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Q & A with Jonathan Kasparek

Q & A with Jonathan Kasparek

Wisconsin Historical Society Press: In what ways has writing "Voices & Votes: How Democracy Works in Wisconsin" been a personal experience? How do you feel connected to this book?

Jonathan Kasparek: For years I walked through the state capitol nearly every day between my home and the University of Wisconsin campus. I loved the artwork and marble corridors and the magnificent chambers where government activity — both extraordinary and mundane — occurs.  Being able to tell the story of that government and its history in Wisconsin has been a great privilege.  

WHS Press: How do you think readers will connect to your book?

JK: I hope that this book will answer many of the questions that young people often ask when encountering the idea of government for the first time.  Adults take for granted that government exists in tribal, federal, state, and local forms, but children need to understand why this system works.  The book attempts to respond to student's natural curiosity, and we tried to anticipate every "why" question young people might raise as we discussed functions and forms of our political system.

WHS Press: What was the most challenging part of writing "Voices & Votes: How Democracy Works in Wisconsin"?

JK: The most challenging part of writing this book was explaining how complex institutions, like the legislature and supreme court, developed over time. Every part of Wisconsin's government is based on the experiences of other nations and states, from Medieval England to the Northwest Ordinance.  Explaining how Wisconsin's founders found these precedents relevant in 1847 — and why they still work well—is a complicated story even for adults. Explaining why Wisconsin citizens elect two houses of the legislature because the constitution fuses together ancient institutions (the Roman Senate and Assemblies) with modern political theory (democracy) in a way that fourth-graders could understand was quite a challenge!  

WHS Press: What would you like students to take away from "Voices & Votes: How Democracy Works in Wisconsin"?

JK: Far too many people view government negatively, as some alien entity that takes our tax money and makes us follow rules. I hope that students will view democratic government for what it truly should be — people working together to make our society better. I also hope that it will instill a sense of responsibility — for our democracy to last, every one must participate.

WHS Press: What was the motivation for writing "Voices & Votes: How Democracy Works in Wisconsin"?

JK: There are short works about how state and local government work, but these usually neglect the historical framework of continuity and change over time. In order to understand why our government works the way it does, we need to understand its past: why did the framers of Wisconsin's constitution create a supreme court that was elected and not appointed? Why has the judicial branch changed over the years? Government is never static: it changes over time, and understanding how government changes in response to new social conditions or new ideas reminds us that we have an obligation to ensure that government continues to function and to make changes when necessary.

WHS Press: Why is this book important for Wisconsin? For Students?

JK: Wisconsin has a long history of innovation: primary elections, industrial regulation, workers compensation, unemployment compensation. We need to remind ourselves of how often Wisconsin has led the nation toward a more democratic way of life. Wisconsin also has a reputation for taking government very seriously. Only in the past two decades has the state's reputation for "squeaky-clean" politics suffered from corruption scandals and negative campaigning.  It is important for citizens of this state to refresh their appreciation for our political history and rededicate themselves to democracy.
 
WHS Press: What was your favorite part of writing "Voices & Votes: How Democracy Works in Wisconsin"?

JK: My favorite part of developing this book was writing about the personalities that have shaped Wisconsin politics. From James Duane Doty and Henry Dodge in territorial days to Edward O. Ryan and Ezekiel Gillespie in the nineteenth century to Robert La Follette and Olympia Brown in the Progressive Era to Gaylord Nelson and Midge Miller in the late twentieth century, interesting people have shaped our government. I remember reading about these people as a student, and I hope writing about them will make the complex ideas behind government more approachable and interesting for young students today. 

WHS Press: Describe how writing for young adults differs from writing for adult audiences.

JK: You need to explain everything! When writing for adults, you can assume the average reader will know there is this thing called "congress" and a document called the "constitution." You can then proceed from there.  But with a younger audience, if you say our legislature is based on the congressional model, which in turn is based on the British Parliament, you have to explain everything back to ancient Greece! Trying to balance the need to include enough background information and the need to keep the text from becoming too overwhelming was often very difficult.

Q & Awith Bobbie Malone  

Wisconsin Historical Society Press: In what ways has writing "Voices & Votes: How Democracy Works in Wisconsin" been a personal experience? How do you feel connected to this book?

Bobbie Malone: Teachers have been asking for a book on Wisconsin government for many years, and I felt that we needed to create something that went beyond civics and also responded to political history. I looked for a national model for such a book and couldn't find anything. Jon Kasparek is a terrific political historian, and I enjoyed working with him on "Wisconsin History Highlights," so I thought we'd make a good team. And we pretty much invented this book that draws both political history and civics together in a way that will make sense to young readers.

WHS Press: How do you think readers will connect to your book?

BM: I think students will appreciate getting a handle on this information. Learning how democratic government works and understanding why it is divided into separately functioning branches is not the stuff of a Harry Potter narrative adventure. But I think students will like the real world examples, the charts, graphs, and photographs that help make such abstract (for 4th graders especially) content more concrete and useful. Just being able to handle the vocabulary in order to understand the adult political landscape will be truly useful!

WHS Press: What was the most challenging part of writing "Voices & Votes: How Democracy Works in Wisconsin"?

BM: It's hard to take complex and abstract information — and lots of essential political terminology — and make it interesting to a youth audience. Jon and I worked hard to strike a balance. The book really benefited from student editors in "test drive" classrooms around the state who worked on the longest and most difficult chapter on state and tribal government. They were terrific at helping us determine what needed to be changed to make the information clear and digestible.

WHS Press: What would you like students to take away from "Voices & Votes: How Democracy Works in Wisconsin"?

BM: I'd like students to feel comfortable with knowing how government works in the state and to understand how essential it is to be engaged in helping make democracy work better. They don't need to be voting age to make a difference. The closing chapter, "Voices for Change," tells readers about various projects in which students have spearheaded to bring benefits to their communities. Democracy is a system of government designed to empower its citizens with rights and responsibilities. I hope that students discover that they can responsibly make a difference. 

WHS Press: What was the motivation for writing "Voices & Votes: How Democracy Works in Wisconsin"?

BM: Too few adults bother voting. Democracy can only work if citizens act responsibly as citizens. Upper elementary school classrooms are the perfect setting for getting students engaged in how things work and helping them realize what they can do as young citizens to make their communities function best for all those who live there.

WHS Press: Why is this book important for Wisconsin? For students?

BM: There's nothing like this out there for young learners. We are excited about having created it.

WHS Press: What was your favorite part of writing "Voices & Votes: How Democracy Works in Wisconsin"?

BM: As a former fourth grade teacher, I love being in the classroom during test drives and learning the way students respond to what we've written. This is true for all the New Badger History books. Young learners are such honest critics, make such thoughtful suggestions, and have so little chance to exercise their tremendous intellectual curiosity and facility in the course of the normative classroom curricula. I so appreciate their seriousness. And their input makes an enormous difference in how we deal with all the rest of the chapters. Of course, it's also great to get the finished book back from the printer!

WHS Press: Describe how writing for young adults differs from writing for adult audiences.

BM: Writing for a youth audience is much more challenging because there's nothing that can be assumed. Every concept and every vocabulary word demands a decision. Is this the clearest way I can tell this? Is this information essential to the development of the basic argument? Will this sequence of information best help students understand the chronology and the gist of the particular event or situation? Which maps will help? What kind of graphic support does this paragraph need for a young reader to make sense of the information? I am a matchmaker at heart, and I love putting all the pieces together to make the book work. Writing for adults is much easier. I do miss some of my favorite verbs, however!


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