The Whole Megillah (TWM): Thanks, Norman and Carolyn, for participating in today’s interviews. Norman, let’s start with you: What attracted you to the topic?
Norman H. Finkelstein (NHF): I never knew about Rosenwald or the Rosenwald schools until around fifteen years ago. I was researching an earlier book, Heeding the Call: Jewish Voices in America’s Civil Rights Struggle and came across the Rosenwald story. I was immediately taken not only with its Jewish philanthropic aspect but with the heroic and selfless response of African American communities throughout the South. I devoted part of a chapter to that story but always felt that the topic deserved a separate book. At the time there was not a single children’s book about Rosenwald and the schools. Since then, Dear Mr. Rosenwald, a fictionalized picture book by Carole Boston Weatherford appeared. But being the nonfiction devotee that I am, I still saw the need for a factual book. My original approach to Carolyn was with a typical YA proposal. Over time, that morphed into today’s “older picture book” format which I think works very well for today’s readers.
TWM: Carolyn, what attracted you to this story?
Carolyn P. Yoder (CPY): I never heard about Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald schools, but I was immediately interested. I knew that this was a story that needed to be told and one that kids — in fact everyone! — needed to know. Not just for Rosenwald and the schools and Booker T. Washington, but also for the passion of community action and the power of education. These are subjects that have resonance today. I look for stories that are not just about the past but are relevant to kids today. That will make kids think — about their past as well as about their lives — and the future. By reading Schools of Hope, kids will be introduced to many people who were eager to right many wrongs and come together to secure better futures.
TWM: Norman, please comment on your research process.
NHF: To be honest, I like researching more than actual writing so I spend an inordinate amount of time trolling through already-published material, in print and online. I am amazed by the amount and quality of research material that is available if one only knows to ask the appropriate questions. I’m old fashioned so I take my notes on 4×6 index cards. I like to print out newspaper and journal articles I find on line and in libraries. Being close to Boston I have access to several university libraries and I take advantage of inter-library loan through the library at Hebrew College where I teach. There have been several books about Rosenwald schools written over the years which proved to be very helpful. Little, however, was available about Rosenwald the man, until his grandson, Dr. Peter Ascoli, wrote the monumental biography of his grandfather. Peter was also gracious enough to write the foreword to my book. As I got deeper into the subject, I became aware of individuals who were involved in Rosenwald schools study or preservation and contacted them. As a writer, I am always appreciative of the support and generosity of librarians and archivists and am not shy of pestering them. Only when I have semi-completed my research do I actually begin writing. I start with a flexible chapter outline which is continually subject to change. With my notes, articles and index cards for the specific chapter in front of me, I treat each chapter as a separate entity with a beginning, middle and end. When one chapter is complete (at least before Carolyn begins her work), I turn to the next one.
TWM: What was your greatest challenge in writing this book?
NHF: I guess my biggest hurdle was deciding on focus. Should the book be a straight biography of Julius Rosenwald? (Hence my original title for the book, The Man Who Built Schools.) It was Carolyn who made me see the light and ultimately led the successful fight for the title change. Also, since I had completed a nearly 20,000-word YA biography, I then had to figure out a way to cut huge sections of the text to make the book more appropriate as an “older picture book,” My editor, Carolyn Yoder, deserves a lot of credit for shaping this book into what it is.
TWM: Carolyn, were there any particular challenges in producing the book?
CPY: The story was hard to organize — it really covered so many subjects and so many people. I think when Norman first submitted the manuscript it was too long and needed a sharper focus. The reader really needed to know Rosenwald — what made him tick — and why was he so influenced by Booker T. Washington. The reader also needed to meet the many people who benefited from the schools, the many people who played active roles creating the schools , as well as the many people who have kept the legacies of the schools alive. Also, the reader needed to understand the context of the times — historical and cultural context is key in writing about the past. As I said, a lot to cover! Also, the balance of visual and textual elements was important, so great care was spent in laying out the book and placing the photographs and artifacts.
History is all about the human condition. Ultimately people of the past are no different from people of today. Passion is not restricted by time! Hopefully, when young and old readers realize this, they will fall in love with history.
TWM: Norman, what was your greatest satisfaction with this book?
NHF: The greatest satisfaction was seeing how beautifully the book turned out. I am absolutely floored by the design and layout thanks to the skill and imagination of the book’s designer, Tim Gillner. While I’m at it I also need to give credit to the Boyds Mills crew for their attention to detail. Of course, I am delighted that the reviews so far have all been positive and that the book is finding its way into the hands of readers who will learn about the Rosenwald schools. When people ask me what I do, I tell them, “I fill holes.” This book, hopefully, will help young readers fill a hole in their understanding of philanthropy, African American education and the Jewish connection.
TWM: To what do you attribute Rosenwald’s altruistic leanings?
NHF: I credit his family, his upbringing and later, the teachings of his rabbi. Even as a young man, Rosenwald understood the importance of philanthropy and the Jewish ethic of Tikkun Olam — Repairing the World. When he was just starting out in the business world he told a friend, “The aim of my life is to have an income of $15,000 a year-$5,000 to be used for my personal expenses, $5,000 to be laid aside and $5,000 to go to charity.” He also believed that one should “give while you live” and purposely instructed that all the money in the Julius Rosenwald Fund had to be spent within 25 years of his death.
TWM: What was the reaction of Rosenwald’s peers toward his program? Did he face any backlash?
NHF: At least publicly, Rosenwald had the support of his wealthy business friends. He induced them to donate to the Tuskegee Institute and brought them by the trainload to the South to see the new schools. It was the time of separate but equal and his support of schools for African American kids was not considered a negative by others. (Although many probably disregarded his insistence that these schools had to be supported by all in the community, both black and white.)
TWM: Please comment on the photo research.
NHF: Most of my books are illustrated with photographs that I have myself researched. I love the photo researching. I think the right photographs with the appropriate captions add much to the text. Many of the photos in this book were taken in the early years of the twentieth century and their quality left much to be desired. I think the design folks at Boyds Mills did a fantastic job in rescuing these photos so they could be reproduced in the book.
TWM: What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
CPY: I hope kids will appreciate the incredible spirit and passion of the people of Schools of Hope — that all their hard work that happened many years ago has so many wonderful and important consequences today and tomorrow.
TWM: Norman, what are you working on now?
NHF: I am, as the old vaudevillians used to say, currently “at liberty.” I have a few proposals bouncing around waiting for a perceptive publisher to pick them up.