The former first daughter makes her picture book debut this month with She Persisted (Philomel), a collective biography of 13 women whose determined perseverance paved the way for their achievements. The book takes its title from an incident at the February confirmation hearings for Attorney General Jeff Sessions—perhaps the only picture book in publishing history that can make that claim.
This is an incredibly quick turnaround. Had you been thinking about a book like this for a while when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell uttered his now-famous censure of Elizabeth Warren—“She was warned. Nevertheless, she persisted”—in February?
I was so affected, so many were, by what happened when Senator Warren tried to read Coretta Scott King’s words on the floor of the Senate, was silenced by Senator McConnell, and then read the entire letter in the hallway on Facebook Live. Aren’t the words of Coretta Scott King always relevant? Talk about remarkable persistence. I was thinking about how to explain an event like that to my children, who are very young. Aidan is just 11 months old and Charlotte is two and a half, but I talk to them about the world and about the things that inspire me all the time. I had been thinking in terms of writing something about how Senator Warren’s persistence turned an important moment into something even larger. I talked it over with my wonderful editor, Jill Santopolo, who was also struck by Senator Warren’s actions, and she suggested we could work on this together as a picture book. Luckily, Alexandra Boiger, who illustrates the Tallulah books [written by Marilyn Singer], which I love, was free. So I wrote as quickly as I could.
I think you probably set a world record, especially since I imagine one of the hardest jobs in writing this book was culling the list of women to include. How did you go about it?
The urgency with which we did this probably helped me come to terms with the challenge of having to not only quickly make a list but work to distill each woman’s remarkable story into a few sentences that would convey what was so inspiring about their lives. I thought a lot about the women—and the girls—who inspired me when I was a little girl in Little Rock [Ark.]. Ruby Bridges and Claudette Colvin were just girls when they made important contributions to the civil rights movement. I remembered watching Florence Joyner breaking world records at the Seoul Olympics. And then there were women like Virginia Apgar, whose contributions I didn’t know about until I got pregnant myself and learned about the Apgar score, something she developed decades ago, which has become the standard for assessing a [newborn] baby’s health.
I think many kids will be surprised to learn that Claudette Colvin may have been the inspiration for Rosa Parks’s more famous refusal to give up her seat.
I remember learning about Claudette Colvin when I was in school in Little Rock. I don’t know if it’s because I went to Horace Mann Junior High [which was the all-black high school where the Little Rock Nine had been enrolled before integrating Central High School in 1957], so perhaps an awareness that young people were integral to the civil rights movement permeated what we learned there. But I knew at an early age that young people had shaped the course of American history.
And even for those who made their contributions as adults, what I was interested in was the connection between what they had to go through as children and who they became. Helen Keller, for instance. Think about the sheer persistence it took to overcome being blind and deaf to go on to graduate from college. That achievement would never have been possible if she hadn’t already proved she could conquer the enormous obstacles she faced as a child. She was drawing on a reservoir most of us couldn’t imagine. What happened when she was young is a necessary part of her story.
It’s like the quote from Sally Ride that I included: “Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday. You can’t be what you can’t see.” It’s hard for all of us to imagine what we can’t see. We have to close the imagination gap.
Has your mother seen the book? Did she like her cameo?
She has seen the book and her first reaction was so typical—she wanted to know, “What did Charlotte think?” I was happy to tell her that Charlotte loved it and wants to read it all the time. She thought that was great.
Today, 11 a.m.–noon. Chelsea Clinton will sign at the Penguin Random House booth (1921).