Keeping the Sun Up: A Clothilde Ewing Interview
This one’s a treat for me. A year or two ago I was part of an interesting book group in Chicago where we’d meet regularly and discuss a variety of interesting children’s books. We’d talk about titles like James Baldwin’s Little Man, Little Man or Harriet the Spy. In that group I had the pleasure of meeting Clothilde Ewing who let me know that she’d have a book coming out in the future. Welp, the future is nigh! And Clo was kind enough to let me interview her about her new title STELLA KEEPS THE SUN UP.
Here’s the plot description:
If Stella had her way, she would stop sleeping on her sixth birthday. Because sleep is boring. And there are so many better things you could be doing. And Stella is tired of being tired. So she comes up with a plan. People only have to go to bed when it gets dark, and it only gets dark because the sun goes down. If she can keep the sun in the sky, she and her best friend, Roger, can stay up for a hundred years!
They enact their magnificent, wonderful, genius plan, offering the sun a cup of coffee, shining a light at it so it will shine back, and jumping on a trampoline to reach the sun and push it higher. But before long, Stella begins to wonder…are there downsides to keeping the sun up forever?
Best of all, she was willing to answer some of my questions:
Betsy Bird: Thank you so much for joining me today, Clo! I have a wide variety of things I want to talk to you about but the first involves your own personal journey. What made you interested in becoming a picture book creator?
Clothilde Ewing: Thanks for having me! Though I’ve done a lot of writing in my career during jobs as a television producer and director of communications, I never thought of myself as a writer. But four years ago, I came across Denene Millner’s opinion piece: Black Kids Don’t Want to Read About Harriet Tubman All the Time.
In it, she explained:
“The typical children’s picture books featuring black characters focus on the degradation and endurance of our people…These stories consistently paint African-Americans as the aggrieved and the conquerors, the agitators and the superheroes who fought for their right to be recognized as full human beings.”
For a few weeks, I walked past the article that I had since cut out and pinned to my vision board. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, reading her piece inspired in me a desire to be a part of changing the landscape for all of our kids. I remember sending an email off to friends and family with a link to the article and sharing my desire to write a book and hopefully be a part of improving the landscape.
It has since become a full-circle moment. I now have the great privilege to work with Denene, whose imprint is publishing the Stella series. From our first conversation, I could tell that she got Stella and understood how important it was for our children who loved characters like Fancy Nancy and Eloise, to see a similar kind of energy from a character that looked like them.
BB: And was Stella Keeps the Sun Up the first book you worked on?
CE: It depends on how you look at it. I played around a lot with the idea of kid logic and ways to both articulate and honor a child’s imagination. I went through a number of drafts and iterations – including trying this out as a chapter book.
The one constant throughout was Stella! I knew I wanted to center the book and a series around a joyous, little Black girl with imagination and agency.
BB: So where did Stella’s story come from?
CE: My stories are inspired by my own children who are imaginative and fearless. I often joke with my husband that they have mastered kid logic and are undeterred by roadblocks. In many ways, I think this is how most of us enter the world.
That said, like a lot of families, sleep has been a struggle in our house. I honestly didn’t understand how sleep deprivation was a form of torture before having my kids. We have tried any number of things and when we think we hit a groove, things turn upside down again. I am setting myself up by saying this, but for the most part, the last six months have been pretty good, but by the time this runs, we will likely have regressed again!
Avoiding sleep by keeping the sun up seemed like a good opportunity to show kid logic in action! And, to have a bit of fun with it. The idea that letting the sun “go” so that other children can enjoy their day was a subtle nod to the empathy that our children are able to show their peers (if not their parents).
BB: Truth time. When you were a kid yourself, did you want to stay up all night like Stella?
CE: Like most adults, I have a slightly different memory of my childhood than my parents likely have. I picture myself having been a really “easy” kid who listened to everything my parents said and who was in no way responsible for their gray hair or stress. If you ask them, their recollection is probably a bit less pristine. I was definitely an inquisitive child though. I asked a lot of questions, was always ready to debate and like my two brothers, I was very active. Kudos to my parents who managed to keep up with us.
BB: You’re familiar with what books are and aren’t available to kids out there. What books would you like to see more of out there getting published today?
CE: First, I want to go on record and say that the children’s book landscape looks better today than it did when I was growing up insofar as diverse characters. I feel good about the library I have curated for my children, but I always strive to improve. That said, I think we can do better to broadly introduce books with more diverse characters and experiences and to not relegate them to certain sections of our libraries or bookstores. I would love to see more stories with strong characters that happen to be Black, Latinx, AAPI, LGBTQ, etc. Stories where a character’s identity isn’t at the center of every experience.
I want my two children to grow up in a world where they can see characters who look like them in books trying to keep the sun up or scheming to eat ice cream for breakfast.
I also want children who look nothing like mine to relate to a character like Stella because she is fun and loves a good adventure. I want more books where race is an afterthought as it is for their non-Black peers.
BB: All right! Finally, what are you working on next?
CE: I get to work with Denene and our amazing illustrator Lynn Gaines again! Simon & Schuster committed to a Stella series and Lynn is working her magic on our second book, which chronicles Stella and Roger’s search for a friend’s missing tooth. Stay tuned.
Many thanks indeed to Clothilde for answering my questions today. STELLA KEEPS THE SUN UP is on shelves right now, so go on out and find yourself a copy!
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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