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5 Questions With... Mike Allegra (SARAH GIVES THANKS)

by Mike Allegra
November 16, 2012
A former journalist for North Jersey Newspapers, Mike Allegra is the editor of THE LAWRENTIAN, the nationally award-winning alumni magazine of The Lawrenceville School (Lawrenceville, NJ). His plays have been performed around the country, and he was the recipient of a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship. SARAH GIVES THANKS is his first children’s book.

SARAH GIVES THANKS tells the story of magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, and the hardships and personal tragedy she faced in her quest to getting Thanksgiving recognized as a national holiday. Can you tell us a little about this fascinating woman?

Sarah Hale accomplished so much in her life it’s sometimes hard to figure out where to begin. She was a celebrated and prolific writer. She edited the most widely read magazine in America. She founded charities, led patriotic fundraising drives, championed college education for women, and used her magazine to influence public opinion on a wide spectrum of topics—the most famous of which was Thanksgiving.

And she did all these things in the early- to mid-1800s, when women were widely seen as second-class citizens. And she also did all of these things while raising five children by herself.

Once I learned about Sarah, I just had to write about her.

The story of Thanksgiving is often boiled down to a meeting between pilgrims and Native Americans and left at that. How did you discover the story of this often unsung hero?

I discovered Sarah Hale by accident.

When I decided to write a Thanksgiving book, my plan was to write about Lincoln. I knew from the Ken Burns documentary, THE CIVIL WAR, that Lincoln proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving in 1863. I always found the timing of that proclamation to be brilliant—after all, it’s very hard to remember the good things in your life when you’re in the middle of a horrible, bloody war. I wanted to write a story about how Lincoln came up with that idea.

Once I started my research, however, I discovered that Lincoln was only a bit player in the story of Thanksgiving. Sarah Hale is the reason why we all celebrate the holiday. She championed the idea when no one outside of New England could have cared less. She lobbied politicians. She used her magazine to build a grassroots movement. And everyone—eventually—began to see the wisdom behind what she was saying. Lincoln knew wisdom when he saw it, so he signed the proclamation.

You’ve said that you “geeked out” on the research that went into SARAH GIVES THANKS and spent loads of time in historical archives. As Thanksgiving is quickly approaching, how will all of your newfound Thanksgiving-based knowledge change the way you celebrate the holiday?

I have been a Thanksgiving nut my whole life—but mostly for the wrong reasons. As a kid, I loved Thanksgiving because it was the day my family celebrated my birthday; I loved Thanksgiving because every year the local TV station would run MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, KING KONG, and SON OF KONG—a six-hour marathon of simian mayhem; and I loved Thanksgiving because I could gorge myself on Stove Top stuffing.

As I got older, I began to approach the holiday in a way that more closely resembled the proper spirit, which is to say I thought a little about the good things in my life. But then I would slip back into my old habits and wonder why Channel 9 no longer aired those Big Ape movies.

Learning about Sarah Hale’s life, however, made me think about thankfulness in a whole new way. In 1822, just a few weeks before Thanksgiving, Sarah’s husband of nine years died, leaving her alone to take care of five children—all of whom were under the age of seven. She had little money, and no real opportunity to earn enough cash to support her family. It was a dire, almost hopeless situation.

Yet, by counting her blessings on that Thanksgiving, Sarah found the strength to carry on. Through raw intelligence and sheer grit, she survived—and then thrived—in a man’s world.

After you hear a story like that, it’s hard not to be a little embarrassed about fixating on KING KONG. I can’t help but be amazed by how much of my life I have taken for granted.

Well, no more, I can assure you of that.

On your blog, you are heading up a one-man movement to boycott celebrity children’s books. Since many of our readers are teachers and have some influence over book purchases, what is your case against this increasingly common phenomenon?

I think most celebrity books speak for themselves. Almost all of them are across-the-board crummy. There are exceptions, of course; Jamie Lee Curtis, for one, keeps me from speaking in absolutes. In most other cases, however, the books are unoriginal, didactic, awkwardly-rhymed nonsense.

Unfortunately, unoriginal, didactic, awkwardly-rhymed nonsense sells very, very well once you put a celebrity’s name on the cover. A lot of book buyers see this name and think, “Ooh! I like this person!” And in the basket it goes.

This buying reflex creates a couple of problems, I think. First, it exposes kids to lousy, unimaginative writing. That, in my view, should be a crime—or at least a misdemeanor.

Second, bad writing by celebrity non-writers encourages non-celebrity non-writers to announce, “Hey, I can do that, too! I’m gonna write a book just like my favorite children’s book author, Madonna!” And so bad writing begets more bad writing.

Thanks in part to the subpar stylings of Madonna and Company, everyone now thinks they can write a picture book. Publishing houses are overwhelmed like never before and have responded to the tidal wave of manuscripts by changing their submission guidelines. Over the last several years, I’ve seen many houses stop accepting unsolicited work. The market is constricting. Writers are finding fewer and fewer opportunities to get their work noticed.

I am very lucky. I got a book published, it’s selling well, and I am grateful. But there are a lot of writers out there who write better than I, who, for whatever reason, can’t quite reach the brass ring. The glut of celebrity books—and the awful manuscripts those books spawn—are making things more difficult for people who have dedicated their lives to the craft of writing.

My little movement is just a way to say, “Hey, let’s make this publishing thing a meritocracy. Let’s promote the good stuff written by unknowns. Let the kids out there see what a really good story looks like.”

And don’t worry about Madonna. She’ll get by somehow. I’m told she can sing a little.

You regularly tell high school students that if they want to be writers, they should spend some time writing for a newspaper. Given the state of print journalism, this may seem like strange advice. Where does it come from?

The daily newspapers are in trouble, that’s very true. The weeklies, however, aren’t going anywhere—and I can’t think of a better place for an aspiring writer to develop his or her skills.

I worked for a weekly paper for about two years. Those were the two most important years of my writing career. The job taught me to write fast, polished stories on an incredibly wide range of topics. During my tenure I wrote about politics, schools, crime, business, the environment, and the arts. I also wrote stories about hauntings, a parrot who liked to curse, and a crazy lady who kept pigs in her house.

The paper taught me how to work independently. News stories didn’t come to me; I had to go out and find them. To this day I can still find stories almost anywhere. Few former reporters suffer from writer’s block.

The job also taught me how to put my failures behind me. On many occasions I was forced to submit a story I didn’t think was written all that well. I didn’t have the luxury to dwell on it, however. My editor expected six stories from me every week; all I had time to do was learn from the experience and move on.

At a newspaper, your work is also scrutinized by an editor. Writers need to hear that critical voice. If the article is unclear, the editor is going to demand a rewrite. If you are editorializing, the editor will call you on it. If your wonderful story is three inches too long for the space provided, the editor is going to make you cut it. That writer/editor relationship is invaluable, and forces a writer to be cooperative and flexible.

All that being said, I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that being a reporter for a weekly newspaper is a difficult, low-paying job with crazy hours. But, believe me, you will get so much more out of the experience than you could ever possibly put in. It’s worth doing.

© 2012 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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