I recently posted a review of a fiction picture book called NEW SHOES. I love the book so much, and today I’m thrilled to welcome the author, Susan Lynn Meyer, to the blog! Susan was kind enough to answer a few of my questions. I hope you’ll enjoy getting to know her a little better. I know I did!
LT: Welcome, Susan! I’m so excited to learn more of the story behind the story of NEW SHOES.
SLM: Hi Laurie! Thanks so much for your interest in NEW SHOES.
LT: How did you first become interested in writing about the Jim Crow time period, and what in particular led to thinking about framing it in the context of trying on shoes?
SLM: I was reading about segregation from the 1940s onward both just because I was interested and as research for a novel I just finished writing. (It is called SKATING WITH THE STATUE OF LIBERTY and it’s about Gustave, a twelve-year-old French Jewish refugee who comes to New York in 1942 because his family is fleeing the Nazis.) I was startled to come across a piece of information I hadn’t known about—that in many stores, African-Americans were not permitted to try on clothes, hats, or shoes. I thought a lot about what that must have felt like, especially for a child encountering it for the first time. As I mulled that over, it began to shape itself into a story.
LT: I love that, how one book project sparks and informs another, and in a different genre and on fairly different subject, too. How much research did you do for this book? Can you tell us about that process? During your research, did anything surprise you, catch you off guard, or make you change your planned course for the book?
SLM: I’m lucky because I have access to a terrific academic library since I’m also an English professor at Wellesley College. I went to the stacks, checked out a lot of books about Jim Crow, and started reading! Among the most intriguing things I came across were accounts of the ways, large and small, that African-Americans coped with Jim Crow, the psychological and practical strategies they used. Parents would make sure to bring along water so that their kids didn’t have to face segregated drinking fountains. People would refuse to patronize restaurants where proprietors refused to seat them and would only sell them food by handing it out the back door. I loved the story of one black teenager who had a job at a grocery store and who was infuriated by the stupidity of the fact that brown eggs and white eggs had different prices—and that white eggs were cheaper because they were “better.” So he’d secretly switch the eggs around, mixing them up in the cartons! (I put that incident in the novel I just finished, but I ended up taking it out. I love it so much that I may use it again someday!)
SLM: The hardest thing about writing NEW SHOES (it went through 23 drafts over several years) was figuring out what Ella Mae and Charlotte could do to resist the unfair situation they found themselves in. The solution they come up with isn’t perfect, in the sense that the shoes are still second-hand, but people can buy them with dignity. Sales at Mr. Johnson’s shoe store, where Ella Mae hasn’t been allowed to try on shoes, are likely to suffer as a result, which is a nice additional benefit.
LT: In EMMANUEL’S DREAM, I wrote about a disabled man from Ghana, despite being none of those things myself. I know people have questioned if I should’ve been the one to write that story, despite the fact that I did extensive research and had the manuscript vetted many times along the way, including by Emmanuel himself. IT was a story I felt I had to tell, in part because no one else had, but also because I could so identify with the emotions involved, even if not the specific experiences. Clearly you also believe that it is okay to write outside of our own culture, as long as we do so with care and respect. What do you say to people who question your authority to write this book?
SLM: All I can really say is that I write the stories that come to me. When I found out about this aspect of Jim Crow, it really hit home for me, and I mused a lot about what that would have felt like, especially for a child encountering it for the first time. Imagining and wondering led me to this story. I’m not demographically similar to any of the protagonists in the books I’ve had published so far, actually—I’m not a black American girl living in the 1950s and I’m not a French Jewish boy living in the 1940s either (as in my novel BLACK RADISHES or the sequel to it that I just completed, SKATING WITH THE STATUE OF LIBERTY). Writing fiction is about imagining your way into a character who is not you—and trying to do it so effectively that your reader is drawn in as well. Writing for children especially involves this kind of leap—because all the writers are adults trying to imagine their ways into the minds of children. Writing across gender or time or nationality also requires this kind of leap.
SLM: But in order to be persuasive to the reader, that imaginative leap has to be an informed one, and it was also important for me to get the reaction of black friends to NEW SHOES when it was in draft. One early reader told me something that really resonated with me. I had initially had Ella Mae’s mother directly express anger after the shoe store incident. But this friend said that her older relatives would not have talked that way about racism to their children, that to protect the child, they would have encouraged the child to think positively. When I thought about my own older relatives and also about the way I am as a parent, that felt so intuitively right to me. So I changed Ella Mae’s mother’s answer. Now she tells Ella Mae that she should think about how nice her feet will look for school. And that feels so much more like what a parent in those circumstances would do. I’m really grateful for that reader’s early response.
LT: Oh, I love that answer! So, how exactly were you able to “imagine your way into a character who is not you” in this case? How did you put yourself in someone else’s shoes (no pun intended), and tell a story that—on the surface, at least—you have no direct experience with? What was the personal connection for you?
SLM: In some ways, my own experiences inevitably find their way into anything that I write. I was one of six children, money was limited, and we wore a lot of hand-me-downs. I now enjoy telling students at the schools I visit about an absolutely humiliating experience I once had with hand-me-down boy’s long underwear. (Don’t ask!) My parents also had me and my brothers and sisters polish our school shoes every weekend and we washed the shoelaces when we did it. I’ve never asked to find out if anybody else did that! I wasn’t great as a kid about doing chores—who is?—but I actually didn’t mind polishing my shoes and I found washing the dirt out of the shoelaces, the way Ella Mae does, very satisfying. On a deeper level, there’s the issue of injustice of all kinds, which I was very attuned to as a child. I often said furiously, “It isn’t fair!”—and I hope kids will have an intense reaction of this kind to the situation in NEW SHOES.
LT: Well, I’ve never polished shoes or washed shoelaces, but I’m sure almost every kid—including me—has roared, “It isn’t fair!” It’s kind of sad that we become more desensitized to injustice as we get older.
LT: I think every book teaches us something new, about the world, about ourselves, or about the craft of writing. What have you learned as a result of writing this book? What surprised you the most during the process?
SLM: I loved hearing from Eric Velasquez about his method of illustration, and it really made me realize how much a picture book is a truly collaborative process. Eric has models pose, takes photographs, and then paints from those photographs. He chose two girls who were friends to pose for Ella Mae and Charlotte, because he wanted their closeness to show in their body language. It is wonderful to me to look at his paintings and to think about all the people besides me—Eric Velasquez, the models, as well as all the people working at Holiday House—who came together to create this book. I also especially love the end papers Eric designed for the book, which are tracings of one of his girl model’s feet. They encapsulate what the story is about so wonderfully in a simple and powerful visual image.
LT: Yes, I loved the end papers, too! And the illustrations are so beautifully realistic. Kudos to Eric!
LT: I always said that I would know I’d made it when I received one letter from one child saying that something I wrote made a positive difference in his or her life. How do you define success? Do you feel like you’ve achieved it? If not, what’s left on your to-do list?
SLM: I think I’m always going to want to write another book and get it published, so I don’t know if I’ll ever really feel as if I’m at the point of success! But the other day, I checked out a book from the public library, and it been read so many times that the pages were soft they were about to tear. What I want more than huge sales is to have my books find a home in libraries and stay there for many years waiting for a child to come along and pick them up. I think when I come upon a copy of one of my books in a library and the pages are as worn and soft as the pages of that book—that’s when I will have achieved success.
LT: That’s a wonderful image and a perfect definition of success.
LT: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Susan! It’s been lovely to learn more about your process.
SLM: Thank you so much for having me on your blog!