Chelsea Clinton, SHE PERSISTED

Chelsea Clinton, SHE PERSISTED

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Chelsea. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Chelsea Clinton: Thank you so much, Zibby, for having me.

Zibby: Of course. It’s my pleasure. You do so much stuff. I want to talk first about your amazing children’s books and your new more middle grade, not even middle grade, slightly older kid version of your books. Why did you start writing children’s books to begin with?

Chelsea: I wrote first for older kids. Then when I became a parent and so had very little kids in my life, I just was consuming so many kids’ books and realized still how overwhelmingly male kids’ books tend to be. We have male-gendered animals even, often more frequently. You’ll have frogs named Sam or ducks named Peter. Both as a mom of a daughter and then a son and now we have a third son, I just wanted there to be more books centered on girls and women, written by female authors for my daughter and also for my son. I just see now, Zibby, how powerful this is. My son Aidan who’s four, his favorite book is Counting on Katherine. He thinks Katherine Johnson was the smartest person ever because she skipped three grades and worked at NASA. While I certainly thought, oh, my gosh, we need more books about women, celebrating women, written by women for our daughters and our sons, I now see just in the little world of my family how powerful that really is and why that is so true.

Zibby: I love that. I heard you interviewed with Sarah Gelman of Amazon Books. She was on my podcast too. You were saying that not only are you excited for one of your kids to be imitating Simone Biles who was in your most recent book, She Persisted in Sports, which was awesome, but that your son was also emulating the behavior of one of the women athletes. How awesome was that? That’s incredible.

Chelsea: It is very sweet, though. I do get a real kick, I have to say, out of my daughter Charlotte who’s six who is tumbling around just at home now because obviously she’s not going to gymnastics classes any longer in this pandemic moment. I think it’s hard for little kids to do gymnastics on Zoom. Truly, god bless her PE teacher who I hear exhorting her to do jumping jacks. I hear the thumping, thumping, thumping of the jumping jacks or shimmying in place. She stills gets a lot of, thankfully, physical activity through school, but I think gymnastics would be hard. Since she can’t go to gymnastics classes and I have no skills in that area, she’ll still put on her little Simone Biles leotards and tumble around and be like, “Just like Simone!” I’m like, you got to start somewhere.

Zibby: I have two girls who both love gymnastics. We have gone to the middle of New Jersey to watch some pre-Olympic something or other. We have Simone Biles stuff everywhere. Yes, I get it, especially in the Zoom life. We tried a lot of gymnastics on Zoom. I was like, no, someone’s going to get hurt at this point.

Chelsea: I do, though, really have so much respect, admiration, awe for the teachers who are really able to engage especially our youngest learners and to help them still feel connected to their classmates and to their class and to the material that they’re learning whether that is working on handwriting, because my daughter’s in kindergarten, or learning about a historical figure or learning a song. They did yoga earlier this week. You could hear, because all the kids forget to mute their screens, all the kids stumbling and fumbling through the different poses. I’m incredibly grateful and also aware of how deeply privileged we are that our kids have reliable internet access and have their own screens to be able to have this experience and how unfortunately, that isn’t true for so many kids in our country.

Zibby: Very true. I completely agree with you, especially as I watch a PE teacher emulate trying to swim as he’s going across the screen. I’m like, this guy in his apartment, that’s amazing. Thank you. No embarrassment, just all in. The kids love it. Yes, we should do a support group for moms with kindergarteners in Zoom school because it is not the most fun. Hopefully, we’ll be near the end of this soon, god willing. Back to She Persisted in Sports even, just to talk about for a minute. In this book, as in all your She Persisted books, you have different profiles of, this time, athletes and different powerful quotes. This one was one of my favorites from Jean Driscoll. “A champion is someone who has fallen off the horse a dozen times and gotten back on the horse a dozen times. Successful people never give up.” I feel like this is so fundamental to your whole message of She Persisted, and in every page, saying again, “She persisted. She persisted.” What is it about reminding people how important it is to persist that is particularly meaningful to you? Why is this the message that you want to hammer home, especially for young readers?

Chelsea: I think that persistence is so central to our ability to really do anything in life that hopefully can give us meaning, whether that is learning a new skill — I watch my daughter now. She’s struggling to learn how to write her lowercase letters. She needs to have persistence to learn to do that. I think about in my own writing when I hit a writing block and I force myself to keep writing. Even if what I’m writing, Zibby, isn’t great today, I know that I’m far more likely to be productive tomorrow because I didn’t give up today. For me, I make myself write every day. Sometimes it’s writing about my kids. Sometimes it’s more academic writing. Sometimes it’s the idea for my next kids’ book. It truly, for me, has to be that routine. We can practice persistence. The more that we persist, the more we don’t give up, the less likely we are to give up in the future. I think that is just such a fundamental life skill for all of us. It hopefully helps give us, then, the courage, the bravery to try new things because we know that we’re going to have the grit and the fortitude to push through whether we’re good at them or not, candidly, and also hopefully to enjoy the journey. I think persistence is one of the most important aspects of life. Certainly now as a parent, I’m trying to help model persistence for my kids, encourage them to persist. Admittedly, because I am their parent, sometimes I can force them to persist because I want them to build that muscle of persistence because I think what Jean Driscoll said is so true. I think about my grandmother, my mom’s mom, who had this adage that life’s not about what happens to you, it’s about what you do with what happens to you, how you do just keep going, over, under, around, through whatever challenges may come.

Zibby: I love that. It’s really the only choice sometimes. Let’s go back to the fact that you said you write every day, which is super impressive especially given the kids and all the other things you do.

Chelsea: Sometimes it’s only a couple of sentences. I’m like, oh, my god, it’s the end of the day, I need to write something. For me, it’s important. I know every writer has different approaches that work for them. I know some people religiously get up early and they have to write early in the day. I have a friend who only writes after his kids go to bed. I’ve said to him, “If someone’s sick and you’re up until eleven or twelve?” He’s like, “No, I make myself write every night after the kids go to bed. It doesn’t matter how late it is.” I don’t have that same kind of adherence to this time in my day, but I make myself write every day. Sometimes it really is just about my kids. Sometimes it’s like, Aidan did something funny today or Jasper, who’s our baby, learned a new word. He learned apple yesterday. He was excited, just kept pointing at the kitchen, our fruit bowl, being like, “Apple, apple!” He’s like, I said it. Admittedly, that’s what I wrote about last night.

Zibby: It sounds like maybe there’s some sort of memoir you have potential notes for. Would you think of doing a memoir?

Chelsea: It’s not anything I’ve thought about. I’ve been asked this before, but it’s never anything I’ve given mental or emotional space to. Way in the future, if I thought my life story could be more than just interesting, if it could be useful to someone, to a young reader somewhere, I would think about it, but not now.

Zibby: I think almost everybody has something useful for somebody else to share from their life story. I feel like opening yourself up to making those connections, you don’t have to have had anything truly outrageous happen in your life, but just the ability — again, going back to persistence, I love reading memoirs of people who got through anything, whether it’s a child’s illness or an eating disorder, addiction, or a horrible tropical — some event, tsunami. It’s so inspiring.

Chelsea: That’s true. Have you read Glennon Doyle’s book? I thought was so beautifully written and also so powerful. Yes, I do think that is a good reminder that we certainly all do have something to share.

Zibby: Exactly. Tell me about the decision to then increase your series of the She Persisted books and to expand it to slightly older kids and the Harriet Tubman book which you wrote with Andrea Davis Pinkney who was also on this podcast. There you go.

Chelsea: Oh, my god, I love her. She wrote the book. I only had the privilege and the pleasure of helping to edit it. Really, this grew out of just continued questions from young readers, from kids themselves, from their parents, where they could go to learn more about these women. Especially the thirteen women in the first book have meant so much to me in my life. I grew up with some of these women in so far as my mother and my grandmother sharing their stories or teachers sharing their stories. I just feel like they nested into my heart. When we kept being asked, where could readers go? thankfully, my wonderful editor, Jill Santopolo, and I decided we would provide them a place to go and take the thirteen women in the first book and really flesh their stories out. I’m so thankful to the thirteen amazing women authors who really have done that. I’m excited to see my daughter now who is — I started reading the Harriet Tubman book to her a few days ago. She just said, “Mom, I can read it.” Last night, she’s in bed and she’s reading the Harriet Tubman book. It made my heart so proud and happy. I’m excited for her and as Aidan, my four-year-old’s reading skills develop, for them to read these books and later for their little brother Jasper to do the same.

Zibby: No pressure on the early reading. It comes when it comes.

Chelsea: He’s totally fine. He doesn’t feel, thankfully, any pressure. He is very fundamentally his own person in a really fantastic and often hilarious way where I look at him and I’m like, how did I help create you? You’re so curious in such wonderful ways. Your curiosity’s taking you in so many fantastic directions. I feel this way about all of my kids. I can’t wait to be along for the ride.

Zibby: I don’t know if you feel the same way. I feel like the more kids I have, the more I’m like, I have nothing to do with who you are. You have appeared fully formed. I am just here to usher you along. You have these sixteen different qualities that I don’t know where they came from, but they’re pretty awesome. I’m just going to sit back and relax and watch you become yourself.

Chelsea: Totally. My son Jasper who’s one just never stops moving. Gets up in the morning, moves. Takes a nap. Gets up from his nap, moves. Takes another nap. Gets up from his nap, moves. Goes to bed. I think now, to your recognition, Zibby, of having more kids, I’m like, your siblings didn’t do that. They were active when they were toddlers, but they also would sit and stare out the window or bang on things. He just never stops moving. It’s such a, I know, small thing, but just such a clear mark of, oh, you’re already your own person.

Zibby: That is probably not going to stop as he gets older. I had one kid like that, and still moving all the time. It’s so funny. I feel like I could just chat with you about having kids and New York and schools and Zoom and books and all this stuff. Yet you’ve had an overlay of this unique experience that I certainly haven’t had and a lot of people have not, most people have not had, of being so in the public eye from a very young ago. I just wanted to know — I feel like with parenthood and feeling judged, perhaps, by others, I’m on the street and I lose it with one of my kids, I’m like, oh, no, I hope nobody saw me just scream at her for doing X, Y, Z — what it’s like to feel that added layer that maybe people actually are watching you as opposed to my thinking that they are and probably could not care less.

Chelsea: Zibby, in some ways, because I’ve never known what it’s like to not be in the public eye — I definitely have had experiences where I have felt, in wonderful ways, more anonymous. Yet I’ve always known that people could be watching me. I certainly, at least before we were all walking around in masks — although, I sometimes do get recognized even in a mask. I’m like, wow, you have really good eyesight. Especially when it’s really cold in New York and I’m wearing a hat and a mask and people are like, “Chelsea?” I’m like, how do you know? Amazing. I think because I just have never really known what it’s like to not be potentially scrutinized, I’ve never really wrestled with that. I will say, something that surprised me when I was pregnant with Charlotte, I had the experience of people coming up and offering me advice in a way that I had never really had before. I’d grown up with and I had been an adult with people coming up and offering me opinions about things one of my parents had said or done, or something I had or done, or something they thought that we may have said or done that we never did, and a range of emotions and things said and shared, generally positive, and often if negative, super negative.

I had never really experienced being on the receiving end of just a lot of advice. People would recognize me standing in line in Duane Reade or in the subway or walking in our local park or on a weekend, having coffee with a friend. People just come up and be like, “Oh, Chelsea, I hope you’re considering this when you’re giving birth. Here’s some things you may want to think about.” Most of it was lovely, but that was a new experience for me. Then I did have the experience of a few people coming up to me and saying, “Please don’t vaccinate your child.” I would say, “I will be vaccinating my child. They will get hep B in the hospital. They’ll stay on schedule thereafter.” It was really my first personal interaction with the anti-vaccine movement, which unfortunately has gotten only stronger over COVID. That was a rambling answer and reflection to your question, Zibby. I didn’t ever think, oh, my gosh, what if someone’s watching? I think it’s just so engrained in me to think somebody could be watching. The advice part was a new dynamic to navigate. Thankfully, most people were really offering quite positive pieces of advice from their own experiences of parenthood.

Zibby: I feel like pregnancy opens you up to anybody’s advice, strangers or not, whether or not you’re a public figure. People putting their hands on your belly and telling you what they should do, everybody feels like it’s an open invitation. I can only imagine the compounding factor of people feeling like they know you and then actually sharing. Crazy. When you read, — I see a trillion books behind you, as we were chatting about before, organized in a lovely, perfectly symmetrical way as opposed to the piles of mine falling behind me. What types of books do you like to read? As a mom, do you have time to read? How do you find the time?

Chelsea: It’s such a timely question in some ways, Zibby. My husband and I, we are working from home like so many of us. Again, recognize that this is a privilege to be able to work from home. We took the week off between Christmas and New Years just to really be with our kids, disconnect from the world. We realized we had these truly column-high of magazines of basically The Economist, The New Yorker, and National Geographic. I was like, this is so strange. We have these big piles. Then I realized it’s because we don’t go anywhere. We used to read these magazines on the subway, in a car, on an airplane. We don’t do any of that right now. I was like, why do we have basically a year’s worth of all of these magazines? We got through just a tiny fraction of even what we wanted to read from them over that week. We just then were thinking about, wow, what and how we’ve read has really changed so much over this past year. Thankfully, I don’t think that’s true with our kids. We have always read a lot with our kids. We have always read this sacred time of reading with our kids before bed. We read a lot with our kids.

My daughter’s obsessed with sharks. She’s been obsessed with sharks for years. We have read so much about sharks. My son Aidan loves numbers, loves math, loves stories about mathematicians and the discovery of math and anything that — I guess arguably, everything has math underlying it, but things that more obviously have math underlying it like the discovery of different planets or things in the solar system. It is true that so much of our free time while our kids are awake is reading time with our kids. Then for me, for pleasure, I love reading history. I also love detective books, especially in the last four years. I like books, admittedly, where the bad guy is caught and the mystery is solved and there are consequences for evil. I’ve always liked a good detective story, but I have read far more mysteries probably in the last four or five years because of everything else happening in the world than I would’ve read probably otherwise, in total candor. That’s a little bit of what we like to read. Then I try to read my friends’ books. My friend Sarah Lewis who’s a professor at Harvard has a new book coming out on Carrie Mae Weems, the amazing American artist. That’s an important third category too, not just supporting my friends, but wanting to know more about their work and how they’ve spent time over, often, the years that they’ve spent working on their books.

Zibby: That is so interesting about the mysteries and the root of — it’s like aspirational reading or something.

Chelsea: I have far too much respect for what actually happens in therapy to say that it’s therapy, but it has some real therapeutic effect for me. There’s a beginning, middle, and end. At least in the mysteries I read, they’re not open-ended. The bad guy’s caught. I really like reading books, admittedly, with women detectives. Often, it’s the woman catching the bad guy or the bad gal. It’s great to live in that world for the few hours that I do.

Zibby: Amazing. I almost never read detective stories. Now I’m going to think twice about that.

Chelsea: Let me know. I have so many detective stories and series. I love series, I have to say. I love the development of characters over many, many books. I will say I do like when my love of history and my love of detective converge with historical detective series. Now I’ve brattled on too much about this, Zibby.

Zibby: No, that’s okay. What advice would you have to aspiring authors?

Chelsea: Write, truly. I’ve now been lucky enough to do some writing workshops with especially younger writers and kids who want to write for other kids. I know this may sound obvious. It may not sound particularly useful. At least for me though, it really is the practice of writing. I spend a lot of time editing. I spend so much time editing even my She Persisted books to try to get those two or three sentences right. Especially for the first She Persisted, I wrote a page or two for each woman. Then I would really work hard to get it down to a paragraph. Then the paragraph was still too long, and to just further condense. Some people may just spend a lot of time thinking about and spend maybe days trying to think about those perfect sentences, and the work goes on in their heads. For me, the work really goes on in a connective process of from my head to the page, back to my head, to the page, back to my head, to the page. I think the best advice that I can give is just to write.

Zibby: I feel like anytime you condense and have to go to a shorter word count, it always improves. It never gets worse cutting things down.

Chelsea: If I had had more time, I would’ve written a shorter letter. That’s true any genre.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Chelsea, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for this totally candid, fun conversation. I feel like I just had coffee with a girlfriend or something. I hope our paths cross again. This was great.

Chelsea: Me too. Thanks so much, Zibby, for having me.

Zibby: Thanks. Take care. Buh-bye.

Chelsea: Take care.

Chelsea Clinton, SHE PERSISTED