What a pleasure to introduce Inked Voices member Ann Magee, whose debut picture book Branches of Hope: The 9/11 Survivor Tree has released this month (May 2021) from Charlesbridge.
Read on to learn about the book’s genesis, Ann’s writing process, and how she approaches tough but important subjects by centering children’s experiences.
Jessica: Hi Ann! Thanks so much for corresponding with me. Branches of Hope is beautiful, moving, and deeply inspiring. Can you tell us what the story is about? How did you come up with the idea and how did the book develop? Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to address writing about 9/11 for children specifically through the survivor tree’s journey?
Ann: Branches of Hope was born out of a visit to the 9/11 Memorial Museum in 2016. I read an informational pamphlet about the Survivor Tree in the gift shop and thought, “This would be a good story for children to know. It’s a hopeful story.” I researched and drafted the manuscript in about six months. I wrote the beginning and the end first, then outlined the middle with parallel images of the nation’s memories and the tree’s rehabilitation and growth.
How did you approach the language in this book? Passages are just gorgeously lyrical:
Cool autumn air brought other changes for the tree.
Colors of sunsets gilded the tree’s leaves.
Bronze leaves, like flames, fell.
Yet the book also clearly and even-handedly recounts a still-resonant moment of collective trauma. How did you balance or manage those aspects of the story?
I consider myself a poet first, so the sequence of the story came to me in images. From the beginning, I knew this story needed to be told in gentle language. I imagined the kind of story I wished had existed when my children were growing up. As a mom, I asked, “How would I have told this true story to them?” and as a teacher I asked, “How can I tell the truth of the story to kids?” The answer to both questions was to incorporate the throughline of hope.
What was the most challenging part of working on this book?
Because I think in images, the most difficult part of this project for me was to revisit the painful images of September 11, 2001. I had saved newspapers and magazines from that day. After looking at them, I was able to put myself in those first moments again in order to write the beginning lines of the book. I admit, there were some tears along the way.
What was the best or most rewarding?
So far, the best part of working on the book has been working with my fabulous team at Charlesbridge. I knew immediately that this story was in very caring hands with my editor Karen Boss. I’m so grateful to everyone who’s worked on this project—I know their hearts were in it! But I’m thinking the most rewarding part of working on this book will be when it’s in the hands of people who need it—parents, kids, first responders and their families. This hopeful story is theirs.
Given the events of the past year and a half, I think many children’s literature writers are seeking ways to amplify messages of hope and resilience – as your book does – while also exploring the challenges we’re facing around inclusion, equity, violence, climate change, and so forth. Do you have any tips for children’s writers working in that space?
It’s certainly a tall order to tackle these big ideas in kids’ books. I think it’s our job and our privilege, as children’s authors, to tell the truth. As an author working in this space, my priority is to tell a story I’m passionate about and to tell it honestly. I also know I need to match the voice and tone of the story to my audience. YA authors who write about 9/11 must still express the historical concepts honestly but much differently than an PB writer would. Each writer starts in the child’s space.
More broadly, what is your writing process like?
As a narrative nonfiction writer, my process begins with curiosity. If I discover a nugget of information that interests me and I think “I have to share this!”, I move forward to see what else is out there for kids on this subject. If there’s very little, I dive right in, researching and researching for months and months—I love research! When I feel I know what I need to begin drafting, I then decide what structure the story wants to be—does the topic fit a question/answer format? Does it fit a narrative structure? Maybe rhyme? This is the hardest part for me, deciding how to approach the topic. Once I decide, I begin drafting the beginning and the end first. Then I outline the middle. After several sessions with critique partners and many revisions later, I’m ready to submit.
What are you working on now?
I always have several projects going at different stages of completion. Right now, I’m working on a MG/YA history-in-verse about Alice Paul and the Suffragist Movement and a MG biography-in-verse about artist Andrew Wyeth. I also have several completed picture book biographies. And, of course, I have lots of ideas percolating in my mind about future projects. With a full-time teaching job, I try to find pockets of time here and there to write—some evenings, some weekends. I go to Highlights Retreat Center in close-by Pennsylvania twice a year for five days to work on projects.
Are you doing promotional events for the book release?
Because this book commemorates the 20th anniversary of 9/11, promotional events are a bit unique. My book launch will be at Words Matter Bookstore in New Jersey on Saturday, May 22nd. I will also be involved with other book events at bookstores in NJ, NY, and CT over the summer and in September. I’ll be featured on Susanna Hill’s Blog in May, on Kathy Temean’s Writing and Illustrating Blog in July, and on Kidlit411 in October.
You can find Ann online at her author website annmagee.net, or connect with her on Twitter @ann_ammwrite or Instagram at ammwrite. Branches of Hope is available through BookShop and IndieBound, or wherever you purchase books.
Thanks again, Ann, for chatting with Inked Voices and congrats on an incredible book!
Jessica Murray is a poet and children's writer. Her poetry collection Singing Without Melody is forthcoming from Galileo Press in spring 2022, and her poems are featured in journals such as AGNI Online, Barrow Street, The Cortland Review, Free State Review, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, and Memorious. A member of Inked Voices and SCBWI, by day she works in higher education, non-profit, and educational media production spaces.