By Kekla Magoon
As many people did, I followed the recent presidential election cycle fairly closely. During the early months of the primary season, I was hard at work on my picture book biography of Thurgood Marshall, The Highest Tribute: Thurgood Marshall’s Life, Leadership and Legacy, illustrated by Laura Freeman (Quill Tree Books, 2021).
Given my creative focus on this legendary, trailblazing Black American jurist, it was particularly exciting to see many diverse candidates participating in the race, like Kamala Harris, then a senator from California, who would go on to become the first woman and first person of color to become Vice President of the United States.
I couldn’t help but think about how much our country has changed since Thurgood Marshall argued Brown v. Board of Education(1954) before the U.S. Supreme Court, hoping to outlaw school segregation. I also couldn’t help but think about the ways in which things haven’t changed enough, and about all the dynamic “firsts” for Black Americans that we have experienced through the decades.
In my research and study of picture book biographies, I learned so much about Vice President Harris from Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice, written by award-winning and bestselling author Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Laura Freeman (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2020). It was a pleasure to sit down with Nikki to discuss the parallels between our books and the lives of their subjects, Kamala Harris and Thurgood Marshall.
As our new vice president, Kamala Harris has been in the news a lot lately. Your book came out in August 2020, amid the presidential campaign, but a picture book takes a very long time to develop, so you must have been working on it long before Kamala even received the nomination. When did you start the project, and how did you come to choose Kamala Harris as the subject for a biography?
I was first approached about writing a picture book biography of Kamala Harris in March 2019. The idea was Simon & Schuster’s, the same publisher that produced Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope, illustrated by Bryan Collier in 2008.
Having a clear memory of the ridiculously short timeframe I had for researching and writing that book (three months total), my initial response regarding the book on Kamala Harris was a hard No!
Mind you, I was quite interested in her as a subject. I studied her closely during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and was impressed by her intelligence, her laser focus, her quiet forcefulness. The senator was remarkably cool, calm, unflappable and persistent.
I was intrigued. I wanted to know more about this woman, this senator, and was excited about the prospect of digging into her story. However, I was only willing to do so if given a reasonable amount of time craft the story. As it happens, S&S took a second look at the schedule for the book and realized they didn’t need it quite as quickly as previously thought. I was then happy to agree to move forward!
When writing about someone like Thurgood Marshall, there is a certain amount of clarity as to his legacy—he has passed and his achievements are firmly enshrined in history. Writing about Kamala must have been a wildly different experience. What is it like to write about someone who is still living, still achieving new milestones, and still creating their legacy?
I like the dynamics of a story still unfolding! You’re not so much trying to nail down legacy as you are digging into the roots of the person, what seeds were planted in them early in life that are beginning to bear fruit. You’re looking at their promise, at their potential, and the early evidence of both. I find that exciting. I’m holding my breath to see what they’ll do next, who they will, in the end, become! I hope my readers are holding their breaths, as well. My biography is a story of becoming, and aren’t we all in the process of becoming?
Absolutely. I was excited to learn from your book that Kamala specifically looked up to Thurgood Marshall, and even chose to attend Howard University because it was his alma mater. Part of why I’m drawn to writing biographies like these is because I share that kind of reverence for those who went before. I have a desire to not only picture myself walking in their footsteps but to inspire young readers to see themselves as capable of greatness, too. Do you ever feel that way? What draws you to tell stories of Black achievement?
I definitely want my readers to see all that they can be, and biographies like Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice help to check that box. There are too few stories of Black achievement, apart from the sports world, or the world of entertainment. There are so many more realms in which Black people have made their mark! Young readers need to know that, need to see that.
Your book is beautifully written, full of imagery and quite lyrical. You’re an experienced poet, and it shows! How did you settle on the frame story, about the young girl named Eve who is hearing the story of Kamala Harris?
That’s easy: I stole the framework from my biography on Barack Obama. As with that book, here I wanted to create a story that would draw in a range of young readers, including the little ones to whom the book would probably be read by a parent or guardian. I created Eve’s running commentary to capture their attention. Older readers would, of course, be able to take in the main storyline on their own, and be able to handle the more sophisticated ideas and language throughout the text.
Both of our books are illustrated by Laura Freeman, and I notice quite a few style echoes across the pages. This was my first experience having work illustrated in this manner, and I found it very exciting to see the story come to life visually. I find the same kind of resonance and excitement when I look at the lovely art in your book. Did you have favorite aspects of the illustrations or the process of seeing the book come to life?
I literally gasped when I saw the cover. Illustrator Laura Freeman incorporated so much that was central to Harris’ life, beginning with the meaning of her given name, which is lotus. I loved the interior illustrations as well, of course, but it all begins with the cover. I thought Laura captured the energy of our new Vice President, too. Most of the images of Kamala are in motion! That’s exactly how I see her.
I love that one of the messages of this book is hard work, and “try, try again.” It took Kamala two tries to pass the bar, which is common, but she didn’t give up. Her first attempt to run for president ended with her withdrawing from the race, though we now know that story has a happy ending, too. Why did that theme feel important to include? Did the message of perseverance speak to you in a particular way?
The reality is that almost anything worthwhile takes time, hard work, practice, and perseverance to achieve. I believe it’s an important idea to drill into young minds.
As authors, you and I both know that writing is mostly rewriting! A book doesn’t come out fully formed in the first draft. It may take six, eight, ten drafts or more to arrive at a satisfactory completion. But, in the end, all the hard work is worth it.
Try, try, try again is a useful mantra, and one can apply it to any aspect of life. Besides, don’t you love those stories where the heroes/heroines struggle to achieve their goal? Those are always the people I root for!
I agree! And I imagine that these past few months must have been particularly exciting for you, learning that Kamala would become Vice President of the United States. Did you (or will you) get to add this exciting coda to the backmatter of the book for future printings? How did it feel to see the promise of the book (that Kamala wasn’t done trying yet) come true so beautifully?
So glad you asked! I have already updated the book. I was so looking forward to that possibility, and now it has come to fruition. I’ve added information to the timeline, and adjusted the text to reflect the story of Biden naming Harris as his running mate, then Harris going on to achieve her newest title: Madam Vice-President. What a grand title that is!
Yet, Kamala Harris is still writing her story. Her promise is still unfolding. Who knows what her final legacy will be? I find the prospects exciting. I can’t wait to see who she will become. I hope my readers feel the same way.
I, for one, share that excitement. Thank you, Nikki, for taking time to speak with me, and for being as much of a role model to writers like me as Kamala will be to children everywhere.
The New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes is the recipient of the ALAN Award for outstanding contributions to the field of adolescent literature, the 2017 Children’s Literature Legacy Award, the 2016 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, and the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children.
Her distinguished works include the much-honored books Garvey’s Choice (WordSong, 2016), ALA Notable book What is Goodbye? (Disney-Hyperion, 2004), Coretta Scott King Award winner Bronx Masquerade (Dial, 2001), and Coretta Scott King Author Honor books Jazmin’s Notebook (Dial 1998), Talkin’ About Bessie, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Orchard Books, 2002), Dark Sons (Jump at The Sun, 2005), Words with Wings (WordSong, 2013), and The Road to Paris (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2006). Creator of the popular Meet Danitra Brown illustrated by Floyd Cooper (HarperCollins, 1994), Ms. Grimes lives in Corona, California.
Kekla Magoon (she/her) writes fiction and nonfiction ranging from picture books to middle grade/young adult. Her novels include The Season of Styx Malone (Wendy Lamb Books, 2018), The Rock and the River (Aladdin, 2009), How It Went Down (Henry Holt, 2014), X: A Novel (with Ilyasah Shabazz) (Candlewick, 2015), and the Robyn Hoodlum Adventures series (Bloomsbury).
She also writes non-fiction on historical topics, including The Highest Tribute: Thurgood Marshall’s Life, Leadership and Legacy and She Persisted: Ruby Bridges illustrated by Alexandra Boiger and Gillian Flint (Philomel, 2021), as well as the forthcoming Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People from Candlewick.
Kekla received the Margaret A. Edwards Award for her significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature. She also has received an NAACP Image Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction, the John Steptoe New Talent Award, three Coretta Scott King Honors, the Walter Award Honor, the Indiana Author Award, and been long listed for the National Book Award. Kekla conducts school and library visits nationwide and serves on the Writers’ Council for the National Writing Project. She holds a BA from Northwestern University and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she now serves on faculty. Visit her online at www.keklamagoon.com.