#20Questions with THE OLDEST STUDENT author Rita Lorraine Hubbard
Updated: Jan 17
Throughout 2020, we’ll be posting a #20questions interview with the author and/or illustrator of each #20truePBs book. We thought it would be fun and fascinating to hear the diverse answers from our diverse creators, about our books’ diverse topics, using the same #20questions for each author and illustrator.
By the end of 2020, our blog will host a fabulous resource for educators, librarians, and conference organizers about creating high-quality, diverse nonfiction picture books, and what makes our #20truePBs books and creators special.
Now, enjoy learning more about THE OLDEST STUDENT and Rita Lorraine Hubbard!
1. Rita Lorraine, what inspired you to write this book?
I had learned about Mary Walker in elementary school, and always wondered why she waited so long to learn to read. So, while I was researching my first book, African Americans of Chattanooga, I ran across her name again and discovered some interesting tidbits that I wanted to explore. After I learned more, I felt that children and adults could benefit from reading the story of someone who believed “it’s never too late to pursue your dreams.”
2. How did you approach the research for this book?
There is a Mary Walker Foundation in Chattanooga, and I happen to have met the son of the founder a few years ago. When I went to interview him and learn more of Mary’s story, he gave me the written transcript of a live interview she recorded. This helped me learn more about her life, what was important to her, and what her mindset happened to be when she began to learn to read at age 114.
3. What’s something that surprised you while researching this book?
I learned (or didn’t learn, rather) that Mary had three sons but never talked about daughters-in-law or grandchildren. I never determined if any existed.
4. What was your favorite part about writing this book?
My favorite part was getting into Mary’s head and imagining what words must have looked like when you hadn’t learned to read. I know that Mary often looked out the window of her old folk’s apartment (before she learned to read), and I imagined how it must have felt to see squiggly lines (words) all over everything.
5. What was the hardest part about writing this book?
Filling in the gaps in Mary’s life and knowing for sure that I was doing her story justice.
6. Who is this book’s ideal reader, in your eyes?
Children who have struggled with learning to read, people who have had great goals or ideas, and for some reason or other, always had to put them off because “life” got in the way, and elderly people who may think it’s too late for them to pursue a dream (like writing or art). If Mary could do it at age 114 (and succeed at age 116), so can they! I guess that covers just about everyone, lol.
7. What do you want kids to know about this book?
I want them to know that even though it’s about an old woman who learns to read, it’s actually about anyone and everyone who has had to put off their dream until a later date.
8. What do you want educators and librarians to know about this book?
This book is an excellent tool for opening discussions about enslavement, emancipation, “the twists and turns of life,” goal-setting, delayed gratification, and the importance of learning to read.
9. Who is the publisher for this book?
Schwartz & Wade Books (Random House). By the way, thank you, Anne Schwartz!
10. When is the official release date for this book?
January 7, 2020.
11. What do you like most about writing children’s nonfiction books?
I love being able to offer a slice of someone’s life that makes young people want to know more about that person, that period in history, that mindset, and/or that achievement.
12. What’s the biggest challenge in writing children’s nonfiction books?
Often, my biggest challenge is figuring out how to stuff all the highs, lows, events and emotions of a very long life into 32 pages.
13. How did you get into writing children’s nonfiction books?
I love suddenly discovering unsung heroes who lived long ago, and I wanted to share these stories so readers could experience the same thrill and surprise that I experienced.
14. Which other children’s nonfiction books inspire you?
Although I really love nonfiction PB bios, I am really crushing on a couple of science PBs right now. Two of my favorites are:
a) Moon: Earth’s Best Friend, by Stacy Mcanulty, and adorable book that explains Earth's basic need for Moon. It’s written in a sweet and non-threatening way, with Moon being a BFF of Earth and loving Earth so much that she never leaves Earth's side.
b) Nerdy Babies: Space, by Emmy Kastner, a clever book that introduces very young children to the moon, the sun, the planets and the overall concept of space.
15. Do you have other jobs besides writing children’s books? (If so, what?)
I’m a former K-9 comprehensive development teacher. My students had an array of challenges, including selective mutism, autism, behavioral disorders, MMR (mild mental retardation), etc. Currently I perform independent editing from time to time.
16. What’s something that surprised you about being a children’s book author?
It’s a competitive world out there. Even if you write only for the love of writing, your book will eventually be shoved in line to compete against other books. This can be a bit daunting—especially if your book doesn’t win any awards or get “5-starred” reviews because then, inevitably, you will probably begin to doubt yourself.
17. What’s something about you that would surprise kids to know?
I always wanted to be an actress.
18. What do you think makes a great nonfiction writer?
I think a great nonfiction writer is a bit of an empath. He or she must be able to get into someone’s (or something’s) mind—even if the subject is not human, but is instead a furry bear cub, a very thirsty mosquito, or a bee with a work ethic that’s out of this world.
19. Do you have any advice for kids who want to write children’s books?
a) Write whatever it is you want to write about—whatever’s rattling around in your brain trying to get out.
b) Write like no one’s watching you write; like no one will read what you’ve written after it’s finished.
c) Have fun! If you’re smiling as you write, you’re on the right path.