Monday, January 13, 2014

Patricia Hruby Powell on JOSEPHINE: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker

This month marks the debut of the impressive new picture book JOSEPHINE: the Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (Chronicle, 2014).  During a recent visit to The Cat & The Fiddle author Patricia Hruby Powell graciously answered my questions about the book.

1. How did you get the idea to write a book on Josephine?

Josephine was a dancer. I’m a dancer. I’m also a children’s librarian—a substitute librarian. Back in 2005 while working at the Urbana Free Library, we had a regular group of African American pre-teen girls in the children’s department who were vying for attention. They were—you could say—belligerent. Naughty. They seemed pretty lost—unguided, unfocused. I decided that Josephine Baker could be a great role mode. I went home with a few books—adult and children’s--and started researching. I knew Josephine had been a maverick, was sexy, beautiful, adventurous, wild, fearless--sort of like Madonna in the way she’s reinvented herself over and over—but I hadn’t known Josephine worked for civil rights or adopted 12 children of various ethnicities and religions. Josephine’s time had come. She deserved to be known by Americans. (Not just the French).

2. What were the highs and lows of writing this book? Could you describe your research process?

Highs: writing the rhythmic text. The words danced off my pen and onto the page. Josephine is such a lively subject. And there’s footage of her early dancing, some of which can be seen on my website. She’s so dang cute. And original. And she wrote five autobiographies—all in French—the first when she was about 20 and it’s wonderfully lively. There is plenty of primary source material for research.

Lows: I love to research, but I had to repeat my research too many times. The first time around I didn’t cite any of my sources. I brought Josephine to a workshop conducted by Carolyn Yoder of Calkins Creek. She liked Josephine but advised me to cite all my sources in the text. So I got all those (French language) books from interlibrary loan a second time, reread them and this time more biographies and recordings of interviews on obsolete technology, pored over them, and cited every last hiccup. And Carolyn turned Josephine down. But EVERYTHING was cited. When my agent, Anna Olswanger, read Josephine for the first time, she told me all those superscripted citation numbers were deadly, to get rid of them. Which I did. Later, after Josephine was acquired by Chronicle, it was sent to an expert and read for accuracy. A couple of my facts were challenged. So I had to go back and get those rare sources from interlibrary loan again and prove what I knew to be true. Over those years, Josephine’s French language autobiographies got much harder to find. They’d been disappearing at a rate.

3.  This book is unique for a few reasons: it's for older readers, yet it's a picture book, in verse, with some mature material. Were you concerned that you were going "out of the box?" Can you tell us your thoughts about why you chose this format?

I first wrote Josephine as a picture book of about 1000 words. After a couple agents were excited about it, but then rejected it, I rewrote it, imagining it as a slim YA book in verse to be illustrated with quick stroke black and white drawings reminiscent of Paul Colin’s 1920s posters of Josephine. My agent Anna offered to represent me on the basis of Josephine. And we accrued a whole mess of rejections—but it generated a lot of excitement as well. My eventual editor Melissa Manlove at Chronicle received a 7,500 word biography in verse, and she asked if I would try cutting out half of it. Agent Anna suggested I take out chapters that were too old for the picture book crowd—about Josephine’s marriages and breakups, her political fiascos, with an eye to making it a picture book. Chronicle then acquired the 3500-word revision, and Melissa began adding back some of those deleted stanzas. Not entire chapters, though.

So bless Melissa Manlove, she saw what the book could be. She didn’t tell me, there’s no way to sell this. She didn’t tell me, it was too long or too sexy. She had a vision for the book. It sort of makes sense, that Josephine the manuscript broke so many rules, because Josephine the person did first--an African American being a superstar in the 20’s? Dancing with such abandon? Adopting 12 children of different races? Working as a spy for the French and its allies? Being a civil rights worker in the 50’s before the big names came on the scene?

4. What do you hope children take away from this book?

I hope children will think, I can do that. I can do anything I set my mind to do. I can invent things that no one has done before and do them.

5. What's next, and what are you working on now?

I’m finishing up a documentary novel in verse for teens about Mildred Jeter, black, who married Richard Loving, white, in 1958 when interracial marriage was illegal in 24 states. They were arrested, jailed, banished from the state of Virginia for nine years until their case went to the U.S. Supreme Court and decided in their favor.

I’ve also started a novel set in the jazz age, which takes on some ideas I uncovered in the LOVING story and in Josephine. Historical fiction is like nonfiction in that it requires loads of research. Often the next book comes from a kernel found in a previous book, or the research of it.

Many thanks for this interview, Patricia, and a dazzlement of congratulations on your book! 

Patricia's  website.
Publisher's Weekly review
Kirkus review

Monday, December 30, 2013

How To Say Thank You Like Charles Dickens

Are you looking for the right words to say THANK YOU for kindnesses received during the holiday season?  One might learn from the gracious stylings of Charles Dickens (who is the subject of a movie released this month).

His collected letters (which I read as part of my research on Victorian England) offer many good old fashioned expressions of gratitude, including:

I thank you ten thousand times
I am most truly* obliged to you for...
(*substitute heartily and cordially)
I am much obliged and flattered* by the receipt of...
(substitute I cannot tell you how much obliged I am)
I am really more obliged to you for your kindness than I can say
I cannot thank you for it too cordially, and cannot too earnestly assure you that I shall always prize it highly.
I am most sincerely and affectionately grateful to you, and am full of pleasure and delight.

Some of Dickens' eloquent replies to letters:

I cannot forbear writing to tell you with what uncommon pleasure I received your interesting letter, and how sensible I always am of your kindness and generosity.

Your kind and welcome letter reached me here last night. I cannot tell you how highly I esteem it, or how cordially I reciprocate your friendly regard.

A couple of lengthier excerpts:

To George Cattermole, 1842

It is impossible to tell you how greatly I am charmed with those beautiful pictures, in which the whole feeling, and thought, and expression of the little story is rendered to the gratification of my inmost heart; and on which you have lavished those amazing resources of yours with a power at which I fairly wondered when I sat down yesterday before them.You are such a queer fellow and hold yourself so much aloof, that I am afraid to say half I would say touching my grateful admiration; so you shall imagine the rest.

To Lord John Russell, 1852:

I am most truly obliged to you for your kind note, and for your so generously thinking of me in the midst of your many occupations. I do consider that your ever ready consideration had already attached me to you in the warmest manner, and made me very much your debtor. I thank you unaffectedly and very earnestly, and am proud to be held in your remembrance.

To David Roberts, 1850

I am more obliged to you than I can tell you for the beautiful mark of your friendly remembrance which you have sent me this morning. I shall set it up among my household gods with pride. It gives me the highest gratification, and I beg you to accept my most cordial and sincere thanks ...

From the Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. 1.

Believe me always, yours faithfully and obliged,


Happy Happy 2014!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau Wins PEN/Steven Kroll Award

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau has won the PEN/Steven Kroll award for picture book writing. 

The extent of my gratitude to PEN,  and to judges Barbara Shook Hazen, David Wiesner, and Cheryl Willis Hudson can be neither fathomed nor expressed. (Can you tell I've been in 19th century mode for my latest project?).  I am thrilled and deeply honored.

Thanks are also owed to Eerdmans, who chose the brilliant Amanda Hall to illustrate the book (and I hope we'll do more in the future.) Anna Olswanger and the The Lisa Dawson Agency sent me my own personal jungle, to celebrate the occasion.

It was a joy to share the news with friends and colleagues, whose encouragement has nourished me throughout the years. What a happy day. Art, love and beauty forever!
Barbara Shook Hazen, David Wiesner, and Cheryl Willis Hudson - See more at:

Barbara Shook Hazen, David Wiesner, and Cheryl Willis Hudson - See more at:
Barbara Shook Hazen, David Wiesner, and Cheryl Willis Hudson - See more at:

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Sparkling Nonfiction Picture Books at SCBWI Summer Conference

When I started writing for children several years ago, SCBWI (The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) offered encouragement, reassurance,  information about editors and markets,
and useful writerly advice (Type out the text of your favorite books. Read your own manuscripts aloud. Read lots of poetry- especially if you write picture books. Read deeply and widely for weeks, then after a period of silence, write your own book etc etc).

So, you can imagine what a pleasure it was to join the faculty of the Summer Conference this year.

Some points I made during my breakout session:
  • mad love for your subject fuels and sustains expressive language 
  • extensive research will provide telling, evocative and fresh details
  •  do all you can to capture and keep the attention of your audience: children. You must know the things that fascinate and challenge them, and the things they're going through.
We discussed humorous and lyrical and innovatively formatted NF pbs, and I gave tips for writing biographies, some of which are recounted here at GalleyCat.
I attended other NF workshops, dined with new friends, and reunited at the autograph session with my esteemed colleagues of CAN! (Children's Authors Network). Here is yours truly with Alexis O'Neill, Jeri Ferris, Joan Graham and Barney Saltzberg (not pictured are Mary Ann Fraser and Joanne Rocklin.)

The many splendored weekend ended with a wrap party under the stars. A heartful thanks to SCBWI!


Friday, August 9, 2013

Catching Up with Brave Girl

My goodness. So much has happened since Brave Girl entered the world in January.

Harper Collins created a fierce downloadable teacher's guide, which included connections to Common Core.

The book was selected by the Junior Library Guild and went on to receive four starred reviews,

 from School Library Journal which called it a "sparkling picture book biography,"

from Publisher's Weekly:  which said "Markel doesn’t sugarcoat the obstacles and injuries Lemlich faced as she went on to lead the “largest walkout of women workers in U.S. history,”

from Kirkus ("Catches the heart.") and from Booklist ("This book has fighting spirit in spades - you go, Clara!" )

In her review for The New York Times for Women's History Month, Pamela Paul called Brave Girl "an excellent, timely portrait of the labor leader"and according to Horn Book,

 "In her simple but powerful text Markel shows how multiple arrests, serious physical attacks, and endless misogyny failed to deter this remarkable woman as she set off on her lifelong path as a union activist."

It was an honor to launch the book on March 10 in celebration of International Women's Day, at Workmen's Circle in Los Angeles. Judy Fjell sang labor songs, Tania Verafeld read from a play about the Triangle fire, and Hershl Hartmann, a Yiddish translator and educator who knew Clara Lemlich, spoke about her lifelong commitment to social justice.
Clara on the mural at Workmen's Circle

In April, Brave Girl was nominated for an Amelia Bloomer award, and there are plans to release it as a paperback edition for PJ Library.

I am eminently grateful to Melissa Sweet for her wonderful illustrations (complete with stitchery, cloth and vintage documents), to the publisher for being so supportive, and most of all to Clara herself, for inspiring me with her courage and her legacy to the labor movement.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909

I'm happy to announce the publication of Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Balzer & Bray).

What a thrill. The book, which tells how activist Clara Lemlich led one of the most historic strikes in U.S. history, has received stars from Kirkus, Booklist and School Library Journal.  

It was selected by the Junior Library Guild,  acclaimed at Richie's List,  chosen as an Inspired Recommendation for Kids from Indie Booksellers, and as one of Amazon's Best Picture Books of the Month.

My sincere thanks to Melissa Sweet and Balzer & Bray.

On this day I'm also thinking of my father, who was once president of his machinist union, and an avid supporter of my writing. I know he'd be proud.

Finally, I can't resist this wonderful quote from President Obama's inaugural speech:

"We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship." 


Monday, January 21, 2013

Interview with Jeri Chase Ferris, Author of Noah Webster & His Words

Today The Cat & the Fiddle welcomes Jeri Chase Ferris, author of many acclaimed biographies for children, including, most recently, Noah Webster and His Words (illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch).  It's a real charmer!

Q: Why write about Noah Webster?

 A: Everybody knows about Webster, right? He wrote Webster’s Dictionary, right? Right. But what else did Noah do? When you read NOAH WEBSTER & HIS WORDS you will learn how vital he was in keeping our fledging [one that is new] nation together; how he influenced our Constitution; how his books united America, and much, much more.

 And why a picture book biography? I had written an earlier chapter book biography of Noah (WHAT DO YOU MEAN?), which sadly went out of print. Teachers and librarians often asked me for that book, and I was embarrassed to say it was not available. So I decided to have another go at Noah, this time a picture book.

Q: How’d you do your research?

 A: I love history and research! I’m a historian and wanna-be archaeologist, and prefer digging up facts to just about anything – well, maybe not more than riding my horse.

 For my first bio of Noah I dug into all the books and research already done on him, my husband Tom and I traveled to Noah’s geographical sites, and I corresponded with Noah’s great-great-great-grand son. That was like touching history itself, and added to the primary source material that is so critical to a NF work.

 For NOAH WEBSTER & HIS WORDS, I reviewed all my previous research and happily explored additional new books and many new websites. I worked with the director of the NW Foundation, who read and vetted several versions of the ms. until it finally passed muster, and a researcher at Merriam-Webster provided some great definition ideas.

Q: Did Noah really always think he was right?

 A: Yes.  He would go on at great length to prove his positions, sometimes in the face of public ridicule. I admired his fortitude and the fact that despite being occasionally discouraged and depressed, he was never silenced by others’ negative opinions. He bounced back, sometimes even with humor, to “correct” his critics. He was convinced that Americans needed a national head of state, a national set of rules, standard spelling (at that time, the same word might be spelled ten different ways in ten different places), American history and reading and geography books, and ultimately, needed an American dictionary.

Q: What do you hope kids get from this book?

 Language is fun!

 Definitions will surprise you!

 The more words you know, the more you can say!

 And from Noah himself – never give up when you believe you are right.

Q:  What are you up to now?

A:   A Siege of Leningrad ms., THE LAST MOUSE IN LENINGRAD, is being edited. It’s based on the life of a Soviet friend who, beginning at age 10, miraculously survived 900 days of deprivation, freezing and starvation when Leningrad was surrounded by Nazi troops during WWII. This book began the evening my husband Tom and I were having dinner with our dear friends in their small Leningrad apt. It was Christmas for us (not for them) and they had decorated a tiny fir tree for the occasion. Leonid said, during dinner, “When I look at the yulka (fir tree) I always remember the Siege. Then we did not decorate the tree. We ate it.” I had to tell this story.

Also, I’m working on a MG historical fiction set on the Ohio River, about 1800.

Also, I’m starting a MG historical fiction set at the California Russian settlement of Fort Ross, about 1815.

Also, I’m thinking about a historical fiction picture book about a young immigrant girl in 1880s New England who had only one blouse and one skirt, and who …

Did I mention I love history?

In case you missed it, here's the link to the review of Noah Webster and His Words  in Publisher's Weekly.


Many thanks to Jeri, one of my colleagues in the Children Authors Network.

This week's Nonfiction Monday Roundup is at LibrariYAn.