Author Vivian Kirkfield is no stranger to the kidlit world. You can find her just about everywhere in kidlit social media. Her newest picture book, Making Their Voices Heard, debuted the end of January. I, Tina Cho, invited my critique partner to share her writing expertise with our Grog readers. Take it away, Vivian!
Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to share on the Grog Blog, Tina. I’ve seen a question come up several times on Facebook groups that are devoted to writing, and I thought I would speak to that.
How do you craft a story with two main characters where giving each equal weight is important?
Before I wrote the draft for MAKING THEIR VOICES HEARD: THE INSPIRING FRIENDSHIP OF ELLA FITZGERALD AND MARILYN MONROE, I used several picture books as mentor texts. One of the most helpful was Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick. Another book was Martin and Mahalia: His Words, Her Song by Andrea Davis Pickney, illustrated by Brian Pickney. I studied how the authors introduced their characters and how they relayed information about their lives and how their lives connected.
I’d already done a bunch of research, but none of my sources, mostly books about Ella and Marilyn, spoke about their friendship. I had to become a detective. I contacted the author of one of the Marilyn Monroe books. She didn’t know but she directed me to the website of the president of the Marilyn Remembered fan club. He didn’t know either, but he kindly gave me the phone number of the woman who had been Ella’s promoter for thirty-seven years. It was so hard for me to call her…I’m really timid that way. But I knew I needed the information because I knew I wanted to write an authentic and accurate story for children…and I wanted it to be a story that children could relate to – a story about friendship. Even young kids know about playdates and going to a classmate’s birthday party and how it feels when your friend is mad at you. How to be a good friend is an important lesson for kids. And although it’s true that each of these icons had enormous talent, each was being limited because of discrimination of one kind or another…and it was their friendship and respect for each other which helped break those barriers.
I took a deep breath…or maybe a few…and I called Audrey Franklin. I got her answering machine. And left a message. Miracle of miracles…she called me back the next day - we chatted for hours and she verified that they were, indeed, friends.
So, now I had verified they were friends, but I knew I also had to balance these two superstars. The mechanics of the text set out to do that. I began by introducing both women and pointing out how they are different yet the same.
Ella and Marilyn. On the outside, you couldn’t find two girls who looked more different. But on the inside, they were alike—full of hopes and dreams, and plans of what might be.
Next, I showed how Ella got her start – going from living on the streets to playing with a real band. Then, on the next page, I showed how Marilyn got her start – going from working at an airplane factory to signing a studio contract.
But we need to throw rocks at our heroes, right? And what I love about writing nonfiction is that I don’t have to invent the rocks…these women really faced huge obstacles and barriers. On the next two spreads, I show how Ella, though a jazz phenomenon, battled racial discrimination. And then I show how Marilyn faced an industry run by men who controlled her career.
So far, so good. I was keeping it pretty even and balanced. Now I wanted to show how Ella helped Marilyn…and then how Marilyn helped Ella. The nightclub incident where Marilyn persuades the owner to book Ella by promising to bring the media to his doorstep was easy. There was plenty of online information about that – and Ella even speaks about it in an interview. But how was I going to show how Ella helped Marilyn? That was definitely a challenge.
I found interviews where Marilyn mentioned how much she loved Ella, not only as a singer, but as a person. Ella was actually her idol…Marilyn was a fan girl! And then I read several articles that spoke about how Marilyn studied Ella’s voice to improve her own vocals to get ready for her singing role in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Bingo! When critics gave Marilyn rave reviews and her bosses amended her contract and gave her a higher salary and more control over script approval, I knew I had what I needed. Because this was a BIG deal – it’s what she had been fighting for all along. Marilyn also used Ella’s records to help with her insomnia – she’d fall asleep listening to Ella’s voice.
Now when Marilyn spoke, her bosses paid attention. And reporters and photographers followed her everywhere. Determined to thank Ella in person, Marilyn bought tickets to Ella’s next show.
After the show, Ella and Marilyn sit shoulder to shoulder, chatting. When Marilyn discovers that the Mocambo club refused to book Ella, she wanted to help her friend the way her friend had helped her.
Putting their heads together, Marilyn and Ella hatched a plan.
And I love the illustration Alleanna Harris did.
Marilyn put her career on the line to a certain extent because in those days, there was a lot of racial discrimination (not much has changed, unfortunately) and movie studios controlled what their actresses could and couldn’t do. By calling the nightclub owner and insisting that he book Ella, Marilyn stepped up and spoke out. This is what we mean by allyship. You don’t just give money to the cause…you step in and make it happen. The Civil Rights movement was just in its infancy…in fact, the nightclub incident happened in 1954 and it wasn’t until the end of 1955 that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus.
I was able to show that both of these strong women admired and respected each other. Ella said, “She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her time. And she didn’t know it.” And Marilyn said, ““Well, my very favorite person and I love her as a person as well as a singer. I think she’s the greatest and that’s Ella Fitzgerald.”
I also wanted to show how we are all complex individuals. Most of us know Marilyn as a sexy Hollywood star…and kids probably don’t know her at all. Similarly, most kids may never have heard of Ella, but her music was genius…in fact, at the very first Grammys in 1959, Ella Fitzgerald won for best female pop vocalist and best improvised jazz performance. I thought it was time for kids to discover these two special women and how differences in race, color, and creed played absolutely no role in their amazing friendship. And how poignant a time for a book like this. We can, and must, all step up, making our voices heard for what is right, so that our nation can be healed. Covid-19 will, at some point, have a vaccine that will protect us from it. But this sickness of hatred and anger can only be healed with kindness, love, compassion, and with the willingness to listen to the voices of people of color.
Most of you who know me know that I am an extremely optimistic person and I’m always trying to find a positive, even in the darkest of times. My older sister used to call me Pollyanna, after the storybook character who finds something to be glad about in every situation. And I think I have found it. Young people are stepping up and refusing to allow this hatred to go on. A high school junior reached out to me last week. As a school service project, she is building a website where she will showcase videos of teachers reading aloud books from different cultures. She wants to use Sweet Dreams, Sarah and she wrote to ask my permission. Of course, I checked with the publisher who is totally on board. What thrilled me the most were the young girl’s words: “Your book has had a profound impact on my life and has given me the confidence to use my voice.”
And THAT is why I write books for children! Just like Ella and Marilyn, everyone needs to make their voice heard.