NEARER MY FREEDOM: An Interview and 2023 Cover Reveal with Lesley Younge
When the history of the online world of children’s literature and children’s literary scholarship is recorded decades from now, one hopes that the contributions of my friend Monica Edinger, educator, blogger, teacher, and author, will be mentioned prominently. Those of you familiar with her educating alice blog know that it was always a high point of any reader’s feed.
In late 2019 Monica suffered a stroke. Her last entry on her blog spoke of a new book project. She wrote, “I am working on a book with Lesley Younge. We taught at Dalton. It is a verse novel that used excerpts from Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. We are excited for the project. Equiano is a voice from the past who witnessed the slave trade.”
Today, it my pleasure to announce that NEARER MY FREEDOM, Monica’s book with Lesley, is slated for release in March of 2023 and we’ve got the cover reveal! But first, Lesley was kind enough to answer my questions today about the book, Monica, research, and much much more:
Betsy Bird: Hi Lesley! Thanks again for answering my questions. Your upcoming book NEARER MY FREEDOM examines the life of Olaudah Equiano, an enslaved man who survived the Transatlantic slave trade and went on to write his own autobiography of his life. Can you talk a little bit about how you and Monica Edinger came to Equiano’s story, and what inspired you to write a book for children about him?
Lesley Younge: Monica and the fourth grade team at The Dalton School introduced me to the story of Olaudah Equiano when I began working there as a new teacher. I had never heard of him before. At the time, they taught the Atlantic Slave Trade as part of a year long study on Immigration and Migration to America. They were using a book by Ann Cameron called The Kidnapped Prince, which is an elementary school level book about Equiano’s life from his kidnapping until he purchased his freedom. One of the projects in our classes was to take pages of that book and create found poems. The verses the students developed were extremely powerful and allowed us to have pretty in depth conversations about the experience of being enslaved and the role the slave trade played in shaping many parts of the world. Monica was working on her own book about a child on the Amistad, which was eventually published as Africa is My Home in 2013. After the success of that book, she came to me with the idea for a book about Olaudah Equiano, based on the found verse project we were doing at Dalton. I thought it was brilliant. We decided to write it for older children – young teens really – since there wasn’t yet an age appropriate version for them.
BB: What form did your collaboration take with Monica? How did you two work together? What was your process?
LY: In the beginning, Monica worked primarily on the verse and I was researching and writing the contextual essays that provide background information for some of Equiano’s references. We had been looking for a writing project we could do together and so this felt like exactly the right opportunity for us to partner as we could put our different interests and skills to use. We completed about a quarter of the book this way for the proposal, in which Lerner/Zest took interest. We were beginning to work on the rest of the book when Monica had a stroke, which has resulted in aphasia or a loss of speech. Then, came the COVID pandemic. Both of those events changed our working process significantly, but the fortunate thing is that we had talked about this project a great deal. Monica and I always had wonderfully long phone conversations and visits that were mutually inspirational. There were hours of discussion about this book, about Equiano’s story, and about our goals for the project to draw on, even though we now communicate mostly via text and shared Google Docs. I live in Washington D.C. with my family, but we have been able to meet in person a few times as COVID restrictions subside.
BB: I see that the novel is written in “found” verse. What is found verse and why did you choose that particular format for this book? Why does it suit this kind of story best?
LY: Found verse takes existing text and reorganizes a selection of words, phrases, and sentences into poems. It can be thought of as a remix or a collage. Sometimes the new poems bring new meaning. In this case, we wanted to preserve the essential meaning of Olaudah’s words, as well as the power and beauty of his rhetoric. Found verse allowed us to focus on certain parts of the story and certain turns of phrase, while making the language more accessible to young people. There are a lot of wonderful novels in verse for young readers now so they are increasingly familiar with this genre. Equiano’s writing lent itself very well to poetry. It was like mining for gold in a river full of it – very easy to find the nuggets we wanted to use.
BB: In an article in School Library Journal in September of 2022 there was a piece called “Changing the Narrative” that looked at how the depiction of slavery in children’s literature has shifted over the years. It quotes Kwame Alexander saying, “[It] was important to me that we get beyond the narrative that the beginning of our story happened here in this New World, that in fact, that’s the middle of our story.” When you were writing NEARER MY FREEDOM, can you talk a bit about how important it was to depict Equiano’s life in Africa before his enslavement?
LY: Part of the significance of Equiano’s book at the time and today is the vivid detail with which he describes his childhood in West Africa. It is very specific about geography and cultural practices. He purposely makes connections to other cultures, talks about his family, and brings their daily experience to life. The early British abolition movement needed to humanize the hundreds of thousands of Africans being kidnapped and shipped across the Atlantic everyday. Equiano makes it clear that these were people with families, communities, and futures, not mere commodities. He puts a name, a history, and a face to the victims of captivity and enslavement. He lets the reader know that there was absolutely a “before” in the lives of Africans and they were advocating for a freedom that was their human right.
BB: What kind of research did you and Monica do for this book?
LY: We consulted many different secondary texts from historians and journalists who are unearthing information about the Atlantic Slave Trade, the British Abolition Movement, and Olaudah Equiano himself. We relied heavily on the work of Vincent Carretta, David Olusoga, Adam Hochschild, Olivette Otele, and Howard W. French. All of their books are terrific sources for any educators who want to know more after reading Nearer My Freedom. Several British museums were very useful as they have a great deal of research information available on their websites. But truly we let Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography guide us in determining what else we needed to learn as we wanted to support his narrative, not change it.
BB: Currently we’re facing a time when there are states passing laws to limit what teachers can say about racism and slavery. Your book is entering a market where people may try to limit how children access what it has to say. I wonder, could you speak to what you hope this book is able to accomplish and how you’d prefer to see it received?
LY: From my perspective as a veteran teacher, the interest young people have in learning the truth about history is growing. They are trying to understand what is happening in our world and increasingly aware that underneath every present day situation are vast historical roots, despite what the adults around them may say or not say. Equiano provided an eyewitness account of the trauma millions of people experienced when they were kidnapped, transported in violent conditions across the Atlantic, and sold into slavery. He makes it clear this was a global industry and that people and countries around the world built wealth by enslaving others. Those facts are not going away. The impact of those facts is not going away. We are presenting Equiano’s story in a highly engaging way, but this is still his story. We hope Nearer My Freedom becomes an authentic and powerful tool for young people to learn about the global slave trade and its impacts, as well as one man’s persistent quest for his freedom and the freedom of others. We hope young people can learn this history supported by the adults in their lives and in classes where they can discuss Equiano’s story with their peers, but if not, we have worked hard to make this book just right for them to read on their own.
BB: Finally, is there anything you’re working on next that you’d like us to know about?
LY: Yes! Sleeping Bear Press will publish my first picture book, A-Train Allen, in spring 2023 so I am very excited for that release as well. Monica plans to continue reviewing books on her blog, educating alice. We would love to work together again. There are a lot of historical stories out there waiting to be told. We will see what the future holds!
I’d like to thank Lesley Younge profusely for speaking with me today.
And now, in all its glory, the jacket of the new book!
Thanks too to agent Stephen Barbara of Inkwell Management for facilitating this reveal. Nearer My Freedom releases with Zest Books on March 7, 2023. Be sure to look for it then!
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.
SLJ Blog Network