The ProsenPeople

The Importance of Intersectionality

Wednesday, June 28, 2017 | Permalink

Michelle Edwards, author of A Hat for Mrs. Goldman, has been guest blogging this week for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

Many years ago, when we still lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, my older daughters had the privilege of attending Jackson Magnet—at the time, a K-6 school with a large population of students from Southeast Asia. I never ceased to be awed by the cultural richness of Jackson Magnet, so unlike the homogeneity of School 18, the neighborhood grammar school I attended as a child growing up in Troy, New York. My daughters had several Hmong friends there. Like the great-grandparents they never knew, these friends were immigrants who fled their homelands. Through them, my daughters caught a feel of their own history.

What’s more, Jackson Magnet inspired me to write an early chapter book series called The Jackson Friends. It centered on the friendship of three girls: Pa Lia, Howie, and Calliope. Pa Lia, as you might guess, is Hmong. Howie is African American. Calliope James, with freckles and a gap between her two front teeth, is a Northern European mix. Pa Lia, Howie, and Calliope sprang forth as characters directly from the world I observed at Jackson Magnet.

Here’s an interesting anecdote, and the reason I bring The Jackson Friends into this post. One summer, while I was working on the series, my youngest daughter Leila, who did not go to Jackson Magnet, attended a day camp held at St. Thomas University near our home back then.

“Mom, there’s a girl in my group who looks just like Howie,” she kept telling me. “You have to meet her.” One day, I did. Howie’s twin was Caucasian. What Leila saw was a kid like Howie, kind with a warm smile. This surprised and delighted me on many levels. Lelia was already so well-versed in religious intermarriage that when she met a Jewish kid at camp, she always asked “half or whole?” [I promise you she did not learn that from her parents.] Still, when she thought of Howie, she did not think about the color of her skin—half, whole, or any other percentage.

When I wrote A Hat for Mrs. Goldman, I thought a lot about Mrs. Goldman and Sophia. I wanted to explore their relationship and the love they had for each other. The details of their backgrounds were, at first, incidental to the larger story of their friendship just the way they were to Pa Lia’s, Howie’s and Calliope’s friendship in The Jackson Friends.

There are obvious signs of ethnicity throughout The Jackson Friends. Mrs. Goldman’s wool is scented with the smell of her chicken soup. Her speech is peppered with mitzvahs and keppies. Then there’s the scratchy hat that Sophia finds when she looks through the hall closet. It’s one that her abuela wore in Mexico. Aside from those mentions, the reader can visualize other differences through the tender images offered by Brian Karas, the book’s illustrator.

What does intersectionality like this mean for the Jewish community?

Well, I am merely a mother, and a children’s book writer, not a sociologist, a historian, or even a political commentator. So what I can tell you from my dusty corner of the universe is that for me, intersectionality means hope. For all of us. That’s why I find myself revisiting it in my stories. There is great hope when we see beyond race, gender, and age. There is great hope when we open up to each other’s worries and march for our collective justice.

In my heart, and in my book, A Hat for Mrs. Goldman, another great hope comes from the kindness of wool and two sticks. Sophia Hernandez struggles through knitting a hat because someone has a very cold keppie. Someone she loves. She and Mrs. Goldman are more than neighbors, their lives are intersected. It is that intersection which makes their story about knitting and love.

Michelle Edwards is an award-winning author and illustrator of many books for children, one book for adults, and nearly one hundred essays for knitters. Her stories are about family, friendship, and community. They chronicle the large and small victories and defeats of everyday life. Michelle frequently shares her paintings and thoughts on Instagram, Facebook, and her website.

Sophia and Mrs. Goldman

Tuesday, June 27, 2017 | Permalink

Michelle Edwards, author of A Hat for Mrs. Goldman, will be guest blogging this week for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series.


“Why did you make Sophia Latina?”

That’s a question I have been asked several times in interviews about Sophia Hernandez, the protagonist in my newest book, A Hat For Mrs. Goldman. At first, I was surprised by that question. I hadn’t thought about why I made Sophia Latina. I just thought of her that way. Why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t Sophia be Latina or Hmong or from the Congo like many of the students my husband now works with at our local high school? They are here. They live with us. Our lives intersect, and at that intersection is a story. Why wouldn’t Sophia be a character in my books?

Still, I know why I am asked that question. But equally important, I think, to having a diverse character, is the depiction. The roundness and believability of that character. If I had been asked about that, how I was able to make her universal in her needs and wants, I would have a very different answer. It turns out that although I have always been interested in creating books that show diversity, I didn’t always understand what that meant. Many years ago, when I was working on La Pa Lia’s First Day, the first book of my Jackson Friends series, I had a chance to read an early draft to a small group of St. Paul school kids. The kids were part of Meera’s class—my oldest daughter—and included her Hmong friend, Kabo. In the ways that we share our lives with our school buddies, Meera told Kabo that I was writing a book about a Hmong girl. At that time, there were no children’s books with Hmong characters. Before I met with the group, I knew Kabo was anxious for my story. I had not really understood until I saw her anticipation that I was about to disappoint her. As I read my draft, I realized I had created a flat, almost folktale character. How had I missed that? After, I would change Pa Lia, make her worthy like Kabo. When I wrote A Hat For Mrs. Goldman, I knew that Sophia was Latina. I didn’t worry about her worthiness because I had learned a great lesson from writing about Pa Lia. I knew I could get Sophia right if I listened to her story, and followed her emotionally.

Of course, Americans need diverse books. We need to read about Pa Lia’s first day of school worries and Sophia’s relationship with Mrs. Goldman. We need the everyday in our books to reflect our everyday world. That means we also need diverse books for our young Jewish readers. Our Jewish communities are diverse, and our world, our country, our towns, and the neighborhoods we live in are diverse. We need books that tell all our stories and show us how we all connect.

That’s why Sophia is Latina.

Michelle Edwards is an award-winning author and illustrator of many books for children, one book for adults, and nearly one hundred essays for knitters. Her stories are about family, friendship, and community. They chronicle the large and small victories and defeats of everyday life. Michelle frequently shares her paintings and thoughts on Instagram, Facebook, and her website. Check back tomorrow to read more from Michelle Edwards.

Knitting and Love

Monday, June 26, 2017 | Permalink

Michelle Edwards, author of A Hat for Mrs. Goldman, will be guest blogging this week for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series.


I have been knitting all my life, since the age of five or so. Much of what I have done, I have done with my needles at the ready. So, it makes sense that I would have some stories to tell about knitting and life. Still, it took me a long time to realize this, and to tap into the well, which now often feels bottomless.

It was 1997 and I was at a small exhibit with Serge Klarsfeld’s collection of photos of French children who perished in the Holocaust, when I discovered how much of life I had viewed as a knitter. The show was in St. Paul, Minnesota, where my family lived back then. My kids were young—too young, I thought, for the bigger questions and stories about the children. So they stayed home. Instead, I asked my husband to join me. We went out to lunch first, then we walked to the exhibit. There were many noisy school kids there. Looking back on it, I wonder how they felt when they saw the black and white photos from decades before, clearly not American kids like themselves. Well, that’s another topic. Let’s make this one about knitting.

What I am sure of now, though, is that we each saw something deeply personal. And, in my case, knitterly. Among the photos, there were snapshots of the Jewish French children, sometimes with their mothers, clearly wearing some hand-knit item, like a sweater. I knew what having something handmade just for you meant. In the long and cold Minnesota winters, I had knit plenty of warmth for my own children. They came with me to yarn stores and cuddled skeins to test for softness and spring. They helped me sometimes, winding the wool into balls, so that they were easier to knit from. They took off their socks and let me measure their feet for more socks that I was knitting them. They allowed me to mess up their hair, all for the sake of getting the hat to fit.

We had a unique relationship that was all about making for them, loving them in a wooly way. That is what I saw in those pictures. Clearly, the child in the beautiful sweater was loved the way I loved my daughters. Fiercely. This child had been to yarn stores the way mine had. Maybe, on a bitterly cold day she might have picked the softest, warmest wool in the store, an expensive alpaca indulgence reserved for our heart-songs. As it was being knit, she might have tried that sweater on endlessly, so the knitter, the mom, the grandmother, could get the fit just right.

I could see their lives through my knitter’s eye. I felt their untold stories in those pictures so deeply I could barely move. Eventually, I started to write about knitting, shyly, at first. Then came many, many stories. In fact, sometimes I need to button-up when I am in yarn stores, at fiber gatherings, or around other knitters. They mention a knitting problem or a wooly discovery, an entanglement with yards of finely spun whatever, and I smile instead of letting them know how I wrote about that once.

I had planned this post to be a knitting story somehow tied to my latest book, A Hat For Mrs. Goldman: A Story About Knitting And Love. But here I am, nearly at the end of the story I had wanted to tell, and only now, through finally writing down about that day, do I realize how the two stories connect. Knitting and Love. That’s it.

Michelle Edwards is an award-winning author and illustrator of many books for children, one book for adults, and nearly one hundred essays for knitters. Her stories are about family, friendship, and community. They chronicle the large and small victories and defeats of everyday life. Michelle frequently shares her paintings and thoughts on Instagram, Facebook, and her website. Check back tomorrow to read more from Michelle Edwards.