Elizabeth Warren, PINKIE PROMISES

Elizabeth Warren, PINKIE PROMISES

Senator Elizabeth Warren joins Zibby to discuss her thirteenth book, Pinkie Promises. Senator Warren shares how her tradition of pinkie promising young girls and women inspired the story’s premise, why it was important for her to focus on her protagonist’s efforts rather than results, and the picture book’s secret second plot that will entertain young readers no matter how many times they read it.


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

Senator Elizabeth Warren: Thank you. I’m delighted to be here because I remember being a mom who didn’t have time to read books.

Zibby: There you go. What did you do? How did you find time?

Elizabeth: You know, I was one of those moms who read by keeping books propped open on the kitchen counter. I would be stirring things on the stove. I have books — I guess people would be appalled by this — that had popped grease on it and pancake batter. I read all the time. I nursed both my babies. I think one of the things I loved best was I could read when I did that and would really tell myself it was okay to be reading. That was what I did then. Now I’m a big Audible books fan too. I listen. Boy, when the plane is landing and they make you close your computer. Good for me, I’m ready to read.

Zibby: That’s true. I like listening doing the laundry or in the car.

Elizabeth: Exactly. I’ll fold the laundry, always, to a book, exercise, driving. When I used to commute when I was driving, I am convinced that listening to books kept me from absolutely mowing down bad drivers and into the highway. It kept me a little more zen.

Zibby: My parents gave me a box set of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, the cassettes. You remember?

Elizabeth: Yep, I remember.

Zibby: They were all in the little black plastic.

Elizabeth: Oh, yeah, I had the cassettes. I still remember reading Nicholas and Alexandra, this long, long, long history of the Russian families and the Russian Revolution and what it meant for the monarchy to have the four daughters and then a son. The son, it turned out, had hemophilia. I can still remember being on the highway listening to this.

Zibby: I am now totally embarrassed by admitting what I was listening to in contrast to what you were listening to. Nevertheless…

Elizabeth: Listen, do not underestimate the value of trash. I say trash, and I mean that in a generous, loving way. I read all the assassin books. I’m totally into assassins. Maybe it says something about what it’s like to be in Washington. I like the crime detective stuff. Of course, I like lots of the fiction that goes on now. No, never be embarrassed about what you’re reading. You’re reading. You let yourself get into another world. Good for you.

Zibby: You’ve now, of course, written lots of books and have your first children’s book, Pinkie Promises, which by the way, gave me the chills reading. I am not just saying that. It’s so great, oh, my gosh, watching her confidence grow as the book goes on and knowing that she could do it. I have two daughters and two sons. The message was so great. I can’t wait to read and reread it to them.

Elizabeth: I’m so glad to hear that because that really was the point of the book. It is about building confidence. It’s about acknowledging what little girls hear about what girls can’t do and who they hear it from, and then getting through that, as you notice, pretty fast so we get a turnaround with a pinkie promise from some unnamed presidential candidate. Then from that moment, having the little girl in this, Polly, internalize that. Each time she’s in a “hmm, are you sure you can do this? This is a little scary. It’s going to be a stretch here,” she’s the one who squares her shoulder, holds up her pinkie, and says, yes, that she can do this because that’s what girls do. To me, that’s the win. She builds up the confidence. She jumps into one thing after another. You notice in the book, we never actually see whether she scores the goal or whether she wins the class presidency. Ultimately, that’s not what’s so important. What’s so important is that she took on something that was a little bit hard and a little bit scary. She jumped in on her own. That’s the success.

Zibby: You can’t win if you don’t enter the race.

Elizabeth: That’s right. That’s exactly right. You don’t get what you don’t fight for.

Zibby: I could’ve come up with a few more of those too. I read somewhere, maybe in People magazine or something, that you actually did a galley of it yourself. Is that true?

Elizabeth: I did, with photocopy paper. I’ve never written a children’s book before. From the first day, I knew what I wanted the book to say. I knew the arc of the book, the story that this book would tell, but I don’t know how to write a children’s book. All I do is know how to read children’s books. I read them when I was little. I read them when I was a mama. I read them when I was an auntie. I read them as a grandmother, and read them over and over and over. I kept thinking, this is not like writing a grown-up’s book where I get lots and lots of words. There are not going to be a lot of words in this book. There are words, but not a ton. It’s how you have to think about the story so that you want to turn the page, and so trying to get that rhythm down. You’re going to laugh. I wrote it up on my computer two or three times until I thought, okay, here’s the basic story. I would break it, page one, page two, page three, page four. Then I got photocopy paper, folded it over. It’s like a big arts and craft project on my kitchen table, stapled it all together, and scissored out all the lines and taped them on to see if it worked. By golly, I found out where it didn’t and had to readjust and rethink.

That was basically how I built it. I kind of sketched it. I’m terrible. I can’t draw. Can’t sing. Can’t draw, but at least sketched in an idea that she would be talking to her uncle who would tell her about things girls can’t do. Then what was so wonderful about doing this project is then the illustrator, Charlene, took over. Charlene Chua, who’s a wonderful illustrator, she took the words and just brought them to life. When I was looking for the right illustrator, I had boxes and boxes of books. I was also looking online at people’s websites. Charlene does girls. She does girls who are engaged and smart, not just adorable, I mean ready to go and girls you know you’ll like and girls you’re not sure you want to cross, girls who eventually have some real determination. She was my number-one choice. She agreed to do it. We never even talked to anyone else. She sent back the first rough drawings. It brought tears to my eyes to see the words now in the family of a picture book. I had never understood about that kind of coauthorship. I’ve always written words. Now it’s words and pictures. There’s so much heart and so much hope in the pictures combined with those words.

Zibby: What a feeling. That’s so amazing. I love hearing that.

Elizabeth: I love it. By the way, I don’t know you observed when you were reading it, you know, there’s an all-picture story that runs through the background.

Zibby: Oh, no, did I miss something obvious? I’m always missing something so obvious.

Elizabeth: Oh, no, I didn’t say that way. It’s Bailey, the burrito-eating dog. Have you noticed?

Zibby: I did not notice.

Elizabeth: What a naughty boy he is in the background over and over. My hope is — I understand children’s picture books —

Zibby: — I remember him eating the soccer ball. I saw him eating the soccer ball.

Elizabeth: There you go. You’re picking up on one. Remember when he knocks down the lamp?

Zibby: That’s true.

Elizabeth: He gets ahold of the pipe over and over. Then there’s that poster at the school. Wanted: the dog who ate the burrito. The fun about this — I had told Charlene about this. I wanted Bailey in it not for words, but as a secondary story because I think of picture books as something you don’t read once. You read them again and again and again. At some point in the third or the fifth or the ninth reading, the child you’re reading this to will read it back to you, that is, will say, there’s that Bailey. The child gets to tell the story on her own. Bailey’s being a bad boy. Look what Bailey did. That encourages the child to interact more with the book. She owns that book as well. She doesn’t just have to wait for the person who actually knows how to read to be able to take her through this book. She has a little punch to put back into the book. Like I said, the book is all about confidence, persistence.

Zibby: Anyone can really be a storyteller. It’s what you’re really teaching here alongside it.

Elizabeth: That’s a good way to put it, Zibby. That’s right.

Zibby: Oh, thank you.

Elizabeth: Everyone could be a storyteller. Let’s nurture that.

Zibby: You can use that. You can use that for the rest of your interviews.

Elizabeth: Good. I’m going to. Thank you.

Zibby: No problem.

Elizabeth: I’ll give you credit. I’ll send you twenty-five cents every time I use it. That’s great.

Zibby: I won’t hold you to it. Where did your pinkie promises tradition come from? I know you do this all the time. Where did it start? How did you start doing it?

Elizabeth: It started when I was told what girls can’t do. That was in 2011. I had been in Washington after the financial crash, after I’d gotten that consumer agency . I spent a year setting it up, but that was it. I was not going to be named director. I headed back to Massachusetts. We had a republican senator in Massachusetts who was going to be up for reelection in 2012. I got all these calls from people who said, you should run. You should run. You will lose, but you should run. Understand, they said to me, Massachusetts is not ready to elect a woman to the United States Senate. It’s an old-boys club. They’ll let a woman be secretary of state, but that’s it, girl. It’s not going to happen, but you should run. Nobody’s going to beat him, so don’t worry about it. You should run. I did get in the fight. I thought about, from the very first day, well, okay, if I’m not going to win, at least, I’m going to make every day count. The way I decided to make every day count is every time I would meet a little girl, I would drop down on one knee and I would say, “Hi, my name is Elizabeth. I’m running for senate because that’s what girls do.” Then we would do a pinkie promise to reminder each other what girls do. After a while, it took on its own life.

Near the end — it’s getting to be September, October of 2012, a full year later after I’d gotten in the race. The election’s coming up. It’s nip and tuck. I’m within striking distance. I’m down a point or two. People start showing up at our campaign headquarters, also at the stops, but our campaign headquarters. I remember going in on a Saturday morning. There was just this entire room full of daddies with little girls, little, little, little girls and medium-size girls and teenage girls and very senior girls who wanted their pinkie promises. That was the origin of both the pinkie promise and what became the selfie line. I actually ended up winning the senate race. Years later when I ran for reelection six years later, I would have young women come up to me. They would say, I’m so excited to meet you. We did a pinkie promise when I was nine, and I was seven. Here’s my picture. Here you are with me and my little baby sister. Here we are. I thought, you know, this is how you make things count. Yeah, I’m really glad I won. It let me get into a lot of fights. Look, it would’ve been nice if I could’ve won the presidency, but I didn’t. I’m not sorry I got in the fight. I’m really glad that I got in there and had a chance to fight for the things I believe in. It’s the getting in that I wanted this book to be about. How better to say thank you to all the little girls who kept me going? Those pinkie promises weren’t just something I gave to them. They were something we gave to each other.

Zibby: Aw, that’s really sweet. I love that. I was watching all these videos of you giving the pinkie promises and learning the backstory. Meanwhile, in the back of my head, I’m thinking, oh, my gosh, in COVID times, these pinkie promises — I was cringing inside. I hope they’re okay.

Elizabeth: I know. I wrote this when, literally, I could not touch a child. I wrote this right in the middle of COVID long before we got the vaccine. I’m going back and forth with Charlene as we’re illustrating. It was almost as if it intensified the feelings around it. When I wrote this book, I didn’t know when we were going to have a vaccine. I didn’t know when I would be able to see, in person, my own two granddaughters. Polly, the little girl in this, becomes, in some way — she’s my substitute. She’s where I poured all those pinkie promises for a year and a half. You are right. In the days of COVID, this is all different. We got to get this behind us.

Zibby: What is going to happen with Polly? Are there more books coming? Do we get to follow her narrative a little further?

Elizabeth: Right now, obviously, what I’m really doing is totally focused on wanting a lot of people to meet Polly. Frankly, people will tell me if people love Polly and are interested in hearing more from Polly. I will confess to you, Zibby, there are times late at night when I’m about to go to sleep, and I think about the next thing that happens in Polly’s story. We will see.

Zibby: I feel like there needs to be a whole thing. At the end, I want her giving the pinkie promise. I want this going on and on, the whole thing.

Elizabeth: The circle, that’s right. I like that. I like that, Zibby. Okay, we’re going to keep working on this.

Zibby: Okay. I mean, you do have a few other things, I’m sure, on your to-do list.

Elizabeth: This was never a burden. Not even a little bit. Like I said, it was the fact that I got to do this and got to think very much about very specific little girls that I did those promises with. It was like a way to revisit them. The experience not just of doing the pinkie promises to begin with, but writing the book to memorialize the pinkie promises, to have something tangible to keep around the pinkie promises, I feel grateful to have had that opportunity. It’s a good one.

Zibby: Especially for someone who reaches so many people in your work, you’re constantly out there showing these intimate connections. Really, that’s how change happens. That’s how connections happen, is these one-on-one moments. Then they build over time. I just loved the whole story. It’s really great.

Elizabeth: Good. I’m so glad. It is interesting. This comes exactly at the moment in Washington when we’re talking about making, for the first time, a real investment in childcare and raising the wages of our childcare workers and preschool teachers so that we acknowledge the importance of the work we do and making universal pre-K something that we believe in as a nation for our children. Those are big deals and very much, of course, the fight that I’m in right now.

Zibby: My dad thinks that teachers shouldn’t be taxed. They shouldn’t have to pay tax.

Elizabeth: Hey, your dad may be onto something. We should take a look at this.

Zibby: You should.

Elizabeth: I was a public school teacher way back at the beginning for me. It was my dream from second grade. I wanted to be a public school teacher. Nobody in my family had gone to college. My daddy ended up as a janitor. My mom worked a minimum-wage job at Sears answering the phones. College just didn’t look like it was there for me. A whole series of things had to unfold. Ultimately, I graduated from a commuter college that cost fifty dollars a semester. I got to teach special ed. I loved it. Then I got pregnant. I got pushed out of the job because that’s the way the world worked then. I think of how grateful I am for the doors that were open for me. College that you could pay for on a part-time waitressing job, not here today. Pregnancy discrimination, worse back then, but still here today. That’s very much shaped many of the fights that I’m in. I think that the importance of expanding opportunity for women, for people of color, for people with disabilities, we can’t overstate why letting everyone get a chance to be in the fights that they want to be in, to be able to make the contributions they want to make — to me, that’s what real progress means for our nation. We expand opportunity like that, then we become more like the nation that I think we want to be. That’s why I stay in these fights, for little girls and big girls and their brothers and their daddies and their uncles and all of them.

Zibby: It’s too bad it has to be a fight at all.

Elizabeth: I know.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Elizabeth: Know for sure what you want to say. Coming in and just mumbling around, you’re going to have a hard time. It’s going to be a very painful process. I know because Pinkie Promises, I think it’s my thirteenth book. Remember, I’ve written all kinds of books. Persist came out last spring, which is my latest, actually, talking about being a teacher and a mother, being a woman in politics and policy. Also, I’ve written case books in law. That’s where I actually started because I was a law professor. I think it’s really important to know what you’re trying to do. The second part is, for me, I have to get my audience very clearly in mind. Every day that I worked on Pinkie Promises, I saw a grown-up, maybe a grandma, maybe an auntie, maybe a daddy, with an arm around a child, usually a girl, and they were sitting together reading this book. They are the two people I’m talking to. I think that if you keep the audience in mind the same way — with my first book, it was a law class. I knew what those students looked like. It’s true for my second and third books. Then it becomes almost like a conversation. It’s almost like either talking to each other or like sending each other notes. In the case of a children’s book, like I said earlier, because the words are so much smaller than the books I usually write, it’s almost like sending love notes to someone. That would be my advice. Know what you want to say. Know exactly who you want to say it to.

Zibby: I love that. That’s so great. You never know who you’re going to reach. As long as you get your message across, it’s pretty awesome. I will be your target audience tonight. I don’t have the printout yet, but I will bring my computer into bed. I’ll be reading this to my kids.

Elizabeth: Let me know how it works.

Zibby: It’ll be great.

Elizabeth: Let me know. I’m glad you like it, but I want to hear they like it.

Zibby: They’re much more important than me, for sure. Hands down. I guarantee you they will notice the dog subplot immediately.

Elizabeth: I think that’s great. They may not on the first time through because there’s a lot going on in those pictures and lots of great color. I suspect they will find Bailey. Tell me if they found Bailey faster than you did in terms of how he’s a recurring background theme and Polly’s sidekick.

Zibby: Will do. Thank you so much. Thank you for coming on, Senator Warren. This is such a pleasure and really, really great.

Elizabeth: Thank you. It’s so good to be here with you. Nothing’s more fun than talking about books, especially the books we get to read to our children.

Zibby: I totally agree. Have a great day. Thanks for everything. Buh-bye.

Elizabeth: Thank you. Bye-bye.

Elizabeth Warren, PINKIE PROMISES

PINKIE PROMISES by Elizabeth Warren

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