Friday, January 25, 2013

Richard Michelson: Connecting Children With The World Through Story

Everyone's Story welcomes Richard Michelson. Rich was introduced to me by a friend at church (hi Bobbie!). As Rich and I chatted we learned we were from the same Brooklyn neighborhood--East New York. As you will discover in the interview below, East New York has directly influenced how we both interpret the world and how it has impacted our writing. Rich is also the owner of the prestigious art gallery, R. Michelson Galleries, in Northampton Massachusetts. He's also the Poet Laureate of Northampton. Please welcome Rich.

Book Giveaway Opportunity:

Rich is graciously offering 1 of his children’s books to 1 randomly chosen commenter—winner’s choice! The winner will be announced between 4-6 EST on February 1st. Please leave your email address within the body of your comment. Thanks.

An Interview with Richard Michelson:

In our introductions to each other prior to this interview we discovered we were two former Brooklyn kids from the neighborhood with one of the toughest reps—East New York. Small and fascinating world! In your website bio you credit this beginning as influencing your “exploration of racial issues.” Does this reflect directly in your children’s books TWICE AS GOOD and ACROSS THE ALLEY?

Definitely. It reflects in those books plus Busing Brewster and As Good As Anybody. When I was born my area of East New York, Brooklyn was 90% Jewish and 10% black. Each year the lever tilted a bit until it was a balanced see-saw- 50/50 (the period of time covered by Across the Alley) and before long it was 10% Jewish. Later the Latinos moved in and the African American population declined.  Eventually my family joined the white flight to the suburbs –but weekends I would drive with my Dad back into Brooklyn to work in his hardware store. I would leave a white world, and enter a black one. I grew up yet thinking blacks and Jews were best friends with a common economic enemy but I was also accustomed to racial stereotyping and ethnic jokes.  As I grew older, I tried to understand the tensions and the anger brewing on both sides. As a writer, I write about the things that interest me, or the things I am trying to understand. Racial concerns and social justice issues are always on my radar.  

Your book, AS GOOD AS ANYBODY, tells the true story of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel who joined forces in fighting for the civil rights and equality for all. Obviously this is a tale that encourages compassion for others, challenges one to stand up against the norm of society, and to take great risks. This is not light reading for a child. Was this book a hard sell to the publisher? And speaking of risks, why do you believe it’s necessary to write these moralistic stories for children?

I never set-out “to teach” children a lesson. I set out to explore a subject, and often what interests me is how people react to difficult situations, step out of their societal comfort zone, overcome their circumstances and reach for their dreams (sometimes failing, and sometimes changing the world in the process). In both my fiction and non-fiction work the story is paramount. I am interested in the struggle more than the result; the journey above the destination. Children do not want to lectured; they want to be challenged or filled with wonder. If the story resonates with their lives on some level, they will keep turning the pages. I write for young children because that is how you build a society’s foundation. You start with the children and work your way up. I am convinced kids understand complex issues better than we older folk do.  School kids are dealing with demands of friendship everyday, and the moral complications of wanting to speak out for what is right, and still fit in with the majority. Stories are a safe way to figure out how best to navigate the world.

Moralist stories have a bad rap, and often it is well deserved, either because the moral overshadows the story, or because someone feels they have a lock on God’s truth ( I am thinking here of the literalists in all religions). That is a recipe for a bad book. Yet I am driven to write because I want to communicate certain values, or my way of seeing the world, so I don’t automatically reject the term. All my books tend to be difficult “sells” to the publisher because I write books that explore political, religious and social fault-lines. But I don’t recall this book being any more difficult than the others, and I have been more than fortunate in finding a reading public among librarians, teachers and families. 

HAPPY FEET talks about the sacrifices parents make for children. On top of equality-for-all, is parental sacrifice another reoccurring theme in your books and poetry as well as in your own life?

I think parental sacrifice is a theme in most everyone’s life. Or if not, it should be. Any life examined, is greatly changed by the output of time and money that children command. For artists especially, time is precious, and money buys time.  How we balance the demands without resentment is crucial.  In the end I judge myself (and others) by the whole person, not just the author part of my personality. I know plenty of wonderful writers who are miserable human beings, and some very caring non-readers. I’ll take the latter any day of the week. Rabbi Heschel once said “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

A stumbled-upon-job at the age of 19, selling fine-arts reproductions out of the back of your van, proved to be the path that took you to becoming an author and opening your renowned art gallery. As a teen, what did you originally dream about becoming or doing in life?

I didn’t dream much. Still don’t. Mostly I work hard and put one foot in front of the other and hope that today will improve just a bit on yesterday. I don’t wait for inspiration in my writing life—I just force my butt into my chair and stare at the screen until I shame myself into putting down words. As a teen I definitely had the desire to “make something of myself” but mostly I wanted to figure out how to make enough money to get through the week. But it is true that I had very little exposure to the “fine arts” and happenstance introduced me to what would become my life’s work. 

Congratulations on being chosen as Poet Laureate of Northampton (MA). Was this a surprise or something you’d hoped to achieve?

It was a lovely surprise. First of all I am thrilled to live in a City that takes the arts seriously enough that they even have a Poet Laureate. Secondly I am following in some amazing footsteps— poets like Jack Gilbert, and fellow East New York Blooklynite Martin Espada. Since my writing for children has often eclipsed my poetry for adults, I was thrilled to be acknowledged by the Northampton Arts Council, and happy for the platform it provides me to help spread my love of poetry.  

And here’s the how-do-you-do-it-all question: you’re an award-winning author; own a prestigious art gallery; give lectures; and very much a family man. What’s your secret of juggling it all?

As I say on my site, I am a full time poet, full time kid’s book author, full time gallerist, and full time husband and father. Now pay close attention because here is my secret: I am a neurotic mess most of the time and barely keeping any of the balls in the air, and I am constantly stressed out, and I often make everyone around me miserable. 

You’ve come a long way from the little boy who grew up in MY East New York neighborhood (sorry, couldn’t resist that!) to who you are today, but tell us: can you ever take the Brooklyn out of the child?

It appears not since much of my writing life still resolves around the old neighborhood. At least for me, I have spent my adulthood trying to understand my childhood. And after 30+ years in Massachusetts the old Brooklyn accent is very much alive.

Author's Bio:
RICHARD MICHELSON is the author of more than 20 books for adults and children. He has been a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award and the National Jewish Book Award (twice). He received a Sydney Taylor Gold and Silver Medal from the Association of Jewish Librarians, the only author to be honored with their two top awards, in the organization’s history. The New York TimesPublishers Weekly, and The New Yorker have all listed Michelson’s books among their Ten Best of the YearAs Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel's Amazing March Toward Freedom was among Amazon’s 12 Best Children’s Books of the Decade.

Michelson’s adult poetry has been published in many anthologies, including The Norton Introduction to Poetry, Blood To Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust, Beyond lament: Poets of the World Bearing Witness, and Unsettling America: Contemporary Multicultural Literature. . His poetry has been praised by Nobel Laureate Elie Weisel as “deeply moving.” The Jerusalem Post called his collection Battles & Lullabies, “a touching masterpiece … and one of the best poetry books in many years." Clemson University named Michelson their R. J. Calhoun Distinguished Reader in American Literature in 2008, and new poetry has recently appeared in The Southern Review, Image: Art, Faith, Mystery and The Harvard Review.

Michelson is a board member of PACYA (Poetry Advocates for Children and Young Adults), and he has lectured, and read from his works in India, Eastern Europe, and throughout the United States. He is the owner of R. Michelson Galleries and the current Poet Laureate of Northampton Massachusetts. His website is You can also find his gallery on Facebook.


  1. Wow, sure has tons of success under his sun
    With many a book spun
    Like how he thinks about just putting ones butt in the chair
    That keeps one from falling behind the 8 ball at their lair
    And just keep on going at one's bay
    Always nice to improve on yesterday
    Now the cat has had his say
    Great interview once again on display

    1. Aww Pat, you're back! Glad you enjoyed the interview. You made my day for visiting.

  2. Thanks Elaine, for your always informative blog and for coming up with interesting questions for me to think about.

    1. It's a true blessing and pleasure to host you, Rich.

  3. Ad thank you Pat, for a wonderful poetic comment.

  4. Bobbie RenoJanuary 26, 2013

    I met Richard Michelson in 2009. I have gotten to know this man and his wife, Jennifer since then and consider their friendship a Devine Blessing. I've really gotten to know Richard through his children's books and adult poetry. His subject matters reflect his passion of treating people of different ethnic, religious, cultural and path in life with kindness and respect. This passion connects strongly with me. I learned early on, first hand, the pain of intolerance. I grew up in an all white neighborhood. I was in my early teens,when a white family moved out and a black family looked at the house for purchase. One day while waiting for the bus with my friends, the black man and wife approached in their car and stopped, waiting to turn into traffic. We ALL made bad remarks to them. I saw the man's pain in his face. I then felt ashamed! What did they do to us?! Nothing. I have almost all of Richard's books and am looking forward to new ones. I learn and I refresh from reading all of his books.

    1. Bobbie, thanks for visiting Everyone's Story. I'm especially grateful for sharing this testimony of the wrongness of intolerance, a personal and writing theme of mine.

    2. Thanks Bobbie, That blessing goes both ways. It has been a pleasure getting to know you.

  5. Wow - I've been in the R. Michelson Gallery many times and never knew there was a link to the written arts there as well! I love that gallery. Now we'll make a point of stopping in more often :D

    It's fantastic to hear a children's author say "kids don't want to be lectured to" - I think too often people think to be a children's book it must have a moral and teach (i.e. lecture). Kids learn faster when they "see" the story, and the meaning & "moral" sticks with them much longer.

    Thank you, Elaine, for helping me get to know someone who's in my own backyard (figuratively - I sure hope no one is literally standing out there in this cold!). Blessings to both you and Richard,


    1. Tammy, thanks for your return visit. This world is definitely getting smaller and smaller when us writers reach out and get to know each other :)

    2. Hi Tammy, Please introduce yourself the next time you stop by. Glad to hear you enjoy the gallery.

  6. Bonnie MossJanuary 27, 2013

    Wonderful interview Elaine! I had the good fortune to meet Rich at MASS MoCA in 2010 during the opening of the "Secret Selves" exhibition,where he successfully collaborated with photographer Leonard Nimoy.I've been a regular patron of the gallery(even from N.C.!)and his terrific books ever since. As someone who has worked as a Social Worker for over 30 years,the recurring themes in his work of family,self-esteem,societal pressues,transition and ultimately-hope,ring true for me and the friends with whom I have shared his work.Thanks again for featuring Mr.Michelson. (Rich/Bobbie-I hope to SEE both of you again soon!)

    1. Bonnie, I'm so glad that you've visited Everyone's Story. Societal, individual, and family themes are my own favorites to explore and I'm glad creative & talented artists such as Rich win the hearts of many, including yourself.

      Hope you'll visit again.

      God bless.

    2. Hi Bonnie, Come us and visit again anytime. Thanks for your kind comments.

  7. Hi, Richard. Your stories sound incredibly intriguing! What a rich culture you grew up in! And I love your philosophy on inviting exploration! I believe it is so much more valuable to teach our kids how to think than to tell them what to think, and inviting them to experience a story is a great way to do that! When my daughter was young, we homeschooled, and we taught nearly everything through stories and discussions of them. What wonderful discussions we had! And I loved to see her eyes light up as new thoughts or realizations came. Blessings to you and your career.

    1. Jennifer, you brighten my day whenever you visit. I'm glad you enjoyed Rich's guest segment.

    2. Thank you Jennifer, Your daughter was very lucky to be introduced to learning through stories. The best discoveries are those that kids are allowed to make themselves (though we can guide them to those discoveries).

  8. Richard, I'm sending you heartfelt thanks and much appreciation for taking the time out of your busy schedule to guest appear on my blog. You've been a wonderful guest. It's been an enjoyable week!

    The winner of Richard's generous book giveaway is Jennifer. Congratulations. Both Richard and I will be in touch with you shortly. You will be quite impressed by the beautiful story you will receive :)


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