphia Athletics museum a few times.

I think it was eye opening to see the Great Depression from a daily lens – where one dime makes a real difference. I’ve often read of the era from a broad perspective – soup lines, etc. Reading about hardships in newspapers and seeing how it affects the day-to-day - in such a specific way - was remarkable.

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

A: While the baseball might draw in girls and boys, in the end this is a story about growth and friendship. I hope that kids are able to take away something they didn’t expect!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am very excited about the project I’m working on right now! It’s another middle grade historical fiction, but it’s very early and so I’m not quite ready to share. I will tease that it’s back in Philadelphia, but a departure from baseball (but who knows, maybe that will change!).

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thank you to for the opportunity to share a little bit about Goodbye, Mr. Spalding. I’m grateful to the teachers, librarians, and entire Kidlit community who has been so supportive!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Kristin Fields


Kristin Fields is the author of the new novel A Lily in the Light. She grew up in Queens and lives in Brooklyn.

Q: Why did you decide to focus this novel around a child abduction and its repercussions?

A: The only thing I ever know about my novels when I first start writing is the title and one or two facts about the story. With A Lily in the Light, I knew Esme was a ballet dancer and that something had happened to her little sister.

Around this time, I stumbled on Emma Donoghue’s Room. As I was reading, I kept wondering what Jack and Ma’s family were doing in the years between when Ma went missing and when she was found. That was when I made the choice to tell the story from Esme’s perspective instead of Lily’s.

Q: Why did you choose dance as a focal point of the novel?

A: Shortly after graduating college, I took dance classes for the first time. It started with belly dance, then Zumba, ballroom dancing, and ballet.

When I think back to that time in my life, it’s defined by the time I spent in the studio and the friends I made there - despite the many changes happening outside the studio. My parents sold our childhood home of 30 years. My parents and siblings moved out of state. I got married and we moved from Queens to Brooklyn.

There was a lot of change very quickly, punctuated simultaneously by both excitement and loss, and perhaps that’s where A Lily in the Light came from subconsciously. Dance and loss were so linked at that time. 

I knew from the very beginning that dance was essential to Esme - I couldn’t write her without it. Learning more about ballet was one of the most enjoyable parts of writing this story. I went to ballets in New York City and one in Paris at the Palais Garnier, read bios of professional dancers from different time periods, tried a few more ballet classes, and little by little I found Esme. Dance, in many ways, was her voice.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you change things around along the way?

A: Early in the writing process, I thought the story would end where part two does now, but my fabulous editor convinced me that there was still a piece of the story to be explored, and hence, part three was born. I knew right away that she was right because I saw a lot of images and was jotting down notes everywhere before she and I were even off our call.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: There are so many...I recently read and loved Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. I’ve read The Great Gatsby at least 11 times. Alice Hoffman’s Here on Earth was the first book I ever checked out from the grown-up section of the library and I read everything of hers after that.

I’m a huge fan of Celeste Ng, Sue Monk Kidd, a good Jodi Picoult or JoJo Moyes every so often, and I’m always looking for those voices that make me love reading all over again and set new writing goals for my own. A History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund and The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin had that very impact recently.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new novel, February Blue (working title), about a group of cousins introduced to drugs and the impact it has on their family and community.

It’s a coming of age for 13-year-old Gia as she watches her brother battle addiction, a period piece set in the 1960s/early ‘70s, and I’m having fun toying with Gia’s relationship to the natural world even though the novel is set in Queens (again! I can’t escape it.).

I’m also working on a memoir called 21 Keys and Counting. While I was writing A Lily in the Light, there was a huge fire in our building. We stayed in a total of 24 places during the 10 months it took to rebuild. Each one taught us something different about home.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One of the pieces I read during my research for A Lily in the Light was Jaycee Dugard’s A Stolen Life. Jaycee was kidnapped in 1991 and held captive for 18 years before she escaped. Today, she has a foundation to help families reunite after periods of separation. It’s called The JAYC Foundation and I’m a huge fan. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 29

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
March 29, 1936: Judith Guest born.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Q&A with Karen Leggett Abouraya



Karen Leggett Abouraya is the author of the children's picture book Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with Words. She also has written Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt's Treasured Books. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.


Q: Why did you decide to focus on Malala Yousafzai in your new book?

A: Young people have a unique power to draw attention to significant issues. Malala is of course a perfect example and I reflected on it in a recent column for The Washington Post. 

More and more books about strong women are finally being published, but Malala is special because she began demonstrating her strength at such a young age - she was only 11 years old when she began writing a blog for the BBC insisting that all children had a right to education. 

She continued to speak out even after she was shot and almost lost her life because she was so outspoken. Children can identify with her as a young girl and yet see her as a role model as well.

Q: The book's subtitle is "Warrior with Words." Why did you highlight that aspect of her life in the book?

A: A warrior is engaged in some struggle or conflict – which certainly applies to Malala – but the critical part of her message is the power of words. She does not need weapons. “One child, one teacher, one pen, and one book can change the world.” We wanted to emphasize that right in the title. 

Q: What do you think Susan L. Roth's illustrations add to the book?

A: Susan’s collages are made entirely of cut paper, found objects and fabric. She uses color, texture and all these odd bits to add powerful emotion to the story. 

School Library Journal noted for example that “there are gorgeous, bright colors throughout, but the Taliban and events involving them are depicted in muted tones of black and gray.”

Whether she is depicting the lush valleys and snow-covered mountains of Pakistan’s Swat Valley or the chaos that awaited the Yousafzai family when they returned to their devasted town, Susan’s art generates intense joy or anger or sadness.

And then she cuts a world map into a dozen pieces as the background for children around the world who are emulating Malala. The images are dramatic and unforgettable and children understand them immediately.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from Malala's story?

A: I want the youngest children to see that they can make their own voices heard on issues important to them – whether it’s joining a global education campaign or leading a campaign to stop bullying in their school or lobbying for a local law to lower the voting age.

The backmatter in my book lists several organizations that specifically encourage young people to participate and become leaders – including the Malala Fund.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have discovered I really like highlighting the work of young activists and then engaging with kids in schools or bookstores to talk about their causes and passions.

My first book focused on young Egyptian protestors who surrounded the great library in Alexandria, Egypt, to protect it from vandals during the Arab spring (Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books).

I also expect to be working on stories about women who pursued their passions without regard for the obstacles along the way and without always getting much credit for their accomplishments.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I would want to remind your readers of all the effort that goes into writing children’s books. These authors are often dismissed as writing “just for children,” but look at the source lists and references in the best nonfiction books for children, the exquisite writing and imagination in fiction, to say nothing of the often exuberant illustrations. 

Children are our most important audience and it is imperative that we give them the very best we can produce.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Karen Leggett Abouraya.

Q&A with Roma Tearne


Roma Tearne is the author of the new novel The Last Pier. Her other books include Brixton Beach and Mosquito. Born in Sri Lanka, she is based in the UK.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Last Pier, and for your character Cecily?

A: It began with a group of photographs which I found in a flea market here in Oxford. A photograph of a young girl, her name and the date written on the back: Cecily 1939.

A year later I found a photograph album at another flea market, this time in London. What was remarkable was that this album had pictures of the same girl! Cecily Maudsley! There were more images of the rest of the family and when I researched it I found the entire family had died out. I kept the photographs without doing anything for about 10 years. 

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel?

Then I stumbled on another story.

Seventy-five years ago, in July 1940, an unmarked ship called the
Arandora Star, carrying 800 Italian and German internees together with British military personnel left Liverpool docks. It was bound for Newfoundland on the orders of Churchill. Unable to distinguish who were enemy aliens and who were not he had ordered the police to “collar the lot” and remove them from Britain.

As the ship passed the coast of Ireland in darkness, its decks covered in barbed wire, and with no white flag visible, it was torpedoed by the same German submarine that had sunk the Royal Oak. Nearly all on board died.

I came upon this tragic story one summer while staying far away with my family in Lunigiana in Northern Tuscany because many of the victims were from this area.

Although we had been coming to this part of Italy for more than 15 years I had never heard of the Arandora Star and her ill-fated journey, so I decided to investigate and discovered why this story had remained a secret.

The trail led me to a curious bilingual village called Brato, where many of the inhabitants are British-born Italians speaking both languages fluently.

There I met an old man who told me the story again, but this time from the point of view of a small, bewildered boy growing up in wartime England. His father, together with other relatives, had perished on the ship, so, in later life, he had returned to his family’s village.

This part of Tuscany is very beautiful with waterfalls, gently undulating hills and wonderful views. Tourists hardly visit, for the guidebooks prefer the cypress trees of the south, yet this is a land steeped in history.

The Romans found the wild tribes of Luni intimidating. They lived in the recesses of the dense chestnut forests - the very same trees that, concealing their secret history, served as cover for the partisans in the Second World War.

Many of those men from the forests around Brato had been put on the Arandora Star and later, when I said my goodbyes, I noticed my elderly friend was crying silently. He asked me if by any chance I might tell his story before he died. I told him I did not know but sincerely hoped I would and at that he nodded, satisfied. He was in his 80s, blind, and in poor health, but the events of that time were still very clear in his mind.

Q: A review of the book in The Independent says, "As she has done in previous novels, Tearne vividly depicts the devastating impact of war on ordinary lives." How do you see this novel connecting with your previous work?

A: Within my last novel about a Sri Lankan refugee, there is embedded in it an incident connected with WWII and when I finished writing that book I realised my interest in the war remained.

A chance find of a cache of photographs of one family in two separate locations was followed by series of conversations with relatives of victims of a wartime injustice. It was for me the moment when The Last Pier was conceived.

But why should a Sri Lankan novelist with five books set in that country chose to write a novel about Suffolk on the eve of WWII? The answer is simply that the imagination, like the human heart has no borders. If indeed we live in a truly global world then the passage to India can equally be the passage to Suffolk.

For many years I have wanted to write a novel steeped in the English countryside, in a part of the world I know and love. I have wanted to depict an England that is receding. The Last Pier is that novel, I hope. 

Q: The book is set in 1939 and also in 1968. Did you focus more on one time period and then turn to the other, or did you write the novel in the order in which it appears?

A: I read quite a lot from Mass Observation made during the months leading up to the war. I was both shocked and humbled by the courage of ordinary people. It was only after that I began work on the 1960s. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on two books, actually, both nearly finished. 
Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes, I’m painting again after 16 years and will be having an exhibition in 2020. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Roma Tearne.

March 28

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
March 28, 1868: Maxim Gorky born.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Q&A with Anne Renaud


Anne Renaud, photo by Magenta Photo Studio
Anne Renaud is the author of the new children's picture book Emma's Gems. Her other books include The True Tale of a Giantess and Mr. Crum's Potato Predicament. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Highlights and Faces, and she lives in Montreal.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Emma's Gems?

A: Many years ago I attended a fundraising luncheon and at each place setting there was a tiny nylon bag with three colored stones in it. 

The keynote speaker told the story of how, when she visited her grandfather's office as a child, he had three small stones on his desk. 

When she asked him what they were for, he explained they were to remind him every day that he needed to a) learn something new b) perform an act of kindness and c) tell someone he loved them.

That keynote speaker's story planted the seed to Emma's Gems. Some time later, I tracked down the keynote speaker to tell her how her talk had inspired me. I even dedicated the book to her grandfather.

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

A: That we all have the capacity to bring comfort to others, no matter how small the gesture. Caring and kindness to others is never wasted. Even when we think we have not made a difference, we have.

Q: What do you think Leanne Fronson's illustrations add to the book?

A: They give life to this story in such a whimsical, colorful way. I love the almost messy, painting outside the lines approach that Leanne took to illustrate the book. Painting outside the lines can be just as beautiful as painting inside the lines.

Q: You have another book coming out later this year--what can you tell us about that?

A: My next book will be coming out in September 2019. It is a picture book biography for 5-to-8-year-olds on Frank Epperson, the inventor of the Popsicle. The book will also include four science experiments that kids can do.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am still scouting for ideas and reworking rejected manuscripts in the hopes they will finally make the cut.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It took almost a decade for this edition to be born.  Sometimes the process takes that long. I first wrote Emma's Gems in English, shopped it around, and when there were no takers I then translated it into French. It was published in French in 2012. Then in Korean a few years later. The English rights were finally purchased by Peanut Butter Press and it is now available in English. YAY!!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Anne Renaud.

March 27

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
March 27, 1926: Frank O'Hara born.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Q&A with Julie Langsdorf


Julie Langsdorf, photo by Robin B. Langsdorf
Julie Langsdorf is the author of the new novel White Elephant. She lives in Washington, D.C.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for White Elephant, and for your cast of characters?

A: I was inspired to write White Elephant in 2005, when a series of articles appeared in the local papers about a crisis in the older, more established Washington, D.C.-area neighborhoods.

Home owners were tearing down or adding large additions onto the older houses, which were often a large part of the reason people had moved to the communities in the first place. Suddenly these neighborly towns were not so neighborly; people were egging one another’s houses, yelling at each other in the street, and dragging each other to court.

It was such juicy material! I couldn’t help but wonder how these people had gone from welcoming one another with cookies to wanting to sue each other—and so I decided to invent a community and find out for myself…  

Allison, who opens the book, just appeared to me one day lying in bed, listening to the hammering on the house next door and thinking about sex. And there was her husband Ted beside her, fit to be tied. Then there was Nick Cox next door, hammering away, putting a bee in everyone’s bonnet.

Q: The novel takes place in a Washington, D.C., suburb. How important is setting to you in your work?

A: Setting is very important to me. In my mind I need to be able to see the houses—a lot of Sears kit houses in the town in the story—and to walk down the sidewalk to the cafĂ©, the post office and all of the other landmarks that play their role in the novel.

The town, Willard Park, is an amalgamation of a few Maryland towns; I just stole my favorite elements. It happens to take place on the outskirts of Washington, but it really could be anywhere in the country. The problems the residents are facing are country-wide problems. 

Q: You tell the story from various characters' perspectives. Did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one character at a time?

A: I wrote the story in order, dipping into the heads of the various characters as the events progress. Together, they tell the story of what happens in the town. Toward the later stages of the process I worked on each character’s chapters together, to make sure their arc was resolved by the end of the story.  

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?

A: While I hope readers finish the book wiping tears of laughter from their eyes, I also hope I’ve gotten them to think about some of the difficult issues we all face in our lives—loneliness, shame, desire and fear among them. We all long for connection, to be seen and to be loved, but we don’t always express those longings very well.

I hope people will think about the idea that people—even those we don’t agree with—are not so different from us. I wrote White Elephant between 2005 and 2008, during a time when the country was less divided than it is now. In the meantime it has become more timely; it seems like a microcosm of what’s going on in our country. I hope the book will contribute to a larger conversation about learning to get along.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My new novel is also set in the D.C. suburbs, in a town with a different vibe. It, too, has its comedic and not-so-comedic elements. I can’t say much more than that right now, but I think if you like White Elephant, you’ll like that one too.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Samantha Downing


Samantha Downing, photo by Jacqueline Dallimore
Samantha Downing is the author of the new thriller My Lovely Wife. She lives in New Orleans.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for My Lovely Wife, and for your character Millicent and her husband?

A: It began with a documentary about a couple who kidnapped a woman and held her captive. The idea grew from there, as I tried to imagine what kind of woman would do this, and why? How would they do it and get away with it? How could they have jobs, raise children, all while hiding this dark secret?

As I started to write the book, the suburban life of this family became a real part of the story. There are a lot of elements people will recognize…and others they definitely won’t!

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you change things around as you wrote?

A: I had some ideas of how it might end, but I don’t outline or plot when I write. Everything is open, really. I find that whenever I try to plan in advance, for me it takes away a lot of the creativity.

Q: Why did you tell the story from the husband's perspective?

A: The book Rebecca really inspired me. I loved the idea of writing a book about someone we never heard from, someone who we only saw through other people’s eyes.

That’s how we all are, right? No one can know what’s it like to be you, we can only know our perceptions of people. As a writer, that concept is fascinating. Millicent can be a lot of things and any of them could be right.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: The list is so long. I’ll start with Daphne du Maurier, since I’ve already talked about Rebecca. I love so many of the authors writing thrillers today – Gillian Flynn, Mary Kubica, Jessica Knoll, Laura Lippman, C.J. Tudor, Kimberly Belle, Megan Abbott, Amy Gentry.

And there’s a slew of fantastic debut authors right now as well, including Christina McDonald, Andrea Bartz, and Layne Fargo. We are living in a fantastic time of female-driven and written thrillers. I’m glad to be here now and reading them all.

Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on another thriller, hopefully a very, very disturbing one…but that’s all I can say.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Let’s see…some random things about me: I’m a black belt in karate, I’m afraid of the dark, I really am a dork, and if I see someone mistreating an animal I will stop and say something. Okay, actually I will yell. And fight if I have to.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 26

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
March 26, 1911: Tennessee Williams born.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Q&A with Karen Zilberstein


Karen Zilberstein is the author of the new book Parents Under Pressure: Struggling to Raise Children in an Unequal America. She also is the co-author of the children's book Calming Stormy Feelings: A Child's Introduction to Psychotherapy. A psychotherapist, she is the clinical director of the Northampton, Mass., chapter of the nonprofit group A Home Within. 

Q: How did you meet the families you write about in the book?

A: I leaned on my professional and personal community, who came through for me. I spoke with colleagues, friends, and social service agencies, giving them written materials about the project and asking if they knew of families who had struggled with trauma, disability, mental illness, racism, or poverty who might be interested in speaking to me.

They sent a number of parents my way and invited me to present at various parent support groups, where I met others. Each family I interviewed received a $25 gift card for participating. That attracted a few of the volunteers, but I didn’t use those families in the book. The six I chose to profile all had a genuine interest in sharing their stories so that others in similar circumstances could benefit.

Q: Each chapter of the book highlights a different issue, but what common threads do you see running through the various issues you raise?

A: The families experienced different types of hardships and challenges, but each found that the social service system was not sufficiently up to the task of helping. Sometimes the services they needed didn’t exist, sometimes they existed but were hard to access, and at other times the professionals lacked adequate knowledge and expertise.

The end result was that families struggled not just with their initial problems, but also with navigating services, which added to their stresses. Families also tended to feel judged for their problems rather than helped.

I also found that income and race makes a difference. Those with privilege and means do not need to depend on public supports or, when they do, can manage them better because they have the ability to push and challenge them. It is another aspect of inequality in America. Even the helping systems favor some parents while disadvantages others.

Underlying our difficulties understanding families’ struggles and providing them with adequate supports is an American narrative of individualism and idealized parenting norms that are not well suited to the current realities. The problems are widespread because they spring from cultural beliefs.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you find anything that particularly surprised you?

A: Since I had worked in the field for years, and written a number of articles on poverty, parenting, mental health, and trauma, I had some background before I started. But I shaped the book around the stories of the families I included, delving more deeply into the issues they discussed. I looked at the literature and also interviewed professionals in the field who could speak to a different side of the issue.

What surprised me most is that none of the professionals contradicted the impressions of the families. They each agreed that the systems are infused with problems and noted that they constrain workers, as well as families. Programs simply don’t have the resources they need to meet needs. It turns out that it’s what everybody knows, but what nobody wanted to say too loudly.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: If we are to do a better job of supporting parents, we need to know what gets in the way. Let’s stop judging and marginalizing struggling families and instead reach out and help them. Many families find that their difficulties isolate them. They need help not just from professionals, but from their neighbors and community. Everyone has a potential role to play in alleviating the current circumstances.

I also want families who resemble the ones in the book to know that their struggles are legitimate and understood and did not happen because they are inadequate. The families I interviewed found that acknowledgement incredibly important.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am continuing to think about the intersection between cultural ideals and the ways we construct interventions. As a psychotherapist, I see every day how our ideas about families, mental health, and helping translates into theories, treatments, policies, and the ways we research each of them.

While the field offers many helpful services, we continue to be short-sighted and hemmed in by cultural beliefs. I think we often define problems too narrowly, which limits how we assess need and deliver aid.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The backdrop to the book is the way parenting ideals have evolved over the years into an intensive parenting style that is putting stress on families. It works best for those with money, time, and education and is thus part of the growing inequality in our society.

Since the current system works for some, we are not going to be able to completely change it. But we can give more help to those who are left out and try to provide them more opportunities and fewer hassles.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb