Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Q&A with Monique McLay Shore


Edith Renfrow Smith and Monique McLay Shore



Monique McLay Shore is the author of the children's picture book biography No One Is Better Than You: Edith Renfrow Smith and the Power of a Mother's Words. A longtime librarian, Shore lives in Grinnell, Iowa.


Q: What inspired you to write a biography of Edith Renfrow Smith, who was born in 1914?


A: I first met Mrs. Renfrow Smith when she was 101 years old. She came to the library where I work and I spent an afternoon scanning her family photos while she told me their stories. I was blown away by her incredible memory for detail and her charm and humor.


The next day, she did a live oral history interview in front of more than a hundred people. She was so engaging and interesting that everyone was enthralled and laughing.


Despite all she has lived through, she has the most positive outlook on life of anyone I’ve ever met. She was absolutely inspiring! I knew then that I wanted to do everything in my power to help more people learn about her.


In the seven years since I’ve worked with others to research and document her life. I’ve had the blessing of meeting with her on a number of occasions. She’s a note writer and loves to make homemade treats to share. So in addition to many handwritten notes, I’ve received homemade fudge, mints and even a bottle of wine!


On one visit I had asked her about the jug with a balloon on top sitting in the corner of her small apartment. The next time I saw her, she gave me a bottle of that wine. At age 107, she had perfected her craft and it was quite delicious!


Several times over the years it had been mentioned that someone should write her story. In late 2022, when Grinnell College announced the naming of Renfrow Hall in her honor, I had an increasingly persistent feeling that I could make it happen as a children’s book.


She was 108 at this point, and my dream was to have it published so she could hold it in her hands. In order to do it as quickly as possible, I decided to self-publish. It was critical I find the right illustrator and I needed a way to fund it all.


Mrs. Renfrow Smith has a large group of fans among Grinnellians. I was able to complete a Kickstarter funding launch in just a few days and I soon connected with illustrator Erica L. Butler through a Grinnell friend.


Before going any further, I met with Edith and her daughter Alice to go over the text I had written. I wouldn't proceed without their blessing of my telling of her story.


The book is not just about her life, it is built around the inspiring words she learned from her own mother that she continues to pass on to everyone she meets.


“No one is better than you. They may have more money. They may be more beautiful. But no one is any better than you.” I’ve heard her say a variation of that in countless interviews and conversations, so it is woven throughout the story.


When I read the text to her for the first time, she followed every word intently in the copy that I gave her. As I finished, I choked up a little given the power of the moment. She looked at me and said, “You see, you were the one who was meant to do it.”


Her affirmation helped me push aside my doubts about being the right person to write her story.


I wanted so badly to see her hold the finished book in her hands and had so little understanding of what it would take. But somehow I just knew we were going to be able to pull this off.  So all of my energy for the next year was directed towards meeting that goal.


Q: How did you research her life, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I have been the project manager for a digital archiving effort at the public library in Grinnell since 2013.


It was through that project that we connected with Mrs. Renfrow Smith to scan her family photos and fill the gap in our collection around African Americans of early Grinnell. Those photos supplemented articles and documents in the local archives documenting her life and her deep roots in our community.


One of the most exciting things we found was an 1895 interview with her grandfather, George Craig, in the local paper. In it he stated that he traveled through Grinnell in 1859 with John Brown.

Locally it’s pretty well known that our town founder, J.B. Grinnell was a staunch abolitionist and active in the underground railroad. In 1859, Mr. Grinnell hosted abolitionist John Brown and a group of Freedom Seekers.


This was Brown’s last journey before he lost his life at Harpers Ferry and has been very well researched and documented. But the names of the Freedom Seekers with him are not recorded anywhere. So that article is pretty exciting.


We also put together a family tree to help us better track the links between the various people she has told us about and who we have worked to document.


Among those stories are links to the first Black farm owner in our county and the first triplets born in the state of Iowa, who were her cousins. The more we learn the more amazed we are.


It’s been wonderful to be able to pull this information together and make it available to others online. You can now find links to articles and videos on the library website, the college website, and Wikipedia - including to the interviews she’s done with NBC and NPR!


Q: What do you think Erica Lauren Butler’s illustrations add to the book?


A: Finding Erica was such an incredible blessing. I knew I wanted an African American artist who could connect with the story and understand the unique needs of this project - mainly the timeline and the fact that the subject is still alive and would have input on the illustrations.


She fell in love with Mrs. Renfrow Smith and saw many similarities to her own family in the story. She was willing to throw herself into the project and take a risk along with me on this venture, which was really wonderful.


Erica is an incredibly gifted artist and was great to work with. She’s in Seattle so we did all of our work online. I sent her pictures of people and places and she’d pull together sketches to work through.


We did regular video calls to work through details and make sure we were staying on track. She understood that urgency of the work but was also committed to quality illustrations. She did a video call with Mrs. Renfrow Smith early on and was able to chat with her, which was really special.


Later in the process Alice, Edith’s daughter, was giving us regular input to help with details in the illustrations. This was great but also offered many challenges.


Erica was very receptive to the input and adjustments that were needed. It added more time but means the illustrations more accurately reflect Edith’s life.


I feel that Erica created deeply rich scenes that capture the spirit of Edith’s life and elevate the words through her beautiful portrayals.


She captures the thoughtful young girl who was absorbing the stories of her grandparents and their escape from slavery. And the strong young woman who faced discrimination from some but maintained her belief in her own self-worth and persevered. Her illustrations make it a much richer and more powerful story.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from Edith Renfrow Smith's life story?


A: My hope for this book is two-fold.


First, I want more people to know the story of Edith Renfrow Smith and understand that African Americans like her have always been present in every part of this country.


Many people have told me they didn’t think there were any Black people in Iowa in the 1800s and early 1900s. The fact that anyone would say such a thing exemplifies how these stories have been overlooked and dismissed.


I hope by sharing this story more people will not only recognize the inspiration she has been, but that hers is just one of many remarkable lives among the Black citizens of Iowa and the Midwest.


My second hope is that the message that she learned from her mother is carried on to future generations. Every child needs to know that no one is any better than another person because of the color of their skin or their social status.


This is something that Mrs. Renfrow Smith has told children from her classroom in Chicago in the 1950s through her conversations with students in Grinnell in 2022. And it is a message that more people need to hear and take to heart during these days when so many young people wrestle with self-esteem, isolation, and mental health.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My energy at the moment is mainly focused on getting this book to a wider audience. I’ve opted to not sell it through Amazon as I want to focus on distribution through independent bookstores.


Grinnell’s Pioneer Bookstore has been great to work with and has been doing online sales ( and sending the book around the country.


I’d love to get it into more stores, especially those in the Chicago area. But as a first time, self-published author who didn’t know enough to work with a distribution company like Ingram, I’ve got a ways to go in figuring this out.


I’ve also been working on donating copies of the book to libraries. As a part of the Kickstarter campaign I invited funders to contribute extra to have copies donated to libraries. The funders were so incredibly generous that I have 500 copies of the book set aside to donate to libraries, mainly focusing on Iowa and Chicago.


The book arrived in early January and I have spent many hours since then reaching out to libraries. I am very proud of getting 300 copies distributed to elementary schools and another 100 or so to public libraries.


The vast majority of these have gone to Iowa, but a dozen or so have been sent to other states. My hope is to get the remaining copies donated to libraries in the Chicago area as that is where Mrs. Renfrow Smith has lived for the past 80 years.


Some people have asked what my next book will be. This one very much grew out of the compelling story I found myself blessed to be in the middle of.


If I were to do another book, I can envision other stories based on some of our local history.


We had an early pioneer aviator whose story is quite interesting, and a woman who did amazing photography starting as a young child - including of her dressed and posed cats - in the early 1900s. Both of those could be fun.


I’ve learned a lot through this process and I also know how challenging it can be. So we’ll have to wait and see.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I documented the entire process of writing this book on a website at I posted regular updates about the process and shared pictures of visits with Mrs. Renfrow Smith, previews of the illustrations, expanded on the history behind some of the things in the story, and other thoughts and events along the way.


That page also has information for libraries and bookstores who are interested in learning more.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment