Photo Credit: Brian McConkey

ABOUT CLAIRE

Bio

Claire Hartfield is a nationally recognized children’s book author and education leader.

Me and Uncle Romie (Dial Books for Young Children 2002), is a historical fiction picture book based on the life and art of world-renowned collage artist, Romare Bearden.  The book received national honors (favorable review in the NYT Book Review, Smithsonian Magazine Notable Book of the Year, Junior Library Guild Choice, one of New York Public Library’s 100 Books for Reading and Sharing) and has been reprinted in three textbooks.

Hartfield’s second book, A Few Red Drops (Clarion Books) tells the story of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 and how the building tensions and conflicting interests exploded in bloodshed that sent shock waves across the nation.  Publication is slated for January 2018.

Hartfield’s career has centered on providing underprivileged children with opportunity to achieve their potential through education.  After graduating from Yale University and University of Chicago Law School, she oversaw development of school desegregation plans for the cities of Chicago and Rockford, Illinois.  More recently, she led a non-profit organization that develops leaders for elementary and secondary education.  She is currently Board Chair and a senior consultant for one of Chicago’s highest performing charter schools.

Hartfield is a lifelong resident of Chicago.

My Story

I was born in Chicago, Illinois on July 3, 1957 in a hospital called “Lying-In” which was exactly what my mother was doing on that day when I came into the world.  My father was pacing around the waiting room with the other fathers-to-be – that’s what dads did in those days.  When the nurse told him he had a new baby girl, he passed out pink chocolate cigars to everyone.

My father is Jewish and my mother is black.  He is good at math and loves to tell silly jokes.  She is a poet and his jokes go right over her head.  They have been married for sixty-three years.

In my family, “Girls Rule!”  I have three sisters and no brothers.  I have three daughters and no sons.

One thing I remember about school when I was little: girls had to wear dresses to school every day.  But in seventh grade, my friends and I got signatures on a petition and presented it to the principal, calling for girls to be allowed to wear pants.  It worked!  We felt very powerful.

I grew up in a neighborhood where there were people of all kinds – Chinese, black, Norwegian, Indian. At school, there were kids of so many colors and experiences that no one stood out as different.  Only when I got to college did I learn that lots of people grew up knowing only people who looked like them.  And the way they learned about other races and nationalities was from watching TV shows or sports or reading the newspaper.

I learned a lot at college about people who had grown up differently from me.  And they learned a lot about me.  Some of these people are still my good friends and sometimes we laugh, sometimes we shake our heads about our wee-hours-of the-morning conversations.  Sometimes I think about them when I hear news about China or Iran or Charleston, South Carolina.  And I think maybe more conversations like these might make the world just a little bit of a better place.

I was pretty bossy with my three younger sisters.  When I wanted a candy bar, I would give them a quarter and say, “Go to the store and get me a Snickers.”  And off they would go without any fuss at all.  But, I was very shy around people I did not know.  So, my mom sent me to creative dance class.  She hoped I might be happy expressing myself in a different way.  The very first day we pretended to be cats pawing and pouncing.  “Freeze!” the teacher said.  Then we were birds soaring in the air.  “Freeze!”  We were mice and frogs and elephants and rabbits.  Then the teacher said, “Free movement!”  And, each girl and boy danced out whatever story he or she wanted to tell.  When class ended that first day, I had begun my lifelong love affair with dance.

I worked very hard but it was mostly fun because I loved it.  When I was ten, I was chosen to dance with the great Russian Bolshoi ballet company on their visit to Chicago.  In college, I was a member of the Yaledancers.  And, later, in law school I taught dance to some of my classmates who needed a little break from bookwork.  Now I am older and I can’t bend into a pretzel the way I used to but I still spin and sway in zumba class.

When I wasn’t dancing, I was writing.  After school, my writing buddy and I would plop down on the floor surrounded by crayons and loose leaf, lined paper and we would be both writer and illustrator.  I mostly created stories based on my favorite ballet, Swan Lake, spooling epic battles between the evil swan and the good swan.  These stories helped me sort through my feelings when my friends were being mean.

After I graduated from Yale College, I went on to law school at The University of Chicago where I met lots more interesting people.  One of them was Phil Harris, a young man from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  I thought he had a great smile and I liked his straightforward, midwestern manner.  We both loved Michael Jackson’s Thriller album.  I took him to my favorite movies.  He took me to Big Ten football games.  A few years later, we decided to get married.  And a few years after that, we started our own family.  Our three girls – Emily, Caroline, and Corinne – are the loves of my life.

When Emily was a baby, before she could sit, I cradled her in my left arm and a book in my right palm, sharing the rhythms of the beautiful prose in Runaway Bunny and The Snowy Day.  When Emily learned to talk, she sat tucked under my arm and turned the pages herself, asking questions, explaining to me her take on the story.  A few years later, she read to her baby sister Caroline.  And, a few years after that, Caroline read to her baby sister Corinne.  We sprinkled out conversations with our favorite children’s book quotes and compared our experiences to those of our favorite characters.   It was magical.  And powerful.   Still, as we devoured book after book, I began to see that some stories were not being told, important stories.  And, so I began to write books.

Now Emily, Caroline, and Corinne are young women.  Emily is a lawyer, Caroline is an actor, and Corinne just graduated college where she was captain of the varsity soccer team and now she does sports marketing.  Rafa, our dog, happily absorbs the benefits of being the only “child” left at home.  Phil and I are no longer married but we share many good times together with our daughters.  My boyfriend Bruce has joined our family circle.  I share with him the secrets of cooking with exotic spices.  He is from Montana and has showed me how to climb mountains and identify stars.

I continue to delight in meeting new people, learning their life stories, and sharing mine.  And, I continue to write about people and events I think are important, reaching out to readers young and old with fascinating stories that explore the past to create a brighter future.

Why Does History Matter?

When I was in high school, I compiled a list of my 10 best excuses for getting out of history class.  Pure fantasy that I never acted on but, to me, learning history seemed a waste of time: Just a bunch of dates (which I struggled to remember) and places that meant nothing to me.  Until some friends asked me to join a protest march.

It was 1977.  30-year-old Steve Biko was beaten to a pulp in a prison in South Africa and he died, alone and shackled in a cell.  We were marching to protest this violence against humanity.  I wanted to know: Why did this happen?  It was then that I started to understand the importance of history.

I read books about how South African apartheid came to be and about the human rights movement that eventually brought it to an end.  I also read about the Mexican Revolution fought in the early 1900s by poor citizens looking for a new government that cared about whether they had food on the table; and about Queen Elizabeth I of England, who gave up the man she loved because she was a woman in the 1500s and she had to choose between marriage and power.

These are all emotionally moving stories full of drama at least as exciting as Game of Thrones.  And that’s a great reason to dive in.  But is there more?  Why does history matter?

You can think of it this way: History is you if you had been born a little earlier.  As you read A Few Red Drops, think about what your life would be like in Chicago 1919. As a European immigrant, how would you respond to the name-calling and prejudice hurled your way?  As a black migrant, what choices would you make as you experienced racism but also new freedoms for the first time?  As an immigrant or a migrant, how would you feel leaving the only home you knew for a place that wanted your labor but not your culture?

History is also you as part of a society.  A hundred years ago, great business innovations took place that made life easier for everyone.  How would you operate a business to be profitable but also fair to workers?  In 1919, the conflicts between whites and blacks ended in a bloody riot.  What would you have done to handle the situation in a better way?

Think about this statement by the great southern writer William Faulkner (quoted by President Obama in his famous 2008 speech on race): “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

History is part of our present and our future.  Some things were different a hundred years ago.  Other things have not changed much over time.  It all affects our lives now. What can you learn from 1919 about the struggles we face today?  How can you use your understanding of this history to create a brighter future?