Author and MFAC alum Barbara Herkert talks with us about her newest book, Sewing Stories. Learn about her writing process for this picture book biography on the life of Harriet Powers, an African American artist who grew up as a slave.
Sewing Stories is about an artist who was born into slavery, faced with crushing degradation and poverty, and still driven to create in the form of appliqué story quilts unequaled in composition and design. The book is illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton and was released in October, 2015 by Alfred A. Knopf.
Do you have a favorite part of the book or a favorite character?
I love the ending, where Harriet is soaring across the sky.
Did you workshop this story at Hamline or work with a faculty member on it?
I started working on this book at Hamline under Jackie Briggs Martin’s mentorship. I’d never written a picture book biography before. I was transfixed by the genre. Jackie showed me how to search for those golden nuggets, how to transport the reader with details.
When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?
I began the manuscript during my third semester at Hamline. I was in the first class–the “big class.”
As the work progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about?
My first editor at Knopf was Michelle Burke. We cut out entire stanzas and shortened others to make room for illustrations. I finished the project with another editor, Kelly Delaney, after Michelle decided to stay home with her new baby. Kelly made further edits, including taking the stanzas out of free-verse and including dialogue. I was extremely hesitant about the dialogue—the only documented words of Harriet’s own are the descriptions of her story quilts. But I found a source of testimonies by former slaves that I felt enveloped Harriet’s spirit.
What research did you do before and while writing the book?
I did tons of research. I read everything I could about Harriet, about slavery and life in Athens, Georgia following the Civil War, and about appliqué quilting. I went to the Smithsonian to see the first story quilt “in person.” The shapes and the rhythm that continues throughout the quilt mesmerized me.
Where did you do most of your writing for this book?
Any final thoughts on the book you’d like to share?
The idea for this book came to me when I was researching for another project. I was reading about anonymous women artists when I first came across Harriet’s photograph and pictures of her story quilts. I had to find out more about her. She enchanted me.
*Barbara Herkert received a biology degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara and a MFA from Hamline University. She studied art and art history at Oregon State University, and wrote and illustrated my first book in 2001, entitled Birds in Your Backyard. I’m currently the Co-Regional Advisor for SCBWI-Oregon. Mary Cassatt: Extraordinary Expressionist Painter (with illustrations by Gabi Swiatkowska) was also released in October, 2015, and A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider: The Story of E.B. White (illustrated by Lauren Castillo) will be released in 2017 both by Christy Ottaviano/Henry Holt.