Author Linda Glaser is enjoying the success of Emma’s Poem: the Voice of the Statue of Liberty (Houghton Mifflin), a book about the inspiration behind Emma Lazarus’ poem engraved on the pedestal supporting the Statue of Liberty. “The New Colossus” has inspired millions of people throughout the world. Linda has written more than 25 books, many of them about nature and our environment, three picture books about Hanukkah, a novel called Bridge to America about the immigration experience during the 1920s, and her first book, published in 1992, Keep Your Socks on, Albert, a delightful easy reader. Linda lives, writes, and teaches writing in Duluth, Minnesota, where ocean-going ships enter the port daily when the water isn’t frozen.
Question: How were you inspired to write a picture book about Emma Lazarus?
Answer: I’ve always loved the Statue of Liberty. I grew up in New York and visited the statue with my parents when I was a child. I remember being awestruck by her size and, even more, by what she stood for—a welcome to immigrants. All four of my grandparents were immigrants and they were poor. So it was very meaningful to me that this great statue was proclaiming, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” I felt that she was speaking about my own grandparents.
Question: Were you aware of her poem when you were a child?
Answer: I don’t remember when I’d learned those lines of poetry, but I do remember looking up at the Statue of Liberty and feeling those words pounding in my heart. I’ve always loved writing poetry—even as a child. And I am Jewish. So it was particularly inspiring to me that the person who wrote the poem, was not only a woman, but a young Jewish woman.
Question: When did the spark ignite for you to write a book about Emma Lazarus?
When my girls were young, I read them I Lift My Lamp, a middle grade nonfiction book about Emma Lazarus and also about the building of the Statue of Liberty. It’s an inspiring book (I did find out after doing further research that a few facts were not quite right). But on the whole, it’s a book I highly recommend if you want to learn more about Emma Lazarus. After reading the book to my girls, we went to see the Statue of Liberty when we visited my parents in New York. Now that I knew even more about Emma Lazarus, it was that much more meaningful for me to realize the profound impact of her poem.
However, I didn’t think about writing Emma’s Poem until years later. In the meantime, I spent seven years working on a middle grade historical novel, Bridge to America. Writing it, I felt I was touching my roots. It’s based on a true story of an older Jewish man (an elder from my temple) who had lived in a shtetl (a small village) in Eastern Europe when he was a child. Interviewing him was the closest I came to learning firsthand about what life might have been like for my own immigrant grandparents.
In Bridge to America, there is a scene where the main character sees the Statue of Liberty for the first time. In writing that scene, I found myself expressing my love for the statue and what she stands for. But beyond that, I didn’t think much more about the statue or Emma Lazarus’ poem for quite a while.
After publishing Bridge to America, my editor didn’t take any other stories from me for quite awhile. She rejected one after another. Finally I asked her what she was looking for. She said she wanted to see something I really cared about. And somehow, that’s when I realized that I wanted to write about Emma Lazarus. I wanted to share all that inspires me about her and her poem.
She felt passionately about immigrants and she used her pen to champion them. She was a woman ahead of her time. It strikes me that if she herself had not been outspoken and a feminist, she would never have imagined giving the statue such bold words to speak. But thank goodness she was and she did. And with that one poem she helped shape the hearts and minds of our country. She never lived to know the profound impact that her poem would have on countless immigrants, even to this day. I find all of this very inspiring. And I hope that some of this comes through in Emma’s Poem.
Question: Were you in touch with the illustrator, Claire A. Nivola, during the creation of the book?
Answer: Yes, I was involved with the illustrator quite a bit. I found a number of great resources online that I shared with her. For instance, I found a couple of amazing articles in the New York Times‘ online archives about the gala event in which Emma’s poem was read to help raise money for the pedestal. I sent these to Claire and she did an absolutely stunning job in that spread recreating the scene as described in the articles.
Question: You did a beautiful job in paring down the story for the picture book audience. How do you accomplish this?
Answer: I seem to have a mind that leans towards simplicity. So I tend to write simply. And my editor Ann Rider worked with me a great deal on cutting even further but also on adding certain details to make it a more complete story. It was definitely a collaborative effort among the three of us—Claire, Ann, and me. At one point I had to cut a part that I loved because I saw that the page was too text heavy. I won’t lie. That was hard.
Question: I’m always fascinated by the research phase of a project. Can you share a part of your work in that regard?
Research: I read as many books as I could find. In addition, I did quite a bit of online research. Then I searched online to find an expert who would look over the manuscript. One person led to another. I finally found Bette Young, who was wonderful and generous sharing her expertise and her enthusiasm.
For the text about the statue, I found a number of discrepancies among different sources so I emailed people who work on Liberty Island to find out exact details about the location of the plaque when it was first placed there. I can’t tell you how many emails flew back and forth just to verify the factual correctness of this one phrase in the text, “…the poem engraved on the plaque and placed inside the entrance to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty…”
The Chapter & Verse book clubs enjoyed discussing Emma’s Poem this month. Thank you, Linda, for writing this memorable picture book about a part of America that makes us all proud.