KidLit in Color author Gabriele Davis Interviews Andrea Loney about her middle grade biography, VIP: Stacey Abrams, releasing January 18, 2022.
Hi, Andrea! I am thrilled to chat with you about your new—and very timely—middle grade biography. Can you give our readers a brief overview of your book and how you came to write it?
VIP: Stacey Abrams – Voting Visionary is a part of the HarperCollins VIP series of chapter book biographies about innovators and trailblazers throughout history. My book covers Stacey’s life from her childhood, to her educational pursuits and political career, and it ends with her triumphant victory in the 2020 election and its shocking aftermath. I also include information on the historical context of the book’s events including the history of civil rights, voting rights, and more.
This project came to me as a work-for-hire assignment from HarperCollins. They gave me the topic, a projected word count, and a very tight deadline, then they asked for a sample chapter. I gave myself a day or so to panic because as a picture book author, I’d never worked professionally on a project that long, and my previous biographies had taken me years to research and write. But my agent had faith in me, the editor had faith in me, and I’d always been dazzled by Stacey Abrams’ work. So I decided to take a chance and try it out.
Young readers might be surprised to learn that outspoken and indefatigable Stacey Abrams was once a shy, quiet child. Did you discover any other surprising things about her?
I think my favorite Stacey Abrams fact that wasn’t included in the book is this: her one and only school fight took place in the first grade and it was over her admiration for Jimmy Carter, one of the kindest and most conscientious presidents our country has ever elected. I love that Stacey was literally fighting for social justice before she’d even lost all her baby teeth.
What was your research process like?
Since my deadline was so tight on this project AND since we were in the pre-vaccine thick of the pandemic, I was unable to travel for research. I made great use of my library cards, digital archives, and Google.
I found every book, article, website, documentary, and video I could on Stacey Abrams, and other topics in civics, such as the voting process, voting rights, civil rights, the census, and more. I managed the information in OneNote, Scrivener, and a clipboard stacked with articles. Whenever possible, I downloaded the Kindle version of books so I could easily search for my notes and annotations
I created a timeline of the lives of Stacey and her family, and a parallel timeline of historical events. I also kept a spreadsheet of facts, quotes, events, and other important information with the citations, page numbers/urls/timecode of my source information.
Lastly, I followed Stacey Abrams on social media and checked the internet regularly for any news that might affect the book (for example, after the Capitol Building Insurrection took place on 1/6/21, I had to make changes to the book reflecting its significance in the history and future of voting rights in the United States).
Your book mostly highlights Stacey’s activism and political accomplishments; however, the first couple of chapters focus on her proud, close-knit family. Why was it important for you to include this information in the book?
In general, when writing biographies for kids, I think it’s important to start with the main character’s childhood. Kids might not always be able to relate to powerful politicians or charismatic media personalities, but they get what it means to be a little kid navigating the small world of their own home and the bigger world outside of it. The Abrams family history, values, and mission inform and drive Stacey’s life’s work. The whole idea that we’re not just individuals, but important parts of a greater community that works together for the common good? For Stacey, that mindset began in her family home, but it echoes through every chapter of her life as she grows up and establishes her place in the greater local, state, and national community.
You include a story about how Stacey learns to not be intimidated by people who are smarter or more accomplished than she is, but instead to be open to learning from them as a way to grow and improve. That’s such an important message to share. What else do you hope readers will take away from this biography?
As a teacher, I meet many awesome young teens who are quiet, shy, and nervous about being judged by others – and with cell phones, social media, and everything else out there, I do understand. But I really want kids to see that Stacey’s confidence did not come instantly, and that even though she’s an extremely intelligent individual, she knew she’d still need to learn from others if she wanted to progress in the world. Sometimes she was scared, sometimes she was confused, and sometimes she was even embarrassed, but she took a chance and tried anyway. I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from Stacey Abrams’ journey is that even if you feel like an outsider, you can accomplish astounding things in this world just by being yourself. In fact, the more you lean on your individual strengths and passions, the more powerful you can become.
Illustrator Shelley Rodney does an excellent job of capturing Stacey’s passion and determination as well as the strong foundation provided by her family. Did you have a chance to offer input or to work with her directly? If so, what did that process look like?
Isn’t her work amazing! I adore the artwork for this book! But as a rule, I don’t interact with illustrators directly – the editor moderates those communications so we can both do our best work. Once we had some sketches, I made a few comments on the PDFs, but not many. And when the final copy of the book was done, I went through the entire PDF to make sure that there was nothing amiss with the images and words.
Your publishing credits include acclaimed fiction and nonfiction picture books. This is your first middle grade work. What advice would you give to picture book writers looking to expand into middle grade?
Ooh, that’s a good question. My first piece of advice for anyone would be to read at least 20 – 100 middle grade books to get a feel for the voice, structure, and mindset of middle grade readers. So much of picture book writing is about placing the perfect words in the perfect order for 32 pages. But the writing process is very different for a 10,000+ word manuscript. While the individual words are still important, the structure is even more important. You definitely want to set the story up in a way that will keep young readers turning the page. As I was writing this manuscript, I tried to keep the language clear and conversational, so it almost felt like I was just gossiping in the hallway with a sixth grader about the adventures of our friend Stacey.
Is there anything else you’d like to share—about this or any upcoming works?
I am so excited for kids to read this book! I also have three more books coming out this year – a chapter book series called Abby in Orbit about a third-grade Afro-Latina-American girl living on the International Space Station in the 2050s, and Curve and Flow: The Elegant Vision of L.A. Architect Paul R. Williams, which is a picture book biography of the famous Black “Architect to the Stars.”
Andrea J. Loney’s picture books include TAKE A PICTURE OF ME, JAMES VANDERZEE (Lee & Low Books New Voices Award), BUNNYBEAR (ALA Rainbow List), and DOUBLE BASS BLUES (Caldecott Honor). Her upcoming works include the middle grade biography VIP: STACEY ABRAMS VOTING VISIONARY (HarperCollins, January 2022, the futuristic chapter book series ABBY IN ORBIT (Albert Whitman & Company, September 2022), and picture book biography CURVE AND FLOW: THE ELEGANT VISION OF LA ARCHITECT PAUL R. WILLIAMS (Knopf, Fall 2022).
To learn more about Andrea, please visit her website and social media pages.
To Order VIP: Stacey Abrams: Click Here!