When the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt on live music, Grammy Award–winning musician and activist Ani DiFranco found another outlet for her artistry: children’s literature.
DiFranco, who released a bestselling memoir in 2019, published her debut children’s book, The Knowing (Penguin Random House), in March. She describes the book as a chance for readers to look inward and not get lost in external identities and the “cultural signifiers” around them.
American Libraries spoke with DiFranco during the 2023 LibLearnX conference in New Orleans about writing in a new way for a new audience and her thoughts about recent book bans and challenges.
What inspired you to take on this project?
For 30 years now, touring and playing music shows has been my job. I support my family that way. The pandemic put a hard stop to me doing my job for a few years. I just started exploring other kinds of creative projects, other ways to try to be an artist in the world and make a living, and this presented itself.
I don’t know if it weren’t for the pandemic if I would have gotten off the hamster wheel of touring. It’s just self-perpetuating, whatever one does. It was cool that I suddenly had to figure it out and do other things.
Your new book has been described as a chance for readers to “ponder the distinction between outer forms of identity and the inner light of consciousness.” Why is this such an important message for kids, especially right now?
I grew up in the Seventies. Identity politics was such an important part of breaking open that dominant discourse. Asserting our diversity and inserting our voices into the chorus was so important. So that’s how I’ve always thought about identity: as a really important process of finding ourselves, knowing ourselves, and affirming each other.
I have kids now, and it’s not the Seventies anymore. They’re growing up in such a different world. I really see identity politics as this double-edged sword. It’s a tool of liberation, and also in turn it can be a trap. I think it can be a cross to bear; it can be a full-time job to perform. I wanted to talk about identity with kids who are not immersed yet in the minutiae of it and just affirm that suspicion or the knowing they have, that it’s not the whole story.
The Knowing is a lullaby-style book that can be sung or read aloud. How was the writing process similar to or different from writing your other music?
It was a super different mode of writing for me to try to get into. [In my songs] I really get involved with culture, linguistic conventions—challenging them and playing with them—wordplay, and messing with clichés or assumptions. All this stuff doesn’t pertain to the world of very young people, beautifully so. After so many years of refining my style, to then just put it down and try to create something in a whole other mindset and style, that was challenging.
What I ended up doing was picking up my guitar, my little security blanket, and writing an actual song in this new style that I was trying to work in. That just felt grounding to me. There was a familiarity to that that helped me get there.
You recently released a 25th anniversary remaster of Living in Clip, your first live album. What has it been like to reflect on this album through this milestone? Why do you think it still resonates with listeners today?
[Prior to that album] I think there were a lot of people who were intimidated by my songs and my way of expressing them—the politics and the feminism in them. I was sort of considered an angry young woman, until somebody met me.
There was something about the live record that really allowed people an in. They could hear my nature in a way that a studio album doesn’t leave the space for. They could hear the community around it. They could hear the interaction between me and the audience; the joy there, the humor, and the fun we were having. And the inclusivity of it—me and my straight white male drummer joking with each other and having a blast. I think people felt less threatened and like they were more invited in. It wasn’t me along the way who wasn’t inviting people in, but the whole society around my songs [and how] very much the media would reiterate again and again who this music was for. But when Living in Clip came out, other kinds of people were like, “Oh, I’m interested in this. Maybe I’m going to show up despite what they’ve told me, that’s it’s not for me.”
As an artist and author, what do you make of the recent spate of book challenges and bans?
It’s Fascism 101, which is what I make of all this political regression.
Banning books, controlling speech, this is all part of that game. It’s amazing to me that we could have so much history available to us to know, to read, to learn, and yet, so many can participate in the mistakes of the past and not see themselves or the role that they’re playing when they ban a book, when they actively and openly try to prevent people from voting. But somehow history does repeat itself if we don’t stay really present and active. Just God bless all the people in all their ways—the booksellers, the librarians—for supporting free speech, diversity, inclusion, democracy. It takes all of us being on point to keep this boat afloat.
What role have libraries played in your life and work?
The [Fairfield Branch Library in Buffalo, New York] that I rode my bike to when I was a kid opened my world up. I’m so grateful that I developed a relationship to books when I was young and that the library facilitated that. To this day, it remains an important element in my life.
When things get really hard, and too much, and I need to escape my life, there’s a lot of self-destructive or less constructive ways to do that. And then there’s books. I really do find solace in books that I can just put down my life, my troubles, my worries, my overthinking and go into a whole other world. It lifts me out of everything that I’m struggling with. It’s just miraculous. And libraries, I think they’re just a beautiful concept. I hope that the world continues to support them, and they can continue to do that thing for kids that they did for me.