Monday, August 31, 2020

Q&A with Michelle Aung Thin

Michelle Aung Thin is the author of the new young adult novel Crossing the Farak River, which focuses on the Rohingya community in Myanmar. She also has written the novel The Monsoon Bride. She teaches writing at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

Q: What inspired you to write Crossing the Farak River, and create your character Hasina?

A: In 2017 was doing a talk at the Immigration Museum here in Melbourne, Australia, where I live. I was talking about my Burmese heritage and a book I've been working on for a few years, which is about returning to Rangoon, Burma, the city where I was born, for the first time in 2013. My family left Burma in 1963, when I was a tiny baby.

 A commissioning editor, Lyn White, was in the audience. She got in touch afterwards asking if I would be interested in writing a book specifically for a YA readership about the Rohingya crisis.

I had to really think about it. She came to me for my expertise as a novelist and someone of Burmese descent. But I didn’t think I was Burmese enough, as I’d grown up in North America and am of mixed, or Anglo-Burmese, heritage.

However, like everybody else in 2017, I had seen the news of the attacks in Rakhine and how people were being chased from their homes. I was appalled at what was happening. I was also sad. Myanmar is in transition from military dictatorship to a democracy. It was clear very dark forces were manipulating the situation.

That was why I decided to do the book. I felt I could use my research skills and storytelling skills to dig into the situation.

I came up with the character of Hasina early on. She is based on stories of young women and girls I found throughout my research sources. So many girls were becoming the heads of their families, despite cultural traditions. They were forced to take charge and take care of the old or the young or the sick. 

The headlines were about people leaving, but many people were just not able to run. They stayed behind and faced further violence.

Hasina is a character with the strength, courage and resourcefulness to survive herself. Her challenge is to bring others along with her so they survive too. 

Hasina’s interests are also based on research. Like her love of maths – that’s a very strong cultural bias. But I must confess that I added the Iranian female mathematician mainly because I just didn't want to see more posters of actors or pop stars on the wall. I wanted something different! It’s in keeping with the culture though - education is seen as a great privilege and asset.

As for Hasina’s talent for soccer, people in Myanmar adore soccer! They’re good at it too because they grow up playing Chin Lone, which is like soccer, but you have to keep a rattan ball in the air. So, Hasina's love of sport is very authentic to the setting for the book. And, confession, I like sport too, although I am not skilled enough to play soccer like she does!

Q: Can you say more about the idea of girls taking charge?

A: When I started the research, I was following the news coverage. There was one article about two sisters fleeing across the border who were 9 and 7. I found it quite moving, and it put the idea of girls in my mind.

The idea of young girls taking care of their family with the father gone—some girls had to take over the head of the household role. They were having to do everything themselves, including negotiate [on behalf of their families]. It’s a status and gender thing—how to behave like a proper, well-brought-up person vs. doing what you [had to do].

Hasina has to be familiar to some degree to readers in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. There’s an element involved of her breaking down barriers.

Q: Can you say more about the research you did to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I did so much research! That was another one of the reasons I was so daunted by the prospect of doing the book, I knew it was going to take a lot of research to make sure I got the details right.

Details mean day-to-day things, like what people eat, where they live, what their houses and communities are like, even police uniforms! Details also means laws and other political and historical facts. The dates of attacks and events as well. There was lots to find out to make the world real. And I had just a year to write the book.

But I love research. I love immersing myself in a different world! And seeing the possibilities for stories. I do a lot of research in archives, where every record is a kind of story.  

So, I read journalism, official reports, and histories.  I also did some research into the psychology of genocide and crimes against humanity and hatred generally. That is something that I would say we human beings do not really understand about ourselves.

Another reason I did the book is that my own parents were refugees after the Second World War and had to flee Burma for India when the Japanese invaded. My childhood was full of stories about their escapes.

For example, my mother was 4 years old and on the very last plane out of Burma before the runway at Myitkina was bombed. There's a scene where Hasina, her cousin Ghadiya, and her brother Araf forage for food in the forest where they're hiding which is straight out of a story my mother tells about returning to Burma after the war.

My dad was 11 or 12 when he left. I’d never thought of either of them as refugees. I thought of them as evacuees from Burma [when it was under Japanese occupation]. I had heard amazing stories of escape. But I never connected it with being stateless.

It’s easy to become a hostage of fortune when your home is no longer tenable. It struck me that people thought they’d be back in a couple of weeks, and then when they came back their house was gone.

I interviewed Rohingya families here as well as getting details of life in Rakhine state from Arakanese contacts in Myanmar. I spent a lot of time with one particular family, who still invite me to their parties.

My main contact, Tara Begum, spoke at the launch of the book here. She wanted everyone to know that access to quality education was her top goal for her children. She herself had been denied schooling, as had her mother. I think that is tragic as she is one of the most naturally intelligent people I’ve ever met, with a gift for languages. 

Research is pretty key. Writers have to be as fair and even-handed with every single character and every single perspective in the book as possible. We’re about the truth, and the research is crucial to working out what that truth is.

There are some outright villains in the book. And yet if you ask them if they were doing the right thing they would say they were. Because the “right thing” in their view may be to survive and prosper and if that means exploiting other people, well, they would say that was just the way things were.

There were surprises in the research. I was astonished at the significant role technology played in the conflict. Social media and mobile networks were really important. Smartphones only became more affordable in 2014, but they’re common now. Their use is still banned in Rakhine.

Q: Can you say more about the role technology plays?

Communications technology is particularly important. In 2014, inexpensive SIM cards were introduced. The market penetration of smart phones in Myanmar by 2018 was pretty good. The phone was the internet and a means of communication. There still isn’t robust newsgathering or the quality of news services you have in Australia, the U.S., or Canada. The phone became crucial.

Although phones are still banned in Rakhine state, people have them, to contact relatives or get help. The military was sending messages to Buddhists that Muslims were out to get them, and to Muslims that Buddhists were out to get them. The exact same thing. It’s a classic method of instilling fear.

Facebook introduced the Burmese alphabet early on, and people are on there all the time. It’s become an instrument of hate speech. It’s become problematic.

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

A: Hasina is based on actual events and actual experiences. I realised halfway through that this was a story about the most extraordinary resilience where just surviving and trying to make a home is an act of immense courage. I would like people to understand how the burden of war is borne by the frailest shoulders. 

For me the process of writing the book was moving from feeling from pity for the plight of the Rohingya through what I saw in the news to feeling compassion because I knew more about their circumstances and history. For readers, students and teachers in the classroom, that is the process of reading this book. And once you feel compassion for someone, you're able to act in a different way in the world.

Q: What do you see looking ahead for the Rohingya?

Due to the current pandemic, things seem to be getting worse rather than better. There has been a crackdown in the region on illegal migration. The camps are still full and the situation of most Rohingya inside Myanmar and in the camps is still precarious.

There’s an election coming up on the 8th of November, which could see some shifting of the political landscape. Internally, there’s a greater awareness of what happened there. There’s some soul-searching going on, which is a good thing. But there’s still a constant looking for refuge, and there’s a ban on mobile phones. I’d like to say something more positive, but I don’t think it will change much.

There are good stories as well, though. The difficulty is that you’re always looking at the high level of genocide, but specific stories are going to represent a range of things.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am finalising a book about returning to Rangoon, Burma for the first time. As mentioned above, it's where I was born. A big part of the book is the history of the Anglo-Burmese and Anglo-Indians, the mixed-race groups in colonial Rangoon. One part of the story is about Rangoon on the eve of World War II, at a moment when life changes forever. A bit like now!

The story overall focuses on the complex social setup in the city, revealing what life was like for the Anglo-Burmese. But through my research, I found the city was also a haven for people who seemed to be escaping violence in Europe and Japan.

One segment of the story follows a Japanese photographer who may or may not have been a spy; a German doctor, expelled from Berlin due to his Jewish heritage; and an Italian violinist on the run from ethnic conflict – all of them real people.

I’ve done oodles of research, and now I’m putting it all together.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I wrote in my blog about why it’s worthwhile to read a book like this, and to write it. For me, I could see what happened in the news and I felt terrible, but by finding out more, my perceptions changed forever about the Rohingya and the complexity of statelessness.

It’s important to try to engage with these books on as human a level as possible. I wanted the book to be entertaining and dramatic, as well as informative. Engagement is a way of feeling compassion toward people.

And thanks for reading and asking questions. The book is about big questions that don’t have easy answers. It’s amazing that readers, teachers, and students take it on.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with K.L. Going

K.L. Going is the author of The Next Great Jane, a new middle grade novel for kids. Her other books include Pieces of Why and The Liberation of Gabriel King. She lives in Glen Spey, New York.

Q: You write that you wanted "to celebrate Jane Austen's writing by incorporating some of my favorite elements from multiple books" in The Next Great Jane. How did you first become a fan of Jane Austen's work, and what are some elements that you especially admire?

A: Like many people, I was exposed to Jane Austen's work through the BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice. Over the years, I've read all the books one by one.

Some of the elements that I admire in Jane Austen's works are the spunky heroines, the star-crossed love stories, and the humor. She also captures the intricacies of human behavior really well, and that's something I especially enjoy as a writer and a reader.

Q: How did you come up with your character Jane?

A: She was a combination of many influences. I imagined her, literally, as a young Jane Austen in modern times. But she has a father who is an ocean scientist, so I was also inspired by some of the famous women oceanographers and I wanted to bring out that side of Jane -- the one that's hidden even to her at the start of the book.

Q: The book is set in Maine--how important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting is always important to me, but in this book it is especially important! Maine is where my family is originally from and it's always played a huge role in my life. Plus, there's an environmental theme to this story that is universal, but it's played out through the
character's love of the Maine coast.

I hope readers will fall in love with Maine as they read, and I also hope they'll be inspired to protect our ecosystem.

Q: How much do you expect readers of The Next Great Jane to know about Jane Austen?

A: Readers don't need to know anything about Jane Austen to enjoy this story! Although I love Jane Austen and wanted to capture the same things I love about her writing, I know young readers won't come in with any knowledge of her or her books.

There are a few "Easter eggs" for adult readers, such as teachers and librarians (because I love them, too!) but for kids they can read the story as it is and enjoy the spunky heroine, star-crossed love story, and the humor!

There's an author's note at the end for any kids who want to know more about who Jane Austen was and maybe they'll add her to their list of famous female authors who were trailblazers in their time.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: At the moment, I'm undecided. I have a few ideas and even several chapters written on two different projects, but I want to play them both out a little longer to see which one grabs me more. I do have two picture books that are currently being illustrated, one with an
environmental theme and one with a Mother's Day theme.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I was working on The Next Great Jane, I met with an ocean scientist (Dr. Nick Record, Bigelow Laboratory) every summer when I'd visit Maine. Nick helped me to translate big ideas in oceanography in a way kids could understand, and Bigelow Labs helped me understand the important role of plankton in our oceans.

I'm committed to donating a portion of proceeds from the sales of this book back to the important work that Bigelow Labs is doing. You can learn more about them at

Finally, for any teachers who might be reading this, you can download a FREE teacher's guide at the PenguinRandomHouse website. In addition to writing books, I also teach Language Arts to 7th and 8th graders, so I used my knowledge of what I want as a teacher when I do a class read-aloud to create this guide. Hopefully, it will be useful and save lots of prep time!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Sherri L. Smith

Sherri L. Smith is the author of the new young adult novel The Blossom and the Firefly, which takes place in World War II-era Japan. Her other books include Who Were the Tuskegee Airmen? and Pasadena. She teaches in the Creative Writing MFA program at Goddard College and the MFA in Children's Writing at Hamline University, and she lives in Los Angeles.

Q: You write that a photo sparked the eventual creation of this novel. Can you say more about what inspired The Blossom and the Firefly, and your characters Hana and Taro?

A: I was working on my nonfiction book Who Were the Tuskegee Airmen? when I fell down a rabbit hole of aviation research and came across an article about something called the Chiran Peace Museum.

What caught my eye was this image of school girls in little sailor-like uniforms holding cherry blossom branches in their arms as they waved to a taxing warplane. It was surreal, made more so by the grainy black and white passage of time.

It turns out the peace museum is dedicated to the memories of the Tokkō Tai, or kamikaze pilots who flew their final missions from Chiran in Southern Japan. The school girls worked as maids for these pilots. Their last service was to smile and wave goodbye as the pilots, some as young as 17, flew to their deaths.

Hana and Taro represent both sides of that photograph. Hana is a junior high school girl working at the base, Taro is a young pilot. While the war brings them face to face, it’s music that brings them together. 

I wanted to explore what it means to lose the best of a young generation to violence, and the damage we do to young people when we spend their lives and their potential on war.

Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I started with a lot of secondary book research. M. G. Sheftall’s Blossoms in the Wind was invaluable, as was Dan King’s The Last Zero Fighter and Dr. Samuel Yamashita’s several books collecting the wartime diaries of everyday Japanese.

I took a Japanese class in preparation for a research trip, and to gain a better understanding of the language and culture. I had taken a course in Japanese literature back in college, so I pulled out those books—Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country and The Sound of the Mountain in particular—along with more contemporary Japanese books like Translucent Tree by Nobuko Tagaki.

Japanese story structure is different from the traditional Western conflict-based three acts. I wanted to honor that style.

And then I went to Chiran and traveled around with an amazing guide, Reiko Yoshimura. We visited the peace museum and several important sites featured in the book. We also spoke to everyone we met who was of an age to remember the war. It was a truly amazing trip.

As far as surprises go, the whole story was a surprise to me from start to finish. There are such strange stories around kamikaze pilots in the States. There’s a sort of myth about pilots being like berserker warriors, fueled by drugs and plied with women and booze.

When in fact it seems like there was a real fear of what the West would do to Japan, a desperation to save their country, and a struggle to find the fortitude to complete their missions, even if they did not agree with the method.

Of course, there is a different story for every individual. Taro represents my attempt to understand the actions if the larger myths were not true. What makes a young person willing to die like this?

And for Hana, what does it do to a young woman to have to witness this over and over again? As with so many stories, once you strip away the assumptions, there is so much more to see.

Q: You tell the story in chapters that alternate between the two characters' points of view--why did you write Hana's chapters in first person and Taro's in third person?

A: The short answer is, that’s how they each showed up. When I start a book, I try to listen to how it sounds in my head and use that as my guide. Sometimes that takes a few attempts. Once I have a grasp on what feels right, I try to understand why it feels right.

For Hana, I wanted the reader to walk in her shoes. As a woman, I also felt I might have a better understanding of her, away of accessing her emotional experience. Her story is the “present” of the book.

With Taro, I wanted to show his entire life, so we would know what is being sacrificed, and to understand how lifelong indoctrination can be. His story is told in third person past tense to capture that narrative sense. It also allowed me a touch of distance.

The male American soldier has been depicted left and right and I think I could get a grasp on it, but Japanese male soldier experience is less familiar to me. By writing in third I had the ability to watch from the outside a bit, rather than try to inhabit all of his feelings directly. His actions speak for him in many ways, as does his music, and that felt right to me.

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

A: Oh, so much! And a few simple things.

First, I hope they take away a sense of the beauty of life and that we should not waste it. And the glory of music. And some knowledge of history, of the other side of a familiar war.

But mostly, I hope they take away a desire for peace. This is a love story, but not just between Hana and Taro. There is the love between parents and children, and love of country, love of music, and of peace. All of these are gifts I hope the reader takes with them.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve got my hands full! My next book comes out in December. It’s a nonfiction for younger readers, What Is the Civil Rights Movement?. And I am working on a new young adult novel. It’s a bit soon to say what it’s about. I’m still getting a handle on it.

I have a comic book three-issue arc coming out when the world reopens called Disney Villains: Ursula and the Seven Seas from Dark Horse. And a couple of other things in various stages.

Imagine walking into a store that might repair clocks, but you can only see a few finished, and a lot of parts. That’s my desk right now!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I have a few events coming up, including a panel called “Writing for Peace” in conjunction with Consequence Magazine, a literary journal that explores the culture and consequences of war. You can learn more about it on the events page of my website,

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Kirsty Manning

Photo by Jacqui Henshaw
Kirsty Manning is the author of the new novel The Lost Jewels. She also has written the novels The Song of the Jade Lily and The Midsummer Garden. She lives in Melbourne, Australia.

Q: Why did you decide to write a novel based around the famous Cheapside Hoard of jewels?

A: Quite simply, it was one of those procrastination rabbit-holes on the internet! While I was researching for my previous novel--The Song of the Jade Lily--I stumbled across a random newspaper article that popped up on the same page.

It was about an exhibition of The Cheapside Hoard that had obviously been on at the Museum of London, and I paused to read it. I mean, who doesn’t love a diamond, right? 

But the thing that caught my attention as a novelist were just how many holes there were in this history. I mean, nobody knows who these jewels belonged to, why they were buried, or who found them.

Who would bury 500 precious jewels and gemstones and never return? It just seemed unfathomable to me!

The Lost Jewels is a work of fiction inspired by the true story of the Cheapside Hoard, dug up in a Cheapside cellar in 1912 and forming a significant collection at the Museum of London, and also at the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. 

I realised the real story was not just about the jewels, although they are certainly beautiful, it is about London and the expanding world.

In the 1600s, Cheapside was the hub for gold, silver and precious gems that had threaded their way around the world to London. However, this century was also filled with fire, plague, revolution and an expanding empire . . . Seventeenth-century London was a city equal parts thriving and in turmoil. There were a million reasons why someone might not return for their precious jewels.

Q: How did you come up with your characters Essie and Kate?

A: When I was researching this book, I went to an exhibition at The London Museum on the suffragettes. The same year these jewels were discovered, was the same year that women were marching in the streets for the vote. To have their voices heard.

But what of the strong women who were working to support families. Just getting by? Where were their stories, their voices? These brave, strong and quiet women gave so much to their families—and the next generation, I wanted to honor those whose voices have been overlooked in history.

My 1912 historical character Essie is stymied in London by poverty and class. The suffragette movement was happening in London, but she was just too busy trying to pull her family through life and give those she loved more opportunities than she had.

As for Kate, my main contemporary character—I’m in awe of the research of historians, curators and conservators. They research and present our past to give us stories for our future.

Also, the lessons of the past can teach us so much. Not everything that happens in my novels has happened to me personally. But I’ve certainly had some tough moments in my life, and walked alongside friends who’ve had very dark times.

I think it’s important to hold a space for empathy and kindness—in novels and in life. This humanity is what connects us.

The future seems uncertain right now, and most of us have been reduced to thinking about how we will get through the next few months.

Where I live in Melbourne, Australia, we are in lockdown under some of the tightest restrictions in the world–for the second time! We have at least another six weeks before we can leave our homes and see anyone other than those who live with us. I’m not going to lie: it’s tough!

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

A: I hope The Lost Jewels brings readers both comfort and an escape. Seeing how women have lived through hard times inspires me … so I hope others feel that way too.

History shows us humans and beautifully resilient, and ridiculously flawed. We mock those who hoard toilet paper, but serial philanderer and public servant Samuel Pepys famously buried a large wedge of Parmesan cheese and some red wine in his back yard to protect it when the Great Fire of 1666 raged across London. He is a man after my own heart! I seem to have hoarded chocolate, also gin.

To say 2020 has been a weird year is an understatement. We’ve all spent time indoors and away from usual routines, and goals and dreams have been blindsided in some cases.  So it’s good a time to contemplate what is really precious to us. Also time to celebrate art and beauty—a time to read and reach for topics that bring a little hope and sparkly magic to our lives.

I also hope readers get a sense of the dedication it takes to become a master jeweller. The story of a jewel is a story about care and craftsmanship and just the symbolism and work that goes into creating something we wear and can be passed through generations is fascinating.

To give a piece of jewellery is to show love, loyalty or loss. There is always a promise made when a special piece of jewellery passes hands. It can change someone’s life—everyone from the person who discovers the gem, the people who crafted it, and the people who receive the final piece.

Perfect starting point for a novel, right?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A new dual-timeframe novel, set between pre-war France and World War II Germany. Due out 2021.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 31

Aug. 31, 1916: Daniel Schorr born.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Q&A with Nicola Tallis

Nicola Tallis is the author of the new biography Uncrowned Queen: The Life of Margaret Beaufort, Mother of the Tudors. She also has written Elizabeth's Rival and Crown of Blood. She lives in England.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Lady Margaret Beaufort in your new book?

A: Everyone knows who Henry VIII and Elizabeth I are, but not everybody is familiar with the Tudor backstory and how they came to sit on the English throne. It’s a really important part of English history in which Margaret plays a leading – but not always recognized – role.

Likewise, the 15th century was an extraordinarily turbulent time in England, and Margaret lived through – and experienced – much of this firsthand. As such she learned many valuable skills at a young age, including the art of pragmatism in order to negotiate and survive a time of unprecedented tumult.

Q: You write, "[M]y aim is to dispel the many myths surrounding Margaret's life, and in their place offer a rounder, richer picture." What are some of those myths?

A: Margaret has acquired a reputation as an overbearing and domineering woman, and don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there were times when she was a real pain, but there’s plenty of evidence of her other, more likeable personality traits. She could be warm and generous – her household adored her – and at heart she was a woman to whom family meant everything.

Another accusation that has been leveled at Margaret is that she was responsible for the disappearance/murder of the princes in the Tower. Whether you like Margaret or loathe her, there’s no contemporary evidence linking her to one of history’s greatest mysteries, and I genuinely believe that it’s an unfair slur on her character. Whilst it could be argued that she had motive, opportunity is dubious.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Margaret and her son, King Henry VII?

A: Henry was the true love of Margaret’s life, and she absolutely adored him. Even though she’d given birth at the painfully young age of 13, a strong bond was forged between mother and son from the start. In spite of this though, prior to 1485 – as a result of the Wars of the Roses – Margaret and Henry were largely apart.

Nevertheless, it is clear that they were exceptionally fond of one another, and for the first decade of Henry’s reign Margaret was rarely apart from him. In some of the royal palaces they even had interconnecting chambers!

Q: What do you think accounts for the ongoing fascination with the Tudors?

A: The Tudor period is like a really long movie with all of the elements that make a movie great – it positively oozes passion, intrigue, power struggles, betrayal, spilt blood and victory. It’s pretty incredible that all of that is woven into the space of a little over a century, and with so much activity it’s impossible to grow bored.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a couple of things at the moment, but I’m afraid that for the time being they’re closely guarded secrets! Watch this space!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Uncrowned Queen is now available to purchase in all good bookshops!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Photo by Preston Ehler

Q: Why did you decide to focus on women's suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns in your new book?

A: The simple answer is this: When I learned that Americans Alice Paul and Lucy Burns met in a London police station after they were arrested during a suffrage march to Parliament that turned violent, I was hooked. I knew where the story had to begin.

Who wouldn’t make a new friend that way?

Alice and Lucy did not know one another when they traveled overseas to study. While in London, they became involved in the British suffrage movement. There, they met like-minded women like themselves: modern, educated, interested in politics, and passionate about women’s rights.

In Great Britain, Alice and Lucy learned how to organize and how to lead. When they returned home to the U.S. (Alice in 1910 and Lucy in 1912), the two women infused the 62-year-old suffrage movement with new energy -- and big, bold ideas.

Initially, I planned to focus the story on the Woman’s March of 1913. There had been other parades and marches before, but this parade would be different: five thousand women from around the country would converge on Washington and march down Pennsylvania Avenue the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, demanding the right to vote. This time, women weren’t asking. They were demanding.

The nonfiction book, I believed, would be 32 or 40 pages, illustrated with archival images and contemporaneous memorabilia and artist Ziyue Chen’s full-color illustrations.

And so my research began. But  (and there’s always a but, right?) the more I read about the suffrage movement and the more I learned about Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, the more I realized that focusing solely on the 1913 parade wasn’t fair to Alice and Lucy. It wasn’t fair to the story of suffrage. And it wasn’t fair to today’s young readers. I didn’t want young readers to think that women held a big parade and then won the right to vote.

The victory wasn’t as simple as that.

In December 1912, Alice Paul headed to Washington to make plans for the parade. She expected victory within a year. She counted on logic and reason and facts to win over President Woodrow Wilson and Congress.

It didn’t happen.

Instead, the fight for the ballot took additional seven years of parades and demonstrations and petitions and rallies. Women boycotted elected leaders. They picketed the White House. They suffered arrests and endured jail sentences, hunger strikes, and forced feedings.

Alice and Lucy’s story grew to 80 pages.

How Women Won the Vote is still a form that I call a storybook – meaning that it’s not a poem in the sense that a true picture book is – but an illustrated nonfiction story.

Q: Can you compare the impact that Alice Paul and Lucy Burns had on the movement?

A: I’m interested in friendships, in women’s friendships. They had each traveled separately to England. They didn’t know what they wanted in life. For Alice, she let her Quaker faith guide her. I love that they met in a police station. I think a lot about what Plato and Aristotle said about friendship—the best are those born from mutual benefit but help us to become better.

Alice Paul was so disappointed when Lucy Burns did not continue her work after the 19th Amendment was passed.

Alice Paul was quiet and determined. She often would stay quiet, but you couldn’t beat her in an argument. Lucy Burns was quite the orator. She was very comfortable getting up in front of a group. Alice hated public speaking. These two very different personalities just worked. They infused energy into a movement that was stalling.

Q: How did you research this book, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: I always tell writers, if you’ve ever written a research paper in high school or college, you know how to do it. You hunt for primary and secondary sources. I love primary sources—it breathes life into a story, hearing their actual voices. If I find a quote in a secondary source, I go to the primary source—I want to make sure I’m using it accurately.

There were several surprises. I have a hard time describing them as a “surprise,” because I’d call them, “Ah…but-of-course” revelations.

The first revelation is the fact that women in 1913 were marching for many of the same reasons that we march today: the right to vote, the end of disenfranchisement, the right to protest peacefully, the right to fair wages and better living conditions, the right to enact new laws and change unfair laws, the right to an equal education, the right to medical care, and the right to clean air and clean water and healthful food.

We’re picketing, marching, taking over the streets. In the early 1900s, up until then, the streets were a male sphere. Women weren’t in parades. They took parades and picketing to a new level.

The protestors in front of the White House [earlier this summer] were within their First Amendment rights, and they were tear gassed. The Woodrow Wilson administration came down hard on the women. They were daring to step out of the behavior that was considered that of a true woman.

The second revelation came as a result of Alice’s Quaker faith.

As a Quaker, she believed what other Quakers believed: that men and women are equal. That people are equal. That people should work to improve society. That God might call them to a special purpose or cause. Quakers do not believe in violence or in war. They believe in peace and justice. Some Quakers have gone to jail when they stood up for their beliefs.

Alice’s experiences – her commitment to education, her commitment to the suffrage cause, her civil disobedience, her nonviolent protests, her willingness to endure prison -- align with her Quaker foundation.

But  -- and here’s that but again -- Alice didn’t take a stand when Black women wanted to join the 1913 parade. Instead, Alice stalled, not responding to their letters and requests. When Alice did respond, she offered a compromise: Black women could march together at the back of the parade.

Alice would insist that she, as a Quaker, believed in racial equality. It’s likely that she failed to act because she feared that she’d lose the “many, many, many splendid supporters” who refused to march with Black women. She admitted her fear about losing the White supporters in a later interview. Her failure to act would forever leave a stain on Alice’s reputation.

The irony of this incident reminds me that our heroes aren’t perfect. They can’t be perfect. They’re human.  Readers of all ages need to see these imperfections so that they can make wiser choices for themselves. No matter how evolved Alice thought she was, she had some growing to do. We all have some growing to do, right?

I loved learning about the role that Black suffragists played in the march: how they took a stand and refused to accept discrimination. Nellie May Quander said, “We do not wish to enter if we must meet with discrimination” and how Ida B. Wells, after being turned away by White women, stepped into the parade mid-march, saying, “I am doing it for the future of my whole race.”

I loved reading about the determination of the Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) members, a sorority of Black women at Howard University. If this sorority sounds familiar, it’s the same sorority that vice-president hopeful Kamala Harris joined when she was a student at Howard University. The century old sorority is committed to social justice and working to get out the vote.

In writing the book, I came across a photo of my grandmother, which is included in the book. I don’t know if she voted in 1920, but I know she was registered to vote. This also points out White privilege—she lived in Scranton and was educated. There were no literacy tests she had to pass.

Q: What do you think Ziyue Chen's illustrations add to the book?

A: Ziyue’s illustrations help readers connect emotionally with the story. They breathe life into Alice and Lucy and into key moments and scenes. This is so important for a story that features adults as main characters.

I did archival research and found references for her, and she brought her own style and vision to the book.

We writers for young readers are often told that the story needs to be about or needs to focus on children. I agree that a story for young readers must be grounded in the emotional and/or physical landscape of the reader’s world.

But (again! but!) I also know that children are interested in the adult world, too – especially when the themes and subjects are themes and subjects that young people identify with. Young people don’t like it when they’re told – or when they learn – that life isn’t fair. Just like Alice and Lucy, children and young adults want to fix that.

Q: A century after women won the right to vote, what do you see as Alice Paul's and Lucy Burns's legacy today?

A: Alice and Lucy left us with … more work to do!

As I mention above, Alice and Lucy and the other suffragists were marching for many of the same reasons that we march today: the right to vote, the end of disenfranchisement, the right to protest peacefully, the right to fair wages and better living conditions, the right to enact new laws and change unfair laws, the right to an equal education, the right to medical care, and the right to clean air and clean water and healthful food.

We must continue to fight for human equality and true democracy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Queen Bee Rules! This young middle grade novel is about a Queen Bee who can’t wait to emerge and rule the hive, but when she learns that her only job is to lay eggs, she decides she’d rather be a worker bee.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Here’s a little inside joke. On page 55, I sneaked in three references (kind of). The first is a nod to a Beatles song. Look at the photograph of Lucy in the biplane. Can you think of a new caption, one that would reference the song?

The second is a reference to a Steve Martin and John Candy movie. If you look at the photographs on pages 54-55, can you think of the movie title?

And then … the timeline on pages 74-75. What movie title comes to mind? 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Michael J. Rosen

Michael J. Rosen is the author of the new children's picture book A Ben of All Trades: The Most Inventive Boyhood of Benjamin Franklin. His many other books include The Tale of Rescue and The Horse's Haiku. He lives in Ohio.

Q: Why did you decide to write about Ben Franklin in your new picture book, and what do you see as his legacy today?

A: This first came about as a commission that didn’t work out. My agent proposed looking at a historical figure’s youth. I didn’t particularly know more about Benjamin Franklin than I did about John Adams, but I knew it had to be a familiar, often-taught person. I used to be a big swimmer. Franklin was the one who began taking swimming into the open, focusing on its healthful nature.

The book I had proposed was too long, and it wasn’t for the right audience my agent was imagining. I proposed it to Candlewick—here’s a picture book based on a couple of episodes in Franklin’s life—and they said they would love to do it.

Benjamin Franklin is our primary source of information—he wrote a very brief childhood biography at a ripe old age. I’m still trying to remember what I did last week, much less what I did in third grade!

On some level, I recognized that even the most focused nonfiction person is going to make the leaves on the tree abstract. I felt the same way about Franklin’s life. There was plenty I had to work with, but no dialogue. I had to find a way to create for kids the sounds of that era. It was a challenge, not just to get the information across, but to find a vehicle that would be authentic for kids.

Q: So swimming was what drew you into the idea for this book?

A: Exactly. We’ve all heard of the kite without remembering the details. When I was reading his biography, I found other details.

One, which we cut, involved kids going swimming, and as the water receded, he “invents” a bucket--they make an archipelago of rocks. He recruited his pals to do that. It was an example of the inventiveness he applied liberally across various endeavors. Then I found the episode where he goes swimming with a kite, and I thought, There’s something interesting there.

Q: Can you talk about how that exemplifies the way he thinks?

A: I’m interpreting and projecting. Franklin took on many things—ambassadorial work, figuring out a postal system, inventing, writing, printing. Most folks say, My job is [one thing]—they’re not also a chef and a horse racer. I’m not looking to him to justify me, but I feel there’s a kindred restlessness. I write for all ages, I paint, I do ceramics. The creative impulse is channeled in all directions.

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

A: I want kids to see the pleasure that they want to find—how curious the language of the time was, that there were no bathing suits, that there weren’t swimming pools. I am always amazed at our incredulity over things like that. Like that there didn’t used to be anesthesia.

Maybe there’s a kid like me who doesn’t want to be a candlemaker or a leathermaker when society and parents are insisting on that. I would want the “me” who reads the book to justify certain freedoms and consider something outside the expectations of society and even themselves.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My desk is stacked with options, some for another picture book, some poems for kids, some nonfiction. My next thing is painting and drawing because we’re here at home. I’ve got time. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 30

Aug. 30, 1797: Mary Shelley born.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Q&A with Tom Cooper

Tom Cooper is the author of the new book Doing the Right Thing: Twelve Portraits in Moral Courage. He teaches ethics and media studies at Emerson College.

Q: You write, "In times of flawed leadership, economic adversity, increasing violence, and government deception, we humans often look for heroes to overcome a pocked environment and consistently dark news." What inspired you to write this book, and how did you choose the 12 people you included?

A: In my 40 years of teaching ethics, I had never run across a book which identified the toughest known ethical decisions ever made. I wrote over 200 ethicists and other scholars to find out their top choices. I selected six at the top of their aggregate list and then added six more which were compelling but less known. 

The resulting group of leaders – from Queen Esther and Socrates in ancient times to Gandhi, Mandela, and Malala in more recent times, among others,  became my profiles for the book.  I wasn’t just interested in the back stories and hidden mysteries of how their minds worked, but I was also interested in applying what I found out to our own tough ethical decisions.

Q: You've noted that John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage was a model for Doing the Right Thing. Why did you choose to start your book with a look at Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis?

A: There are lots of reasons. We often don’t think about it but decisions which others made had a profound influence upon all of us. Had John Kennedy made a different decision during the Cuban Missile Crisis, none of us might be alive today.  

Regarding his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, I was inspired by it as a child and so I also valued Caroline Kennedy’s update, Profiles in Courage for Our Time, when it came out decades later. But these profiles, although often quite inspiring, were only of white male middle-aged and older statesmen and similar roles … and I wanted to expand to be far more inclusive. 

So the ethics exemplars I have chosen come from multiple races, professions, ages, two genders, many religions, cultures, philosophies, etc.

I wanted my students and others to know that there have been people of integrity and wise decision-makers under pressure of all backgrounds, including people who are the age of my students such as Malala right now  – and such as Mandela when he made his first major decision while in college.

Q: Malala Yousafzai is the last person you look at in the book. How did you choose the order of your chapters, and why did you decide to conclude with her?

A: With the exception of Kennedy, all the chapters are in chronological order, so we begin with ancients like Queen Esther and Socrates and end up with Edward R. Murrow, Mandela, Rachel Carson, and Malala. It’s nice to end on someone who reminds us that such people are very much alive.

I started with Kennedy because, like the first scene in a movie, I wanted to arrest the audience’s attention right from the start and his case was among the most dramatic. I also wanted to pay homage to him and Caroline in the opening rather than make it seem like my book was sui generis and I did acknowledge them both in the introduction.  

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

A: All readers should take away creative tools for making ethical decisions in our own lives. 

We all face such decisions, whether to put our parents in nursing homes, take a stand on capital punishment, police our children with curfews and rules about alcohol and tobacco, take comatose people off life support, enlist in the military, carry guns, intervene if there is a serious addiction in our family, and many more serious decisions. 

At the end of the book I reveal the common patterns of all 12 decisions with implications for how we can all be better ethicists and also be inspiring examples and role models for others in our worlds, be it our families, colleagues, students, employees, or others.    

For students reading the book I’d like the volume to also help them learn how to analyze ethical dilemmas, and I provide tools from great philosophers, thinkers, and teachers for classroom use for those who choose to use this book as a textbook.

Q: What are you working on now?  

A: My musical Higher! Higher! is in development and was all set for a professional reading in a Cambridge theater when COVID delayed it.

I’d love to hear from people who are interested in the musical if they like plots in which the lead characters must choose between living their dreams in a paradise and facing the realities and responsibilities of urban demands and politics. 

It’s a love story and is in the “Newtopian” tradition of musicals and books like Camelot, Brigadoon, South PacificMan of La Mancha, and Lost Horizon.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes, I think this book is ideal not only for the general reader but also for the college or upper level high school teacher who wants to use it in the classroom.

Also, on the practical level, everyone who orders the book should know that for some reason Barnes & Noble and Target have better prices on the paperback than other sites, although Amazon is the best place to buy the ebook version of Doing the Right Thing. Also, I invite people to follow me on Twitter: @TomCooper30.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb