Thursday, November 10, 2022

Q&A with Peggy Thomas




Peggy Thomas is the author of Hero for the Hungry: The Life & Work of Norman Borlaug, a new book for older kids. Borlaug (1914-2009) won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1970; he sought to end world hunger. Thomas's many other books include Lincoln Clears a Path. She lives in Middleport, New York.


Q: Why did you decide to write this biography of Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug?


A: I didn’t know who Norman Borlaug was until I read a book by Leon Hesser, and when I asked friends and family, they didn’t know him either.


It bothered me that a man who earned the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, AND the Congressional Gold Medal had been forgotten. I wanted to change that, and bring Norman’s incredible story to a new generation of readers who, I hope, take his message to heart. 


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


A: When I write a biography, I normally travel to the person’s hometown to see where they lived, walk in their footsteps. I especially like to collect sensory details like the sound of wind rushing over a corn field, or a train whistle if they lived near a train track.


But Covid prevented me from going anywhere, so I relied on telephone interviews with family and friends, and the vast material archived at Texas A&M and the University of Minnesota. The taped interviews let me see Norman in action and let me hear his voice, and Norman’s handwritten notebooks were particularly helpful. They let me see the world as he saw it and let me feel what he felt. It helped me understand what he valued.


Just about everything I discovered in my research surprised me: the chutzpah that Norman had as a teen forming his own baseball league; his bulldog-like tenacity with which he attacked his wheat breeding. His notebooks are so detailed, yet he was almost fired several times for not filling out paperwork.


He was serious about his work and a tough taskmaster, yet he took time out to work with the young boys who were hired to keep birds out of the wheat fields. He was fond of saying, “There is always time for learning.” One boy even grew up to take over Norm’s job when he retired.

The biggest surprise was reading that, decades after he finished wrestling, he still wore his uniform like long johns when he traveled through the Himalayan mountains! I wish I could have met him.


Q: What do you think Sam Kalda's illustrations add to the book?


A: Sam brings Norm to life. I had originally thought the book would be illustrated with photographs. But that would make it all black and white. And for kids, a black and white world doesn’t feel real. Sam makes Norm real. And the color palette is perfect. You can almost smell the sun-warm wheat.


Q: What do you see as Norman Borlaug's legacy today, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: Norm believed that “food is the moral right of every person born into this world.”  He established the World Food Prize to remind us that we all have a responsibility to participate in the bigger conversation of how we will feed the world.


I hope Hero For the Hungry makes young readers pause and think about where their food comes from, who made it, and more importantly how they can be part of the process so that everyone can have enough on their plate. Just like Norman, they have it in them to make a difference. In the back of the book, I include a list of activities so they can become heroes for the hungry too.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a picture book with the working title of The Soil in Jackie’s Garden. It’s all about soil and how everything in a garden begins and ends with soil. I got the idea this spring while getting my garden ready for planting, pulling out rich compost from the pile, and thanking the worms for their work. I just love the whole soil cycle.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m working on new school presentations and will be posting lesson plans and activities to go along with Hero for the Hungry on my website at You can also get updates on book giveaways and upcoming events on Twitter at @Pegtwrite; Instagram at peggy.thomas.writes; and  Facebook at PeggyThomasWrites.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

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