As someone who is trying to break into non-fiction writing for kids, I have been reading as many non-fiction books as I can get my hands on. I am amazed at all the wonderful titles out there! When I happened upon Debbie Levy’s I Dissent, the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I knew I had to not only read it and use it in my classes, but I had to find out more about the author. Lucky for me (and all of us), Debbie Levy is not only a talented author, but she is also a genuinely good and generous person. Debbie graciously agreed to an interview, and I was thrilled! So for all of you who want to learn about this top notch author, read along!
EL: Why RBG? Were you interested in her before you started your research?
DL: Why RBG?! Really, we (by which I mean the team at Simon & Schuster, my agent, me) were surprised to realize there wasn’t a picture book about Ruth Bader Ginsburg before this one! She is such a great role model—someone who’s been dissenting from unfairness since she was a kid, who’s been a path-breaker and a change-maker by challenging outmoded ways of thinking and by calling out injustice where she sees it. Her life story offers an inspiring lesson: that disagreeing doesn’t make you disagreeable, and that important change happens one disagreement at a time. But wait, there’s more! Her example shows that you can disagree and make change without tearing down your opponent, without engaging in meanness, and without closing yourself off to opposing points of view. A really important page spread in the book shows RBG and the late Justice Antonin Scalia vociferously disagreeing—and yet maintaining a long and close friendship.
EL:Do you normally write NF?
DL: I’ve written a fair amount of nonfiction. But as for what’s “normal” for me . . . I think I’d say I normally try to write books about people, events, or places that I find fascinating or inspiring or (sometimes) difficult.
EL: Please tell us about your process for I Dissent. How long did the research take? How did you do it? Was it just from books and online, or did you interview people?
DL: I started by reading many, many newspaper and magazine articles about RBG. That initial immersion led to my “I dissent” theme.
Then, once I had the theme for the book in mind, the research went deeper and deeper—as well as wider and wider. I read books about RBG, although there aren’t many. I read scholarly articles by and about her. I read more journal and magazine articles and blog pieces. I watched and listened to interviews and speeches she’s given. I listened online to audio of her as a justice questioning lawyers who come before the Supreme Court for oral arguments. I also found audio of her as a lawyer, back in the 1970s, when she was the advocate appearing before the justices for oral argument.
Justice Ginsburg also gave me access to her papers on deposit with the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress, which are indexed and stored in more than 150 cartons
And here’s something I found very interesting in all those cartons: the many handwritten items included in the collection. So tidy. Her handwritten notes on yellow legal sheets discussing and advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment that never got adopted! This research is how I reached the conclusion in the book about her left-handed handwriting. The book has a scene where little Ruth is discouraged—and then PROTESTS!—when, keeping with the practice of the time, her teachers make her try to write with her right hand even though she’s left-handed. RBG’s handwriting is perfectly legible, I discovered in the windowless room at the Library of Congress. It’s better than legible.
I didn’t get to interview Justice Ginsburg before the book went to press. However, she did review the manuscript, and gave me a few corrections and suggestions written in the margins. You can be sure I took her notes.
EL: A lot of people are interested in the time put into a book. How long did it take to write I Dissent from the beginning to the end?
DL: The publisher had this project on a very fast track. I started in late spring of 2015, handed in the manuscript at the beginning of August. Then, revise, revise, revise under the guidance of my editor on this, Kristin Ostby. Done in the fall. I don’t imagine I’ll encounter a similarly compressed schedule anytime soon.
EL: I love the illustrations in I Dissent. The words as part of the both the story and the illustrations is a fabulous touch. Did you and Elizabeth Baddeley get to collaborate at all?
DL: I love the illustrations too, and I’m so pleased with the positive attention they’ve received! I think they really help position the book as one for boys as well as girls, and they create the sense that more than one child has mentioned—of superpower-dom/superhero-dom. They’re just so darned fun and strong and engaging!
We did not collaborate. But that’s par for the course in the picture book world. And, when you have excellent editors and art directors, as we did, it tends to work out nicely!
EL: Aside from imparting information, what do you hope to accomplish with this book?
DL: I hope that young readers will feel encouraged to speak out when they see something they think is unjust. I hope they will think about what it means to disagree well—without personal attacks and without insults. And I hope that they’ll agree with me that our legal system can be a force for good.
EL: I know you are a prolific writer and one who writes in various genres. Will you tell us a little about other things you write?
DL: Other than blog Q&As . . . I’ve had a couple of novels published, picture books (so far, all nonfiction), middle grade nonfiction, poetry, short fiction for Highlights magazine. Earlier in my career, articles for newspapers. Read about all my books on my website, www.debbielevybooks.com!
EL: That’s impressive! How long have you been writing?
DL: Since I was seven, when my mother and I sent a picture book off to Scholastic Book Club. I thought they’d publish it immediately! I believe we sent it to the P.O. box where you send your money to buy the books, so, no, we never heard anything. But I do have a number of my other works from that era, thanks to Mom, who kept them. I show them to kids to prove to them that you can start out as a laughable and sloppy writer and still grow up and become a published author.
EL: I love poetry, and I especially love YOUR poetry. Please tell us a little about it.
DL: Maybe I’ll Sleep in the Bathtub Tonight (and Other Funny Bedtime Poems) was published by Sterling back in 2010. That same year, Disney-Hyperion published a book very close to my heart, The Year of Goodbyes, about my mother’s last year living as a child in Nazi Germany in 1938 before coming to this country—it’s a true story written in free verse. I have some poems in the marvelous Poetry Friday anthologies that your readers may be familiar with, conceived and edited by two high priestesses of children’s poetry, Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong. I’ve published a tiny bit of poetry for adults, too. And I’m working on a new book that is, again, nonfiction in verse.
I love poetry.
EL: Do you have an agent, and do you think it’s important?
I do have an agent, the wonderful Caryn Wiseman of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. It’s important to me to have her to talk about ideas, read developing work . . . and to have her receive the rejections so I don’t have to see them in my own inbox.
EL: Anything else you’d like to share?
DL: My next book—out February 7!—is called Soldier Song, A True Story of the Civil War (Disney-Hyperon). It’s an 80- page picture book for older children that tells the story of a remarkable event that occurred after the Battle of Fredericksburg. It’s about how music—and one song in particular—brought two opposing armies, North and South, together for one night, enabling the soldiers to see the other side—the enemy—as fellow human beings. It’s illustrated by the wonderful Gilbert Ford, with lots of excerpts from soldier’s letters and diaries. I hope your readers will check it out.
Debbie, thank you so much! Your books are awesome, and so are you!