Throwback Thursday: Richard Michelson on Making History Appeal to Young Readers

Cynsations is celebrating its 20th anniversary by switching to a quarterly publishing schedule, featuring in-depth interviews and articles. Thank you for your ongoing support and enthusiasm!

Congratulations to Richard Michelson on the publication of One of a Kind: The Life of Sydney Taylor, illustrated by Sarah Green (Calkins Creek, Feb. 13. 2024). From information provided by the publisher:

For fans of All-of-a-Kind Family, here is the true story of how Sarah Brenner, a poor girl from New York City’s Lower East Side, became Sydney Taylor: dancer, actress, and successful children’s book author.

Sarah Brenner might have come from an all-of-a-kind family (five sisters who all dressed alike), but she was always one of a kind. Growing up in a Jewish immigrant family on New York’s impoverished Lower East Side, Sarah loved visiting the library, celebrating holidays with her family, and taking free dance classes at the Henry Street Settlement. But she was always aware of things that weren’t fair—whether it was that women couldn’t vote, or how girls were treated in her school, or that her parents had had to leave Europe because they were Jewish. When she grew up, Sarah changed her name to Sydney and became an actress and a dancer, but she never forgot the importance of fighting unfairness, whether it was anti-Semitism at her job or the low wages of workers. And when her daughter complained that it wasn’t fair that there were no books about Jewish children like her, Sydney put pen to paper and wrote a one-of-a-kind children’s book.

Take a look back at Richard Michelson’s 2010 Cynsations interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith on the joys and challenges of writing nonfiction picture books.

Author Interview: Richard Michelson on Busing Brewster

by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Richard Michelson is a poet and children’s book author.

His poetry has appeared in many anthologies, including The Norton Introduction to Poetry (W.W. Norton). Clemson University named Michelson the R. J. Calhoun Distinguished Reader in American Literature for 2008, and new work has recently appeared in The Harvard Review.

Michelson’s books for children have received many honors including the Sydney Taylor Gold Medal from the Association of Jewish Libraries. He has received two Skipping Stones Multicultural Book Awards, and had his work listed on Publishers Weekly’s Ten Best Picture Book List. He has been a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award, and twice for the National Jewish Book Award.

Tell us about your new picture book, Busing Brewster, illustrated by R.G. Roth (Knopf, 2010).

Most of the time I drive my agent crazy. “Why won’t you at least try to write a best seller,” he complains. “Maybe a funny story about your dog. Or cute zombie bunnies from outer space.”

But here I am again, writing about racial politics for the picture book set.

Busing Brewster is based on the story of many young African-American children in the 1970s, who were bused to previously-segregated all white schools.


How did the original idea arrive on your doorstep?

Like all my ideas, I stole it from elsewhere.

Tuttle’s Red Barn: The Story of America’s Oldest Family Farm, illustrated by Mary Azarian (Putnam, 2007) was based on an article I read in the Wall Street Journal about America’s Oldest Family Farm.

As Good As Anybody came about when I happened upon the historic photograph of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, arms linked, marching together for civil rights.

To me, originality is beside the point. My excitement comes from hard labor of putting words together in an interesting order, and making a story, or a life-story, come to life.

In this case, I read an article about a child who had been bused from his home in Roxbury, a predominantly African American section of Boston, to the Irish American enclave of Charlestown. He had become a successful politician, and attributed much of his good fortune to the opportunities busing had afforded him, yet he insisted that his triumphs were not worth the trauma he had suffered as a child.

I was curious about the ways we use our children as pawns in our social experiments, however well intentioned. And I wondered how the failed experiment of forced busing affected other children. When I am curious about something, I assume others might be curious, too. There might even be a book in it. So I started researching the subject.

Why tackle this topic in a picture book for young readers?

Because that is how you build a society’s foundation. You start with the children and work your way up. School kids are dealing with the issues of friendship, and the moral complications of wanting to speak out for what is right, and still fit in with the majority.

I try to tap into their issues and give a larger historical context for the things they are already thinking about.

Plus, I am a poet, not a scholar, and picture books allow me to focus on rhythms and individual words.

Can you tell us about your research process?

I love research! It is both fun and the greatest of all avoidance techniques because it allows me to convince myself that I’m not really avoiding the work that needs to be done.

For Brewster, I read voluminously about busing issues in every state and every school. I read contemporary accounts, and reminiscences, both pro and con. I read school committee reports. I read old newspapers. I made notes and more notes.

Then, finally, my long legacy of Jewish guilt kicked in, and I knew it was time to abandon my research and start Brewster’s particular story.

What was the hardest part of writing Busing Brewster?

The hardest part of every manuscript for me is leaving out what I’ve learned. After spending months researching a life or a subject, I want everyone who reads my book to know how smart I am. I want to put in cool facts even at the expense of the story’s flow. So I put in everything even as I know I’m going to have to take it out again.

How do you make history accessible for the intended audience and more importantly, relevant to today’s children, and most importantly, fun to read?

That’s easily answered–though not easily done. You do it be crafting an exciting story. Story is how we communicate, and how we remember. It is how we pass down our culture.

Ask any kid, “What did you do today?” and unless they are being sarcastic, they don’t say: I woke up; I brushed my teeth; I combed my hair. They use literary techniques to make their day interesting and memorable.

If we are going to communicate history in a picture book, you need a poet’s wordplay and a fiction writers tools; narrative, description, plot, tension.

Brewster is a story about leaving home and having to make new friends. It is a story about how to deal with bullies and the prejudices of others. These are issues relevant to every child’s life today, as they were relevant to Brewster and Bryan and freckle-face.

It is also the story about the difference that a teacher or librarian or parent can make in a child’s life.

The historical fact of busing and segregation is my background story, and something children will come to understand as they re-read the book, or encounter the subject in other texts.

A number of your books deal with racial issues. Your book Happy Feet: The Savoy Ballroom, Lindy Hoppers and Me, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Harcourt, 2005) is about the Savoy Ballroom, the first integrated dance hall where, inside the doors, “ain’t nobody better than nobody! Salt and pepper-equals! Cats and chicks-equals! Everybody just coming to dance.”

Across the Alley, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Putnam, 2006), is about a Jewish boy and a black child whose parents do not allow them to play together. But their bedroom windows face each other’s, and they become best friends at night. Their challenge is whether they’ll find the courage to bring their friendship into the daylight.

As Good As Anybody is about the friendship of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, as they try to change society together.

What in your background leads you to this sort of a subject?

When I was born East New York, Brooklyn was 90% Jewish. A short 12 years later, less than 10 percent of those living in the neighborhood were Jews. I grew up thinking blacks and Jews were best friends with a common economic enemy. But I was also comfortable with racial stereotyping, and as I grew older, I understood the tensions and the anger brewing on both sides.

The subject of how we negotiate our differences and heal our wounds interests me in a way that zombie bunnies from outer space do not.

Cynsational Notes

Richard Michelson’s many books for children, teens and adults have been listed among the Ten Best of the Year by The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and The New Yorker; and among the best Dozen of the Decade by He has received a National Jewish Book Award and two Sydney Taylor Gold Medals (and two Silver) from the Association of Jewish Libraries.

Other credits include two Massachusetts Book Award Honors, three Skipping Stones Multicultural Book Awards, a National Network of Teachers of the Year Social Justice Award, two Junior Library Guild Gold Medals, a Harlem Book Fest Phillis Wheatley Honor, a National Parenting Publication Gold Medal and an International Reading Association Teacher’s Choice Award.

In addition to being an author, Michelson is a popular guest speaker. He has traveled throughout the world talking to children and teachers about his love of poetry and social justice. Michelson represented the US at the Bratislava Biennial in Slovakia, and he is the founder and owner of R. Michelson Galleries.

Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee citizen) is an acclaimed, NYTimes bestselling author, the 2024 Southern Mississippi Medallion Winner, and the 2021 NSK Neustadt Laureate. Reading Rockets named her to its list of 100 Children’s Authors and Illustrators Everyone Should Know. Her titles include Hearts Unbroken, winner of an American Indian Youth Literature Award; the anthology Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories For Kids, which was an ALA Notable Book and winner of the Reading of the West Book Award; an Indigenous Peter Pan retelling titled Sisters Of The Neversea, which received six starred reviews; and the YA ghost mystery Harvest House, which is one of five Bram Stoker Award® Nominees for Superior Achievement in a Young Adult Novel.

Her 2024 middle grade releases are Mission One: The Vice Principal Problem (Blue Stars #1), a Junior Library Guild selection, also by Kekla Magoon and Molly Murakami and a road-trip novel titled On A Wing And A Tear. Cynthia is also the author-curator of Heartdrum, a Native-focused imprint of HarperCollins and was the inaugural Katherine Paterson Chair at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program.