Simple but Not Always Easy: Talking with Ilene Cooper

Whether you’re a reader of fiction or nonfiction, picture books, middle grade, or young adult, chances are you’ve come across—and admired—a book by Ilene Cooper. A former librarian and longtime Booklist editor and reviewer, Cooper is the author of the Lucy chapter-book series; A Woman in the House (and Senate), an award-winning account of women in U.S. politics; and the captivating biography Eleanor Roosevelt, Fighter for Justice (among many others). Recently, in the span of one week, Cooper saw not one, but two reissues of her titles. On September 24, Abrams Books for Young Readers released the paperback edition of Eleanor Roosevelt, Fighter for Justice; and on October 1, Abrams also published the deluxe edition of Cooper’s beloved Golden Rule, a picture book that captures a quietly profound discussion between a grandfather and his grandson—now with a foreword from John Green. Below Cooper discusses both titles, human nature, history, and what she has in store for us next.

SHEMROSKE: The Golden Rule first published in 2007 and is now turning 12. Can you tell us a bit about the original and the recently published deluxe edition?

COOPER: It’s sort of supposed to be a tenth anniversary edition, but of course in publishing, things can get delayed. The [2007] book was originally dedicated to John Green, and he was nice enough to write a foreword for this edition.

It’s been lovely. People write to me about it. And I know that schools use it, and I know people buy it for their kids and their grandkids. It’s really been, I think, the most gratifying book I’ve written.

The art is also so beautiful. I had, of course, nothing to do with the art, and I don’t know if most people realize this, but as a writer, if you’re not drawing your own pictures, you send [your book] to the editor, and you hope that you’re going to like the pictures.

When I sent it in—and it’s about a grandfather and a grandson—I didn’t know if there were going to be rabbits . . . I didn’t know what it was going to be! When Howard Reeves, my editor, sent along the first sketches and then the first kind of little paintings (before they were paired with the text), I was blown away. Gabi Swiatkowska did such a fabulous job, especially with the way she incorporated all the elements of the various religions into the illustrations. I’m sure that was a lot to deal with!

And the words are amazing, too. The reader is able to get so much out of these short, little sentences that read just like a conversation. How did you decide on that writing style?

That’s what I was trying to do: make it a real conversation. At some point in the book, the grandfather says, “The golden rule is simple, but it’s not always easy.” And that’s the one of the main points I was trying to make; even though in all those different religions and cultures, it’s very easy to say it, it’s not always so easy to practice it. And I find that as the author of the book, it’s like, Oh God I know that I should be following it. But every minute of every day? It does make you think.

Yet people who have used the book with younger children who are five- and six-years-old tell me that not only did the children get it, but that when the idea’s incorporated when they’re young, it’s something that they continue to think about.

How did the idea for this book first come about? Did you have a discussion like this with anyone?

It actually was a very Booklist thing. I’d been interested in the concept of empathy and how if you could step into somebody else’s shoes, it makes all the difference. And I kept waiting for somebody to write a book on it. But as you know, we see lots and lots of books here, and nobody ever wrote one about it, so I was like, Oh, I think that means I’m supposed to write it!

I think the hardest part was trying to distill it, because the concept can be both big and small, and it had to be told in a way kids would understand. Then I wanted to take it out into countries, and that got a little more complicated. But that’s why it’s been around; these concepts never, never get old.

Do you remember the first time you heard the Golden Rule or an iteration of that saying?

It’s interesting because the common way to say it is “do unto others.” In Judaism, it’s “do not do.” And even though you think that on the surface they’re the same, they’re really different. “Do unto others” means you can sort of push anything onto somebody else that you think is good. But “don’t do” has a little more of a sophisticated edge, and you have to think about it a little harder. Not everything you want to do to somebody else is the right thing.

I think that when you extrapolate and talk about bullying and all of the things that kids face today, the Golden Rule really works in any situation. If you don’t want to be tortured online then don’t do that to others. That’s why it’s been around forever.

I was going to ask a question about how things have changed since 2007, but when it comes to the Golden Rule, they haven’t really . . .

It doesn’t change because ultimately people don’t change. When you read any of the religious books or you read Homer or the Greek myths, human nature does not change. It can be frightening to think that, but that’s also why you have to work on yourself, because I think you’re born with that nature and then how you want to live your life is up to you.

And that sort of segues into Eleanor Roosevelt, who had a very difficult childhood.

Yes, yes. Let’s talk about that!

Her mother thought she was very unattractive and called her an ugly duckling. Her nickname for her was Granny. Then her mother died when she was quite young, and she was the apple of her father’s eye . . . but he died of alcoholism by the time she was nine or 10. Then she went to live with a grandmother, who didn’t have too much time for her, because she actually had children who were teenagers who were running wild.

Fortunately, she was able to go to an excellent boarding school in England, where she had a teacher who improved her self-confidence. But her life was very difficult; she was fearful of a lot of things. She says at one point, everything I accomplished I had to do through overcoming fear.

Can you explain how Eleanor overcoming her fears contributed to her social activism?

Eleanor was an astute politician on her own. She was always reaching out to other marginalized groups. What I didn’t know before I started writing this book was that despite her reputation as a social activist, she really did not have any affinity for the plight of African Americans, particularly, until she was in her forties, until she got to the White House.

I say somewhere in the book that as a young woman, she had all the prejudices of her class. She was antisemitic, and I don’t think she thought about African Americans much one way or the other.

In The Golden Rule, it says you can only work on yourself. That’s what she did. When she got to know personally people of color or Jewish people, that’s when she would change her mind—when she got to know people as people. Her whole life was about fighting for justice as she became more aware of what people were going through.

If you read the book, you’ll see that she starts out as a young woman working in some community houses, always helping people from a Lady Bountiful perspective. But it was only when she began to know these people as individuals that she saw the shared humanity.

Do you have anything in the works right now?

I’m working on a book called This Boy. It’s about the early lives of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.



About the Author:

Briana Shemroske is Booklist's Marketing Associate. She graduated with a BA from Lake Forest College where she studied English Writing and Art History. In her free time she can be found eating cheeseburgers, frolicking with her schnoodle, Moritz, and feebly attempting to play board games. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Briana.

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