Actor and Emmy Award–winner Sonia Manzano thinks our country could use a dose of what her longtime character Maria, Big Bird, and the other residents of Sesame Street have been singing about for years: cooperation.
“I’ve noticed an awful shift in the social behavior of American culture. Nowadays, [people] feel to cooperate with someone is a sign of weakness,” she explained to Gary Knell, chairman of National Geographic Partners and former CEO of Sesame Workshop, in a conversation aired at ALA Virtual June 25. “Nowadays, it’s not enough to win—you have to kick the guy in the head also. Children emulate and mimic that behavior, so now it’s more important than ever to show them that’s not the way of the world,” she said.
For her part, Manzano’s forthcoming picture book A World Together (National Geographic Kids, September) seeks to teach interconnectedness through her words and National Geographic photographs. The book highlights differences between cultures (for example, how some children eat pizza while others eat tortillas or baba ghanoush) as well as similarities (such as the spectrum of feelings that people experience).
“This is a celebration of everyone in the world,” she said. “I hope [kids] are not fearful of people who do not look like them, live in different places, go to different schools, and have a different lifestyle as them.”
Manzano said she pushed to have more photos depicting urban life in her book, herself having grown up a first-generation Latina in the Bronx: “The city is my sensibility.”
It was, in fact, in an elevated subway train where she began sounding out some of her earliest words in 1957. The source material? An ad for Chesterfield cigarettes.
“It’s still remarkable to me that I became a writer,” said Manzano, noting that she came from a household that viewed reading as lazy instead of valuable. “Why read when you could be sweeping a room or changing a diaper?”
It’s how she found herself relating to “a white girl in a white suburb, making dinner to assuage her mother’s anger,” in the novel Fifteen by Beverly Cleary. “I too had found myself doing extra chores around the house when I wanted to deflect my mother’s annoyance at me.”
Manzano also cited the Dick and Jane series, Charlotte’s Web, and Angela’s Ashes as books making as indelible an impression on her as Fifteen and the cigarette ad.
“When I think of all those images, I am sustained, and my imagination reels.”