Philomel associate publisher Jill Santopolo was home on maternity leave when she saw President Joe Biden’s inauguration on TV. She heard him say he hoped “the next chapter in the American story” might sound like one verse in “a song that means a lot to me.” Then he recited:
The work and prayers of centuries / Have brought us to this day.
What shall be our legacy? / What will our children say?
Let me know in my heart that when my days are through
America, America, I gave my best to you.
Biden was quoting the lyrics of Gene Scheer’s American Anthem, a 20-year old song that was sung by opera star Denyce Graves at the memorial service in the Capitol rotunda for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and by Norah Jones in Ken Burns’ 2007 PBS documentary on World War II, The War, among others.
The words resonated with Santopolo. She reflected on her husband’s and her own families’s life trajectories after immigrating to the United States. Then, as she said to Publisher’s Weekly, she decided, “It was a book that I felt I had to do. Especially with a baby at home. There’s a lot we need to work on in this country, but there’s also some wonderful things too. I think that this book celebrates that.”
It was January 20th. Despite a new baby and the pandemic, she wanted the book to launch before the Fourth of July, our nation’s 245th birthday. She envisioned a different illustrator for every spread, so that even in its very make-up the book would reflect the quilt of diversity that is our country. Editor Talia Benamy and art director Ellice Lee swung into action.
My sister Kate and I were honored to be invited to join in. We gave some thought to our family’s American stories, too, including George Chorpenning who founded the first mail service from Salt Lake City to Sacramento, (pre-Pony Express), and our newspaper editor father who taught us about First Amendment rights and flew a big American flag over his office on Main Street Sonora.
What could we say in a single illustration to convey the big feeling of love for America that we shared? How could we ‘give our best’ to America through this project? Our assigned part of the text was: “Know each quiet act of dignity / is that which fortifies / the soul of a nation / that never dies.”
As we considered our text, we thought about where in our lives we experience quiet acts of dignity. Kate immediately thought of the Community Garden, a place where a wide diversity of gardeners come to share the humble work of planting, growing and harvesting. It is a place where gardening knowledge, seedlings and compost are all generously shared — as well as the fruits (and vegetables) of everyone’s labors. There is a quiet dignity in those interactions that respects what each person brings to the garden, as well as a sense of community responsibility.
We are both avid gardeners and that setting seemed right. We poured through scrap to find a lively cast of characters to populate it. Per our usual process, I painted the black lines in gouache resist, scanned and doozied them up in Photoshop. Kate supplied the sumptuous color. And voila! We turned in our illustration by early March and the book was published on schedule as Santopolo planned, in time for the Fourth of July.
It was a revelation to open our first copies of American Anthem, starting with the dedications. Author Scheer and each illustrator contributed one. Some favorites: “To the dream chasers. – Rafael Lopez,” and “For all who call this country home. – Jacquieline Alcantara.” Kate and I dedicated our work “To the growers and grocers, gardeners and gleaners.”
My favorite illustration is by Rafael Lopez. I love the idea of a child drawing his country, imagining it into being. And I hope this book will help children – including Jill Santopolo’s new baby – imagine their futures in America.