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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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Picture Book Review for MLK Day – A Place to Land

A PLACE TO LAND:

Martin Luther King Jr.

and the Speech That Inspired a Nation

Written by Barry Wittenstein

Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

(Neal Porter Books/Holiday House; $18.99, Ages 7-10)

 

A Place to Land book cover

 

A 2019 Booklist Editors’ Choice
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year
A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year

INTRO

Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech, “I Have a Dream”, will never cease to give me chills or bring tears to my eyes so I’m grateful for the meticulously researched backstory behind the composition thoughtfully presented in A Place to Land by Barry Wittenstein and Jerry Pinkney.

While elementary-school-aged children may be familiar with King’s speech, they may not know how long it took to write, that it was delivered during the 1963 March on Washington, or that one of the most quoted parts of it was shared extemporaneously at the prompting of gospel great Mahalia Jackson. In this enlightening picture book, readers are privy to fascinating fly-on-the-wall moments that demonstrate King’s writing process and how his background as a preacher played a part in its creation.

 

Pages from A Place to Land interior Page 1
Interior spread from A Place to Land written by Barry Wittenstein and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Neal Porter Books ©2019.

 

REVIEW:

Over the years I’ve reviewed myriad wonderful MLK Jr. books and A Place to Land, like those others, has focused on an impactful point in King’s life and magnified it so we may understand it better. Wittenstein’s lyrical writing shines and flows like a King speech, pulling us in with each new line. I found myself repeating many of the sentences aloud, marveling at what he chose to keep on the page and wondering how much he had to leave out. The revealing information Wittenstein details will inspire readers to reexamine well-known orations throughout history, looking at their content through a new lens.

 

Pages from A Place to Land interior Page 2
Interior spread from A Place to Land written by Barry Wittenstein and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Neal Porter Books ©2019.

 

The story in A Place to Land unfolds in three significant locations, the Willard Hotel in D.C., the Lincoln Memorial, and at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama just prior to, during, and some years after King’s speech. Historical figures are woven into most of Pinkney’s spreads. Readers will be prompted to learn more about every individual noted and the comprehensive back matter provides the resources to do so.

I hadn’t known that the “I Have a Dream” speech was written at the Willard nor did I know how many influential colleagues contributed during the meeting of the minds prior to King’s drafting of the speech. “So Martin did what great men do. He asked for guidance.” I also hadn’t realized that MLK Jr. practically pulled an all-nighter writing it after the lengthy and honest discussions. How he managed to make such a powerful presentation after barely any sleep is beyond me, but clearly, his adrenaline kicked in and his natural oratory skills took command at that lectern.

As a former speechwriter, my favorite part of A Place to Land was reading about King’s exhaustive efforts to craft the speech late into the night while trying to integrate all the input he’d been given earlier in the meeting. In his message, he wanted to convey the goals of his non-violent civil rights movement and continue to push for racial equality and the end of discrimination. He was also determined to honor those who came before him and those who would carry on his dreams. “… and so many others, their faces forever seared into his memory.”

King found himself “Writing. Rewriting. Rephrasing, …” and then practicing his delivery before succumbing to sleep. I felt as though I were in the room with him, knowing as he did that there was an important element currently eluding him that was still to come.

 

Pages from A Place to Land interior Page 3
Interior spread from A Place to Land written by Barry Wittenstein and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Neal Porter Books ©2019.

ART

Pinkney’s outstanding collage-style illustrations are so fitting for the subject matter. He seamlessly blends images of civil rights advocates with elements of the movement and the era. As I turned the pages, I couldn’t wait to see what people would appear and against what backdrop. It’s hard to imagine any other art marrying so well with Wittenstein’s or MLK Jr.’s words. I resoundingly recommend A Place to Landby Barry Wittenstein and Jerry Pinkney for parents, teachers, and librarians. It’s a movingly written, motivating, educational, and timeless read that I will definitely revisit.

Visit the publisher’s website page here for bonus material.

Click here for a roundup of more recommended reads for MLK Day.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

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Middle Grade Nonfiction – We Are The Change

WE ARE THE CHANGE:
WORDS OF INSPIRATION
FROM CIVIL RIGHTS LEADERS
With an Introduction by Harry Belafonte
(Chronicle Books; $17.99, Ages 9-12)

 

we are the change book cvr

 

Middle-grade nonfiction book, We Are the Change: Words of Inspiration from Civil Rights Leaders, beautifully weaves together quotations with evocative imagery. Harry Belafonte’s* powerful introduction encourages future leaders to remember that “in citizenship [resides] a profound majesty, an individual dignity, and a lifelong responsibility of each man and woman to one another.”

 

 we are the change int art1.jpg
Interior artwork by Lisa Congdon from We Are The Change, Chronicle Books © 2019.

 

Sixteen award-winning illustrators have selected and depicted quotes from leaders past and present. Eleanor Roosevelt’s statement “universal human rights begin in small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map” is expanded by artist Molly Idle: “lines drawn on maps to divide us into nations, states, and towns are only imaginary.”

Sonia Sotomayor hopes we fix a broken system rather than fight it. Illustrator John Parra adds that “we can accomplish much by reframing our goals of working toward what we believe in, instead of what we are against.”

 

we are the change int art3.jpg
Interior artwork by John Parra from We Are The Change, Chronicle Books © 2019.

 

Raúl the Third’s moving image accompanies Dolores Huerta’s wish that “[people’s] differences should not turn into hatred.”

 

 we are the change int art4.jpg
Interior artwork by Raúl the Third from We Are The Change, Chronicle Books © 2019.

 

Khalil Gibran believes “[our children’s] souls dwell in the house of tomorrow.” Artist Innosanto Nagara reminds us “the choices we make today must protect our children’s rights.”

Additional spirited civil rights quotations paired with original artwork by Selina Alko, Alina Chau, Emily Hughes, Molly Idle, Juana Medina, Innosanto Nagara, Christopher Silas Neal, Brian Pinkney, Greg Pizzoli, Sean Qualls, Dan Santat, Shadra Strickland, and Melissa Sweet make this a must-read for tweens.

We Are the Change is a call to action and an opportunity for thoughtful conversation.

 

*Harry Belafonte is a Jamaican-American singer, songwriter, actor, and social activist. He has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 1986 and is now the American Civil Liberties Union celebrity ambassador for juvenile justice issues.”

 

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