Picture Book Biographies: Bethany Hegedus Explores Social Emotional Learning in Nonfiction

By Gayleen Rabakukk

At Cynsations this week we’re taking a deep dive into picture book biographies by interviewing eight debut biography authors. But first, today we’re kicking things off by featuring Bethany Hegedus, author of five published picture book biographies and more on the way.

Earlier this year I attended an SCBWI workshop where you discussed Social Emotional Learning. I was familiar with SEL in fiction picture books, but was surprised to hear you connect it with picture book biographies, too. First, tell us what SEL is.

When I was working on Grandfather Gandhi, co-authored by Arun Gandhi, illustrated by Evan Turk, (Atheneum), in the early 2000s and when it came out in 2014, SEL (social and emotional learning) wasn’t the focus in as many classrooms as it is today, though the term SEL was coined in 1994.

SEL looks at learning in terms of social skills, connectedness to each other and ourselves, and is really a building block for empathy and awareness. All much needed today, and as important, if not more important, than excellence in reading, writing, math, and science. (And all of those core subjects taught in schools can have SEL components embedded in lessons, texts, exercises and more.)

It was lovely to see my prior agent, Regina Brooks, mention this project and its impact on the industry in the Publishers Weekly article Literary Agents Assess the Middle Grade Landscape.

How can writers make use of SEL in their stories?

It is always my advice for writers to begin with ourselves. To ask ourselves: what are we struggling with? Where do we feel pain? What makes us angry? Where do I hurt? What makes me happy? When do I feel joy? How does connection feel? Belonging?

Asking ourselves these questions allows us to see what we care about, what we struggle with, and more. When we ask ourselves these questions—our adult selves—we can then find our way into childhood.

We all feel alone, scared, wanting to connect, to belong when young and when old. The magical thing children’s writers do is to plumb our current emotions for what we felt as children, and what today’s children might be feeling, as well. We don’t have to have kids to do this. We just have to be feeling, breathing beings.

Knowledge of the SEL Learning Wheel can help writers tap into themes that they may be wrestling with themselves and may help us shape those “things/themes” into stories. Didacticism is a no-no in kidlit and it can and should be avoided at all costs—the do-as-I-say approach to childhood—is not what SEL is about. But it is about exploring, about questioning, and care and compassion.

Does this happen when you’re first searching for the heart of the story (as you talked about with Cynsations previously), or later on?

Oh, good question! I am not sure when it comes into play when I am shaping a fictional story for the very young.

Arun Gandhi and I have a book for our youngest readers on peace: You, Me, We: A Celebration of Peace & Community forthcoming with Candlewick in 2023, and while we were working on that, we started with examining peace in the classroom, and in Montessori classrooms, as Maria Montessori’s work was influenced by the work of the Mahatma.

For me, SEL concepts are very present in my life: my life as a mother, as an artist/questioner, as a teacher/mentor and as a global citizen, so I think it is all very much in my subconscious as I create and very much in the subtext of all I write.

I think most consciously about SEL concepts after the fact. When I am examining how the work will connect with readers, teachers, and families. Or when I am reading and analyzing books and sharing them with my mentees and/or writers we serve at The Writing Barn or at the Courage to Create.

SEL driven narratives need to not be formulaic or didactic. They have to be integral to the heart of the story and the heart of the writer.

Have the SEL concepts influenced how you talk about your books with students and teachers?

It has. More and more educators and students are embracing SEL terms, growth mindset and other terms that allow for an exploration and deep dialogue around belonging, self-awareness, community, connection, bullying and more.

It can also be a continued part of the work we white authors have to do when it comes to recognizing the privileges that society has granted us and the continued work to be done in granting access to all voices. Pre-pandemic, I gave a talk about Books Building Bridges at Texas A&M University in College Station where we explored many of the SEL concepts, and  I urged the white educators in the room to address the lens of the white experience and to bring in other points of view and reference into the classroom, no matter the racial makeup of the class.

And for the kids—we need to tell great stories and have real dialogues about facing challenges both internally and societally.

Some great texts I love are All Because You Matter by Tami Charles and illustrated by Bryan Collier (Scholastic, 2020), but there can also be funny SEL texts too like The Good Egg by Jory John, illustrated by Pete Oswald (HarperCollins, 2019).

This week we’ll be featuring several of your Writing Barn students who have new PB bios out this year. What advice do you have for writers when they’re choosing a biography subject?

I love that! So exciting to see the many, many Writing Barn Success Stories in a variety of genres and categories—but as you know, picture book bios hold a special place in my heart and make up most of my books that are on classroom shelves.

My advice for writers when it comes to biographies is to simply think about the people whose lives and life’s work has already made its impact on you. You carry that list inside you already, so write it down and research who has and hasn’t had a book already written about them. Your heart and the subject’s heart, those are what will impact the reader’s heart. Meghan Browne’s two picture book biographies, one out now, and one out in early 2022, do just that.

What’s coming up next for Author Bethany?

I am collaborating with an incredible human being whose life’s work has influenced mine since I was a very little girl and who every time we have a work session, I fall more and more in love and inspired by (more on the who that is when I can share), and there are a few books yet to be announced, but in my writing life I am contemplating a craft/writing life book and a potential motherhood memoir, as well as more SEL-themed projects and [I have] a deep desire to get back to writing middle grade novels. If only there were more time in the day—then I could write all that I want to write, but I am a slow writer, so it helps me to have ideas on the back burner as rewards for getting the current work done.

The Courage to Create community has made a tremendous difference for me. When you envisioned this program, did you anticipate it having world-wide reach? When will you open for new registrations again?

Oh goodness, Gayleen! I am so honored. And it has made such a difference for so many–and that makes me over the moon happy. The Writing Barn began as a place to study craft during the long time where a writer could be on the verge: not beginner but not yet published. And now the Writing Barn serves those writers, and beginners, and the well-published.

The Courage to Create community came out of my developing the Write. Submit. Support programs and my desire to have a place where we could truly do the much needed work of transforming publishing from the country club model of the past, where few voices are heard and heralded and where none of us truly feel like we belong to a thriving community garden. One where many hands till the creative soil, where we can learn and grow together, even as we work with compare/despair and impostor syndrome, so that a variety of varied voices are heard, all growing and blooming in our own time.

I didn’t envision CtC having world-wide reach but maybe I should have. I rarely envision much beyond serving a need, and what I am learning as I serve the writers in this community, is that the need creatives have is world-wide. We want to publish, and publish well, but we don’t want to be driven by insecurity and shame, and being told by the nameless, faceless industry that our stamp of approval comes from them and not from the simple but scary act of creating courage in our writing lives.

We are open anytime for inspiration members, but we only open for Intimate industry memberships every six months. At that level, we invite editors, agents, authors and illustrators to speak/present to the community, to open for submissions and engage with us directly based on the needs of the community for that six month cycle. Once you are an intimate industry member for six months, the writers are then invited to renew for a year, at a major price break with bonus opportunities, if they are finding the community and the curated content feeds their literary lives.

Are there Writing Barn workshops or intensives that you’re particularly excited about?

Ah, the Funny Women of Kidlit Confab is coming up and I am super excited about our incredibly diverse line-up where over two days we are going to dig into the funny ha-ha and the serious business of what holds funny women back when it comes to industry accolades and more.

Our craft webinar series continues with major voices: Melissa Stewart, Nikki Grimes, and more, and we are unveiling our January-June 2022 programming as well! Six-month programs, six-week classes, free book launches, continued low-cost programming with our DEI Committee called Creative Connections, bringing together affinity groups to discuss challenges and how to create lasting change in the industry. The Confabs have been so much fun to do, and even when we return to in-person programming on a more regular basis, we will continue our virtual events.

There are so many awesome writers behind the programming at The Writing Barn: Evan Griffith, whose novel Manatee Summer (Quill Tree, 2022) is out next June, our Program Director, Jessica Hincapie, who has her MFA in poetry has her debut poetry collection coming out in March, 2022—the same month she gets married right here on our grounds. The talent is tremendous—and we are always cooking up ways to serve writer needs: craft, community, connection, industry transparency and more!

Cynsational Notes

This post is the first in a series focusing on picture book biographies. Don’t miss tomorrow’s post featuring Azadeh Westergaard  and Meghan P. Browne.

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 as Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, illustrated by Erin McGuire (HarperCollins, 2018), Rise!: From Caged Bird to Poet of the People: Dr. Maya Angelou, Hard Work But It’s Worth It: The Life of Jimmy Carter, illustrated by Kyung Eun Han (Balzer & Bray, 2020), and Huddle Up! Cuddle Up!, illustrated by Michael Deas (Viking, 2020)–an ode to family, football and bedtime.

Her books have been included in numerous “best of” lists such as A Mighty Girl’s Best Books of 2018 and Kirkus Reviews 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. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from VCFA, is the Founder and Creative Director of The Writing Barn, a writing retreat and workshop space in Austin, Texas and is host of the popular Courage to Create podcast.

Gayleen Rabakukk teaches creative writing classes for the Austin Public Library Foundation, is an active member of the children’s literature community and former assistant regional advisor for Austin SCBWI. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.