Meet the Biographer: Alicia Potter

Alicia Potter has published fiction and nonfiction picture books, including Fritz Danced the Fandango and Mrs. Harkness and the Panda. Recently, she published Jubilee!, a picture-book biography of bandleader Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore and the peace jubilee concert he organized in Boston in 1869. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about the joys of discovering Gilmore’s work, her own connections to this landmark event, and the role of crowds in her work. On September 19th, she will be speaking about Gilmore and his jubilee at the International Day of Peace in Rockford, Illinois.

Kidsbiographer: Despite Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore’s contributions to American music, he is not a household name. How did you learn about this important composer and bandleader, and what made you decide to write about the National Peace Jubilee?

Alicia Potter: I first read about Patrick S. Gilmore and the National Peace Jubilee in my neighborhood newspaper. At the time, I had lived in Boston for 20 years and hadn’t heard of him or the concert. Mind you, it took place five minutes from my house! I did some preliminary research and was immediately struck by Patrick’s passion, the incredible scope of the concert, and its impact on the world. I discovered photos of Patrick online, and he’s wearing a uniform and white gloves and this neat little mustache, and I found myself thinking of him not just as an important historical figure, but also this appealing character. The history of the Jubilee was ripe for storytelling too. It had this great, engaging hero, strong emotional and dramatic arcs, and lots of quirky details. The giant bass drum traveling across Massachusetts on a flat bed train car to cheering crowds is perhaps my favorite!

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to write Jubilee!?

Alicia Potter: The Music Department at the Boston Public Library was a huge resource for me. After the Jubilee, Patrick compiled a 700-page account of the making of the concert, and when I was starting my research, I was only able to find the book in the BPL’s Music Department — except that I couldn’t check it out or Xerox it because of its age. So I did a lot of note-taking over many months there. Patrick wrote with an extremely vivid voice, so I was able to get to know him — his humor and energy and resiliency and tendency to get a tad melodramatic! Newspaper archives and online music resources, of course, were very useful. I also accessed the Michael Cummings Collection of P.S. Gilmore at the John J. Burns Library at Boston College, a special archives of items related to Patrick. It contained the actual tickets and programs from the Jubilee and these fantastic color lithographs of the massive Temple of Peace, where the concert took place. Seeing these items and reading Patrick’s account in his own words really made the concert come to life for me.

Kidsbiographer: Throughout Jubilee!, you emphasize the loudness of the concert Gilmore organized – the sort of volume that would make even live music fans cringe. And yet, your narrative conveys that the performance was “so very, very beautiful.” I can imagine young children delighting in the concept of a big, gorgeous sound. How did you achieve this delicate balance?

Alicia Potter: This was critical, I felt, because probably anyone could have put on a big, boisterous concert. To have it sound beautiful was the real achievement. Early on, critics thought the Jubilee would be this ear-splitting disaster. I even found this funny newspaper article in which the author expressed sincere fear that the Jubilee might injure people’s “tympanums.” The “very, very beautiful” refrain became a way to remind readers of the stakes — that Patrick’s goal was to create an experience worthy of being considered art. Up until the first day of the concert, whether or not he could pull it off was the subject of national suspense. Once the concert begins in the story, I attempted to create sort of a crescendo: the text builds from the “booms” of the cannons and the “bongs” of the church bells to end on a quieter note with the word “beautiful.” My hope is that the unexpected inclusion of “beautiful” echoes the surprise that many felt when the music ended up sounding great.

Kidsbiographer: In your author bio on the book’s cover flap, you mention that you were a member of your high school’s band. How did your own experience as a musician inform your work on this picture-book biography?

Alicia Potter: I took up the flute in fourth grade and continued to play through high school. I played my share of marches (and as this was the mid-‘80s, a Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”), and this connection to the music drew me in to Patrick’s story. It also made me feel the emotion of the event in a personal way. Even though my concert experiences occurred on a much, much smaller scale, some of the moments felt familiar and resonant, such as that dramatic pause before the conductor lowers the baton and the music begins and the sound of all the different instruments finally coming together on the day of the performance.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young readers will take away from Jubilee!?

Alicia Potter
: To see themselves in Patrick’s passion and to find inspiration in the fact that, despite many obstacles and much opposition, he was able to accomplish his vision for music and peace — a dream that goes back to his childhood. I’d also like readers to get just how momentous this event was for 1869 America. I have a friend who told me that her daughter actually gasped at the two-page spread of the 30,000 people filling the Temple of Peace. That made me happy to hear that she was impressed! Matt Tavares did such an amazing job of capturing the scope of the event in his illustrations – not easy, I’m sure. And finally, since Patrick has become lost to history, I’d love for readers to appreciate his major contributions to American music.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Alicia Potter: I’ll be speaking about Patrick and the National Peace Jubilee as the guest author at the International Day of Peace in Rockford, Illinois, on September 19. I’m very excited for that! And I have a picture book due out from Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers in May 2015 — Miss Hazeltine’s Home for Shy and Fearful Cats, illustrated by the fantastic Birgitta Sif. It’s a fiction picture book, but it draws on my experience as an animal shelter “foster mom” to many litters of kittens! I find funny parallels between it and Jubilee! – I seem to gravitate toward writing picture books involving crowds, except this time, it’s cats. Lots and lots of cats.

 

 

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