Episode SEVEN! Conversation with Michelle Edwards
Welcome to episode seven of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Every week this podcast will feature an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday).
In this episode, Michelle Edwards discusses her essay "My Mother Wants to Meet You" (which can be heard HERE) with Grace Lin. We hear more about Michelle's memory of how ageism almost caused her to lose out on a memorable friendship.
On today's podcast you will hear:
Michelle Edwards is the author and illustrator of many books for children, including Chicken Man and A Hat for Mrs. Goldman (illustrated by G. Brian Karas). She's also written a book for adults as well as nearly one hundred essays and cards for knitters.
Michelle lives in Iowa City, Iowa with her husband, a house full of books and artifacts of her three daughter's childhoods. See more about Michelle at her website and follow her on instagram: Studio Scrawls@Instagram
Grace Lin, a NY Times bestselling author/ illustrator, won the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the Theodor Geisel Honor for Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same. Her most recent novel When the Sea Turned to Silver was a National Book Award Finalist. Grace is an occasional commentator for New England Public Radio and video essayist for PBS NewsHour, as well as the speaker of the popular TEDx talk, The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf. Grace's new picture book, A Big Mooncake for Little Star comes out in August 2018.
Grace Lin: Hello, this is Grace Lin and I'm here talking with Michelle Edwards about her essay My Mother Wants to Meet You. Hi Michelle.
Michelle Edwards: Hi Grace.
Grace Lin: Thanks for joining me today. We really, really ... So many people really enjoyed your essay. In your essay, you call it a cautionary tale. Why don't you tell us a little bit about your essay and why you call it such a cautionary tale?
Michelle Edwards: Because it's so easy for us to fall into a kind of way of looking at other people. Especially, as I highlighted in this essay, making assumptions about people who come in gray, lumpy packages and what we might miss from that. I felt like I've carried the story of meeting Florence first around with me for so long and over the years it's become more and more meaningful to me. So I really wanted to share that.
Grace Lin: Let's back up a little just in case somebody doesn't remember your essay or hasn't read it. Why don't you tell me a little bit about this experience, the anecdote of meeting Florence?
Michelle Edwards: Well what happened is that I was invited to a conference many years ago and I was in knee deep into motherhood and looked so forward to being at this conference, in which I was going to review portfolios and meet other people. And I hadn't been at the conference very long when a woman about my age came up to me and asked me, said, "My mother would like to meet you." In that moment I just paused and thought, "Oh no. I don't wanna meet someone's mother, I wanna be where things are happening in a professional way." And that pause almost cost me an incredible relationship which I developed by going to meet her mother. Turned out to be Florence Heide Parry, a very well known children's book author whose work I admired. That's what the cautionary tale is about.
Grace Lin: So why don't you tell me a little bit about where you were at the time or who you were at the time, 'cause you were talking about how that particular time was fraught with that work life balance?
Michelle Edwards: Well, I look back on that time often now, because my life is so different now that my children are grown and I have days to work without worrying about one's school and/or someone's homesick. But it was a frenzy to maintain that balance and I gave up a lot to try to be both a present mother and fully engaged in my own work. It was an incredibly rich time, but it was a very, very tiring time.
Grace Lin: When this woman came up to you and said, "I like you to meet my mother," you said there was this hesitation and the hesitation was this idea that you just didn't want to go back to that idea of motherhood at that particular time or why do you think you hesitated?
Michelle Edwards: I think I hesitated because of the word "mother" and all it meant to me, and that I might be meeting her mother who would be talking about mother things. There are a lot of people who I thought maybe wanted to try to write or might have thought or told stories to her children. I had no idea who she was, but at that point I wanted to stay focused in the place where I knew what I perceived what was happening professionally. A chance to do something I didn't have opportunity to do otherwise. I had lots of opportunities to talk to mothers.
Grace Lin: It was like a moment for you to shed that identity.
Michelle Edwards: Right.
Grace Lin: Of being a mother if only just for that moment.
Michelle Edwards: If only for that moment, yes.
Grace Lin: Do you think that your hesitation was more about the word "mother" or do you think it had anything to do with her age? Ageism is a big thing that we talk about a lot [inaudible 00:04:44] women and you even mention it in your essay about the gray, lumpy packages. Do you think that there's something that we as, maybe people who are not older or not a gray, lumpy package yet, feel a little uneasy about meeting someone who's older?
Michelle Edwards: I think that is true and although I have found in the last year or so that I have many young friends who are actually the age of my daughters, in their 30s and 40s, they love being able to talk to someone older who's not their mother and so that happens. But they're ... I feel like at a lot of places where I go, people look at that gray hair and that lump and they think, "That's not where it's happening. That's not what's new, that's not what's vital." And I think that there is a lot of chasing after that and I see it in kids books, a lot of glorification of new and young. So I'm very aware of that.
Grace Lin: Yes, I think there is a lot of the chasing of that too and not realizing how much vitality there is in ... I really love how you said the gray, lumpy package. But you mean it and I feel like that could be misinterpreted so much, but I interpreted which I think the way you interpreted in a very loving and even admiring way.
Michelle Edwards: Oh yes, years ago I was at [inaudible 00:06:28], Vera Williams was the guest illustrator. A group of us sat around and Vera was supposed to do a workshop. Instead she began to talk about her life and she loved to talk and she turned to us and she said, "You know what, I'm supposed to be doing this workshop," and everyone said, "No, keep talking about your life. We wanna know how it's done." I feel like sometimes I'd like to channel Vera as well.
Grace Lin: That's awesome. Actually, now that you've talked about Vera, why don't you tell us a little bit about Florence.
Michelle Edwards: Well, Florence was an interesting character. She was gracious and witty and incredibly funny and loving in a way. Over the years after we met that time and we had a really lovely conversation and later I found out it was a difficult time for her. Her husband had just passed away, he'd been very sick. She kept writing and she would write me these letters, always on this blue stationary. In fact, I have a folder of them here that I had taken out when I was writing the story about her. She knew the power of letters and how to stay in touch and how to be a supportive person. That was very different than mothering, although I think she did that very well and I think she had five children. Florence is an icon and I think that the book, The Shrinking of Treehorn, which was illustrated by Edward Gorey and they're brilliant illustrations, is a classic.
Grace Lin: How would you say Florence affected your life then? Is there like a specific memory that you'd like to share?
Michelle Edwards: I think that, for me, the way Florence affected my life was kind of giving me the sense of normalcy and connection that this could happen, that I could make it through motherhood and publish, that I could weather the storms of motherhood, that there would be [inaudible 00:09:02] of publishing, which can be a very difficult field to be in. But there was this strong connection there, there would be a letter from Florence, there'd be a poem, there'd be happiness in that. Somehow that helped me know that things would be okay and writing back to her also gave me that sense.
Grace Lin: That's really lovely, it's kind of like a sense of strength and something like ... It's almost not exactly a mentorship, but it's something to aspire to ... Someone that you can see to aspire to. We talked about that a lot about how ... You can't be who you don't see and it sounds like Florence was a little bit of somebody that you could see, that you could become.
Michelle Edwards: I think so and I think that we often forget the power of kind words and of a letter of encouragement. Several years ago a friend of mine sent me a card of encouraging words, and it affected me so strongly that I've taken it upon myself at various times to sit down and write cards like that to other people I know, because you really don't know where other people are at and how difficult their times might be. We have that kind of in role to play for each other, and I'd like to be able to do that for other people, as it's been done for me.
Grace Lin: Yeah, that really hits close to home, especially as a mother to a young child now. There's just days where just hearing somebody say, "You're doing okay, you're doing fine," would make so much of a difference. I completely understand what you're saying. What do you want people to take away from your essay?
Michelle Edwards: I would like people to take away a pause. A pause to think who they are and that when they meet people to pause before ... To pause in a good way before they decide to make an opinion, a quick judgment. To be open to other people and to understand that gifts come in all different kinds of packages, I guess.
Grace Lin: Yeah, I think that's lovely and I think that's why your essay was so ... It touched so many people so much so. Thank you very much Michelle.
Michelle Edwards: Thank you.
Grace Lin: To end this conversation I have two questions which I ask all of my guests. The first one is very easy, it's just what are you working on, what would you like to share that you're personally working on or publishing that you'd like our listeners to hear about?
Michelle Edwards: Well, I think that what I would like to say about that relates perfectly to what preceded, and that is I've spent my life working and reworking stories, constructing them and deconstructing them, and that's what I do. My latest book, A Hat for Mrs. Goldman, was probably decades in the making. In fact, it was, it went through many different versions. Right now I'm involved in that process with the middle grade novel set where I live in Iowa in a real community outside of Iowa city on a gravel road. I'm also involved in story collaboration with middle grade writer Sarah Prineas and we work on picture books, and we're revising our first picture book right now.
Grace Lin: Oh, that's great. Is there any titles that you wanna share or not yet?
Michelle Edwards: Well, my middle grade is called Gravel Road Gang, and the picture book that Sarah and I are working on is called In Our Woods.
Grace Lin: Awesome. Well, I look forward to seeing them.
Michelle Edwards: Thank you.
Grace Lin: Okay Michelle, now I have my very last question.
Michelle Edwards: Sure.
Grace Lin: This very last question is what is your biggest, deepest, publishing dream? I have to reiterate, which I do every single time, is that when I ask this question I'm asking for the dream that you're almost too embarrassed to say out loud. It can be completely selfish, completely shallow, but the dream that you really wish, the dream that you really want. And not, "I wanna make a living making a book, not that you wanna [inaudible 00:13:59] children," we all want that, I understand. But the really, really shallow, deep dream that you think about if you've won the lottery of children's books.
Michelle Edwards: If I win the lottery of children's book, wow. I think we can say I had this question in advance and I've been thinking about this a lot. And I always get back to the same thing. I've been in kid's books for a long time and I have some books that are probably older than people who are starting out in kid's books, they've been in print that long, and that's what I want. I want my body of work to stay in print. I want to know that I've made something that last, that can be viewed as a body of work. If they got made into a film character, if Pa Lia Vang became a little film star or Mrs. Goldman or Chicken man, I would love that, that would be great. But mostly, I want those books available.
Grace Lin: Yes, I understand. I agree, I think that's everyone's dream too. And the film star too.
Michelle Edwards: Yeah, the film start too, yes.
Grace Lin: Well thanks so much Michelle, it was so nice talking to you.
Michelle Edwards: Well thank you very much for having me on and I enjoyed talking with you also.
Grace Lin: Bye.
Michelle Edwards: Bye.