To celebrate the publication (today!) of BOBBY: A Story of Robert F. Kennedy, here is a book-birth story.
The path to publication began in 2007 — 15 years ago — at a conference in Washington, D.C. where I had lunch with some publishing people and we got to talking about Bobby Kennedy and I told the story I detailed in a post last week. One of my tablemates spoke up and said, “You know… the story I love most about RFK is the one where he spoke extemporaneously from the back of a truck in Indianapolis the night that Martin Luther King was killed… there was rioting all over the country, but not in Indianapolis that night, Bobby made a difference in his remarks to the mostly-black crowd…” and I had to go look up that story, because I didn’t know it. Here is the full text.
I had already talked many times with my long-time friend Robin Hoffman at Scholastic Book Fairs about our mutual admiration for Robert Kennedy and how his death had affected the country and us over the years. Now, after this lunch at the D.C. conference, I wanted to write about Bobby, but I didn’t know how. His story was so wide, deep and textured. I told Robin this. A few months later — now in summer 2008 — Robin sent me the Sunday New York Times Magazine with the cover story about the “RFK Funeral Train.” I also did not know this story in full until it unfolded for me in the pages of the Magazine. (You can read this story here.)
On a plane to somewhere — I traveled to so many schools and conferences in those days — I drafted my story for the fifth or sixth time. I had sold the Sixties Trilogy to Scholastic that February, and now I sent them my draft of Bobby. Kara LaReau at Scholastic was enthusiastic — RFK was a hero of hers as well, who knew? Scholastic bought the story.
Soon after I lost my editor, and what followed from there was a new editor and a series of drafts over several years, attempts to find the right illustrator for the story, revisions to a draft we thought was just-right, a revision to that draft when we had the right illustrator, additions to that draft, a return to an original idea, you name it, we did it, and I just made myself laugh ruefully to remember all the permutations.
At one point my writer friend Jane Kurtz was visiting me for a “picturebook intensive” and I was so desperate to figure out what I couldn’t see with this story that she had me lay out the pages on the floor, like a train from one end to the other, so I could visually see what I was trying to say, to see where the beats fell and how the structure worked. It was a turning point.
Was all this time and effort worth it? Of course it was. Along the way, it was remarkable and so gratifying to watch this team of book makers come together in a cohesive unit to make a book we all loved and could be so proud of. Ken Geist struggled alongside me to get the story right as the just-right editor for this book. David Saylor worked with Tatyana Fazlalizadeh on the moving and powerful images that enhanced and elevated the text. Unsung people, every one important, worked behind the scenes preparing for Bobby’s debut — a delayed debut thanks to Covid and shipping problems — and now here is that book, in your hands, today. I am proud and grateful and oh-so-hopeful for Bobby as it comes into the world, standing on the shoulders of all its midwives.
The dedication reads: “For Paula and Rubin and Robin and Kara, and Steven and Janie, and Ken and David and Tatyana, and for all those whose hands and hearts reach out in the service of justice, and story.” Thank you.