When I was very young, my family introduced me to art, theater, and books. These introducted me to many worlds — worlds I wanted to know more about. At about age eight, I decided to become either a ballerina or a stage actress — a very, very dramatic actress. Not such good idea, my family thought, but they went along my dreams anyway. I went to ballet class three times a week and to the Saturday matinees of Broadway shows that tried out in my hometown, Philadelphia.
As an adult, I fell in love with children's publishing. And it has been my home ever since.
Many of my books for young people are photo essays. The text is from the point of view of the people I interview. It's their thoughts, not mine; their opinions, not mine. I transcribe their words and shape them into a book.
After a few years I began exploring tough subjects for young adults. These books are edgy, and deal with very difficult subjects. They include the first YA book about AIDS, the first book about suicide where families allow their names and photographs to be used, a first-person account of prejudice, and teen pregnancy, human rights, child slavery, and the criminal justice system. But I did manage to sneak in one delicious dance book called REACHING FOR DREAMS.
These books, for middle grades and young adults, go behind the scenes, behind the headlines and simplistic sound bites. They describe how real people respond to or are affected by a law or a societal condition.
The modus operandi is a book version of cinema verite; that is, choose a subject, find a situation that depicts that subject, watch it unfold, and let the people concerned tell the story.
The people lead the book. I have no idea how the book will play out until all the material is collected — and sometimes not even then.
My earlier pictures were very realistic — I never cropped a photograph and used whatever light available. But my approach my photographs changed. While working on SPEAKING OUT: TEENAGERS TAKE ON RACE, SEX, AND IDENTITY, some of the students who participated in the book helped me decide how they should be photographed. "Arty," they said, "we want to be very, very arty." The teens suggested a cross between Richard Avedon and Robert Mapplethorp. [Not bad company.] Since every individual is indeed a work of art, it was appropriate to give this approach a try!
We made a studio in an empty classroom. We set powerful strobes [lights] around a white seamless background. The students made appointments for their portrait shoot. Afterwards, they helped me choose the photograph that best represented themselves.