Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Q&A with Gretchen Woelfle




Gretchen Woelfle is the author of the new children's picture book biography A Take-Charge Girl Blazes a Trail to Congress: The Story of Jeannette Rankin. Rankin (1880-1973) was the first woman elected to Congress. Woelfle's other books include Answering the Cry for Freedom. She lives in Los Angeles.


Q: What inspired you to write a children's picture book biography about Jeannette Rankin?


A: Short answer: because my middle grade biography, Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer, went out of print. It won several awards and made many “Best Book” lists, but such is the ultimate fate of most books.


Rankin played a strong supporting role in the struggle for women’s suffrage, and a starring role in placing women in the political spotlight. I didn’t want to see her fade from view for children, so I suggested a picture book biography of Rankin to Carolyn Yoder, my editor at Astra/Calkins Creek. And A Take-Charge Girl Blazes A Trail to Congress: The Story of Jeannette Rankin took shape.


Q: How do you think Rankin would fare in today's political environment?


A: Rankin would be right at home in today’s tumultuous Congress. Traveling the country alone for four years spreading the women’s suffrage message, she faced insults and ridicule from men and sometimes women. The same occurred when she ran for Congress. A woman in Congress? Not brave enough, not smart enough! She stood up to them all.


A Take-Charge Girl… ends with Rankin striding into the Capitol Building in April 1917, but my back matter describes what she accomplished during her two-year term.


Many of the bills she sponsored didn’t pass at that time: universal suffrage for women, a health bill for women and children, equal pay for men and women, a bill against child labor, and more. She was the first – and perhaps the only member of Congress ever – to hire an all-woman office staff. She was a woman ahead of her time.


Yet Jeannette Rankin understood the value of compromise in politics. Though she voted against the U.S. entering World War I in 1917, she voted for military bills in order to end the war quickly.


Q: What do you think Rebecca Gibbon's illustrations add to the book?


A: I was thrilled when Rebecca Gibbon agreed to join me in celebrating Jeannette Rankin. On the cover, we see Rankin larger than life, up on a soapbox, arms (and feathers on her hat) reaching to the sky. Her colorful outfit and her exuberant gesture express her determination and perseverance. Even the little dog is transfixed.


Here we see a full-length portrait of young Jeannette, feet firmly on the ground, arms akimbo, cheerfully facing the reader. The text reads “Jeannette Rankin was a take-charge girl.” She is ready for life’s challenges.


Gibbon repeats this image of Rankin twice more: when Rankin joins the women’s suffrage movement, and when she runs for Congress. She has become a woman in the world, still remaining that confident take-charge girl.


The final illustration of the book shows how an illustrator can take a story beyond the author’s words. My final text describes Rankin walking into the Capitol Building in 1917, with a quote: “‘I may be the first women member of Congress, but I won’t be the last,’ she declared. And she was right.”


Rebecca Gibbon paints that scene, then takes Rankin’s story forward. On the facing page she paints today’s children gazing at a statue of Jeannette Rankin in the Capitol, and places the last quote below it. Gibbon illustrates the importance of Jeannette’s life and legacy now and into the future.


Thank you, Rebecca!


Q: The Kirkus review of the book says, in part, “The text as a whole grounds Rankin’s ambitions in her determination to advocate for children, and such framing will likely make the book more accessible to young readers, as will the energetic illustrations.” What do you think of that description, and what do you hope kids take away from Rankin's story?


A: A picture book biography shines a spotlight on one aspect of a person’s life. If people know of Rankin today, they probably know about her votes in Congress against the U.S. entering World War I and World War II. I felt that her life-long pacifism was too complex for younger readers. 


So I chose a narrative arc that focused on children. As the oldest sibling, she took care of her brother and four sisters. After visiting a settlement house for immigrant families, she became a social worker. Frustrated by a society that didn't offer relief, she joined the women’s suffrage movement to give women a voice in choosing their lawmakers, which led to her run for Congress to become one of those lawmakers.


I meant to show children how her personal life led to her professional life. Though her goal remained the same – she chose several avenues to arrive at her solution.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m in the middle of a much longer book about a group of women who joined together in the 19th century to achieve something that neither men nor women had done before. Since then the group’s aims and achievements have expanded far beyond their original mission. Everything about this subject is massive – more than I ever imagined. It’s like writing a biography of someone who is still alive after 175 years.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: 2023 is a bumper year for me. I’ve had a crush on Benjamin Franklin for decades, and finally found a hook on which to hang my account of his extraordinary life. How Benjamin Franklin Became a Revolutionary in Seven (not-so-easy) Steps will be published by Astra/Calkins Creek in October. I’m having fun thinking about what Rankin and Franklin have in common other than six letters of their name.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Gretchen Woelfle.

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