In 1932, Eleanor Roosevelt’s husband Franklin had just been elected president. In the throes of raising five children, Eleanor thought they should know “what their parents were up to” and “how it all worked,” according to her granddaughter Nancy Ireland.
“When You Grow Up to Vote: How Our Government Works for You,” a civics book Eleanor wrote for young children that year, only came across Ireland’s desk a year ago, even though she has spent three decades in charge of her grandmother’s literary estate. “I was never given a copy of it by my parents, which amuses me,” she told PBS NewsHour about the book’s new reissue this month.
The book, with revised text by Michelle Markel and illustrations by Grace Lin, explains to readers age 6-12 (and beyond) that we all have a stake in how our democracy is governed. “Cities and counties can settle their own private affairs,” the book explains in one example, “but there are many questions that are important to everyone in a state and that no mayor, council, or commission should decide alone.”
In a section about voting, the book counsels, “You may be guided by the choices of your party, but you should also learn, on your own, the facts about the issues and the candidates.”
Nearly 90 laters year, how do the civics lessons Eleanor passed down hold up? In a Q&A interview, Ireland shares her personal memories of her grandmother, and ideas for parents and teachers in raising the next generation of informed American citizens. This conversation has been edited for length.
The book is a civics lesson about how government works. Do you wonder what young people’s impressions will be when they read it, especially since many of them haven’t seen different sides of the political spectrum working together in their lifetimes?
Their only frame of reference will be their parents. So, if we’re lucky, they will bring up conversations at home. They could say, “In this book, it says we’re supposed to debate and listen to each other’s side.” And if the kids are on the older side, they probably know about March For Our Lives and the Women’s March — and whatever they think about it, at least they’re thinking about it.
What ways can we let young people know that their voices matter?
My grandmother makes a case in this book that voters can still make a difference by taking part in a collective action and she talks about writing the letters, calling the offices and letting the representatives know how you feel. And that’s just an individual action that we all have the ability to do. And it’s our responsibility to let them know how we feel and they should want to know.
We learned in the March for Our Lives that kids, even before they vote, can make an impact on our elected officials. That was such an important demonstration to the youth of this country when those kids organized themselves, and they knew what they were doing. I also think parents need to model interest in what’s going on and talk about it at home. Take your kids to vote with you. Talk about why you’re voting. Kids don’t have to agree with their parents, but at least they’ll be aware of the issues and what the parents are thinking about.
The book discusses the role of the public servant in running our democracy, be it a firefighter or an elected official. What do you see as the role of the public servant in 2018, and how your grandmother viewed it in 1932?
I think she viewed it as her calling in a very literal sense, as a public servant. I grew in Washington D.C. and my father was in Congress, and then the Kennedy-Johnson administration. He also he ran for governor of New York twice, and so I was steeped in it. In my first career, I worked in the [Ed] Koch administration in New York for 10 years, and I loved every minute of it. I mean it was fascinating and fun and important. I hope the younger generations will work through the issues that have bogged down government and that have left a dark shadow on some of the roles and jobs.
What would you like to say to middle and high school teachers who are tasked with teaching young people about civic engagement and the democratic process?
The first thing I would say is thank you for being teachers and for wanting to teach this very important part. It’s a gift that we live in a democracy. And we don’t want that threatened or taken away due to lack of interest or lack of understanding of what it means. We all have responsibility to participate and to know the issues. It’s only really through the teachers and the parents that that can happen. And the younger it starts, the better.
Coupling the book with stories about your family makes it feel personal, because we feel like we sort of know the Roosevelts. How do you feel about that?
My grandmother seemed to have more hours in her day than anybody else. I am just as awestruck as all her other admirers. I’m a generation removed, so I don’t feel the pressure that my father and aunt and uncles felt to equal or surpass FDR and Eleanor’s contribution to the country. Obviously, I feel some pressure in the way I live my life, and what I work towards, and that’s only good.
I never knew about my grandfather. He died before I was born, so I have friends who know more about him than I do. But I am just a history student along with everybody else. My grandmother I did know, but she was busy, and whenever we were at her house, she always had lots of people there. I do wish I had been older when I was young, if that makes sense, because I had no idea who the people were when I was young. If I had just been a little more mature or curious and had been told, “Oh yes, that’s President Kennedy who came to lunch,” or “That’s Mr. Khrushchev,” that would have been so incredible.
But she was a grandmother. And there were rules that we followed in the house. It has been an amazing accident of birth to be born into this family. I certainly didn’t do anything to deserve it.
Many young people grow up trusting the police, but there are a lot of kids who don’t have that experience. How would your grandmother have practiced civic engagement on these tough issues?
She would have been in the trenches listening and trying to understand both sides and trying to get both sides to understand each other. She had a very calm, empathic way about her. She had very broad shoulders. She could withstand a lot of criticism, and she got a lot of criticism over the years, and it just didn’t seem to deter her at all. Even death threats.
Throughout the book there is a number of references to diversity, including race, gender and sexual orientation. One illustration shows your grandfather, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sitting in his wheelchair in the Oval Office. [FDR hid his paralysis and wheelchair from the American public, fearing backlash for his disability.]
He was right though. He knew he couldn’t get elected, and we clearly needed him at that time. And the press respected that. Most people knew he had polio but did not know that he was in a wheelchair. That was a huge issue for his memorial in Washington, D.C., between the handicapped lobby who said, ‘Come on, now’s the time,’ and the people who said, ‘Yes, but he didn’t want to be seen that way.’ Of course, the wheelchair is part of the memorial. So, it was time to acknowledge that he was in a wheelchair. That was progress. That was a good thing.
What made your grandmother such an empathic figure?
It was her leadership style. She really touched people. They felt she understood, and she did. She wasn’t faking it or pretending. That’s where it helped to have people in her position who have endured hardship, because they get it. She worked a lot in New York when she was younger with orphans — before she had a more official role — in what we now refer to as shelters. She basically was orphaned when she was young and had to go to live with family who weren’t particularly kind to her. It was with young people that she felt she could do the greatest good and help the most.
It’s been almost 90 years. Would you say the book passes the time-travel test?
It’s very similar to the original. There was nothing negative [in the original], but it was not as inclusive and, of course, things needed to change, like the number of secretaries in the cabinet. But I always say — because it’s an ability I don’t have — my grandmother could envision the way things could be, which is what made her so powerful and so important. She knew women should have equal rights. She knew that people of color should have equal rights, and she was fighting for those causes way before many other people.
She went up in an airplane with the Tuskegee Airmen, for which she got really seriously criticized. She didn’t care. She knew they were as capable, even more. And she had a ball. And she took those kind of risks to prove her point. And some people thought she was nuts. But I think as time has proven, it turns out she wasn’t.