Just Try It: An Interview with Mara Rockliff
“Try it, try it, and you may. Try it and you may, I say.” Anyone who has ever read their children Green Eggs and Ham repeatedly probably has those very lines burned into the folds and crevices of their brains. I sure as heck know that I do, but that didn’t keep me from interviewing author Mara Rockliff about her latest picture book biography, Try It! How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat, with art by Giselle Potter.
Now you know I love a biography when it’s of someone I, as an adult, never heard of before. Frieda Caplan? I’d say she fits the bill. Here’s the book’s description:
Meet fearless Frieda Caplan, the produce pioneer who changed the way Americans eat by introducing exciting new fruits and vegetables, from baby carrots to blood oranges to kiwis in this brightly illustrated nonfiction picture book!
In 1956, Frieda Caplan started working at the Seventh Street Produce Market in Los Angeles. Instead of competing with the men in the business with their apples, potatoes, and tomatoes, Frieda thought, why not try something new? Staring with mushrooms, Frieda began introducing fresh and unusual foods to her customers: snap peas, seedless watermelon, mangos, and more!
This groundbreaking woman brought a whole world of delicious foods to the United States, forever changing the way we eat. Frieda Kaplan was always willing to try something new – are you?
Naturally, I needed to know more.
Betsy Bird: So, first of all, I need to start with the most important question: What’s your favorite fruit that doesn’t get enough respect in most of the United States?
Mara Rockliff: At the risk of sounding basic, I don’t think it’s possible to overrate the mango. There is nothing as sweet and delicious as a soft, ripe mango (and I say that as someone who’s rarely met a sugary dessert she didn’t like). It can be difficult to find a really good one here in Pennsylvania, but hey, I’ll make the sacrifice and eat as many as it takes.
What we do have here that’s wonderful is mulberries. I’ve never seen them in a supermarket. You just have to find a tree. Black mulberries are messier than white, but have a lot more flavor. Supposedly they make good jam; I wouldn’t know. Every berry I can reach goes straight into my mouth.
BB: Okay, so now let’s backtrack a little. Your book focuses on the work of Frieda Caplan “the produce pioneer” who changed a lot of American eating habits. Start at the very beginning. Where did you first hear about Frieda?
MR: The very beginning was a trip to Israel organized by PJ Library in 2018. They took a group of children’s authors and illustrators on a whirlwind tour designed to get us thinking about Jewish subjects we might write about. I’d already written Doctor Esperanto and the Language of Hope, and of course Chik Chak Shabbat, but I realized I had never done a picture book biography about a Jewish woman.
When we got back, I dug around online and turned up an amazing resource called the Jewish Women’s Archive. I read every entry starting at the A’s, and when I got to C, there she was: Frieda Caplan, produce pioneer.
BB: I’m always interested in that moment where a nonfiction topic goes from merely interesting to an author to a legitimate subject for a book. In the case of TRY IT! what was that moment for you?
MR: I think it must have been when I found out that it was Frieda who introduced American shoppers to kiwi fruit. I mean…kiwi fruit. I’m old enough to remember when they were a rare, exotic treat, and now they’re everywhere. But I never imagined that one person actually made that happen. Frieda was even behind renaming them kiwi fruit, instead of Chinese gooseberries (which she thought was a confusing name, since they didn’t look like berries and came from New Zealand).
Frieda herself was a colorful character who always wore purple and said she could “feel it in her elbows” when a fruit or vegetable was going to catch on. So many things we’re used to seeing at the supermarket came by way of Frieda: seedless watermelons, habanero peppers, Asian pears, sugar snap peas, spaghetti squash, the list goes on and on. But more than any one specific item, Frieda changed our whole national attitude toward trying new foods.
BB: Would you describe yourself as a child as a selective eater or an adventurous one? Which is to say, when you were a kid, would you have wanted to try the fruits on display on these pages?
MR: Definitely! I always wanted to try all the foods I read about. More than anything, I wanted to eat breadfruit, like the characters in Swiss Family Robinson. I’ve still never tasted it, despite having traveled to at least five countries where it grows. It’s never the right season when I go. A friend of mine from Puerto Rico says that I’m not missing much, so maybe it’s one of those literary delicacies that’s better left to the imagination, like Turkish Delight.
BB: Ugh. Turkish Delight. The greatest disappointment to American children the English ever concocted. Why couldn’t Edmund have liked humbugs instead? But I digress. Let’s talk art. Nabbing Giselle Potter as your illustrator is QUITE the get. Had you ever collaborated with her before?
MR: No! We have the same agent, Jennifer Laughran, and she suggested the pairing to our editor, Andrea Welch. I love Giselle’s bright palette—Frieda’s purple outfits and the jewel-like fruits—and of course her charming, folksy style. From the first page, you know it’s going to be fun.
BB: For me, it feels like this book serves a number of different purposes. It’ll be great for the foodies, that’s certain, but it may also serve as a method of piquing kids’ curiosity and getting them out of their comfort zones. Is there anything else you’d like it to do?
MR: Well, the title TRY IT! can mean many things. I’d like kids to know it’s fun to taste something that’s crispy, crunchy, juicy, creamy, sweet, or spicy, even if at first it looks a little strange. And, of course, it isn’t only about food. If you are willing to try gooey passion fruit or Buddha’s hand, maybe you’d also like to try picking out a book that doesn’t look like what you usually read, or making a new friend who’s different from the people you already know.
But also, TRY IT! is what Frieda Caplan did. When she started selling produce in the 1950s, there were no women doing what she did. She could have given up and gone home, or she could have followed the men’s lead and sold the same old apples and bananas and potatoes and tomatoes. Instead, she decided to try something new, and she changed the whole industry.
BB: Finally, (and I always worry about asking you this question since “prolific” doesn’t quite encompass your output) what do you have going on next?
MR: I’m excited about my upcoming picture book with British illustrator Daniel Duncan, The Girl Who Could Fix Anything (Candlewick Press, Sept 2021). It’s the true story of Beatrice Shilling, the World War II engineer who solved a famous engine problem in the Spitfires and Hurricanes that fighter pilots used to defend England against Hitler’s Luftwaffe.
Even as a child, Beatrice’s talent was remarkable, and she never let anything stand in her way. What I loved about her story was that, even though she faced gender discrimination all her life, she did exactly what she wanted, made mistakes, persisted, and just had a rollicking good time. That made her a great subject for a picture book biography. Whether she was crashing through the ceiling as she learned how to wire a house, or outracing bewildered male competitors on a motorcycle she souped up herself, her adventures were not just inspiring, but funny, too.
BB: Inspiring and funny? Sounds like you’ve named your ideal type of subject matter.
Big thanks to Mara Rockliff for patiently answering my questions and to Shivani Annirood and the folks at Simon & Schuster for setting this up.
Try It is on book (not grocery) shelves everywhere as of January 12th. Read it now!
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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