Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Q&A with Cori Doerrfeld

Cori Doerrfeld is the author and illustrator of the new picture book The Rabbit Listened. Her other books include Matilda in the Middle and Little Bunny Foo-Foo. She lives in Minneapolis.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Rabbit Listened?

A:The idea for The Rabbit Listened sprung from my own feelings of helplessness after two of my friends went through the heartbreaking experience of losing a child. My friends both expressed how frustrating it was that while many of the people in their lives wanted to help, nobody really knew what to say or do.

It reminded me of a letter I got back in high school from my boyfriend at the time. He too, had experienced losing a loved one. When he was only eight years old, his older brother was killed in a car accident. The letter talked about how difficult it was for him afterwards.

More than any of the people in his life, it was his pet rabbits who truly helped him through the grieving process. With their warm, calm presence, his rabbits offered him the quiet space he needed to hurt, think, and move through his pain. The rabbits simply listened.

The more I thought about these rabbits, the more I realized the perfect wisdom in how they were there for that little boy. That, combined with the desire to do something helpful for my friends, the idea for The Rabbit Listened was born.

Q: Did you work on the text first or the illustrations first (or both simultaneously)?

A: Typically my books start with a rough idea or an image that I can’t stop thinking about. How I start working on an idea varies. Sometimes I write out a quick draft, or notes first. Other times I sketch characters first. My house is often covered in random scraps of paper or post it notes that I have either written a phrase or sketched a quick doodle on.

Most of the time when I actually sit down to work on a new book idea, it is a simultaneous process where I switch between writing and sketching. I find that even if I am able to write an entire rough draft of text, it is so hard to tell if it has the right pacing or flow until I draw rough sketches for the art.

All of my books start out as a very rough combination of possible text and quick thumbnail sketches.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?

A: I feel like we are just waking up to the idea that children need more than an education in numbers and letters. I know far too many adults who have no clue what to do with difficult emotions or how to express empathy.

I hope this book helps kids learn what they can do when life doesn’t go as expected, or they see someone who is hurting. I
would love for them to feel confident that even if they weren’t sure what to say or do to help someone, they always have the power to listen.

I hope it starts conversations in houses, schools, and libraries about emotions in general and how you can’t “fix” someone in pain, but you can be there for them. Even the youngest child can take away the concept to “be like the rabbit.”

In turn, I also hope kids recognize that when they themselves feel alone or sad they can tell the people in their lives what they need.

Q: Who are some of your favorite children's picture book authors?

A: Authors I still love from childhood are William Steig, Maurice Sendak, and Leo Lionni. Today I am always adding to my list of favorites. I love Yasmeen Ismail, Ame Dyckman, Lauren Castillo, Elise Parsley, Matthew Cordell and Peter Brown…but could list forever!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished up a picture book that pays tribute to the wild ways of my daughter. When she was a toddler, I had to constantly chase her through countless environments, avoiding many near catastrophes, and receiving many disapproving looks from other parents.

My book recreates this experience with a mother and baby orangutan. The book ultimately celebrates the love and beauty chaos can lead to. It is called Wild Baby and is set to release in Spring 2019.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I just want to say that The Rabbit Listened has such a special place in my heart. I have been so humbled and honored to have its message read and shared by others.

Because of this book, I have even learned of a local group in Minnesota where I live called STEM Bunnies. It was started by a young boy and not only does the group protect and care for hundreds of misplaced rabbits, but they have therapy bunnies. These bunnies offer quiet, calm support to those in pain just like the pet rabbits from my letter.

STEM Bunnies and I are already discussing ways to work together to spread the message far and wide that help is out there, you are not alone, and someone will be there to listen.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 21

Feb. 21, 1907: W.H. Auden born.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Q&A with Renée Watson

Renée Watson is the author, with Ilyasah Shabazz, of Betty Before X, a new novel for kids about the childhood of civil rights activist and educator Betty Shabazz, the mother of Ilyasah Shabazz and wife of Malcolm X. Watson's other books include the award-winning young adult novel Piecing Me Together and the picture book Harlem's Little Blackbird. She lives in New York City.

Q: How did you and Ilyasah Shabazz end up collaborating on this book about the childhood of her mother, Betty Shabazz?

A: Ilyasah and her agent reached out to me and asked me if I’d like to be a part of the project. I was so honored to even be considered. The more I learned about Betty’s early life, the more I wanted to work with Ilyasah to tell Betty’s story.

Q: What sort of research did you need to do to write the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: There isn’t much written about Betty’s childhood, so most of my research was talking with Ilyasah and interviewing one of Betty’s sisters.

I also interviewed people who lived in Detroit in the 1940s. Listening to their stories really shaped the book and gave me insight into the daily life and experiences of people living in Detroit. I also relied on magazines, music, and advertisements from the 1940s to help me get a sense of what the culture was like in terms of style, popular music, and products people were using.

Q: The book is based on Betty Shabazz's life, but is fictionalized. What did you see as the right blend of history and fiction?

A: Every scene in the book is tied to a truth. For example, I don’t know if Betty actually saw a lynching but I do know that during her childhood, lynchings were happening in Georgia. It was my responsibility as a writer to tie in these larger truths of what was happening around Betty and paint a full picture of not only her personal life, but the circumstances she was living in.

Ilyasah and I were told Betty loved to dance and that she enjoyed baking cookies with her friends and looking through magazines. We really wanted to show Betty having fun and enjoying her childhood even though the backdrop is a nation divided and a city adjusting to life after the war.

Keeping all of this in mind, I tried to have a balance of giving historical context but always personalizing it and thinking about how the outside world impacts Betty’s internal world.

In terms of developing Betty as a character, as I listened to people describe how Betty was as an adult, I made a list of her character traits: generous, forgiving, never resentful, nurturer, loyal. It was my responsibility to find ways for these traits to resonate in the book.

I really believe the seeds planted in our childhoods bloom into our adulthood so I had to develop scenes that showed the early beginnings of the woman we know as an icon.

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from the book?

A: I hope readers finish the book knowing that activism can look many ways and that they can use their talents and time to make a difference and stand up for what they believe in.

In the book, we see Paul Robeson using music and speeches as a way to fight injustice, we see the Housewives League volunteering their time, educating their community and making demands to get policies changed.

There are many ways to be a leader and get involved at any age. I hope young readers realize that and take action in their own way.

I also hope that by reading Betty’s story, young readers are encouraged and know that even if there is great sadness and loss in their life, there can be hope and joy. Our hardships don’t have to limit us, or hold us back.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished co-writing a book with my good friend, and poet, Ellen Hagan. It’s called Write Like a Girl and is about two friends who start a feminist blog at their school that goes viral and causes their school community to rethink what it truly means to support girls and their voices. It will be out in 2019, published by Bloomsbury.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

Feb. 20

Feb. 20, 1935: Ellen Gilchrist born.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Q&A with Morra Aarons-Mele

Morra Aarons-Mele is the author of the new book Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert's Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You'd Rather Stay Home). She is the founder of the organization Women Online and hosts the Forbes podcast Hiding in the Bathroom. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Harvard Business Review and The Huffington Post. She lives in Boston.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Hiding in the Bathroom, and for the book's title?

A: Hiding in the Bathroom is both something I do on a regular basis, and also a way I describe an essential way we introverts take care of ourselves when our energy is getting drained!

Have you ever hidden in the bathroom at a professional event? If you’re an introvert or deal with anxiety, you probably have. 

Think of the last time you were at a professional conference. Did you walk into the huge crowd, panic at the number of strangers all around you, and go hide out in the ladies? In the middle of a demanding day or meeting, do you take five to just breathe in a quiet place? Have you ever gotten some rough news at work and had to cry it out in a toilet stall?

I think it’s also true that when you’re hiding in the bathroom you find a lot of kindred spirits.

The book offers a roadmap for people who are very ambitious but who might be introverts, have social anxiety, or simply need more control over the pace, place and space at which they work. I show readers ways to be super strategic about managing their time and energy.

Q: You write, "Most of what we think we must do to succeed is unnecessary and even counterproductive." What would you say are a few of the most common misperceptions about success?

A: The biggest misperception is that there’s only one path to success in business—be tireless, never stop. The Lean In model is prevalent right now. And the masculine perspective is “crush it,” winning all the time. In my interviews, that’s not sustainable, obviously.

Q: In the book, you discuss Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. How does her approach compare to your own?

A: I hate comparing myself to her—she’s such a massive phenomenon. I’m a huge admirer of hers.

Leaning In is about giving it all you’ve got all the time. I think of what she says to younger women: Don’t leave before you leave; if you’re thinking of changing your personal life, don’t let people at work think that’s your path. That’s great if that’s what you want. But if you want more flexibility, it’s okay to work less. Things aren’t binary.

Q: What role do you see social media playing in how people balance their lives today?

A: It’s both a blessing and a curse. If it weren’t for social media and the fact that many professional workers can get a lot done with just a laptop and a smartphone, people like me would still be stuck at a desk eight hours a day. So connectivity gives us tremendous flexibility.

Social media and the ability to create a powerful online professional brand also means that those of us who hate networking and schmoozing can do a lot less of it.

We can blog, create content and establish an online presence that attracts potential employers or clients, and this means less awkward networking in person. It allows us to use great creativity to establish what we stand for and why we are special.

Q: Do you see some social media as more helpful than others?

A: The difference I try to draw out is between personal and professional. For a lot of us, [the line is] blurry. But a lot of people who are introverts feel it’s almost an intrusion on their privacy…it’s so personal, it takes up so much time, and [you’re] looking at other feeds and thinking you’re less than that. Instagram is the worst culprit.

I love the written word. There’s something about the written form online—it’s more introvert-friendly but also professional. I tell people not to give up on social media, but to find the platform that’s right for you…

Q: What advice would you give people about overcoming their fears as an introvert, say about speaking in public?

A: A lot of introverts have no fear of public speaking. Introverts [can be] really good at getting out there, well prepared. They have a plan afterwards to take a break. You need to practice and have a strong intentionality.

If your face hurts from smiling too much or making small talk, that’s where hiding in the bathroom comes in. If you have social anxiety, it’s about practice and getting into your mission.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My business, Women Online, creates digital campaigns that mobilize women. We are proud members of the resistance and are lucky enough to work with many progressive organizations who are working to advance good change. Goodness knows there is a lot to be done!

I’m also having fun with my podcast, also called Hiding in the Bathroom. This season I’ve taken a deep dive into how patriarchy affects (infects?) every aspect of our lives. It’s been really interesting and eye opening. You can listen here.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Morra Aarons-Mele will be participating in the Temple Sinai Authors' Roundtable in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Feb. 24.

Feb. 19

Feb. 19, 1917: Carson McCullers born.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Q&A with Alexandra Zapruder

Alexandra Zapruder is the author most recently of the book Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film. Her grandfather was Abraham Zapruder, who took the famous film of the Kennedy assassination. She also has written Salvaged Pages: Young Writers' Diaries of the Holocaust. She has worked for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and with the group Facing History and Ourselves. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: You write, “As I worked, I struggled to reconcile the personal and historical imperative I felt to write this book with the worry that it would bring unintended and unwelcome consequences.” How did you balance those demands, and how did you balance your roles as family member and author as you were writing Twenty-Six Seconds?

A: The key word here is “worry.” I was worried about how my family would feel and I was worried about whether I’d be able to be honest and straightforward about all aspects of this history. 

This is because it was such a departure from the culture of our family, which emphasized discretion about the film above all else.

But when I really started working on the book and grappling with the material, I found that I wasn’t blowing the lid off of anything. In the end, this is a human story about people doing the best they could in difficult circumstances and about conflicts that arise from genuine disagreements about all sorts of important things.

As long as I focused on telling that story truthfully and with respect for all parties, I found that the fear faded away and what was left was the truly gratifying work of writing about these ideas.

Q: You note that your family really didn’t talk much about the film as you were growing up. What made you decide to write about it, and do you think writing the book changed any of your beliefs about the film?

A: I decided to write about the film because I realized in the aftermath of my father’s death that our family’s relationship to the film was a very significant one, and that this part of the film’s life had not been told, and that without it, the whole story of the film and its impact on American society and culture was incomplete.

Once I realized that, I felt it was important – and meaningful for me as a writer and a person – to really look at the film’s history in all its dimensions and try to understand its meaning, legacy, and significance not only for us as a family but for American society as a whole.

I’m not sure I could say that writing about the film changed my beliefs, because I really didn’t have many beliefs about it before I started. But I do think it deepened my understanding of all kinds of important questions that the film raised and that continue to reverberate for us today.

Q: What do you see as some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about the film?

A: One misperception is that the film only matters in the context of the Kennedy assassination. It is, of course, the primary visual evidence of the murder. But the dilemmas that the film posed for our family, the media, the government, the assassination researchers, the courts, and others touch on much bigger questions.

These include how to balance public interest and private family values, who decides what the public sees and when and how, who owns the historical record and what it is worth, and cultural questions like whether there is such a thing as visual truth and how we reconcile our differing ways of interpreting the same information.

There are smaller misperceptions – like the idea that the film was the only one taken on Dealey Plaza (it wasn’t: there were 21 other photographers present that day) or that our family sold the film to the Federal government (we didn’t: it was taken by eminent domain and its value was determined by an independent arbitration panel) that I was also able to address in the book. 

Q: What would you say is the film’s legacy, both for your family and for the public?

A: This is a question I took up in the epilogue to the book. I will just say that the film captured a moment that was a turning point in American history and it will always stand for that point in time and all the tumult and chaos that followed.

But I think it also has come to represent other things – like the recognition that even the photographic record doesn’t always capture a universally agreed upon truth or the fact that our faith in technology to answer all our questions may be misplaced.

The film contains within it so many contradictions and it doggedly refuses to give up a clear answer to the question of who murdered the president and how. For me, its meaning and legacy lie in those inherent contradictions.

On a still larger level, its legacy is that of the existential pathos that its narrative reveals. It’s a beautiful sunny day and there is a radiant couple driving down the street in an open car and then suddenly, without warning, it is all shattered.

We know on some intellectual level that this can happen but the film shows it and it reminds us of certain very deep human truths that are painful to tolerate but important to confront.

Q: How have people reacted to the book?

A: Well, I’ve gotten lots of wonderful responses both in reviews and though personal emails and conversations. It’s been especially moving for me to travel and meet people who are interested in this story and to share it with them.

I have found that the book has meant the most to those who were alive at the time of Kennedy’s assassination and who were, as a result, deeply affected by that event.

Many are still searching for answers or to make a certain kind of peace with this. My book can’t do that but it does address very directly the emotional and existential rupture that the film represents and that the assassination itself caused.

Q: Are there any other books about the Kennedy assassination that you would especially recommend?

A: My friend Max Holland is working on a magnum opus about the assassination that I think will be fascinating. It’s called A Need to Know: Inside the Warren Commission and deals much more directly than mine with what actually happened on Dealey Plaza.

Max is brilliant and a great writer. He argues very convincingly that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman. The book is forthcoming from Knopf and I know it’s going to be an important contribution to this topic.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m not ready to start anything new yet. I’m still recovering from this book – which took a lot out of me – and catching my breath before I decide what’s next.

I hope I’ll find another story that has the richness, complexity and unexpected depth that I found in this book and my first one, Salvaged Pages, but I realize that might be asking a bit much for one lifetime. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Alexandra Zapruder will be speaking Feb. 24 at the Temple Sinai Authors' Roundtable in Washington, D.C. Here's a previous version of this Q&A.