A REAL BOOK by Susan E. Goodman
Every children’s book author has had the experience. You’re at a party, meet some new people and they ask what you do. You say you’re a kids’ book writer, then wait.
Option 1: She asks, “Should I know you?”
Option 2: “That’s so nice!” he says, then pauses, “have you ever thought about writing for grownups?” In other words, A REAL BOOK.
Since I write nonfiction, there’s another possibility.
Option 3: “That’s so nice!” they say, then pause, “have you ever thought about writing fiction?” In other words, A REAL BOOK.
At first this bothered me, but not anymore. The mounting respect for children’s nonfiction is lovely (and long overdue!) but I have other reasons.
Reason 1: I like what I do. My books about animals, the Arctic, or archaeology might introduce a young reader to a lifelong passion (and those are only the subjects that start with A). That’s an honor, and a serious responsibility.
Reason 2: I love learning stuff, all kinds of stuff. Did you know that George Washington got elected to the Virginia state legislature by treating voters to 160 gallons of alcohol? Or, that when upset, chimps who have been taught sign language indicate their frustration with the sign for poop? The information itself is great, but so is the thrill of the hunt, finding the fact that opens the next door in the story or sums everything up perfectly.
Reason 3: Writing for children helps me understand the world. In almost any book, there comes a moment when I find myself struggling to explain something to kids in terms they’ll understand. To find my way, I have to strip that process or insight down to its core. Sometimes I find I haven’t really understood it myself. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I will find a new way to look at something I thought I knew. These exhilarating discoveries feel like secret glimpses of how the world works…
When I discovered Roberts v. City of Boston while walking Boston’s Black Heritage Trail, I instantly knew I would write about it. I’d lived in Boston for decades and never heard of the lawsuit. Benjamin and Adeline Roberts refused to let their 4-year-old daughter walk past five schools for white children to go to an inferior one for African Americans. They filed the first legal challenge against segregated schools in the late 1840s, a time in our country when only two percent of African Americans went to school.
They lost, of course; otherwise I would’ve known the case long before my walking tour. Still, loss and victory are complicated things. This lawsuit and its defeat helped rouse abolitionist Boston to integrate its schools in 1855. I was hooked by the Roberts trial and the beautiful symmetry of the Brown v. Board of Education decision coming almost 100 years later. I quickly realized, however, the story had another main character: the zigzagging nature of social justice.
It’s not like I haven’t thought about this topic before. How can you avoid it, given the world we live in? But imagine writing a timeline of the history of integration for your back matter, 1848 to the present. You strip the events down to single sentences and suddenly you see all the incremental steps made by people on both sides, fighting for their idea of what is right. It’s a tug of war and a war of tugs in which one side makes enough gains that the other mobilizes and pushes back. Again and again and again.
So what have I learned from this glimpse of the world while writing The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial?
Change takes time; it steps forward and stumbles back, lurching its way through history. No victory is final. Think about the momentous laws and court decisions you’ve watched getting nibbled away. Causes and values need to be nurtured and supported.
But we’ve also seen giant leaps forward: electoral victories once hard to imagine, surprising Supreme Court decisions, outrage igniting movements. These changes seem to spring up overnight, until you make your timeline and chart the groundswell creating the surge. And one more thing: take another look at the advances dear to you. They most often happen when enough people of different genders, races, religions and backgrounds come together to say, “This isn’t right. This issue hurts all of us. Let’s create a country we want to live in.”
As a writer, I know I should tie up this post by looping back to its beginning. But why bother talking to those partygoers again, even in my imagination. Do I write real books? Absolutely. What’s more, I feel very lucky.
Susan E. Goodman has written many award-winning nonfiction books, including ALA Notable All in Just One Cookie and On This Spot, a Washington Post Top Picture Book of the Year. School Library Journal gave her new REAL book, The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial, a starred review and called it, “An important exploration of the struggle for equality and education in this country.”
You can find Susan online at susangoodmanbooks.com and at thefirststepbook.net, where The KIDS SPEAK OUT! Survey also invites kids to anonymously express their experience and opinions about integration and race relations.