Author of the Month Patricia Hruby Powell

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It’s no secret that diversity is a huge topic in our country, our schools, and, of course, our school libraries. As librarians, you know how important it is to provide books with varying perspectives, characters, and settings. So do yourself a favor and check out books by Patricia Hruby Powell, like the highly recommended Loving vs. Virginia.

Patricia Hruby Powell, a dancer and author with an MLIS, has written picture books, books on folk tales, books in Navajo and English, books in verse, a biography on Josephine Baker (a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book), and a documentary novel on the landmark court case, Loving vs. Virginia, this last having received a highly recommended rating from our reviewers. In short, all her books, in one way or another, speak to diversity. Given this interesting repertoire, we decided it was time to talk with Powell and see what makes this dancer turned writer tick. Oh, and here’s a little secret—if you get her to present on Josephine, she just might dance the Charleston for everyone!

Right off the bat, I’d like to ask how you go from being so involved in dance to getting your MLIS.

Age. Most of us can’t dance into our old age—at least perform at our highest level. You’re quite lucky if you dance into your early forties. I knew I didn’t want to cripple myself with dance. I wanted to walk into my old age intact.

So, at the age of 28 when I was touring throughout South America with my dance company One Plus One, I began to write a novel. It was not a children’s book, but an adult novel based on my life—which is how most or many writers begin—writing something autobiographical. I never submitted LOON DIVE, but the first four chapters are pretty good. One day I might go back to it.

But, I realized I needed a practical credential to support myself, so I thought librarianship might be the ticket. I honestly thought that I could do a library day job and then go home and do what I really wanted to do—write. I was so wrong about librarianship. Librarians are some of the most passionate people I know—invested in their librarianship missions. I was a substitute librarian at the Urbana Free Library for years, but never a full-time librarian. Some librarians are able to write as well as hold full-time library jobs. What a marvel they are!

What inspires you to write and, more specifically, what led you to write Loving vs. Virginia?

I knew that once I’d finished my active dance/choreography career, I’d still have something to say. I think everyone should have a creative outlet, a way to express themselves. So when I’m doing author visits I encourage students of all ages to draw, paint, dance, tell stories, write, sing, make music—any form of self-expression.

But this is my evolution: When I choreographed and danced, I sometimes spoke in my dances (depending on where I was performing, that would be English, Spanish, or French). I then became a storyteller who danced in my stories. But I found I was more excited by writing the stories than presenting them, so I threw all my energy into writing. Actually, I had to give up painting and the dream of illustrating my stories, but I might go back to that one day. I needed to focus. And it has paid off, focusing on the writing. But if I didn’t write, I’d paint or make visual art of some sort.

Why Loving vs. Virginia? There are coinciding paths that brought me here, as I think is so often what brings you to a particular study of a subject.

First: My parents modeled being socially responsible. We were a family of activists. When you see injustice, you try to do something about it.

Secondly: I wrote Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, as a dancer (who had become a librarian). I saw kids in the library who needed a role model. Josephine, coming from the poorest of the poor, with her exuberance and pizazz did anything she dreamed of doing. There was no “impossible” for Josephine Baker. I wanted kids to see that. Josephine was not just a dancer/singer, but a spy, an adopter of children, and a civil rights worker. Research leads you to other topics. Or maybe your publisher knows your interests and suggests a topic, which might interest you. That was the case here. Chronicle publisher Ginee Seo asked if I’d be interested in writing about Loving vs. Virginia. I was.

This question is really an extension of the previous question: I’m quite fascinated by the broad range of subject matter of your books—folk tales, Josephine Baker, and the two books written in both Navajo and English. How do you come to broach such diversity or do you see a way they’re all connected?

Folktales come from my experience as a storyteller. Folktales are commonly a first repertory for storytellers. Here are these age-tested stories, but you must find a way to reinvent them—make them your own. My husband is an avid gardener. I live amongst flowers. I tend to imagine beings amongst the flowers. So Blossom Tales: Flower Stories of Many Folks was born. Zinnia: How the Corn Was Saved—also a flower folktale. And Navajo. I admire Native American culture—and cultures different than my own. I think it’s a way to empathize with people who have “other ways” of living. One book leads to another. One Navajo folktale led to another: Frog Brings Rain. And you know what led me to Josephine.

My husband, Morgan Powell, is a jazz musician. He suggested the forthcoming story, Struttin’ with Some Barbecue (Charlesbridge 2018), which is the story of jazz musician Lil Hardin Armstrong, wife of Louis Armstrong. Struttin’ with Some Barbecue is the name of one of her composed tunes. I see Josephine written as a dance. I see Struttin’ written as an early jazz tune.

After that comes Ella Baker: What Do You Hope to Accomplish? (Simon & Schuster 2019), a picture book biography of the civil rights worker, a contemporary of Martin Luther King, Jr. She was a woman working with powerful men—in a man’s worldfrom the ‘30s through the ’60s and beyond. She helped African Americans get the vote in a racist society.

I’m currently working on a book about women’s suffrage for Chronicle Books (2020)—about women’s relationships—and the struggle to vote. This exceedingly dramatic and difficult thread of American history—women’s right to vote—begins (in my story) halfway through the 19th century with the fifty year relationship of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony; then the relationship of Alice Paul and Lucy Burns during the early 1900s leading up to the 19th Amendment which was ratified in 1920; and then the story of Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, and Victoria Gray Adams—it was women—in the 1960s fighting for the African American vote and the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The three stories are braided together showing parallels and echoes.

Switching tracks here, let me ask what you enjoy most about your school visits.

Getting to know the students—listening to, considering, and answering their questions. They always have as much to teach me as I might teach them. And I guess seeing them excited by ideas, by books, by reading. And by writing.

Keeping in mind that we are a magazine for K-12 school librarians, is there anything you’d like to touch on that we haven’t?

Librarians rock. I already said that. It’s all about getting books into the hands of kids—books that may or may not be part of the curriculum—so that kids can not only see themselves in books, but see others who may be different from themselves; books can connect young people to history such that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel; books might inspire activism in young people. I like that idea.

You can learn more about Patrica Hruby Powell at her website: http://talesforallages.com/

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