Voices of Truth: Interviews with Michelle Duster and Laura Freeman About Their New Ida B. Wells Bio
Many of us have stories about our family members, even if we never met them ourselves. And though not true of everyone, some people can tell fun tales of their great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers that have been passed along for generations. People who have passed away and been forgotten to all but their own descendants.
And then there’s Michelle Duster. Her great-grandmother?
Ida B. Wells.
That’s right. Check and mate, sir.
So let’s say you’re in Michelle’s shoes. Your great-grandmother is known globally for being an educator, a feminist, and an anti-lynching civil rights leader. What do you do with this information? Well, you might just sit back on your great-grandmother’s laurels. Or you might go a different route, doing whatever it takes to give her the recognition she deserves, whether it’s petitioning to get a statue established in her name, renaming the Congress Parkway as Ida B. Wells Drive, or writing a new picture book illustrated by Laura Freeman and called Ida B. Wells: Voice of Truth. As the publisher describes the book:
“Ida B. Wells, Voice of Truth is an inspiring picture book biography of the groundbreaking journalist and civil rights activist as told by her great-granddaughter Michelle Duster and illustrated by Coretta Scott King Award Honoree artist Laura Freeman.
Ida B. Wells was an educator, journalist, feminist, businesswoman, newspaper owner, public speaker, suffragist, civil rights activist, and women’s club leader.
She was a founder of the NAACP, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, the Alpha Suffrage Club, and the Negro Fellowship League.
She wrote, spoke, and traveled, challenging the racist and sexist norms of her time.
Faced with criticism and threats to her life, she never gave up.
This is her extraordinary true story, as told by her great-granddaughter Michelle Duster and beautifully brought to life by Coretta Scott King Award Honoree artist Laura Freeman.”
Given a chance to ask Michelle some questions, I had plenty on offer. Happily, she had answers to match.
Betsy Bird: Ms. Duster, thank you so much for joining us today. You’ve worked for years to maintain the memory of your great-grandmother. A picture book biography is a perfect next step. How did this book come into being?
Michelle Duster: As a result of the 2018 New York Times’ “Overlooked” series and my efforts on Twitter to gain support for a Chicago monument to be created in honor of my great-grandmother, there was an increased interest in her life. I wrote a few articles for national magazines that led to being approached about writing a book. An editor from Holt expressed interest in using the article I wrote for Teen Vogue as the basis of a children’s picture book. We agreed to do that, and we took the material and edited it to be appropriate for a picture book.
BB: Was there ever any thought of writing a chapter book bio for slightly older readers? What are some of the advantages of writing a picture book instead?
MD: I honestly did not think about writing a chapter book about Ida B Wells because I had already worked on several other projects that captured her life. In the late 1980s I worked on a documentary film about her for PBS’s American Experience series titled Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice. I edited and published two books of Wells’ original writings – Ida In Her Own Words in 2008, and Ida From Abroad in 2010, with the idea that journalism students would benefit from studying her technique. In 2018 I wrote articles about her for a young adult and adult audiences. Then, wrote the afterword for the second edition of Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells targeting an adult audience, which was published in May 2020. Then Ida B the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells, appropriate for teenagers and older, was published in January 2021. So, the only major age group that I felt needed to be covered was the very young so a picture book seemed the most appropriate to introduce Ida B. Wells to that audience. My other books could provide more details for them as they grow older.
BB: Even before I read your book, I knew that Ida got a shockingly huge number of things done in the course of her lifetime. Even so, seeing it on the page is amazing. I suspect that you had to leave things out too. How do you make decisions on what to include and what to keep out when writing a picture book bio for younger readers?
MD: The work that my great-grandmother engaged in was about a lot of violence, so I needed to leave out details regarding lynchings and riots. She also was involved in many activities and the founding of many organizations. It was impossible to include the names of every organization, person she worked with, meetings she attended, etc. My goal was to simply give an overview and summary of her work which would inspire children with the idea of how a person can use their voice to stand for justice.
BB: I know that you’ve been key in establishing a monument for your great-grandmother and that recently it came to be. Can you talk a little bit about the resistance you’ve faced and why now was the moment when it came into existence?
MD: Fortunately when it came to the creation of the monument to honor Ida B. Wells, there was little resistance. The idea for the project was initiated by the former residents of the Ida B. Wells Homes (a public housing community). When the buildings were slated to be destroyed the residents requested that Ida B. Wells still be honored as a woman. A committee was formed which I was asked to join, and the decision was made to have something created on the land where the homes stood for over 60 years. The biggest challenge to getting the project done was in raising over $300,000 for it. We needed the project to be a piece of artwork to honor Ida, and not an advertising piece for corporations, so we did not agree to receive money from anyone who wanted their name to take precedence over the actual work. Because of the nature of the committee, and the restrictions in the city, we needed to raise the money through private donations from entities that were comfortable with their names being in the background. We started the project in 2008, which was right at the beginning of the “Great Recession” which might be why it was so challenging to gain substantial support for a while. Ultimately, the majority of the money was raised in 2018 through a Twitter campaign that I initiated.
BB: Finally, what would you like kids to take away from this book more than anything else?
MD: I hope children learn that one person can make a difference in the world, and it is important for people to stand by their convictions even if it’s not popular at the time.
But wait! There’s more! I didn’t just get a chance to talk to Michelle. Oh no! As you might have noticed from that little book jacket I showed you, one Laura Freeman was the illustrator on this project. And since the only thing I like as much as author interviews are illustrator interviews, something had to be done:
BB: Hi Laura! Thanks for joining me! First and foremost, how were you made aware of Michelle’s manuscript? And when you read it, what struck you as particularly interesting in terms of illustrating it?
Laura Freeman: I received the offer from Henry Holt publishers through my agent in February of 2020 and I’m embarrassed to admit that I had to look up Ida B. Wells. When I did, everything I read about her just blew me away! Her story literally gave me goosebumps, what an amazing woman! Why had I never heard of her? That fact is one of the things that I love about illustrating. I learn something new with every project I take on and hopefully help raise awareness of important people in history. I hope our readers are getting a better education in Black history than I did. In addition to that, the fact that the book was written by her great-granddaughter was the icing on the cake!
BB: Makes sense. So what kind of research did you do for the book?
LF: For her likeness I looked at hundreds of photos and portraits of her to get the “flavor” of her face.. of her bone structure. I also looked up the fashions of the time period, trains and train stations, typewriters, newspapers, images of suffragettes, street scenes and newspaper stands from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, printing equipment, and typography. I saved 100’s of images! Most of them don’t actually get used as reference but immersing myself in all these images from the time period of her life gets me into the right frame of mind and helps me to be more accurate in my illustrations. In addition to this, my art director Jen Keenen and editor, Julia Sooy were there fact checking what I came up with to make sure everything was accurate.
BB: There are so many choices an illustrator has to make when creating art for a book that touches on difficult moments in history. One clear example is the moment when three of Ida’s friends are lynched. Your challenge is to convey the horror of that moment without making it inappropriate for young readers. How do you find that balance? How much does an Art Director help with these decisions?
LF: Obviously I didn’t want to show an image of an actual lynching in a book for young children. I chose to focus more on the effect it had on the survivors… on the horror, anger and sorrow they felt. Initially I had a noose hanging from a tree in that spread but thankfully, Jen, Julia and Michelle caught my mistake.. Lynching didn’t always mean hanging and in this instance Ida’s friends, who began her lifelong anti-lynching campaign, were shot.
BB: Well put. Finally, let’s talk about the way you begin and end this book. One of the first things you notice (and one of the last things you see) is your glorious use of typography. Why did you make the decision to let these big bold letters take up full pages with Ida’s quotes?
LF: When I started doing research on Ida B. Wells the thing that stood out the most was that there were so many of her quotes. She was such an articulate writer and orator that it just seemed natural to include her words as part of the art.
I simply cannot thank Michelle Duster and Laura Freeman enough for talking to me today. Thanks too to Morgan Rath and the folks at Macmillan for setting up this interview.
Ida B. Wells: Voice of Truth is on shelves now wherever good books are sold.
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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