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An Interview with Author Alexis O’Neill About Picture Book Bio Jacob Riis’s Camera

 

AN INTERVIEW

WITH AUTHOR ALEXIS O’NEILL

 

RIIS Cover from BMK

 

 

JACOB RIIS’S CAMERA: BRINGING LIGHT TO TENEMENT CHILDREN

ILLUSTRATED BY GARY KELLEY

(Calkins Creek/Boyd Mills & Kane; $18.99, Ages 7-10)

I’m so happy to share this interview with popular SoCal author, Alexis O’Neill. Her new picture book biography introduces Jacob Riis, a determined New Yorker born in Denmark, to a new generation of readers. It’s hard not to feel as though you’ve traveled back in time as you learn about Riis, who is best known for his moving photographs of the plight of the poor tenement dwellers in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

SUMMARY

In Jacob Riis’s Camera, a penniless immigrant, who becomes a reporter and social activist, uses new flash powder technology to illuminate desperate tenement living conditions and brings about changes for children and their families.

INTERVIEW

GOOD READS WITH RONNA: Did you happen upon Jacob Riis’s photos one day and find inspiration to write this picture book or did you intentionally set out to write his story?

Riis Interior with Flash
Interior illustration from Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Gary Kelley, Calkins Creek ©2020.

ALEXIS O’NEILL: I’ve always been interested in photography and photographers. I used to live pretty much with a camera in my hand, and when I lived in central New York, I belonged to the Syracuse Camera Club, one of the oldest in the nation. I met Riis’s photos when I was researching child labor issues for other projects. Then later, I read his autobiography, The Making of an American. He wrote so vividly and personally that I felt as if he were right beside me, chatting with me in my living room. That’s when I knew I wanted to write a book about him.

GRWR: Despite my familiarity with Riis’s haunting b + w photos, I had no idea how influential he had been during his lifetime. What fact or facts about Riis surprised you the most?

AON: I was really surprised that Riis didn’t consider himself a photographer. In fact, he later carelessly tossed his glass plate negatives into his attic. Then, just before a wrecking ball was about to destroy the family home, the images were rescued, thanks to photographer Alexander Alland, Sr., and donated by Riis’s son, Roger William, to the Museum of the City of New York.

GRWR: Riis was a champion of the poor as early as his youth in Denmark. What impact would you say his photos have had on the way this segment of our society is treated?

AON: Riis’s photos were revolutionary. They inspired accountability and gave documentary evidence that helped force compliance of landlords with sanitary and building regulations.

GRWR: How big a role did Riis’s immigrant background play in his career?

AON: Like most immigrants, he had a driving work ethic. He was an educated Dane with carpentry skills, but he had a hard time finding work in America. He did all kinds of menial tasks in order to survive. He experienced homelessness and hunger. He experienced injustices and wanted to fix themnot just for himself, but for others.

 

RIIS Tenement Neighborhood
Interior spread from Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Gary Kelley, Calkins Creek ©2020.


GRWR:
Is there a particular photo of Riis’s that particularly resonates with you?

AON: To me, his most heartbreaking photo is “The Baby’s Playground.” A toddler with a shaved head and filthy dress stands in front of an overflowing public sink at the top of a dark staircase that has a railing held together with rope. The wall behind the baby is coming loose. No child should have to live like that.

p23 RIIS Book116
Interior illustration from Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Gary Kelley, Calkins Creek ©2020.

GRWR: Obviously this nonfiction bio involved a lot of research. How did you choose what to include or leave out when his rags to not-so-riches-but-fame story is so fascinating? Was there a portion or time period of his life that was most difficult to nail down?

AON: Riis’s relationship with his Danish sweetheart was complicated, so I treated that with a broad brush stroke.

GRWR: Why do you think no professional photographer had captured the lives of shelters and tenement dwellers prior to Riis?

AON: At the time, most photographers made pretty portraits or, like Matthew Brady, recorded historical events. Riis, in contrast, showed the underbelly of life. I think that when Riis read about the invention of flash powder, it came at the right time for him. Photographs taken with this new technological tool helped him convince officials to make changes in the tenements.

RIIS Five Cents a spot
Interior illustration from Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Gary Kelley, Calkins Creek ©2020.

GRWR: Do you attribute Riis’s success to his talent as a photographer, his perseverance, good timing or all three?

AON: I believe Riis’s success can be attributed to his determination and tireless work to tell a complete story of the social injustice experienced by impoverished city inhabitants. He lived during a time of great interest in social reform.

GRWR: As a former New Yorker and lover of NYC’s Tenement Museum, I’ve always admired Riis’s photos. Why do you think his accomplishments are not better known today?

AON: Riis’s photos continue to impress people, and his contribution was unique. In his advocacy for improving substandard housing, he was one among many of his contemporaries who also advocated for changing laws on child labor, suffrage, public health, housing, and schools.

GRWR: What’s one of your favorite illustrations by Gary Kelley in your book?

AON: I love Gary’s illustration of Jacob giving a lecture and pointing to his photograph of a tenement mother holding her swaddled infant. As he talks, Jacob gestures to the poignant image. This image makes me wish I could have heard Jacob in person!

BIO

AON Headshot2 by SonyaSones
Alexis O’Neill, photo by ©Sonya Sones.

Alexis O’Neill is the author of several picture books including The Recess Queen, the winner of several children’s choice awards, and The Kite That Bridged Two Nations, a California Young Reader Medal Nominee. Her new picture book biographies are Jacob Riis’s Camera; Bringing Light to Tenement Children and The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey (due Fall 2020). Alexis received the California Reading Association’s award for making significant and outstanding contributions to reading throughout California and is an instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.

Website: www.alexisoneill.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/alexis.oneill.9

Twitter: @AlexisInCA

Instagram: @Alexis2017

Thank you so much, Alexis, for sharing your insights about Jacob Riis and giving us the inside scoop about your new picture book biography, Jacob Riis’s Camera. It’s so great to know how many children will now have a chance to learn about Riis’s important contributions to society.

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Write On, Irving Berlin! by Leslie Kimmelman

 

WRITE ON, IRVING BERLIN!
Written by Leslie Kimmelman
Illustrated by David C. Gardner
(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99, Ages 6-9)

 

book cover image from Write On, Irving Berlin! by Leslie Kimmelman

 

This quote says it all – 

“Irving Berlin has no place in American music – he is American music.”

— Jerome Kern

It’s been almost 30 years since we lost the brilliant musical talent, Irving Berlin, but his music lives on. In fact, the great news is that we can frequently hear some of his most famous songs throughout the year at sporting events, at Christmastime and in musical revivals across the country. Write On, Irving Berlin! written by Leslie Kimmelman and illustrated by David C. Gardner is billed as a lyrical story of an immigrant and the composition of “God Bless America.” This picture book biography provided the interesting back story of the man behind so many hits including “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, “Putting On The Ritz”, “White Christmas”, “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” as well as all the wonderful songs from Annie Get Your GunEaster Parade and many others.

 

interior artwork of Israel Isidore Baline arriving in N.Y. from Write On, Irving Berlin!
Interior spread from Write On, Irving Berlin! written by Leslie Kimmelman with illustrations by David C. Gardner, Sleeping Bear Press ©2018.

 

When it became too unsafe to remain in Russia for Jews, five-year-old Israel Isidore Baline and his family traveled by ship to America in 1893 to begin a new life. Thousands of immigrants arrived at Ellis Island in New York with barely anything but memories of their homeland. But at least they were safe and free. In school, Israel went by the name of of Izzy but found it difficult to focus on learning. Music filled his head. That was no surprise. In Russia his father had been a cantor, “standing side by side with rabbis, singing and filing synagogues with beautiful music.”  Sadly, Izzy’s father passed away when the boy was just thirteen. He left school and his family so as not to be an added burden and struck out on his own. What did he do? He sang wherever he could get a paying job. He also wrote song lyrics although he couldn’t read or write music! He actually hummed his tunes and had someone else write down what he created. Pretty impressive I’d say. By this time Izzy was calling himself Irving Berlin and had sold his first song for 37 cents. He found a job at a music publisher and, since ragtime music was all the rage, he wrote Alexander’s Ragtime Band which became “a smash.”

 

interior artwork from Write On, Irving Berlin! pg 14 spread ragtime
Interior spread from Write On, Irving Berlin! written by Leslie Kimmelman with illustrations by David C. Gardner, Sleeping Bear Press ©2018.

 

Soon Irving Berlin married but not long after the wedding, his wife Dorothy became ill and died. He turned to his music to get him through his grief, still grateful for all that his new country had given him. During WWI Berlin was drafted into the army where he wrote songs to lift the spirits of his fellow soldiers. After that he found love again with Ellin and wrote the song “Always” for her. One hit followed another and Berlin’s popularity grew. He seemed to live and breathe music and wrote songs at any time of the day or night and in any place, including the bathtub!

 

interior artwork p 21_22 from Write On, Irving Berlin! bathtub scene
Interior spread from Write On, Irving Berlin! written by Leslie Kimmelman with illustrations by David C. Gardner, Sleeping Bear Press ©2018.

 

It probably took little time to write one of his all time greats, “God Bless America”, a song that celebrates its 100th or 80th anniversary this year depending on whether you count when he first composed it or when he released it decades later. I had no idea Berlin donated all the proceeds from the song to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America or that people weren’t happy that a Jewish man, an immigrant, had written the song. What stunned me was those same folks could again not embrace his other huge hit, “White Christmas” for the same reason. Despite that, Berlin is said to have told a friend he thought it was the best song anybody had ever written. There is more to learn about this amazingly talented man such as how he traveled to war zones during WWII to help entertain the troops and how his fount of song ideas seemed ever flowing. Kimmelman’s included an author’s note in the back matter where I learned Berlin not only helped found the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) but in his lifetime he received not only the Medal of Merit from President Truman but the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Eisenhower as well.

 

Nothing stopped Irving from writing int artwork from Write On, Irving Berlin!
Interior spread from Write On, Irving Berlin! written by Leslie Kimmelman with illustrations by David C. Gardner, Sleeping Bear Press ©2018.

 

Kimmelman’s shared just the right amount of information with her prose although there is so much material about Berlin to choose from given his long career.  I liked how, since this is an anniversary year for “God Bless America”, she included that very line at various points throughout the book. Looking at Gardner’s beautiful historical imagery with its water color quality, readers will get a terrific sense of time, place and mood. Prepare to be transported back by both Kimmelman’s words and Gardner’s illustrations to a time when Tin Pan Alley was turning out the hits and Irving Berlin was at the top of his game. I recommend reading the book while playing a selection of some of his songs which can be found here.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Read another picture book biography here.

 

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We Came to America by Faith Ringgold

WE CAME TO AMERICA
by Faith Ringgold
(Knopf BYR; $17.99, Ages 5-8)

 

We Came to America Cover Image

 

“We came to America
Every color, race, and religion
From every country in the world.”

This lovely lyrical stanza from We Came to America  invites children to participate in Ringgold’s inspirational poem while reminding them of the journeys made to this country by many different people. From the indigenous peoples already here to those who came bound in chains, from those who fled hardships elsewhere to those who came by choice, it is their stories and creativity which makes America great. As the poem unfolds, children come to realize the scope of this country’s diversity and how it contributes to our success as a country.

The acrylic illustrations have all the rich colors and naivety of folk art, a hallmark of Ringgold’s art. Her familiar style is put to good use here, vividly complementing the theme and helping to interpret the poem. She paints a rich diversity of faces against the backdrop of the red white and blue.

While there is little reference to such events as slavery and anti-immigrant violence, this book is a welcome addition and can used across the curriculum with a variety of age groups. Share it with lower elementary students who are working on a family origins unit for Social Studies. Or pair it up with other resources such as Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, Mary Hoffman’s The Color of Home and Anne Sibley O’Brien’s I’m New Here, to help students gain a deeper sense of the immigration experience and the importance of immigration to this country’s growth. Introduce it to older students as they debate contemporary immigration policies. Share it to help heal recent political divisiveness.

“In spite of where we came from
Or how or why we came,
We are ALL Americans, just the same.”

Awards
School library Journal Starred Review
2017 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People

  • Review by Dornel Cerro
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