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April 14, 2017

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The cover of “Stand Up and Sing!”
Prose and pictures chronicle life of an icon

By Denise Woodin

Not many book signings include a sing-a-long led by the author and her banjo-playing husband. However, when the subject is Pete Seeger, an impromptu tune doesn’t seem out of place at all.

Children’s book author Susanna Reich has written a biography of the late folksinger, activist, and Hudson Valley resident that is geared toward kids who may have outgrown Dr. Seuss but gravitate toward picture books with substance. Published last month, “Stand Up and Sing: Pete Seeger, Folk Music and the Path to Justice,” tells his story from his childhood in the 1920s to his death at the age of 94 in 2014. The book features illustrations by Adam Gustavson and an introduction by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame.

“I hadn’t known that much about his whole life until I started researching it,” Reich said. “Because he lived so long and he was such a committed activist, when you study his life you see the entire 20th century history and every social justice movement of the whole century.”

A graduate of Hastings High School, Reich, 62, was drawn to the similarities between Seeger’s upbringing and her own. Like Seeger, she was born in New York City to socially conscious parents who filled their home with music.

“His father was a musicologist,” Reich noted, “and my mother was a musicologist and also a music teacher. So, when I was little she was always singing songs, and I grew up surrounded by folk songs. And that’s how Pete grew up. Not so much with folk songs, because that came later, but with music surrounding him.”

Seeger’s dedication to the Hudson River also touched a chord. “That shared love of the river really meant so much to me,” Reich continued. [My husband and I] lived in Dobbs Ferry until 1981, and then we moved to Ossining. So I always refer to us as 'riverfolk' because I just love the Rivertowns; however far up you go, it’s still a rivertown.” Seeger mobilized regional residents in the mid-1960s to build the Sloop Clearwater, which has played a vital role in improving the health of the river and inspired generations of environmental activists.

Growing up, Reich never planned to become a writer. Instead she was drawn to ballet. “I wanted to dance from when I was very young, and I was a very determined young person,” she recalled. “So I stuck with it… I loved it so much.”

After receiving her bachelor’s of fine arts from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Reich lived in New York City and danced professionally in “small companies” for several years. However, she admitted, “It’s hard to do that for decades. It’s a young person’s pursuit.”

When it came time to retire from dance, Reich “fell into” a second career as a floral designer. For about 10 years, she worked in flower shops in Ossining and Millwood before starting her own business, Flowers by Susanna, out of her home. As she penned articles for trade magazines, she found that she enjoyed writing.

At the same time, Reich and her husband, Gary Golio, were studying tai chi with Hastings resident Ed Young, the renowned children’s book author and illustrator. “We became friends with Ed and heard all about… children’s book creation,” Reich said. “That piqued my curiosity.”

“I became interested in writing, but I didn’t have a specific idea of what kind of writing, as far as fiction or nonfiction,” she said. “I went to the children’s librarian here in Ossining and I said, ‘What kind of books do you need?’ Because I knew if I wanted to break in as a writer, it would help to bring to publishers something they were looking for. And the first thing she said was, ‘We need biographies of women.’”

In 1994, when the couple’s daughter, Laurel, was 8 years old, Reich began writing her first children’s book: the story of 19th-century pianist and composer Clara Schumann. Her choice of subject was not entirely out of the blue. “Clara Schumann was the focus of my mother’s scholarship,” she noted. Published in 1999, “Clara Schumann: Piano Virtuoso” earned several honors and awards and was followed by four other equally well-received biographies for young people, including books about dancer and choreographer José Limon, the chef Julia Child and her cat Minette, American artist George Catlin, and The Beatles as boys. Reich also turned to historical fiction with “Penelope Bailey Takes the Stage” and “Grace & Sylvie: A Recipe for Family.” She is working on a biography of George and Ira Gershwin that will focus on their sibling relationship.

“With each topic,” Reich explained, “I’m looking for someone I’m interested in, someone I’m going to want to spend a lot of time with. Someone whose art or creative work I admire. And someone who has an interesting story for kids. Or some way I can tell their story to make it interesting for kids.” 

Several years ago, Golio caught the writing bug as well and published his first children’s book: “Jimi Sounds Like a Rainbow: The Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix.”

Laurel Golio, who lives in Brooklyn, has also pursued a career in the arts, as a photographer.

Reich and her husband now write full-time from home. “We’re constantly talking about subjects, possible subjects and children’s books in general,” Reich stated. “And we’re also each other’s first reader, giving each other critiques.” Golio has since published several books about legendary musicians, including John Coltrane, the young Bob Dylan, and "Bird & Diz" — the 2015 biography of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie for which Young made the jazz-inflected illustrations.

When asked if she feels a connection to her subjects, Reich replied, “Oh yes. Really, it’s like a lifetime commitment. You’re going to spend at least a year and maybe several researching their work and their lives. And then you’re going to go through the publishing process, which is another couple of years. Then the book will come out and you’ll be doing school visits and talks. As long as that book is around, people will be asking you about it. So you better pick somebody that you want to spend time with!”

Reflecting on the impact “Stand Up and Sing" might have on young readers, Reich said, “I hope they’ll listen to some Pete Seeger. That they’ll become excited and interested in his music. That they’ll learn about what kind of person he was and how he used music to express what he believed in and fight for the causes he felt were important. And that they can do that too.”

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the Rivertowns Enterprise. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.