Teach a Girl to Lead and Grace for President: 10 Questions with Kelly DiPucchio and Jean Sinzdak

Kelly DiPucchio is the award-winning author of eighteen children’s books, with Grace for President and The Sandwich Swap being named New York Times bestsellers. The Sandwich Swap was written in collaboration with Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan.

Jean Sinzdak is the Associate Director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. She is the project director of Teach a Girl to Lead, a national education and awareness campaign to re-envision what public leaders look like, inspire girls and young women to follow in their footsteps, and make women's political leadership visible to America's youth.  

Kelly, you've written several books on a wide variety of subjects. What made you write a book like Grace for President? Did you have an experience similar to Grace growing up?

KD: Grace for President was inspired many years ago by my editor’s 5-year-old daughter, Grace. Her teacher had a poster of the American presidents hanging in her classroom. One day, after carefully studying the faces on the wall, little Grace said the infamous line from the book, “Where are the girls?” That innocent question posed by a child started a discussion and sparked the idea for the book.

I was pretty shy as a child and I’m not sure I would have wanted to run for office in school. My earliest memory of anything related to politics was the 1976 election between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. We held a mock election in school and I remember making a poster for Jimmy Carter that was decorated in flags and peanuts.

Jean, having female lawmakers across the country read Grace for President to their local schools is one part of CAWP's Teach a Girl to Lead initiative. Could you tell us a bit more about other resources and programs that are part of TAG?

JS: Teach a Girl to Lead (TAG) provides tools and resources to educators, leaders of youth-serving groups, media outlets, and parents who want to help young people rethink leadership with women in the picture. Resources on our Teach a Girl to Lead site include:

  • Lesson plans for all ages on a variety of topics, including Women and the Presidency, Women in Congress, and Women of Color in Politics;
  • Activities and exercises focused on women’s public leadership, including a sample Statehouse tour with a gender lens, scavenger hunts on women’s history, and more;
  • A searchable Programs & Places Map which highlights civic leadership programs and field trip ideas related to women’s political history;
  • Ways to bring women leaders into your classroom, youth group meeting, or public event, including program agenda ideas, sample invitation letters, discussion questions and contact information; and
  • Tools for examining leaders and leadership through a gender lens.

What led to the creation of CAWP and TAG?  

JS: CAWP is more than 45 years old and was established in 1971 to study the small but growing number of women serving in public office. Since its creation, CAWP has been a nonpartisan voice that is central to creating awareness and understanding of women’s political participation, as well as in expanding that participation. The Center’s programs of research, education and public engagement have both defined and enlarged the study and advancement of women in American politics. Each aspect of CAWP’s work informs and enriches the rest.

Throughout the years, CAWP has created many programs aimed at encouraging and enhancing women's political participation, including programs like Ready to Run, our nonpartisan campaign training for women, NEW Leadership, which is a summer residential leadership program for college women, among many others.  TAG is our most recent initiative, and grew out of the realization that if we want to help groom the next generation of women leaders, we needed to start even younger than college age.  TAG is focused on teaching kids, starting in elementary school, that women can and should be public leaders, and that they play a distinctive and important role in our democracy.   

Can you explain the overall missions for CAWP and TAG?

JS: The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is nationally recognized as the leading source of scholarly research and current data about American women’s political participation. Its mission is to promote greater knowledge and understanding about women's participation in politics and government and to enhance women's influence and leadership in public life.

CAWP created TAG to inspire girls and young women to follow in the footsteps of women leaders, past and present. Making women’s political leadership visible to America’s youth will help both boys and girls grow up with more inclusive ideas about who can lead.

What led to the collaboration with Kelly?

JS: We have known about Grace for President for years and loved the book. In addition to teaching girls and boys that girls can be leaders too, the book also does a wonderful job of teaching kids about the Electoral College. So it's a great book about how our democracy is structured and a wonderful inspirational read for girls. When we thought about books that could be a good fit for a reading day on women's public leadership, it naturally was at the top of the list. So we reached out to Kelly, and the partnership grew from there.

What were some of your favorite books, and who were some of your favorite authors growing up?

KD: One of my favorite books when I was growing up is still one of my favorite books today - Horton Hears A Who by Dr. Seuss.  I was completely fascinated by the idea of an entire community of teeny-tiny people existing on a single speck of dust. Horton’s open-mindedness, compassion, and unwavering conviction inspired me as a young child to look up at the stars in the night sky and question my place in the universe. I think any book that makes us pause and really think about the world we live in is an important book. Growing up I also loved Roald Dahl’s books as well as Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary.

What are you hoping for the book to accomplish with young students?

KD: The book has already exceeded any expectations I had when it was first published in 2008. It has inspired thoughtful discussions in classrooms across the country about the election process, government and leadership. It’s been a joy for me to witness some of the very creative projects and lesson plans that have been built around the book. Mock elections have been held, campaign posters have been made, and imaginary platforms created. Kids have openly discussed what they would do if they were president.

I believe the book’s popularity, in large part, has been due to the fact that the story not only empowers girls, it encourages social action, and it promotes respect for diversity. I set out to create a confident, independent, strong female character who would be a positive role model for girls. The fact that Grace Campbell was African American had nothing to do with the story.  But because she was a child of color, a story that was actually about gender equality ignited more discussions about race equality, particularly in children’s books.

Do you have any general suggestions for policymakers on how they can better encourage civic education? What is the role of civics education in schools?  

KD: I feel it’s important to begin a civic education at a very young age and make it a continuous learning process that involves a wide variety of teaching strategies. I think all children need to know they have a voice and the power to make a difference in our country and in our world.

JS: Civic education is important for helping young people learn about how democracy and other forms of government work; how citizens can effectively engage in policy discussions and decisions; and the importance of being engaged in the process, whether as a private citizen or as a public official.  

How should policymakers use Grace for President and other materials to best create an atmosphere of political engagement among students?

JS: The book is a great way for leaders to start a conversation about how our democracy works, the importance of voting, and women's leadership. We offer a discussion guide with the book so that policymakers can talk to kids about some of the major themes.  The discussion guide and other materials can be found here: http://tag.rutgers.edu/grace-for-president/  Some of the discussion questions really help kids explore their own leadership - for example, one of them is "What would you do if you were President?"  It's a simple question, but a terrific way for kids to think about how they would lead, and it's a great way for policymakers to talk to them about the kinds of things they do as an elected official. 

What advice do you have for future authors? Any future projects coming up worth mentioning?

KD: Read! And then read some more. Also know that publishing a book is more of a journey than it is a destination. 

I have several new picture books coming out in the next few years. One title I’d like to mention specifically is One Little, Two Little, Three Little Children, illustrated by Mary Lundquist. The rhyme pattern for the book was adapted from an old nursery song whose history is rooted in bigotry and racism. My new adaptation of the song is one that is multicultural and inclusive. The message the book conveys is that children, mothers, and fathers all over the world are more alike than they are different and that families, no matter how they’re structured, or how they look, want the same things: love, peace, and happiness. 

Article written by Matt Arant, Graduate Fellow