Author Interview: Leda Schubert on Lyrics, a Music Legend & Listen: How Pete Seeger Got America Singing

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome Leda Schubert, author of Listen: How Pete Seeger Got America Singing, illustrated by Raúl Colón (Roaring Brook Press, June 13, 2017). From the promotional copy:

There was nobody like Pete Seeger.
Wherever he went, he got people singing. 
With his head thrown back
and his Adam’s apple bouncing,
picking his long-necked banjo
or strumming his twelve-string guitar,
Pete sang old songs,
new songs,
new words to old songs,
and songs he made up.

This tribute to legendary musician and activist Pete Seeger highlights major musical events in Mr. Seeger’s life as well important moments of his fight against social injustice. From singing sold-out concerts to courageously standing against the McCarthy-era finger-pointing, Pete Seeger’s life is celebrated in this bold book for young readers.

What was your initial inspiration for writing Listen?

I had no intention of writing about Pete–until that very sad morning when I found out he had died.

Nobody lives forever, but I hoped Pete would beat the odds. I couldn’t stop crying, and before I knew it, I had started a picture book about him. Writing as a way to understand and process sadness and loss? I should have known.

What were the challenges (literary, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

First, Pete lived such a long life. Second, he did enough to pack into 50 lifetimes. Third, was he really as flawless has he seemed? And more.

How could I find something fresh to say, deal with McCarthyism in a picture book, and craft it for a child audience? What compromises would I have to make, if any? What would I leave out? How can music be expressed in words?

Including the song titles is pretty brilliant. Was that how you envisioned it from the beginning, or did that evolve as you worked on the project?

Ha. I wanted to include the beginning two lines of 14 or 15 different songs. I very carefully chose
songs that would reflect each section.

For example, the text says “Pete and his good friend Woody Guthrie/…/they hopped freight trains…”

Here I wanted to include the lyrics to ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’: “Go to sleep you weary hobo/Let the towns drift slowly by.”

Or, another example: “Pete said, “I love my country very deeply,”/offered to sing a song,..”

Here I wanted to include the beginning of that song: “Wasn’t that a time, a time to try/The soul of man; wasn’t that a terrible time.”

I contacted the copyright holders early on, which began a year-long (!) discussion about getting the rights. Eventually, I received permission from the family, but then learned that the permissions would be prohibitively expensive.

Lesson: don’t try to incorporate song lyrics in your work. I realized we’d have to go with the song titles instead.

Also by Raúl Colón

From there, it was in the extremely capable hands of Neal Porter (the editor), Raúl Colón (the illustrator), and Jennifer Browne (the art director). They decided to use the blue font, which I think was a brilliant decision.

What sort of research did you do?

What sort didn’t I do?  I am a research addict, and I have become over time probably the world’s best researcher. I am a naturally modest if not completely self-effacing person, but I make this claim with confidence.

So the research I did was basically to read everything that had ever been written by or about Pete and to watch videos and listen to everything he sang (almost).

Fortunately, I already knew a whole lot about Pete’s life. The problem I have with research is stopping.

Did you ever meet Pete or see him perform in person?

I did not exactly meet him, but I did shake his hand on two occasions and tell him how much he meant to me. I mention this in the notes. I was also very fortunate to see him many, many times, in concert, at folk festivals, and on pickets lines and demonstrations.

What do you hope readers take away from Listen?

I hope young readers want to listen to Pete’s music, learn more about him, and change the world as Pete did. Or at least change where they live. Pete said, as I quote in the book, “If anybody asks you where in the world is the most important place,/ tell them, right where you are.”

And I hope knowing his story will lead readers to sing more, especially with others. There’s nothing like four part harmony rising to the rafters and drifting to the stars (apparently I now quote myself.).

Also, I hope that readers will go out and buy tons of copies of the book. Then everyone will know about Pete.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

Leda reading with mentee at local school

In my journal from when I was 16, I had two wishes (other than falling in love, losing weight, having lots of dogs, etc.): to write for children and to live in Vermont.

I achieved the Vermont part in my early twenties, but it took me about thirty more years to get to the writing part. In between, I was lucky enough to always work in some way or other with children and books.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

All the usual stuff: write, read, stay tuned in to the world.

Read your work aloud. Find a good writing group. Come to VCFA (Vermont College of Fine Arts, Writing for Children & Young Adults, low-residency MFA program).

But also this: read with children. Experiencing how children respond to your favorite books can be a mixed blessing, but worth it. And be a force for good in the universe!

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews gave Listen a starred review. Peek: “Schubert and Colón capture with affection and respect Seeger’s remarkable lifetime of speaking truth to power through music and engaging the hearts of his audiences. A biographical timeline includes a charming selection from a boyhood letter, contemplating a banjo purchase; the generous resource list includes source notes and recommended recordings.”

School Library Journal said “Schubert’s offering is ideal for shared reading. Verdict: Buy this book and sing your heart out!”

Horn Book Magazine described the “focus not on dry facts but on helping child readers understand his essential spirit” and “the text captures the singer’s unmistakable speaking cadence.”

Leda Schubert is the author of 10 picture books including Monsieur Marceau: Actor Without Words, Gerard DuBois (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press, 2012), which won the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction, and Ballet Of The Elephants, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker (Roaring Brook Press, 2006).

She has been a teacher, a school and public librarian, and a consultant for the Vermont Department of Education, and she holds an MFA from VCFA, where she was a core faculty member as well.

She lives in Plainfield, Vermont with her husband and two dogs, one of whom is a saint and the other a sinner.

Leda’s favorite Pete Seeger performance, with Bruce Springsteen, 
at President Obama’s “We Are One” pre-inauguration concert, Jan. 19, 2009. 

2017 Europolitan Con: Art Director Laurent Linn of Simon & Schuster

By Gabriela Nicole Gonzalez

Laurent Linn, Art Director for Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, began his career as a puppet designer/builder in Jim Henson’s Muppet Workshop, creating characters for various productions, including the Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island films. With Henson for over a decade, he worked primarily on Sesame Street, becoming the Creative Director for the Sesame Street Muppets, winning an Emmy Award.

Currently, at Simon & Schuster, Laurent art directs picture books, middle-grade, and teen novels, collaborating with illustrators and authors such as Tomie dePaola, Patricia Polacco, Bryan Collier, E. B. Lewis, Raúl Colón, Debbie Ohi, and Taeeun Yoo.

Laurent is on the Board of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and is Artistic Advisor for the annual Original Art exhibit at the Society of Illustrators in New York.

He is also an author: his debut illustrated teen novel is Draw the Line (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2016). 

Note: SCBWI Belgium Illustrator Coordinator Gabriela Nicole Gonzalez interviewed Laurent Linn. This is the fifth in a series of six articles about the upcoming SCBWI Europolitan Conference.

Laurent, can you share some of the many types of partnerships you’ve developed throughout your career?

Every aspect of what I’ve been involved in throughout my career has required partnering with others. I love creating characters and worlds, and in the ways I’ve done that (theater, TV, films, books, conferences) it’s always a collaboration, which makes it a richer experience.

With books, of course, the partnership I have with illustrators is essential and we’re able to bring our
individual expertise together for the best art for each particular book. I also work closely with editors, copyeditors, production people, and others at my publishing house to bring our books to life.

Laurent with Debbie Ridpath Ohi

And within the design group I work with, by sharing the projects we each design, we learn from each other and bounce off ideas – it’s essential to have a peer group to learn with (and have fun with!)

What is the importance of working together in the publishing journey for you?

We are creating stories and illustrated worlds that are bound in books and need to get out in the world and into readers’ hands. If we didn’t all work together, and respect the expertise and experience we each bring to the process, then we wouldn’t have any books at all. The very nature of making literature is a collaborative process, and it’s essential for us all to grow creatively and to make the best books possible.

I’m an author and illustrator myself, and without my writing group, agent, editor, designer, etc., my novel Draw The Line would never have seen the light of day (and wouldn’t be nearly as good.)

And, as an art director, working with illustrators is my joy, and helping solve artistic problems, encourage artists to grow, and directing the art to be the best it can be are the greatest things about collaboration.

I think many are curious to know how authors and illustrators work together and if there are any common challenges. Could you tell us a bit about what goes on behind the scenes?

Actually, authors and illustrators don’t work together.

There are a few rare instances where they do, of course, but the vast majority of picture books are created without the author and illustrator ever meeting, which is a good thing. Here’s why: a picture book is a shared vision, and we want to be sure that both the writer and illustrator each have the freedom to bring their own vision to the book.

After we acquire a manuscript, I usually give it to the illustrator hired for that book without any art notes at all (unless the book is nonfiction, in which case art notes can be very important.) We hire an illustrator for their unique talents and the way they would interpret the story on their own.

Understandably, an author feels ownership of the story, but an illustrator must also feel ownership and not be hindered in any way from bringing their magic to the book. I have heard countless authors’ reactions after seeing the illustrations for their books, and they are always amazed at how the illustrator brought a vision and ideas to the book that the author could never have dreamed.

What comes first, the words or pictures?

If the writer is one person in the illustrator another person, then the words come first. The manuscript of a picture book comes to our publishing house first either from the writer or their agent.

After an editor acquires a manuscript, it is brought to the art department where I will look for an illustrator for that particular book. However, if the author and illustrator are the same person, there is no rule. Some creators sketch the concepts first and others write them first. Everyone is unique!

Laurent with Tomie dePaola

What advice can you give to authors and illustrators trying to make it into the market? Are there any common mistakes people make?

Certainly, there is no resource better then SCBWI! The organization is not only fantastic for the connections and vast information, but also for being a part of our community and allowing us to learn from each other. Everyone is at a different point in their careers and there is much to learn from what others have experienced.

Along those lines, peer groups can be fantastic. Whether a writing group or an illustration group, working out your craft with others who are doing the same thing can really help us grow.

As for common mistakes, I would say that educating yourself about how both the business and creative sides work before submitting art samples or manuscripts can make all the difference. Not only will you be submitting your art or stories in the correct ways, but it will save you much time and energy as well.

How can authors and illustrators learn from one another?

This may seem obvious, but the absolute best way without a doubt is to read and look at books! 

I’ve learned more from other authors and illustrators myself by reading their books and pouring over their illustrations than any other way. Of course, conferences are also fantastic because you get to hear about different experiences and personal journeys.

Gabriela Nicole Gonzalez is an illustrator and graphic designer based in Brussels, Belgium. She earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the the Maryland Institute College of Art in Illustration and is currently pursuing a second degree in Advertising and Digital Design.

She writes and illustrates for children and serves as the illustrator coordinator for SCBWI Belgium.

When she’s not working her interests include traveling, learning languages and collecting illustrated chickens. Inspired by new faces and new places, she loves creating and ultimately living a life full of curiosity.