During any given year, readers would be entertained and uplifted by Ruby Shamir’s What’s the Big Deal About First Ladies, illustrated by Matt Faulkner. The first in a series for children about American history, it’s an engaging, fact-filled celebration of the first ladies in the White House and the unique contributions each made to this country – and with such precise portraits that it’s great fun to linger over each page, spotting who’s who. Ruby, who believes in children’s ability to explore big ideas, hopes that they see this book as a gateway to American history and civics, a mission that she says now feels more critical than ever.
But to have published the book during this pivotal year in American history, when a former first lady was so tremendously close to being elected as the first female President, brought its own challenges. As the Kirkus review notes, review copies of the book had a blank final page, ready and waiting for a post-election update. “We knew that publishing this book in a year when a former first lady was running for president,” Ruby tells me, “would have an impact on the history of first ladies, and since we also knew the presses would have to start running soon after election day to make the publication date, we created material so that our book would be as up-to-date as possible when it came out in January.”
Author Ruby Shamir Illustrator Matt Faulkner
And up-to-date it is. There—in the book’s back matter on a list of presidents and first ladies—is listed Donald J. and Melania Trump. But that final page of the narrative that author and illustrator had initially left blank? They handled it well, even if it left a tear in this reader’s eye, imagining what could have been on the page instead. Ruby, who once worked with Hillary, writes:
[Hillary is] the first first lady to ever run for president and come close to being elected the first woman president. We’re not there yet, but there’s no doubt that one day we will have a woman president, and we might even have the first first gentleman!
I spoke with both Ruby and Matt via email to ask about their experiences in creating this informative book.
Did either or both of you learn anything that really surprised you during your research for this book?
Ruby: My research revealed quite a bit that was surprising. Because of my experience working for First Lady Hillary Clinton, I was well aware of the capacity for first ladies to make substantive contributions to policy. And, as a longtime admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt, I knew of the ways she used her platform to fight for social justice.
What I found surprising, however, was just how influential so many first ladies were on issues and policy. Mary Todd Lincoln was an uncompromising voice for the abolition of slavery, Nellie Taft was called by her husband “the real president,” Edith Wilson was President Wilson’s main internal interlocutor after he suffered a stroke, and Florence Harding, the first incoming first lady to be able to vote for her husband, was an outspoken suffragist.
I was also surprised by how determined more traditional-seeming first ladies were to harness and exploit the White House’s function as the ultimate seat of American democracy. That’s why Jackie Kennedy’s work to create the White House Historical Association is so meaningful, but so were Frances Cleveland’s Saturday receptions for working women and Dolley Madison’s huge, welcoming “crushes.”
And, on the topic of Dolley, of course, I was surprised to learn that her favorite ice cream flavor was “oyster.” Frankly, I was surprised to learn that such a flavor ever existed!
Matt: I guess one of the things that most surprised me in doing research to illustrate Ruby’s book was learning about the first ladies as individuals. I was fascinated to learn how they behaved in response to what was expected of them by the nation. For example, Martha Washington’s aversion to being given a crown was as strong as her husband George’s. I really admire that. And I was tickled by their personal interests. For instance, I am a now a big fan of Grace Coolidge, if only because she kept as First Lady a pet raccoon, named Rebecca. That is just so cool.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to be placed under a microscope as these women were. And I find it a wonderful credit to them that so many of them endeavored to be themselves under such scrutiny.
Is it challenging—with regard to both writing and illustrating—to try to figure out what to leave out and what to include in what is essentially a trivia book? What guided you with regard to that?
Ruby: For me, the purpose of the “fun facts” was to engage my readers, offer something that will stick in their minds well past childhood, and to be the sugar in the medicine, because what was equally, if not more important to me, was to impart the larger theme of the important contributions first ladies made to American history and society. For a very long time, women were denied equal rights and their contributions were ignored by historians. Even so, we know they were always there—working, doing, contributing, advising. First ladies are a big part of that story and, even if kids can’t remember which first lady was the first to invite African Americans as guests to the White House or who ended up serving at the United Nations, they will hopefully go into the next stage of their learning with whiffs of those notions in the backs of their minds.
Matt: You know, Ruby really provided a brilliant and complex mosaic of interesting information in her manuscript. And when I am provided with material of this scope, I have to be honest: I start to shake a little. There is such pressure to make the right choice in what to draw and what not to draw! Luckily, I was supplied with great direction from both Ruby and our editor, Jill Santopolo.
Ruby, how did you approach the storytelling/narrative aspect of the book? I like your use of second-person to really pull the reader in – such as, with direct questions to the reader.
Ruby: I have three young kids who ask a lot of questions, and it occurred to me that a narrative that respected and drew out the potential voice of the reader was a good way to relate to my audience. But I also wanted to convey that I don’t have all the answers – and that they have ideas and opinions and even further questions that are valid as well. I tried too to draw analogies (like throwing birthday parties) to the experiences in kids’ lives today to close some of the distance they might feel about events that occurred centuries or decades ago when women wore bustles or coiffed their hair into poofs.
Matt, can you talk about how you go about best capturing a first lady's essence and personality in your remarkable drawings?
Matt: For me, expressing someone’s personality, while working to create a believable likeness, demands that I acquire as many images of the subject as possible and spending time reading about their lives. For me to create a convincing likeness of a person, it’s important that I feel as if I am actually re-making the person—their face and spirit—as I am drawing. I know that sounds a little silly, but for me, it is true. Even if I have acquired two dozen excellent images of a person, yet don’t know any details of their personality, then I might as well just go ahead and trace a photo of their face. That just isn’t satisfying to me.
I’ve heard that when children are drawing, especially those in early elementary school, they feel that they are “making” the thing on the paper. If that is so, then when a six-year-old is drawing a picture of a mountain, you can bet that she really “feels” the mountain and believes that what she is making has as much “mountain” quality in it as the mountain itself. It may not sound logical to a grown-up, but I’m not sure grown-up logic is a necessary (or desired) ingredient for developing a likeness that truly contains the spirit of a person – or a mountain.
I see there's a May publication in this same series, What's the Big Deal About Freedom? Can you tell me about that?
Ruby: What's the Big Deal About Freedom is indeed set for release on May 2, and I am really excited to share that book with the world. It is all about the various struggles for freedom in American history and how each struggle and success widened the circle of democracy and brought us ever closer to meeting the ideals set forth in our founding documents. I also try to convey that, even though it seems ironic, the way we have extended the promise of freedom in America, historically, is through the rule of law. And while I love all of Matt’s illustrations, some of the images in this book are so powerful they actually bring tears to my eyes.
In 2018, we will release two more books in the series – one about the American people and the other on elections and voting.
Matt: I just received the F&Gs for What’s the Big Deal About Freedom, and all I can say is that being involved in making material like this for children is a gift to me. In Freedom, I felt so privileged to learn about the profound nature of freedom as presented by Ruby. I was overwhelmed by the efforts of so many who worked to preserve the promise of freedom and to share this promise with all of us.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT FIRST LADIES. Copyright © 2017 by Ruby Shamir. Illustrations © 2017 by Matt Faulkner and reproduced by permission of the publisher, Philomel Books, New York.
Ruby Shamir photographed by Dafna Israel-Kotok.
Matt Faulkner photographed by Scot Orser.