Alice Paul is such an important figure in American history that Dean Robbins figured someone must have already written a children’s book about her.
But Robbins discovered that no one had — maybe because Paul’s was such a difficult story to tell. The petite suffragette, whose activism was key to securing the right to vote for American women, was ridiculed and even thrown in jail for her views.
Not an easy story to tell to young readers.
Still, Robbins finds a way to bring the buoyant, determined and charming Paul to life in his newly published picture book “Miss Paul and the President: The Creative Campaign for Women’s Right to Vote.” (Knopf; $17.99)
Robbins, perhaps best known to Madison readers as the former editor and arts editor of the alternative newsweekly Isthmus, is developing a reputation as a writer of vibrant biographical stories for young children. His book “Two Friends,” about the real-life friendship between the women’s rights pioneer Susan B. Anthony and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, was published in January. Another picture book, about the unsung female scientist Margaret Hamilton whose brilliance helped the Apollo rocket mission succeed, is due out next summer.
He has “dozens” more books written in hopes of publication.
“I’ve always loved heroic figures, and I think that’s the foundation of it,” said Robbins, 58, who grew up in St. Louis.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been just a nerdy hero worshiper. I’ve had a whole string of heroes I’ve just wanted to be like when I grew up: Louis Armstrong, Jackie Robinson, Mark Twain... And to this day, I have pictures of those people still plastered all over my office walls. I still draw inspiration from them.”
Robbins, who today works in communications for the Continuing Studies division of UW-Madison, loves to read biographies in his spare time. In fact, he got the idea of writing picture books more than a decade ago when he told a friend, who works in the children’s publishing field, about a Babe Ruth biography he was reading.
In retelling the baseball player’s story, Robbins was so animated and exuberant that his friend said he should try recounting some of those true-life tales for children.
“I thought — why would I want to do that?” Robbins admitted. “Then, the more I thought about it — I had a young child, and I was always telling him stories about my heroes. I (realized) that would actually be fun, to get kids excited about these people I was excited about.”
So Robbins gave it a shot, and three manuscripts he wrote made it over the transom and got accepted by Harcourt. When that publishing house was acquired by Houghton Mifflin, however, his editors left and Robbins’ work never made it to publication.
But he’d had so much fun writing for ages 4-8 that the author decided to go another route. Robbins found an agent, then got used to getting rejection letters – until he came up with “Two Friends.” Orchard Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., bought the manuscript.
The publisher hired the husband and wife team of Sean Qualls and Selina Alko to illustrate the book. “Two Friends” had to wait in line behind other projects they were working on.
The whole process took years – in sharp contrast to the daily and weekly turn-around of stories that Robbins was used to in the journalism world, he said.
But he’s pleased with the final result, especially the ingenious way that Qualls and Alko embedded words into their pages of “Two Friends.” Longhand script is subtly woven into illustrated snow banks, in tree bark and next to the moon.
“This is such a poetic thing that they did, but I think they picked up on this idea in the text, where the two characters are constantly talking and reading and speaking about their ideas about freedom and equality,” Robbins said. “I think the images show, with all these words everywhere, that their ideas were spreading everywhere, that they were saturating the world, and people were starting to agree with them. It is such a fantastic metaphor.”
Robbins got the idea for “Two Friends” while on a visit to “sacred ground” – during one of those many vacations where he would drag his wife and son to tour the historic home of one of his heroes. When they visited Rochester, New York, Robbins knew that both Anthony and Douglass had lived there, but he didn’t realize they’d had a connection.
“We were touring Susan B. Anthony’s house, which is a national historic landmark, and the tour guide was pointing out in Susan’s parlor: ‘Here is where she would sit and have tea with Frederick Douglass.’
“It was like, ‘What?’” Robbins said. “So they were friends and neighbors. What are the odds? It was like having Batman and Superman living next door to each other. These two people, maybe the greatest civil rights leaders of all time, lived next to each other, would have tea, talk about their causes and support one another.”
From there, Robbins’ narrative for “Two Friends” took off. The idea for “Miss Paul and the President” came from a conversation with his niece.
“We started talking about Alice Paul, and I thought, ‘Wow, that is such a dramatic story.’”
But as he began researching more, “It occurred to me how many difficult elements there are in the story for kids.” Some women like Alice Paul, exercising their First Amendment rights, were violently jailed during the suffrage movement, Robbins said.
“So I had to think, ‘How can you frame it so it’s an inspiring story for young kids, without scaring them, and getting them cynical about American ideals even at their young age?’”
Robbins focused on the issue of fairness vs. unfairness, a concept young children can understand. And he made Alice Paul — and earlier, Anthony and Douglass — into almost superheroes, “which they really were,” he said.
“Because it took really superhuman bravery to confront these powerful forces the way they did,” he said. “And they prevailed.”
Nancy Zhang, a fashion illustrator in Germany, was hired to illustrate “Miss Paul and the President,” and gives the main character a joyful presence in her signature purple hat. It is “serendipity” that the book is coming out the same year that an American woman is a major party candidate running for president, Robbins said.
Both “Two Friends” and “Miss Paul and the President” were nominated for the American Library Association’s “Amelia Bloomer List: Best Feminist Books for Young Readers.” And “Two Friends” is being made into an animated film.
Robbins plans to keep writing children’s books — both nonfiction biography and fiction. He loves the research and “taking copious notes, then going over my notes and trying to figure out how I can tell the story for kids,” he said.
“In both of these (new books), I think the gist of the story is really what always excited me about heroes when I was a kid: Ordinary people going up against incredible odds, against the forces of oppression — and using democratic means, as well as their own internal fortitude, to make the world a better place.
“Just thinking about that idea gets me excited all over again,” he said. “I just tried to remember what it was like to feel that excited as a kid about that sort of story, and that’s what I tried to pour into the books.”