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.