Reading hundreds of picture book biographies of remarkable women for The Picture Book Club's "12 Women Who Changed the World" subscription has made me want to shine a spotlight on other remarkable women who, though they don't (yet!) have biographies written about them, inspire me every day.
-YiLing Chen-Josephson, Founder, The Picture Book Club
Q: What do you do?
For the life of me, I’ve never been able to come up with a pithy answer! I guess I express myself for a living, which was particularly delightful to say back when I was breastfeeding my children. But I also help others express themselves.
I’m a contributor to CBS Sunday Morning, doing stories on everything from the geometry of pasta to microdosing LSD and personal commentaries on everything from freezing my eggs to the scourge of vocal fry. I’m a panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! trying to add levity to the week’s news and I’ve been the host of Science Goes to the Movies on PBS for five seasons, interviewing scientists about pop culture.
I’m currently creating a pilot for NPR about the art of interviewing: midwifing people’s stories is one of the most fulfilling things I do.
I also write personal essays, and my first book, Approval Junkie, will be a one-woman show at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in April 2019. I am the one woman who is performing it (and who has adapted it for the stage—gulp!), even though I’m probably too old to play myself.
Q: What’s something you love about doing what you do?
My job—in all its various forms—is about connection. My task—which is my joy—is to connect with people, and then to help them connect with a wider audience. I’m given a gift every time I go to work, which is to unlock people’s stories, to reveal my own, and to try in my very tiny way to make the world a better place. One of my dearest friends calls what I do “living nakedly human publicly.” I love that idea.
Q: What's something challenging about it?
There’s no official end of business day for me, ever. Because what I do is also who I am, and because so much of what I do involves noticing, commenting, and expressing my opinion, I’m always writing in my head…or on my laptop…or jotting down notes on any scrap of paper. I’m therefore “working” in some fashion every day—morning till night—unless and until I consciously decide to clock out.
I work during kids’ naps (which have all but vanished); I always work on trains, planes, subways, taxi rides; I write and rehearse in my head during runs in Central Park. I work on vacations—the day after Christmas while on holiday with my family, I was asked to conceive of a perfect Sunday Morning commentary for New Year’s that would be “non-political, hopeful, a little whimsical.” I spent Boxing Day trying to nail it while my husband got to frolic with the kids. When I choose to spend all or part of a work day with my children, I must work after they go to bed, preparing to interview someone or memorizing my lines or crafting jokes or writing my next essay or composing a script.
I didn’t have my children until I was in my 40s. I’m still astonished they chose me to be their mother. My awareness of how precious their presence is in my life, and on this earth, is so acute as to be occasionally onerous (!), and I don’t relish missing time with them. But the “balance” is how much I’m filled by what I do and also how much their existence buoys me creatively.
What this has taught me is to “be here now,” as they say. When I’m with my kids, I endeavor to be REALLY with my kids. And when I’m at work—whether that’s on camera or on radio or crouched over my laptop—I am likewise fully present. The good news is that what I do is usually so fascinating and rewarding that it’s easy to be fully present. (Except that time a nanny quit by text when my kids were one and three, and I got the message in between taping three PBS shows in a single day.)
Q: What is something you’re proud of?
Showing my children what it means for a mother to live a purposeful life. I often travel for work, and my kids aren’t crazy about it (which, is of course, good news—they miss me!), but I always tell them, “I’m going away because I get to do what I love.” And I tell them about whatever story I’m working on. Right now, I’m finishing up an assignment on the lack of female monuments in our country, which has taken many months to shoot. I explain to my kids that out of about 5100 monuments in America, only 400 represent real women.
And then when I’m back home in NYC, running with them both in the double jog stroller by the statue of Eleanor Roosevelt in Riverside Park, they have a new connection to the world around them.
Sometimes people come up to me in public to tell me they appreciate my work. Once this happened in front of the Trevi Fountain on Mother’s Day. Two women stopped me. My kids witnessed this and asked, “Mommy, do they know you? And I said, “They do know me…a little. They thanked me for being me.”
I feel doubly grateful to these generous strangers: they are helping me demonstrate to my little people that they can grow up to play their part in making meaning in the world.
Q: Who is someone who inspires you that you know personally?
My children, Minerva (4) and Augustus (6) inspire me every day, multiple times a day. My son might, impossibly, be more feminist than I am. When he was five, he asked me, “Mom, I have two questions. One: who decided that girls get to have clothes that are beautiful and sparkly and boys don’t? and Two: was that person a man or a woman?” I LOVE those questions! He also asks if he can have a hug anytime he feels like he needs one, which I just think is so self-aware and vulnerable that it both makes my heart break and inspires me to live that honestly.
My daughter is both fierce and spiritual. She lives with one foot always inside a land of make-believe, but she enrolls everyone around her in it. Her commitment to her imagination inspires me. She’s an inveterate improv comedy genius with an uncanny understanding of joke structure. I love that she’s a little girl who already understands what power it is to make people laugh. And she has a fascinating relationship with my mother, who died when she was close to my age now. I was 26 when she died; my children have never met her, but Minerva often invites her through our front door to visit me.
Q: Who is someone who inspires you that you've never met?
Mister Rogers. I did a story on the 50th anniversary of his show. I met his family and his friends. His gentleness and deliberateness, the way he led always with kindness and wonder—it made me want to go back and start over as a parent. But when I confessed this to Mr. McFeely, he comforted me by saying, “But Fred always told parents, ‘You’re just learning, too! You must be as patient and forgiving with yourself as we are with our children.’”
If you haven’t yet seen the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” watch it immediately, and bring hankies.
Q: What is something you would like to change about the world?
Just one thing? Here’s a start: I wish every woman on this earth would keep her real name upon getting married and that no one would use the antediluvian phrase “maiden name” ever again.
Q: What’s a picture book you remember as a favorite from your childhood?
I was recently rummaging through 50-year-old books from my childhood in my dad’s stiflingly hot Florida garage. And I was struck by how retrograde the stories seem—full of all the gender stereotypes I consciously try to avoid with my kids. Lots of stories of girls needing help or providing domestic caregiving for others. And yet…in my first memory, I’m sitting with my mother in a white rocking chair with a pink gingham cushion as she reads me The Giving Tree. In the book, of course, an apple tree gives herself to a boy as he grows up. In the end, the lad—now an old man—returns, and the tree can only offer him her stump as a place to rest. This tree is the ultimate woodland approval junkie: here’s all of me; use me, love me. At the end of the book, my mother’s voice breaks, and she wipes her eyes. On her lap, I feel happy. She is the giving; I am the given to. I have not yet gone to college to take Women’s Studies 101 and recognize the tree’s gender-predictable self-abnegation. I have not yet become a parent-stump to my own emotionally ax-wielding children. So I do not yet grasp that Shel Silverstein’s genius lies in the telling the story of parenting as an arboresque fable, because if he didn’t get all poetic about it, the real title of a children’s book about parenting would be, This Sh*t Is Hard As Sh*t.
Even though it took me almost forty years to learn it, my mother gave me this one book as a lesson.
* * *
Want to introduce a child to more awesome women? Check out our 12 Women Who Changed the World subscription!