#20Questions with Author Deborah Diesen
Updated: Feb 4
Author Deborah Diesen shares about trying something new and getting into a learning mindset in this #20questions post!
Throughout 2020, we posted #20questions interviews with authors and illustrators of #DiverseKidlitNF books. We thought it would be fun and fascinating to hear the diverse answers from our diverse creators, about our books’ diverse topics, using the same #20questions for each author and illustrator.
By the end of 2020, our blog will host a fabulous resource for educators, librarians, and conference organizers about creating high-quality, diverse nonfiction picture books, and what makes our #DiverseKidlitNF books and creators special.
Now, enjoy learning more about EQUALITY'S CALL and Deborah Diesen!
1. Deborah, what inspired you to write this book?
Over the years, my children have often played a role in inspiring my books, and Equality’s Call was no exception. In late 2017, my younger son and I were having a conversation about politics and voting, and he happened to mention that the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment was coming up in 2020. We both reflected on how it really hadn’t been very long since women had gained the right to vote. As I contemplated that milestone, I started playing with the idea of writing a children’s book about the women’s suffrage movement.
Once I started working on the book, I realized I needed to broaden my scope, because it wasn’t possible to understand the passage of the 19th Amendment without also understanding what came before and after. The book developed into a look at the whole of U.S. voting rights history. But the initial inspiration that led to it was that moment of 19th Amendment conversation with my son. (Thanks, Isaac!)
2. How did you approach the research for this book?
Equality’s Call is my first nonfiction book, and when I began the research for it, I quickly found myself in over my head. I’m not a historian, nor an expert on voting rights, and as my scope of topic kept expanding, I felt overwhelmed, intimidated, and unqualified. I nearly gave up.
But even as I struggled, I knew that the experience of being a learner was a crucial part of my writing process. I realized that if I hoped to take kids on a learning journey with my book, I had to first take that journey myself, and that I needed to do so in the manner in which I want kids to: not with insecurity and fear, but with openness, curiosity, and confidence.
After I adjusted my learning outlook, I was able to shift away from thinking that I had to learn and then convey absolutely everything on the topic of voting rights, and I instead embraced the goal of providing a reasonable amount of content in an accessible and encouraging format, with the aim of inspiring young readers to want to learn even more.
The result is a 400-word rhyming story that depicts the broad contours of voting rights history in this country. The book is appropriate for learners of all ages who would like to know more about the past and present of a complex and critically important topic. Back matter provides further detail and additional learning opportunities.
3. What’s something that surprised you while researching this book?
Since I went into the project with only a basic understanding of voting rights history, I was surprised at every turn by how complicated the topic of voting rights is, how extreme and enduring the barriers to voting have been, and how critical the topic of voting rights remains. It was an eye-opening experience.
In writing the book, I did my best to be honest with kids about the truths of our past, while also sharing with them the progress. My hope is for young people to appreciate the activism of the past, to value our right to vote, and to know the importance of speaking up to protect that right.
4. What was your favorite part about writing this book?
One of my favorite parts about writing Equality’s Call was finishing the first draft. Equality’s Call is written in rhyme, and when I write a story in rhyme, it takes a concentrated period of exploration and experimentation to get from my initial idea to a workable first draft. The process of trying to combine content and narrative arc into a cohesive whole while also incorporating rhythm, rhyme, and refrain feels a bit like solving a super complicated logic puzzle. Sometimes the writing process is two steps forward, ten steps back, given the oh-so-frustrating moments of working myself into a rhyming corner and being forced to give up on a stanza or set of stanzas and try again. But when the pieces all start falling into place? That’s a wonderful feeling.
I wrote most of the first draft of Equality’s Call in an intense burst of effort over a long weekend, and I still remember the satisfying moment of emerging with a coherent first draft. (It still had a lot of work to go after that, but it was a start!)
5. What was the hardest part about writing this book?
The hardest part of writing Equality’s Call was compiling the back matter.
The first back matter section covers voting-related legislation and amendments. This section was challenging to compile because of the complexity of the terrain. Voting rights are not just a matter of who is or isn’t allowed to vote. Voting rights also hinge on the ability to become a citizen and on the ability to safely access the polls. And all of these issues have been impacted over the years not just by constitutional amendments, but by federal legislation, by Supreme Court decisions, and by state laws. Trying to provide enough of this detail to be helpful while not going into so much detail as to be overwhelming was a challenge.
The second back matter section lists voting rights activists. During my research for the main section of the book, I had kept a running list of potential names for the activists section, and I had easily hundreds of names that I would have liked to include. Reducing the list to a smaller number was hard, but I did my best to include a wide range of voices – some well-known, some lesser known. My hope is that students, after reading the brief biographies, will be inspired to learn more about each of the activists. The voices of our past have much to teach us.
In compiling the back matter, I was fortunate to have the input of historian Marsha Barrett. Her expertise and her willingness to answer a million questions from me helped give me more confidence in selecting what and who to include. (Any mistakes made are my own.)
6. Who is this book’s ideal reader, in your eyes?
I envision many ideal readers.
I want preschoolers to hear the story and to absorb and know from a very early age that, “A right isn’t right till it’s granted to all.” I want elementary school students to read the book and to discuss and learn more about the important topic of voting rights past and present. I want older readers to anchor and expand their knowledge of voting rights history so they will be diligent about exercising and protecting that right. I want adults to experience the story as a reminder of the work and sacrifices of those who came before us and of the importance of our carrying forward that work by voting and by protecting voting rights.
It is up to all of us to answer equality’s call.
7. What do you want kids to know about this book?
I would like kids to know that they are part of this book, too. The story of voting rights is not over. It’s an ongoing part of our nation’s history and development. Understanding the past is an empowering part of preparing for the future.
8. What do you want educators and librarians to know about this book?
I would like educators and librarians to know that Equality’s Call is a book that can be used with almost any grade level. The main story, written in rhyme, is suitable as a read-aloud for kids as young as preschool, but it’s also appropriate for older students and even adults. The back matter provides additional information and can be used to guide further research into voting rights history, voting rights legislation, and voting rights activists.
I’m in the process of developing classroom materials to go along with the book and will be periodically posting those to my web site.
9. Who is the publisher for this book?
Equality’s Call is published by Beach Lane Books. It is wonderfully illustrated by Magdalena Mora.
10. When is the official release date for this book?
The release date for Equality’s Call is February 18, 2020.
11. What do you like most about writing children’s nonfiction books?
Since this is my first and, to date, only nonfiction book, I found the process of writing it to be a new challenge. Parts of the writing process were familiar to me, but many aspects were new territory. I enjoyed stepping outside my comfort zone and learning and trying new things.
12. What’s the biggest challenge in writing children’s nonfiction books?
The biggest challenge for me was being so new to it! I had a steep learning curve, what with no talking fish involved. But in pushing myself to go beyond the kind of writing that I was most familiar with, I grew as a writer. And while I don’t know if I’ll write another nonfiction book or not, I do know that writing this one is something I’m very glad I did.
13. How did you get into writing children’s nonfiction books?
Like many things in life, I kind of stumbled into it! But I’m grateful that a conversation with my son about the 19th Amendment sparked what became Equality’s Call.
14. Which other children’s nonfiction books inspire you?
Too many to name (and I’d feel terrible if I made a list and forgot to include something!), but I will say that a nonfiction writer whom I admire and have learned much from is Buffy Silverman. She is primarily published in the children’s educational market but is also a poet. She and I are in the same critique group, and so I’ve seen a wide range of her writing. I’m in awe of her capacity to combine factually rich and scientifically accurate writing with poetic structure and lyrical word choice. Her brand new picture book On a Snow-Melting Day is a lovely celebration of the signs of spring.
15. Do you have other jobs besides writing children’s books? (If so, what?)
Up until a few years ago, I was the bookkeeper and grants manager for a small nonprofit. Before that I worked as a librarian. And before that I spent several years working in a bookstore. I learned a lot in each of those jobs, all of which helps me as a writer.
16. What’s something that surprised you about being a children’s book author?
One of the unexpected pleasures of being a children’s book author is getting to know people I never would have met were it not for our connection through books. Kids and families, teachers, librarians, fellow authors, illustrators, and more – there’s a whole community of wonderful people who are brought together through the shared experience of children’s books. Books build community, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.
17. What’s something about you that would surprise kids to know?
Kids might be surprised to know that my writing journey began when I was their age! In third grade, I wrote my first poem -- a rhyming poem about a butterfly -- and I’ve loved writing ever since. Even though it took me quite a while to become a published writer (that didn’t happen until I was 40), I’ve been writing all along the way.
It’s a lifelong love, and one I hope to always continue.
18. What do you think makes a great nonfiction writer?
The best nonfiction writers are passionate about their subject and diligent about their accuracy.
The result is strong and compelling writing that illuminates, educates, and inspires.
19. Do you have any advice for kids who want to write children’s books?
My main advice to kids (or anyone else who wants to write) is to write! The more you write, the better your writing will become.
Another piece of advice: It’s a good idea to have at least two kinds of readers look at your writing. One should be a Cheerleader Reader – not an actual cheerleader (though it could be), but just someone who will always respond encouragingly to you about your writing, no matter what. Writing is often hard, and sometimes writers feel insecure about whether what they’ve written is any good. Showing someone else your writing can make you feel pretty vulnerable, so it’s a wise idea to always have someone in your corner who will point out everything you’ve done right and give you a pep talk. This will help keep you from getting discouraged or tempted to give up – and you can’t give up, because you have stories to tell and books to create, and we need you to write them!
But in addition to your Cheerleader Reader, you should always have at least one Brutally Honest Reader – someone who will gently but honestly point out to you the parts of your writing that aren’t working and that need to be revised. It can be hard to hear that kind of feedback about your writing, but input like that is necessary to help you make your writing even better.
One final piece of writing advice (that also makes for general life advice): Believe in yourself and enjoy the entire experience. Writing is not always easy, but if you approach it with confidence, commitment, and adventurousness, the results will amaze you.
20. Where can people find you online?
My web site is www.deborahdiesen.com. I have an author page on Facebook at www.facebook.com/DeborahDiesen/. My Twitter account is @DeborahDiesen and I’m on Instagram at www.instagram.com/deborahdiesen/
I enjoyed doing this interview, and I hope readers will take a look at Equality’s Call, as well as all the other #NFinColor selections. Happy Reading!