Even though my first encounter with Bethany Hegedus was not in person, I was, even then, moved by her kindness. I was meeting up with a group of writers of non-fiction at the Writing Barn. Bethany, the award-winning author of Alabama Spitfire: the Story of Harper Lee and the lavishly reviewed Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Dr. Maya Angelou, founded and runs this mystical, marvelous place where creativity mixes with the intoxicating scent of flowers and the trees on this oasis in Austin, Texas.
While Bethany wasn’t there, her giving spirit was. She made sure each of us had a gift with a message to keep creating. There was definitely something special in the air of her Writing Barn. My group bonded so thoroughly, we became the Nonfiction Ninjas with our own blog, where we share nonfiction writing tips.
I was already grateful to Bethany as the thread that wove the Nonfiction Ninjas together. So you can imagine my joy when I met and got to hug her in person at the Texas Library Association last year. That led to much talking, laughter, her gracious invitation for me to teach at the Writing Barn and to be featured on her Courage to Create podcast. And now, finally, I am proud and delighted to be the one to host Bethany as she joins us on THE KIDS ARE ALL WRITE to talk about what inspires her to inspire others.
What inspired you to write Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Dr. Maya Angelou?
When it comes to picture book biographies I have written about activists and authors. With Dr. Maya Angelou, with her life and her legacy, she is, was, and always will be both. I always write about my own personal heroes and sheroes: Gandhi, Harper Lee, Jimmy Carter--and Maya Angelou is no different. She is a writer whose words changed me as a young girl who moved from the North to the South in middle school. Her work, from poetry to memoirs, to her incredible speeches and interviews have been a long-term literary companion to me for most of my life.
Did you find it difficult to make her story accessible for children? Did anyone try to discourage you?
Early on some writer friends questioned whether or not Maya’s life story was appropriate for kids as it deals with childhood sexual abuse. My agent also asked me when I mentioned Dr. Angelou as my next subject how I would handle her childhood. I said, “with metaphor--just like Maya did.” The image of the caged bird comes not just from Dr. Angelou’s seminal memoir but is a literary allusion from the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem, “Sympathy.” Maya was a poet as well as memoirist so I chose, for the first time, to write a picture book biography in verse. So metaphor worked perfectly.
Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou is meant for readers in 4-8th grades, and even older. A distinction the publisher Lee and Low has made that reviewers have also commented on.
Handling the sexual abuse Maya endured as a child, of course, is a sensitive topic. And through writing this book I have discovered more women, women I know well, coming forward and sharing their #metoo stories with me. Like most topics that I care deeply about, I am working hard to have us all be comfortable with the uncomfortable. It’s the only way we can move forward and as the text of Rise:! says, “There is no safety in silence.” There are resources in the back matter for anyone who has suffered from abuse or who is supporting someone who has, as well.
There’s a one page spread that deals very sensitively, sparingly but clearly with sexual abuse. Can you share with us your thoughts as you not only decided it needed to be in the book but how you would write about it in a way that was honest without being too much for children to process?
Maya Angelou went selectively mute as a girl--not just because of the sexual abuse--but because in her child’s mind the fact that she named her accuser and he was then killed (mob justice after being only held one night in jail) because in her childhood mind she thought her voice wielded that power. Her turning inward seems to have been both a processing of what happened to her as well as an internal protection of herself. She discovered her voice again when Mrs. Flowers, a woman in Stamps, Arkansas asked her to read aloud. Maya had long been a reader, silently letting the words of others move inside her. But the poetry of the spoken word called Maya out of her protective shell. There can be no hiding from the things we have survived. And when we speak them aloud we help others survive what they may be going through as well.
I long believed this--even before I began writing this book--speaking frankly about my mother’s mental illness and how it impacted me as a child. And I think in part I was able to speak my truth because Dr. Angelou spoke her truth in Tell Me Why the Caged Bird Sings, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary of publication in 2019/2020.
I don’t think I could have--or should have--told Dr. Angelou’s life story without addressing the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of Mr. Freeman. The fact that his name, Mr. Freeman, was what it was, also allowed me to be delicate and direct at the same time. The lines read:
“One day, Maya, left alone with Mr. Freeman, is anything but free.”
As far as I know, it is the first picture book biography to deal directly with sexual abuse and the personal aftermath.
How do you feel about the way your illustrator, Tonya Engel, handled that illustration?
Tonya Engel is an incredible creative. A woman of deep and profound talent. She is a fine artist who is a relative newcomer to the field of children’s publishing and she did three pieces as samples before being the chosen illustrator for Rise! This scene was one of the ones Tonya did as a sample. I cried when I saw it then. I get teary-eyed when I see it now. The shadow of the curtains creating bars on the bed. Maya curled up holding her legs. Her body creating an image of a bird. And then Mr. Freeman’s looming shadow as he exits the room. The pain is evident but it is handled gracefully. Tonya talks in a video where we are interviewed about our individual work on the book and she mentions her color choices and purple is oppression. And yellow is hope.
There is a magical realism to Tonya Engel’s artwork — it feels like the visual equivalent of poetry, non literal but realer than reality. Were you surprised, overall, when you first saw her artwork? Do you have favorite images in the book?
Oh, Nancy, how I love this question. That is exactly what Tonya Engel’s work achieves--a visual realer than reality. Tonya talks about being influenced by folk art and being a self-trained artist. She speaks about her illustrations needing the fluidity of a jazz song. There is nothing I don’t love about her approach to the text and what she brought from her own personal life and lived experience to the page. She is a brilliant creator and is even more luminous when you meet her in person, which I am so honored to have met her and to continue to deepen a friendship as we visit schools and speak together at events and book festivals now that Rise! is out on shelves.
While I love every image in the book, there are two that are my favorite. Maya and her brother Bailey walking to school and the town and the surrounding areas are in their bodies. As well as the image of Maya rising.
What for you, is the heart of what you hope kids will take away from Maya Angelou's story?
That we are all survivors, in our own way. That we can each ‘rise, rise, rise…” even if we must do so--again and again.
You wrote Rise! in a verse that is rich in metaphor and imagery. To what extent did Maya Angelou’s poetry influence the way you chose to write her story? How much revision did it require before you got it where you wanted it to be?
The writers I write about, their words live inside me for many many years. Decades even. With Dr. Angelou’s work, while I was writing the verse, I listened to her read her poetry. As a performer, there is no one as gifted as Maya in performing her own verse. I was on a writing retreat when I wrote the first draft of what became Rise! And I listened to her over and over working to catch the cadence and spirit of the way she strung words together.
The revision process was both a delicate and a deep one and I have my editor, Jessica Echeveria, to thank for knowing when to push and when to pull, on both the verse and the life events we covered.
Your 12-year journey with your first book, Grandfather Gandhi, reminds me so much of my debut with The William Hoy Story — they both took around the same amount of time, too! What kept you pushing past the rejections as you struggled to get the book where you wanted it to be and found an editor who believed in the story as much as you did?
Ah, rejections and learning how to deal with the nos or the not yets...is such a challenging part of the writer’s life. It’s become something I talk about routinely on The Courage to Create podcast and with the writers we serve at The Writing Barn. We all have to face the nos. And in my creative life I work to embrace those nos on the way to the yeses. What keeps me going is different with each book. (I’ve had a book sell in a pre-empt in two weeks and books sell after years of rejections. ) With Grandfather Gandhi, it was my promise to myself after surviving 9/11 to bring something beautiful and healing into the world and the fact that Arun Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson, put his trust in me to help share his story that kept me going. But overall, it’s my desire to be heard.
And I am willing to hear those nos on the way to the yes by keeping in mind this Wallace Stephens’ quote: “After the final no, there is a yes, and on that yes the future world depends.” We have to say and keep saying yes to ourselves as creatives. Over and over. It’s the only way to get our work out into the world. To be heard. To offer change.
You have devoted yourself to inspiring and helping others through the Writing Barn, which offers many wonderful classes — I am honored to be one of your teachers! You also have your podcast, Courage to Create, and your presentations. Why is it so important to you, as a writer, to encourage other writers, as well as children?
Being the Founder and Creative Director of The Writing Barn is such a privilege. It’s part of our mission to support writers at every stage of their journey, and that includes working artists, such as yourself. And we are so thrilled to have you as part of our well-published teaching artist faculty.
One of the reasons I feel the work we do at the Barn and with this new Courage to Create Community I am forming in 2020 (get an early invite here) is important is because I want writers, all creatives, to lead lives where both they and their art can thrive. And for me a thriving creative life is broken down into a few categories: the writing, submitting and the support we need in both.
It’s so easy to feel publishing is this nameless faceless ogre that just tells us “no” and to engage with the business side in a way that leaves us with no power. My goal with the Courage to Create podcast and the community is to create a more intimate and vulnerable space where we peel back the curtain on what it takes to publish, and publish well, as we do with in-person and online programming at The Writing Barn. We all need encouragement. I know I do and I also find I write better when I am championing other writers, just like I do when I am out in the schools talking to kids. We can all come together in community and get what we need to do our best work and to live our most creative lives.
The current trend in picture book biographies is to focus on a slice of a person’s life — a pivotal moment. You give us Maya from the time she is a little girl, going to stay with her aunt and uncle, until her death. Why did you decide to give us as much of her life as you did? How hard did you work to get so much information in the small space allowed by a picture book, all while keeping a melodic flow?
Ah, yes! Slice of life picture book biographies are the rage and I haven’t managed to write one yet. I’ve been lucky enough that the subjects I have written about haven’t been written about before (aside from Gandhi) and therefore portraying someone’s full life has been wanted. When it came to Dr. Angelou, I was inspired early on by Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder and illustrated by Julie Morstad (Chronicle Books) and used it as a mentor text. I decided to write about Dr. Angelou after her passing and I just couldn’t help but depict the fact that her words still call us to rise. I also loved the image of a bird flying free, and that Dr. Angelou’s work serves as a resurrection for us all.
What is the most important thing you want young readers to know?
Childhood matters. Their childhood--the one happening right now--matters and whatever their personal challenges are, they have power and agency--and that power and agency can be used for the good of all.
Thank you, Bethany, for spending time with us on The Kids Are All Write!
Thank you for having me on The Kids Are All Write! Thank you for the work you do, Nancy, in your books and your support of fellow creatives.
Visit with Bethany
On her website: bethanyhegedus.com
Bethany Hegedus’ children’s picture books include the award-winning Grandfather Gandhi and Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story, both co-written with Arun Gandhi (grandson of Mahatma Gandhi) and illustrated by Ethan Turk (Atheneum Books for Young Readers) as well Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird (illustrated by Erin McGuire, Balzer & Bray). Her latest release is the SLJ starred reviewed Rise!: From Caged Bird to Poet of the People: Dr. Maya Angelou (illustrated by Tonya Engel, Lee & Lowe Books), and forthcoming is Hard Work But It’s Worth It: The Life of Jimmy Carter (illustrated by Kyung Eun Han, Balzer & Bray). Her books have been included in numerous “best of” lists such as A Mighty Girl’s Best Books of 2018 and Kirkus’ Best Books of the Year. A former educator, Bethany is an in-demand keynote speaker, workshop leader, and mentor who speaks and teaches across the country about writing, creativity, resilience, and privilege. She is also the Founder and Creative Director of The Writing Barn in Austin, Texas and host of The Courage to Create podcast. She graduated from the Vermont College of Fine Arts with an MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults.