3 Question Interview - CHANA STIEFEL
I'm delighted to feature my friend and fellow #BookMeshuggenah Chana Stiefel on the blog today. Chana shares the inspiration for her new book, LET LIBERTY RISE: HOW AMERICA’S SCHOOLCHILDREN HELPED SAVE THE STATUE OF LIBERTY, illustrated by Chuck Groenink, releasing on March 2. Chana discusses stories, creativity, and connection - I especially loved learning about her research and writing process. Welcome, Chana!
STORIES – Discuss the inspiration for your ideas and stories, and share the process about your latest projects.
Thanks for inviting me to your blog, Melissa. I aim to write books that instill in children a sense of wonder—for example, weird animal books like ANIMAL ZOMBIES...AND OTHER MONSTERS IN NATURE (NatGeoKids), books about the awe-inspiring forces of nature, and my latest book, LET LIBERTY RISE: HOW AMERICA’S SCHOOLCHILDREN HELPED SAVE THE STATUE OF LIBERTY, illustrated by Chuck Groenink (Scholastic), coming out March 2. It’s a little-known slice of history about one of America’s most cherished icons. It highlights what we can all accomplish when we all work together.
I first heard the story from my friend Jackie Glasthal, who used to work with me and author Sue Macy at Scholastic magazines back in the day. We’d stayed in touch over the years and I invited them to my house for a Friday night dinner back in 2014. Jackie mentioned that she had published a middle grade novel called Liberty on 23rd Street, and the backstory was the incredible true story behind the building of the Statue of Liberty.
In short, when France sent Lady Liberty as a gift for America’s 100th birthday, America was supposed to build the pedestal. But what many people don’t know is that most Americans didn’t want the statue (they called it an eyesore!) and few people offered to pay for the pedestal at a cost of over $100,000 (over $2 million today)! Joseph Pulitzer, a Jewish Hungarian immigrant and owner of the New York World newspaper, felt strongly that the statue must stand in New York harbor, the gateway to America. He said if anyone gives a penny for the pedestal, he would print their name in his newspaper. So schoolchildren emptied their piggy banks...and the rest is history!
Illustration by Chuck Groenink, Scholastic
When I heard this story I knew it had to become a picture book. It hit so many notes for me—liberty, immigration, cooperation, history, friendship, charity, and determination! Initially, Jackie and I worked on the research together. We took ferries to meet at Ellis Island, where there’s a library dedicated to the history of the statue. I also scrolled through pages of the New York World newspaper from the late 1800s on microfilm at the New York Public Library. I read every book on the subject that I could find.
Sadly, Jackie passed away four years ago. I consider this story her parting gift, and the book is dedicated in her memory. As the French would say, Jackie stood for Liberté, égalité, fraternité.
CREATIVITY -- How do you showcase your creative side through writing/illustrating and other pursuits?
I write both fiction and nonfiction so my brain is always buzzing with new ideas. LET LIBERTY RISE! is my first narrative nonfiction picture book (my others are informational/expository). I went through MANY drafts deciding what the focus would be. Was it the building of the statue? The architect Barholdi and his journey? Was it Joseph Pulitzer? At one point, I told the story from the perspective of Lady Liberty peeking through her crates. Once I realized that I wanted to focus on the children who donated their pennies, the story took off.
I would suggest to other writers: Don’t be afraid of trying new approaches, new points of view, and new genres. See where your heart and brain take you and then go for it!
CONNECTION -- How do you connect to your young readers through your writing/illustrating, and how do you stay connected to the KidLit community?
I love doing author visits, particularly with smaller groups when we can connect with each other and have fun. I usually prepare lessons geared toward each class. The Q & A sessions are the best!
One thing I sometimes do is read my drafts to a group of kids on my block. One trend I’ve noticed is that nonfiction picture books, both in the narrative and the vocabulary, are sometimes skewed toward an older audience who are no longer reading picture books. So by reading my drafts aloud to kids in my target audience, I can see what they like, where their minds stray, what they understand, and what needs polish. Kids give the most honest critiques!
In terms of connecting with writing peers, I have a wonderful online critique group called Sensational Six. We share manuscripts every month. I’m also a member of many online kidlit author groups including 12 x 12, Jewish Kidlit Mavens, the Book Meshuggenahs, a Twitter group of funny women in kidlit, and more! The kidlit community is so supportive and I couldn’t be more grateful for those connections and friendship.
Chana Stiefel is the author of more than 25 books for kids, both fiction and nonfiction. Her next picture book is LET LIBERTY RISE (illustrated by Chuck Groenink, Scholastic, 3-2-21), the true story of how children helped build the Statue of Liberty. Other picture books include MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH!, illustrated by Mary Sullivan (HMH, 2019) and DADDY DEPOT, illustrated by Andy Snair (Feiwel & Friends, 2017). Recent non-fiction titles include ANIMAL ZOMBIES…& OTHER REAL-LIFE MONSTERS (National Geographic Kids, 2018), which was selected as a Top Ten YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant YA Readers in 2019. Chana loves visiting schools and libraries and sharing her passion for reading and writing with children. She earned a Master’s degree in Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting from New York University. Chana is represented by Miranda Paul at Erin Murphy Literary Agency.
CONNECT WITH CHANA:
Chana and her writing partner Donna Cangelosi recently moved their blog @kidlittakeaways to Instagram. Follow and enter the giveaway!