Saturday, October 25, 2008

Interview with Emily Arnold McCully regarding her new book, My Heart Glow: Alice Cogswell, Thomas Gallaudet, and the Birth of American Sign Language

My Heart Glow: Alice Cogswell, Thomas Gallaudet, and the Birth of American Sign Language (2008) by Emily Arnold McCully
Reading level: Ages 9-12
Hardcover: 40 pages
Publisher: Hyperion Books for Children

Many of you may already know the story of how Alice Cogswell caught the attention of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. Children’s author, illustrator and Caldecott Medal winner Emily Arnold McCully invites us to take another look at this touching story of how “one little girl inspired a whole new language- as well as the school where it could be taught”. This picture book shares their story and recounts how Gallaudet's interest in teaching Alice carries him on a long journey that eventually leads to the nation's first school for the deaf. In addition, a beautifully written author’s note offers more details about American Sign Language and Alice’s life after attending school.

I personally enjoyed reading the excerpts of Alice’s letters to Gallaudet while he was in Europe. This is a nice way to teach even the youngest children about the history of American Sign Language.

*******Read my interview with Emily Arnold McCully below*******
SPW: What prompted you to write the story?

EAM: For many years, I have invented or looked in history for brave and inquisitive
young girls. Then I make them heroines of picture books. (Mirette on the High Wire, Marvelous Mattie). One of my sons, Nathaniel McCully, is fluent in ASL and a student of Deaf History. I think that his interest was sparked by a friend whose niece was deaf. In any case, he knew the story of Thomas Gallaudet, Alice Cogswell and Laurent Clerc. He told it to me in outline and I realized that Alice was another heroine whose story could spread the word about ASL to hearing children and affirm part of their heritage for Deaf children.

SPW: What type of research did you do for your book? (for example, the excerpts from Alice's letters to Gallaudet while he was in Europe; your author's note with the list of sources-- I'm mostly asking about the process to point out the value of researching)

EAM: Since I knew nothing about the subject, I first went to the New York University Library, where I am lucky enough to have access to the stacks. This means that I can go to the section where books about Deaf culture and education are shelved and simply browse my way around. I looked at many books that weren’t immediately relevant--but that is the beauty of a library. You can read all around a subject as well as all about it. When one is telling a story, it is essential to know much more than will actually be incorporated into the story. I read Hartford histories and Cogswell family histories. I also consulted a great many excellent websites about Deaf history, particularly Galludet University’s. Next, I went directly to the American School for the Deaf, in Hartford, where Alice was in the first class. Gary E. Wait is the archivist there and he welcomed me warmly, showed me the books in his library and the objects on exhibit. He told me stories about Alice Cogswell and Thomas Gallaudet and examples of other peoples’ writing about them. I read excerpts from Alice’s and Thomas’ letters. Later, Mr. Wait read drafts of the story and made suggestions.

I had already read Harlan Lane’s When the Mind Hears and found it illuminating and inspiring. Gary Wait encouraged me to write to Professor Lane and that’s how I was able to use his imagining of Alice’s greeting to Laurent Clerc as the book’s title. Gary Wait advised me to leave out the story of sign language’s suppression, as it would only detract from what is a powerfully positive story of overcoming ignorance and hopelessness. After I finished the book I went to Paris and visited the school where Abbe Sicard and Clerc taught. The classrooms were not open to visitors but I was taken to the charming old library and shown a video of the school’s history (which included powerful scenes of the suppression of sign language).

SPW: What do you hope that readers will learn or take away from the book?

EAM: I hope that everyone who reads my book will come away with an understanding of Gallaudet’s courage and persistence, of Alice’s intelligence and spirit. I also think Laurent Clerc was a terrifically cool man but a picture book has only 32 pages and I had to keep his role small.

SPW: What advice would you give to young people (or the young at heart) who are reading your books for the first time?

EAM: To children reading my books for the first time, I say, read more books-let history tell you its story. I think that is the only way to become steady and wise in the world. We can learn from what happened - in fact, we must! Books make us strong.
For more information about the author, visit the Balkin Buddies Page for her biography and list of published works.

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