Barbara Kerley is the author of the new children's picture book biography Eleanor Makes Her Mark: How Eleanor Roosevelt Reached Out, Spoke Up, and Changed the World. Her many other books include Tigers & Tea with Toppy and Following Baxter. She's based in Portland, Oregon.
Q: Why did you decide to write this picture book biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, and what do you see as her legacy today?
A: I’ve admired Eleanor my whole life and was eager to learn more about her. I knew that doing the research for the book would be illuminating and inspiring.
Eleanor believed that government should “serve the good of the people.” She used her position as first lady to reach out to all Americans and see what she and her husband, Franklin, could do to make their lives better. Through her advocacy and hard work, she created the role of first lady that we think of today.
Q: What do you think Edwin Fotheringham's illustrations add to the book?
A: Ed’s illustrations really capture Eleanor’s energy, swooping here and there, getting things done. But he also captures her compassion in the way she interacts with others. He also employs what he calls a “visual metaphor”—in this case, a chain of linked paper dolls. It appears in many of his illustrations of people joining hands and serves to underscore a major theme of the book: connection.
Q: The Kirkus Review of the book calls it "A compelling celebration of Eleanor Roosevelt that will inspire children to follow in her footsteps." What do you hope kids take away from the book?
A: There are many things that inspire me about Eleanor, but two things in particular stand out.
One is that when she was a young child, she discovered her “greatest joy.” As she grew into an adult, she built her life around it. So one thing I hope kids take from the book is to pay attention to what brings them joy and find ways to keep it at the center of their lives.
And of course, it’s inspiring that her greatest joy was helping others. Learning about Eleanor shows us that treating others with kindness and respect can change their lives—and our own.
Q: What kind of research did you do to write this book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: When I’m working on a biography, I like to turn to primary as well as secondary sources. Luckily for me, Eleanor was a prolific writer. I was able to learn how she herself felt about the issues that were part of her life.
I was also thrilled that we were able to include in the backmatter a “scrapbook” of photographs of Eleanor.
One thing that surprised me was how accessible she made herself—traveling all over the country, sometimes by herself, meeting people in big cities and small towns. She would hold teas at the White House where hundreds of people would attend, and she would make sure to shake hands with every one of them. And late into the night, she would stay up reading the letters people wrote to her.
She truly wanted to know the concerns of all Americans.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A biography of another incredible woman. We need to hear more of their stories!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: There’s a wealth of information about Eleanor on the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum website—a great place to learn even more about Eleanor! https://www.fdrlibrary.org/eleanor-roosevelt
--Interview with Deborah Kalb