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Spoiler alert — there’s a woman in the White House. At least there is on the closing page of Isabella: Girl in Charge, in which the popular picture book heroine learns about some of the Firsts for women in American political history.
Roger Sutton: I noticed that you dedicated one of the Isabella books to the librarians in your family.
Jennifer Fosberry: Yes, I have librarians up and down my family. My great-aunt was a librarian. My mother actually started the library in my town. I was card number two.
JF: My aunt was a librarian, and my cousin is an elementary school librarian. She’s been asking me for years when I was going to give up all this science and engineering stuff — I have a physics degree — and be a librarian like I was supposed to.
RS: I understand the Isabella books began when you were trying to edge your daughter away from princessy stuff.
JF: Yes, she went through a phase where she was really girly. There was a lot of princess stuff. In some of the modern princess stories, the girls have gumption and the ability to change things. But in many of the earlier stories, they really didn’t. They waited for things to happen for them. And that particular mentality of princesshood, as it’s distributed to young girls, I didn’t like. I didn’t like the helpless, superficial aspects that go with it. And having the science background that I do, I wanted to see stories about people who have done amazing things, people who you could look up to and say, “Wow, it was impressive what they did. I could do it, too.”
RS: Isabella: Girl in Charge is about these great women who were first at running one thing or another in various levels of U.S. government. How do we show that without making kids feel like they’re getting a lesson?
JF: It’s a very fine line. They are getting a lesson — I think every book does that. Fairy tales, back in history, were saying not to go in strangers’ houses or to stray off the path. But they were still excellent stories. So it’s finding that line, where there is a message but it’s part of the story. The story is not just pure entertainment — but at the same time, it better be entertaining. Isabella has been successful because she’s believable to me. Kids can see themselves — well, not every kid, but many, many kids play pretend. Like my daughter played princess. I wanted to add some other ways to think about yourself while playing make-believe.
RS: Do you think you had an impact on your daughter’s end to princess play, or was it just her own changes in interest?
JF: I don’t know. It’s hard to distinguish. Isabella is based on how I believe things should be, how I was taught, how I continue to teach my children. I think ultimately the kind of parent that would put the Isabella books into a kid’s hands is the kind of parent who’s going to help that child figure out how to be the most she can be and also be happy. That kind of parent would have much more of an impact than the book itself.
RS: That makes sense. If you had any parents who thought that girls should just be princesses, are they going to give their girl Isabella books to read?
JF: The person introducing the book to children is having more of an impact because they’re choosing that book. Not to undermine what I’ve done.
RS: No, I agree. A teacher who chooses to share that book with children is probably sharing the ideals of that book at the same time already.
What’s the difference between when I was a kid, when you were a kid, and when your daughter was a kid, in terms of what little girls thought they could become?
JF: I do think there’s been a huge change. But when I was a kid, my parents were very supportive of whatever I wanted to do. That’s also my brand of feminism: being able to choose what you want to do, whether it’s staying home or working, and doing whatever kind of work you want. I was in a very small school system, so I didn’t get a lot of “you can’t do that.” And nowadays it’s even more “you can.” I believe that it has improved over time. My fifth-grade daughter and her friends — even if they don’t know what they want to do yet, I don’t think they would say, “I couldn’t be president of the United States.”
RS: Do you remember what you wanted to be?
JF: Wonder Woman. She wasn’t dressed as a woman of power, for sure, but she was one. I remember thinking she was fantastic, that she was the coolest person you could possibly ever be.
RS: Was it hard to give up that dream?
JF: I didn’t, man! I am. What are you talking about?
RS: One thing that’s valuable about this book is you don’t just read it and think, oh, girls can be anything. There’s actual information here about actual things that girls and grown women did. They’re things that a boy would want to do as well. There’s a mayor. There’s someone in the House of Representatives. What was the most surprising thing you discovered about women in U.S. politics when you were researching this?
JF: As a child of the seventies, I thought everything was pretty equal — that all of this was ancient history. When I researched the book, I found out that Congress is twenty percent women. Right now. In 2016. And that’s the highest percentage it has ever been. I also found out that the first female senator that was elected on her own merit, not following a husband, was in something like 1978 — within my lifetime.
RS: I was just remembering what Ruth Bader Ginsburg said when asked how many women on the Supreme Court would be enough: “Nine.”
JF: Yeah, she’s got to stay healthy a little bit longer there. I found this quote from Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican: “When people keep telling you that you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try it.” I don’t think one party is better than the other about this.
RS: And certainly the Republicans gave us Sandra Day O’Connor.
JF: It’s interesting — she was unanimously approved.
RS: Those days are gone, don’t you think?
JF: Yeah. Sad.
RS: So your book ends with the election of a fictional female president. Do you think we’re going to see a female president anytime soon?
JF: I know who I’m voting for. But this isn’t really meant to be a political book in that sense. It isn’t a propaganda tool. It would be relevant whether a woman were running for president today or not. So my personal beliefs aren’t really associated with the book. But it would be nice to have a different piece of art in the back of the book, showing a real-life American woman president.
RS: That would be nice.
JF: It would make it a historical book, rather than a hopeful book. My editor and I talked about this — should we put Isabella up there in the last picture? I said, “Oh, good god, no.” You have to be thirty-five before you can be president, so I certainly hope Isabella’s not going to be the first woman president.
RS: It would be a little time travel-y too, wouldn’t it? It’s a wonderful ending to the book. The family leaves the hotel room. They’re going for a walk. You don’t know where they’re going, and then all of a sudden, you turn the page and boom, it’s the inauguration of the first woman president.
JF: We put in some clues. Isabella keeps asking, “Is it time?” And her parents keep saying, “It’s not time.” Plus, there are those clocks in so many of the pictures. We really tried to instill in readers the idea that it is time.
RS: Most of the jobs you talk about in the book aren’t the things like princess, mailman, movie star, teacher — the ones that children typically think of as career goals.
RS: I mean, cabinet member?
JF: Yes, I want to be a cabinet member, please. What I’m trying to get at is the question of who’s in charge, and to really give readers the power to be in charge. At home parents are in charge, and that’s just the way it is. You get to school and the teacher’s in charge of the classroom. Some adults hired her, you didn’t. And at school there’s a principal. And you get into your town and it’s a mayor. Who’s in charge, and who’s making the rules, and who’s making sure we follow the rules? That’s what this is about. What kinds of people should we have in power?
RS: The accomplishments of the women in this book do all have parallels in the lives of children, though. Justice — that’s a concept you can certainly share with a child. Running things is something a kid can understand. Being the boss of something. So you can make those connections.
JF: I also think kids are far more sophisticated now than maybe they ever have been at this age. Some of the things that I’ve talked about with second and third graders would have been talked about with fifth graders when I was a kid. My sixth-grade son is reading Poe in his English class. Sophistication seems to be trickling down younger and younger.
RS: I have mixed feelings about that.
JF: I do too.
RS: Do you ever wonder what Isabella will actually turn out to be when she’s an adult?
JF: My Isabella, or the Isabella in the book?
RS: In the book. Is it the same name?
JF: Yes. My oldest daughter, who is now in high school, is actually Isabella. I wrote the books for her, originally.
RS: Does she like that?
JF: Oh, she hated it at first. Around second grade, she was like, “Mom, don’t tell my teachers that you’re a writer.”
RS: What about the Isabella in your book?
JF: What do I think she’ll grow up to be? Happy.