Listen! Leda Schubert talks about writing her picture book biography of Pete Seeger
If you’re a Pete Seeger fan (and if you’re not, you should be!), you’ll want to get your hands on Listen: How Pete Seeger Got American Singing, by Leda Schubert and illustrated by Raúl Colón.
Leda is also the author of another picture book biography, Monsieur Marceau, illustrated by Gérard Dubois, and an historical picture book, The Ballet of the Elephants (which I fell in love with at first listen!), illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker. Her picture book biography, Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III is due out in January. Leda also writes dogs really well! And snow plows, and sheep, and soup!. She kindly agreed to answer some questions about Listen, and about her process for my picture book students.
So here goes:
First, I find that figuring out the story is –surprise–the most difficult part. I love doing research, so the problem is when to stop. With LISTEN, I already knew quite a bit about Pete’s life. What I wanted was to find a way to draw in readers who might not have heard of him, but without writing a strict biography. Anita Silvey’s book and Susanna Reich’s book both cover his life in more detail. I wanted to do something else, both because it’s how I write and because I didn’t want to step on their toes (though there are more books coming about Pete, as there should be).
Yes. I first thought of it as a song for Pete, but I’m not a songwriter. Then I thought of it as a tribute. But it’s also a book about him, his life, and what he accomplished. His politics, his activities, his courage, his music. I’m so happy the song titles are in blue, like a hyperlink, encouraging readers to maybe go and listen to the songs, learn the words, and sing with others.
As mentioned above, that’s the hard part. I think of it as finding a voice, a place from which to approach someone else’s life. It’s like playing a god of sorts, of course. Selecting bits and pieces to shape a story arc without subverting, being dishonest, or misrepresenting who that person was. With Pete, he really didn’t seem to have a dark side, so no dishonesty necessary. (It’s something to think about when writing a biography: will you still love your subject after having him or her occupy your mind constantly for so many months or years?)
So when I found “Listen. There was nobody like Pete Seeger” somewhere in the back of my deteriorating brain, I was very happy. It seemed to be a way to invite readers to sit and hear a story about a remarkable person, and it informed everything else I wrote. It had authority. And then the “listen” switches to “and sing” at the end, which was Pete’s message.
I think I did the same thing with “Monsieur Marceau.” Once I got “Look at this man” for a first line, the rest was easier. It directed my attention. If people looked, what would they see?
Yes to the question about the author’s note and timeline. I really wanted to write about the Peekskill concert, which is so important in American history, but nobody knows about it any more. It was a terrible, even brutal, incident, rife with racism and anti-communist hysteria. But it didn’t fit into Pete’s story, particularly for this telling.
I also would have loved to write more about Toshi, who made Pete’s life possible. But again, that would have switched attention from the narrative.
My brilliant editor, Neal Porter, encouraged me to include the Holocaust section of “Monsieur Marceau,” even when I questioned it. For Marceau, it was a central event, so of course I couldn’t leave it out, but how could I tell it? When it came to Pete’s story, I was more confident, and I figured if I managed to address the Holocaust I could write about HUAC. Also, my goal is always to cut, cut, cut and make the manuscript as tight as possible. To tantalize, maybe, and leave readers curious.
HUAC and its nefarious activities is another area that I’m afraid people know very little about these days, and as Trump continues to chip at our democracy (more than chip, really), I would have liked to include more. But I think I told enough, and certainly I wrote about how it affected Pete’s life over the next years. Because I wasn’t writing a history, per se, I felt comfortable with that decision. Also, to have gone off on a tangent about the blacklist, significant as it was and is, would have made for a much longer book.
I had no input other than to discuss the choice of Mr. Colon with Neal. I was thrilled. LISTEN is my ninth book, and one thing a picture book writer learns is that once the manuscript is submitted, it’s not the writer’s any more. It’s in the very capable hands of the editor, art director, and illustrator. I’ve been very very lucky so far, and I trust those folks to know what they’re doing. I think Raul Colon did a great job; I particularly love the pages that echo WPA art and are so appropriate to the times when Pete and Woody traveled the country.
I don’t see them as that different, I guess. The subjects are different, but more alike than not. Each was a performer, each was the best at what he did, each had a complicated life and used his art to illuminate what it means to be human. Each hoped to enlarge the listener/watcher. Pete was, of course, much more of an activist.
I had to do much more research for Marceau, since I knew almost nothing about his life. Only his performances. I was completely astonished to learn that he was Jewish and that he rescued children during the Holocaust. Who knew?
The book I probably did the most research for was BALLET OF THE ELEPHANTS, also nonfiction, since it involved so many people and one magnificent elephant (about whom I also read). Balanchine, Stravinsky, Vera Zorina, John Ringling North, circus history, St. Petersburg (Russia) and so much more. Took forever and had a very different problem: whose story was I telling? When I realized I was really writing about an event, things fell into place. Plus it was my first nonfiction and I had very little idea what I was doing.
There are so many. But I can’t imitate, though I’d love to. My recent favorite is by Patricia MacLachlan and Hadley Hooper. Matisse. It’s absolutely brilliant–goes to the core of an artist in a unique way.
I knew I was writing for children, of course, but I hoped the book would inspire adults as well and lead readers to action in two major ways.
“The Water is Wide” is the most beautiful song I know, and I love the way Pete sang it. He actually found it as an old ballad and reworked it. I’ve asked musician friends what the most beautiful song they know is, and it’s almost always this one.
Thanks so much for your thoughts and your time, Leda. It’s great to have Pete’s message being spread to a new generation!