Bringing Leaders to Life for Young Readers
Sarah Warren ’99 is dedicated to writing books that provide young readers with a powerful lesson: ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
Her picture books include Beyoncé: Shine Your Light; Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers; and Charlotte and the Nutcracker: The True Story of a Girl Who Made Ballet History (written with Charlotte Nebres). This September she published Stacey Abrams: Lift Every Voice. Her forthcoming books include Everything a Drum; Majora Carter: To Plan a Park; and Think Like a Bee! How Marla Spivak Helped the Honeybees.
She recently shared with St. Olaf Magazine what got her writing and the inspiration behind her newest book.
What drew you to writing a picture book about Stacey Abrams?
It was Oprah. She started it. I was listening to the June 17, 2020, episode of her Super Soul podcast, just trying to make sense of our world. George Floyd’s murder was a hard thing to process in isolation. When Oprah convened a panel of Black leaders to grieve, scrutinize, and strategize, I was all ears. Stacey Abrams stood out. She helped me understand what was going wrong. She had practical ideas for what we could do to make things right. I knew her biography would offer readers the kind of template for active citizenship I wished I’d had as a child.
As soon as I got vaccinated, I jumped on a plane to Georgia and visited the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center. I got the chance to read through boxes and boxes of local legislation and notes from city meetings. Stacey Abrams attended city council meetings when she was in college. I wanted to know what it was like. Who else attended the meetings? Did Mayor Maynard Jackson ever come? If he and Stacey Abrams crossed paths at City Hall, that would be something worth writing about!
After hours of reading (votes, reports, nominations, appointments) I turned a page and found a kind of treasure scribbled in pencil across the paper: an entry noting a visit from the mayor! The research manager thought she might be able to find a recording of the meeting. She gathered up several VHS tapes and wheeled out an old VCR and TV. She told me I couldn’t fast forward, rewind, or eject the tapes. I agreed, then sat on my hands so I wouldn’t break the rules on accident. I studied the footage. Votes. Reports. Nominations. A special recognition! There. I saw him. Mayor Jackson walked up to the podium grinning from ear to ear. While he shook hands with council members in 1991, I jumped out of my chair 31 years later and whooped loud enough to feel really embarrassed about it for the rest of day. It was the most exciting research I’ve ever done.
How do you tell the stories of these trailblazers in a way that resonates with young readers?
When I write books for other people’s children, I use a celebrity’s life to make abstract ideas concrete. I explore concepts like persistence, justice, service, and community. It’s tricky. I love showcasing heroes, their everyday powers, the obstacles they faced, and the way they overcame them. But I don’t want to overvalue personal achievement when I calculate anybody’s success. I work to pinpoint the support systems my heroes had along the way. I also know that I tend to idolize women like the ones who raised me, people who solved their own problems. They rarely asked for help. They never let you see them cry. They were invincible, and I loved them for it. I tend to lean into these qualities when I pick my subjects and tell their stories. But when I over-glamorize grit, I set dangerous expectations for my readers. I want young people to be kind and generous with themselves as they work to achieve their goals.
Are there challenges to writing about people who are still working, pushing for change, and very much part of current events?
Yes! I write about people who inspire me, but I want my books to be for everyone: fans of my subjects and fans-in-the-making. Dolores Huerta, Majora Carter, Stacey Abrams, Beyoncé, and Marla Spivak are people with powerful stories, but not everybody is open to learning about public figures who don’t mirror their beliefs or background. I want to build an audience for these ideas that includes people who share my politics and perspective and people who don’t, so I need to be objective. I examine my own bias. I try to stay off my soapbox. I stick to the facts. When readers pick up one of my books, I want it to be a jumping off point for big conversations. I want them to be inspired and ready to learn more.
What’s the best question or feedback you’ve gotten from a young reader about your books?
When I graduated from St. Olaf, I started teaching at the YWCA Children’s Center in downtown Minneapolis. My students were infatuated with superheroes, so I looked for ways to introduce them to real-life heroes and leaders. I was especially interested in finding books that celebrated our diverse backgrounds. I didn’t see books with many Black bi-racial girls like me when I was growing up. I wanted better for my scholars. The problem was, there weren’t many books that reflected our backgrounds. That’s what got me writing.
My biography about Dolores Huerta came out when I was teaching at Head Start. I was giddy. The text did what I wanted it to: It showed all the “hats” Dolores wore to do the work she set out to do. The illustrations were accurate and beautiful. The illustrator, Robert Casilla, had tons of experience. His background gave him a cultural wisdom that shaped the book and made it better. I was so proud of what we made. I couldn’t wait to share it. My preschoolers were a tough audience, and so I really gave that reading everything I had. When I was done, we talked about the pictures in the book and recalled what we knew about its main character. One girl raised her hand. “Dolores looks like my mom,” she said. Way to go, Robert!
What are you reading right now?
Where We Come From by Diane Wilson, Sun Yung Shin, Shannon Gibney, John Coy, and Dion MBD; Magic Candies by Heena Baek; Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, But Enough by Kyle Tran Myhre; You Are Life by Bao Phi and Hannah Li; and Reclaiming Your Community: You Don’t Have to Move Out of Your Neighborhood to Live in a Better One by Majora Carter.
What was your time at St. Olaf like?
I have fond memories of my time at Olaf. My desire to consume a sandwich at Hogan Brothers is so extreme that I will come to in a Zoom meeting and realize I’ve been in a daze, fantasizing about eating one. I also long for unlimited access to a giant cereal bar. I’ve explained how glorious the cereal options were at St. Olaf to my kindergartener. He’s very interested.
What else should we know about you?
If you’re in Minneapolis during farmers market season, check out the Midtown Farmers Market near Moon Palace Books. Fellow St. Olaf alumna Catherine Urdahl and I host story stroll exhibits every Saturday next to the playground. We get permission to print children’s books by Minnesota artists on lawn signs. Families can tour the stories and pick out a free book at our author table.
If you happen to be in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport from now until August 2023, stop by the See18 gallery in MSP airport between Gates C18 and C19 at Terminal 1 to take a self-guided tour through picture books by Minnesota authors. You can find out more about both exhibits at picturebookparade.com.