This book is perfect for any parent seeking out herstory to add to all the history we are taught. I even learned some tactics for calling out sexism in public spaces.
Rhea St. Julien Interviews Kate Schatz About Her Excellent New Alphabet Book
Going to the library as a queer mama of a biracial daughter seeking to “put her in the story” can be depressing. The pink and purple tomes starring white princesses loom large, and the brown-girl-as-sidekick trope is pervasive. Into this bleak wasteland of intersectional feminist children’s books enters Rad American Women A-Z, in all it’s brightly colored glory. This new book, aimed at grade schoolers, contains 26 bios of women who are noteworthy for their social activism. Well-known favorites Angela Davis, Patti Smith, and Billie Jean King are alongside some names that may be new to readers like Maya Lin, Hazel Scott, and X: for The Women Whose Names We Don’t Know.
This book is perfect for any parent seeking out herstory to add to all the history we are taught. I even learned some tactics for calling out sexism in public spaces. Apparently Dolores Huerta tallied all the sexist comments she heard in union gatherings, and announced the sum at the end of the meetings, until the total was zero. I asked author Kate Schatz about her experience of writing that story and 25 more, as well as what it was like to work with bold illustrator Miriam Klein Stahl.
Rhea St. Julien: The early feedback to your book has been so positive! How did it feel to know you made Kate Bornstein cry? (BTW I cried too!)
Kate Schatz: Oh, I cried when I read that she cried! When we got her blurb, that was an amazing moment, because it was the first time we’d received feedback from someone who is actually in the book. Her bio was one of the most challenging (and thus, important) to write, as I very was aware that, for many readers, it would be the first explanation/discussion of trans identity that they’d encountered. So… NBD. I wanted to be careful and real and respectful and accurate, which is a challenging combo—so to hear from her directly that she loved it… Yeah, that was incredibly validating.
Rhea: Most of the women you chose to feature are current heroes of mine as well, but at least six of them were unfamiliar to me. Who surprised you in your creation of this book?
Kate: That’s awesome! Really, I get so excited when folks are unfamiliar with the women in the book because it means they’re learning something new. That’s how it was for me as well. Like you, many of these women were already heroes of mine, and I felt pretty familiar with their stories. But I learned about a number of women during my research that I had never heard of, and whose stories and contributions are so incredible. It was humbling and thrilling, and a great reminder that no matter how well-versed in feminist/activist/etc histories you are, there are ALWAYS more people to learn about.
In particular, I was unfamiliar with Hazel Scott and Jovita Idar before writing the book. When I first read about Jovita Idar, I was like “WHY HAVEN’T I HEARD OF HER ?!” Of course, I know the answers to that—she was an intellectual Mexican-American feminist on the US-Mexico border at the end of the 19th century who was actively speaking her mind, publishing her words, and defying an educational and political system that had no respect for her or her community. She crossed the border to care for Mexican soldiers during the Revolution. She blocked the Texas Rangers from shutting down her newspaper. Women like that don’t show up in history textbooks—her story doesn’t fit the narrative. The Texas Rangers get a baseball team. She’s barely a footnote—that’s why she’s in here.
I felt the same about Hazel Scott, this incredible jazz prodigy and performer. The first African-American to have a TV show?! An actor on par with Lena Horne? Who stood up to racist Hollywood moguls, refused to perform for segregated audiences, and was blacklisted?! I had to learn more. I had heard of Yuri Kochiyama and Virginia Apgar, but didn’t really know their stories. To be able to study them and then present their stories alongside more familiar names like Angela and Zora is deeply satisfying.
Rhea: I was struck by this sentence, included in the story of Wilma Mankiller: “Visiting the protesters changed Wilma forever.” How do you engage your own children in social justice work?
Kate: Mostly by talking and reading to them as much as possible. My husband and I are very open and direct with our 5 1/2-year-old daughter about social justice, and we always strive to address issues of race, sexuality, gender, class, etc in ways that are appropriate but also real. We try to connect those big ideas to examples from our own lives, and always try to link it to our own behaviors—how we can be kind and compassionate and treat everyone equally. We talk about why the person asking for money by the underpass in Oakland might need help; we talk about why Mommy is going to a protest, and what it means that the sign says “Black Lives Matter.” We have many queer families in our lives so she knows that boys can marry boys and girls can marry girls, and I feel super lucky to be raising her in a region where she’s exposed on a daily basis to a wide array of people and families.
I think that folks totally underestimate the capacity of young people to understand and engage with topics that many adults can’t handle. My husband and I are white and have had some incredible conversations with my daughter about race, skin color, and history. She knows that the tattoo of the “F” on my arm stands for ‘feminist’ and she knows what that means. My son is 18 months so our conversations aren’t that deep yet, but I do read him ‘A is for Activist!’
I don’t want to make it sound like it’s super easy, though! There are plenty of struggles, and I’m always picking my battles. I haven’t thrown away the Barbie that snuck into the house quite yet. I think the best things we can do as parents are to be good models and good communicators, to expose them to ideas, let them ask questions, and come to their own conclusions.
Rhea: On that note, there’s a sentence in the story of Yuri Kochiyama when she’s listening to Civil Rights activists that says, “Hearing these stories changed Yuri.” Your book shines a light on how these women became activists, in this subtle, beautiful way. How do you believe a change-maker is born?
Kate: Thank you for noting that! I definitely wanted to show the arc of each woman’s life, from childhood to “rad woman”, so I’m glad to hear that. As for how a change-maker is born…I think it happens in so many ways, and that’s what I hope to show with the book. Some are born directly into conditions of poverty/violence/prejudice, and their desire to make change stems from that—Angela Davis growing up in “Dynamite Hill,” Ella Baker hearing the stories of her grandmother, a former slave, Sonia Sotomayor growing up in an immigrant family in the Bronx.
Then there are those who have a moment where they’re exposed to some kind of injustice—the Grimke sisters realizing the cruelty of slavery, Dolores Huerta seeing the effects of poverty on her students, Yuri and her family getting shipped off to the internment camp, and later hearing the stories of her Black co-workers.
The point is, we come to it in different ways, at different times. The common factor, though, is that a change-maker (or potential change-maker, more accurately) is someone who makes a conscious choice to get involved, to act, to do something. She doesn’t always realize how big it will get—Rachel Carson didn’t anticipate testifying about DDT before Congress, and Maya Lin didn’t think she had a shot at getting her Vietnam Memorial design selected—but she does something. That’s how a change-maker is born: thought into action.
Rhea: What was the collaboration like with the illustrator? Did Miriam ever send you a mock-up that you were like, “No… that’s not quite what I was thinking?”
Kate: It was magical. Seriously. Miriam and I are a fantastic team and our collaboration has been amazing from the get-go, when we met up at a cafe to brainstorm and she called me later that night to say she’d already completed six illustrations. Our process was straight-forward—I was about 80-90% set on the “list” of women when we decided to work together, so we spent a few weeks finalizing and bouncing names around. Then she got to work cutting, and every few days she would text me pictures of newly finished cuts. Those were really thrilling texts. One secret about Miriam is that she works really, really fast. I should probably say that she spends weeks on each papercut, but nope. She’s quick—and it really lit a fire under me to get the writing done! To your second question, there were really only a few times where I asked her to make a change, and it was always really small. Like Billie Jean’s arm looked too short, so she fixed that.
Beyond the actual papercuts, we also worked closely on the layout and design of the book. We were incredibly lucky to get to have a huge amount of creative control—my husband Jason Pontius designed the book, and the cover, and City Lights was totally into it. So Jason and Miriam (and me, to a degree) spent a lot of time choosing colors and making design decisions.
Rhea: I love how you highlight that a sense of humor is important to activism work. Can you tell us something funny that happened in the creation of this book?
Kate: Miriam is a pretty hilarious person in general, so there was a lot of laughing all throughout. Most of the funny stories I can think of involve the fact that we both have young children who are always up in our stuff and so many of our phone calls and meetings are punctuated by “Hold on—the baby has a diaper on his head and is climbing on the dining room table” or “Yes you HAVE to brush your teeth!” or “Hey babe? I’m on the phone? Can you please come get her? Like NOW?” We did a photoshoot in Miriam and her wife Lena’s studio and my toddler was crawling around on the floor probably eating pencil shavings and dust while Miriam and I pretended to be hard at work. Miriam and Lena’s adorable 7-year old was an excellent babysitter in that moment.
Rhea: Final question: Is there anyone you are really hoping will read your book?
Kate: The easy answer is: everyone! The other answer is: boys. I want boys to read this book. Obviously I want girls to read it, and to be inspired, and to see the vast potential in themselves—but boys need to see this, too. Boys need to know an American history that includes women as more than flag-sewers and long-ago vote-getters. Boys need to see the potential in their female friends just as much as girls need to see it in themselves. And I say that as the mother of a daughter and a son.
I also really want Beyonce to read it to Blue Ivy.
Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries who Shaped our History… and Our Future is available from City Lights.
Rhea St. Julien is a San Francisco-based writer and arts-based psychotherapist Her recent publications include pieces on The Bold Italic, MUTHA, Cinapse, and Rad Dad. Read more from Rhea at www.rheastjulien.com, or follow her on Twitter for a lasting e-friendship: @rheabette