Trudy Ludwig Talks with Roger

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“Sometimes One can feel like a small and lonely number” according to The Power of One, but it’s also the place where everything starts. As Ludwig discusses the power that one person can have, illustrator Mike Curato builds a visual narrative to go along with (as we ungrammatically say in Chicago): one little boy bully picks on one little girl, but, one by one, things begin to change.

Roger Sutton: Did you have that Harry Nilsson/Three Dog Night song “One” in your mind when you started this book? “One is the loneliest number” — I can’t get it out of mine now.

Trudy Ludwig: No, but I have to listen to it again. It’s been so long. My brothers would play that all the time when we were growing up — it was one of their favorite songs to blast.

RS: It’s a very blasty kind of song.

TL: Yes.

RS: So what was your inspiration for this book?

TL: While researching my previous book, The Invisible Boy, I found some studies showed it can take just one good friend to get kids through tough social times. Not everyone has a lot of friends. You can have a few friends — that's fine. It’s not the quantity, it’s the quality of the friends.

RS: It’s having that connection with somebody.

TL: Right. A few years ago I wrote an article for the Mamalode blog called “The Power of One” about how one is much bigger and more powerful than most people think. I realized, “Oh my gosh, this could be my next story.” I wanted to show that one act can lead to others. Individual acts of kindness can lead to groups of people which can lead to community activism.

RS: And change.

TL: Yes, and I also wanted to show that you don’t have to be a superhero to be a hero in someone else’s eyes. We all have superpowers — the power to change other people’s lives by reaching out through acts of kindness and acknowledging each other. I wanted to concretize that power — of turning a bystander into an upstander — and show that when you stand up, other people see it and join forces with you.

RS: Part of the story is conveyed only in the pictures; was that idea yours or the illustrator’s?

TL: This is the first time I was asked by my editor to provide so much detail about where I saw the art going. I usually try to back off — that’s the artist’s territory! But this time, because of the nature of the story, my editor asked me to weigh in. And illustrator Mike Curato just took it to a whole new level. I love that the art created multiple layers with my words. My other stories are quite heavy in text, so I was nervous about this one, because it was actually rather hard for me to take this complex issue and put it in as few words as possible, so that there would be levels of understanding. My words are saying one story. The pictures show another story. And then there’s that third level of the words and the pictures. But that’s what I love about picture books. Molly Pearson, the librarian and author, said that picture books are “big ideas in small packages,” and I love that concept. I try to take those big ideas and make them as simple and digestible as possible for kids of all ages.

RS: I don’t want to get too meta about things, but from your own description — a book can be an example of the power of one. You and your editor trusted Mike the illustrator, who came up with a visual story. It’s not a story you would get from the words, but they’re in harmony. And then the story creates its own narrative, because you trusted him.

TL: Throwing your trust out there is a scary thing, but when you take those risks, you can have some beautiful results — like this book.

RS: I experienced that working with Lolly Robinson, the Horn Book’s former creative director, who would come up with some design solution for an article that in a million years I never could have thought of.

TL: That’s the beauty of it. When I read stories, I see them filmed in my head — which is why I have trouble seeing movie adaptations (because I like what’s in my head better!). In this case, I was limiting my story by what I was seeing in my head.

RS: You obviously haven’t been able to get out to schools with this book, but in the past, how have teachers shared your books?

TL: During these social isolation times, I’m seeing them share my book a lot more via social media. There’s actually a school principal in El Paso, Texas, who has been doing video book talks on Twitter with my previous books — I was blown away to learn that she was doing this! I’ve been previewing The Power of One through virtual author visits at schools I’ve visited before. But I only have the F&G, so when I read aloud, the pages keep falling out!

RS: That’s horrible. In my experience, you just get more and more flustered, and it gets worse and worse.

TL: Oh, it does. But that’s also a wonderful thing for kids to see, the beauty of the flaws and imperfections of us all, and that we can laugh at them. To me, that’s showing the growth mindset right there. There’s a school in Houston that will be using The Power of One as a school-wide read this fall, to promote kindness.

RS: That’s great.

TL: I like to think of empathy as feeling compassion for someone’s pain and suffering. And I like to think of kindness as empathy’s call to action. What could you do, or what could you say, to be kind to someone? And then I wanted to take that one step further. How can we transform empathy and kindness into social action? That’s what I wanted this book to show — this pathway of empathy. What I’m hoping is this book will be used as a supplemental tool to get kids not only to relate to the characters in the story, but also to see, wow, when you come together, you make things happen. There’s a teacher who has been recommending others to use this book for a StoryWalk® — have you heard about StoryWalk®?

RS: Tell me.

TL: Librarians select a book, then take apart the pages, laminate them, and mount them on boards. They space those boards around a park, or on the school grounds, the library, or somewhere else — then the kids go from post to post to discuss what they see and what’s going on in this story.

RS: Thus almost a literal extension of the book in this particular case.

TL: Exactly. It’s about paying it forward and paying attention to other people. As I said in the back matter, it’s about simple acts of kindness that anyone can do. We’ve become so apathetic, and I really want kids to understand that they have so much power. They’re not just our future, they’re our present. Empathy needs to be taught at an early age; all the research shows that literary fiction is a powerful tool for building that empathy muscle in brains. Why not use these books in a safe social setting so kids can relate to one another? I want to show that we all have different stories, but we all have the same heart. We all want to feel valued, accepted, acknowledged, and included.

RS: And that’s what a character in a good story can do — make you feel like they’re real and deserve your attention.

TL: They’re real, and you get to visit their world. You lose yourself in that character. I feel so strongly that words have the power to build up or break down the human spirit. And I do think that hatred starts with words. With my nonfiction picture book Gifts from the Enemy, about a Holocaust survivor, what kept going through my mind is that hatred starts with words, hurtful words, first whispered and shouted at neighbors and strangers alike. And those words take root in the hearts and minds of many, and they turn into something worse. Because when you give permission to call somebody a derogatory name, you are able to objectify that person. They’re no longer human. That gives you the right to treat them as a non-human. That’s why I take my words so seriously. My own kids taught me that.

RS: How so?

TL: One of my parenting mistakes was forcing my kids to say sorry when they don’t mean it. What parent hasn’t said to their child, “You say you’re sorry, right this instant,” and the kid goes, “Sor-ry”? They’re forced to say sorry — sorry I got caught! It happens in school, too — something happens in the hallway, and an adult will say, “Wait a minute, stop, say you’re sorry.” And the kid will say sorry — just saying it — and the adult will say, “Okay, you can go now.” It’s like we’re teaching kids to lie.

RS: The kid being apologized to knows that it’s bullcrap as well.

TL: Exactly. I remember with my own kids a time my daughter said something really hurtful to my son. I said, “Say you’re sorry, young lady!” And she turned around and said sorry with a little smile on her face — I felt like a knife went through my heart. That’s when I went into research mode, and I found this amazing apology expert (who is unfortunately no longer alive) [Dr. Aaron Lazare], who discovered through his research that an insincere apology is worse than no apology at all.

RS: I agree.

TL: Isn’t that profound? That’s when I decided to write the book Sorry!; I wanted to take this message and put it in another way, not only to educate kids but also adults who work with kids. How do you really show you’re sorry? Words are empty. Kids are so smart. You can say one thing, but your actions belie your real intent.

RS: Sometimes there is also injustice. Sometimes we tell a kid to say they’re sorry to keep the peace, when really that kid had very ample reasons for doing what they did.

TL: Exactly. You don’t know the backstory. Kids are really good at going below the radar. Just because we don’t see them being manipulative and hurting other people doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

RS: Precisely the reason it’s happening is because we don’t see it, too.

TL: That’s why I think books are wonderful, because they allow them to see a problem and try on different ways to problem-solve without having the personal repercussions — and talking about someone else’s story helps you relate to it. Has this ever happened to you? Do you know of someone that has gone through this? It opens your eyes. That’s what I’m finding with my readers. I get these letters from the kids saying, “I had not been aware...” or “I realized that I’m ignoring some of these people, and I don’t want to be that person...” That’s a good thing — getting kids connected to themselves and also to other readers.

RS: One way that The Power of One manages to affect that feeling is through the design of the book. The pages are really open and spacious. You’re not enclosed in that world — there’s room. You’re part of it.

TL: Mike Curato could have made the pictures much more congested with trash, because it’s set in a dump. He deliberately chose not to; and it made it more dramatic.

RS: Was there thinking that went into making the chief antagonist a boy, and a white boy?

TL: I had this idea in my head starting back in 2014 or 2013 — but it’s actually reflecting what’s going on now. This child, this white, blond-haired, blue-eyed kid, is being hurtful to a child of color. We don’t know exactly what’s being said, and that’s important; I like how Mike handled it with just the dark scribbles. But what I loved about it was he had that child come back. To me, that’s really important. We make mistakes. And that this child came back, this white child came back to that girl of color, trying to apologize. This is the other thing: it was a sincere apology. You could tell because of how he held back, how he held his body. The kid’s face, for the person on the receiving end, to process and think about it.

RS: It’s very clear from the picture that she’s thinking about it. There’s nothing automatic here.

TL: And then you have a gender issue. He was backing off and giving her the power. I’m not going to touch you, I’m not going to approach you. This is your power, and I’ll wait. You may not accept my apology… That’s the other part — he doesn’t know. There’s uncertainty in his body language. A sincere apology is not defending what you did, it’s moving forward. And that’s what he did. He has the seeds — you might think it was her idea to come up with the community garden, but it’s really his, because he has the seeds in his hand. He wanted to take his apology and learn from it to share with the whole community.

RS: I can think of a few people I wish would be doing that about now, can’t you?

TL: Oh gosh, yes. I try to do the best I can. I don’t want to be a Pollyanna. I’m not naive. I call myself a bit of an empathy tuning fork, which is a blessing and a curse. But even if this story connects with one or two children who want to create a community of changemakers, I’ve done my job.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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