Monday, November 13, 2023

Q&A with Lesley Younge




Lesley Younge is the author, with Monica Edinger, of the young adult found verse novel Nearer My Freedom: The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano by Himself. She also has written the children's picture book A-Train Allen, and she is a longtime educator.


Q: What inspired you and Monica Edinger to write a book about the 18th century writer and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano?


A: Monica and I taught 4th grade together at the Dalton School in New York. She actually hired me for my first teaching job. That was 18 years ago. The curriculum explored the ways diverse groups of people came to America.


One of the units was on the Atlantic Slave Trade, and Monica introduced the team to Olaudah Equiano's story through Ann Cameron's adaptation, The Kidnapped Prince. We were reading excerpts of that book and the closing assignment was to create erasure poetry from one of the sections.


That project was the inspiration for Nearer My Freedom; it was born out of the classroom work that we were doing. After the success of Monica's first book, Africa Is My Home, she was ready to publish another and approached me about working together. Of course I said yes!


Q: Can you describe the relationship between Equiano’s autobiography and your found verse poetry?


A: All of the verses are created through the process of erasure. The words and phrases come directly from Equiano's autobiography. 


Our primary goal was to make an accessible version for middle grade and young adult readers who are too old for The Kidnapped Prince (which we still recommend for elementary aged audiences) but are not yet ready to dive into his original 18th century text. 


We've been calling it a found verse remix for a modern youth audience. We tried to focus on the essential moments of his story and to preserve the excellence of his original writing and rhetoric.


The form came out of a process of chiseling and then playing with the text so that it read like narrative poetry. We had to be careful not to lose or confuse the true story. 


Q: How did you research Equiano’s life, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you? 


A: We let Equiano's autobiography lead us through the research process. We tried to anticipate where students would have questions about the events he was experiencing and the context in which he is meeting people, pursuing his liberty, and having adventures. 


A number of scholars have gone through his book quite thoroughly and so there were wonderful secondary sources that we found helpful. We especially appreciated the work and eventual support of Vincent Carretta, a scholar of transatlantic historical and literary studies and the author of Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man.


Our research process was definitely impacted by a number of factors, not the least of which was the pandemic. Monica and I imagined traveling together to various sites of significance and that was obviously difficult.


Still, we feel we were able to successfully build important bridges between his text and today's young readers using the resources to which we had access. 


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, in part, “Without losing the source text’s emotional heft, Edinger and Younge’s visceral poems respectfully provide an effective entry point into the seminal work.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: That was our precise goal so we feel grateful that our intended purpose is shining through. We think young people have much to learn from and be inspired by in Olaudah Equiano's life. They shouldn't have to wait until college to experience his historical and literary legacy.


Q: What are you working on now?

A: The journey to publish this book has been extraordinary. We had to overcome a number of obstacles, and honestly, we are still marveling at its success.


In the near future we hope to connect with teachers using it in the classroom and to expand its reach. The current book bans and attacks on teaching history are dreadful. We stand with all the incredibly brave teachers and librarians who make books like ours accessible to young people. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Nearer My Freedom has received five starred reviews. It was also recognized as a Junior Library Guild Gold Selection and has been named a Gold Winner of the Eureka! Nonfiction Children’s Book Award. 


The audiobook is awesome too and recently received its first starred review. Clifford Samuel reads the verse and Henriette Zoutomou voices the contextual essays.


We are grateful for the support of so many people over the last five years. It has truly taken a village to put this book out into the world. People can stay in touch via social media and our blogs: educating alice and


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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