Debut of the Susie Clark picture book

This column by Daniel G. Clark about Alexander Clark (1826-1891) first appeared in the Muscatine Journal on October 18, 2023. Above: “Ms. Rocki” reads aloud that evening.

Tonight is the launch for the picture book I hinted at last January.

“You can expect rhyming and rapping…and whimsical, colorful illustration,” I wrote.

That was 20 columns ago. Today’s column is published October 18, the very day you should make your way to the third-floor meeting room at Musser Public Library for the 6 p.m. unveiling of Susie Clark: The Bravest Girl You’ve Ever Seen. Subtitle: “Desegregating Iowa Schools in 1868.”

Waterloo author Joshalyn “Rocki” Hickey-Johnson will read aloud and tell how she learned of the Muscatine girl and formed her vision for the story. The text is all in verse and meant to be read—or rapped, actually—to a cadence she will demonstrate. It pops from the page amid colorful pictures of 19th century Muscatine as imagined by illustrator Hayle Calvin, who will also attend.

Not only is admission free of charge, but attenders will take away their own autographed copies—for free, courtesy of the publisher. You can also read it online and see ordering information at the Stanley Center’s website. There’s a 50-percent-off deal.

The picture book “offers an imagined glimpse into the true story of Susan Clark and her family, who overcame barriers to equal access to education.”

Back in January I jumped the gun on the project that wasn’t mine to announce.

“Long story short, the Community Foundation of Greater Muscatine and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security are funding creation of two Susan Clark books! Separate books written and illustrated for different age levels, one of them by Rachelle.”

Rachelle Chase is writing the other Susan Clark book, which I hope we’ll hear more about tonight, and she is the one who nominated Hickey-Johnson who has written other books for children.

Two local women came up with the idea about three years ago. Charla Shafer of the Community Foundation and Krista Regennitter of the Stanley Center have been involved through all steps and phases from brainstorm to book launch.

“Leaders at two Muscatine organizations had shared the book idea with me and my wife Jean because of our part in the school-naming storytelling,” I wrote in January. I said we had been serving as history consultants, fact checkers, cheerleaders.

More than that, Charla and Krista invited Jean to become their author or both of us co-authors. Retired from teaching at Muscatine High School, Jean had written a piece for the successful campaign to name Susan Clark Junior High which later went onto a state website for teachers of Iowa history.

I urged her to accept the invitation. In e-mail to Charla (Jan. 26, 2021) she wrote: “I would be interested in creating a children’s picture book about Susan Clark Holley that focuses on the Muscatine school desegregation. I would want to work with an artist/illustrator and have no idea who that might be.”

Charla and Krista interviewed illustrators and chose Hayle, a Clinton native and recent graduate of the University of Northern Iowa.

In a discussion of different books for readers of different ages, Jean wrote: “Dan is interested in writing a fifth grade level book about Susan Clark Holley, but he would want to give a lot more social and historical context and show her entire life. He was thinking it might be a collaboration with Rachelle Chase who has written two books about Buxton and spoken in Muscatine twice—once as an Alexander Clark lecture at MCC and once at Musser Public Library.”

I played matchmaker, and Rachelle won the commission for the second book, the one for older readers.

During several weeks Jean wrote and revised drafts of Susie’s Long Walk. We hosted a visit by Hayle, visiting story locations and imagining together how our town may have appeared in the 1860s.

I love how her illustrations turned out. On the dedication page Hayle says: “To my Grandma, LaMetta Wynn, her honor.”

LaMetta Karen Johnson Wynn (1933-2021) was a nurse and served three terms as Clinton’s mayor after 12 years on the school board. She was the first African-American woman to hold the office of mayor anywhere in Iowa.

As Jean wrote and rewrote, she expressed ever more firmly her conviction that she was not the right author. It should be a Black woman, she said. But I cheered her on and tried to talk her out of resigning.

However, I was wrong and so she put away her drafts and Rachelle introduced Rocki. They visited Muscatine together, and they and we and the other women took the tour and imagined the settings. We stopped at the Alexander Clark House and chatted with Kent Sissel who has been a keeper of the story since the 1970s.

“It’s been a labor of love and learning,” Rocki said last week on her “North End Update” show. “I’m already getting appointments at elementary schools to read it.”

Maybe a statewide speaking tour?

Next time: Susie Clark publicity

About the Author(s)


  • Landlocked

    Kudos to the author Ms Hickey-Johnson. Racism and xenophobia are still ubiquitous in Iowa. Sometimes it is innocent -like in many landlocked places. Often it feels discouraging and dehumanizing. Nowhere have I felt it so strongly than in the area the author comes from, this Waterloo/Cedar Falls area. There is something evil in this contrasted area.

    (It’s also good to hear about Rachelle Chase)