By Leslie Lindsay
Fascinating and inspiring tale of how the American people came together to crowd-fund one of America’s biggest icons, the Statue of Liberty.
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Writers Interviewing Writers
March Spotlight: Historical (Children’s) Fiction
I LOVED this book! LET LIBERRTY RISE: How America’s Schoolchildren Helped Save the Statue of Liberty (Scholastic, March 2 2021) by Chana Stiefel (with warm, tender illustrations by Chuck Groenink) is an equally gorgeous, inspiring tale rooted in history and goodwill. I seriously cannot love this book any more.
This book is a gem. The writing is smart and thoughtful, with obvious research and attention-to-detail, as are the illustrations. I learned so much about the American icon in this children’s book than I think I’ve learned about it through the course of my life. Seriously. I knew it was a gift from the people of France, but I didn’t realize it came to America in so many pieces (350, to be exact), that it weighed more than 40 elephants, and that the pedestal was to be created by the people of America.
At first, Americans were disappointed and angry. The French wanted to provide a gift, but Americans had to pony up nearly $2.6 million bucks (in today’s worth) for a pedestal. That’s no gift!
But! Joseph Pulitzer, a newspaper man–and immigrant himself–had a delightful and smart idea: let the American public chip in and ‘own’ the pedestal. He said everyone who contributed *anything* at all toward the fund, whether a penny or nickel or dollars, he would publish their names in the paper. People did. Farmers and schoolchildren, office boys, mothers and fathers, rich, and poor, they all did. There was no class distinction, no race differences, nothing. You just had to send in money and your name would be printed.
I read this book to my two daughters–who are way too old to be the intended audience (which I would guess is ages 5-9)–and they loved it. I got goosebumps and a little teary-eyed.
LET LIBERTY RISE is a charming and deeply moving book. I loved every moment of it. Great for all libraries, history classrooms, more.
Please join me in conversation with the fabulous author-illustrator duo of Chana Stiefel and Chuck Groenink:
Chana, Chuck—welcome! I LOVE this book. Seriously. I think it speaks this time about doing things for the collective good, immigration, inclusivity, and so much more. Plus, I learned things! What was your inspiration for writing?
I first heard the story in 2014 from my friend Jackie Glasthal, who wrote a middle grade novel called Liberty on 23rd Street. The novel’s backdrop is Lower Manhattan in the 1880s, when the Statue of Liberty was being built. When I first heard the story about the pedestal fund, it blew my mind. How could I live in New Jersey, 30 minutes from the Statue of Liberty, and not know her history? I knew right then it had to become a picture book. Jackie and I did some research together, but tragically she passed away four years ago from cancer. I see this book as her parting gift, and it’s dedicated to her memory. As the French might say, Jackie stood for liberté, égalité, fraternité.
“Sparkling language movingly describes how everyday folks effected powerful change. Readers will relish knowing that kids played a pivotal role in the campaign; many actual quotes from children are included. Lively, colorful illustrations capturing the period depict diverse characters and wonderful perspectives…All rise to this evocative, empowering offering.”
Chuck, your illustrations are darling. Whimsical but warm and they speak to the timeperiod well, with so many articulate and astute details. Can you let us glimpse your process a bit? Did you collaborate with Chana on the vision?
In some ways I think this book was a closer collaboration with the author than most, even though Chana and I didn’t actually get in touch until just recently. The circumstances of this book meant that there just happened to be certain stage directions in the manuscript that as the illustrator you had to follow. Usually an illustrator has a lot of freedom to visualize the book as they see fit, but a non-fiction book like this means you’re on a fairly short leash. So I guess Chana and I both collaborated with history.
I don’t tend to give much thought to vision, I don’t think an illustrator should be too conscious about that, or it becomes something of a forced affair. What I responded to though was all in Chana’s words, which had a warmth, and a certain, dare I say it, rather American, optimism.
There was also something in the story that spoke to a little bit of a class conflict, which was a fun note for me to highlight. The sympathy, in Chana’s narrative, lies firmly on the side of the immigrants, kids and the working class. So I had a lot of fun showing the grumpy wealthy, white, Americans who didn’t want the statue, and contrasting them with the children and laborers who contributed what they could.
I want to talk about the color palette a bit, too. It’s warm, almost like the pages are cast in sunset. And, I love, love that there’s diversity here, too. Boys and girls, men and women, a variety of skin tones, ages, professions, class. It’s evident in the words, and the illustrations. Can you cast a light on those decisions, please?
I think a lot of the color palette came from two things, a research trip to the Tenement museum in New York, and seeing the brightly colored little apartments immigrant families lived in. But also when the statue was built it still had its copper hue, and it cast that warm glow across the whole book. (even if its current light green color would have been a lot easier to draw, than all that shiny metal).
The decision to show off such diversity was a more conscious one than the color palette. While we tend to have a stereotypical view of American history as being just so many white guys, when you look beyond the men who historically always got the credit, you see the diversity that was always there. A big help for me in visualizing the book in its early stages were the pictures taken by Jacob Riis of New York’s immigrants and working poor. Things like the man with the ‘clam cart’ were taken directly from pictures of life in the city at that time.
The Statue of Liberty was built through the efforts of many people whose name we’ll never know, but showing just a little bit that it took all those people, from the office boy who gave every cent he could spare, to the men hammering the actual pieces together was what this book was about for me (and of course kind of what this country, at its best, is about).
Beautifully said, Chuck! The last spread shows new immigrants coming to America, and they could have been my own family who arrived from Lithuania and Jerusalem in the early 1900s, so that spread means a lot to me.
We wanted to include as much diversity as possible, but the book is nonfiction, so we needed to be historically accurate too. I pored over Census data from New York City and reached out to the New York Historical Society and the National Parks Service to see what the demographics of the city were in 1885. Interestingly, New York was much less diverse than I expected. Manhattan was 97.8% white, 2% Black and 0.3% Asian. But I learned that an African American marching band (the 20th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops) participated in Liberty’s inauguration parade, Black schoolchildren in Brooklyn held their own parade to celebrate the statue, and the Cleveland Gazette, a historically African American newspaper, ran the story about the pedestal campaign to solicit contributions. So there was definitely participation from people of color, and Chuck did a beautiful job including them in the book.
Regarding the warm color palette, have you seen the shiny copper endpapers that reflect the statue’s original color? I love that touch!
There’s a timeline in the back of the book, real-life photos, more. This really brings history to life. And let’s face it, some kids find history boring. I think there are plenty of extension activities that can be done with this book. Can you talk about how this might be used in a classroom or learning setting? Also, art history, anyone?
Just off the top of my head, I’m thinking about all the pedestal designs that didn’t make it, and I would love to see kids design their own!
But I would be very impressed if any kids can find the specific French paintings I referenced in my illustrations.
Wait, Chuck, there’s more than one French painting? Now I have to keep looking!
Our editor Dianne Hess and I spent a lot of time on the backmatter, choosing the archival photos, the map, and other details. Being a Scholastic book, I’m hoping that it finds a home in school libraries. I asked my teacher and librarian friends to help develop some activities, and then I worked with Blue Slip Media and their curriculum specialist, Dr. Leigh Courtney, who created a wonderful Curriculum Guide. It’s packed with hands-on STEM activities, writing prompts, discussion questions, and more. It’s available as a free download HERE.
Chana, Chuck—thank you! This has been so insightful. What question(s) should I have asked, but may have forgotten?
Thanks for letting me ramble about my process! I might have asked something about the research, which is often a lot of fun. You tend to discover things you would have never been able to come up with on your own. I took a lot of the clothing for the characters in the book from photos of the time, but also that letterbox streetlight contraption was something I came across. It’s little things like that make historical picture books one of my favorite type of job.
[As the author] my research journey was fun as well. I traveled by ferry to the Bob Hope Memorial Library at Ellis Island, which specializes in archival materials on the statue’s history. And at the New York Public Library, I scrolled through microfilm of the New York World newspaper from 1885. Fighting with the microfiche machine brought me back to my college days. And if you don’t know what microfiche is, Google it!
To connect with the author/illustrator via social media, or to purchase a copy of LET LIBERTY RISE, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
CHANA STIEFEL is the author of more than 25 books for kids. She loves visiting schools and libraries as well as sharing her passion for reading and writing with children. She earned a master’s degree in Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting from New York
University. Follow her at @chanastiefel on FB, Twitter, and Instagram. Visit Chana at chanastiefel.com.
ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR:
CHUCK GROENINK hails from an overgrown village among the peat bogs in the north of the Netherlands, where he spent his formative years climbing trees, drawing, reading, and cycling. He attended the Artez Institute of Visual Arts in
Kampen, graduating from the Department of Illustration in 2004. He moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2010, and now resides in Valatie, New York, with his wife, dog, and two cats. Visit Chuck at chuckgroenink.com.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Mary Kubica to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.