Sunday, June 2, 2019

Q&A with Jessica M. Rinker and Daria Peoples-Riley

Jessica M. Rinker
Jessica M. Rinker and Daria Peoples-Riley are the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book biography Gloria Takes a Stand: How Gloria Steinem Listened, Wrote, and Changed the World. Rinker lives in New Jersey, and Peoples-Riley lives in Las Vegas.

Q: What was the inspiration behind this picture book biography of Gloria Steinem?

JMR: Back in 2015, I had read an NPR book review about Gloria's newest memoir, My Life on the Road, and had no idea that a good chunk of her childhood was spent traveling the country with her parents. She didn't go to school regularly, if at all, and her dad bought and sold antiques as they traveled.

Daria Peoples-Riley
This way of life fascinated me, but even more I was curious how this iconic woman went from a "life on the road" and growing up with nothing, to who she is today. I didn't know much about her, other than when I was in college in the ‘90s and running with a very conservative circle, her name was a bad word.

So, my curiosity was piqued. I went to the bookstore to buy a copy of her book and snagged the last one, which was signed. It felt serendipitous. Once I'd read that book, I read the rest of hers and very quickly the theme of listening to people rung out over her canon of work. Seems like a simple idea, but we rarely do it well. Gloria does it well. And she teaches it well. 

Q: How did you research Steinem's life, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you? 

JMR: I read everything she wrote--her books, articles, interviews, etc. Also watched several videos of interviews she gave and a couple documentaries. The huge benefit to researching Gloria is that since she was and is such a prolific writer, I was able to cull from her own work for mine. There's nothing like a writer as a primary source!

When I first started the project I did email her office asking if I could possibly get an email interview with her. They turned me down, but wished me well, so I figured I got the greenest light I was going to get. Since the book has come out, I've emailed them again to ask if I can send her a copy, but I haven't heard from them yet. 

DPR: I read My Life on the Road, watched and read several interviews, and the documentary In Her Words. Before I received Jess' manuscript, I didn't know much about Gloria Steinem--only that she was an activist in the women's movement. So, I was taken aback by how vehemently people, especially women, opposed her ideas and platform.

My research involved getting to know her through primary sources, so I could visually represent her narrative as authentically and objectively as possible.

Q: What do you see as Steinem's place in history?

JMR: What a great question. I guess I see her as I see all important players in history. She's complex; she's wise, she's made mistakes, she's said incredibly inspiring and smart things, and she's said some insensitive things, for which she's actually apologized. I admire her a great deal.

Overall she's been involved with important changes and levels of awareness in our society that we are so much better for. Sometimes it's hard for people to sort through all of this and those who didn't like her politics in the ‘60s and ‘70s (or now) may never see her any different. But I believe we can learn from everyone--whether they are of iconic status or not.

Gloria has the added benefit of being famous, and therefore she's heard and seen more, but she is humble and incredibly inclusive--she uses her platform for the greater good. One of the most amazing things about her is that, when you read her latest book especially, you can see how all of the people she's talked to throughout her life can also be heard. If only we'd all be so willing to listen and therefore become as aware of others' stories and needs. It's pretty amazing. 

DPR: I am maybe two generations removed from the era in which Steinem was most active, and yet what seemed to be radical shifts in women's rights then is my normal today, which is remarkable to me. I am thankful for her work and the work of many women who influenced her work. 

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

JMR: I hope a lot of things, actually. I hope they find her life interesting, are inspired by it as I was. I hope it's a tiny seed of understanding how far our country has come and how much work has gone in to getting it here.

But I've had some feedback from adult women who read the book that surprised and touched me. One woman said, "If only I'd been handed this book as a little girl..."  and I think that sums up my hope completely. 

DPR: I hope the kids who read the book begin to understand the history of women's rights, and their responsibility to continue the work of equality. If they are inspired to take a stand on an issue affecting their school, neighborhood, or community, I hope that they find courage through Steinem's story. 

Q: What are you working on now?

JMR: My next biography, Send a Girl, comes out in 2021. This one is about Brenda Berkman, the woman who sued the NYC Fire Department for discrimination and won, and became one of the first women firefighters in the city. She was a career firefighter, first responder for 9/11, and she's very active in still supporting women's rights in various ways.

Throughout her career she was met with tremendous adversity. Her story is incredible, a little scary, and quite inspiring. I have met and talked with Brenda many times and I cannot wait for this book to be in the world for people to know more about her and the fight she's fought for women in the workplace. 

I also have a middle grade duology coming out called The Dare Sisters. I call it Little Women meets The Goonies. Super fun, adventure story about three sisters looking for Blackbeard's treasure to save their house and their grandfather's reputation. The first book will be out next year. 

As far as projects not yet in editors’ hands, I'm working on a new biography about another contemporary woman. Without giving it away, because I'm superstitious about nonfiction, she's a famous actress. Her story is a different kind of "fight" than Gloria's or Brenda's, but she was still a pioneer of sorts and definitely inspiring.

I also have another middle grade novel with my agent and am working on a YA romance. I'm all over the place all the time, but that's the way I like it. I want the trifecta--picture books, middle grade, and YA.  

DPR: I am planning the release of my forthcoming picture book, I Got Next, a companion book to This Is It, which will be out July 30!

Q: Anything else we should know?

JMR: I have a brand-new puppy and she makes it very difficult to focus.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Daria Peoples-Riley.

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