The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Chana Stiefel
Chana Stiefel is the author of 25 books for children, including My Name Is Wakawakaloch!, illustrated by Mary Sullivan (HMH, 2019), Animal Zombies…& Other Real-Life Monsters (National Geographic Kids, 2018), and Daddy Depot, illustrated by Andy Snair (Feiwel & Friends, 2017).
Chana’s newest book, Let Liberty Rise! (illustrated by Chuck Groenink, Scholastic) released March 2nd.
For basic information on Chana see our earlier interview (here).
Welcome back Chana!
How does Let Liberty Rise! : How America's School Children Helped Save the Statue of Liberty differ from your other nonfiction picture books?
Let Liberty Rise is my first narrative nonfiction picture book. My others were informational or expository nonfiction and they were middle grade or chapter books, not picture books. Though I’ve also written funny fiction picture books.
What was the inspiration for Let Liberty Rise!?
I first heard the story from my friend Jackie Glasthal, who wrote a middle grade novel called Liberty on 23rd Street. The backstory of her book is the little-known history of how school children contributed their pennies to build the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. As soon as I heard the story, I knew it had to become a picture book.
I agree. What a wonderful premise for a book - a difference that kids made with pennies. Do feel that there is a common theme in your picture books?
After reading my books, I want kids to say, “That’s amazing! I never knew that. More books, please!”
That's a great goal! Is there something you want your readers to know about Let Liberty Rise! ?
In 1885, Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the New York World newspaper, started the first crowdsourcing campaign. He said that if anyone gives a penny for Liberty’s pedestal, he’d print their name in his newspaper. So thousands of schoolchildren mailed their pennies. One little girl sent 60 cents and wrote, “I wish I could make it $60,000, but drops make an ocean.” I love that theme of “drops make an ocean.” Sometimes we want to support a cause, but it feels so daunting. Kids should know that every contribution and every action matters, no matter how small. Drops do make an ocean. Together we can make a difference!
That's something really important for kids (and parents) to understand. What was the hardest part in researching and writing Let Liberty Rise! ? How many revision did it take? How long did it take to go from the idea to contract and publication?
I started working on this story in 2014. I traveled to the Statue of Liberty and to Ellis Island by ferry to do research at the Bob Hope Memorial Library, dedicated to the history of the statue. I also researched copies of the New York World * from 1885 on microfilm at the New York Public Library. I read every book I could find on the subject. I must have written dozens of drafts, with feedback from my critique partners. In 2016, I won a critique from the 12 x 12 challenge with author Miranda Paul (who happily is now my agent). She suggested I stick to one through line (one narrative) and cut everything that doesn’t move the story forward. It took me a while to realize what the through line would be—that I needed to focus on the children’s contributions to the pedestal fund. I was over-the-moon excited when I signed with editor Dianne Hess at Scholastic in 2017. Ultimately, it took about seven years from concept to publication, which sounds crazy but is typical in the publishing world.
[* a newspaper published in New York from 1860 to 1931.]
When you first saw Chuck Groenink’s illustrations, did anything surprise you? What is your favorite spread?
Text © Chana Stiefel, 2021. Image © Chuck Groenink, 2021.
Chuck is the perfect illustrator for this story. He nailed the time period and his characters are adorable, particularly his newsies. It’s hard to pick just one favorite spread. One wonderful scene is set on Liberty Island (then called Bedloe’s Island). Pieces of the statue are scattered about, including her giant face, and people are picnicking nearby. I noticed that Chuck snuck in a scene from George Seurat’s famous pointillist painting, “Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” which the artist painted in France at the exact same time that the Statue of Liberty was being built. This detail is so clever! See if you can spot it.
This is such a fun detail! Thanks for sharing it. If you're curious check out Seurat's painting (https://www.artic.edu/artworks/27992/a-sunday-on-la-grande-jatte-1884). So, how are, or have you been, staying creative during these times? Have you found anything that helps you “prime the well”?
As a writer, I’m used to working from home, so there wasn’t a tremendous adjustment there. It’s more about managing my family being home in various stages (I have four kids) and being able to focus on work despite everything going on in the world. It’s also been hard to set boundaries. I feel like I’m writing day and night (when I’m not watching Netflix or doom scrolling). In the spring and summer, I took long walks every day. In September, I was able to return to my gym to swim. Swimming clears my head and I’ve unraveled many writing knots and written entire picture books while doing laps.
I'm glad you were able to get back to swimming. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I have a few books on submission and I’m thrilled that three more picture books will be coming down the pike. In 2022, The Tower Of Life: How One Woman Rebuilt Her Village In Stories And Pictures, illustrated by Susan Gal, will be coming out from Scholastic. It’s the most challenging project I’ve taken on—a picture book biography of Holocaust survivor and historian Yaffa Eliach, who created the Tower of Faces in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Musuem. Oy, Mendel: A Hanukkah Miracle, a funny picture book that I wrote with my husband (a first for us), will be coming out from Kalaniot in 2022. And Bravo, Avocado, illustrated by Anna Seussbauer, about an overlooked and underappreciated avocado at the farmers’ market, will be coming out from HarperCollins in 2023.
These sound so interesting. We'll have to watch for them! Thank you, Chana for coming by again. It is always a pleasure to talk with you.
Be sure to stop back on Friday for the #PPBF post on Let Liberty Rise!: How America's School Children Helped Save the Statue of Liberty.
To find out more about Chana Stiefel, or get in touch with her: