“Many women spoke and wrote and changed laws. Together, women from many races and backgrounds pioneered feminism.” from Gloria Takes a Stand: How Gloria Steinem Listened, Wrote and Changed the World, Written by Jess Rinker & Illustrated by Daria Peoples Riley (Bloomsbury Children’s Books)
My mom took me to my first women’s rights conference in Pittsburgh in the early seventies when I was about five years old. I confess I don’t remember much about the conference except for the train ride back because I got to sit in the caboose, houses and yards and factories and farms whooshing by me all the way back to central New Jersey. But the conversations that ensued in my house from the experience—and my mom’s locally oriented activism– stuck. Around that time, my mom brought home a colorful game called Herstory with flimsy cards and plastic pieces, in which the names of women countered the typically male-centric versions of history, a game that got me thinking.
During that time, I didn’t know it, but activist Gloria Steinem (who turns 85 on March 25th) was rising in the ranks of second-wave feminist leaders–and as a writer of influence. “In 1971, Gloria started Ms. magazine with her friend Dorothy Pitman Hughes. Ms. was the first magazine owned and written by women,” notes author Jess Rinker in fluid prose accompanied by rich illustrations by Daria Peoples-Riley in their newly published Gloria Takes a Stand: How Gloria Steinem Listened, Wrote and Changed the World, a picture book created for children to learn more about the life and impact of Gloria Steinem.
Ms Magazine was founded a year after The National Organization for Women (NOW) led a vigorous campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. It’s hard to imagine that at the time, women couldn’t apply for their own credit cards or mortgages. Though that has changed and though the ERA passed in the House in 1970, and its passage was close, it was never ratified by enough states to become the law of the land.
Gloria Takes a Stand launches today from Bloomsbury Press (with a publishing mission to change the conversation) during National Women’s History month. Jess Rinker and Daria Peoples-Riley, the author and illustrator team, both found themselves drawn to Gloria’s capacity for listening–and taking a stand.
“I loved what Gloria had to say and how she said it. She’s an amazing writer,”explains Jess who poured over the feminist icon’s writings, events and accomplishments–and wanted to capture everything (in her words she needed to “overwrite” first) before crafting the final poetic words in a writing process she likens to sculpture.
“I was drawn to Ms. Steinem’s commitment to include women of color in her activism, and create space for them in the bigger picture of the feminist movement, says Illustrator Daria Peoples-Riley, who studied everything from Steinem’s nail polish choice to her expressions in photographs. “She was a partner in the liberation of all women, and someone I wanted to learn more about.”
Gloria Takes a Stand celebrates the same liberating qualities which many children, female and male, might push aside–reading, dreaming, speaking up…” For instance, Gloria Takes a Stand reminds us in Gloria’s words that: “Dreaming is a form of planning.”
Moreover, tapping into pivotal moments in Gloria’s early childhood, we learn that Gloria’s parents didn’t punish her for speaking her views. Rather, they told their daughter when they thought she was right and that she was a smart kid.
But how did the book evolve? And what should children know about what the iconic Gloria stood for? I had a chance to go behind the scenes and ask both the writer and the illustrator a few questions about the book Foreword Reviews acknowledged as a “story [that] will inspire a new generation to follow their dreams and fight for equality.”
What drew each of you to the Gloria project?
Jess: Back in 2015, I read about Gloria’s then-new memoir My Life on the Road in an NPR article. I’d always been interested in her, but hadn’t learned a lot about her, despite my social welfare degree. I was in a somewhat fundamental Christian circle at that age and feminism was a bad word. Regardless, Gloria had always been interesting to me, if from afar, so the book sparked a lot of interest in her life. I’d had no idea she essentially lived on the road for most of her childhood. That way of life has always been fascinating to me and that was the main reason I picked up her book! But once engrossed in her life, I then picked up several of her books. And then one day my agent, who often puts out ideas to her client list, mentioned a “Gloria Steinem picture book might be cool”…I raised my hand, claimed it, and the rest is history. (herstory?)
Daria: First and foremost, I have to say it was Jess’ text. It was fluid, and easy to move through. I like when texts flow like a song. It’s hard to describe exactly, but I enjoyed reading it over and over. I’d heard of Gloria Steinem, but I didn’t know much about her, and much of what is in the book was my first introduction. I was drawn to Ms. Steinem’s commitment to include women of color in her activism, and create space for them in the bigger picture of the feminist movement. She was a partner in the liberation of all women, and someone I wanted to learn more about. The text also came at a time when I began to experience loneliness as an illustrator. I was often the only female in the room, more than often the only black female. In a way, I was probably drawn to it because I was wondering how I was going to occupy and navigate a space I didn’t seem to fit in, and desired some freedom from the burden.
What surprised you most as you worked on the project in terms of what you found in the research?
Jess: Gloria listened. She mostly has (or had) a reputation for being a loud angry speaker. But that’s not who she actually is. Originally the title for the book was “What Gloria Heard” because I was so taken with how this woman listens. Truly listens to people. I found myself wanting to be like her, to learn how to listen to what people are telling us they need. Learning this about her was incredibly timely as well. I kept thinking about Black Lives Matter in particular and how so many (white) people were arguing All Lives Matter, and I wanted to pull my hair out and yell: “You’re not getting the point! You’re not listening!” Listening isn’t simply being a shoulder, it’s a method of empathy and understanding and most importantly education–learning what people need by listening to what they say they need. It’s a simple concept and yet we all struggle to do it. Gloria organized talking circles to encourage women listening to women. This was the foundation of the women’s movement–organizing a safe space to speak and listen. I wish we did this more!
Daria: I think when I first began my research, I defined Ms. Steinem solely as an women’s rights activist, but by the end of my research, I would also define her as a cultural icon, and an extraordinarily loving friend and daughter. She was also strategic. I was surprised to find out Gloria Steinem, in many ways, rewrote her mother’s story through the life she chose to live. The other thing that surprised me was her glasses weren’t for fashion purposes. (Haha.) She hated public speaking and the glasses helped her hide. She was a huge fan of Wonder Woman so maybe they were her secret superpower. She also taught me liberation looks different for every woman. The feminist movement gave women the voice to ask for what they needed as individuals, and the movement demanded those needs on their behalf.
I loved the phrasing, the poetic progression. “Gloria watched/ She learned/ And helped… to….Gloria still writes/ She still speaks/ And still listens.
These stanzas as wonderful ways to affirm the best impulses children have while you tell Gloria’s story. How did you decide on them? How would you describe your writing process?
Jess: I don’t remember exactly when in the process the stanzas emerged, although because my initial idea was What Gloria Heard, I had repetitions of “Gloria heard…” and they gradually evolved to what’s in the book now. Picture books take so long to publish. My agent sold this in 2016, so it’s hard for me to remember details! My process with biographies now–I’m on my 5th–is to write, write, write everything that I love in the person’s life. I overwrite it on purpose so I can see what stands out, what kids might relate to or be drawn to, and see what kind of arc there is in the narrative. I treat it like fiction, with the same elements of writing a novel. The story needs tension, a problem to solve, obstacles, etc. but all true and pulled from the subject’s life. Then I work (like sculpting) to find the single thread that will become the kid friendly version. Once I think I have my story arc, I work on the language, word by word, to make it a fun read-out-loud book, because that’s primarily what picture books are. They’re meant to be listened to. It’s a challenging process. And I say I’m on my 5th, but only 2 have sold, so that gives you an idea of how challenging. 🙂
Daria, you wrote: “Ms. Steinem listened when others ignored, so in many illustrations I drew her standing to the side, as observers do. She spoke out when others were silent—even at the cost of not being admired. So I made sure her expressions were strong and confident, but her eyes revealed hints of concern.” I loved these subtle ways of describing a person’s way through their mannerisms. What are some other things you thought about as you illustrated—and can you describe your illustration process for the project?
Daria: Perhaps much like an actor prepares for a role, I tried to do that by watching her interviews, documentaries, etc. I paid attention to everything—from nail polish choices to clothing options. I listened to the music she might’ve listened to during different time periods of her life. I thought about the fact she deeply cared for people. She learned about what people needed because she listened. I began listening more. I’m on the road often, so I started “playing Gloria Steinem” by asking my drivers about their lives, and even noticed how my perspective shifted when I listened.
As far as the process, I researched throughout. Every time I got stuck, I went back to research. This wasn’t an easy project for me. It stretched me and grew me.
My art director, Donna Mark, was wonderful to work with, and the first thing she did was give me a text dummy since there was more text than I was used to working with.
Then we worked on rendering Steinem in her likeness, but not realistically, which proves more challenging than I ever thought it would be.
Next, I sketched each spread until we felt each page conveyed key elements of the text. I’m not one for drawing the text verbatim. I think I would fall short of my responsibility to tell a visual story that expands the reader’s experience or provides space for children to imagine on their own.
I chose to illustrate the entire book in full spreads partly because I’m also a photographer and it’s the way I see. But also because almost every page of this book is a decade of her life. I considered it would be a book children would read over time, so each page turn invited a new experience which can’t really be done with spot illustrations or half-spreads.
As far as the color, I chose soft colors probably because I was influenced by photographs that felt vintage.
About Gloria Takes a Stand: How Gloria Steinem Listened, Wrote and Changed the World: Gloria Takes a Stand brings to the page a spirited look at Gloria Steinem’s influential life, energizing a new generation of feminists to stand up and demand equal rights for all people.
About Jess Rinker: Jess Rinker’s next picture book biography is Send a Girl: The Brenda Berkman Story also published by Bloomsbury. Jessica’s middle grade novel debut duology, The Dare Sisters, will be published in Fall 2020 and 2021 by Imprint/Macmillan. Jess has a BA in Social Welfare and received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in a tiny river town with her husband who is also a children’s author.
About Daria Peoples-Riley: Daria Peoples-Riley’s debut picture book THIS IS IT was published with Greenwillow/HarperCollins (February 2018). I GOT NEXT, a companion book will follow in July of 2019. Daria holds a BA in English and a Masters in Education. She lives with her family in Las Vegas, Nevada.