I’m thrilled to have my friend Megan Hoyt on the blog today to celebrate the (almost) Book Birthday of her latest nonfiction picture book,
THE GREATEST SONG OF ALL:
How Isaac Stern United the World to Save Carnegie Hall
“Hoyt pays tribute not just to the renowned violinist but to a unique cultural institution that has hosted many luminaries. Young readers will doubtless be left duly appreciative of both. Compelling.”— Booklist
Isaac Stern’s amazing story of music, activism, and unity
is so important right now.
And we have 10 Qs for Megan Hoyt!
Q 1. To put a new spin on the old joke, how and when did you first get to Carnegie Hall? Did your parents play there? Did you? (I see from your blog you were, “raised by symphony musicians on a steady diet of classical music,” and you wrote: A Touch of the Infinite—Studies in Music Appreciation with Charlotte Mason.)
Megan Hoyt: Believe it or not, I went to Carnegie Hall for the first time while researching for this book! But my parents met performing in the pit orchestra at Radio City Music Hall, around the corner and down the street. When my dad got a job with the Dallas Symphony, they got married and moved to the Lone Star state.
I grew up backstage at Fair Park Music Hall in Dallas, where I was friends with all the orchestra members, conductors, and stage hands (one even won a stuffed poodle for me at the Texas State Fair). I used to watch from a stool backstage as opera singers warmed up and ballet dancers stepped into small square boxes of sand to make sure their shoes did not slip before heading onstage.
Megan Hoyt: It’s no surprise that symphonic music is stitched into my soul. I am so glad my parents brought me to work with them!
Q 2. How did your musical background influence or inform the way you wrote THE GREATEST SONG OF ALL?
Megan Hoyt: I tried to make the sentences lilting and lyrical, especially on the first page where the audience is gathered, anticipating the first concert at Carnegie Hall. I wanted the words and sentences to swish and flow across the heart like music, as it’s read aloud.
Q 3. Where did the inspiration for Isaac Stern’s story come from?
Megan Hoyt: I came across a photo of Valerie Harper leaping across Broadway at a protest against the demolition of Carnegie Hall and thought there must be a story here. I’ve never seen ballet dancers picketing or dancing in the street before!
Megan Hoyt: When I found out that Isaac Stern came to the United States from Ukraine, just like my grandparents did, I was even more intrigued. My parents had met Mr. Stern before—they knew most of the major concert violinists of their day because my dad was the symphony librarian for the Dallas Symphony and was always the contact person for guest conductors and performers.
Q 4. THE GREATEST SONG OF ALL is your 3rd picture book biography. (along with Hildegard’s Gift, the award-winning Bartali’s Bicycle—and is William J. Wilgus and His Grand Idea still in the works?) Have you always been drawn to stories of history’s unsung heroes?
Megan Hoyt: Yes, A Grand Idea is coming out soon! And after that book launches, I have a biography of Dr. Katelin Kariko coming out: Kati’s Tiny Messengers. She’s the one who mastered mRNA technology to develop the Covid-19 vaccine.
I think how each individual person chooses to live their lives can be so inspiring to the rest of us—even if the person was not a hero but just someone who brightened their little corner of the world. It is what knits the fabric of a society together. I am especially drawn to telling children about people whose accomplishments are close to being forgotten as time marches forward. I have a few more biographies in the works that I hope will inspire, educate, and entertain children growing up in these times of uncertainty.
Q 5. What discoveries did you make while researching or writing THE GREATEST SONG OF ALL?
Megan Hoyt: When I began this journey I had no idea how instrumental Carnegie Hall was in the battle for civil rights. For example, from early on, this building hosted meeting of the NAACP. In 1896, Booker T. Washington spoke there. In 1906, women’s suffrage speakers held a rally.
Carnegie Hall hosted performers of every culture, race, and belief system without exception. I knew I wanted to write about activism in action, but I had no idea the actual building was part of the activism of the time. I was thrilled to discover this. Also, opera singer Marian Anderson was on the Carnegie Hall board and part of the committee to save it. This may not seem unusual to us today (thankfully), but in 1960 it would have been surprising to find a woman of color in such a position of leadership.
Q 5. Carnegie Hall is considered a “timeless symbol of equality,” and yet it was in danger of being torn down. What do you hope young readers will take away from Isaac Stern’s quest to preserve it?
Megan Hoyt: I hope young readers will let this story really seep into their hearts as they face a world where injustice still happens every day—and I hope they will see that persistence is the key to change! Don’t give up when you know the cause is just, even if it looks like you are far from your goal.
Behind the Scenes…
Q 7. We picture book authors know that every word counts, and in a pb biography, it’s often difficult to focus on only certain areas of your subject’s journey. Is there a scene or spread in earlier drafts of THE GREATEST SONG OF ALL that was hard to cut?
Megan Hoyt: I initially wrote the book in parallel text. The left-hand page of each spread told the story of Carnegie Hall, and the right-hand page told Isaac’s story. I got about halfway through it and realized that once their stories intersected (after Isaac’s debut) the parallel structure no longer worked! Isaac at Carnegie Hall WAS the story.
After that, I had to cut a lot of Isaac’s back story for word count, which was so hard!
I wanted to talk about the village in Ukraine where he was born, about how his mother was a singer in Ukraine and in the United States had to give up her career and become a music teacher to help put food on the table. I wanted to say more about the sacrifices immigrants make to move halfway across the world and about the suffering of Jewish people in the nineteenth century, enduring pogroms and anti-semitism and facing death and uncertainty. I hope some of that still came through, but to tell the whole story would have made it way too long.
Q 8. What surprises did illustrator Katie Hickey bring to the project?
Megan Hoyt: I was so impressed with how Katie brought the story to life with such vivid colors and lush drawings of all types of people coming together in unity—and I love the details on each spread. Even the book titles on the stack of books in the corner relate back to the story.
Study Guide Topics
Q 9. How does your experience as an onset tutor for young actors seep into your writing life? Do you keep them separate? Or, for example, do you have extensions or suggested activities (or a link?) that educators might use after reading THE GREATEST SONG OF ALL?
Megan Hoyt: I’m putting a study guide together now. Here are some topics that I would love to see teachers dig into with their students:
right/left brain activities
*Why did the Stern family settle in San Francisco?
*How far is it from San Francisco to New York City by plane?
*How long does it take?
Megan Hoyt: The kids I tutor on set are very focused. They have to get at least three hours of school work done in between scenes and be ready to focus in at a moment’s notice. I am so proud of their maturity and ability to switch from school to work in an instant! Whenever they are too tired to do high concentration work, they ask to read my books, which is great. I try to limit shenanigans in a small trailer, but their antics do definitely figure into my stories occasionally!
Q 10. Can you share what projects you’re working on currently?
Megan Hoyt: Right now, I’m working on a biography of beloved author Marguerite Henry, whose books I adored as a child. I’m even going to Pony Penning Day in Chincoteague in a few weeks!
Thank you so much for joining the blog today, Megan.
For more about Megan Hoyt and her books, check out her website: meganhoyt.net
and follow her on Twitter: @meganhoytwrites
and Instagram: meganhoytwrites