Saturday, March 27, 2021

Q&A with Claudia Friddell


Claudia Friddell is the author of the new children's picture book Grace Banker and Her Hello Girls Answer the Call: The Heroic Story of WWI Telephone Operators. Her other books include Saving Lady Liberty: Joseph Pulitzer's Fight for the Statue of Liberty. She lives in Maryland.


Q: How did you learn about Grace Banker, and what do you see as her legacy today?


A: While I was researching another project, I came across Elizabeth Cobb’s wonderful book, The Hello Girls, about the World War I Signal Corps telephone operators.


After reading about these heroic American women whose telephone and language skills helped win the war, I was particularly interested in learning more about Grace Banker.


The young, enthusiastic, patriotic chief operator leaves a legacy of leading the first unit of U.S. female operators onto battlefields. They are now recognized as the first unit of women soldiers.


Grace was also the first and only woman operator in the Signal Corps—out of 16,000 Signal Corps officers—to receive the Army Distinguished Service Medal.


Her pioneering achievements in the military, her work-ethic, and her grace under pressure, all make her a wonderful role model for both girls and boys.


Q: What inspired you to write about Joseph Pulitzer and the Statue of Liberty?


A: As is often the case, I stumbled on a wonderful book project while hunting for something else!


While visiting the Statue of Liberty a few years ago, I was intrigued by a sculpture of Joseph Pulitzer at Liberty Island’s Sculpture Garden. I was amazed to learn that if not for Pulitzer’s pioneering crowd-funding campaign to raise money for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, the statue would not be standing in New York’s harbor.


Pulitzer’s immigration story parallels Lady Liberty’s difficult journey to America in ways that are relatable for young readers and gives a different and fresh perspective of our beloved monument. I felt it was a story that more Americans would like to know!


Q: What do you think the illustrations, by Elizabeth Baddeley and Stacy Innerst respectively, add to the books?


A: Well, I could write a book-length response to that question! They both created beautiful kid-friendly illustrations to make time periods from long ago exciting and approachable. They both incorporated additional historical details in their illustrations to help bring these stories and characters to life.


Elizabeth does a brilliant job of introducing young readers to unfamiliar images—camouflage ships, battlefield trenches, army barracks, and telephone switchboards—in clever and creative ways.


Stacy had different challenges. With his own unique style, he gives an original and fun perspective of something very familiar—the Statue of Liberty.


I particularly love Elizabeth’s spread of wartime keepsakes and her photo wall spread that spotlights some of the other Signal Corps operators. Those were perfect visuals to expand and enrich Grace’s story.


Stacy found artistic ways to incorporate actual newspaper columns and cartoons to share primary sources in a more accessible way for young readers. His use of the typeset blocks and the spread with the children’s donation letters are some of my favorite features in Saving Lady Liberty.


Both Elizabeth and Stacy are such amazing visual storytellers—I am so fortunate to have shared these storytelling journeys with them!


Q: How do you research your books, and what did you learn as you researched these two books that especially surprised you?


A: Every book project sets me on a new and exciting treasure hunt to find the gems—the important facts—that become the story!


With Saving Lady Liberty, I needed to weave together the history of Lady Liberty and the life of Joseph Pulitzer. James McGrath Morris’s biography of Joseph Pulitzer was an extremely helpful guide. Morris and Barry Moreno from the Statue of Liberty Museum provided me invaluable insights as experts for this book.


But Pulitzer’s newspaper articles from The World were my treasured primary sources. At the NYPL, I searched digital microfilm to find donation letters, Pulitzer’s impassioned pleas for donations, and pedestal fund updates.


For Grace Banker and Her Hello Girls, my primary guide was Elizabeth Cobb’s remarkable book, The Hello Girls. She was gracious enough to connect me with Carolyn Timbie, Grace Banker’s granddaughter, whose input was invaluable.


Carolyn invited me to her family lake cabin (built by Grace and her husband two generations ago). There, Carolyn shared with me Grace’s diaries, letters, articles, and World War I keepsakes.


Having access to these primary source treasures enabled me to incorporate details and photos to enrich Grace’s story. Reading her exciting war diary inspired me to weave her words through the book so Grace could help tell her own story.


In researching Saving Lady Liberty, I was surprised by many things! I didn’t know that Boston and Philadelphia were prepared to have Lady Liberty stand in their harbors if New Yorkers couldn’t raise the pedestal fund money.


I didn’t know that the statue first stood fully grown in Paris, and then the disassembled pieces sat in crates on Bedloe Island (Liberty Island today) for over a year until Pulitzer’s crowdfunding campaign raised the money to build the pedestal.


In Grace Banker and Her Hello Girls Answer the Call, I was surprised to learn that Grace Banker and her telephone operators are recognized as the first U.S. women soldiers. It was equally surprising and disappointing to learn that it took 60 years for them to receive veteran status.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am just finishing up a middle grade biography on the World War II spy Virginia Hall.


I have two narrative nonfiction picture books coming out in 2022. To the Front!: Clara Barton Braves the Battle of Antietam comes out next spring, and Road Trip! Camping with the Four Vagabonds: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs comes out in the fall of 2022.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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