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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Patricia Hruby Powell

Patricia Hruby Powell was born & raised in Arlington Heights, Illinois, where she played in barns and prairie-covered hills and tadpole-filled creeks created by piles of dirt from the slow construction of neighborhood houses. She currently lives in Champaign-Urbana, IL with her husband, Morgan Powell (a composer and jazz trombonist) and one tree walker hound, Lil.

Patricia is the award-winning author of - Struttin' With Some Barbecue: Lil Hardin Armstrong Becomes the First Lady of Jazz (Charlesbridge 2018) winner of SMA Nonfiction for Youth, Loving vs. Virginia (Chronicle 2017), Josephine: the Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (Chronicle 2014) (Sibert, CSK, Boston Globe Horn Book, Ragazzi International Honoree; Parent's Choice Gold, etc.), Frog Brings Rain (2006), Zinnia: How the Corn Was Saved (2004), and Blossom Tales: Flower Stories of Many Folk (2002) .

Her newest picture book, Lift as You Climb: The Story of Ella Baker, releases June 9, 2020.

Welcome Patricia, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your new book and writing.

Lovely to be here, Maria. Thanks for inviting me.

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

PATRICIA: I write at the dining room table looking out at the garden, which right now includes geese, fast-growing goslings, ducks, squirrels, and songbirds—and loads of flowers. I feel I’m on a 1940s Disney cartoon set. I’ve been writing since the tail-end of my dance career, for close to 30 years. I’ve found my niche in writing historical nonfiction books—usually in verse, oftentimes biographies of little-known women who I find fascinating.

That's a fun niche. They also all seem to have a touch of music in them. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I wear my heart on my sleeve so I think not much is little known about me. I’m excitable. I’m physical—I dance, rollerblade, bicycle, practice yoga, walk, tango, salsa, Zumba. I love parties but also love my isolated work time. I love to research—it makes me feel like Sherlock Holmes. Oh, here’s one—I’d like to be Peter Pan, at least play Peter Pan in a production.

Wouldn't that be fun! I actually got to see Cathy Rigby in her farewell performance - it was amazing! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

Margaret Wise Brown’s, The Golden Egg Book, illustrated by Leonard Weisegard; Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie); My Father’s Dragon (Ruth Stiles Gannet); Ogden Nash’s poems; E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web; Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (Rachel Field) were all formative for me.

I'm not familiar with Hitty - I have a new book to find. I found the cover of your newest book powerful and intriguing. What was the inspiration for Lift as You Climb: The Story of Ella Baker?

My friend and activist, Shelley Washburn Masar, turned me on to Ella Baker. She named one of her four children after Ella. I’d not heard of Ella Baker at that time, 2014. Since then, my research for various books has taken me again and again to Ella Baker. Ms. Baker is not universally known because of her belief that social movements should be run from the grassroots, by many community members, rather than by one charismatic personality. In fact, whereas she had great respect for Dr. Martin Luther King, she asked him what he thought would happen to the Movement if he, the charismatic personality behind the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, were gone. Of course, she was right—the Movement more or less fell apart after Dr. King was assassinated.

IInteresting that she challenged Dr. King. How did your experience researching, writing, and/or publishing, Lift as You Climb: The Story of Ella Baker differ from your informational nonfiction, Loving vs Virginia, or other biographies?

For Loving vs. Virginia, I did a lot of primary research in the form of interviewing the Loving family’s friends and relatives. I used many court documents to understand the complex court case that covered nine years.

For Lift as You Climb, I depended more on interviews with Ms. Baker that others had conducted during her life—as is true of Lil Hardin Armstrong for Struttin’ With Some Barbecue and Josephine. I communicated with the authors of adult biographies of Ella Baker. For all my books I used film and news clips, and photos to get to know my subject. Of course, I read numerous books about each of my subjects—if there were books about them.

In most cases my subjects have been deceased before I started my project—otherwise I would have attempted to speak to them firsthand.

Seems all your books involved a lot of research. What was the toughest aspect of writing this book? How many edits were required (of the text and/or illustrations) to create the balance between portraying the violence, slavery, injustice, & voting rights and writing a book for kids?

Going back to my digital files, I see that I wrote my first draft of Ella in February 2014 and I have nine drafts numbered. I received my contract from Simon & Schuster in February 2017. So, for me, that’s not a particularly long time to work on a book.

My books oftentimes take a long time to “place.” I’m so grateful to my agent, Anna Olswanger who understands that my books are a bit “odd,” take a while to find a publisher, but then generally garner a fair amount of attention for the very reason that they were difficult to place. They’re out of the ordinary. For instance, both Josephine and Lift As You Climb are lengthy for picture books—Josephine being over 100 pages and Lift As You Climb is 48 pages. But older readers appreciate illustrations—and therefore, picture books—just as much as younger kids do.

I am glad for the "oddness" of your books and that you have been able to find publishers willing to take the risk on longer books. Given the desire for Own Voices, have you received any push back about writing your last four books?

The children’s book climate has changed a good deal since Josephine was published in 2014. I received nothing but appreciation for having written about the story of an African American dancer, Josephine Baker. I still receive huge appreciation from people of all demographics, for deeply researching my books and writing with knowledge—and pizazz. I strongly feel that Josephine needed to be written by a dancer.

The same is true of Struttin’ With Some Barbecue. The story of Lil Hardin Armstrong needs a writer who deeply understands the rhythms of early jazz.

That said, and since We Need Diverse Books has been born and thrived and is succeeding, we all appreciate Own Voices as very important—for the sake of authenticity and representation. I’ve been a mentor for new writers of color. My books are part of the canon that exists now as more and more writers of color develop into fabulous authors. I appreciate and look forward to reading more and more books by Own Voice writers.

And back to the “other hand,” writing is about empathy. We have to be able to write books about the “Other,” if there is more than one demographic represented in our books. Otherwise we’ll have to write each book by committee. Or collaborate.

Again, switching, arguments, Lift As You Climb: The Story of Ella Baker is the last of my books featuring an African American woman character. I pass the baton to Own Voice writers—maybe forever, maybe until our society deems empathy and research and familiarity the ruling features of authority.

I'm glad that you are mentoring new writers and still helping these important stories get told. Is there something you want your readers to know about for Lift as You Climb: The Story of Ella Baker?

I’d like to invite everyone to my Virtual Book Launch party, which premieres June 10, Wednesday at 3:30 pm CST. It will be a brief (15 minute) program which will remain on YouTube for viewing.

How did you discover or create the refrain “What do you hope to accomplish”?

This is what Ella’s grandfather—the preacher and patriarch of the family and the community—asked his followers. It’s how he urged them to progress in society. And then Ella carried that torch forward and asked her “followers” that same question.

What a great thread and refrain! Having worked with numerous illustrators, did the amount of contact or input differ with this book? Did you include illustrator notes in your submitted manuscripts?

I actually had a little less input with Gregory Christie than I had with Christian Robinson (Josephine), Shadra Strickland (Loving vs. Virginia), Rachel Himes (Struttin’ With Some Barbecue). With the others I was able to see the illustrations in progress and help offer resources to the illustrators that would enhance accuracy. Afterall, I’d been researching each of my subjects for quite a while. Different publishers work differently.

Text © Patricia Hruby Powell, 2020. Image © R. Gregory Christie, 2020.

As for illustration notes within my manuscript, I only noted Ella’s age, as a means of helping whoever would be illustrating the book to show Ella aging. But the illustrator could have done his own research to work that out. I do think Gregory showed Ms. Baker’s aging, brilliantly. She looks like herself in every spread, as does Dr. King. I think his illustrations are brilliant.

Interesting. What, or who, is your greatest source of inspiration?

My mother—well both my parents—were socially conscious and were activists. My mother was a musician, composer, pianist, choir director and always encouraged me to do my art—whether it was music, visual art, dance, storytelling, or writing. How could I be more grateful?

Sounds like a wonderful environment to grow up in. What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer for you? Any advice for unpublished authors?

When your editor doesn’t communicate with you. That’s hard. Or when you keep receiving rejections. How do you resend after someone has rejected your baby? Advice? Be patient. Keep writing what you love to write even if you’re told there’s no market. Make it so good, they’ll have to want to buy it.

I love that last piece of advice! Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I have a few books under contract.

  1. the still-untitled Women’s Suffrage Project which covers three eras—19th century featuring Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (prose); 19-teen years featuring Alice Paul and Lucy Burns leading up to the 19th Amendment (graphic novel); 1960s featuring Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, Victoria Gray and African American voting rights. (Chronicle Books).

  2. Cave of the Heart: The Story of Martha Graham. I’m a Graham-trained dancer and doing the research for this project has renewed my admiration for the great dancer/choreographer Martha Graham.

I have a couple of manuscripts out looking for publishers. One about Nancy Drew, the character; one about the bicycle and women’s voting rights.

I have a couple manuscripts I’m working on—one about Joan Baez, one about Martha Graham making a piece inspired by Emily Dickinson, one about a white boy in 1941 who serves a bus full of black people and is fired from his waiting job.

I'm impressed and will have to keep an eye out for these books. What is your favorite animal? Or animal that you are currently enamored with. Why?

Lil, or Lillabelle, our Tree Walking Coonhound. We rescued her about 7 years ago. She jumps straight up, scrabbling against the tree (thus her breed name); she’s exceedingly fit at about 9 years old, she’s sensitive, loveable, she aims to please, but when a rabbit crosses her path she forgets everything else in the world. She suffers anxiety (when storms approach or from loud or sudden noises) and she’s independent as hounds are. Therefore, she’s a challenge to comfort, makes me love her all the more. People marvel at how well behaved she is, but the fact is: she has my husband and me very well trained.

Beautiful dog! Thank you, Patricia for stopping by and sharing your new book and your writing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.

[ha-ha, this makes me laugh, considering]. Today I found talking to you far more engaging than book writing. That’s how writing is. With books to write, books to review, a column of Writing Tips to write, and sometimes interviews to see to, there’s always something I want to be writing. Thank heavens. Thanks for your wonderful questions, Maria. Thanks for making me think about the answers. I hope they might help other writers in some small way. Keep writing.

Come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post sneak peek at Lift as You Climb: The Story of Ella Baker.

Be sure to check out the curriculum guides for Patricia's books.

To find out more about Patricia Hruby Powell, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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