Author Jess Rinker on Discovering Gloria Steinem
Updated: Feb 4
An unexpected journey to Gloria Takes a Stand.
By Jess Rinker, #DiverseKidlitNF Author of Gloria Takes a Stand (2019)
I never thought I’d be writing nonfiction for kids. It’s true. I set out on a different path, focusing solely on young adult fiction for years. I went into my MFA program with YA, came out with YA and then, guess what? Couldn’t sell a YA. I realized very quickly that in order to make it in the publishing world—at least for me—I needed to expand my wheelhouse.
In the past, I’d written poetry, creative nonfiction, theatre reviews, personal essays, etc. It shouldn’t be a surprise that trying on other categories in children’s lit might be worth my time. Still I struggled. Fiction was my darling.
Sparking An Idea
About a year into signing with my agent and being crushed by the lack of a sale, I read an article on NPR about Gloria Steinem’s new memoir My Life on the Road. I’m constantly getting books based on NPR’s advice, memoir is probably my favorite genre to read, and Gloria lived on the road as a kid? She didn’t even attend school until she was 11? What? I didn’t know this about her.
In fact, I didn’t know much about her at all other than the icon status she held. And I was a social welfare major in my undergrad! Gloria was maybe a blip on the screen when I was in college in the 90’s.
I’d never learned anything about her life and now I found myself wanting to know everything.
This is actually one of my “curses”—needing to know everything. Turns out that trait comes in handy when writing.
From time to time, my agent puts out a call to her clients. She’ll often mention topics she’s interested in selling, or send us articles about trends trying to help us drum up marketable ideas. She keeps us informed and it sometimes sparks ideas. One day, in our private client Facebook page, she mentioned the idea of a Gloria Steinem picture book. And here I was up to my eyeballs in all things Steinem and she didn’t even know it. I raised my hand, claimed the idea, and the rest is history. Or herstory, as they say.
Diving Into PB Bios
Gloria Takes a Stand sold and then a year later Send a Girl: The Brenda Berkman Story. Now I’m working on more.
I have fallen in love with writing picture book biographies. It combines my absolute love of researching—needing to know things—and story.
The same components necessary in fiction are necessary in writing a biography. A character’s desire, conflict, and how they overcame it, (or didn’t overcome it) are the most basic tenants of a story and a biography. The challenge of trying to figure out how to sculpt all the information I cull from reading into a thousand words feeds my intellectual side. The hope that my book plants a seed in a child’s heart and mind to want to know more, to want to know all the things, feels like a potential superpower.
When I was a child, I used to pull the encyclopedias off the shelf and simply read entry after entry. It’s no wonder I’ve easily fallen into the nonfiction world. The really amazing thing for me is: I also have since sold fiction.
Writing is writing is writing.
You just have to keep doing it.
And possibly, learn all the things.
* See more of Jess Rinkers books at https://jessrinker.com/.