A blog by children's book author Michelle Markel about books, teaching and writing.
Monday, April 18, 2011
Erica Silverman on Liberty's Voice: The Story of Emma Lazarus
Welcome to this week's Nonfiction Monday Round-Up. If you'd like to join in, please leave your name, your link, and a description of your post in the comment section below. I'll add links throughout the day, beginning at 6 am on the West Coast.
Today, an interview with award-winning author Erica Silverman, whose picture book biography, Liberty's Voice: The Story of Emma Lazarus (illustrated by Stacey Schuett) was published this spring.
Why did you choose to write a biography of Emma Lazarus? What drew you, personally, to her story?
There is so much about her that intrigues me and that I admire.
Her passion for poetry from an early age was something I identified with. I was impressed by her strong need to learn and grow as a writer. She was a strong, independent woman, a successful writer in the late nineteenth century – a time when women had little voice in the public sphere and were decades away from winning the vote. And then, despite coming from a life of comfort and privilege, she became a strong voice for social justice. She became an active advocate for immigrants at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment was on the rise. And she was courageous, confronting anti-Semitism head-on in her writing, despite the fact that she traveled in mostly non-Jewish circles and was no doubt aware of the anti-Semitic attitudes among her own friends. She described herself as not being religious and yet had a strong Jewish identity and a strong feeling for Jewish history. She was in so many ways an independent thinker.
How do you think children might relate to Emma?
I hope they see her as a role model, are inspired by the fact that she followed her dream, listened to her “voice within”, and wasn’t afraid to speak out for her beliefs. I hope her willingness to stand up for immigrants' rights empowers them to speak up for their beliefs. I also hope they will see how poetry, which we don’t take very seriously as a culture, can actually be powerful and important. Lazarus’ poem, The New Colossus, quite literally defined the Statue of Liberty as our most well-known and loved national symbol for immigrants.
What was the greatest challenge in writing the book, and how did you overcome it? How long did it take to write?
Years. I started the book in 2002 and it’s just come out. I had a hard time tracking down some of the source materials. My best find was the many memorial letters written at the time of Emma’s death. They were published in a newspaper called the American Hebrew. I found them on microfilm at LAPL.
The other big challenge was narrowing down the story. There was so much about Emma’s life that fascinated me. And there was so much historical background I wanted to include. It was hard to leave so much out, but a picture book has to be very focused.
What advice would you give to writers of picture book biographies?
Find a storyline and stay with it. Find the moments in your subject’s life that are emotional, that have drama – moments of happiness, sadness, anger, failure, success. Include details that evoke the time and place in which your subject lived. You can’t tell everything about that time, but hopefully, you will awaken the reader’s curiosity and arouse a desire to learn more. And of course, in any picture book, you have to write “visually”, to give the artist scenes to illustrate.
Any interesting anecdotes about Emma that didn't make it into the book?
I was fascinated by Emma’s relationship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, which began when she was just eighteen years old. In my book I show how she met him at a dinner party and sent him a book of her own poetry. They embarked on a correspondence in which he mentored her, praising her work while guiding her to improve.
But when Emerson edited an anthology of American poets, he did not include any of her poems. Emma was devastated and furious. What I found interesting is that she wasn’t afraid to let him know, and shot off an anger-fueled letter to him. In my early drafts, I included the scene in which she discovers the anthology’s omission and writes to him. My editor gently pointed out that the book wasn’t about their relationship and that this scene, while dramatic, didn’t really move the story forward. I recognized that he was right.
If Emma were alive today, and you could spend the day with her, where would you take her in your home town of Los Angeles?
We’d take a tour of some of the immigrant neighborhoods – starting with Boyle Heights. Perhaps we could join a rally for immigrant rights. And then we'd get on a plane to New York and visit the Statue of Liberty.
Erica's next book is Hanukkah Hop, a stamping, hopping, bim-bim-bopping celebration of Hanukkah, complete with a dancing parrot, a live Klezmer band and a girl named Rachel who lives to dance. The retro 50s art is by Steve D'Amico.
The selection at All About Books With Janet Squires is Piano Starts Here: the young Art Tatum written and illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker. Drop by and listen to this Jazz great at his best.
Simply Science has At the Sea Floor Cafe by Lesley Bulion as part of the Peachtree Publishers blog tour.
Pink Me is in with a review of Mark Kurlansky's World Without Fish. (Mmm, fish! Fish from certified sustainable fisheries, of course!) Great Kid Books shares Ask Me Everything, a new DK book. Mary Ann Scheuer says that her students love the visuals, the facts and the way it's all organized by questions they can ask themselves and each other.
Shelf-employed reviews two great new offerings from the talented duo of Steve Jenkins and Robin Page: Time to Eat and Time for a Bath.
Michelle Markel's books for children span a variety of genres including fiction, non-fiction and creative non-fiction. Her latest title, The FANTASTIC JUNGLES OF HENRI ROUSSEAU, was a Junior Library Guild selection and received three starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly, School Library Journal and Booklist.) She is also the author of DREAMER FROM THE VILLAGE: The Story of Marc Chagall (one of NYPL's 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing) and TYRANNOSAURUS MATH (A Cooperative Children's Book Center Choice). Michelle teaches a class in Writing the Picture Book at UCLA Extension's Writers Program and is a founding member of CAN!, the Children’s Authors Network.
BRAVE GIRL: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909, Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau was chosen as one of the New York Public Library's 100 Titles for Reading for Sharing, as one of Booklist's Top Ten Arts Books for Youth, and one of the top 10 picture books of 2012 by The Guardian UK.
Illustrated by Doug Cushman
For information about school visits and other types of presentations visit my website.