Interview: Children’s-YA Author Sara Jane Boyers

Sara Jane BoyersSara Jane Boyers is a former music lawyer and personal manager of performers and now an author living in California with a lot of animals, two teens and one husband.

Her books include a series of illustrated books on contemporary art and poetry, including LIFE DOESN’T FRIGHTEN ME with poetry by Maya Angelou and the paintings of Jean Michel Basquiat (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1996), and O BEAUTIFUL FOR SPACIOUS SKIES, marrying the whimsical paintings of Wayne Thiebaud and the hymn, “America the Beautiful”, by Katharine Lee Bates.

She has also published teen book on civic and political activism, TEEN POWER POLITICS: MAKE YOURSELF HEARD (Sagebush, 2000). This interview was conducted via email in September 2000.

Your newest title is TEEN POWER POLITICS: MAKE YOURSELF HEARD. Why do you think this topic is important to YA readers today?

YA readers are curious, interested and the issues that they read about in YA fiction are true-to-life issues with which they must deal everyday.

Some of those concerns are ones that they might wish to help change. I wanted to give young people the incentive and help them to understand the power that they, as a generation, have in giving voice in how they choose to live.

What were the challenges in writing this book?

Catchup! Catchup! Catchup! Writing a topical non-fiction book is an exercise in trying to stay current. Especially for YA readers, the social and political issues affecting them change everyday, not to mention that political news of the day is forgotten tomorrow. What I tried to do: find issues and examples that were provocative enough to motivate readers to sit up and say, “Hey! Perhaps I should get involved in helping make change about something that concerns me.” I needed to create tools – from history, media literacy to suggestions for further research – so that readers could move knowledgeably into activism.

What made the project especially important to you?

Teen Power Politics by Sara Jane BoyersI am a great believer in the strength of our unique democratic system and the recipient of its benefits, the freedom to read and express ourselves one of the most treasured. But more and more these days, I have become concerned about where we are going. Critical thinking and debate are becoming relics. Less and less people seem involved in our more overall concerns. I have children myself — teens now — and I became concerned for their future and then, after even preliminary research as I started thinking about this project, I began to understand that we are indeed in danger of losing our democracy — frighteningly stated even last year by the National Association of Secretaries of State. The issues raised by this project should be known and important to all of us.

What first inspired you to take it on?

The low voting rate after a recent election and, my son’s — then a pre-teen — response to it. He had not only taken on my views, as so many children do at least at first reflect their parent’s political beliefs, but he was curious and interested in the outcome. My response to him had to do with the cyclical nature of government and how it was reflective of our citizen voice but…. then that particular election was not truly representative inasmuch as less than 50% of the voting age population had voted and the numbers of 18-24 year olds were even more dismal.

I wanted to make change and re-engage ourselves and I felt it could be best done for those who are still energetic, persistent and passionate.

And the book isn’t only about voting! Remember it strongly encourages and gives ideas for civic involvement although I emphasize throughout that one must go with the other. Too many today feel satisfied that they are working for their community, for their country, when they volunteer but don’t vote when they are able or help encourage others to vote if they cannot.

Has there been a resurgence in political activism among young people?

Absolutely … and let’s hope it translates into a vote this year and beyond! Last year’s WTO demonstrations and their counterparts this year, youth at the presidential conventions show an active young citizenry out there. There are also reports that today’s youth is the most service-oriented ever! The questions will be how to focus youth — how they can focus themselves — and how to make them an effective force for positive change.

Do you see a lot of teen interest and/or involvement in the current election? Is so, how? And if not, why not?

Not enough. The issues of the presidential election are really not geared to youth concerns. In fact, great organizations like the Youth Vote 2000 coalition have been working hard all year to encourage the presidential candidates to listen to the voices of youth. Those who work with youth – middle, high school and college – and focus more on local elections, on more direct response, are extremely successful in bringing youth around to activism and politics. One only needs to define “politics” in everyday terms.

It’s a “catch 22” of course. If they did make even more noise — voting or other — in the election, then the politicians would listen to them and understand their power. Teens between the ages of 10 and 19 are almost 40 million strong right now! But, since politicians don’t listen, youth gets turned off. Somehow, someone has to make the first step. And, I have a feeling it’s going to be teens!!!

TEEN POWER POLITICS: MAKE YOURSELF HEARD has a lively, hip, graphically-intense format with cartoons, varied fonts, photographs, tables, pull-out quotes and more. Did you have any input into the design process? In either case, how do you like the way the book looks?

I am ecstatic over the book’s design! I am very visual and graphically oriented (my undergraduate degree was in Art History and my avocation is in design, photography and the arts). LIFE DOESN’T FRIGHTEN ME was one of only six children’s books to be included in the prestigious AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) annual awards for “Best Designed Books” and that design was based upon the fully designed mock-up I originally submitted to the publisher.

In order to write TEEN POWER POLITICS: MAKE YOURSELF HEARD, I put the initial draft manuscript into a Quark lay-out program and then wrote to the design by separating out the boxed information, placing the art where it worked with the text and ultimately submitted the manuscript in this very rough design to Millbrook, my publisher. I chose art which had editorial impact, especially the cartoons taken from the New Yorker and also from a great annual competition on student’s editorial cartoons, published by Zino Press.

We then used a terrific graphic designer, Joy Chu, whom I suggested to Millbrook after seeing her work. Joy took my paltry ideas and brought the true design elements to it. I had design consultation on the project, something important to me on all my books so far, and Dominic Barth, my editor, Joy and I worked well together to bring what I hope is an interesting, vital book to youth! Design is important for this age and I was more than aware that the politics is not a teen’s first choice of subject. It was essential to me that the information be written and presented in as interesting and exciting a manner as possible.

In the book, you highlight a number of real-life teens. How did you pick these young people? What about them as a group appealed to you? Can you offer a couple of examples?

What surprises most people is to learn that there are so many great teens out there making change that it was hard to select whom to use. I was interested in the issues my teens approached and I was interested in the teens themselves. I loved my interviews with them and the fact that they were not all “perfect” teens. Too often, I find that we showcase only the absolute best. And too often, that’s what we see in the media.

It can be discouraging for those who want to do something but know that they aren’t going to be the one to organize 100 people for change. I wanted teens who struggled, who not always met their full goal, whose lives weren’t always perfect. Our issues are real. Those who combat them are real also.

Were you a politically-active teen? Or, if not, what were you like as a young adult?

Here’s dating myself! I grew up in a politically active time — the 60s.

The music and literature of my time, as well as very real concerns like civil rights and Vietnam, engaged us and I was involved. We all were.

And my passions — art, literature, music and theater — have always been the subject of politics, whether because they are reflections of the society in which their creators lived or whether the product of creativity, especially the more “avant-garde,” can become too quickly the object of censorship, political statements itself.

I have always spoken to these issues. And…. I first wanted to be a journalist before I switched to pre-law.

Could you talk about about your own political life, its rewards and challenges?

With all this, I am truly not that political! Or, wait… I suppose that I am. But partisan politics is not really my thing and although I did belong to a powerful Hollywood women’s political group for years, I was more interested in hearing the speakers, educating myself, listening to all sides. If I am an advocate, I suppose (other than for youth!), I am a strong advocate for open debate and open ideas. I have problems with closed minds and don’t always come up with strong opinions quickly, if ever, inasmuch as I always seem to want to know more. Perhaps that’s the challenge — when do I stop?

Your book is non-partisan, meaning it doesn’t side with one party or another. Why did you decide to take this route? Did you ever consider framing the book from one side or another?

I never thought about bringing partisanship into the book. My goals were about reengagement in democracy and opening up the ways to get there.

And I tend to be a little naive in feeling that if we use media literacy skills, if we take the time to question, we’ll somehow move toward a better society. And most teen concerns are not partisan but more about control over their lives and righting wrongs. At many of the current demonstrations for the environment, animals, cultural preservation, etc. you’ll find youth of many political persuasions. Youth wants justice. Later on, they may start to see the various means and beliefs to achieve those ends. Now, their goals are very clear… one of their great assets!

One of your previous books, LIFE DOESN’T FRIGHTEN ME by Maya Angelou, illustrated by Jean Michel Basquiat, was a huge success. Could you talk about the role you played in the creation of this picture book and what inspired you to do this project?

I am very proud that I jump started almost too many books on art and poetry. LIFE was one of Publishers Weekly’s “Best Books of the Year”, on many reading lists and noted by both ALA and other wonderful organizations.

The issue always: no one, except my publisher, can figure out what I did in the process!

Here’s what I wanted to do. Inspired again by my children and worried in the early 90s that contemporary art, one of my passions, was getting a bad rap, I decided that I would create a series of books for children — a wonderful series using the art of major museum quality artists and a great poets to create a “new story”, as I always say in my school visits. And, that I would include in each book, biographical material (including a bibliography and museum listing where to see the artist’s work) about the artist and poet to encourage readers — child and adult — to go forward and explore further these two wonderful fine arts.

As with TEEN POWER POLITICS, I look for ways to inspire critical thinking — questions and their analysis and possible resolution. Art has an abstraction within it that opens that door full wide — as well as being something so incredibly beautiful.

So, I first chose the artist, Jean Michel-Basquiat, an artist whose work challenged me to make it the subject of a children’s book. I looked at image after image… collected lots of great art books! … and then, started searching for an exciting poem that I felt “conversed” with the art.

And find one I did! Maya Angelou’s wonderful l978 poem was sitting in an anthology and, the minute I read it, I knew this was it. I cut it up into lines and started throwing Basquiat’s images at it until I found the matches I wanted to make the book. I did an initial design, wrote the bios, and sent it off.

It’s been selling great ever since and, not surprisingly, has crossed to YA, and to adult. Everyone sees and feels something resonant in this book and that’s what art should be: expressive, individual, impactful.

What were the challenges?

Trying to make publishers understand that not every creator has to be well known. Basquiat was known to the art world, but he wasn’t Picasso.

One of my goals was, and is, to introduce new artists and shake up our assumptions about art. Children are the best receptors for this.

And of course, trying to find the perfect marriage between literature and art. Sometimes it’s easy. My favorite project came together over a weekend as I had somehow intuitively selected the artist’s favorite poet without even knowing! That is the magical, mystical sense of art!

Why do you think this picture book is such a hit?

Life Doesn't Frighten MeIt meets so many needs. Many have found it in doctor’s offices as Dr. Angelou’s strong poem, expressing the confidence of youth, is so reassuring. Others love the vibrant imagery of Basquiat and love the combination. It’s a vital book and still one of my favorites. Even the “scary” (I don’t think they’re too bad and most elementary teachers love them!) images have been noted by psychologists as perfect for children as a way to visualize and get through their own fears. It just works!

 Can you tell us about any of your future projects?

I am definitely working on additional books for the art and poetry series.

I’ve done two, although O BEAUTIFUL FOR SPACIOUS SKIES is now out of print. I hope to have a new one out in a year or so!

As well, my work on TEEN POWER POLITICS and the many people and organizations met through this book have led me to want to work on more issue books for youth. I have started a project on juvenile justice.

Finally, I like memoir writing and am working on a personal project I will probably sell this year. I’ve been so busy on TPP that it’s been hard to do anything else until now!

People comment on my varied career from busy music lawyer, to “glamorous” (hah! – just you try being up and moving for a TV show at 4 am!) personal talent manager, to creator of illustrated children’s books on art and poetry to a writer on politics for youth. But I am recognizing a theme to all that I have done and the theme is about the opportunity for freedom and expression. It seems to permeate whatever I’ve worked on and I hope it continues.