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Find more The Shelf Care Interview
Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series, where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Lerner Publishing Group.
In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Julia Smith talks to Tameka Fryer Brown and Nina Crews about their new picture book biography, Not Done Yet: Shirley Chisholm’s Fight for Change.
You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here.This transcript has been edited for clarity.
JULIA SMITH: Thank you for joining me, Tameka and Nina.
TAMEKA FRYER BROWN: Thank you for having us.
NINA CREWS: Yes, thank you. Great to meet you.
Please tell us about your book.
BROWN: Not Done Yet: Shirley Chisholm’s Fight for Change is, of course, about the imitable politician and changemaker, Shirley A. Chisholm. It’s about her fighting spirit and how that evolved throughout her lifetime, starting from when she was a little girl. It’s also about her sense of fairness and justice and all the different ways that she managed to use her voice for change. And it’s written as a narrative free verse poem. And Nina, I’ll let you talk about the art.
CREWS: The art is done digitally. I used photographs of Shirley Chisholm as my reference material—photographs in which there are a ton of wonderful things, as well as some deep imagining of various scenes that happened before she was photographed and famous. So, my illustrations were done as digital collage using a lot of patterns and textures and things to evoke the scenes and the times.
Why did you all feel that it’s necessary to tell kids about this woman?
CREWS: Shirley Chisholm is . . . she’s an incredible person. She really is someone who lived a life of purpose. She fought for what she believed in. She worked tirelessly to help other people and was just so . . . She was a first. This is actually the 50th anniversary of 1972—the year that she ran for president and was a real contender who got delegates and was really a seriously considered player in a very big field for that year’s presidential nomination. And that’s a huge marker, a huge point, when you think about what has happened and what has changed in this country since then, in terms of the way in which politics are more open and accessible; and there are many more people of color and women involved in politics now.
BROWN: Absolutely, I agree. All of her firsts. And then there’s her character, right? She was a bold woman. She had an extremely high level of integrity. I think that was very much unmatched in the politicians of her day, and some might say in the politicians of ours. And I think that boldness, integrity, and just the willingness to stand up and speak out for what you believe in, even when that means that you have to stand alone to do it—those are all qualities that our children would benefit from seeing modeled. And I don’t think that there’s a better model for that than Shirley Chisholm.
Tameka, why don’t you tell us a little bit more about why you went with poetry to talk about Shirley?
BROWN: Honestly, my picture book–writing brain just seems to work in poems, in a series of poems. It could be free verse. It could be rhyming. I just think in poems, so that was a really natural and comfortable way for me to enter the story. But beyond that, I think poetry is a really great way to introduce young readers to various topics, including nonfiction topics and biographies, in particular. I think the lyricism of poetry makes for this really engaging sensory experience for young readers. And also the poetic framework is a more succinct way to tell a story oftentimes. You just get to the heart of the points that you’re trying to make more efficiently. So, I think that’s also a positive, as it relates to reader engagement.
Nina, what about Shirley were you really trying to capture in your illustrations?
CREWS: Well, I knew who Shirley Chisholm was, knew about her. I was really a child of some of the era in which she was in politics, even though I wasn’t represented by her in New York City; I lived in a different part of the city at the time. But what I’ve really loved is how you start to fall in love with a character—a person—once you really look at them and spend time with them.
Looking at photographs of Shirley Chisholm, I just fell in love with her energy, with her passion. That was so clear and came through. Her intelligence also comes through in every picture of her. She’s incredibly photogenic. So, that was what I knew I needed to get across in the pictures.
The other thing was that she was deeply invested in helping people, and she was a politician, so she was always around other people. So, as much as I was a little intimidated by having to draw lots of people for this book, I thought, “Well, I’ve got to put a lot of other people around Shirley Chisholm. Otherwise, we don’t have the half the story.”
I’d like to talk a little bit more about your process, just in terms of research or method. Tameka, let’s start with you.
BROWN: Of course, I read Shirley’s autobiography, Unbought and Unbossed, and I also read another biography about her by Barbara Winslow called Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change. And then, because of who Shirley Chisholm was and her being very public figure, I was fortunate enough to be able to find a lot of video of her. I watched a documentary by Shola Lynch, Chisholm ‘72, and that was about her presidential run. And I also was able to look at other interviews and video of her. One that was really instrumental and that I got a lot of information from was her interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project. Then I read lots of articles on her.
Really, what I was trying to do was get a sense of who she was as a human being—not just all of her accomplishments, but her character and her personality and just the way she spoke. Once I felt like I had this visceral sense of who she was, that’s when I started to write the story.
That’s so great. And those sources, there’s so much in them. To think that you pared them down and distilled them into such—
BROWN: And that’s a process. And it takes rounds because, of course, there’s so much information. So, you say, “Okay, what is it that I think is really, really important about her life?” And so, you write that down. And then you start writing the story. At least I started writing the story, and then it was like, “Okay, still too much.” And you just have to whittle and whittle. At some point you say, ”What is the narrative thread? What is the focus? The thing that you’re trying to get across.“ And it was her spirit, her fighting spirit, and how she was the type of person for whom it was important to stand up and speak out for what she believed in. And so, once I figured out that that was what I want to focus on, I made sure that all of the scenes I included supported that idea.
Nina, how about you?
CREWS: Well first, of course, I had the pleasure of working with Tameka’s fantastic manuscript. So, I get this project, and I read through everything that she said and how she’s presented Shirley. And so, my job is very different and very simple in a certain sense, in that I look at what Tameka has written and think about how to make that, to amplify what she’s done. That’s basically what you’re working with as an illustrator: How do you amplify the story, the words that are presented to you? How do you bring all the things that she’s put into all those pieces?
So, that was the fun part. Of course, then the work part of it for me was that then I had to sit down, and I had to look through tons of research as well. I also read Unbought and Unbossed because I wanted to sift through and see what other things came out in it. I thought about the people whom Chisholm said were going to the polls for her. She really reached out to women a lot, so that’s why you see mostly women are in that group. And she talked about how she spoke Spanish and James Farmer didn’t. There was a large, I think 30% of the district, Spanish-speaking population. So I thought, ”Okay, let me make sure that I show this group of people.“ These were the people who were actually there in line for her to vote.
And then, I love the internet. I mean, it’s great. So, I could just search in different ways and try to find enough images to really answer all the questions that come to me, like, ”Well, she’s teaching kindergarten in 1940. What does that look like?“ And you start looking through each of these things and going down lots of rabbit holes, which I really enjoy. It’s really fun for me to do.
Because we are part of the American Library Association, we always like to talk a tiny bit about libraries. I can see this book working well in collections and being useful in a lot of different ways. Where do you really see it being an asset for librarians?
BROWN: I agree. I think that there are so many different ways. I mean, let’s just start with American history. She was a really important and transformative figure in American history, so let’s start there then. Of course, you also have women’s history, Black history, Caribbean history, politics, and activism. Like you said, there are just so many academic and educational areas where this book would fit, not only in classrooms and library spaces, but also in home libraries. I think that the story is written in a way that is really accessible for young readers.
CREWS: I’m glad you mentioned the Caribbean history because I think that even though she was born in America, it is an immigrant story in so many ways; her roots are in the community that came from the Caribbean to Brooklyn, New York. And another thing that I read while working on the illustrations for this book was Brown Girl, Brownstones, by Paule Marshall, which is about a Barbadian family who comes to New York and buys a house. The story really echoes back to her own experience and to Shirley Chisholm’s experience, too. They’re very much going back and forth between those two places, and that is really a kind of immigrant experience, too.
Thank you so much for that. I just want to hear, since this will be our last little bit, about any other projects you’re working on right now—if you can talk about them.
CREWS: Well, let’s see I’m writing my own nonfiction poetry right now. I’m working on a biography of Virginia Hamilton that will be told in a series of poems—not one long poem, but a series of poems. And that’ll be published by Christy Ottaviano, we’re hoping for early 2024.
BROWN: Are you illustrating that also?
CREWS: I’m illustrating it, too.
BROWN: Fantastic! Today, October 18, I just had a book release, 12 Dinging Doorbells, published by Kokila and illustrated by Ebony Glenn. At the end of January, I will have published, That Flag, illustrated by Nicholas Smith. And it was just announced that I have a second book coming out with FSG (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), and it’s called, You Are: Ode to a Big Kid. So, those are the projects that I have on the horizon.
You guys are so busy! I’m happy to hear it, because I love getting in books from both of you.
BROWN: Oh, thank you.
CREWS: Thank you.
Thank you so much for chatting with me. And thanks to everyone listening to the Shelf Care Interview.
This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by Learner Publishing Group, publisher of Tamika Fryer Brown and Nina Crews’s, Not Done Yet: Shirley Chisholm’s Fight for Change, available November 1, 2022. Happy reading!
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