Author Emilie Kefalas released her new book "A Call to Congress" as a follow up to her book "A Capitol Dream". The new book is a children's guide to the United States House of Representatives and Senate. Do Savannah had an opportunity to interview her about her new book.
Do: Please talk about your new book, "A Call to Congress"
Kefalas: After the overwhelmingly positive response to my children’s guide to the U.S. Capitol Building, "A Capitol Dream," I gave myself the green light to write and illustrate a sequel. "A Call To Congress" is, in keeping with the theme of its sister, a children’s guide to the United States House of Representatives and Senate. It was published by the wonderful folks at The Palmetto Publishing Group and released Presidents’ Day week of this year. I’m ecstatic to report I’m developing a "Capitol Dream" series based on its success.
"A Call To Congress’s" publication timing was no coincidence, as I recognized early on in its publishing process how paramount its release was. Think about it. 2020 is an election year, and it marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment, which earned women the right to vote. Personally, I can’t think of a more appropriate time to introduce students to the functions of the House and Senate.
Our Legislative Branch, when stripped of its biases and politics, is this unique arena of democracy, and to convey that significance to young readers was my main goal when drafting "A Call To Congress."
When you walk into the Capitol Visitors Center gift shop, what do you expect to leave with? If you’re a parent, teacher or even an adult with a young student in your life, you’ll want to preserve such an extraordinary trip in the form of a pen, postcard, or even a book. Now, take a look at what’s currently on the shelves in that shop, and you will find the following themes among children’s titles: overviews of the city of D.C., biographies of historical figures, stories of children running for office and stories of children visiting different monuments across D.C.
"A Call To Congress" is an outlier in this selection. It follows Tour Guide Emilie, the main character of "A Capitol Dream," one morning before her day commences. As she pauses between the House and Senate chambers, she finds none other than James Madison, former U.S. president and representative of Virginia, wandering the halls looking very lost from (his statue’s) location in the Library of Congress. What follows is a brief tour the House and Senate chambers with a sprinkle of civics and cultural milestones in our Legislative Branch’s history.
This story, layered with little bites of civics and history, does not dumb down information for my audience. It focuses on the physical rooms and civic-specifics of the current U.S. House and Senate chambers as a student would see them on a real tour.
Do: Please talk about how life has changed as an author?
Kefalas: Writing and illustrating "A Capitol Dream" took a great deal of time and dedication, and since its release in the fall, I've just been loving sharing it with students, teachers, and readers anywhere that will host me. The whole publishing process was not unlike being pregnant for three years, and now I’m finally able to show my baby off to the world. That's the greatest part of all this - at last I can geek out about American history and people will listen!
What has changed the most for me since publishing "A Capitol Dream" as well as "A Call To Congress" has been my confidence in being able to confidently proclaim myself an author and illustrator. Prior to "A Capitol Dream’s" publication, I definitely experienced moments of doubt and imposter syndrome. Until you hold a tangible product of your hard work, the concept of publishing a book just does not feel real.
Along with the editorial and design team at Palmetto, my community of Capitol Dreamers (students, teachers, parents, booksellers, lawmakers, etc.) has been the greatest source of inspiration in my quest to share my love of the Capitol.
Do: What things have you been able to change due to the pandemic to share your storybook with families and children?
Kefalas: I was scheduled to read at three Barnes & Nobles in three different states within the first few weeks of March. I had also planned four school visits to coincide with those readings. All it took was 36 hours for each event to either be rescheduled or canceled altogether due to precautions in place concerning COVID-19.
The cancellations didn't bother me. The lost opportunities to speak to young readers, Capitol Dreamers and future-history-makers as I call them, did.
That's when I called upon my friends in education.
Using their urgent needs and requests based on their curriculum adjustments for virtual learning, I quickly added coloring pages, printable cutouts, further online learning resources, and pre-recorded readings to the content of my "Capitol" series’ website, acapitoldream.com. With many schools, including the ones where I was scheduled to speak, going virtual for the remainder of this spring's school season, I'm going the extra mile to "Capitol-ize," if you will, on my mission to make the history of Capitol Hill accessible to as many readers, teachers, and parents as possible. This past week, I launched my first Facebook Live series, "Capitol Recess," during which I share "civic snacks" and historical facts for teachers and parents who have suddenly become teachers to integrate into their virtual lessons.
I've come to the conclusion this is actually an incredible, dare I say, historical opportunity to reach even more students. Virtual learning is bursting with potential for me and my characters to enter into the e-classrooms of more future-history-makers than I could ever hope to visit physically.
Do: Have you been able to work on any creative projects during the shelter in place?
Kefalas: Since being in self-isolation, I’ve been busier than ever with my creative endeavors. I am currently finalizing edits on a children’s cookbook, "RandEm Recipes for Beginner Bakers," featuring recipes from both my grandmothers' kitchens along with beautiful illustrations by fabulous fellow SCAD alumni Antonella Martinez-Gugliotta. That is tentatively expected to hit shelves in May.
I'm actually sheltering in place with my mom, which is how we ended up collaborating on a children's book about hand-washing starring two owls, Owlbert and Owlivia. (My) mom is a pediatric nurse with a background in public health, and she has so much experience educating preschool and kindergarten-aged kids on the importance of washing your hands. Our book will combine her talking points from her school visits with my illustrations of Owlbert, who is based off an owl puppet Mom brings with her into classrooms.
I've also launched my own production company, RandEm Productions, an educational entertainment entity run by, as I say on its official LinkedIn page, "a remote yet glamorous group of artists and entrepreneurs." My goal with the RandEm brand is to serve veggies disguised as cake, as in to create original content for younger audiences with the intention of educating through entertainment.
Finally, with two books to promote, I’m doing virtual storytimes via social media and also in collaboration with Budsies, the vendor who created the plush versions of the characters in my books, for their followers. I'm actively seeking input from teachers and parents about what to include on acapitoldream.com, because, more than anything, I want future-history-makers to understand we are living in a historical time. What's even more exciting is we have reference points in our nation's last 150 years as to how we handled pandemics similar to this one. We are all adjusting, but I believe in our adjustment, we will advance our level of understanding of history as well as our future.
Do: Share some of your process working on the creation of your work through publishing and then marketing. What has been impacted and how?
Kefalas: Bringing "A Capitol Dream" to life taught me more about publishing than any online course or Writers Digest article could have prepared me for, which is truly a reflection of how I learn most efficiently through experience. Of course I have my support system in my godsend of a family and friend group, but I was a one-woman-show when it came to finding a publisher and then when the book was released being my own publicist. Scheduling readings at Barnes & Noble's, libraries, and schools - that's all me.
Thankfully, since "A Capitol Dream's" publishing, I've been blessed to meet and collaborate with those in PR and bookselling. I share all this to emphasize how valuable a support system is for any writer or illustrator. So much of the final product you see in the social posts, media hits, and in the book itself, is a result of sought and sealed opportunity. Seeking the wisdom of authors you admire is even more important for remaining relevant and understanding how to make the biggest impact. When COVID-19 caused school cancellations and thrust parents into virtual learning, I saw what other authors in my genre were doing, applied it to my own model, and adapted it to fit how I am road-mapping my marketing in a rapidly evolving landscape of learning.
My marketing approach was the first component of which I had to be especially critical. I'm not going to post, "We're all in this together, and oh, by the way, please buy my book." How tone deaf would that be to an audience of parents and teachers trying to adjust their entire routines to provide an effective e-classroom experience for their students? I've asked many of my friends who are teachers what would be most helpful for them, because now is my time to be of service in a more accessible fashion via the internet.
Do: What do you say to encourage others at this time?
Kefalas: Wise men and women know they know nothing, but what's been useful for my motivation is returning to my old history notes and reading my high school history books to remind myself of what our nation has overcome and how this time will produce art, prose, poetry, and the possibilities for further education. There's a sculpture in the Library of Congress depicting two scholars, one young and one old. They represent the theme of lifelong learning, and this pandemic has made me a student once more, but in this worldly classroom, grades are banished. No one is going to rate me on how productive I am. No one is going to assess the value of my lifestyle. Uncertainty exists, no doubt, but as with any classroom, this challenge is transforming us into better versions of ourselves, whether or not we recognize it. As an artist (because I categorize writers as artists), all I know is what I read, and that's why I’m drawn to history, American, art, and world.
Do: Do you have anything else you would like to add?
Kefalas: My "Capitol Dream" series aims to offer a foundation for a love of and interest in history and civics, but I also use the book’s website to share and celebrate the other resources in internet-land for further "Capitol" exploration. A vibrant, diverse landscape of virtual learning opportunities is available to engage students from National Geographic to BrainPop. We should all take a digital dive into these domains if for no other reason than to learn a little ourselves.