Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!
Today, I am honored to be part of the Sydney Taylor Awards Blog Tour and share my interview with Richard Michelson. Rich's book, As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel's Amazing March Toward Freedom, won the Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Young Readers Category, and his book, A is for Abraham: A Jewish Family Alphabet was an Honor book in the same category.
Jill Tullo (JT): Why did you decide to write a children's book about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Joshua Heschel?
Rich Michelson (RM): A number of my previous books have dealt with racial issues, most recently Across the Alley, (a 2006 National Jewish Book Award finalist and PJ Library selection), which is about two boys, one Jewish and one black, who are not allowed to play together, but whose bedroom windows face each other's. At night, when nobody is watching, they become secret best friends. It was while writing this story, that I remembered the friendship of King and Heschel, and I decided to examine another facet of a situation where social convention tries to keep people apart, but individuals attempt to overcome their differences.
On a personal level, when I was born, East New York, Brooklyn, was 90-percent Jewish. A short 12 years later, less than 10 percent of those living in the area were Jews. In my adult poetry book, Battles and Lullabies, I have written at length about my childhood, the neighborhood, and my father's death during a robbery attempt ( a recent essay on the subject for JBooks called "Jews and Blacks: Obama, King and Heschel" can be read on the homepage of my site www.RichardMichelson.com); and much of my work is an attempt to both heal society’s racial wounds, and those within myself.
(JT): Did you know from the very beginning that you wanted to show the parallels between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Joshua Heschel's lives, or did the concept come to you during your research?
(RM): When I began writing, I didn’t know enough about either man to know how I would structure the book. I’d read of their historic friendship during the Selma to Montgomery march, and that is where I began. I worked my way backwards, knowing we needed to see both men as children in order to understand what made them who they became. And just as importantly, I wanted to portray them as children because kids like to read about kids. I am always aware that, regardless of how serious the subject, if the book isn’t fun to read, no child will turn past the first page. As I researched, I was struck by the parallels between Heschel’s and King’s childhoods, and I decided to structure the book to emphasize these similarities.
(JT): As Good As Anybody is a powerfully inspirational book. What message do you hope your readers take away after reading it?
(RM): That each and every one of us has the power to change the world for the better, and that it is our duty to try to do so. No excuses accepted. That means you! As King says, “The way things are is not the way they always have to be.” And as Heschel says (all writers, me included, take heed) “Words must be followed by deeds.”
Since the book came out I have been doing many workshops with school groups. We read together, and role-play, and talk about prejudice and standing up to bullies, and how to effect change. I am always amazed at how much kids “get it.” They instinctively know what is right and what is wrong, but they feel, and often are, powerless. Hopefully As Good As Anybody will help jump-start family and classroom discussions.
(JT): A is for Abraham is designed for the entire family to enjoy. Can you talk about why you decided to write that book?
(RM): Although I am culturally Jewish, I did not grow up with a religious education of any kind. But I married a Methodist who felt strongly that children should be raised with a religious foundation. Jennifer converted to Judaism (going into labor while in the mikvah, but that is a different story), and it was her questioning me about Jewish traditions that made me realize how little I knew about my own history. I wanted to write a book that would have been both helpful to me at that time, and later to my children. I think it is important and empowering to teach kids (and adults) the long history and the reasons behind much of what they are learning about their heritage.
I also tried to make the book welcoming to interfaith families, Jews of different denominations, and non-Jews. The Sleeping Bear format, with its color coded sidebars, is wonderful. It allowed me to write two different books in one: a simple fun poetry book for young children and a more sophisticated prose book for older kids and adults.
(JT): What can we expect to see from you next?
(RM): I am as busy as ever. My follow up Knopf book will be out in 2010. It is called Busing Brewster and it is about a black child bused to an all white school in the 1970’s. Brewster wants to grow up to be the first black president of the United States – and this manuscript was written in 2003, very pre-Obama.
My next book for Sleeping Bear Press, is also scheduled for 2010 and tentatively titled Lipman Pike: First Professional Baseball Player and Jewish Home Run King. And that tells you exactly who and what it is about.
(RM): Lastly, before this “blog tour” ends, let me mention how much Raul Colon and Ron Mazellan added to As Good As Anybody and A is for Abraham, respectively. I have been blessed with top notch illustrators who helped bring my words to life. And finally (for real this time), let me say that if I showed you the first draft of either of these books (I won’t), it would be obvious how much Michelle Frey at Knopf, and Aimee Jackson at Sleeping Bear, helped shape my manuscripts. Which is why I won’t ever show you my drafts; I prefer to perpetuate the myth that I have earned these AJL medals on my own.
(JT): Thanks so much, Rich, for taking the time to talk about your books and share your inspiration behind them.
Be sure to visit Tales from the Rushmore Kid for an interview with Ron Mazellan, illustrator of A is for Abraham.
Click here for the rest of the tour schedule!