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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Interview with Barbara Herkert, author of Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers' Journey from Slave to Artist

I'm thankful for the opportunity to welcome picture book author Barbara Herkert to The Hiding Spot today. Barbara has two nonfiction picture books releasing into to the wild this month: Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers' Journey from Slave to Artist (available now from Random House) and Mary Cassatt: Extraordinary Impressionist Painter (available 10/27 from Henry Holt BFYR). I've not yet had the opportunity to read her biography of Mary Cassatt, but I very much enjoyed her introduction to the remarkable Harriet Powers.

Herkert's depiction of Harriet Powers and her art left me feeling inspired and eager to learn more about this artist and her legacy. The collaboration with illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton is inspired and incredibly well done. And I was happy to see that Herkert included a explanations of the stories recorded in Powers' two surviving quilts at the end of the book.

Learn more about Herket's inspiration for this book, her writing process, and a book that provided her with hiding spot below!

Can you share the story behind Sewing Stories - how you came to learn about Harriet Powers and your decision to share her story. 

I first learned about Harriet Powers when I was researching anonymous women artists for another project. Many women created “acceptable” forms of art during the 19th Century through embroidery or quilting or painting, but those art forms often have no name attached. At the back of one book on this subject, I discovered Harriet’s photograph and pictures of her applique story quilts. The beauty of her art immediately drew me in—the shapes within each square create a rhythm that continues throughout each quilt like a melody. The scraps of fabric sing of a life of hardship, of an artist who found beauty and peace through creativity. Harriet’s photograph haunted me. I had to find out more about her. 
Tell us a bit about your writing process. Do you begin with the text, a general idea, specific scenes...? 
My writing process begins with research, and more research. I absorb myself in a person’s life and take copious notes. I ask myself, how would this person’s story appeal to children? What obstacles did this person face? The research may take up to a year, and sometimes I hit a brick wall. I never really know when the first draft will come to me along the research path—one day the words are in my head, and I jot them down fast. Next comes weeks of honing down those words, finding the right rhythm and alliteration. It’s a bit like composing a song. Or painting a life with words. 
My blog is dedicated to my personal hiding spot, books. Name a notable book that has provided you with a hiding spot. 
Snowflake Bentley is such a perfect picture book biography in my mind. Jacqueline Briggs Martin is a master of poetic language. Her word choice sings. I love how she combines the sparse text with sidebars in this book to provide more information to curious readers. The artwork by Mary Azarian is a dream. 
What can your readers look forward to next? 
I have a picture book biography entitled Mary Cassatt: Extraordinary Impressionist Painter coming out later this month. In 2017, look for a picture book biography about E.B. White.

More About the Book
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Harriet Powers learned to sew and quilt as a young slave girl on a Georgia plantation. She lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction, and eventually owned a cotton farm with her family, all the while relying on her skills with the needle to clothe and feed her children.

Later she began making pictorial quilts, using each square to illustrate Bible stories and local legends. She exhibited her quilts at local cotton fairs, and though she never traveled outside of Georgia, her quilts are now priceless examples of African American folk art.

Barbara Herkert’s lyrical narrative and Vanessa Newton’s patchwork illustrations bring this important artist to life in a moving picture-book biography.
About the Author
Barbara Herkert has been creating stories and illustrating them since the first grade. She currently writes picture book biographies. She loves the research and finding hidden gems about a person's life that will appeal to young readers. Herkert received a biology degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara and a masters degree in writing for children from Hamline University. She studied art and art history at Oregon State University, and has taught art appreciation at local schools. Herkert lives on the wet and windy Oregon coast with my family. She also spends creative time in a log house in central Oregon. Learn more about Barbara Herkert on her website here.


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