CB: Their Great Gift is such a stirring appreciation of immigrants and immigration. What drew you toward this theme?
JC: I grew up hearing stories about the immigration of different branches of my family. I was lucky to have parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles who kept these stories alive. I was also fascinated by how much similarity there is between the immigrant experience whether it happened one hundred years ago or last year. I’d always wanted to write about the topic and one day I was having lunch with Lerner editor Andrew Karre. He said he’d love to do a book with Wing Young Huie, and I told him that Wing and I were friends and that I would love to do a book with him, too. Andrew asked me to write something that would work well with Wing’s photographs and I knew Wing had many photographs of people who had recently arrived in the country.
WYH: I’ve known John for years and have always had great respect for him as a writer and so when he asked to collaborate I was definitely intrigued because I’ve never done a young adult book. Also as a documentary photographer I wondered how his words would work with my photos of real people. In my five books all the words were written by me or were direct quotes from the people in the photos. In the end I think the text opened up the possible interpretations of the photos rather than encapsulate their meanings.
JC: Unlike most picture books where the writer and artist are kept separate, Wing and I collaborated closely. Wing made suggestions to the text to make it more universal and I was included in the art and design meetings and made suggestions on images. It was fascinating to watch the project come together. Editor Carol Hinz and art director Zach Marell and designer Danielle Carnito helped us make the book we wanted to make even when we weren’t sure exactly how it would look.
CB: Tell me about the kind of kid you think Their Great Gift will appeal to the most.
JC: I have been showing advance copies to students and I am so pleased with how wide the audience is. I have shared it with kindergartners, elementary, middle school, and high school students and to adults. Many people have responded strongly. I am currently visiting schools in East Africa and students have clapped after hearing the book and seeing themselves in Wing’s photos. I think the book will appeal to a wide range of people as immigration is such a central story and so many of us are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.
WYH: Immigration is such a complex subject, of course, and it would be impossible to reflect all its layers and issues, but our hope is that no matter where you are from, whether you are a first or fourth generation immigrant, you will find some commonality in Their Great Gift.
Their Great Gift: Courage, Sacrifice, and Hope in a New Land is available via bookpeople.com.