In 2010, Maryann Macdonald wrote The Little Piano Girl with her sister, Ann Ingalls. A few weeks ago, Kidsbiographer chatted with Ann Ingalls about the picture-book biography of jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams. This week, Kidsbiographer caught up with Maryann Macdonald to discuss the biography’s themes in greater detail.
Kidsbiographer: The Little Piano Girl shows young Mary Lou Williams being bullied by her peers. Her neighbors and classmates mock and exclude her for her poverty, especially her shoes that don’t fit. However, your narrative never mentions racism explicitly. I’m curious: how and why did you and co-author Ann Ingalls decide not to discuss race in Mary Lou’s story?
Maryann Macdonald: The question of racism is not mentioned specifically in The Little Piano Girl because the discrimination Mary encountered in her childhood was not just from whites. While some of the children who bullied her were white, probably an equal number were black. Mary was very dark-skinned, which was not shown in illustrations, and, as such, was also looked down upon at that time by lighter-skinned blacks. Most people today don’t recognize or acknowledge this kind of racism, but it did exist. To put this in print, however, is politically incorrect. I do discuss this question in book talks from time to time.
Kidsbiographer: There’s a Cinderella story at the heart of The Little Piano Girl – only it’s Mary Lou’s passion for music, and not her appearance, that provides her with a happily ever after. When you wrote the book, did you consider the text’s parallels with traditional fairy tales and Disney princess movies? Did you intend to present Mary Lou Williams as an alternate role model for young girls?
Maryann Macdonald: To tell you the truth, I never gave the Cinderella or Disney idea a second thought and I don’t think Ann Ingalls did, either! We were just so excited by Mary Lou Williams’ passion and talent, and wanted her story to be better known. I suppose part of that desire came from wanting little girls, in particular, to believe in themselves as Mary did. There is no doubt that she was and continues to be an inspiring role model.
Kidsbiographer: Can you share some of the most gratifying feedback you’ve received about The Little Piano Girl?
Maryann Macdonald: Ann Ingalls and I have been thrilled with the response to The Little Piano Girl. We have been asked to speak and sign books at the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Center, the Lincoln Center, the Jazz Museum and even in President Obama’s daughter’s classroom in Washington! Part of the buzz came from the fact that the book was published during the centennial of Mary Lou Williams’ birth, a fact we hadn’t anticipated. I guess our proudest moments were hearing personally from Mary’s family about their enthusiasm for our book.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Maryann Macdonald: My next book is also based on the true story of another very different but equally inspiring little girl, Odette Meyers, a Jewish child who survived the Holocaust in France during World War II by hiding in the country and “reinventing” herself. Tens of thousands of French children were somehow able to manage this successfully. Odette, like Mary, experienced bullying and exclusion, but was also able to transcend these difficulties, partially through her love of poetry. The story of her search for her true identity after the war is deeply touching.