Lindsey McDivitt on the Making of “Truth and Honor: The President Ford Story”

© Salima Alikhan 2020

Agent Kelly Dyksterhouse sits down with her client, picture book author Lindsey McDivitt, to talk about the research, writing and creation of her newest picture book: Truth and Honor: the President Ford Story

Kelly Dyksterhouse (KD): How much did you know about President Gerald Ford before starting this project? 

Lindsey McDivitt (LM): To be honest, I didn’t know a lot about Gerald Ford as I was only in high school in the 1970’s and not yet able to vote. So sadly not paying much attention to politics. I did recall the relief of his presidency after Watergate—so much tension and so many lies from President Nixon. President Ford’s integrity was a much needed antidote, instilling renewed confidence in a caring government.

Also, I must admit, I had this impression he was clumsy because the press used that humorous angle. In my research, I realized this was triggered by one slip down the wet steps of Air Force One. Gerald Ford, former college football player, was actually our most athletic president!

No Vacancy in progress...

KD: How did you approach your research? 

LM: I initially read extensively about Gerald Ford’s presidency in order to gain a better idea of his personality and qualities. His integrity stood out—as president and longtime congressman from western Michigan. I found a number of terrific quotes to highlight his sterling character. For example:

“I believe that truth is the glue that holds government together, not only our Government but civilization itself.”

I realized I wanted to showcase America’s true values for young readers by shining a spotlight on how his early life prepared him to take on the challenges of his presidency. Ford cared about citizens of all colors, voting consistently for civil rights and voting rights legislation, often in opposition to his party. He also supported immigrants, and while President as the Vietnam War was ending he organized the rescue of refugees from Saigon.

Researching what shaped him as a young person growing up in Grand Rapids Michigan was the second phase of my research. The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum provided invaluable resources and a private tour. I learned no job was demeaning to him—he even worked two jobs washing dishes during his college years at the University of Michigan and coached when at Yale University. Ford joined the Navy after Pearl Harbor and then ran for congress.

KD: How do you distill your information into PB form? 

LM: It is challenging to condense a lot of research and a complex life into a non-fiction picture book of perhaps 1300 words! I knew I wanted to end with this quote:

“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.” –President Gerald R. Ford, August 9, 1974.

I quickly determined the book would begin with Ford as President, and end with the challenging problems piled on that same desk. In between we’d show just how Jerry’s surprisingly tough early life prepared him for the presidency at a time that our nation needed to heal and regain trust in government.

Typically, my early drafts are much too long, but I just throw in everything that strikes me as important in order to winnow it down later. And it helps me craft the narrative into a shape that pleases me as a read aloud. The lyricism of the language is definitely important to me even with non-fiction. Later there is lots of cutting words of course!

KD: Did you consider the role of the illustrator in writing the text, as you would in fiction? 

LM: Oh yes! Especially at the stage of shortening up the text I’m thinking of what my illustrator can show instead. I’d been secretly hoping for Michigan’s award-winning illustrator Matt Faulkner and I got my wish! He did such a beautiful job bringing it to life.

In my research I take note of the kinds of things that young readers can identify with. I included the dramatic WW II scene where Jerry almost slid off the ship’s deck into the sea, and the Ford family dog named “Liberty.” Also, he had a stutter as a child, and I learned recently that meant a lot to one child reader.

KD: What surprising fact did you learn about Gerald Ford? 

LM: I was quite shocked to learn that Gerald Ford was born Leslie King Junior! But his birth father was abusive so his mother fled in fear when her baby was just sixteen days old. Pretty brave act back in 1916 to divorce. Fortunately, Dorothy met and married Gerald R. Ford Senior who became young Jerry’s much loved step-father. An honorable man, he had a huge influence. I included quotes like this:

You are a person of your word…the integrity of your word…is a tremendous possession of great value. Keep it never lose it.

KD: What do you consider fun and/or challenging when writing a PB biography? 

LM: I had tons of fun adding similes and metaphors to this book about Michigan’s only president. For example, “The desire for the American Dream flowed through the school as strongly as the Grand River flowed through town.” Fortunately, I’d lived in Michigan for almost eight years and also enjoyed a trip to Grand Rapids when researching the book. But it was tough at first to decide on a theme, and I tried several before landing on highlighting the Great Lakes state.

KD: What’s next for you? 

LM: I have a third picture book bio coming out in March 2021 from Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers about President Nelson Mandela. It’s illustrated by the amazing Charly Palmer. Finishing the back matter is taking a tremendous amount of time. I’ve also just begun a new NF picture book manuscript that’s not a bio. And working with my agent Kelly Dyksterhouse revising several fiction manuscripts has been so rewarding. I love the process when supported by a terrific editorial agent!

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