Wednesday, March 24, 2021

How a Journey of 9000 Miles Led to a Picture Book Biography ~ by Lindsey McDivitt and Patricia Toht

I first chatted with Lindsey McDivitt in July, 2018. 
I was intrigued by her blog, "A Is for Aging" and her goal to tackle ageism in children's books. One way that Lindsey has challenged ageism is through picture book reviews and her own PB biographies.
Lindsey's picture book biographies 
about Gwen Frostic and Gerald Ford
Her latest biography, however, takes on an even larger issue: racism. 
PT: Lindsey, how did you come to write about Nelson Mandela?

Lindsey and her father
LM: Writing PB bios feels somewhat accidental to me - I'm not in love with research! A PLAN FOR THE PEOPLE: NELSON MANDELA'S HOPE FOR HIS NATION was actually my first biographical manuscript and it was borne of an intense curiosity after a trip to South Africa. My family immigrated to America after living there for many generations. I was born in South Africa and, when I was young, we returned often to stay with grandparents. But then 25 years went by. In 2013, I revisited Cape Town, just weeks after Nelson Mandela's death. Apartheid, the hateful policy of racial separation and inequality, was gone. South Africans of all colors mourned him. For the first time, I was immersed in the new democracy - Mandela's "Rainbow Nation."

Integrated beach in South Africa
Touring Robben Island where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison, I learned that he purposely changed himself in those years - from an angry activist to a leader, capable of leading a diverse and divided nation. How did he know that white people behaving in racist ways could change? Questions led me to read incessantly about Mandela, South Africa, and apartheid.

PT: This book began as a fictional story, but you later decided to write it as nonfiction. What led to this decision? How did the text change?

LM: Actually, writing about Nelson Mandela was never my intention. That 2013 trip created the desire to understand how he managed to transform a racist country. I didn't know how to explain the old, sad South Africa and apartheid to my own children. I'd been writing, but was still unpublished, when I began taking notes on the hundreds of pages I'd tagged. I was a white woman of South African heritage writing about Nelson Mandela. It was scary, but what I had learned seemed important to share in our current world. Especially as a white woman.

At first it was a fictional middle-grade book about a grandmother trying to help her fictional granddaughter understand racism in South Africa. That morphed briefly into a possible chapter book, then into a picture book. The picture book was nonfiction, based on Mandela's friendship with a young, white prison guard, Christo Brand. I was still writing about Mandela, but obliquely.

PT: You learned about the technique of journaling from author Candace Fleming. How did it help you with this book?

LM: I was intimidated writing about Mandela and was unsure of my focus. At a conference, I heard Candace Fleming share her "morning pages" routine of journaling. It helps her get to the heart of her writing.

I was initially resistant. I didn't like journaling. But Candace's books are amazing! Per her instructions - first thing in the morning, no laptop, no reading anything beforehand - I put pen to paper.  An hour each day, for one month, writing about writing. So messy. But eventually I gained clarity through it.
A sample of Lindsey's journaling
I focused on how Mandela and fellow freedom fighters of the African National Congress continued their fight while in prison. They planned for a new South Africa that included white South Africans, their oppressors. That spirit of forgiveness and generosity astounded me. It felt personal and I had to incorporate that in my story.

PT: What was the biggest challenge in writing this book?

LM: Definitely my author's note. Writing the entire book, I wrestled with strong emotions and memories of the old apartheid-era South Africa - knowing that generations of my family had been part of the white minority suppressing the Black majority. But in my note, I tried to share honestly. I want to make a difference with this book and to share a hopeful message about change and fighting racism. I fervently hope I was able to do that.
Illustrator Charly L. Palmer at work

The book also contains a terrific illustrator's note from Charly Palmer, the book's illustrator, a super-talented African-American artist from Atlanta. Charly knows South Africa well and he was the perfect partner for this project. Charly shares: "I wanted to convey the spirit I've experienced South Africa, a Mandela-like spirit of love and forgiveness." The art is warm, bright, and beautiful.

PT: This book includes several pages of back matter. How did you decide what to include?

LM: Yes, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers supported ten pages of back matter! Deciding what to include was difficult. A PLAN FOR THE PEOPLE is for ages 7 & up, but the back matter is designed to intrigue older readers and assist educators. We added lists of books and videos and websites to bolster understanding, and a selected bibliography.
Back matter sample from 

The back matter includes both timelines and text on apartheid laws, South Africa's journey to democracy, and Mandela's life. I'm hoping they help others understand how fear and racist ideas can be exploited by government. And how discrimination against people by the color of their skin can become hateful laws. I still have lots to learn as I strive to be actively anti-racist, but we all need to pay attention. A government that's not a democracy for all is not truly a democracy. 

Kirkus recently awarded A PLAN FOR THE PEOPLE: NELSON MANDELA'S HOPE FOR HIS NATION a starred review, declaring the book "Beautiful. Informative. Essential." It will be released on March 30.

Find Lindsey McDivitt at, where she reviews picture books with accurate images of aging and older adults on her blog, "A Is for Aging." Her next book is CHRISTMAS FAIRIES FOR OUMA, coming in 2022 from Familius Books.


  1. Wow, what an important story, Lindsey and great questions, Patty. I love how you used Morning Pages to whittle a story from a MG to a PB. Excellent examples for all writers. And you are paired with an amazing illustrator to tell this story.

    1. Thanks so much Kathy. Patty did a fantastic job! Morning pages literally saved this project and I feel amazingly fortunate to have worked with Charly Palmer. Keep up the good work with GROG!

  2. Thanks for sharing your journey, Lindsey. This is an important book. And Charly Palmer’s illustrations are so vibrant. Congratulations to both of you and thank you for this thoughtful interview, Patricia.

  3. Thank you for sharing your journey, Lindsey. You have inspired me to renew my practice of morning pages as a way to work through the writing process. Thank you, Patricia, for bringing Lindsey's story to the GROG.

    1. Thank you Sue! I'm excited to see your "13 Ways to Eat a Fly!" Good luck with your new projects!

  4. Hooray, Lindsey! We miss you back here in Michigan, but so glad our writing paths crossed for a few years!

    1. Hi Kristin! I miss you all too! You Michigander writers truly inspired and supported me. Hoping to get back there before too long.

  5. Congrats on making it all the way down the road with this book! It sounds great, especially with all of that back matter to give teachers help in preparing lesson plans! I fall in and out with doing morning pages. Perhaps it's time to get back to falling in...

  6. Thanks Jilanne! I'm wresting with another PB that just might require morning pages...I so look forward to your "River of Dust" book AND hearing the back story!

  7. Congratulations Lindsey and Charly. I've been doing morning pages. It's amazing how much I have to say :) Thank you for sharing this inspiring journey into Mandela's life. I look forward to reading your book.

  8. What an inspiring book journey! I’m now inspired to commit to morning pages. I’m going to give it a try! And congratulations, Lindsey, i look forward to reading your book.

    1. That’s so nice of you Ann. Best of luck with the morning pages! Hang in there, it feels very strange at first!

  9. Wonderful interview! Great insight! Congrats on this book again, Lindsey!

  10. Fabulous interview, Patty and Lindsey. I especially liked hearing about your Candy Fleming "morning pages" inspiration that led you to the heart of your story. Can't wait to read this book!

  11. I love this post, Patty and Lindsey! Thank you for sharing your intriguing journey to writing this wonderful book. And Congratulations!

  12. Thanks for a very interesting blog. What else may I get that kind of info written in such a perfect approach? I’ve a undertaking that I am simply now operating on, and I have been at the look out for such info.