Welcome to the featured post for the September edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here)!
Instead of a two-question Q&A with another author, this month I’m focusing on What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, written by me, illustrated by Ekua Holmes, and coming September 25 from Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster.
Kirkus has given a starred review to this book, which it calls “a moving portrait of a true patriot who found ways to use her gift to work for change.”
I’m giving away five (!!!!!) signed copies of What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and would like to be one of the winners, just let me know via email before midnight on September 30, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.
Now, let’s talk about Barbara Jordan’s grandfather.
The average time it takes one of my picture books to go from initial idea to publication is around five years, and sure enough it was five years ago this Saturday that I finished the first draft of what I was already calling What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?
Many parts of the text in the finished book — for instance, “The president, Barbara said, must go. The president went.” — were there from the very beginning. Some parts of the final text came later, as recently as the past few months.
And then there’s Grandpa Patten. Originally, he was right there in the opening paragraphs of the manuscript. On September 8, 2013, it began like this:
Growing up in the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas, Barbara Jordan didn’t look like other kids — not even her own sisters.
She didn’t act like other kids, either. Her father insisted on that. Grandpa Patten did, too, in his way.
And she sure didn’t sound like other kids. Not with that voice of hers.
Grandpa Patten, Barbara’s maternal grandfather, was special to Barbara. She would go visit him each weekend. In fact, the first chapter in her 1979 autobiography was titled “Grandpa Patten.”
Here’s part of what she said about him in Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait, co-authored by Shelby Hearon:
When I knew him best, those years of my going there every Sunday, he was in the junk business. He had a very large wagon and two mules, which he kept in the heart of the old Fourth Ward, which is now downtown Houston. … Grandpa didn’t want me to be like the other kids. That came through loud and clear. He would say this very directly. There were kids who lived just behind my grandfather’s house in Fourth Ward that he did not want me to associate with because he said: “You don’t have to be like those others.” In relation to other kids he would say: “You just trot your own horse and don’t get into the same rut as everyone else.”
Over the years, the opening lines in What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? changed in a few key respects, one of which was that Grandpa Patten went away. To streamline the text and get to that first mention of Barbara’s voice more quickly, by the end of 2013 I had delayed the introduction of her father and cut the reference to her grandfather entirely.
In 2015 Beach Lane Books bought the manuscript and brought on Ekua Holmes to illustrate the book. In her own research for this project, Ekua came across the story of Grandpa Patten and asked if I might be open to including in the text a mention of Barbara’s relationship with him. She even had a specific spot in mind.
Ekua’s insight was a great one. The ideal place for Grandpa Patten was right where she had suggested:
Barbara was proud of herself, and proud of her voice.
It was laying a path for her.
But where would that path lead?
On Sunday evenings, Barbara would talk things over with Grandpa Patten.
Would she become a preacher like her father, and like her mother could have been?
Or a teacher, like those who encouraged her at Phillis Wheatley High?
Or perhaps she’d become a lawyer.
Not only was bringing back Grandpa Patten — the person in Barbara Jordan’s childhood to whom she was the closest — the absolute right thing to do for the text, but it also set the stage for Ekua to create what has become my absolute favorite illustration in this entire book:
Thank you, Grandpa Patten, for all that you did to shape Barbara Jordan. And thank you, Ekua Holmes, for all that you did — cover to cover — to shape What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?