Guest Post: Susanna Reich & Gary Golio on Social Justice, Music & Picture Book Biographies

Susanna Reich and Gary Golio, photo by Laura Golio
By Susanna Reich and Gary Golio
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

From intern Gayleen Rabakukk

The power of music to inspire action is explored in two non-fiction picture books out this month: Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seger, Folk Music and the Path to Justice by Susanna Reich, illustrated by Adam Gustavson (Bloomsbury, March 2017) and Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio, illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb (Millbrook Press, March 2017).

Husband and wife authors Susanna Reich and Gary Golio interviewed each other about the songs and inspiration behind their new books. 

Gary: Why a book about Pete?

Susanna: Pete Seeger had long been on my list of possible subjects when my agent connected me with Mary Kate Castellani, an editor at Bloomsbury. Her enthusiasm for Pete fired me up, and soon I was burning through every book I could find by and about him.

The fun of researching a musician, of course, lies in the perfect excuse it gives you to watch music videos on YouTube when you’re supposedly “working.”

Susanna: Where did you get the idea to write about the song “Strange Fruit”?

Gary: In this case, I was fascinated by the story of how three people–the songwriter (Abel Meeropol), the singer (Billie Holiday), and the club owner (Barney Josephson)–each played their part in bringing a unique work of art–the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit”–to the world.

Collaboration is often overlooked in the process of artmaking, yet the debut of this remarkable song depended completely on a combination of talents and resources.

Gary: Reading your book, it’s clear that you felt a strong personal connection to Pete, his music, and the work he did. Did you ever see or hear him in person?

Susanna: If you grew up in the Hudson Valley in the mid-20th century, it would have been hard not to hear Pete sing. He was constantly performing at local libraries, summer camps, waterfront festivals and political rallies.

I always knew that he and I had in common a love of the Hudson River, and that we both came from musical families with left-leaning politics.

As I did my research, my appreciation for him really grew. He was fierce and uncompromising in his dedication to the causes he believed in and had an amazing gift for bringing people together and lifting them up with music.

Susanna: So what’s your personal connection to Billie, Abel, Barney, and the song they brought into the world? By way of collaboration: how do you find a balance as an author between expressing your own vision and working with an illustrator and editor to make a picture book?

Also by Charlotte

Gary: Fortunately for me, the process of creating a book thwarts my natural If I Were King impulse, and the books are all the better for it. You have to become part of an orchestra.

Fortunately, I’ve also had great editors (like Carol Hinz) and illustrators (like Charlotte Riley-Webb), who aren’t afraid of bold subjects.

As for my connection with Abel, Billie, and Barney, I’ve always considered myself an outsider, and there’s nothing that irks me more than injustice directed against a group of innocent people. The good news is that something like a song can address injustice, and even catalyze social change.

Gary: So Pete was a pretty self-effacing guy – what do you think he’d make of your book, and being the heroic subject of a bio for kids?

Susanna: I think he would’ve been okay with it, since the point of the book isn’t to turn him into a hero but to show how he used music in pursuit of social justice.

He played a role in the great social movements of the 20th century–speaking out for unions and civil rights, opposing McCarthyism and the Vietnam War, advocating for the environment and an end to nuclear arms. This is history that kids need to know, and understanding how he combined art and politics is important and timely.

Susanna: Your book shows the intersection of art and politics too. What do you hope kids will take away from it?

Gary: That people need each other to make something bigger than themselves.

Look at Charlotte Riley-Webb’s images for the book–I truly believe that Billie would be immensely gratified to see a woman artist promoting the message of “Strange Fruit” with brushes and paint. Art is storytelling, and Charlotte’s work speaks to our time, both as Art and Politics.

Illustration by Charlotte Riley-Webb from Strange Fruit

Susanna: Speaking of art, I especially appreciate illustrator Adam Gustavson’s attention to period detail in Stand Up and Sing!, and his brilliant idea to create a background texture reminiscent of a calfskin banjo head.

His exquisite paintings really enhance the emotional impact of the text and make a beautiful music all their own.

Illustration by Adam Gustavson from Stand Up and Sing!

Cynsational Notes

Susanna Reich has been writing books for children since 1994. Her first book, Clara Schumann: Piano Virtuoso (Clarion, 1999) won an Orbis Pictus Honor, was an ALA Notable and Best Book for Young Adults and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. She’s also written biographies of dancer Jose Limon, artist George Catlin and the Beatles, as well as two MG novels. Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat, illustrated by Amy Bates (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2012) was named a CCBC Choices Best Book of the Year and received critical acclaim. Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music and the Path to Justice has been named a Junior Library Guild selection.

Gary Golio gravitates to musical subjects for his picture book biographies. His first book, Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow, A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix, illustrated by Javaka Steptoe (Clarion, 2010) became a New York Times Bestseller and was named to the Kirkus Reviews Best Children’s Books for the Year. His other titles include When Bob Met Woody: The Story of the Young Bob Dylan, illustrated by Marc Burckhardt (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2011), Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez (Clarion, 2012) and Bird and Diz: Two Friends Create Bebop, illustrated by Ed Young (Candlewick, 2015), named an ALA Notable book and Junior Library Guild Selection. Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song received a starred review from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.

Author Videos: Angie Thomas on The Hate U Give

Compiled by Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Check out these videos from debut author Angie Thomas on The Hate U Give (Balzer + Bray/Harper Collins, 2017). Peek: “I was inspired to write the novel in 2010, right after the Oscar Grant case…I wanted a way to find hope and I wanted to show the human side of all these cases. I look at books as being a form of activism because a lot of times, they show us a side of the world that we may not have known about.”

Cynsational Notes

The Hate U Give received a starred review from Kirkus. Peek: “Thomas cuts to the heart of the matter for Starr and for so many like her, laying bare the systemic racism that undergirds her world, and she does so honestly and inescapably, balancing heartbreak and humor.” It’s also received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist and School Library Journal.

Discussion Guide is available for teachers.


Angie Thomas was born, raised, and still resides in Jackson, Mississippi. She is a former teen rapper whose greatest accomplishment was an article about her in Right-On Magazine. She holds a BFA in Creative Writing from Belhaven University. The Hate U Give is her first YA novel.

Author Interview: Cynthia Levinson on The Youngest Marcher

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Cynthia Levinson‘s most recent book has a direct correlation to one of her previous titles. I talked with her recently about writing her first picture book, social justice and biscuits.

Tell us about the process of transforming We’ve Got A Job into a picture book.

You’re right—The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton (Atheneum, 2017) evolved out of We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree Publishers, 2012).

When my agent, Erin Murphy, called to tell me about interest in the book proposal I’d written on this remarkable event, she said there were two offers—one for a picture book and the other for a middle grade. What did I want to do?

My instincts told me the story needed multiple perspectives, and I opted for a book for 10 to 14 year olds.

The idea for a picture book, though, never went away. But, how could I reduce a 176-page volume about four children who protested segregation, a vicious police chief who aimed fire hoses and snarling dogs at them and 3000 others and then sent them to jail down to a 40-page illustrated book for six- to ten-year-olds? What could I leave out? What could I leave in?

One of those four children was only nine years old. With a protagonist the same age as my readership, Audrey Faye Hendricks instantly became the “main character.” So, her experiences drove the story. She didn’t know that Martin Luther King spent time in solitary confinement. She knew him as her parents’ friend Mike, who came for dinner and wolfed down her momma’s Hot Rolls Baptized in Butter. So, the famous Letter from Birmingham Jail got chucked, and the rolls stayed.

This also meant that Audrey’s voice had to narrate. She and her momma “coo-ooked!” At church meetings, she “sang and swayed…her voice spirited and spiritual.” Marching to protest, she knew she was going “to j-a-a-il!”

Also, just about everything had to come in the traditional picture-book threes. “Front-row seats, cool water, elevators with white-gloved operators—laws said those were for white folks.”

But, can you send a nine-year-old to jail in a picture book?

Yes. Because Audrey was actually sentenced to jail—for a whole week. She was even threatened with solitary herself.

Yet, kids instinctively know that nine-year-olds triumph. And that’s what really makes this a book for them.

The timing of this book couldn’t be more perfect – millions of people have been out marching for a cause recently. How did you manage that?

Well, of course, I didn’t! Timing is pretty much out of the control of authors and illustrators. And this book was no exception.

The Youngest Marcher was originally slated to publish in January 2015. But, Vanessa Brantley Newton is, for good reasons, a hugely popular artist. After she agreed to take on this book, she received offers to illustrate several others, which took precedence. So, ours was delayed twice, for a year both times.

I admit I was a little grumpy! This was my first picture book, and I couldn’t wait to see how she was going to bring Audrey to life. But, you’re right again—the timing could not be more fortuitous. The book came out at exactly the right time, though in a way no one could predict.

Our country is bitterly divided—nearly in half—over what our government should and should not do, over who is president and how we pick her or him, over immigration, race relations, possible terrorism, and much more. Protests since the president was inaugurated in January have been larger and more persistent even than ones I remember from the civil rights period and the anti-Vietnam War era.

Audrey not only inspires people to raise their voices—she inspired me to go to Washington, DC for the Women’s March!—she also gives them hope that protest works.

On some level, your books all have a social justice tie-in. When you started writing for children, did you see yourself as a social justice writer? 

Yes, they do all relate to social justice. But, no, I didn’t intend that to be the case. In fact, when the first book, We’ve Got a Job, came out, I didn’t know if I’d ever write or publish another book. But, I should have guessed that, if there was one, it would somehow be related.

The second book was Watch Out for Flying Kids! How Two Circuses, Two Countries, and Nine Kids Confront Conflict and Build Community (Peachtree Publishers, 2015).

It’s about social justice through circus arts. Basically, youth circus programs bring together kids who would not otherwise meet—and, in fact, if they did, they might well be enemies—and have them perform such dangerous tricks that they have to support each other!

In this case, the kids I highlight are Jewish Hebrew-speakers and Muslim Arabic-speakers in Israel (including a hijab-wearing contortionist!) as well as white, black, poor, and wealthy Americans in St. Louis. Some are even gang members, and there’s an uncanny connection between them and tribes and clans in the Middle East.

It’s undoubtedly my most diverse book.

But, remarkably, the kids all get along so well that, while I was writing it, I was concerned that there wouldn’t be enough conflict to keep readers interested! For better or worse, there were tiffs, accidents, crime, and derring-do to make things lively.

Many people might disagree but my biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton, subtitled, Do All the Good You Can, (Balzer + Bray, 2016) focuses on her Methodist drive to do good in the world. I think that’s literally what has made her run.

Of course, the book also looks into her mistakes, including those that set the country back, such as the healthcare debacle. But, she truly cares about young people and families.


The next book, too—as yet untitled—could be said to have a similar slant. At the suggestion of my Peachtree editor, I’m co-writing it with my husband, Sandy, and it’s on the problems with the U.S. Constitution.

He has written for many years—and convinced me—that the Constitution is the source of many injustices in the country. One of our examples is the Senate, which gives every state, regardless of its size, two senators; as a result, small states and their needs outweigh large states in Congress. Another of our examples is the Electoral College, which is also affected by the two-senators-per-state arrangement.

The book after that? Who knows?!


Cynsational Notes:

Kirkus called The Youngest Marcher “a vivid reminder that it took a community to fight segregation and the community responded.” Simon & Schuster produced a  Common Core curriculum guide prepared by Myra Zarnowski, and Alyson Beecher and Michele Knott developed a classroom discussion guide.

Vanessa Brantley Newton recently did a live illustration for the New York Times and talked about Audrey with Maria Russo, children’s book editor, as she drew.

The launch party for The Youngest Marcher included making protest signs and singing protest songs. Several Austin children’s authors and their families helped celebrate the event.

Shelley Ann Jackson and Jeff Crosby assisted with sign making. Harper and her classmates
shared what they learned from a recent school visit as part of Cynthia’s presentation. 

Christina Soontornvat and her family made signs too.
Cory Putman Oakes and her daughter make a sign.

Guest Post: Tamara Ellis Smith on Another Kind of Hurricane

By Tamara Ellis Smith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Space. Not up, as in the final frontier, but between, as in the distance between you and me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that kind of space lately, and I’ve been especially curious about what can happen inside of it. What I’ve come to believe is that anything can happen—and everything.

I learned this through the process of writing my debut middle grade novel, Another Kind of Hurricane (Schwartz & Wade.) And I am hoping to nurture this through the Another Kind of Hurricane Project, a community service/creative connection project I am offering schools, classrooms, teachers and students.

Space in Another Kind of Hurricane

“Who will get my pair of pants?” my four-year-old son, Luc, asked me.

It was late August 2005, in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina, and we were dropping off food and clothing at our local police barracks.

Luc’s question was a good one. A great one, actually.

It is just under one thousand six hundred miles from where we live in Vermont to New Orleans. That’s a lot of space. But at the other side there was a four-year-old kid who would soon be wearing Luc’s green pants with the moose on them.

Lucaiah’s question connected the two boys. His question—his curiosity about this other kid—made that space become vibrant and alive; filled it with potential…for interaction, for transformation, for growth.

Who will get my pair of pants?

With Isaiah and the marbles he made at a workshop in New Orleans

I couldn’t get the question out of my head. So I stumbled my way through the process of learning how to write a novel, this novel – a story that became about a ten-year-old boy named Henry, who lives in Vermont and whose friend dies in a mountain accident, and another ten-year-old boy named Zavion, who lives in New Orleans, and whose house is destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, and the strange, almost magical, way their lives become entwined.

I kind of frantically wrote the novel. Hurricane-style. Fast and furious – ideas whipping around me like wind; words pouring down onto the page in buckets.

I finally finished what I thought was the final draft of Another Kind of Hurricane in 2007. I found my agent in 2008. We sent the novel out that fall, and by the end of 2009…

I had a lot of rejections. I was, I’m going to say it, flooded with them. Something was missing from the story.

In August 2011, almost exactly six years after Hurricane Katrina, Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont.

Hard.

It literally hit the block I live on. The river we live right by flooded its banks and water poured onto our street from two sides. Water reached the stop sign at the entrance to the block. Sheep and pigs from the farm at the other end of the block had to be rescued in kayaks. Our houses flooded. The basement of my house flooded, destroying our water heater and a pellet stove. We lost our kids’ artwork, bins of clothing, and some of my manuscript among other things.

We were extremely lucky—no one was hurt. And I know that what we experienced was only the smallest fraction of what folks went through in New Orleans. But still, living through Irene touched me deeply. But not only in the ways you might expect.

At one point during the process of hauling stuff from our basement, someone gave me a box. I was standing by the dumpster deciding what could be salvaged and what had to be thrown away. (Most everything had to be thrown away.)

I opened the box. It was filled with photographs. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these, I’m talking about 35mm, developed film, no saving them on your phone, no posting them on Facebook! A picture of my siblings and me at my wedding, a picture of my sister the first time she made Luc laugh, a picture of a camping trip with friends. The photos were soaking wet and covered in mud. I knew there were dozens of similar boxes, still in the basement. I knew I had to throw them all away. But I couldn’t do it. Not yet. So I went back to filling the dumpster. Hours later, as the sun was setting, I took a break and walked to the lawn at the side of my house.

What I saw took my breath away.

People I didn’t know—were saving all of my photos. Someone meticulously peeled them apart, someone rinsed them in a shallow bin of water, and someone hung them on a clothesline to dry.

It was one of those moments that shines a light. Instead of quickly chucking that box of photos, I had accidentally left a space for these people. They became like Lucaiah, my son, asking a question:

What should we do with these photographs? And I became the kid who got the moose pants. Without realizing it, I had allowed there to be that vibrant, full-of-potential space. A space, it turns out, spanning those amazing people and me.

And inside of that space, those people and I—we were forever changed; we became friends.

And all of a sudden I knew. This was the something missing from my novel. Space.

One thousand six hundred miles between Vermont and New Orleans. A space just as far and, it turns out, just as close as between those people and me.

Irene had soaked me with a giant reminder about the power of that kind of space. It’s a little like the eye of a hurricane, perhaps. That lull in the middle of the storm. But not really. It’s less like an eye and more like a heart. A place that quietly beats with life. Or two hearts, really. The magic of space, for me, is the landscape—or maybe people-scape—where the alchemy of one person connecting with another unfolds.

And now I had to create that – and trust that – as I headed into yet another draft of Another Kind of Hurricane.

Jeanette Winterson said in her book of short stories: In the space between chaos and shape, there was another chance.

After my experience with Irene, I revised my novel more slowly. I took that one thousand six hundred mile journey step by step. Page by page. Person by person.

What did that look like in my life? I spent less time furiously writing and more time watching, walking, talking with people. I was more curious and vulnerable, braver about hanging out with not knowing, braver about letting whatever knowing might come, come organically. It looked like sitting at my friend’s kitchen table drinking coffee and telling Henry and Zavion’s story. It looked like running on the river trail with my dog before the sun came up not thinking about Henry and Zavion at all. It looked like honoring that vibrant and alive space.

Sometimes it wasn’t easy – just ask my friends how fun I was to be with sometimes!—but it faithfully continued, like that photograph saving experience, to take my breath away. And to offer epiphanies and spark creativity and teach me what I believe in.

What did that look like in my novel? I cut a lot of words. I am what my editor would call an emotional maximalist! I know, this might be shocking to you. She’s an emotional minimalist, by the way, so we’re a good team! This left more room for my readers to bring their own experiences and ideas to the story.

It looked like rearranging the timeline of the story, allowing Henry and Zavion to make wrong choices and take missteps. It looked like Henry being an animal fact fanatic, allowing him to feel something other than guilt, and Zavion finally remembering breaking his mother’s coffee cup because of a sensory trigger, the bell-sound of a bracelet. It looked like these two very different boys from two very different places almost meeting, and then meeting. And creating comfort and hope and even healing there.

It isn’t always easy for them either, but in that space they are brave enough to be open to, they find reflections of themselves. They find connection. They find friendship.

They find another chance in Another Kind of Hurricane.

Space in Another Kind of Hurricane Project

It is my deep desire to create this kind of space for kids across the country to nurture their own connections, friendships and chances.

Tamara’s sons: Jafeth (age 4) and Lucaiah (age 14)

The Another Kind of Hurricane (AKOH) Project (created with Kirsten Cappy and Curious City) empowers classrooms to reach out to schools in need. In Another Kind of Hurricane (Random House), two boys from opposite ends of the country make a connection through a pair of donated blue jeans—a pair of jeans with a marble in the pocket.

The AKOH Project encourages classrooms and schools to identify a school in need, hold a blue jean drive and slip letters and items into the pockets of those jeans. We know that reading fiction builds empathy, and we know that children can feel powerless when disaster strikes in other parts of the world. The AKOH Project hopes to turn empathy into the power to build connections between communities.

Cynsational Notes

Tamara Ellis Smith writes middle grade fiction and picture books. She graduated in 2007 from Vermont College of Fine Art’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Tam’s debut middle grade novel, Another Kind of Hurricane was released by Schwartz & Wade/Random House in July 2015. She is represented by Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency

Video: Linda Sue Park on “Can a Children’s Book Change the World?”

From Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

“Can books help make readers better human beings?

“[Children’s author] Linda Sue Park talks about how books provide practice at responding to the unfairness in life, and how empathy for a book’s characters can lead to engagement in ways that have significant impact in the real world.

“Linda Sue Park is the author of many books for young readers, including A Single Shard (Clarion, 2001), winner of the 2002 Newbery Medal, and A Long Walk to Water (Clarion, 2010), on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years. She has traveled to 46 states and 16 countries to talk to audiences of all ages about books, reading, and writing.”

Guest Post & Giveaway: Lyn Miller-Lachmann on Presenting Contested Histories in Fiction

Dana on Writing from the Marrow

By Lyn Miller-Lachmann
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Last spring I interviewed Dana Walrath about her debut YA novel Like Water on Stone (Delacorte, 2014), a story of the Armenian genocide told from the perspective of three child survivors and an eagle that observes all.

The comments that I received on my review of this novel revealed that this is still a contested history, especially among some Turkish Muslims who continue to deny the genocide.

My own novel Surviving Santiago (Running Press, 2015) addresses a contested history as well, that of the Pinochet regime in Chile. By the time the Chilean people voted General Pinochet out in a 1988 plebiscite, he’d been favored to win, his name had become synonymous worldwide with assassination, torture, and censorship.

Yet nearly ten years after his death, many Chileans continue to see the seventeen years of his rule as a time of stability and prosperity. They see the human rights violations as a necessary cost of a radical economic restructuring that has made Chile a prosperous nation. My husband’s uncle in Santiago happens to be one of those people.

Tina’s family has a different point of view. Pinochet’s forces imprisoned and tortured her father, a human rights activist and socialist, and left him disabled. But I could not write this novel without thoroughly researching and taking into account the other side.

Just as Like Water on Stone shows through the father’s musical trio that not all Turkish Muslims supported the genocide, Surviving Santiago offers a character, Tina’s aunt, who appreciates the country’s economic growth under the dictatorship while condemning oppression in all its forms.

Cynsational Giveaway

Moonbeam Award Gold Medalist

Enter to win one of two signed copies of Surviving Santiago (Running Press, 2015). From the promotional copy: 

To sixteen-year-old Tina Aguilar, love is the center of her world with its warmth and ability to make a place into a home. Thus, Tina is less than thrilled to return to her birthplace of Santiago, Chile, for the first time in eight years to visit her father, the man who betrayed her and her mother’s love through his political obsession and alcoholism. 

Tina is not surprised to find Papá physically disabled from his time as a political prisoner, but she is disappointed and confused by his constant avoidance of her company. So when Frankie, a mysterious, crush-worthy boy, shows interest in her, Tina does not hesitate to embrace his affection.


However, Frankie’s reason for being in Tina’s neighborhood is far from incidental or innocent, and the web of deception surrounding Tina begins to spin out of control. Tina’s heart is already in turmoil, but adding her and her family’s survival into the mix brings her to the edge of truth and discovery.


Romance and intrigue intertwine in Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s coming-of-age story set amidst the tense anticipation at the end of the Pinochet regime in 1989. Fans of Gringolandia will recognize the Aguilar family as they continue their story of survival and redemption.

Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only.

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