Social activist, feminist icon, poet, and Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Ani Di Franco has turned her hand to writing her first picture book, The Knowing (Rise x Penguin Workshop, Mar.). Illustrated by Julia Mathew, The Knowing is told in the form of a lullaby about identity and connectedness. Di Franco spoke with PW about shifting creative gears for her latest project.

Why did you want to write a children’s book?

I wrote a memoir a few years back [No Walls and the Recurring Dream], and after it came out, Cecily Kaiser, publishing director of Rise x Penguin Workshop, said, “Would you ever consider making a book for young readers?” Then, enter the pandemic, and the yanking of the tablecloth out from under my regularly scheduled job, touring musician. I had to find new ways to be creative, to pay the bills, to be an artist in the world, since playing gigs was not an anchor anymore. I got in touch with Cecily and said, “You know what? Maybe now’s the time.”

Where did your vision for The Knowing come from?

I have read a lot of children’s books with my two kids, and I’ve relearned the world through their eyes. And I’ve been aware that identity is feeling like a double-edged sword in the world of my children. I’m a child of the 1970s, and the articulating of difference and diversity was a vital part of evolving our society, culture, and politics in my youth. But now, in this age of gizmos and social media, there’s a shadow side. I see an aspect of identity in the lives of my kids that’s like a cross to bear, a job to do, something that needs to be perfected and performed on a daily basis. That’s where I started from.

In this book, I wanted to set up a “yes, and...” message about identity. Yes to the beautiful, colorful, diverse world, and naming ourselves, and inserting our voices into the chorus, our realities into the dominant discourse. But also yes to what’s underneath that. I wanted to affirm for kids the interconnectedness of their spirit with all other living things. I think that children are not as immersed in story as adults—they are living in a freer state in terms of identity. I wanted to affirm that on some level, beyond story, we are one with each other, and not just all other humans but animals, plants, trees.

Is there a musical version of the text that you might sing?

As a matter of fact, there is. When [Kaiser] reached out with the idea, she suggested I make a lullaby. That initial idea became The Knowing. So it’s a song and a book.

How did you collaborate with illustrator Julia Mathew?

Rise x Penguin Workshop shared her artwork with me and said, “What do you think about Julia?” And I said, “Two thumbs up.” They asked me, “So what direction do you have for her?” And I said, “None. I want to know how she sees it.” I’ve been making music long enough that I’ve learned better than to start by telling somebody what to play. What I prefer is to just get in the room with brilliant people and say nothing. I want to start with, “What does this make you feel? How does this look to you?” Julia did a beautiful job of bringing the words to light in pictures and putting her own voice into it.

You’ve been a songwriter for years and have written poetry and a memoir. How was writing a children’s book different from other forms of expression?

Songs and poems are in a realm that’s very familiar to me after 30-some years of writing in long, skinny columns, with very distilled language. Going to write the memoir, complete sentences, was a whole other bag of doughnuts. The children’s book was not as huge an undertaking, but still challenging for me. I came to realize that so much of what I engage in my songs—cultural references and clichés, lots of double meanings—has no meaning for children. None whatsoever.

I had to learn how to say something in language that is much less metaphoric, much more literal, but also say things that are poetic, that are expansive. I had to get my Pablo Neruda on. What kind of language is so simple that it can translate across huge cultural divides, adult to child, and still resonate?

What are you working on now? Do you have any other book projects planned?

We are working on a second children’s book. Being the singer-songwriter, being the performer, being the album maker, that’s been really cool. But after hundreds of songs, it’s like, what else can I do with this creativity that I can’t turn off, or this need in me to express things? I’m excited to keep expanding my horizons.