Stuart Stotts is a songwriter, storyteller and author from Wisconsin. He’s worked as a full-time performer since 1986, and he gives over 200 shows a year for kids, families, and adults around the Midwest, and sometimes farther. He’s a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops for teachers, parents and librarians. Stuart’s travels have taken him to such far places as Greece, Egypt, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, and Great Britain, as well as to other exotic locales like Green Bay, LaCrosse, and Fond du Lac.
Stuart has worked extensively as an artist-in-residence in elementary, middle, and high schools. He has released several award-winning recordings, and is also the author of The Bookcase Ghost: A Collection of Wisconsin Ghost Stories, Books in a Box: Lutie Stearns and the Traveling Libraries of Wisconsin and Curly Lambeau: Building the Green Bay Packers, the story of the man behind the early years of the Green Bay Packers. We Shall Overcome: A Song That Changed the World was an ALA honor book. Stuart’s newest book, Father Groppi: Marching for Civil Rights, was published in February 2013. It’s another Badger Biography.
From IndieBound: “Growing up on the south side of Milwaukee as the son of Italian immigrants, young James Groppi learned early on what it felt like to be made fun of just because of who you are, and he learned to respect people from other races and ethnic groups. Later, while studying to become a priest, he saw the discrimination African Americans faced. It made him angry, and he vowed to do whatever he could to fight racism.
Father Groppi marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the civil rights movement. But he knew there was work to be done in his own city. In Milwaukee, he teamed up with the NAACP and other organizations, protesting discrimination and segregation wherever they saw it. It wasn’t always easy, and Father Groppi and the other civil rights workers faced great challenges.”
What’s your favorite thing about middle grade books (as a reader or a writer)?
I can write for an audience that is able to understand bigger ideas, and that also has some experience in the world and the ways in which it is complex. At the same time, I have to make sure that what I write is well-explained and clear to those who might not have a lot of background knowledge. It’s a balancing act. In addition, adults often use these kinds of books as a quick introduction to a subject. For example, if you like the Packers and want to know more about Curly Lambeau, my book is a good quick read, and will tell you the basics of what you probably want to know. Or you can read the 350 page book about him, if you have the time and more interest. But for those who just want the essentials, middle grade non-fiction does a good job.
What do you enjoy most about writing biographies?
I have to try to get inside the complexity of a person. Groppi is a good example. He was a hero, clearly, and stood for great things, and took action. At the same time, he was, from what I can tell, impatient, sometimes impulsive, and a divisive figure. Many people hated him. I really liked him, and find him inspiring, but for others that was not the case.
Biographies also give a good window into a time or an era or a movement. You get to see what’s happening through someone’s eyes, not just a series of events. Father Groppi’s life shares many parallels with others who cared about civil rights and equality. It’s also a unique course that he charted. The age old question about biographies has to do with how much people are products of their times, and how much time is a product of certain people. I think it’s both, although we tend to gravitate toward the heroic ideal of one person making a difference.
Did you choose to write about Father Groppi, or was the topic chosen by the Historical Society?
I was asked to write the book. I didn’t know anything about him when I began. I think what was surprising was that he had very little overt success that he could point to. Milwaukee schools weren’t desegregated, the Elks Club campaign ended without accomplishing its goals, and the Fair Housing Marches also ended after 200 nights without anything solid to show. In the long run, these actions created a climate that did lead to fair housing laws, but the connection is not as direct as “we did this protest, and something changed.” I also think that is not so uncommon in social change. Gandhi said, “It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”
Why do you think it is important for young people to learn about people like Father Groppi?
A big idea for me right now is the idea of standing up for others. It’s related to all the talk about bullying, but is bigger than that. Father Groppi stood up for black people, as a person of a privileged class. There was no reward for him in it. His life would have been easier if he hadn’t gotten involved. But he took the chance, and I hope that would inspire others to stand up, too, despite how hard it may be at times.
“In 1963, Father Groppi attended the March on Washington, where Dr. King gave his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Dr. King, who was the most well-known leader of the civil rights movement, inspired him. But Father Groppi knew that thousands of other activists who were not famous were working just as hard, taking risks and facing violence. He was determined to do his part in working for justice.” (pp. 38-39)
I like this idea, because of the sense of thousands who weren’t famous but who were important anyway. That’s the heart of the lesson.
If there was one single thing that you wanted readers to get from Father Groppi, what would it be?
Stand up for what you believe in. Do something, don’t just talk.
How does your singing and songwriting influence the books you write?
I often find that music manifests in my work. I’ve played at many protest events, and written many songs with a social change intention. This connects better with Father Groppi, and my “We Shall Overcome” book than some of my others. I have a book, fiction, about music changing a situation. We’ll see if it ever sees the published light of day.
What books do you recommend to readers who enjoyed FATHER GROPPI?
My own We Shall Overcome is good. I like Claudette Colvin by Phil Hoose. Anything by Ann Bausum is good in this area. The Eyes on the Prize video series is also good.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to write middle grade books?
Respect your audience, and get some feedback from them directly on what you have written. Let kids be the guide.
My novel about the Fall of the Berlin Wall, which I’ve been working on for about five years, seems to be getting closer. But it may in fact be far from being done. I’d like to write a biography of Charlie Christian with a friend of mine in Oklahoma City, who is the world’s expert on the man who brought the electric guitar into the world as a solo instrument. And other fiction projects. And traveling around, leading workshops. And performing. And spending those giant royalty checks. And watching my oldest daughter graduate from college. And enjoying a beautiful Wisconsin spring.
Stuart has kindly offered to give away a signed copy of Father Groppi. Comment by Midnight April 15. Winner will be announced April 16.
*******EDITED TO ADD********
Because of recent issues with the website, we have extended this giveaway!
Comment by Midnight April 24. Winner will be announced April 25.
Jacqueline Houtman is the author of THE REINVENTION OF EDISON THOMAS (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press). Like Stuart, she lives in Wisconsin, but they have never met. It’s a big state.
Thank you for writing this Biography; if I win the copy I will donate it to my local school after reading with my family.
Sounds like a lesser known Civil Rights story that kids should learn about. I’d love to read it.
These are the kind of things I’m always trying to find for my library kids–not that Dr. King wasn’t important, but proof that there were so many other people involved in the entire movement.
Great interview, I love the premise of Stuart Scott’s Father Groppi’s book. So many people like Father Groppi gave so much to the Civil Rights movement and followed Martin Luther King, Sr. that we tend to forget about these people who stood up for what they believed in. Many nationalities went through and still go through discrimination. And yes, this does all tie into bullying.