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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

We Wait for the Sun: A Dual Interview with Katie McCabe and Raissa Figueroa

It’s Black History Month and this year it feels like everyone is redoubling their efforts to do it justice. But “history” is the story we tell ourselves about the past, yes? It does not require big famous names. It can mean something as simple as remembering the ones who came before.

This year an interesting book has come out that straddles the informational/fictional line. Dovey Johnson Roundtree was responsible for the 2019 posthumous memoir for adults Mighty Justice: My Life in Civil Rights. That book, in turn, was turned into a young reader edition at the end of last year called Mighty Justice: The Untold Story of Civil Rights Trailblazer Dovey Johnson Roundtree. And now, a section of Dovey’s life has become a picture book, earning stars from Kirkus, PW and Booklist.

Here is the publisher description:

A beautiful and uplifting non-fiction picture book from Katie McCabe and trailblazing civil rights lawyer and activist Dovey Johnson Roundtree, We Wait for the Sun.

In the hour before dawn, Dovey Mae and Grandma Rachel step into the cool, damp night on a secret mission: to find the sweetest, ripest blackberries that grow deep in the woods.

But the nighttime holds a thousand sounds—and a thousand shadows—and Dovey Mae is frightened of the dark. But with the fierce and fearless Grandma Rachel at her side, the woods turn magical, and berry picking becomes an enchanting adventure that ends with the beauty and power of the sunrise.

A cherished memory from Dovey Johnson Roundtree’s childhood, this magical experience speaks to the joy that pulsed through her life, even under the shadow of Jim Crow. With Grandma Rachel’s lessons as her guiding light, Dovey Mae would go on to become a trailblazer of the civil rights movement—fighting for justice and equality in the military, the courtroom, and the church. With warm, vibrant illustrations from Raissa Figueroa, We Wait for the Sun is a resonant, beautiful story told through one exquisite page turn after another.”

Ms. Roundtree passed away in 2018 but her co-writer Katie McCabe and illustrator Raissa Figueroa were willing to answer some of the questions I had about this book, its creation, and the choices that were made to bring it to life.

Betsy Bird: Thank you both for speaking with me today. Katie you found yourself in the unique position of adapting Dovey’s adult biography into a picture book that features a distinct moment from her young life. Was there any consideration of writing the kind of biographical picture book that encompassed her entire life rather than an incident or was it always the plan from the start to zero in on this specifically?

Mighty Justice

Katie McCabe: We ruled out writing a biographical picture book of Dovey’s entire life immediately.  Her legal career was far too complex to be dealt with in a picture book.  And there was no need to go in that direction because we had already decided that in addition to the picture book, there would be a middle-grade adaptation of the adult memoir that would include all the aspects of Dovey’s multi-faceted life and would incorporate passages from the adult bio.  It was my brilliant agent, Jesseca Salky, who suggested that I adapt the final chapter of Mighty Justice, the “Benediction,” into text for a picture book, and the minute Jesseca mentioned this, I knew that the blackberry picking story was absolutely perfect for small children, the same age as Dovey is in the story.  In my mind (and in Dovey’s) this experience represented the core of Dovey and her view of the universe — her faith, her courage, her love of her grandmother, her conviction that a better day is always coming.  I worked closely with Connie and Mekisha to develop this adaptation and I could not be more pleased with the final result.  Between the two books we have been able to reach children from age 4 right on up to age 14.

BB: Raissa, what was it that drew you to this title?

Raissa Figueroa

Raissa Figueroa: My agent was the one who had given me the briefest of synopses of We Wait for the Sun first, but that was more than enough to elicit my initial intrigue. By the time I got off the call with Connie, Beth and Mekisha, where I got to learn a bit more about who Dovey was and what this experience with her grandmother meant to her, I was beyond honored to be chosen to illustrate it!

BB: Katie, did you have a chance to work with Dovey personally on this book in any way? If not, did you have a chance to discuss the possibility of it?

Katie McCabe

KM: I would say that I did work with Dovey personally on the picture book as well as on the middle-grade adaptation of the adult memoir. It is true, of course, that she died before we embarked on these two adaptations, but her heart and mind were focused from Day One on creating a story of her life that would inspire young people.  Dovey and I spent hours together on the Benediction chapter which I adapted for the picture book.  The berry picking story is one to which Dovey returned over and over again during the 12 years she and I worked together on her memoir.  In terms of whether we discussed the specific possibility of a picture book for children based on that chapter, the answer is no.  But that said, Dovey felt passionately about bringing her story to young children.  Her entire being, in her final years, was focused on passing on her experiences and her view of the world to the next generation.  I could feel Dovey’s spirit very intensely during the time that I worked on these two books, and when I saw Raissa’s stunning illustrations,  and the final result of our efforts on the middle-grade adaptation, I knew that Dovey would have been thrilled and that I had been able to complete what she ultimately wanted in terms of her legacy.

BB: Raissa, tell me a bit about your process here. I’ve taken a deep dive into your website and blog so I know you sometimes paint and then put that into Procreate. Did this book have any painting work going on or was it all digital from the get-go? And how do you decide the style with which to illustrate a picture book?

RF: Finishing this book was definitely a journey. It became an opportunity for me to delve deeper into what my own style even was at the time. Because it was the second book I’d ever illustrated, my first having been such a different process, it felt like I was “learning on the job” so to speak. I used to illustrate exclusively with traditional media and digital art was something I was still acclimating to. WWFTS was the first book I’d done exclusively on the iPad and the Procreate app. I ran into some snags with style that my team (agent, editors (Connie and Mekisha) and creative director (Beth) were instrumental in helping me to cultivate the end style that the book eventually became. I learned a lot and am grateful towards my editors and creative director for bearing with me throughout the process! My style is still constantly changing and evolving and I never want to stick to just one because there are so many inspirational pieces out there that beckon a try. This book will always hold a special place in my heart.

BB: Katie, your specialty is “unsung heroes”. Once it was exceedingly difficult to publish a children’s biography of someone who wasn’t already famous. Now we see a marked increase in books that introduce children to previously too-little-lauded figures. To what would you ascribe the public’s hunger for these stories?

KM: How times have changed in this regard since my agent first began shopping the original adult memoir in 2008 to New York publishers.  The answer that came back from all the major houses was, ‘We love the story and what a great person Dovey Roundtree is, but unfortunately people are tired of civil rights stories.  We can’t make money on them.’  It has taken a wrenching and sometimes violent reckoning with our racial past to bring the publishing world, adult and children’s, to an acceptance and more recently, an eagerness, for stories of heroes and heroines of color.  This is way past due, and we have not even scratched the surface.  I think the public, people of all races, have taken a hard look at the dearth of such stories to date and are now demanding more of them.  Dovey’s time has come.  It is high time.  I look forward to seeing a flood of rich stories about people of color now that the gates have been crashed.

BB: Raissa, this is your first work of nonfiction, I believe. I can only imagine how different it must be to work on a real person’s life after creating fictional ones. How did you approach the subject matter?

RF: This was my first attempt at illustrating a book with adult characters, so that posed a challenge in and of itself. I had gravitated towards drawing children early on in a rather simplistic style (by my account) because of the intimidating subject matter the adult human form presents. It’s something I still struggle with – creating caricatures in my style of real people, but a skill I think is long overdue of my attention. Creating Dovey wasn’t a problem because I wasn’t given any pictures or images of her as a child. Grandma Rachel was another story: I worked off of a single image of her along with some research into what the era’s dress was for the other women, so I can only hope I did enough justice to her!

BB: And finally, for both Katie and Raissa, what are you working on next?

RF: My next book, The More The Merrier, comes out in June and I have several books currently in development, including one that I’ve written along with illustrated. I’m hoping to do more writing this year and in some way incorporate more stories that deal with mental health: something I myself grapple with on the day to day. I get a lot of positive feedback on my art, which I’m beyond grateful for, and would love to pay it forward by decreasing the stigma that I think still surrounds that subject.

KM: Having spent decades writing narrative nonfiction about other people’s lives, I have recently shifted my focus to writing the history of my own family in order to build a legacy for my brand-new grandson and his children and grandchildren.  I see the makings of at least one incredibly rich historical novel based on my father’s childhood in Missouri and in Tulsa, OK, and I will be turning my full attention to that project next.

Thanks to Katie and to Raissa and to Morgan Rath and the folks at Macmillan for the chance to talk books. We Wait for the Sun is out in stores now.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.