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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Gimme Gimme That Sweet Title IX: Helaine Becker + Dow Phumiruk Discuss An Equal Shot and All That That Entails

It’s Women’s History Month, Charlie Brown!

So every month it’s the same. I get a slew of requests for interviews and I simply cannot accommodate them all. To cut through the treacle I look for the ones that are doing something different. Unique. Special. And when a publisher approaches me and says, “Presenting An Equal Shot: How the Law Title IX Changed America, a rousing account of the origins of Title IX and the brave politicians who took risks to secure women’s dreams and futures under the Constitution”, I won’t lie to you. That gets my attention. Particularly when the author starts talk to me about gymsuit inequalities!

Why? Because to be perfectly frank, 90% of the American history I know today has come via 21st century informational picture books. You want me to interview author Helaine Becker and illustrator Dow Phumiruk? Ha! Try and stop me! This is the book we needed right now. So let’s sit down and talk shop:

Betsy Bird: First and foremost, thank you both for being here today. Now Helaine, I think that I can say with certainty that this is the first book for kids that I can think of that discusses Title IX specifically. What is the origin story for this title?

Helaine Becker

Helaine Becker: It was the gymsuits. Ugh, the gymsuits!

Back in the antediluvian, pre-Title IX era, the girls in my Long Island junior high – everywhere, really –  had to wear the most ugly, awful, uncomfortable one piece outfits for gym class. The boys got to wear shorts and a T.

Being a natural rebel, I refused to wear my gymsuit, and not only because it gave you a wedgie. Title IX had recently become law, and was about to take effect. Shouldn’t gymsuits be against the law now, since only girls had to buy and wear them?

I thought so. My gym teachers didn’t. I failed eighth grade gym for being “Unprepared,” even though I was ready to play in my shorts and T.

I knew this wasn’t right. And I knew it was time to think bigger, and not just tussle with those  two teachers. So my friends and I started a petition and got it signed by the entire student body. I hand delivered it to the principal, who gave me a lot of heat. I spent plenty of afternoons in this bad kid office chair for being disobedient and disruptive.

Nevertheless, the petition made its way through the administration hierarchy, to the  District Head, and, eventually, to the Superintendent.  And it worked! The following year, gymsuits were GONE!

This episode made it clear to me how important Title IX was. It also proved that standing up, speaking out and taking personal action to make sure the law was observed was equally as important. Nine zillion years later, it still is.

BB: Freakin’ heck, that is an awesome story! Okay, so Dow, how was this book pitched to you? What appealed to you about it?

Dow Phumiruk

Dow Phumiruk: I did not hear the gymsuit story at the outset. Instead, I received an email from our editor Christy Ottaviano inviting me to illustrate this project, and she described the text as “sparse and impactful.” Upon reading the manuscript, I agreed. Helaine effectively turns this book about a law (which by all means could’ve been a very dry read!) into a call to action for readers. It makes me want to shout from the rooftops about equality! Though I did not climb anywhere risky sporting a megaphone, I instead thoroughly poured myself into illustrating this rollicking book.

BB: Beautiful. Helaine, I was impressed with the simplicity of the wording. Each page contains around one to two sentences. Did you always envision this as a book with such succinct writing or did you edit this down after multiple drafts?

HB: An Equal Shot went through many different versions before it became what you have now in front of you. The first iteration came soon after visiting a Title IX clothing store in California. I asked my friend, a Canadian, if she knew what the store was named for, and she didn’t. I explained. She said, “Holy Crow! You are so passionate about this topic! You should write about it!”

I went, “hmmmm,” and started the research. My first wish was to write a biography of Patsy Mink, one of the prime movers behind the law (it’s now been renamed in her honor.) I couldn’t sell it.  I was told “no one’s ever heard of her” and “I don’t see the relevance.” ($$%%&(!@!) This was well before the trend in picture book biographies of unsung women we are enjoying today. I suppose I was too early.

So I kept trying, taking different tacks. My editor, Christy Ottaviano, who published Counting on Katherine, suggested we shift the focus, positioning the book as a biography of the law, not of a person. That’s when this version took shape. The new draft came out in one shot, almost word for word of how the book reads now.

BB: Dow, how did you tackle the material? Were there any sections where you instantly knew what to draw, or did the illustrations come to you in a different way? What’s your preferred method with a book of this sort?

DP: I had to mull this one over for quite a while. I’d previously illustrated picture book biographies with a clear main character to portray. But to draw a law? I was stumped to start! The sparse text meant I could go in almost any direction. I knew I needed to share scales of justice to represent equality as well as books to represent written law. I knew I wanted to draw a march scene for women’s rights and a spread putting men and boys toe to toe with women and girls. In the end I ran with Helaine’s illustrator notes for the opening line, “It takes just three words to say, ‘it isn’t fair.’” She mentioned three girls as main characters to represent “any girl.” I decided these girls would embark on a whirlwind tour of time travel and surreal scenes to learn about the law.

Projects like this with limitless potential are both exciting and challenging. It’s truly a problem-solving process that involves brainstorming for several weeks before sketching. I think while walking the dog and before falling asleep at night. I also can think while drawing other projects (where the artwork’s composition has already been locked, so I’m in the relaxed and playful mode of adding color and texture or in the auto-pilot mode of cleaning up edges). Eventually, I create a storyboard of thumbnails before drafting preliminary sketches for each spread. With each spread, there is much research for the historical elements of the art.

BB: Helaine, one line near the end caught my attention in particular. You write, “There is no guarantee that Title IX will survive for fifty more years. Its future is up to you.” Statements in books for children like these show in sharp contrast the difference between informational books for children today versus even as recently as ten years ago. Perhaps the last four years have shown us the necessity of teaching our children how rights and laws can be stripped away. What was the impetus for including this line near the end?

HB: Many of us take for granted the rights and opportunities that civil rights laws protect. Yet we cannot assume these legal protections will always be there in the future.  For hundreds of years, generations of determined people fought to make these laws a reality. Suffragettes, for example, were thrown in jail, starved and tortured, right here in the U.S., in an effort to get the vote for women.

On the other side of the coin, generations of determined people fought just as hard to block civil liberties for various groups. Plenty still do. While we blithely go about our business, thinking the matter “settled,” our opponents continue to invent ways to ignore, undermine and erode all kinds of civil liberties, like voting rights and, yes, gender equality.

Even with Title IX in place for more than 40 years, women have still not yet reached true parity. Institutions continue to  flout the law. As of Feb. 26, 2021, there were 1360 open investigations into Title IX violations at educational institutions in the United States, 305 of them pertaining to sexual assault. 

Near the end of An Equal Shot, I include the line that “the future is up to you” because it is simple fact. No one will “give” today’s young people their rights – they must demand them, and keep demanding them, if they want to retain hard-won civil liberties.

BB: Dow, did you try anything that didn’t work? Or, was there something that you wanted to include but for some reason could not?

DP: One of my first ideas was drawing an animated IX character (like the Bill from Schoolhouse Rock). I promptly talked myself out of that route! I did not have much scrap art for this project outside of some less appealing cover sketches. The interior art composition stayed very similar to my first draft (this happens infrequently). And I am very happy with the final jacket, thanks to our design team’s help.

BB: And for both Helaine and Dow, what are you working on next?

HB: I’ve always got lots of projects on the go! Next year, look for new picture book biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt – who was AMAZING- and Wendy Sloboda, “the Fossil Whisperer” who has found more significant fossils than just about anyone.

I’m also collaborating on a YA graphic bio about Georgia O’Keeffe. I’m super excited about it because it lets me use both my visual art side and my feministy writerly side.

DP: I recently finished art for Hello, Tree, written by Ana Crespo (coming this fall from Little Brown) and Her Name was Mary Katharine: The Only Woman Whose Name Is on the Declaration of Independence, written by Ella Schwartz, another project with Christy Ottaviano. I can’t be more excited about either of those! I am currently illustrating a book about the incredible Tammy Duckworth by Christina Soontornvat (Candlewick). After that, I can’t wait to start work on projects for Nancy Paulsen Books and Levine Querido. And as time allows, I hope to write a middle grade novel. You can probably tell I am full of enthusiasm for all of my projects!

Shoot. That was cool. Guys, I’m not gonna lie. This interview was hella fun. I’d like to thank Morgan Rath and the good folks at Macmillan and Henry Holt Books for Young Readers for setting this up, and to Helaine Becker and Dow Phumiruk for so patiently (and explicitly!) answering my questions. An Equal Shot is on bookstore shelves everywhere so be sure to pick it up today!

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.