Larry Dane Brimner Talks with Roger

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Dating us both, I remember Larry Dane Brimner from countless nonfiction series titles for the Children's Presses and Frankin Wattses of the world, and it’s been a real pleasure to watch his career shift to civil rights and social justice themes. Here we talk about his new nonfiction picture book, illustrated by Maya Gonzalez, Without Separation: Prejudice, Segregation, and the Case of Roberto Alvarez, a true account of a boy who wanted to go to school.

Roger Sutton: Where would you say this book began? What was the first thing you learned that led to it?

Larry Dane Brimner: I was a PBS geek back in junior high school. Then in the mid-1980s I watched a docudrama called The Lemon Grove Incident. I had already been writing, and I thought Gee, this would make a nice book. I started playing around with ideas, but nothing seemed to work. Many, many years later, I finally found the door in and was able to complete this project.

RS: Is that something typical among writers? Do you have a folder of things that might make a good book someday?

LDB: I used to have a Xerox box full of ideas. If something came to me, I would jot it down on a scrap of paper and throw it into the box. That got a little bit unwieldy. Moving back and forth between San Diego and Tucson and Colorado, it was impossible to keep track of everything. So generally, I have a notebook that I write things down in. Do other writers do that? I’m not really sure.

RS: I find I barely will remember — I’ll think of something and think I could use this in an editorial. And if I don’t commit it to pixels or paper right then, it’s gone. My mind has moved on.

LDB: Yeah. When I was younger, my brain was sharper. I was able to just remember things. Now I have to write everything down. I should start writing down where I put my car keys, because I tend to lose those frequently.

RS: If you look at your career, what kind of trajectory do you think it’s taken?

LDB: Wow. Well, I started by writing sports books for Franklin Watts, and I ended up writing civil rights and social justice books for Calkins Creek, so it’s taken that trajectory.

RS: What’s the in-between?

LDB: A lot of books that I did purely for money, so that I could support myself. Books I can’t even recall now. About the Winter Olympics, about you name it, I’ve probably written about it. I just remember telling my editor, when I did a bunch of books on insects, that if I had to write one more book about the sex lives of insects without mentioning the word sex, I was going to hang myself. I think I’m in a good place now. Without Separation may well be my last book because I’m looking toward retirement. I’m seventy-one years of age. It seems like ever since my partner of forty-three years passed away last July, I’ve lost interest in writing. So it may well be my last, but on the other hand, it may not be.

RS: We certainly hope not. You seem to really have created a name for yourself with these social justice books. How did you happen upon that?

LDB: That happened with reading about Bayard Rustin. I was reading something else — I think it was a biography of Rosa Parks — and in a footnote, it mentioned how ten years before Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin refused to give up his seat on a bus. And I thought, Well, that’s interesting. Because I knew a lot about Rosa Parks—there were dozens of biographies of her — and I began wondering who this Bayard Rustin was. I did some research and realized he was really important to the civil rights movement. Yet at the time I wrote my book, there was nothing for children about him. That sort of opened my eyes to social justice and civil rights as a topic for young readers. I’ve been working in that direction ever since, with a few diversions.

RS: That’s not a bad place to be in.

LDB: No, it’s not. I tried the Bayard Rustin book out on a couple of publishers. In my cover letter I said, “Very few people know about him,” and an editor responded, “Why would I want to publish a book about somebody that nobody’s ever heard of?” Which I thought was an interesting comment for an editor to make. I sent it to Larry Rosler at Boyds Mills Press, then a trade imprint of Highlights. Larry said it wasn’t right for their imprint, but they were starting a new imprint about U.S. history, and he thought maybe Carolyn Yoder at that imprint, Calkins Creek, would be interested. So I tried it out on Carolyn, and she jumped up and down and wanted to purchase the book. I was aware of Carolyn’s background in textbooks and I was so fearful it was going to come out looking like one. I said, “All right, you can have it, Carolyn, but if it ends up looking like a textbook, it will be our one and only book together.” And of course they did a marvelous job with We Are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin — the book design and everything else. Carolyn and I have been a team ever since. I feel very comfortable talking to her about my vision for a book when I deliver it. When we got to Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961, I said, “I see this as a diary of somebody who was actually on the bus at the time,” and she immediately tuned in to what I was trying to get across. I think the result was a good product.

RS: In writing Without Separation, I assume you knew you were writing a book that was destined to be a picture book, an illustrated book. How do you leave space for those illustrations?

LDB: Actually, when that book started, I was hoping we’d be able to get photographs to illustrate it, but there wasn’t really an abundance of photographs. I delivered a text that was much too long for a traditionally illustrated book. I kind of had already paginated the book in my mind, thinking, “This is one spread, and this is another spread,” basically when I would change themes within the story itself. I’d do the setup, the introduction, and then I’d want to tell some backstory, so the setup would be one double-page spread of the introduction and the backstory then would be another double-page spread. Because I happen to be a research geek, I had gone overboard with way too much material. I had written it far, far too long, and Carolyn helped me cut it down to its current length. I can’t recall what the length of the first draft was, but it was multiple thousands of words. It’s much easier for me to paginate a fiction picture book I might be working on than it is to paginate a nonfiction book that is going to be illustrated. This is my first traditionally illustrated book, and I struggled with it, to be honest. If it hadn’t been for Carolyn saying, “Okay, delete this…"

RS: We joke here in the office about nonfiction picture books where the text of the endnote is longer than the text proper of the narrative. I think you’ve accomplished that here.

LDB: Yes. That is probably not something the young reader is going to read; it’s probably something a teacher or an adult is going to read. Reading author’s notes — you really have to be a book nut, and maybe a history buff, to want to know what else is behind this story. So I feel a little more freedom to let my thoughts roam in the author’s note and elevate my language.

RS: I saw in the note where you thanked somebody for getting you access to court transcripts, to understand the decision that had been made in this case. Did any information from those transcripts actually make it into the story?

LDB: Yes. In fact, the title, Without Separation, is from those transcripts. In one of those early versions, I quoted from the transcripts extensively. Because we were cutting text, I realized it’s not really necessary to the storyline, just because I find it interesting. So those were largely cut, except in those cases where I felt it was really, really important that it be in the main text. Toward the end of the story, when I talk about the judge’s verdict, that’s where I quoted from those transcripts.

RS: I don’t wonder this, but I know a lot of people do: Do we try to get across too much in picture books for younger children? This is what, a third, fourth grade sweet spot?

LDB: Yeah, I’m thinking fourth grade and up. I visit a lot of schools. For many of the schools I visit — perhaps we do try to include too much information. But for other schools, I probably have not included enough!

RS: But that’s another value of notes at the end, isn’t it? The teacher who encounters a student who demonstrates more interest in something has a little cheat sheet there that they can go to help that kid find more about that same topic.

LDB: Exactly. The endnote, I’ve found, is very helpful to teachers who want to use a book with their younger kids. Its text itself might be too elevated, but they can interpret it with their classes.

RS: It’s certainly true that the basic situation of the story — here’s a child who wants to go to school, and he’s being told, “No, you can’t go to this school anymore.” Kids will see that…although they might be perplexed by someone who actually wants to go to school. I mean, I didn’t want to go to school. Did you?

LDB: Yeah, I loved school. Some of the kids I’ve spoken to say that they like school because it’s a safe place for them. I think that’s an individual call. I loved going to school, which was probably why I became a schoolteacher. I loved my teachers, with one exception, my fourth-grade teacher.

RS: There’s your next book, Larry.

LDB: I loved getting on my bike and riding there. I was a kid who’d go to school before school actually opened in August, and I would help my teachers put up bulletin boards. Our teachers in California had to paint their own classrooms, and I would sometimes help paint the borders. I just loved being in school. My dad, before he passed away, commented that I had this strong, strong desire, ever since he could remember, of wanting to be a schoolteacher, and I became one.

RS: So little Roberto was probably closer to your heart than we might have known.

LDB: Yeah, I think so. From what I understand about his background — I think this might be true of a lot of immigrants — education was very important to him. Roberto was very close to my own heart, wanting to go to school and being a good student. I was one of those nerdy types. My grades were very important to me. Having things that my parents could post on the refrigerator was important to me.

RS: I have to confess, Larry, I’m a little worried about what you’re going to do with yourself now. Because you do seem very industrious. And I’m sorry about your partner. How are you going to keep going? What are you going to do?

LDB: Since he passed away, I’ve been working on unfinished projects that we had as a couple — house remodeling and landscaping, because my other love was landscape architecture. And it’s crossed my mind that when I finish the landscaping and finish one other house that needs to be addressed, what am I going to do? Maybe I will need writing more than ever. That’s what Carolyn said to me. She’s been a gem about moving deadlines way, way back, so as not to pressure me. Yet I have not written anything since Jim passed away. But I’ve been working on some revisions of pieces I did and working on some essays that people have asked me to do in relationship to Without Separation. I’m sticking my toe back in the water with writing. As I said, I may want to retire, and I may not. I have five contracts, I think, with Carolyn yet. I found myself, the other night, after I had finished working in the yard, thinking about the next project that would be due with Carolyn, and thinking, What if I do this, as a format for the book?

RS: So you’ve still got it.

LDB: I don’t know if I’m going to be somebody who is not going to be able to shut his computer and walk away from it or not.

RS: Well, we don’t generally think of writers retiring. Mainly because they haven’t had a "real job" in the first place.

LDB: That’s what people tell me. You’re a writer, you can’t retire. It may be. I may not be able to retire. That’s a bridge to cross when I get to it.


Sponsored by

Calkins Creek / Astra Publishing House

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. 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 MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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