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You can do it: Elizabeth Warren makes a pinkie promise to girls

Oct 30, 2021
Originally published on October 30, 2021 8:19 am

All Polly wants to do is help wash the car and build a drawbridge for a science project. But the men and boys in her life keep telling her "that's not what girls do!"

Polly is getting tired of hearing that.

One day, her mother takes her to a rally where they meet a woman who is running for President.

Pinkie Promises
Macmillan Children's Publishing Group

"I want to lead our country," she says. "That's what girls do." Together, they make a promise to always remember what girls do.

Pinkie Promises is inspired by an experience Senator Elizabeth Warren had when she first ran for office 10 years ago.

"How many people said to me, 'Great! But you know you can't win. Massachusetts is not ready to elect a woman,'" Warren says. "I thought about that and I thought, 'You know, I might not win. But I'm going to make every single day count.' Every time I saw a little girl, I dropped down on one knee and I would say, 'My name is Elizabeth and I'm running for the United States Senate because that's what girls do.' And then we would do a pinkie promise."

While Senator Warren - spoiler alert - won that race, and while she's written many books, Pinkie Promises is her first book for children. It's also her first time working with an illustrator. Warren knew right away that she wanted to work with Charlene Chua.

"I wanted Charlene because she draws girls. Girls who are energized, girls who are frustrated, girls who are engaged. Girls who are going to change the world," says Warren.

Charlene Chua / Macmillan Children's Publishing Group

Chua, who uses she/they pronouns, was very busy at the time, but agreed to read the manuscript. They loved what it had to say.

"Being non-binary you do get that message from other people that you can't do certain things because of who you are, and it creates a lot of doubt inside you," Chua says.

At first, Chua was a little intimidated to illustrate Senator Warren. "I'm not particularly good at depicting real people. I think that's why I generally prefer to do cartoon-y sort of work for children," Chua says. "There's always a bit of stress that the real person will be like, 'That doesn't look like me.'"

Senator Warren says Chua's illustrations make her story come alive, "When I saw myself as... a cartoon character, I loved it. She made it just right."

Pinkie Promises is mostly about Polly, but both author and illustrator agree that the real star of the book is Bailey, Polly's - and Senator Warren's - golden retriever. In the book, he's Polly's constant companion, but he's also in the background knocking over a lamp, eating a burrito, popping a soccer ball, causing trouble.

Charlene Chua / Macmillan Children's Publishing Group

It's a second, entirely visual story that Senator Warren hopes will keep parents and their kids coming back.

"I think of picture books as something not read once and put away," Senator Warren says. "They're read over and over and over and over. That's part of the comfort and the beauty."

Charlene Chua thinks Pinkie Promises is mainly a book for little girls, "But I hope that all children who feel like they've been told they can't achieve something by other people or grownups will be able to relate to the story and take away something from it."

Senator Warren agrees. "This book is for little girls, but it's also for little boys. I think it's really important that little boys see little girls as actors. As having initiative and control," she says. "So I think of it as a book for both. Little boys and little girls."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Polly is the heroine of a new children's book. She is determined not to be deterred. Polly has been inspired to persist by the first female senator from Massachusetts.

ELIZABETH WARREN: And how many people said to me, you know you can't win? Massachusetts is not ready to elect a woman.

SIMON: And that, of course, is Senator Elizabeth Warren.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARREN: And so I thought about that and I thought, you know, I may not win, but I'm going to make every single day count. Every time I saw a little girl, I dropped down on one knee and I would say, my name is Elizabeth and I'm running for the United States Senate because that's what girls do. And then we would do a pinkie promise.

SIMON: "Pinkie Promises" is now the title of Senator Warren's first children's book, and it makes a good candidate for our series of conversations between authors and illustrators. Picture this - Polly wants to do a lot of things to help out - wash the car, build a bridge for a school project. But the men and boys in her life tell Polly that's not what girls do. She feels discouraged until her mother takes her to a rally where they meet a woman who is running for president because that is what girls do. And she makes Polly a pinkie promise to remember. So when Polly starts at a new school and her mother asks if she can do it, Polly looks at her pinkie and says, yes, I can. When Polly's soccer coach asks if she can make the game-winning goal, Polly says, yes, I can.

WARREN: I've written a lot of books, but they've all just had words. And I never had a book that had an illustrator. I'd never written a children's book. So when I thought about what I wanted to say, I actually took out photocopy paper and made my own book so that I could see how the words would be in effect page turners, how you make the plot work.

SIMON: When it came time to find an illustrator for "Pinkie Promises," Senator Warren said she knew exactly who she wanted, Charlene Chua.

WARREN: And I wanted Charlene because she draws girls. She draws girls who are energized and girls who are frustrated and girls who are engaged and girls who are going to change the world.

CHARLENE CHUA: When I designed Polly, I wanted to convey a girl that had the ability to be self-assured and believed in herself but also face the challenges of being in a world whereby she would encounter people who told her that she couldn't do things.

SIMON: Charlene Chua related powerfully to Senator Warren's story.

CHUA: I'm originally from Singapore, and one of my first jobs was working in the tech company. And it being very male dominated, it was very frustrating because I felt that I could do things as well as other people on the team. And particularly in the creative side, I felt that I was as qualified as the other creative crew. But my bosses wouldn't let me do that. And they were like, oh, yeah, you know, you're better at, like, managing things. So you can, like, effectively babysit the guys that are on the team. Also - well, I'm non-binary. And being non-binary, you also do get that message from other people that you can't do certain things because of who you are, and that creates a lot of doubt inside of you. To that end, it was like, you know, kind of like Polly and just sort of like, you know, figuring over time that, like, no, I can do this and I'm just going to like, do it. And after, you know, sometime years later, here I am doing illustration.

SIMON: Charlene Chua illustrated the book in Photoshop. Polly looks vibrant and fun. She's got a cartoon style, oversized head, blue glasses and pigtails.

CHUA: I used pretty bright colors to try and get the energy of the story across. I gave her a cute little shirt with a little dog paw print because she has a little dog companion that has the same name as Elizabeth Warren's lovely dog, Bailey (laughter).

WARREN: Well, Bailey really is the hero of the book (laughter). He just wanted me to put that in. I'm just telling you. Bailey actually was at my feet every day when I worked on this. And when I got the pictures back, the first being that saw them was Bailey. And he very much approved, Charlene.

CHUA: Has Bailey tried to eat the book yet?

WARREN: Not yet (laughter), yeah. Now, Bailey holds himself to, you know, burritos, little pizza, that sort of thing (laughter). But it has been a fun part of the book.

CHUA: I'm not particularly good at depicting real people. I think that's why I generally prefer to do cartoony, sort of, like, work for children because there's always a bit of stress the real person would be like, it doesn't look like me, but that didn't happen in this case.

WARREN: Charlene is way too modest in this. The book illustrations just make this book come alive. When I saw myself as - Charlene made me a cartoon character. I loved it. She made it just right.

CHUA: I don't usually get to talk to the author during the production process of a picture book, and so I worked out the illustrations with the art director and the editor. And they sent the material over to Elizabeth to see. And they would send me back her comments.

WARREN: It was right not to speak to each other by phone. It was important, I think, that you weren't explaining the pictures to me, you weren't using additional words. The pictures held their own. And so we were able to just keep going back and forth. And, of course, I adjusted some of the words because you moved some of the pages. And it was exactly the right thing to do. I'm so grateful.

SIMON: Even though this book is about a little girl named Polly, Senator Warren says that "Pinkie Promises" is for everyone.

WARREN: I think it's really important that little boys see little girls as actors, as having initiative and control and see them as sometimes the one who stands in the middle of the soccer field and kicks the ball or, you know, finds the lost dog. I won't give too many plot turns away here but does the things. So I think of it as a book for little girls and little boys, women, men, lots of us.

SIMON: Senator Elizabeth Warren and illustrator Charlene Chua talking about their new book, "Pinkie Promises."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.