Children are natural activists. They care passionately about issues like the environment and what they see as injustices in their world. It would be hard to find a more inspirational figure for them to read about than Pete Seeger in Anita Silvey’s comprehensive middle grade book LET YOUR VOICE BE HEARD, (Clarion, 2016). Many people know Seeger as a folk singer who was popular around the world in the second half of the last century, but he was so much more than that. As a key figure in so many of the key political movements in our country during his lifetime, he used his songs and lyrics as acts of defiance and support, and was often persecuted for them. With photographs, interviews, and tremendous details, Silvey tells the story of Seeger’s life and brings his personality and spirit alive for the reader.
ReaderKidZ: This is a wonderfully comprehensive book, Anita, but it’s not an overwhelming length for young readers. I learned so many things about Pete Seeger I never knew. In the afterword, you said it took eight years to write. How much of that time was research and how much actual writing time? How did you know what to put in and what to leave out?
Anita Silvey: With Let Your Voice Be Heard, I began with an extended period of research. An amazing number of books, interviews, video clips, and recordings of Pete exist. It took me five drafts to get the story arc that I needed. My research overwhelmed me – and my readers — in initial drafts. The book runs about 15,000 words, and I could have used that many for any one year of Pete’s life. Ultimately, this book tells the story of Pete as a social activist – for Unions, Freedom of Speech, Civil Rights, Peace, and the Environment.
ReaderKidZ: Seeger was involved with every important social movement that took place in our country in the last century, from the early farm worker’s unionization, to Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt of supposed Communists in the 1950s, to the Civil Rights movement, to protest of the Vietnam War. I can’t think of another artist or musician or public figure who maintained such a consistent presence in so many historical milestones, can you?
AS: You have summed up the contents of Let Your Voice Be Heard quite well. Every time I write a book, I initially have a story that I think I will tell – and then I find the one I write. So I thought for Untamed: The Wild Life of Jane Goodall I would focus mainly on her chimpanzee research but ended up detailing her relentless crusade to save all creatures great and small. I thought Pete’s life would focus on his music – but realized that his greatest contributions came in the causes he supported. I cannot think of another 20th and 21st century figure who stood on the right side of history in so many movements.
ReaderKidZ: I hope you’re going to make many school visits so children can learn him from your book. Children are born activists. How do you hope to see it being used in schools, and what “message” would you like it to leave children with?
AS: On my website there is an excellent Teachers’ Guide for anyone to use in the classrooms that gives a lot of ideas about how to extend this book. I have tremendous respect for children and believe they can find their own inspiration and messages in a book. But all of my books celebrate true believers – those who often found in childhood a love or passion and made it the focus of their lives. Pete stayed true to his beliefs, worked tirelessly and long, never compromised, and never gave up. That life model should be an inspiration to children – and the adults who read this book.
ReaderKidZ: The story about Seeger’s concern over the pollution of the Hudson River and the building of the Clearwater sloop is a story in itself. “What can a sailboat do?” sounds like a title to me. Do you have any plans to write another book about any of the fascinating subplots in this book? The so-called “red diaper babies,” maybe?
AS: I don’t have any follow up books in mind at this point. I wish someone would write a book on the “red diaper babies” though, a great subject. Right now I am thinking about orangutans and Borneo for my next book, Queen of the Orangutans.
ReaderKidZ: : It’s wonderful that you got to talk to Pete in person. Was he what you expected? Did he say anything you didn’t include? Did he read any part of your manuscript before he died? What about his family – did they ask to see it before it was published?
AS: I talked to Pete many times, and he met and exceeded every expectation. I would call with a short list of questions, and we would be on the phone for three hours. He was also interested in questioning me. One day he asked me if American publishers were bringing in enough international books to encourage children to think of themselves as world citizens. A very good question. He sang to me on the phone too!
I was just sorry that he died before I had something to show him. But recently Laura Vaccaro Seeger, Pete’s niece-in-law, wrote to say that she was sure Pete would love the book. I hope so.
It’s a wonderful book. Thanks for talking to us, Anita Silvey.