Welcome to the Q&A for the August edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here)!
My conversation this month is with Dallas-based author Karen Blumenthal, whose YA nonfiction title Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend will be published on August 14 by Viking Books for Young Readers.
In Bonnie and Clyde, Karen — whose previous subjects have ranged from Steve Jobs to the Tommy gun to Title IX — cuts through mythology and pop-culture perceptions to get at the truth of what the notorious Texas outlaws did and why they did it.
Booklist gave a starred review to this “exquisitely researched biography,” also calling it an “extraordinarily successful resource about a painful time in history and a complicated, infamous pair.”
If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you to win Bonnie and Clyde, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on August 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.
In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Karen Blumenthal.
Chris: At the Texas Library Association conference this past April, as you were signing copies of Bonnie and Clyde, an attendee nearby pulled me aside and wondered aloud if your book glorified violence. Knowing you — even though I hadn’t yet read the book — I knew that you would have had other reasons for telling this story for young readers. So, what did motivate you?
Karen: That’s a great question! I actually came to this story with a similar idea — but from the opposite angle: Why are these two criminals so well known and, well, iconic? Why do they have that level of fame despite their unforgivable actions? And what would that tell us about celebrity today?
The modern comparison that stuck in my head are the Kardashians. Honestly, why are they famous?
Young people are familiar with the names Bonnie and Clyde. They are all over music lyrics and other cultural references, even though young people have likely not seen [the 1967 movie starring starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty] and know little about them. So telling their story seemed like a provocative way to show how a modern legend — even a questionable one — is made.
And then, as I got into the story, there were other themes about what contributed to who they became: intense poverty, police abuse (at a time when police forces were very different than today), and prison.
And, to answer the observer’s concern, the book does not glorify violence. In fact, the School Library Journal review says: “This historical true-crime story is recommended for providing nuanced perspective without glorifying the misdeeds that shaped its subjects’ lives and deaths.”
Chris: In addition to creating your books, you’ve also been an involved advocate for public libraries, and earlier this year you and Grace Lin cofounded the #kidlitwomen* online campaign to address women’s and gender issues in the children’s literature community. What are the common threads running through those three passions of yours?
Karen: Tough one! I guess I got involved in each because I care deeply about them and was foolish enough to believe I could bring something to the table.
I started writing nonfiction for young people after struggling to find strong narratives for a daughter who loved layered true stories. I felt like my decades as a journalist gave me the research and story-telling skills to make complex subjects accessible to younger readers. Honestly, I love everything about it!
Because I do a lot of research and I care about my community, libraries are incredibly important to me. In the years after the financial crisis, the Dallas city manager cut and cut and cut the library’s budget. And then one day, she proposed cutting the hours to 20 a week.
I think my head exploded. I did some research and discovered that the Dallas Public Library had become the worst funded urban library in the U.S.
I took this research to the Friends of the Dallas Public Library and ended up on the board and then as chair. An amazing team of library advocates worked for several years to help the City Council understand why libraries matter. Today, the budget has been restored and all branches are open at least six days a week for the first time ever.
We have a great director in Jo Giudice — in fact, this Bonnie and Clyde book is dedicated to her and the awesome library staff!
#kidlitwomen* came out of a conversation that Grace Lin and I started at a gathering in January and turned into an active Facebook group, with dozens of provocative essays in March. It’s still a work in progress, but hopefully, we have spurred some conversation and thinking about women’s and gender issues that will help make our community more fair and equitable.