Monday, July 27, 2020

Q&A with Allison Crotzer Kimmel

Allison Crotzer Kimmel is the author of the new children's picture book Unbeatable Betty: Betty Robinson, the First Female Olympic Track & Field Gold Medalist. Her other books include The Eternal Soldier and The Montgomery Bus Boycott. A high school English teacher, she lives in Bakersfield, California.

Q: Why did you decide to write a children's picture book about Olympic runner Betty Robinson?

A: I discovered Betty’s story while watching a television show called Mysteries at the Museum with my daughter, who was 4 at the time.

I was struck not only by Betty’s grit - certainly the “coming back from the dead” angle is compelling - but looking at her track shoes the museum on the show displayed, I realized she accomplished everything without professional trainers, physical therapists, or even a comfortable-looking pair of shoes.  

I also felt Betty’s story was just the kind of story I wanted to tell for my daughter and other young readers. She believed in herself even when others didn’t. She fought for everyone’s right to play. She lived her whole life like a champion. My greatest goal is for everyone to know and celebrate Betty, and my greatest hope is that we can all be a little bit more like her.

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

A: I used a variety of sources, biographies that had already been written on her and other early women’s track stars, I also watched video of her running, and I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to her granddaughter many times to confirm things - large and small - to make sure I got it right.

I am so lucky because in researching Betty, I found a great friend in her granddaughter Brook. A writer doesn’t get any luckier than that.  
As far as what surprised me, I just cannot get over the idea that literally she was a high school student catching a train one day and within months an Olympic champion. And the first female gold medal winner in track and field to boot! I would love to be a fly on the wall to see Betty return with that medal. 

Q: What do you think Joanie Stone's illustrations add to the book?

A: Again, I am one lucky writer. Joanie’s vision for Betty was perfect. I cried the first time I saw her illustrations. The adorable picture in the cloche hat just got me - she captured her spirit, her sweetness, a teenager’s wonder and Betty’s famous smile all at once. I was just amazed.

And when Brook asked how she could get her great-grandparents to look just like them, I had tears in my eyes again. I am so proud of this book we did together, and I can only say I am beyond lucky to have Joanie illustrate this book.

Q: Can you say more about what you see as Betty's legacy, and what you hope kids take away from her story?

A: Her legacy for girls and boys and for parents, teachers, and librarians reading it to them is to never give up, always believing in yourself and your abilities no matter what others might say.

I hope all readers follow Betty’s examples of hard work, determination, and standing up for themselves and others. And of course I want them to know nothing limits us - gender, age, weaknesses - if we don’t let them.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I am creating curriculum tied to Unbeatable Betty because as a teacher, I know the year ahead is going to be a difficult one in the classroom - be it virtual or traditional - and I want to give my fellow teachers a little present so they can confidently share Betty’s story.

As far as new picture books go, I am working on a project near and dear to my heart about a woman who I was fortunate to know. Her name (to all her kids and fortunately for me and for my children) is Mama Vene, and she has an extraordinary story of immigration to tell. She recently passed.  

Her daughter and I are collaborating to tell Mama Vene’s story in both English and Spanish, so it’s a great challenge for me, but it is a labor of absolute love.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’d just love to invite teachers and librarians to reach out to me - - because this time of social distancing has actually opened the world in some ways. I can now do Zoom and Meets visits anywhere at (almost) any time.

It’s kind of wonderful to know that as we may feel distanced we are finding new ways to stay connected and to reach young readers. I’d love to be able to do that for other teachers who might be looking at different ways to engage their kiddos at this time.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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