Welcome, Gwen, and thank you for participating in this picture book interview series. We are excited to learn more about your book, Ruth and the Green Book, and your writing process! Thank you for sharing with us today. So, let’s get started!
Tell us about yourself!
I live and work in Provence, France. Most of my early adult life I traveled and moved round — I worked as a freelance writer for a long time and an editor. But now I run an artists’ residency program at the Dora Maar House — that’s my day job. And I write every day, every morning — that’s my primary job. It takes a long time for me to get a book done, but I love the process. The joy for me is in the writing. The rest of the day, when I’m doing my day job, I get to meet and talk with interesting artists, writers and thinkers. I am really lucky.
Do you have a favorite picture book?
I have so many! I have a huge collection of picture books. I love Anthony Browne (I did two books with him and he’s just fabulous), Patricia Polacco (they always make me cry), Beatrix Potter, Maurice Sendak — I could go on forever.
How did you know you wanted to be an author?
I always wrote. I am dyslexic and it took a while for me to learn to read. The first book I read was the Autobiography of Malcolm X. It took me a year, but he and I share the same birthdate so I was hooked and it was a book about SOMETHING. I was so bored with the readers they tried to make me read — which were used at my reading level. I remember the discovery that words and books could transport you. I also remember falling in love with poems and poetry. I memorized poems and recited them to myself. It felt like never being alone. A poem could keep me company. From a young age I do not know if I thought I could be an author, but I thought: I want to be in this world where words matter.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read, read, read. Read what you love. Find an author you love and read everything by them. And try to write every day, even if it is just a journal and only for 20 minutes. Keep your appointment to write.
Is there anyone who has been tremendously instrumental in your path to becoming a writer?
Anthony Browne did my first book with me, a collection of fairy tale poems. His confidence in my work really transformed my life.
Tell us about your picture book!
Ruth and the Green Book tells about a period in U.S. history, when African Americans who had moved north wanted to go back south to visit family– it’s about the difficulties of travel for them navigating racism and Jim Crow laws. They had this wonderful book called the Green Book that they used as a travel guide. Ruth and the Green Book is a middle grade reader and picture book. I love picture books and I love the illustrator, Floyd Cooper, who sadly passed away. I firmly believe that even older readers should be allowed to read books with pictures.
Who do you hope to reach with this story?
For me it’s for all children of all races in America — to learn about our complex history of social change. We often are taught there was slavery and then the Civil War and all was better. Or black people were treated badly and then there was the Civil Rights Amendment and that was that. I want to show that history is a long process — that many people were involved and there were many different periods. This period after the Civil War and before the Civil Rights Movement is not as well understood — but so vital. With this book I want to show how people worked together to figure out how to be safe. Victor Green, who was the creator of the Green Book, is one of the many precursors to the civil rights leaders that would appear a generation later.
What is the goal of your book?
I am telling a piece of history and with that I hope to awaken questions and curiosity. Why did black people need the Green Guide? What has changed and what hasn’t? Who are the Victor Greens of this generation? What would it mean to be a Victor Green right now? How can we help move history in the right direction? I want to help readers ask questions about their own lives.
Tell us about some of the characters or pictures.
Ruth is the protagonist and we are told the story from her point of view. She’s a little girl who is discovering the Jim Crow cruelties. But she has a lovely family and a brown bear stuffed animal. I love the last picture in the book, a double page wordless spread. The illustration tells the story: Ruth and the family have arrived at last to the journey’s end and she is hugging her grandma. Her parents are smiling — you feel the whole joy of homecoming and love in that one picture.
What inspired you to write your picture book?
The idea came from co-author Calvin Alexander Ramsey. He is a historian and told me about this part of U.S. history.
How long have you been working on this book?
I worked with Calvin on historical details and facts and I worked with our agent, Janice Shay, to develop the story line. She and I worked on many books together so we talked through potential stories and then I charted out the pages. It took about a year to get it just right. Picture books are much more exacting than many people understand. Every word has to count.
What were some of the things that surprised you about the book-making process?
In the end, it is always a collaboration. So much time is spent writing and re-writing all alone at my desk — but there is a wonderful time in the life of a book when suddenly it shifts. Editors and illustrators and marketing people get involved. Suddenly the quiet inward writing days are over and it becomes a team activity. My last book, a book for adults, a non-fiction full-length story called The Nine, took about four years to write, many more to research, but the last year I worked closely with an editor. That was wonderful. And then I worked closely with a copy editor and all the others on the team. I loved it! This thing I had spent so much time alone with was suddenly a group project. They made the book so much better.
What other types of professionals helped bring your book to life?
I firmly believe that the secret to a good picture book is that the writing and the pictures should each tell half of the story equally. I don’t want illustrations that just show what I’ve written. If it can be shown by the picture then I like to cut those words. Let the pictures take some of the space of the story-telling, and let the words stand where they need to make the story whole. That interplay between the two allows the reader the lovely feeling of discovery. Anthony Browne is a master of this technique. His books can’t be understood without the illustrations and vice versa. Once you have found that balance and the book is almost finished then you need the editors, and the cover artists, etc. Even the typeface is important. Every detail is thought through. That makes a great book.
What has been the most rewarding part of bringing this book to life and sharing it with young readers?
This is hard to answer. I love the writing process. I love the process of collaborating with the publishing team, and finally I love it when I get responses from readers. All of it is great and I feel honored to be able to do this work. But I guess in the end what carries me through day after day is sitting down and writing. The writing for me is my greatest joy.
Thank you, Gwen, for sharing your time with us and telling us more about this incredible book!