Chelsea Clinton Talks To Us About Her New Book

I read a lot in public to no great event, but lately, one book caused me to get stopped by strangers; people wanted to know about it. As I shared, I got excited — and that's when I knew this book was already on its way to doing what it's meant to do. Chelsea Clinton's new nonfiction book It's Your World is a call to action for kids to get informed, get inspired, and get going about the world's biggest issues. I'm not a kid, sure, but its contents struck a chord in me so much that I wanted to share what I'd learned.

That's because even though Clinton's text is aimed at children (although, seriously, can anyone resist the cover?), she hasn't skimped on the important stuff. The 400-page book is incredibly comprehensive, distilling some of the toughest, often least-sexy world problems like violence against women, child marriage, and disease epidemics into digestible issues to which her readers can relate — and presenting ways to help. If there's a kid in your life you're pretty sure is going to end up on the presidential ballot one day (I know a few!), this is the book you'll want to give her.

In the New York City headquarters of the Clinton Foundation one unseasonably hot September afternoon, I spoke to Chelsea Clinton about the release of It's Your World and the great resource she's created, what's inspired her, feminism, and, of course, a little about her family, too.

BUSTLE: Tell me a little bit about the germination of the project — how it came to be, why it’s formatted the way it is.

CHELSEA CLINTON: I’m just so grateful to know lots of kids, and in talking to kids, I have always been so impressed by how much more engaged kids are in the world around them than adults often realize. Kids are so curious, and they have a real sense of responsibility to do something about what they find frustrating or what they think could just be better with just their own ingenuity.

So, I was thinking, What resources are there for all of these amazing kids that I meet? and I couldn’t find a 21st century analog to a book that made a real impact on me when I was a kid called 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save The Earth. It came out when I was 10, and I read it soon thereafter, and it was so empowering to me because it treated me seriously as it talked to me about all of these things that were happening around the world, whether it was climate change or pollution, and it also said to me, Wherever you are, you can do something to save the Earth. So, I set out to write something that would have the same impact on a kid today that would have the same impact as 50 Simple Things had on me more than 20 years ago. And I hope that it does that.

There’s a lot of ground that’s covered in this book, so how did you deem what was substantial, and what were the topics with which children would connect? Did that come from your own experience personally?

I chose issues that I think disproportionately impact kids, and where I knew of kids who were engaged in doing real work on those issues, both so it helps inform kids but also illustrates through the kid change-makers in the book that, with a little information, kids can make a big difference.

Maybe not everyone thinks clean water is feminism, but it is.

Are these children whom you’ve met doing work through the Clinton Foundation?

Some of them are people I’ve met, and some of them are people that I read about or heard about on NPR, or someone suggested I should reach out to. They helped motivate me to write the book. Some of them I found through the process of writing the book.

Of all the challenges you outline in the book, what do you think gets the least attention or understanding for young people? Which affects them most?

That’s a great question. Everything I talk about the book affects kids. I was surprised when I realized that there are lots of terrific resources — only some of which I can talk about in the book — for climate change or endangered species for kids, whereas there are very few resources targeted to kids on girls and women or hunger and homelessness, even though those clearly impact kids in a very profound way either in terms of kids trying to go to and succeed at school even if they’re facing hunger or they don’t know where they’re going to spend that night with their families. Or, if they’re not going to school because they’re a girl, and they’re living in a place where girls aren’t allowed to go to school, or their parents don’t send them to school because they’re worried about their safety.

I hope that It’s Your World helps illuminate some of those issues for kids and also helps kids experiencing those issues realize they’re not alone. There are lots of kids navigating challenges that I couldn’t begin to imagine.

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How did you decide which resources you’d include and that would be the most helpful?

I want to be clear that it’s not every resource by any stretch that exists on any of these issues, but I selected resources that I found really helpful in talking with my nieces and nephews, for instance, about certain things. Or resources that kids suggested to me that they found really helpful, or were from organizations that really are making an impact and are really invested in making sure that kids can be part of that positive impact. It was kind of a motley crew of different avenues.

I hope that It’s Your World does inspire to get kids engaged, but I also hope that kids will share what they’re doing, which is why we’re launching a website along with the book. Not only can kids find one consolidated place in the Get Going! lists that the end of each chapter, but that we can continue to highlight work that I learn about when I go across the country talking to kids, or if kids start organizations similar to what they learn in the book.

What are the biggest challenges of distilling these hard policy issues and social problems into digestible bites for younger readers?

I think your question, in some ways, is the answer — ensuring that the issues are treated seriously, because I think it’s important to treat kids seriously. I think that you’re never too young to have a valid opinion, or ask a valid question, or question why something is in the world that you don’t think or feel is right on some visceral level. Ensuring that I treat kids seriously, but that I’m also respectful to the issues in a way that has integrity but that is also accessible — I thought about that with every page.

If feminism is really the belief that girls and women should have equal rights and equal opportunities to our brothers and fathers and sons, then we have to think about that holistically.

What role has feminism played in your life? It’s obviously something that’s pervasive and treated with importance in the book.

One of the things that I hope kids get from reading this book is how interconnected these different challenges are. I talk a lot about poverty or access to clean water throughout the book, or what it means to be a girl, because all of those are interconnected to one another, as well as issues like climate change. It’s important that kids understand those connections so that they feel not only empowered by knowing that but recognize that if they’re helping more people have access to clean water, that means a woman or a girl won’t have to walk hours every day just to have water. That’s time she can spend getting an education for herself to have different dreams and a different life than what her mother could have ever imagined. Maybe not everyone thinks clean water is feminism, but it is. If feminism is really the belief that girls and women should have equal rights and equal opportunities to our brothers and fathers and sons, then we have to think about that holistically. Having teachers who take girls as seriously as boys, but also ensuring that there are safe ways for girls to get to school, and that they don’t have to spend their time hauling water or working in the fields, and how interconnected all of this is. I hope that girls and boys understand this while reading this book.

We often think of ceilings as being these very visible barriers, but sometimes they really just are the expectations of the norm.

What is your earliest consciousness of and interaction with the concept of feminism?

My earliest memories are more in the negative. I remember, which I talk about in this book, being in 1st grade and this little boy bullying me, and the teachers just being like, “He’s just being a boy. You can’t expect to be treated differently. Boys are just going to be boys.” Which, of course, is so outlandish — I should be OK in being expected to be treated with respect. I understood that on some instinctual level, even when I was 6.

I remember loving the sciences when I was young, and my mom saying, “If you work hard and you are qualified, you can become an astronaut if that’s what you want, Chelsea. I couldn’t have done that.” And that was so mindboggling to me. I was like, “What do you mean you couldn’t be an astronaut?” and she was like, “Well, when I was your age, girls couldn’t grow up and be astronauts.” So I just realized that, even within a generation, so many possibilities had opened to me, but also how we often think of ceilings as being these very visible barriers, but sometimes they really just are the expectations of the norm. I’m so grateful that I had my mom, because on the way home from that PTA meeting where I was told “Boys will be boys,” and I said, “Mom, that sounds crazy to me,” she said, “Yes, you’re absolutely right, you deserve to be treated with the same respect as any boy, whether that’s by the boys themselves or with the teachers."

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Is there something that young girls today need or be doing to position themselves to be leaders or to succeed?

The answer is yes. More of the burden is on those of us who are adults to create the context in which girls and boys are growing up, but certainly I think for girls themselves it’s important that they do feel that they have an opinion that’s valuable, and that they can ask any question they want to ask, and that if they think that something feels uncomfortable, it probably is uncomfortable, and they should talk to adults they trust.

I also think it’s really important that girls support one another. Sometimes, it can be really lonely, and you just think, Am I the only one who feels this way? Am I the only one who thinks this is uncomfortable? and so we can all be a good friend. We can all create safe spaces for people to share their stories or their concerns or thoughts, so I hope that’s something every girl feels like she can do both for herself but also for her girlfriends, because, ultimately, that’s good for everyone.

I didn’t know I could care more intensely about the issues that I write about, or the general ambition of the book to empower kids. Then I became a mom.

Are there any specific goals that you have with It’s Your World?

I hope that It’s Your World will impact even one kid to help her or him to feel greater agency in their schools, communities, or world writ large. I feel that even more strongly now as a mom. I started working on this book before I was a mom, and I think about this constantly, because it just continues to surprise me, but I didn’t know I could care more intensely about the issues that I write about, or the general ambition of the book to empower kids. Then I became a mom, and realized that Charlotte’s going to grow up in this world, and the more kids who are more informed about the world around us and who are going to help to build the world that they want to see, that’s only going to be good for my daughter.

Images: Courtesy of Penguin Young Readers