Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Meet Author Marlene Targ Brill!

My guest today is Marlene Targ Brill, an award-winning, Chicago-born-and-raised author of 67 books for all age readers. Marlene's latest releases include Michelle Obama: From Chicago's South Side to the White House (Lerner Publications, 2009) and five titles in the Decades of the Twentieth Century in America series (Lerner Publications, 2010).

I met Marlene in the spring of 2007 at the Young Authors Conference at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. For more information about Marlene and her many wonderful books, visit her web site at:

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

Marlene: I always liked writing and fared pretty well with writing assignments in school.  But I never took the idea of writing for a living seriously until I was creating materials for my students in special education classes.  I began teaching during the dark ages of special education, so teachers like me made most of the classroom materials. I found I liked the creative process, and I kept coming up with ideas for books I thought I'd like to write for my students and other readers.

Q: Describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it?

Marlene: A long-time friend, who was a psychologist, actually inspired me to write.  We both loved writing and drawing, so each week we met one evening a week to do just that--draw and write.  After a few weeks of getting together ,we decided to produce a children's story that would empower children with disabilities and educate readers who were able-bodied.  Just as our project, More Alike Than Different, was ready to send to publishers, however, my friend died.  Her death made me more determined than ever to get our story published.  I was able to find a publisher that offered to produce our story on audiotape, if I would write three more stories to complete a kit.  I was hooked on writing after that. 

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Marlene: Encouragement is a double-edged sword.  My path to publishing is filled with many wonderful people who inspired and aided me, like my psychologist friend.  I learned the business of writing and how to edit, index, and write for all types of freelance projects from professionals in Chicago Women in Publishing.  I gained invaluable writing skills and perspective from the couple critique groups I joined over the last umpteen years, where I met talented colleagues who have become friends and coworkers.  I had some insightful editors who guided my writing and gave me tips to improve my craft.  And now, groups like Off-Campus Writers Workshop and Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators offer continuing support to me and their other members.
Reverse experiences motivated me, too.  When I began writing, too many people told me how hard it was to get published.  Some said that I wasn't a trained writer (true), and I'd be competing against others who were (also true).  The more negatives I heard, however, the more stubborn I became.  I read tons of children's books to dissect what I liked about the writing.  I read all the Newbery winners to see what books others valued.  I wrote and rewrote.  And I remembered the children's book I read as a child called The Carrot Seed, where a boy finds a carrot seed and everyone tells him a carrot will never grow from that seed.  After much patience and tending persistence, the boy grows a large carrot that requires a wheelbarrow to transport it.  And I have published 67 books.

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.
Marlene: Even though I live in Wilmette now, I always think of myself as a Chicagoan first.  I am Chicago-born and raised.  I was born in the same building where Daniel Pinkwater lived.  Interestingly, three of the five kids who lived there then have become published authors.  So I tell people who want to write books to knock on the door at 551 Roscoe and ask to drink the water.

Because of the strong connection to Chicago, my writing interests have turned more local the longer I write.  I find it fun to be able to walk the streets my characters/subjects have walked and research Chicago stories where they happened.  I first experienced the joys of researching locally with Diary of a Drummer Boy, the story of a Waukegan, Illinois, Civil War hero.  More recently, I found it easier to make contacts and interview people for my two Obama biographies (Barack Obama: President for a New Era; Michelle Obama: From Chicago's South Side to the White House).

Q: You wrote the first edition of your Barack Obama biography before he became a huge star on the national stage. Can you tell us a little about when and why you wrote the biography, and what the initial response was from publishers?
Marlene: I had been hearing about Obama from local political folks I respected, but I had little knowledge of him personally until I read his autobiography.  I found his story growing up in two cultures and striving to succeed despite family/economic roadblocks compelling.  I thought he and his multicultural upbringing would provide a good role model for young readers--and that was before he was elected to Congress.

After I saw the national response to his speech at the Democratic National Convention, I knew he was somehow special.  I proposed a children's bio about him to my publisher, but they declined at first, saying it was too early.  Then, a couple months later I got a call saying a contract for an Obama bio was in the mail, and they wanted the manuscript ASAP.  I proposed a biography about Michelle Obama early in the presidential election process.  That, too, was tabled until after the election.  Once Barack Obama won, the contract for Michelle arrived in the mail.

Q: What was one of the easiest things about writing your biography of Michelle Obama? What was difficult?

Marlene: The easiest thing about writing the Michelle Obama biography was the fact that her upbringing was local for me.  I knew about devotion to Chicago neighborhoods and the jostling between northsiders and southsiders.  I had similar experiences in Chicago schools to those classes Michelle took.  I felt totally at home walking the streets where she lived and the halls of schools were she learned.

The most difficult part of writing about Michelle was the fact that the Obama inner circle refused to cooperate with any biographies about her or Barack, even though Barack thanked me for my first effort about him.  But being a Chicagoan helped here, too.  I discovered organizations that helped me locate former teachers and classmates to interview, and I tracked down other helpful sources of information.  I could use my years as a Chicago Board of Education teacher as entry to the schools and my local status to connect with interviewees.

Q: Of the people or characters mentioned in your books, choose one you would like to meet and tell us why.

Marlene: Whoa!  That's like asking someone to choose among their children. I guess one person I'd like to have met is Marshall 'Major" Taylor, the Lance Armstrong of 1900.  Taylor won races as a preteen against grown men, and he attained world bicycle racing status during a time when bicycles were the prized mode of transportation and bicycle racing a world-class event.  But Taylor, who was black, tried to advance when Jim Crow laws reigned, especially in the South.  Yet, he faced the putdowns and unfair laws with grace and honor.  He is my idea of what an athlete should be, someone with impecible character and love for his sport.

Q: What are you working on right now? Where are you in the process?

Marlene: I'm in the research stage for two stories.  Both involve happenings in the 1910s. Guess I'm stuck in the 1910s for now, especially after writing America in the 1910s, a Lerner decade series. My historical fiction always involves a real child and a real happening in their life.  I'm selecting my main character now.

Q:  You have a historical fiction title coming out next summer about the Hart, Schaffner & Marx strike in 1910 that led to 40,000 workers closing down the men's textile industry in Chicago and Milwaukee.  Can you tell us a little about that?
Marlene: Annie Walks Out is about the girl who started the strike: my sister-in-law's aunt, Hannah (Annie) Shapiro.  I learned about her a few years ago but didn't think I had enough story to tell.  Then I started researching the strike and confirmed Annie's key role in it.  I couldn't believe my good fortune to be able to write about a sort-of relative who led a major event.

Annie's descendants helped me with family details and settings I never could have discovered without their help.  For example, although Annie's family lived with other Russian immigrant families on Chicago's poorer West Side, I learned the Shapiros had a bathroom in their apartment, while most families on a floor or in a building shared bathrooms.  This small detail told me that the family had enough money to live comfortably.  Annie Walks Out is a primary-grade historical fiction story that is currently in the illustration phase.  I can't wait to see the pictures.

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

Marlene: Thank you for this opportunity to share some thoughts. I would just add that writing books has given me experiences unlike any other profession.  The people I've met while researching have broadened my prospectives on life and what really is important.  And speaking at schools and libraries and to professional groups keeps me connected with readers and the joys of reading and writing.  What a great profession we have!


  1. Hi Scotti,

    Great interview! Marlene sounds so intriguing! Super job!

    xoxo -- Hilary

  2. Hi, Scotti,
    Thanks for sharing your interview with Marlene. She's one of my most favorite authors; dedicated, professional, and inspiring! --Heidi Bee Roemer

  3. Annie Walks Out sounds like a great book--love historical ficiton especially how it reaches kids and gets them to learn about a time period without them realizing it's history! And how cool that she is sort-of your relative.

    Thanks for sharing!
    Margo Dill
    Read These Books and Use Them