Hillary Clinton wrote me a letter five days before the election. Back when we both thought she was on the threshold of becoming the first woman in our nation’s history to be elected President of the United States.
Before I get to that, let me give you the backstory.
The day before the election, my 7-year-old daughter and I did a live television appearance on Windy City Live, in our hometown of Chicago. We were promoting my new children’s book, When Penny Met POTUS, which was released by Capstone Young Readers in July. I wrote the book after working on President Obama’s re-election campaign. To say my daughter ‘stole the show’ is an understatement. I was overwhelmed by a flood of texts and emails from friends and family who had watched our segment on Windy City Live. I was still riding the high on Election Day morning. I woke up feeling something hard to describe. I think it was euphoric.
For the past year and a half, I thought that in the late evening hours of November 8th, 2016, the ending I wrote for my book would suddenly be a little passé -- no longer a novel idea, but a new reality.
In When Penny Met POTUS, my heroine, Penny, is on a quest to meet her mother’s boss -- some mysterious creature that goes by the name POTUS. In the end, Penny accomplishes her mission. She learns POTUS is an acronym, and in this story, POTUS happens to be a woman. Penny is not at all surprised by this. Just a little disappointed POTUS is not the big furry blue monster stuffed into a business suit she had conjured up in her daydreams. The last line of the book has Penny thinking, Penny for POTUS? She sure likes the sound of that.
Penny has brown skin. She could be Mexican-American. She could be Muslim-American. Maybe she's neither. It doesn’t matter. The point is for little girls to see themselves in Penny. To see themselves in children’s books. To see themselves aspiring to be whatever it is they want to be.
This brings me to the letter I received from Hillary Clinton.
Two weeks before the election, I sent a copy of When Penny Met POTUS to Secretary Clinton, along with a letter, and a photo of my daughter. A few weeks earlier, my daughter and I were invited to the White House to meet with President Obama and Vice President Biden because of my book. While we were in the East Wing, I had my daughter stand in front of Hillary Clinton’s official portrait as First Lady, and hold a copy of When Penny Met POTUS. I snapped the picture. I thought it was apropos. I hoped it was an omen.
Five days before the election, Secretary Clinton wrote me back. She thanked me for sending her my book and she thanked me for writing it, saying “I have long believed in the power of representation, believing that you can’t be what you can’t see."
She hoped the book would “help in our shared quest to provide a future of unbridled opportunity for every little girl and little boy.”
In the early morning hours of November 9th, I was forced to accept the crushing disappointment that my book’s ending would not be realized. Not this time, not in this election.
The most difficult part was telling my daughter when I got her up for school that morning. A week earlier, I woke her up to “Go Cubs, Go,” the rally song of the Chicago Cubs. Still half-asleep, she burst into a smile because she knew it meant the Cubs had won the World Series the night before. On this morning, I so desperately wanted to tell her we had more reason to celebrate.
Instead, I told her Donald Trump was going to be our president. The man she had become programmed to mute whenever he appeared on TV, because…well, I think it’s obvious.
She was confused. She cried. You said he was a bully. How come the bully won?
It’s difficult for me to process the incredulous events that have unfolded this past week and will continue to unfold in the days and weeks and years ahead. It’s even harder to tell my 7-year-old how she should process them. After all, it’s my responsibility to make her feel safe and secure. That just got a little harder.
Eventually, I told her while we do have to honor the results of this election, and Donald Trump will be our president, we do not have to automatically respect a man who has demonstrated he does not respect women, and who ran his campaign on hate and bullying. We don’t accept bullying on the playground and it will be zero tolerance from the Oval Office, as well. We will stand up to it. We will fight against it.
I’m currently writing six more children’s books for Capstone Young Readers, all of which will be available next summer. Each, in their own way, celebrates and champions diversity and inclusion. One is about Hillary Clinton. Another is about Rosa Parks. In the days ahead, I think I’ll be drawing strength and inspiration from both of these women.
When I think about When Penny Met POTUS and what its message means for little girls, following the most consequential presidential election in our nation’s history, the core message remains the same: anything is possible. But it’s our responsibility, now more than ever, to make sure those possibilities are attainable for our girls.
For me personally, the book now represents a call to action. It’s a goal to be achieved. A dream to be realized. A glass ceiling to be shattered to smithereens.