Due to personal circumstances, Kidsbiographer is taking a short break. Expect more reviews and interviews by January, at the latest.
Linda Glaser has written books about nature, immigration, and Jewish history for picture-book and middle-grade readers alike. In 2010, she published Emma’s Poem, a picture-book biography of poet Emma Lazarus, who wrote “The New Colossus,” a sonnet for the Statue of Liberty. Emma’s Poem is out in paperback this year, and this week, Linda Glaser chatted with Kidsbiographer about Lazarus’s social conscience and her own admiration for the poet-advocate.
Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you to write about Emma Lazarus and “The New Colossus?”
Linda Glaser: I read the books listed in my “suggested readings” on the copyright page of Emma’s Poem as well as some others that are not listed. I also contacted an expert, Bette Roth Young, to double-check the facts of my manuscript. She was extremely helpful and encouraging. I also contacted a couple people at the Statue of Liberty museum to make sure all of the facts about the statue and the placement of the plaque were correct. In addition, I conducted a great deal of online research, visiting many websites where, among other treasures, I found some very old NY Times articles with vivid details of the fundraising gala for the pedestal. However, the initial seeds for writing the book were planted when I first visited the Statue of Liberty as a child and then returned, years later, with my own children.
Kidsbiographer: I particularly liked how your narrative contrasted Lazarus’s comfortable, even elegant world with the poverty and oppression endured by so many immigrants. How did you decide to structure Emma’s Poem this way?
Linda Glaser: I don’t remember ever consciously making that decision. From the start, the contrast was part of the story that struck me as particularly meaningful and important to share with young readers.
Kidsbiographer: One of the picture-book biography’s themes is Lazarus’s willingness to not only help new immigrants, but to defy social expectations of her class and gender to advocate for them. During your research, did you encounter any anecdotes about or examples of the disapprobation she faced from her own social circle as a result of her activism?
Linda Glaser: Emma Lazarus was not constrained by social norms—which is something I particularly admire about her. I did not find any mention of disapproval from her own circle. I vaguely remember reading a comment attributed to Emma Lazarus that she found it amusing that women in her social circle would be shocked if they knew what she was doing. I believe I also read that after she died, her sisters did not want those particular activities of Emma’s publicized. But she was very much her own person, and during her short life, she followed her own heart and conscience.
Kidsbiographer: Emma’s Poem is a biography of both poet and poem. The last portion of the narrative describes the poem’s ascent into the American canon, and the book concludes with the Statue of Liberty “reciting” the poem’s most famous lines. How did you decide to write Emma’s Poem as a dual biography?
Linda Glaser: Again, it wasn’t a conscious decision. In my mind, the two are inseparable. When I visited the Statue of Liberty as a child, I learned those famous lines, “Give me your tired, your poor…” At the time, I also learned that it was a young Jewish woman who wrote the poem. I, too, was Jewish. And I loved to write poetry. So it greatly inspired me that a Jewish woman had written such stirring lines. In addition, all four of my grandparents were immigrants. So I found the poem particularly meaningful. Being a “budding writer” I was always keenly aware that it wasn’t simply “a poem.” It was a poem written by a woman who cared deeply about immigrants. I still find both the poem and the writer tremendously inspiring.
Kidsbiographer: What do you hope children will take away from Emma’s Poem?
Linda Glaser: I have been very pleased to hear from teachers, librarians, and parents that children take away a great deal from Emma’s Poem. I’ve actually written a Teacher’s Guide that covers all the things I would hope or imagine a child might take away after reading the book. You can find it on my website.
Here’s what I hope may inspire children who read Emma’s Poem: the power of one person to make a difference, the power of one poem to have great influence, the importance of seeing beyond ourselves and caring about other people, and the inherent value of welcoming the “poor stranger.”
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Linda Glaser: I’d like to mention that Spoken Arts has created an outstanding DVD of Emma’s Poem, The Voice of The Statue of Liberty. It’s a “special appearance video” in which I say a few words at the beginning—a “cameo appearance” in an extremely well-executed and awe-inspiring DVD that actually brought tears to my eyes when I first saw it.
As for my own work, I’m pleased to report that I have a Passover book coming out this spring. It takes place in Chelm, the Jewish fictional village of fools. Stone Soup With Matzoh Balls: A Passover Tale in Chelm, is a light playful story with some added “take home value.” In that small but significant way, it is actually similar to Emma’s Poem. Both have the underlining message of welcoming the poor stranger.
Claire A. Nivola has been illustrating children’s books since the 1970’s. In 2012, she wrote and illustrated Life in the Ocean, a picture-book biography of oceanographer Sylvia Earle. This year, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released a paperback edition of Emma’s Poem, a picture-book biography of poet Emma Lazarus that Nivola illustrated. This week, Kidsbiographer caught up with Nivola about her research into late 19th century American life and Lazarus’s legacy of social activism.
Kidsbiographer: What sort of historical and biographical research did you do to illustrate Emma’s Poem?
Claire A. Nivola: I worked on the illustrations for Emma’s Poem in 2008. In five years, one forgets what one did, but luckily I keep a folder with bits from the process I went through for each book and I was impressed at how much research went into that book. I am talking about visual research. If you think about it, in order to draw a scene from a different period in history, you need to learn how everything looked: streets, houses inside and out, people (in this case, rich and poor and the immigrants from other countries) their clothes, the means of transportation – everything down to the smallest detail.
My approach is to create for myself a visual dictionary of all these components: Xeroxes and print-outs from books, from the internet, sometimes from verbal descriptions. I made a file each, for instance, on immigrants, on interiors of wealthy houses, on fashions. I used the library, and the web or phone contact resources from The Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the American Jewish Historical Society, the National Park Service for the Statue of Liberty National Monument, among others. Most moving and inspiring were the photographs of the period (not of Emma’s childhood – too early – but once photography began to be used widely, in time for the immigrants that she wrote her poem about). These early, black and white photographs and those of the Statue of Liberty being erected are so eloquent that for many of my illustrations I drew heavily on actual photographs.
Kidsbiographer: My favorite illustrations are the ones that show groups of immigrants on ship, on the New York docks, and in the community center where Emma Lazarus assists them. What I like most about these images is that they depict individuals with distinct attire, features, moods, and expressions. Can you explain how you composed these remarkable group portraits?
Claire A. Nivola: Among the illustrations that draw directly on this remarkable photographic documentation are the spot painting on the dedication page, the illustration of the Statue in Paris (this one more from a painting by Victor Dargaud), the pedestal of the Statue with the crated sculpture pieces. The illustrations you particularly like are also inspired by photographs, some sticking very closely to an image (the two ship deck images) and some as composites of photographs documenting individual immigrants (the dock scene with Emma visiting, and the job training scene). Looking at the photographs of newly arriving immigrants, it seemed to me that each individual was deeply imbued with a life story so that depicting them with distinct “features, moods, and expressions” came naturally to me.
Kidsbiographer: Which of the book’s illustrations did you find most challenging to compose and why?
Claire A. Nivola: I don’t know that I found any one illustration challenging, though certainly those for which a photograph presented me with a basic composition where easiest. Perhaps the auction scene was the trickiest because I had to make up the scene mainly from verbal descriptions with a few etchings showing related events. I even, in some cases and for my own entertainment, painted copies of actual paintings in the exhibition frames, making sure that they didn’t come chronologically after the exhibition event! In every book I have done, I have one painting I am least happy with. In this one, it is the scene of Emma composing her famous poem. I feel that I never resolved well the view out her windows, and filling them in with black night seems stark and unfinished to me.
Kidsbiographer: How did you develop Emma Lazarus as a visual character?
Claire A. Nivola: I had photos of Emma Lazarus and members of her family to work from for Emma. They were portraits, not casual family scenes, but I was able to get a sense – who knows how accurate – of her face and personality from the very few images I had to work with.
Kidsbiographer: What do you hope kids – and adults – will take away from Emma’s Poem?
Claire A. Nivola: Emma’s Poem is an invitation to big-heartedness towards those who come to our country. In that sense, it is about immigration – inclusiveness, generosity, respect for others, tolerance. But as the gap widens alarmingly in this country between rich and poor, my hope is that it may also serve – through the example of Emma’s life – to awaken in readers a desire for justice, fairness, and inclusiveness in the economic and social sense too and within our own borders.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Claire A. Nivola: Since I illustrated Emma’s Poem, two books that I both wrote and illustrated have been published, Orani (autobiographical) and Life in the Ocean (non-fiction). Another one, named Star Child (fable-like), is due out this coming spring. I am working on a proposal now for another book, but it’s too soon to tell whether or not it will fly!
Emma’s Poem: The Voice of Liberty
By Linda Glaser
Illustrated by Claire A. Nivola
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, Paperback Edition 2013, Boston, $6.99)
“Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” proclaims “The New Colossus,” a poem written to raise money for the construction of the State of Liberty in 1883. Poet Emma Lazarus was not among the huddled masses; she grew up in a wealthy New York family. However, she felt great sympathy for the immigrants pouring into the city in the late nineteenth century, many of whom had escaped oppression in Europe and hoped for a better life in the United States.
In Emma’s Poem, Linda Glaser and Claire A. Nivola tell the story of Lazarus, her poem, and the Statue herself. In simple, straightforward prose, Glaser contrasts the writer’s comfortable life with that of many immigrants and describes Lazarus’s efforts to illuminate their plight. She does not shy away from the ugliness that led many to immigrate, matter-of-factly describing the anti-Semitism and persecution Jews faced in Eastern Europe. Fittingly, Glaser concludes the narrative with the poem’s most famous lines, allowing Lazarus to address the reader – and presumably, new Americans – through the Statue. Nivola’s watercolors capture both the warm elegance of the poet’s life and the immigrants’ desperation. In one spread, two families pass each other on the sidewalk outside the Lazarus’s family home; one is affluent, the other destitute, and, in an upstairs window, the poet, with her foot in two worlds, writes at her desk. Particularly striking are Nivola’s dignified paintings of the new immigrants. In one illustration, people of different ages wait on a dock. Some walk, others hold their children very close, and one man reads. A woman, who may be sleeping, wears an eye-catching beige shawl with tan stripes and black dots. These people may be impoverished, anxious, and exhausted, but they are individuals with distinct faces.
Emma’s Poem does more than celebrate Lazarus’s life, her poem, the Statue of Liberty, or even America’s history of welcoming the oppressed. The picture-book biography encourages young readers, like Lazarus herself, to use their talents and privileges to help others.
-Dorothy A. Dahm