PBS Kids for Parents describe V is for Voting as a, "playful, though powerful book,” that “engages little readers in the tenants of democracy and activism through rhyming text and colorful works of art." In this episode, Dawn Williams speaks with author, editor and Blue School parent Kate Farrell. They discuss Kate’s new picture book and how it can provoke conversations with children about history, democracy, and civic participation. Kate shares her writing experience and process, and offers ideas for how families with children of all ages can get involved.
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DAWN WILLIAMS: Welcome to On Balance, a podcast for parents created by Blue School educators. We know that even in ideal circumstances, finding balance can be a challenge. And now, so many of us are finding that our work, home, school and parenting lives are more tangled than ever. We see you and we’re here to partner with you.
Blue School is an independent school in New York City that has successfully pioneered a balanced educational experience, empowering children to be creative, analytical, joyful, and compassionate. I am Dawn Williams, Blue School’s Director of Enrollment, and proud parent of a Blue School graduate. Every week I will be talking to an educator, a Blue School advisory board member, or a special guest about today’s ever changing landscape and how we can help each other find our footing. Whether you’re the parent of a toddler or a teenager or anything in between, we’re glad to be on this journey with you. Together we will find our way.
Today I am thrilled to be talking with author, editor and Blue School Parent, Kate Farrell about her new book V is for Voting, a beautiful, empowering, ABC picture book. Kate, I'm so happy to have this time to talk with you today.
KATE FARRELL: Thank you, Dawn. I'm excited to be here.
DAWN: So, I am such a fan of this book. I've now had it for several days and I keep pouring over it. Something that keeps occurring to me is that there are-- it feels like there are so many different ways to approach your book as-- as a parent or as a teacher. It's an A, B, C book for sure. And it's about voting and about democracy. But I can't help but feel that it's a lot more. It feels like every page is this discussion starter. Like, every page is a provocation. So, I'd love to know who were you writing for? Who was your audience when you were writing? How did you picture people reading your book?
KATE FARRELL: That's such a great question. And it makes me feel really happy because the things that you're saying about it are exactly what I was hoping for throughout this process. That it would serve that purpose. I think also, one of the things that I love so much about picture books is that it's a really collaborative thing. So, I wrote the words. But then there's Caitlin Kuhwald who was the illustrator. And so, when she entered the process, you know, it became something a little bit different than what I might have imagined it was just me alone with the words.
So, I would say that in terms of thinking about the audience, what I hoped, and still hope for this book is that it is a book that can work on multiple levels. And that can, you know, kind of serve the purpose that the individual reader needs it to at whatever place they are at that moment in terms of thinking about these ideas about voting, about democracy, about the history of the United States. And so we tried to layer in all those things on a lot of levels. And I think that in sharing it with kids-- And I did intend it to be for children. But I definitely was thinking of it as a kind of a book that would be shared in a classroom or shared in a family so that there would be adults involved and children would be able to ask questions. You know? "Who is this person? Or what does this mean?" Because there are a lot of concepts in here and you know, people depicted that, you know, young children are not going to be familiar with. And so, what I really hoped for was that it would be exactly as you say, a discussion starter, a provocation that would make people, both adults and children, ask questions and talk about what's behind all of these ideas and why they matter.
DAWN: Yeah, it's that layered quality of feeling like children can enter this book in one way. I have a high school student activist child who we had this really amazing conversation about some of the people in your book. But also some of the language in your book. It feels like your words are so specifically chosen. I was really taken by one of your pages: "J is for judges. They're meant to be fair. To be neutral, unbiased, objective, they swear." It feels like such a clear, serious definition. But that word "meant" feels really powerful. And it made me think about just the moment we're living in. And wonder what it was like to write this book now in this political moment. And what challenges you might have faced in finding true definitions that you felt comfortable owning in this-- this political moment. Does that make sense?
KATE FARRELL: Yeah, it does. And it's such an interesting question. And partly I have to answer it by saying that-- I mean it is, I guess, still this political moment which has been going on for, you know, quite some time. Every day, every hour feels like a slightly different one. But-- because I-- I mean, picture books take a while to be made. And I actually wrote this quite a while ago. A couple years ago probably.
So it's been really interesting to see the ways in which I wrote words at that moment in history. And the way that, in fact, I think some of them kind of have grown, like, to be invested with a little bit more meaning right now. And that's just happenstance, I guess.
And also, I think that I was trying to address things that were important to me then and are still important to me now. And I think are important to this political moment in our history as a country and as a democracy. So, you know, those were the things that I really wanted to have layered in there. And I think that, you know, you can read it on a very light kind of A, B, C book level if you're a little kid and you want to just, you know, maybe take one or two new ideas out of it. But yeah, I really hoped that there would also be enough richness of material there for it to work for older kids, for adults even to sort of pay attention to some of the background and the depth behind the language. I hope. I mean I'm glad that it works for you, Dawn. It's just what I wished for when I was writing it.
And another thing is that-- I mean I wrote it in rhyme, which is, like, a thing that I didn't know that I would ever do. But it somehow seemed to really suit this book. And it also gave me the framework for something that when I first thought about it seemed like a really large, unwieldy idea. So, having this framework of it being both an alphabet book and a rhyming alphabet book kind of forced me to corral my thoughts and vision for it in a way. And it really helped me to kind of edit it down. And I hope to make each word count.
DAWN: Yes, did you know it was going to be a rhyming book early on in your process?
KATE FARRELL: Yeah. I intended to do it as a rhyming book, like I said, because for me it's an easy way into a thing. You know like when you have-- like say if you're teaching poetry to children you might have them do haiku, because there's a form to it? And so, it's an easy way into something that seems like vast and, perhaps intimidating, if you have this little kind of format that you're going to pour your thoughts into.
It's funny because I'm also a children's book editor. And you know, rhyming books are really kind of out of fashion. And you know, people frown on them and find them a little trite or silly. And I always liked them. I mean, I think that I grew up liking poetry and liking rhyme to a degree. And I still do. I respond to it. And so, I did think that it was also another way into all of these ideas that kind of creates a friendlier, like, entry point for people.
DAWN: Totally. I have to say the first time I read it I had this experience of wanting to say it out loud, which to me very much feels like it's about the rhymes. And about the meter. Like it has such a great sort of flow to it. And immediately upon reading it out loud I felt sad that I no longer have a young child to whom I will get to read this over and over and over. Like it's one of those books that you know that through repetition there's even more and more that gets uncovered. So, I imagined this 15 years ago being a book that I would have read out loud countless times.
KATE FARRELL: Oh, I love that.
DAWN: Yeah, super, super sweet. It feels like a book with purpose. So, it isn't just a book about voting, although that's the name. But it is about social justice and participation and history. And it feels to me like a call to action. Can you elaborate on what that means for families, for children?
KATE FARRELL: Yeah, absolutely. I hope it is a call to action. I really want it to be a call to action. I mean, I feel really, really passionately about this as an issue that-- the idea that-- I mean I guess what I feel the most strongly really is that, you know, I believe in the possibility of American democracy. And I think that it's really easy, particularly right now, to be discouraged. And I think it's so important for us to try to raise children who feel invested in it, who feel that it belongs to them.
So because I really just feel that, you know, a government that doesn't reflect the diversity of its people can not represent the will of its people. So, we need to participate in it if we want it to be what we need it to be. So, I think the first step in that is-- is voting. Is using that right and making sure that-- that we also acknowledge how hard fought, how hard won it is. All of the people who have fought so hard for that right and are still fighting. And to acknowledge the truth of the history there. You know? And the ongoing nature of voter suppression and disenfranchisement in this country is really important. So, I think you can kind of go more into depth on that.
But I want kids to know that this is theirs. And to feel invested in it. And to want to participate in it. And to know that it matters. Cause I really feel, like, they can make so much difference. So, I don't want-- I mean, I know-- like I've talked to different people about this. And sometimes when I'm talking to really, like, fantastic deep thinkers and progressive people, there are, like, sort of dismissive of the establishment nature of, you know, mainstream kind of government participating in that way. But I feel like that's where the power is. And so, that's where people have got to get in there and make a difference.
DAWN: It's interesting that you say that. There is something-- even I'm looking at the cover right now. And there's something very red, white, and blue about the cover. Which is sort of different lens than some progressive families might easily bring into their conversations with their children. And yet, I find it to be a really grounding book.
So it does-- although it's a red, white, and blue cover, and although it's about voting and democracy, it feels like there's also a lot of clarity about how you're talking about history. Whose history you're telling. Like who's represented in your book. So, I'm sure that was intentional. I wonder if you can talk about that decision making, to sort of let those things sit together in the book.
KATE FARRELL: Yeah, sure. I feel like if I could, that decision making would still be going on because there's so much to try to share about the history of this country and the truth of whose history that is and the way we teach it. And trying to decide, like, just how much of that we would be able to share in the format of an alphabet picture book for children was a really difficult thing. So, we tried to, again, like layer in possibilities. Some of those things are, you know, part of the text. And a lot of more of them are in the illustrations. So, we had a lot of discussion about what to include. And I still am feeling all the time, every time I look at it, like, "Oh wow, should we have put this person in this illustration instead of that person?" I mean, you know, you kind of can't help it.
And also, I am learning all the time more of the true history of our country. And sometimes I learn things about people that I felt really were heroes of mine that make me feel a little bit more, like-- I mean maybe I'd be a little bit more reluctant to kind of highlight them in that way without being able to tell more of a full story of who they were. So, you know, I think we're all learning all the time. But I hope that this book and the illustrations are a path to, you know, seeking deeper knowledge. Like, that's what we hoped for. And you know, hoping that there would just be some faces there that you would say, "You know, I don't actually know who that is. Let me look it up." And then learn, like, about this incredible person that's such an important part of our history that hasn't really been, you know, well enough known.
DAWN: Totally. Yeah, so let's talk more about the illustrations. They're so bold and I love the fact that there are these sort of core charters throughout the book, families and individuals who seem to be from many different backgrounds and seem to have many different identities. And we get to see them sort of doing the actions of the book: marching and protesting and being at school and being in the voting booth. And then you have these historical figures sort of sprinkled throughout. Shirley Chisholm and Angela Davis and like fun ones, I thought, fun ones for me. Alicia Garza. What was your collaboration with your illustrator, Caitlin, like? Like did you imagine these real people in the book when you were writing? Did she bring those to the table?
KATE FARRELL: Oh, it's so much fun to answer this because it's really-- I think that this is probably a little bit of a unique situation for this particular picture book. But one of the joys of picture book collaboration is that process and that oftentimes as, you know, an author you then just have to step back and let the artist come and bring whatever they're going to bring. You know? In the same way that they're not, like, sitting on your shoulder while you're trying to write the text, you know, you don't want to hamper in any way their vision. And they are going to bring things that you never would have thought of. And that's definitely something that happened. And I think Caitlin's choices are so wonderful in terms of the way she created these characters and brought such an inclusive aspect to the way she portrayed the different characters.
And then the historical figures and the-- some of them are not historical, they're current figures, who also appear alongside the invented characters is something that we talked about together. Some-- a lot of it did come from me in terms of saying, "How about--" you know, I just sent some ideas like, "here's a bunch of people that I think could, like, sort of represent this idea." And then Caitlin would research them herself and decide which ones would make the best pieces of art.
And then there are also some people that Caitlin introduced because they were important to her and her vision. So, it's a real collaboration. The illustrations are, you know, I think so-- they bring so much more to this text that I would have never been able to imagine.
DAWN: Yeah. And they bring-- it feels like each page you want to look at longer and you have-- or I had a lot of questions about-- so it was so exciting to turn to the back of the book and sort of have a key to who those people are and what stories you were telling in those pages. So that resource at the back is really awesome too.
KATE FARRELL: Yeah, that part is fun. And there are-- it was really fun thinking about, you know, who to include. And there are some that I knew like Shirley Chisholm was always part of my vision for this book. I just am so inspired by Shirley Chisholm and--
DAWN: And you used her words, right? Is that quote from her in the text?
KATE FARRELL: Yes. Her slogan was "unbought and unbossed." And you can find, like, you know, you can look up and see, like, vintage political buttons and posters that have her slogan on them. And so it was really fun to incorporate that and incorporate an illustration of her. Because she also was just, like, so great looking and stylish in that suit that is in the illustration is, you know, inspired by one that she actually wore. Yeah, just-- it's really fun.
DAWN: So cool. So, you have an amazing child. James. And I noticed in your dedication that you mentioned that James helped you write the book. Could you share your writing process with us? And I wonder how this book connects to your family and to what matters to your family?
KATE FARRELL: Sure. Well, I was lucky enough to be, you know, working on this, during some, like I think, weekend afternoons and James was home with me. And I just kept on asking for his help. And he, very gladly, offered it. And he was such a great-- like, I mean this, like I said, it was a couple years ago. But I wanted to make sure that-- that it would work for older kids as well as younger. And so, you know, I would try out certain lines and then I would have James read them aloud to me and tell me what he thought about them, whether they made sense to him. And if he understood the kind of thing I was trying to get at. And he was so, so helpful to me. It was a really fun process to have him involved in.
And then of course, you know, it does lead to us talking about these things, which are really important to our family. You know. Social justice and-- and activism and civic participation are things that we value a lot. So-- and also, you know, knowing the truth about our history is something that is really important to us. Discovering that and uncovering it and discussing it. So, in the process of writing this, that was something that we did in our family. And I hope it's something that the book will help other families do because I think, you know, everybody can do that in the way that's right for them and their family. But we have found that to be, you know, a really important part of just talking about what we value.
DAWN: Yeah. I feel like so many of us have spent these past years marching and protesting and doing these things with our children or in deep conversation with our children. And when I was reading your book, I was thinking about the ways our children as citizens and just as people affect change. And then I was thinking about voting and wondering how you wrestle with-- or make space for the fact that children who aren't old enough to vote can still be engaged in this process.
KATE FARRELL: Yeah, that's a good question and it is something I've thought about a lot. And I do have ideas about that. But I also want to mention before I get into those that one of the things that has been happening a lot in my conversations about this book and related to this book since it came out has to do with the idea of children not being able to vote. And I actually really think that children should be able to vote.
DAWN: Me too.
KATE FARRELL: And it's one of the things that I talk to kids about. And it's so interesting to see their points of view.
I absolutely think that-- and I really hope that that is something that changes. You know? I mean that the voting age being 18 is something that changed fairly recent history. And there's absolutely no reason that we can't all fight for that to be changed again because-- I mean there's so many reasons. But one, I think that young people, people who are not yet old enough to vote, are going to be more intensely impacted by decisions that are being made right now because of climate change and a lot of other issues than anybody else. And for them not to have a voice right now is just, to me, just completely wrong. But I also think that, you know, if we invested younger people with this responsibility, I feel that it's something that they could really, like, get excited about and then have a lifelong commitment to. And that's something that I think we really want to encourage.
I think that, you know, for so long-- I mean certainly some people who are in power are particularly invested in having young people not vote. They don't want them to have that power and that voice. And I think by making it 18, which is a time of so much change and upheaval in young people's lives, whether they're going off to college or not, they're trying to figure out, like, this very, like, big step into adulthood right then and there. And being newly able to vote is, oftentimes, just like complicated because of where they may physically be in order to be registered to vote. So many reasons. It's just like-- and if you start that way, by having it be really hard, then you know, it's not likely to be a habit that gets ingrained.
And so, I think that younger people should definitely be able to vote. What age that should start, I don't know. It's something that's really interesting to talk to five-year olds about, which I found today when I was talking to the kindergarteners at Blue School. There are some really interesting--
DAWN: What did they think? Yeah, what was their take on voting?
KATE FARRELL: Well, most of them did agree that, yes, kids should be able to vote. There was one student who thought that if you were under ten you could go and vote with your parents. But once you were ten and over the parents could go and you were on your own, which is an interesting perspective. There was one student who said, "Yes, kids should be able to vote." And this quickly kind of led to the idea that she would become the president and she would then eliminate these evil robbers that had stolen someone's beautiful earrings. You know what I mean? It's just like-- it's just really-- I love listening to five-year olds. It's great. But they also ask a lot of really good questions about voting that are so insightful. And I do think that-- you know, I hope that this is something that changes. And I hope that our kids are part of changing it, that they're going to fight for the voting age to be lowered by, perhaps, a lot.
DAWN: Yeah. You watch our middle schoolers and their investment in these processes. I'm just thinking about how often middle schoolers in our school have really taken on voter registration. Have really taken on rank-choice voting. Like these issues that even adults shy away from that these students who can't vote are already sort of up to their elbows in, you know?
KATE FARRELL: Yes. Well, if you think about how natural it is for kids of all ages to be really interested in ideas of fairness and injustice, because it's unfair being a child. Like, you know? Like they don't have, really, a lot of power over almost anything. And so, I think that they're really very naturally gravitate towards ideas of fairness and justice and having people's voices be heard. So, I think that it makes so much sense to try to engage them when they're young and try to keep them engaged.
And they're also, I think, as we see at Blue School and like what the kids do in middle school in terms of thinking about these things and engaging in them, there are lots of ways that kids who are interested and passionate about these things can participate.
You know, right now in the pandemic it's obviously a little bit trickier when there are things that would have happened, like out in the world with people interacting with each other. But there are-- you know, you don't have to be 18 to be involved in a campaign. To volunteer to do phone banking or something like that. You don't have to be 18 to tell your representatives how you feel. You can call them on the phone. You can write letters or emails. You know? I think older kids who use social media can share their views that way. And that can have a really big impact. There are lots of things that people who are not yet able to vote can do to participate.
And I think that for very young children, you know, we can make sure that we share our own participation with them. That, you know, we tell them about voting and how we're going to do it this year, whether we're going in person to vote or we're going to mail in a ballot and share that with them. And you know, let them have that sticker if you get one. I mean, it all really matters, I think.
DAWN: It does. And I love this year how the idea of your families' voting plan or your friends' voting plan has really sort of come out because of the pandemic, that people are really talking about their voting plans.
KATE FARRELL: Yes.
DAWN: It used to be a little you know, each family-- each person knew what they were doing. But I love the sort of, "remind your friends," aspect.
KATE FARRELL: Yes. And that's another thing that kids can really do is, you know, they can tell all the eligible voters that they do know, "Hey, I can't vote yet. So you have to vote for me. You have to make sure you vote. It really matters." You know? They can just totally get on everybody's case in a big way, which is awesome and effective.
DAWN: Great. We'll have to send out the children over the next couple weeks.
KATE FARRELL: Yeah.
DAWN: Kate, I can't thank you enough for taking this time and sharing your thinking about your really special book with us.
KATE FARRELL: Thank you for having me, Dawn. Such a pleasure. I love getting to talk to you and I love talking about these ideas. And I'm excited to have the larger community thinking about it and talking about it too.
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