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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Joint Interview with Sharon Langley & Amy Nathan

Monday, I was honored to talk with Floyd Cooper, the illustrator of A Ride To Remember: A Civil Rights Story. Today, I get to chat with the amazing duo who wrote the book. And boy are you in for a treat!

Sharon Langley is an author, playwright, and voice actor who lives in Los Angeles. Her debut picture book, A Ride to Remember, is about her historic ride of the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park carousel in 1963.

Amy Nathan is an award-winning author of books for adults, teens, and young readers, who lives in Westchester County, New York. All of her books “introduce readers to amazing people whose stories have inspired” her. In 2011, she wrote a middle grade book on the Gwynn Oak carousel - Round And Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round Ride into the Civil Rights Movement. And A Ride to Remember, is also her debut picture book.

Welcome Sharon and Amy,

Tell us a little about yourselves. (Such as - Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)

SHARON: I write daily, usually in the evening when the day has settled down. Because I’ve been exploring other genres: poetry and playwriting, I’ve been needing more time to write. (I may have to cut back on my social media time.) 🙃

I belong to a picture book critique group, the PenUltimates. We meet online monthly to share our writing and offer each other supportive feedback. And we usually attend conferences, like local SCBWI Writers’ Days and SCBWI annual conference, together in person. I also belong to poets’ and playwriting groups. The groups meet weekly for about six to eight weeks at a time. It’s good to have a safe setting to share your work, receive feedback, and use that feedback when revising. I find that I alternate between writing alone and with the input of my groups.

AMY: I write in a corner of my bedroom that has a mini office made of two tables, two bookcases, a file cabinet, desktop computer, and printer. I created that little nook when my two sons were young, as a place where I could shut the door and have quiet time to think and write. They are grown now and on their own, but I still keep writing in that cozy little space. I’ve been writing for more than thirty years. I like to write nonfiction books about regular people who have done extraordinary things that made a difference in the world.

Sounds like you both have a great routine established. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

SHARON: I love parades! (I rode in a parade once and it was a blast! Who knows? Maybe I’ll get to do it again.) For me, the winter holiday season gets started with the annual viewing of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and ends with visiting The Rose Parade floats here in California. (A kindred spirit!)

AMY: I dreamed of being an actress as a child. My mother was an amateur actress in Baltimore. I loved the excitement of visiting her backstage at the little theaters where she performed. I tried doing this professionally for a few years after college (while also getting a teaching degree and teaching drama to kids and language arts to adults in job training programs, as a back-up). What I liked most about being in plays was researching the character, figuring out why she did what she did. At last I realized that the researching is what I did best, and that I was pretty good at teaching, too, especially simplifying complex topics so students could understand them. I used those skills to write for children’s magazines for a few years and then made the leap to writing nonfiction books for young people and adults.

Thank you both for sharing these. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

SHARON: My favorite book as a young child was The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. At the time, I lived in Baltimore. In the winter when it snowed, my friends and I would go outside to play and have our little adventures. I could relate to Peter and his experiences, although I don’t recall trying to save a snowball.

In elementary school, I read and loved all of Beverly Cleary’s book about Ramona. I think I started with Ramona Quimby Age 8. A little later, I began reading Judy Blume’s books and of course, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. A little-known tidbit…at my first SCBWI in Los Angeles, Judy Blume was the luncheon keynote speaker. It was wonderful to hear her in person and to realize how many generations of readers and writers she’s influenced over the years.

AMY: Three books had a profound influence on me as a child— books on equal rights that my mother bought for me and that I read in second and third grades. I still have them on my bookshelf. Two were written and illustrated by Marguerite De Angeli: about an African American girl who faced discrimination from an insensitive white girl in her scout troop, but by the end of the book they become friends; and about a girl in Philadelphia who gets her family to help people fleeing slavery before the Civil War.

The other book was by Claire Huchet Bishop, illustrated by William Pène DuBois, about ten Jewish children who were hidden in a Catholic school in France during World War II; they were protected by the school’s non-Jewish children who refused to betray their new friends even when tempted by Nazi soldiers with oranges and chocolate. I loved these books’ realistic illustrations and their message of tolerance. The stories were so realistically told. I felt I was part of them. I wish I could write stories like that. My mother also wrote chancel dramas for church that I acted in as a child, about not being prejudiced against those who are different than you. My parents weren’t activists but they instilled in us kids the importance of treating everyone fairly. It’s not surprising that issues of equal rights have been important to me all my life, reflected in the topics of my books.

It's fun to see familiar and unfamiliar books as childhood favorites. What inspired the two of you to work together to create A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story? How did you first connect?

SHARON: Amy contacted me through the Alumni Office at Clark Atlanta University. She sent information about herself, along with books that she’d written to the school: they forwarded her information to me. I called Amy and we began talking. Our conversations, along with her interviews with many other people, led to Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-go-Round Ride into the Civil Right Movement (2011).

I think we both agreed that this was a story that we wanted to share with younger readers. Round and Round Together was definitely geared to a secondary (middle and high school) readers. So, our collaboration combined my family’s oral history about Gwynn Oak, my experience as an elementary teacher and literacy coach, and of course, Amy’s experience as a writer and researcher.

AMY: It wasn’t until 2008 that I first learned about the carousel ride that Sharon took as a young child when Baltimore’s Gwynn Oak Amusement Park de-segregated. There was a small mention of her ride in a book that came out that year, Hear Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland by C. Fraser Smith. I grew up not far from that amusement park but I never knew until then of Sharon’s ride or that it occurred on August 28, 1963, the same day as the March on Washington where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech.” I thought that would be a good topic for a picture book. So I set out to learn more.

I was amazed at what I discovered when I started following leads and doing research. I found out about so many things that had been going on around me while I was growing up in Baltimore but about which I had been largely unaware. I was fascinated to learn of the courageous leaders of the city’s impressive local civil rights movement. I had gone to a magnate high school, Western High School (the country’s oldest all girls’ public high school) where I met people from different neighborhoods than mine and became friends with girls who were peripherally involved in civil rights. Even so, much of what I was learning from my research was news to me. I saw that this story merited more than a picture book. The changing nature of the protests in Baltimore over the nearly ten years that it took to end segregation at that amusement park paralleled the rise of the modern civil rights movement and mirrored its changing nature. Many of the details I was discovering had not been covered in the book by C. Fraser Smith. I saw that this story could serve as a case study, to help people understand the process of change, by seeing it play out at this amusement park.

Smithsonian Carousel on the National Mall, by Casey McAdams, Smithsonian Institution.

Then I discovered something that Smith hadn’t mentioned and that none of the activists I was interviewing seemed to remember—that the carousel that Sharon rode in 1963 was now on the National Mall in Washington, DC, where it had been since 1981, after the amusement park closed. This made it more than a Baltimore story. It was a national story, especially with that carousel so near where Dr. King delivered his famous speech. So I set out to write a YA version of the story (with the encouragement of an independent publisher, Paul Dry Books).

I tracked down Sharon, who was then an educator in Los Angeles. I described to her my interest in writing a book for teens and adults. She supported the idea. I interviewed her several times by phone. That book, Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-go-Round Ride into the Civil Right Movement, came out in 2011. Two years later, on July 7, 2013, there was a big celebration in Baltimore of the 50th anniversary of the end of segregation at that amusement park. Sharon came from California to participate. That’s when we met for the first time. It was also when Sharon saw the horse again for the first time in many years that she rode as a child. The carousel’s owners never knew the story of Sharon’s ride until my book came out. Neither did officials at the Smithsonian or at the National Park Service. But once they heard the story, they loved it. The carousel’s owners had me write a historical marker for the carousel’s fence. They then decorated the horse Sharon rode with the names of civil rights heroes and put Sharon’s name on the back of the saddle and on one horseshoe.

The day after that celebration, Sharon and I taught a teachers workshop on the carousel’s story for the National Park Service and went out for coffee afterward and had a long slow breakfast the next morning to talk about ways to turn the story told in Round and Round Together into a picture book for young children. It seemed to both of us that this story—featuring as it does something kids like, carousels— could help young children grasp the importance of treating people fairly. The obvious unfairness of denying children a carousel ride because of skin color could help youngsters gain a personal understanding of how wide and deep Jim Crow segregation was that it could even put its grip on such an innocent part of childhood fun. That could perhaps transfer to youngsters’ seeing the unfairness in other kinds of discrimination.

We started talking then about ways to tell the story to very young children. A key goal was to show that even children can play a role in bringing about change. Sharon’s ride showed that. So did the examples my research had uncovered of other children who took part in the protests at that park. Since Sharon was too young when she took her famous ride to have firsthand memories of it, we would need to show how her parents explained her ride and the segregation that preceded it. That was something that I, as a white mother of white children, had never had to do: explain segregation to a black son or daughter in a way that wouldn’t damage their self-image. So we discussed this, with Sharon sharing how her parents handled those topics, and also how she approached these subjects as a classroom teacher of very young children. We continued to discuss those issues over the months and years that we worked together to figure out the right way to tell this story.

Sharon noted that her parents always emphasized to her the importance of the Golden Rule as a fundamental guide to behavior. That became part of our concept for book. She also said that when teaching these topics to young children she emphasizes the importance of fairness, something kids understand. Kids have all experienced unfairness in one way or the other (not being chosen for a team at recess, overlooked in the lunchroom, etc.). So, we decided fairness would be a central topic in the book. I had realized during my years of working on the YA book that a carousel is actually a very fair ride, with the horses starting together and stopping together, all going the same speed, with all the riders equal. It seemed that this metaphor might be key to the book, too. Sharon emphasized something else in those early discussions that became an important organizing principle— that the YA book that I had written was about the history. The picture book needed to be about feelings.

We went through many different approaches in the versions that we emailed back and forth to each other — such as, Sharon telling the story to her nieces and nephews; Sharon telling the story to her students; Sharon’s family poring over a family photo album; a third-person narrator telling the story. Finally, we hit on the idea that we used: of grown-up Sharon as narrator recalling how her parents explained to her that the amusement park that she actually grew up loving had once been a very unfair place that wouldn’t have accepted her. We are so lucky to have found Floyd Cooper as our illustrator. His tender drawings emphasize the loving care that Sharon’s parents took to help her understand the past and appreciate the role that she and her family played in bringing about change.

Amy, thank you so much for this view into the collaboration and creation of this book. It is a rare treat to be able to follow the authors' steps as they condense a weighty topic and mountains of research into a picture book. Being on opposite coasts, how hard was it to co-write the manuscript? What was the toughest part? The easiest?

SHARON: We used tracked drafts of the manuscript which we saved and emailed back and forth to each other. Sometimes we edited by phone and occasionally, we edited using printed copies of the manuscript. After we were satisfied with our revisions, then we forwarded it to our editor for review.

AMY: We would send different versions and suggestions back and forth by email and would also phone to talk things over now and then. I think it helped that we both realized that we each had a strong commitment to having this project succeed, and also had special experiences and feelings connected to this story that if brought together and focused would help it be a powerful book. There was some give and take required on both parts, but interest in telling the story in a way that would be best for young readers carried us through. Once we signed with Abrams, our editor guided us to sharpen the presentation.

I, for one, am very glad you two saw it through. You've created a tender and poignant story, with the potential for important impact. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?

SHARON: You have so much to offer the world: the world needs you and your contributions. So get started and don’t let anyone discourage you because you’re young. We’ve seen the difference that young people have made and the consciousness that they’ve raised around important issues in our society: gun violence/school safety, police brutality, clean water as a human right, homelessness, child separation, immigration, etc. One person might not be able to address all of these concerns, but one person can make a difference in his/her community and sphere of influence.

AMY: Be more self-confident and realize there is always someone there who can help you—and that what you do can have an impact on others.

Such awesome advice. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer.)

SHARON: People fascinate me. I love stories about people’s unique accomplishments, discoveries, journeys, experiences, triumphs…you name it. I keep a notebook with me at all times and jot down ideas that I want to remember and possibly research. Before I became a professional writer, my mother used to send me newspaper clippings of articles that she thought might interest me. Now I find that I do essentially the same thing: in addition to my notebook, I bookmark online articles, photographs and other items that interest and inspire me. From time to time, I will look through them to see if I want to research and write about them. Sometimes, I will think that I need more information before starting to write; other times, I will start to write and research as I go along.

AMY: For the books I’ve written: The amazing things people have done that I have chosen to write about have inspired me to commit to the books. With each new project, I really identify with the people I’m writing about, similar to what I did when I was an actor, immersing myself in their story and doing my best to understand them and tell their story in a respectful and accurate way that gets across how amazing they are.

For life in general: My parents set good examples of leading lives of caring and service. They also encouraged me to follow my dreams and varied interests. They had a big role in getting me interested in history and research. My mother, who never graduated from high school, did extensive research for the roles that she played, educating herself on so many topics. My father insisted that my brother, sister and I have “history boxes.” They would take us on family trips to visit historic sites and encourage us to collect booklets and books on history that we each kept in a big box under our beds. Now I’m inspired by my husband’s life of service and his endless enthusiasm for all my various projects.

It's interesting how your parents' love of history still influences both of you. How much, if any, collaboration did you two have with your illustrator Floyd Cooper? If you communicated, did you do so through the editor? How much, if any, did the text change after the illustrations were completed?

SHARON: Amy and I both shared our research with him. I forwarded scans of family photo albums to him. I sent photographs of my father as a young boy, my grandparents, and my parents, and myself. Not because I necessarily anticipated exact likenesses, but I wanted him to “meet my family” and have a sense of us. Amy sent him newspaper clippings and photographs.

Once the manuscript had been accepted and shared with him, we received maybe two or three drafts with text laid out on the spreads. The editor’s changes to the text were somewhat minimal: our editor was very supportive. We shared any questions or requests through our editor. However, we had a lot of confidence in Floyd’s artwork and so did our editor, so changes were very minimal and left to Floyd’s experience and interpretation as the illustrator.

AMY: We broke all the rules! We knew this book needed a really special illustrator. Sharon saw a book that Floyd did and thought his style would be perfect for the book. She “friended” him on Facebook. He “friended” her back. She wrote and told me and said he seems like a nice guy. So, I friended him, too. And he responded with a “Hi, Amy.” I took that as an invitation to reply. I sent him a long FB message describing the book we were writing and asked if he would be interested in illustrating it. He wrote right back and said, “Yes.” I then went to a book signing he was doing in NYC and gave him a copy of my YA version of the story, to entice him to do the project. We passed along his information to Abrams and before long they signed him. Then I sent him a huge binder full of historic photos of Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, the Baltimore protestors, Sharon and her family, and more. But after the illustration process began, we didn’t contact him directly anymore to give him comments on the art. We went through the editorial department, as authors are supposed to do.

You didn't break ALL the rules. You just facilitated getting the best illustrator for the job (which the editor agreed with). Though, now I understand Floyd's comment about the amount of research you two shared with him. SHARON - What’s the biggest thing/lesson you’ve learned as a debut author? Or the most amazing?

We shared A Ride To Remember at National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE.) It was very encouraging, though a bit startling, to realize that people knew about the book before we met or before we presented. Looking back, I think that meant that people were anticipating the book’s release and that’s a good thing.

An excellent thing! Personally, I've been excited to read it ever since the deal was announced. AMY – How different is the publication and marketing of a picture book from your other books?

My first two books were middle grade picture books and so I had experience working with illustrators (one on allowances and the other on homework). All my other books have used photos and I was the one who had to round up the photos, figure out where they would go in the book, get permissions, pay for rights, etc. After sending Floyd that binder of research photos, it was wonderful to sit back and let another creative mind shape the visual element of the book. As far as marketing, Abrams has done much more to market this book than any of my earlier publishers. Abrams’ support is so very much appreciated. It’s great to have the publisher as excited about the book as we are.

Sounds like this has been a great experience, all around. Did you get any push back on the length of the text? It seems a little longer than some publishers prefer, even for nonfiction. (Personally, I love the length actually & hope we are moving back this direction.)

SHARON: In fact, we were asked to include the additional information, much of which is contained in the back matter. Because A Ride to Remember tells a true story, but for a young audience, it’s important to include the factual information that undergirds the narrative.

AMY: We didn’t get any pushback from Abrams on this, although our editor Howard Reeves guided us in tightening up the text. I never had the feeling that that this was done to meet an arbitrary word count, but rather to make the story stronger. I agree with you that it would be good if there could be more of the longer 48-page picture books. Those three books I mentioned earlier that inspired me as a child were each much longer than 48 pages. If a story is interesting, kids will keep reading.

Here's hoping. What's something you want your readers to know about A Ride to Remember?

SHARON: Change almost always takes a dedicated group of people working together to achieve the goal. It was very important to me that the book include the many people, including children, from the various protests, demonstrations and events that lead to the day that my family and I entered the park.

AMY: That anyone, kids included, can help make the world a better place. What are some unfair situations that are still happening today — at your school, in your neighborhood, or in the wider world — that you’d like to see changed? What might you do to try to help change things? Maybe talk with a teacher or other adult friend about it, write a letter to a newspaper, draw a picture about the change you’d like to see, write a story about how you would change things, or .....

Kids can, and do, make a difference. What is your favorite spread in A Ride to Remember?

Text © Sharon Langley & Amy Nathan, 2020 . Image © Floyd Cooper, 2020.

SHARON: I think my favorite spread is Daddy riding with me on the carousel. The photo from that inspired Floyd’s phenomenal artwork is one of my favorites from that day. I noticed that Floyd interpreted Daddy as singing to me. I asked him about it and he said, “I thought that would be a comforting thing for your father to do.” He didn’t know this, but my dad was a singer. I don’t know that he sang to me on that day, but he did sing to me and with me on other occasions.

AMY: Two favorites (although I love them all): The one of Sharon’s father standing next to her on the carousel, and the last spread, with all those kids riding the carousel, having fun together.

Even though they answered these questions independently, they both chose the same image. (For the final image Amy mentioned - you'll just have to read the book or go back to Floyd's interview on Monday.) Are there any projects either of you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

SHARON: I’m working on several projects now including a children’s songbook and two additional stories based on my family.

AMY: I’m pulling together text now for several projects on people doing amazing things as they try to bring people together and make the world a better place. Stay tuned!

Best of luck with these projects. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or are glad that you did not know?

SHARON: I think that my experiences, thus far, have fallen in the “I’m glad I didn’t know” category. I’m thankful that this experience has been supportive and encouraging. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect and the only time I was a little concerned was when we were looking for an illustrator and we hadn’t connected with Floyd, yet. I was hoping that the story wouldn’t be kept waiting too long.

AMY: How hard it is to get nonfiction projects accepted by publishers these days. For almost every book I’ve written, I’ve received rejection notices from dozens of editors. You have to be thick-skinned and persistent, have a good support team of friends and loved ones, and be willing to keep re-writing the proposal and text to find the angle that will appeal. But you’re right, it’s probably best not to have known that in advance.....But then I’ve experienced the rejections over and over, and yet I still send out those proposals! I’m lucky in having a supportive husband who has encouraged me to keep going. I also have two supportive sons. Whenever I get discouraged and complain that nobody’s going to do my new book, they keep reminding me that I say this each time and yet eventually someone sees what’s special in it and agrees to do it.

Trust and persistence, indeed. What is your favorite animal? Or maybe a current animal you are enamored with? And why?

SHARON: Dogs are my favorite animals. I had dogs growing up and they are such smart, loving, and funny animals. Although I don’t have a dog now, I still really like them. And I’m pretty certain that animals can sense people who like them. My friends’ pets know that they can count on me for a good belly rub or game with their favorite toy.

AMY: Dogs, smallish ones. We don’t have a dog now, but I loved the cocker spaniels I had as a child. And I adored the beagle who was with us for seventeen years as our sons were growing up. He still visits me in my dreams. My favorite dog right now is my older son and daughter-in-law’s dachshund who keeps us all entertained when he visits.

Boy you two are well matched!

Thank you, Sharon and Amy for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly a special treat to chat with you both.

Be sure to come back Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story.

To find out more about Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan, or get in touch with them:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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