Inspiration for Gary Schmidt’s books comes from many places. Most recently, it came from the Smithsonian’s list of the 100 Most Significant Americans of All Time.
One of those immensely influential people, Sojourner Truth, caught Schmidt’s attention because of her Michigan connection. Sojourner Truth settled in Battle Creek in 1857; she lived there until her death in 1883.
Schmidt, the Calvin English professor and award-winning author, tells the life story of the African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist in the forthcoming children’s picture book: So Tall Within, A Story of Sojourner Truth (Roaring Book Press, 2018). The book is edited by Calvin alum Katherine Jacobs ’02, a former student of Schmidt’s.
“There are a number of picture books about her,” said Schmidt, “but I don’t think there’s a limit to the number of books that are out there making known these important people.”
The book’s title, So Tall Within, is Truth’s own words describing how she felt fighting for the rights of her son, who had been illegally sold across state lines.
“Such guts,” said Schmidt, “a former slave fighting for the rights of her child in an all white male court. And she wins the case!”
Schmidt is also completing a children’s biography on Celia Thaxter, Celia Planted a Garden (co-authored by Phyllis Root), which was begun by his late wife, Anne.
Thaxter grew up in the Isles of Shoals, off the coast of New Hampshire, as a lighthouse keeper’s daughter. There, on a rock with the tiniest bit of soil and rainwater, she grows a beautiful garden.
“My wife loved that story,” said Schmidt, “but she never got to tell it.”
In addition to these biographies, Schmidt has other projects in the works, including an upcoming novel, Carter Jones and the Butler (working title, Clarion Books, 2019). This middle-grades novel began with an image Schmidt had of the first day of sixth grade.
“It began with all of the chaos of the first day of school and then it’s raining and the car won’t start,” he said. “It’s one of those really stressful days when everything goes wrong.”
And suddenly a butler shows up. “The image in my head is so incongruous,” said Schmidt. “And there are so many questions: Where did he come from? Why is he here? What’s the relationship?”
Any novel has to begin as a really good story, said Schmidt. “There are books out there by Christian publishers that are a sermon in disguise,” he said. “I hated those books as a kid.”
Books like this one are stories about “our real world—and our real world is broken,” said Schmidt. “Given that, how do I now live? Any novel has to deal with that.”
Schmidt’s writing career, while prolific, serves to inform his teaching, he said. “I teach writing, and it feels more authentic to me to talk about the craft of writing, knowing that I’m doing it myself.
“I want my writing students to leave my classes hungry—and not just hungry to put their work into manila folders,” he said, “but to send it out into the world.”