One of my favorite picture books of 2021 is BARTALI’S BICYCLE (Quill Tree Books), written by Megan Hoyt and illustrated by Iacopo Bruno. It follows the true story of Gino Bartali, the Italian Tour de France winner who secretly helped rescue 800 Jews in WWII by smuggling papers in his bicycle frame (for a great adult book about this, check out ROAD TO VALOR).
I was recently excited to learn that Megan has a new historical picture book coming out this July 5th, THE GREATEST SONG OF ALL: HOW ISAAC STERN UNITED THE WORLD TO SAVE CARNEGIE HALL (Quill Tree Books, 2022, illustrated by Katie Hickey), and I caught up with Megan to learn more about this compelling story.
Me: How did you get into creating children’s books?
Megan: I started out making up bedtime stories to tell my children, and when I got my first laptop computer I used to get up at 5 am and write. It was quiet me time with nothing but the dim morning light, my imagination, and a chocolate-y mocha latte! My first stories were horrible. I remember I once wrote a 3800 word picture book when the industry standard is around 500 words for fiction and 1000 for non-fiction. I clearly knew nothing about the actual business of writing picture books when I started out. But then I met a group of authors at an SCBWI Schmooze in Davidson, North Carolina, and we formed a critique group. We called ourselves the Mudskippers. If you’ve never heard of a mudskipper, it’s a fish that can actually walk on land! We wanted to encourage ourselves to believe that we could do anything we poured our hearts into. I think five of us ended up published authors and one is now an agent. But we will always be Mudskippers!
What inspired The Greatest Song of All?
My parents met playing violin and viola in the pit orchestra at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, and I always thought their story was so charming. Their first date was for cheesecake at Carnegie Deli. I wanted to dig into the time period when my parents lived in New York—to see what life was like back then. They were older by the time I came along, so this was the 1950s and 60’s. As I researched, I came upon a photo of a ballet dancer leaping across Broadway at a protest, and I thought that was so interesting! I’d never seen a ballet dancer dancing in the street, much less protesting in dance clothes. It was Valerie Harper, who later became a famous tv sitcom actor.
The more I read about how everyone came together to save Carnegie Hall, the more I wanted to let children know that they, too, can get involved and help save both buildings and people. Where I live now, city officials recently destroyed a “tent city” that was housing homeless families uptown. The families were to be moved to hotel rooms for eight months, and after that, hopefully, they would find housing. Well, the plan backfired when they discovered they had more homeless people than hotel rooms! I saw that and wondered how a city manager could so mishandle a situation, just like Robert Moses did when he forced out thousands of people from their San Juan Hill neighborhood in New York. I realized it’s up to the citizens to take care of one another. We can’t just depend on a city planner or organizer to handle it all, especially someone who does not have a vested interest in the issue. If no one had taken action in New York, Carnegie Hall would be gone, replaced by a giant glistening high-rise office building. It took a concert violinist, ballet dancers, famous musicians from around the world, and millions of dollars, collected from donors, young and old, to come together and save Carnegie Hall.
What was the most challenging part of your research?
The most challenging part was telling such a complicated story with lots of twists and turns in only forty pages! A few times along the way, I stopped and set it aside, thinking there were just too many details to the story for a young audience to grasp. But it tugged at my heart as sort of a tribute to my parents, so I went to the Hall and met with the archivists to get a better sense of what facts had to stay in and which ones might be okay to leave out. That was tough! There’s a whole back story to how Carnegie Hall was built in the first place that is so interesting—a musician met Andrew Carnegie on a cruise ship while the Carnegies were on their honeymoon and convinced him New York needed another concert hall. Well, that whole bit had to be cut for space. A few other details are not in precise chronological order because there were so many meetings and two different committees. Oh, and I had this whole spread where Isaac Stern talks to the Mayor at a Passover Seder and convinces him to help save Carnegie Hall. There was just no room for it, even though I wanted to be able to focus a bit more on Isaac Stern being Jewish since that is why they left to come to America to begin with.
Katie’s illustrations are amazing. How did you get paired with her?
The publisher always chooses the illustrator, but they did show me samples from three different artists to get my feedback. I already loved Katie’s work on Jess Keating’s book, Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed the Ocean’s Biggest Secret, so I was very excited. I think her vivid colors really bring the story to life.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I am working on a biography of author Marguerite Henry, who is also near and dear to my heart, since I grew up riding bareback in Texas. I met her at an author visit at my school when I was around eight years old. I still have my autographed copy of Justin Morgan Had a Horse!
I also have two more books coming out with HarperCollins’ Quill Tree Books: A Grand Idea: How William Wilgus Created The Grand Central Terminal and Kati’s Tiny Messengers: Dr. Katalin Kariko and the Battle Against Covid-19. And I have a soon-to-be-announced picture book coming out with a Jewish publisher, Apples and Honey Press. I’m working on two middle grade novels as well.
Wow, Megan, your plate is full! I can’t wait to check out those new titles. Thank you so much for answering my questions!
To learn more about Megan, go to www.meganhoyt.net.