Released in time for the 50th anniversary of the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is one of our newest titles Rise!: From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou by author Bethany Hegedus and illustrated by Tonya Engel. In this interview, author Bethany Hegedus talks about her newest title Rise!, how she felt to receive a foreword from Dr. Maya Angelou’s grandson Colin Johnson, and her writing and research process.
Do you have a consistent approach when writing a book? Was your writing process different or the same for Rise!?
Bethany Hegedus: When writing a picture book biography, I always begin with a subject whose life and life’s work has impacted mine—usually since I was a young girl. Gandhi, Harper Lee, President Jimmy Carter (forthcoming 2020) and Dr. Maya Angelou all helped shape me as a woman and as a writer. In order to dive deeply into someone’s life, to discover the narrative thread, and to capture and connect that thread in the story, I both start and end with the heart. My heart. My subject’s heart. And the reader’s heart.
I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for the first time the summer I moved from the North to the South. Reading Dr. Angelou’s words and being exposed to her life’s story helped me navigate the racial prejudice perpetrated by those who looked like me and had always been around me, but suddenly felt scarier and more real now that I was living in the South. I brought the girl I was when I was first inspired by Maya Angelou with me on my journey of research and discovery.
Aside from being an established author, you’re also the founder of the Writing Barn. In what ways does the Writing Barn serve the writing community?
BH: The aim of The Writing Barn is to bring together writers of all different levels and genres through in-person intensives, local classes, retreats, and our online programming. It is all about forming a community where one can create from a foundation of support and inspiration. No book gets written alone. The writers who take our classes and thrive in our programming know that and they support one another all along the journey. I spent 10 years working on my craft in what is now considered my “apprentice years.” Folks who take classes at The Writing Barn are landing agents and book contracts left and right—some of them within two years of seriously taking up the craft of writing. It’s amazing to be a part of their journey.
Why did you choose to write about Maya Angelou? Tell us about your creative choice to write her biography in verse.
BH: There are five or six female writers that I feel fed me from girlhood into womanhood. Those writers are: Beverly Cleary, Harper Lee, Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson, Flannery O’Connor and Zora Neale Hurston. I have always gravitated toward female writers long before becoming a writer myself.
Dr. Angelou wasn’t just a writer, and it wasn’t simply her way with words that lit something within me, she was a woman I longed to be. She forgave the impossible. She was a working mother who sang, danced, and oozed joy, alongside fighting for justice and equality,
As I worked on the biography, I listened to Dr. Angelou read poem after poem. There are many recordings of her performing her poems online, and I popped in my headphones and listened to them all. Her poetry was strong, powerful—a mix of wordplay, inner rhyme at times, with bold images that made my inner spirit soar. Hearing Dr. Angelou’s voice read her work moves me to tears. It brings up a well of pain and healing at the same time—and it is that mixture of pain and ability to transform that pain that I most wanted to capture. Verse, as scary as it was, felt like the right and perfect form.
Rise! includes a foreword by Dr. Angelou’s grandson. Could you tell us a little bit of what it meant to have that letter from the family?
BH: I was and am so proud to have the approval and blessing of the Angelou Johnson family and The Caged Bird Legacy. I wouldn’t have moved forward with publication without it. In the letter, Maya Angelou’s grandson Colin Johnson speaks so lovingly of his grandmother and of her commitment to children, and how we must have the courage to encounter the monsters under the bed—especially when those monsters are real.
The letter also reminds us that it is adults who fear telling the truth to kids. Children crave the truth and Dr. Angelou strongly advocated for it. We owe children the truth: admitting the best and worst of ourselves and our society, and giving them the tools to help navigate these tough topics. That’s how I hope we can affect real change—so we all can thrive, not just survive—as Dr. Angelou surely did.
Dr. Angelou’s life is so huge! Were there difficult editorial choices you had to make in order to fit her whole life into a picture book?
BH: Her life is phenomenal on so many levels. As this is the first full picture book biography (outside of the Little People, Big Dreams series) on Maya Angelou, editorially we tried our best not to leave key events out. The challenge was choosing what to emphasize: the impact of Maya’s childhood and young adulthood, her history as a performer, her social activism and working with both Dr. King and Malcom X, and her entrance into the Harlem Writer’s Circle. There was so much to consider!
The only aspect of her triumphant life I wish we could have dug into more was how her role as teacher and her long-standing connection to Wake Forest University. Dr. Angelou has so many quotable truth bombs, but this is one of my favorites: “You think you may not be heard, speak anyway.” She did that in all aspects of her life and taught others to do the same. The writers, readers, and students she has touched are almost too numerous to fathom.
With #ownvoices being so important in the children’s book world, how do you approach writing outside of your cultural experience?
BH: Whiteness is often used as a shield, and I don’t want to use my whiteness to protect or deflect the conversation around #ownvoices. I believe it is so important that books do not just reflect white faces, white characters, and that we all work to decenter whiteness as the primary lens of viewing and experiencing our world. As a white woman, I am continually educating myself and reading books like White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo and being a frequent visitor of sites like Teaching Tolerance and Reading While White are important. These are only the first steps. This work will take a lifetime.
My hope is that readers of many backgrounds will have discussions about representation, #ownvoices, and the text itself. I recently spoke at Oakland University, invited by Dr. Kristin McIlhagga, and we and the educators in the room had a discussion about connecting books with young readers and doing what is needed to get the white lens and our white experiences out of the way. I am working to do more diversity and inclusion work with white educators, and how books can lead to important discussions some white educators may shy away from. It isn’t fair that the emotional burden—to right the wrongs of our past and present—is always on people of color to educate and disseminate knowledge to their white counterparts.
What steps did you take to ensure that Rise! honestly reflects Dr. Maya Angelou’s life and legacy?
BH: I reread I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings many times, as well as many of her other memoirs. I listened to countless speeches, poems, and watched interviews where Dr. Angelou spoke firsthand about her life experience. I also knew that my publisher would secure a knowledgeable targeted expert reader to work with me in ensuring my whiteness was not getting in the way of portraying Dr. Angelou’s life circumstances and situations. In one verse, I originally used the word “sassy” to describe the young white girls who call Dr. Angelou’s grandmother by her first name—sadly a common sign of disrespect to people of color in the South. I chose the word sass because of Dr. Angelou’s use of it in her poetry, with the line from Still I Rise, “does my sassiness upset you,” but the reader pointed out this wasn’t strong enough for what the young white girls were doing. I revised the line, thinking about what I have seen done too many times—the way whiteness can be used as a weapon.
The lines now read:
It doesn’t take long before white girls,
not much older than Maya,
enter the store, wielding their whiteness
as a weapon, a sword,
meant to cut the giant Sycamore.
They call Momma Henderson “Annie.”
I hope gatekeepers know the book and the language within the story has been carefully considered, not just by me, but by many. That being said, any mistakes or missteps are my own. As Dr. Angelou said, “When you know better, do better.” I continually want to do better.
Do you want to say a few words about Tonya Engel’s illustrations for the book? Her work seems to flawlessly complement Dr. Maya Angelou’s life story.
BH: In Tonya Engel’s work, and in being in her presence, I feel that same mixture of pain and joy, grit and grace, and deep humanity that I feel when reading Maya Angelou’s words or listening to her voice. I recommend viewing both the short and long form videos that Curious City created of Rise!, which takes educators, students, and parents behind the scenes with a visit to Tonya’s home studio in Houston, TX. You’ll learn how Tonya brought the sum of her life and her life’s experiences to the illustrations. Her work is breathtaking. It is original. And it is inspiring. I could say thousands of words about Tonya Engel’s incredible illustrations–and many more about my growing friendship with her and her young daughter, but I will leave it at this: I am blessed to know her and to work with her. In our book about rising, Tonya’s work has elevated us all.
How does Maya Angelou’s story resonate with young readers today?
BH: Children innately know childhood is not easy. As Colin Johnson said in the foreword, “it is often a time in life when the power belongs to the adults around you.” Maya Angelou’s life story is not solely about survival—it is about love and family and those who helped Maya Angelou “grow in courage” as her grandson writes. It is about the power of the written and spoken word. It is about resilience. It is about rising from whatever may beat us down, personally, and collectively. And during a time where our children and society continue to face serious challenges—the #metoo movement, gender inequality, and rampant racism and violence—we all need examples of how to turn our pain into positive action. We all need examples on how to live a life full of courage and connection— and there was no better example of that than the great Maya Angelou.
Learn more about Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou here.
Watch a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Rise! with author Bethany Hegedus and illustrator Tonya Engel.