Lots of Illinois authors have new books hitting shelves right now. And while so many important national issues are rightly demanding our attention, it can feel like new picture books or novels serve little purpose. But they do. Now more than ever, it's important that we talk to young readers about American history, about the brave members of society who fought for justice and pushed the national dialogue forward, who challenged the status quo. Patricia Hruby Powell's Lift as You Climb: The Story of Ella Baker (Margaret K. McElderry Books, June 2020), illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, does just that.
Powell is the author of award-winning picture book biographies, including Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, illustrated by Christian Robinson, and Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case, illustrated by Shadra Strickland. With Lift as You Climb, she turns her attention to one of the most influential female figures in the Civil Rights movement.
QUESTION: Ella Baker shunned the spotlight and preferred to work behind the scenes. Why did you choose to tell her story and bring her life to young readers' attention?
PATRICIA HRUBY POWELL: Ella Baker was a hero—both as a Black rights and women’s rights advocate. She believed that rather than one strong leader, it’s better to have many local leaders. What a great model for young activists! We need young activists more than ever right now. We need to remake our world.
Ella Baker’s grandparents were enslaved people, who, once emancipated, worked, then bought the land on which they’d worked while enslaved. They became leaders of their community. The book includes stories of Ella working with Dr. Martin Luther King and a hundred Black preachers, of Ella and the young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members, but one story that is not in the book is this: Ella Baker told Dr. King that she didn’t think that a movement run on one charismatic personality was a healthy movement. She asked him, what did he think would happen once he was gone? She was right, of course. Sadly, the movement pretty much fell apart when Dr. King was assassinated.
Ella Baker and Dr. King had huge respect for one another but they didn’t always see eye to eye.
While Dr. King was recruiting the “elite” into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP (that’s the lawyers, educators, preachers, doctors), Ella felt it was as important to recruit the “common” people and particularly, women (maids and clerks). At the same time Ms. Baker was showing the powerful Black men, who she worked alongside, to respect her as their equal. The preachers were accustomed to working with women who were subordinate to them—serving women.
They had a lot to learn about respecting women as leaders. Poised, respectable, wise Ella challenged them and broke ground for women.
Q: What is your creative process like? As a dancer, you've spent a lifetime focused on movement. And even in your writing, movement and energy pulse through each line. How are you able to convey such vitality on the page?
PHP: I identify first and foremost as a dancer. I’ve been a dancer much longer than I’ve been a storyteller or writer. I live inside my dancing body. I am my body, which may sound a little corny. I don’t mean the shell of my body, but my kinesthetic body. My moving body. And I write from who I am, as we all do.
I cannot sit still for long. I think best when I’m moving—walking, swimming or working out in water, bicycling, skating, dancing. I record notes on my phone or on slips of paper (or if necessary, in my brain;-). Then I return to my computer for the writing. But the thinking happens when I’m on the move. Sometimes I enact my characters, moving as I see them moving on film, and try to discover who they are, physically. I feel that I can “become” them by moving as they do. Try it.
I recommend turning on music, inserting earbuds, going a little ways out into the country where there are fewer eyes upon you and dance. I do this while watching my dog run through fields tracking bunnies and jumping into ponds. So nature helps too. Thoughts rush in.
Q: “What do you hope to accomplish?” is a refrain throughout the story. What do you as a writer for children hope to accomplish?
PHP: I always want children to love reading. I hope that they’ll be fascinated by my stories and want to read extensively. But nowadays, more than that, I want young readers to become inspired to be social activists. I want them to figure out what they care about, and work for that. There is SO much in our society that needs correction.
Activism? Maybe you’re excited or concerned about Black Lives Matter, the vote, police reform, gun control, zoning laws, segregated education, the health of the Earth and our environment, sustainable living, renewable resources. The list goes on and on.
Helping other people gives you a life purpose—especially in this challenging time. We need to remake our world. Everyone will win.
We all need to ask ourselves, What do I hope to accomplish?