Ani Di Franco has won a Grammy (and been nominated for eight others), released 22 albums on her own Righteous Babe Records, sold over five million copies, hit the New York Times bestseller list with her 2019 memoir, No Walls and the Recurring Dream: A Memoir, and has published volumes of poetry English and Italian.
But it was writing her first children’s book—the enchanting picture book, The Knowing, releasing on March 7—that proved to be her truest challenge. Based on Di Franco’s song of the same name, The Knowing is a deceptively simple study in individuality that looks at both outward appearances and inward feelings. The connection between the two is what Di Franco calls “the knowing.”
With two children aged 10 and 16, Ani has read her fair share of children’s books. But her touchstones of clever lyricism and resistance to the status quo worked against the seasoned singer and songwriter when approaching the simplicity and universality of a children’s book, a medium that uses minimal words and relies on the illustrations as much as it does on the text. Yet it was Ani’s songwriting that gave her the tools to be able to strip back the messages of identity conveyed in The Knowing, presenting them in their purest, most straightforward form.
These messages of the unique nature of each person are amplified with first-time visual artist Julia Mathew’s frame-worthy watercolor illustrations. Her classic feel and beautiful detail provide a natural match for Ani’s words, evoking a feeling of being connected to the past, to the earth and to family.
Ani joined SPIN from the bookshelf-lined, earth-toned living room of her home in New Orleans where her dog trotted back and forth while she explained how, through her guitar, she was able to find a way to write that is understandable to children around the world.
SPIN: What brought about the idea of a children’s book?
Ani Di Franco: In a word, the pandemic. When my job evaporated, I had to, like many of us, come up with a new game. I was pulling all the side hustles out of the cans. After I had made my memoir, the young readers division of my publisher contacted me and said, “Have you ever considered making a children’s book?” Flash forward: the pandemic, no touring. I got back in touch and said, “I think now’s the time, let’s try this.”
Why did they think of you for a children’s book?
I guess maybe because I have kids. Maybe because a lot of my listeners —30 years into me throwing songs at the world —have kids. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed, I’ve been on this journey with other people and a lot of the landscape looks the same. What I always hear from people is, “You went up, I went up. You went left, I went left. You went down, I went down. I’ve been here with you the whole time.” It’s all these shared experiences, and [having] kids is a big one.
Were you prepared to write a children’s book?
I don’t feel like my life in writing prepared me at all for that gig. It’s a really different bag of doughnuts. But honestly, there’s something very attractive to me about new challenges. The pandemic was a really cool opportunity for me to get off my hamster wheel of touring and recording and doing all of my usual shit. It was cool to have everything stop and suddenly have room to try these other ideas that have come up along the way.
How was it different from the writing you’ve done before?
The first thing I noticed was that writing for kids means I don’t know anything about writing. My whole shtick is very full of cultural reference and messing with cliches or with presupposed notions or twisting phrases and lots of connotation, lots of double entendre, lots of social, cultural, political shit. All that means nothing to children. Even word play, if you don’t know the convention, you don’t know what I’m doing with it or what the point is. Same with metaphors. The publisher was like, “Kids are literal. They’re going to be very confused by that”—let alone all the other stuff that I get up to usually. So that was super challenging. It was like I had to put on somebody else’s head to try to make a kid’s book.
The final product is very universal, yet simple and relatable. Did you already have the core idea?
I submitted a few things before what eventually got made and they got shot down. My first story idea was two friends, one of them is nearsighted and one of them is farsighted. This guy has to wear glasses to read and the other one has to wear glasses to see far away. They like to go up in this tree house. One night there was a big storm. They were in the treehouse and the tree was rocking and it was terrifying. When they woke up in the morning, they had one of each other’s eyes and one of their own. So now both of them could see everything. My little poet-songwriter brain was like, “When you have relationships and you see the world through other people’s eyes, you see more.” The publisher thought that was really weird and creepy waking up with your friend’s eye. Luckily, I’m 50-something and not 20-something so I can take feedback. I’m at the point in my life where I’m more prepared for that than I would have been in the past.
How did you end up with something so different with The Knowing?
The assignment originally was to make a lullaby. They asked for that specifically. After having a few trial-and-error submissions that didn’t get any bounce, I was getting daunted by the task. I thought…maybe I need to actually pick up the guitar, which is very grounding for me, and make a lullaby. So that’s what I did. I made a song that became “The Knowing,” and that helped me get into the book.
What was the dynamic with the artist Julia Mathew?
The publisher found Julia and hooked us up. I was invited to have input, but my response was, “No, I don’t want to tell her anything, I want her to bring herself to it.” I literally didn’t tell her anything except, “Ooh, I like that. Ooh, that’s cool.” The publisher, on the other hand, had a lot of feedback. It was very interesting for me. Some of it was continuity, “Oh, the braid’s up here. Now the braid’s down here. She looks nine. She looks six.” That stuff I wouldn’t think of, so I was happy that the professionals were in the room. But also, they just had a lot of feedback in general and I was just much more, “Looks great!”
Did you think about that at all when you were putting the book together?
That’s too tertiary, too calculated for me. I think a lot of people do that, aim for things like, “Let’s play the record that I want this record to feel like.” Or, “Let me study these hit songs or these children’s books and try to get there.” For me, that’s all quite a distance from trying to go in and connect with something immediate. That’s about thinking and trying and strategizing. For me, it’s much more important to get to something authentic, whether it’s successful in the world or not, that’s always my goal.