Poet, writer, and activist Alice Walker’s novels include The Third Life of Grange Copeland and The Color Purple, for which she received the Pulitzer Prize. She is also the author of numerous collections of poetry, nonfiction, and children’s books. Her new picture book, Sweet People Are Everywhere, presents her poem of the same title alongside playful, slice-of-life illustrations by Quim Torres. The poem celebrates the shared humanity of people around the world and invites readers to remember the fundamental sweetness they have in common with others in their travels. PW spoke with Walker from her home in California about the responsibility of writing for children and how travel and activism have influenced her work.
How did the idea for the book come about?
It was a poem that came about because Bryon, the young man in the poem, was about to go off to China. And he’d never been out of the country. He was a teenager and had some trepidation about leaving home in Oakland. Leaving the United States seemed really huge. And I was wanting him—and other children—to understand that the world is large and in some ways quite scary but usually when you get to wherever you’re going, the people are pretty much like the ones you left at home.
The poem is a list of sweet people from all over world. What qualities do you think make a person sweet?
Kindness, primarily. Generosity. Patience. Those three things.
You dedicate the poem to Bryon. Can you say more about how you met Bryon and how he inspired the poem?
Well, he was brought to my house by a friend who I’m connected with basically by our dogs. She came with this young man, and we were just talking as you do about what was up, and what was up for him was going to China and possibly playing music there. He’s a musician, and he plays music in his church. So I connected with him as a young artist. When we’re young and we have what we feel is a gift to offer, we’re timid about how it will be accepted and who the people will be who can accept it. And China seemed so far away to him I think. It helped that I had been there so I was able to say some things about what I had experienced.
You’ve written so extensively for adults in both fiction and nonfiction genres. What do you see as the attractions and challenges of writing for children?
Somebody has to tell them early more of the truth. Not all of it, because that would turn their hair gray in the crib. But some adults have to take responsibility for teaching them. Children can think and feel. They have emotions. Their bodies are capable of intense feeling and pain, and I think this is something that is glossed over in children’s books. So I wanted to encourage Bryon to go and see for himself and understand that there is a huge difference between a people’s government very often—mostly—and the people and especially the children.
In the interview that follows the book you say, “There are not foreign countries.” What do you mean by that?
Well, there are foreign countries until you make them not foreign. People are not really foreign. People are very much like you. You have to understand that, yes, they speak a different language and the food is different, but humans are, generally speaking, pretty much the same. And [for] children I think that’s especially true. So if you have that awareness when you go to a different place, it eases the transition from wherever you’ve come.
I remember when I was a teenager I went to Finland. And the people were extremely white but they were not at all white like the people I had left in Georgia. And this was a big lesson that there is that difference that institutional racism had caused so that the Finns would look so different to me. But actually once I was there I saw that they didn’t have this particular baggage of segregation and racism, and loved to dance—nobody told me how much Finnish people like to dance! So I was perfectly happy dancing with tons of wonderful dancers, and that taught me what I’m hoping I can relate to younger people: you trust that the people you meet don’t have the baggage that you left behind. That they do like to do the things you like to do, in this case dance. And you just go along with that rather than fearing that they’re going to be so horribly different because of something you saw on television about their government.
Government is a different thing. But the people are the people, and that’s who we connect with.
That’s a fantastic story about Finland. How did you choose which countries to include in the poem? Was there any special significance to the other places you included?
I live in Mexico part of the year so I love Mexico, for all its troubles. And there you see it: the children are just like children everywhere. They love to go swimming in the ocean. They love building sandcastles. They love eating good food, riding bicycles. Meanwhile, all around them there’s a considerable amount of terror because of the cartels, because of the government not being able to do very much about the violence. Just shocking, terrible stuff. But the children are just going on being children.
Also, Burma, Myanmar. Here’s a country that is so incredibly magical. It’s ruled by absolute, terrorist dictators. But anyway, I chose Burma—Myanmar as they renamed it—because I wanted children to think about this place which actually is incredible.
Congo is in there. It’s right next door to Rwanda and the massacre of the Rwandans meant that a lot of the people and then the people who caused the massacre have fled to the Congo. So that’s why I was there, trying to understand what was going on there and then realizing in the middle of all this devastation the thing that nobody ever talks about: the Congo is gorgeous! It is exquisite. Lakes and mountains and hills. So I wanted to have people think about the Congo in a different way, especially children.
Some places I have been and I actually remember something about them and some places are just places that are there to be explored by me and whoever’s reading this poem.
The people of each place you mention in the poem are beautifully illustrated by Quim Torres. Can you talk about that collaboration? Do you have a favorite illustration in the book?
I love the one of the Tarahumara people in Mexico, who are great runners. My daughter and I worked together with [Torres] and with [Tra Publishing] and they were wonderful. We did what we could to come together on what was beautiful and what furthermore would be intriguing for children. So in a sense, whatever the illustrations are, they will spike curiosity, which is a state that I particularly like in children.
How has your experience as an activist informed this poem?
All of my activism is out of concern for the children. Ideologies and behaviors like extreme sexism, extreme hatred of the feminine, all these things, the love of violence, the belief in weaponry—these things are truly endangering the world and endangering all of our children. Every one of them, I don’t care where they are. And this is what I’m hoping people can see, the children and parents reading this book, that we have to have concern for everyone.
Has the poem taken on new meaning for you in a world experiencing a global pandemic?
It has intensified my feelings about it. And I have to say I feel really grateful to have something to offer at this point in the realm of preparing our children to encounter the real world as opposed to the fanciful one that doesn’t really exist. The problem with fantasy—which I actually like in many ways—is that it can lead you to think that things are not happening. But there has to be a tender way of connecting our children to the other children of the world, so that they can feel with them and not banish them out of their hearts.
In the interview that follows the book you speak about creativity and the need for children to gather the right tools in order to develop their own creativity. What sort of tools or aids to the imagination do you use when you write?
Because gardening says, “Don’t even think about writing. Think about gardening.” And so I don’t. And if something is knocking at the inner door, I hear it. And then I respond as best I can. I really like to paint furniture, I like to do things that are not writing, and if there is a calling of something I feel like I’m able to hear it. And I try to respond.
What’s next for you? Do you have plans for more children’s books in the future?
I didn’t have a plan for this one! I don’t really plan in that way. I am happy when something connects with other people. I think that’s wonderful. It’s like the genius of the universe. You’re going along, and stuff is in your mind done, and then someone says, “Oh, this is something useful in this area.” I love that.
Sweet People Are Everywhere by Alice Walker, illus. by Quim Torres. Tra Publishing, $18.99 Nov. 2 ISBN 978-1-73476-181-8