Author Interview: Bethany Hegedus on Crafting Picture Book Biographies With Heart

By Gayleen Rabakukk

Bethany Hegedus is an award-winning writer and a tireless champion of encouraging others to push beyond their fear and obstacles. I’m very excited to share Bethany’s insight on tackling tough subjects and writing from the heart with Cynsations readers!

Lee & Low

Her newest book, Rise: From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou, illustrated by Tonya Engel (Lee & Low, 2019) received a starred review from School Library Journal, calling it “an important and powerful addition to any biography collection.”

Congratulations on Rise: From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou! It’s a beautiful and inspiring book. Can you tell us what drew you to this project?

After writing Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, illustrated by Erin McGuire (Balzer + Bray, 2018), I made a list of social justice heroes and author heroes whose lives had impacted mine. The list included President Jimmy Carter and when that book sold (it is coming out in January 2020) I turned my attention to Dr. Maya Angelou, who was next on my list.

For me, biographies are very personal. I am drawn to people, regular people, like you and me, who were once kids⁠—like our readers⁠—whose childhood majorly informed the adults they became and the work they became famous for. Those childhoods could be difficult, as Maya’s was, or more seemingly idyllic, but childhood⁠—what was experienced, felt and seen is what draws me in⁠—and how these lives intersected with my own as either a girl or a teen.

With Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Random House, 1969) was one of the first books I read when I moved from the North to the South, the reverse journey of so many people of color. Maya’s authenticity about being a survivor of sexual abuse and her rich language changed me forever.

Can you share a little bit about your writing and research process? When you first begin a project, do you have plan or outline of where you’ll look for information?

Balzer & Bray

Plan? Outline? Ha! I bet those are things many biographers have. Me⁠—I started in fiction and I am more of a leaper.

I see a subject’s life as a pool, and I want to dive right in. So I do. I read: autobiographies first or other primary sources. I watch interviews. I read speeches. I look for pictures of my subjects as children and I search for anything and everything related to their childhoods.

Once I have swam around in the life of my subject for awhile, I climb out of the research pool, but dip my toes back in when needed.

Once out of the pool, I lay on a metaphorical chaise lounge and begin to write. What I am searching for in the early stages is the narrative arc/the beating heart of the story and how it ties to me as the writer shaping the story and what it will mean to my readers. Most of the work is done around the narrative arc, as once discovered it provides the structure for the piece.

Much of picture book biography is knowing what to include in the text and what should go in the backmatter. It is trial and error, and I am constantly making those decisions, along with how voice will play into the work. With Rise! I knew I wanted to work in verse⁠—as Dr. Angelou so often did.

You tackle some tough subjects in the text that we don’t often see in picture books. Can you tell us about working through this challenge and any advice you might have for writers facing similar challenges?

The deep dark scary stuff: anger, privilege, injustice, racial violence, and now sexual abuse.

Yes, most picture books don’t venture into this territory, and some of my new work⁠—including my first bedtime book⁠—is lighter. Much lighter. But with my novels (now out of print) and my biographies I have felt called to look into the dark, where we can truly find the light.

Story is a place to find ourselves, and we will all deal with difficulties, and we all live in this world where we must learn how to deal with our anger, privilege, injustice, and as a society we are still rectifying how we handle racial injustice and sexual abuse and how we can prevent this type of systemic pain and how we individually and as a society need to heal.

Dr. Angelou is quoted as saying, “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”

That’s what I want for everyone and that’s also what I hope my “darker” work achieves.

As for other writers venturing into such topics, my advice would be to truly confront these dark spaces in your own life before, during and after as you work to shape your project and heal your own life. And to never ever forget the readers. They deserve our best work. Our most truthful work. And for us to handle our own healing so they can move through this world not carrying our pain but healing their own.

Tonya Engel’s illustrations are beautiful. Did you have any contact with her as she was creating the art?

I did! But not by way of introduction by our editor, Jessica Echeverria at Lee & Low. I was sent Tonya Engel’s samples when she was chosen for the book, and I then friended her on Facebook and followed her on social media.

Tonya and Bethany at The Writing Barn.

When I saw that she was going to be in Austin for an art showing, the Armadillo Bazaar, I reached out and said hello. I was going to be attending to buy holiday gifts for my family and asked her if I could stop by her booth.

Our editor had told me about the illustration of the rape scene, a key moment, and one I handled with metaphor in the text as Dr. Angelou herself did with the image of the caged bird (an allusion to Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s Sympathy) and I asked Tonya if I could see it. Jessica had told me she would send it but it hadn’t come yet.

Tonya thankfully didn’t find me to be intrusive⁠—though we both knew we were somewhat breaking the rules⁠—and she pulled up the painting’s image on her phone. I stood in the very busy conference center, turned holiday bazaar, and cried and before I knew it Tonya and I were hugging. Her work on this book is spectacular⁠—it heightens the emotion that Maya’s life embodied and brings the reader in, in new and unexpected ways. She doesn’t shy away from the dark truths in the illustrations, each painting a masterpiece⁠—but invokes such color and vibrancy.

Recently, Rise! And Tonya’s work was lauded by Betsy Bird in her 2019 Caldecott Predictions List, Betsy wrote: “This is her debut picture book, though you wouldn’t know it by reading this. Sometimes an artist has a natural affinity for the picture book form. How would I describe her style? Magical realism with a nonfiction twist. Look at the colors. Look at the emotions that play out on the characters’ faces.” I couldn’t agree more!

We didn’t have any other contact until close to the end of the project when we filmed a behind the book video at her home studio in Houston. Watch the YouTube video of Bethany and Tonya.

Now we are preparing for our Austin launch (October 20) and multiple speaking gigs together including the Texas Book Festival, and the Brooklyn Public Library and more.

Our growing friendship, and bringing our families together is an unexpected blessing but one I am surely grateful for.

The Grandfather Gandhi books, Alabama Spitfire and Rise! all address social justice issues. What should writers keep in mind when they’re writing about social justice for young readers?


Social justice themes in picture books have been burgeoning, and I don’t want this to be a fad or a trend.

One thing I advise all writers wanting to enter this space though is to think deeply about what they have to add, and not jump on an industry or social-change bandwagon if it does not feel resonate with who they are and where their work is leading them.

And this space has a ton of challenges inherent to it, which is why I am teaching a seven-week online class at The Writing Barn on Social Justice, Kindness and Inclusion in the Picture Book Market as there is so much to cover in this area: texts exploring social emotional learning, not being teachy/preachy, analyzing the current stand out texts in the marketplace, (and even the ones that don’t measure up) along with drafting various kinds of texts in this space prompted by in-class exercises.

I taught this class at the beginning of the year, and two writers have gone on to sell their texts. So exciting. If a writer is feeling called to enter this space, please join us.

Class starts 10/29 and is online in real time via Zoom. And we even have an industry guest, agent Rubin Pfeffer, whose clients Rob Sanders, Euka Holmes, Marion Dane Bauer and more have done extraordinary work in this area.

I’m a big fan of your Courage to Create podcast (even the podcast title inspires me and makes me think of Maya Angelou). Do you have any favorite episodes that you’d like to point out for Cynsations readers? Or any coming up that you’re particularly excited about?

Thank you. I love hearing that!

One of our most downloaded episodes, and one of my favorites is The Dark Night of the Soul, where I share an exercise I ask writers I have worked with in the “Write. Submit. Support” program to do when they are in the midst of submissions and are feeling hopeless or riddled with what I call, Compare/Despair syndrome.

I even read the results of the exercise with the permission of one brave writer and walk listeners through doing it for themselves.

Another one that may call to Cynsation readers is on Creating from Your Personal Pain where I share more about my own healing in writing the Grandfather Gandhi books and Rise! and some things to think about and ways to take care of ourselves as we do the deep work.

On the interview side, we’ve had such amazing writers as Kathi Appelt, Katherine Applegate, and other award winning writers as well as new voices: Daria Peoples Riley and Jess Rinker.

Upcoming, we have an incredible interview with Meredith Davis, author of Her Own Two Feet: A Rwandan Girl’s Brave Fight to Walk (Scholastic, 2019) when we come back from a brief hiatus!

If Cynsations readers are new to the Courage to Create Podcast this is the perfect time to subscribe on itunes or stitcher and catch up on past episodes!

Cynsational Notes

Bethany Hegedus’ children’s picture books include the award-winning Grandfather Gandhi and Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story, both co-written with Arun Gandhi (grandson of Mahatma Gandhi),  illustrated by Evan Turk (Atheneum), as well Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, illustrated by Erin McGuire (HarperCollins, 2018), and Rise!: From Caged Bird to Poet of the People: Dr. Maya Angelou, and the forthcoming Hard Work But It’s Worth It: The Life of Jimmy Carter, illustrated by Kyung Eun Han (Balzer & Bray, January 2020).

Her books have been included in numerous “best of” lists such as A Mighty Girl’s Best Books of 2018 and Kirkus’ Best Books of the Year. A former educator, Bethany is an in-demand keynote speaker, workshop leader, and mentor who speaks and teaches across the country about writing, creativity, resilience, and privilege.

Inside The Writing Barn

She is also the Founder and Creative Director of The Writing Barn in Austin, Texas and host of The Porchlight podcast, which includes the popular Courage to Create series. She graduated from the Vermont College of Fine Arts with an MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults.

Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College and is a former Writing Barn Fellow. She’s worked with Cynthia Leitich Smith as a Cynsations intern since 2016 and also serves as assistant regional advisor for the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Gayleen is represented by Andrea Cascardi of Transatlantic Literary Agency.