Writing a book with my Republican friend taught me about ties that bind

By Rana DiOrio, co-author of What Does It Mean To Be American? (Sourcebooks April 2019)

In August 2010, Elad Yoran was in the Bay Area on business, and I invited him to join my family and me for dinner at our home in Belvedere, CA. While I made dinner, Elad read to my children on the couch. Among the stack of books he read were a couple of titles in the What Does It Mean To Be . . .? ® series.

I had recently finished writing What Does It Mean To Be Safe?, and at the time I had no intention of continuing with the series. My company, Little Pickle Press, had published the first two books in the series, What Does It Mean To Be Global? (Little Pickle Press 2009) and What Does It Mean To Be Green? (Little Pickle Press 2010) to prove our model more than anything else. I wanted to beta test our systems, processes, relationships, strategies, and tactics with my own works before I accepted and published submissions from other authors. To that end, in 2010 we also published Your Fantastic Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deak, Ph.D. and illustrated by Sarah Ackerley, which has close to 500,000 copies in print, and Sofia’s Dream by Land Wilson and illustrated by Sue Cornelison, which is recommended reading in McGraw Hill’s Inspire Science Teacher’s Edition (Grade 1) as well as the California Teacher’s Edition (Grade 1). I felt compelled to write then publish What Does It Mean To Be Present? (Little Pickle Press 2010) after my best friend threatened to throw my work-issued Blackberry in the pool by which we were supposed to be relaxing—wake up call! And also What Does It Mean To Be Safe? (Little Pickle Press 2011) as a mother who wanted her three young children to be more proficient with erecting and maintaining safe boundaries with people as I had been less successful at doing throughout my life. But I wanted to focus the company’s resources and efforts on discovering and launching the works of other creatives, which we did quite successfully.

As it turned out, I wasn’t done with my series. As I learned more important lessons in my life, I felt compelled to help children learn them too — in a way that was relatable and impactful. I read R.J. Palacio’s Wonder upon publication, and it moved me deeply. At the time I was winding through a high conflict divorce and trying to take the high road at every turn, which is very challenging. I encouraged my girls to read the book, but my son was too young to appreciate its significance and message. So I realized there was a need for a book about empathy and altruism for young children. To fill that need, I wrote What Does It Mean To Be Kind? (Little Pickle Press 2015), which thanks to Scholastic has more than 250,000 copies in print.

I also realized along the way that, aside from being a parent, the most challenging and rewarding thing I have done with my life so far is being an entrepreneur. As a corporate securities lawyer and investment banker during the tech boom, I advised hundreds of entrepreneurs. Elad was one such entrepreneur. He was one of my clients when I was an investment banker at Merrill Lynch.

The more I evolved as an entrepreneur myself, the more I thought about my clients like Elad. It’s so easy to give advice and so hard to build something from nothing. After I had been an entrepreneur for a few years, and with hard-earned empathy, I called many of the entrepreneurs who used to be my clients and were now my friends to apologize for not “getting it” when I was advising them. Each in their own way thanked me for my insight, told me to not be so hard on myself, and welcomed me to the club. And without exception, they all invested in my first company — Little Pickle Press. I was so moved by this awakening and discovery that I wanted to help young people gain an appreciation of what it takes to be an entrepreneur much earlier than I had. So, I co-authored What Does It Mean To Be An Entrepreneur? (Little Pickle Press 2016) with Emma D. Dryden, which thanks to Scholastic has more than 75,000 copies in print.

But my own perceptions of the world around us wasn’t the only thing changing materially over those years. The political landscape had shifted dramatically, and the politics in this country became increasingly heated and polarized. I was often reminded of that night in 2010 when Elad visited. During our dinner back then, Elad suggested that I write What Does It Mean To Be American? I remember acknowledging it as a great idea and filing it away in the back of my mind. At the time, I thought I was done with my What Does It Mean To Be…?® series. But like the entrepreneur club Elad graciously welcomed me to years after he had joined himself, I realized that What Does It Mean To Be American? was another lesson he was just a little ahead of me in learning, and the book needed to be in the world now more than ever before. And I knew just how it needed to be born.

I called Elad. I told him that I was ready to write the book, but I wanted him to write it with me. It made perfect sense. I knew the book needed to be apolitical. Being American is complex. It can’t be boiled down to a simple formula, and it couldn’t possibly be explained by just one author. Elad wasn’t just the man who had the idea, he was the perfect person to balance my own ideas about being American.

Elad lives on the East Coast, and I live on the West Coast. He is a veteran of the US Army, and I have never served in the military. He is of Israeli descent, and I am of Italian descent. He has the point of view of a strong man, and I have the point of view of a strong woman. He leans right, and I lean left. Always up to a challenge, he accepted.

So much had happened to each of us during the time between dinner that night in 2010 and the day in 2016 when we agreed to nurture this lofty idea into existence together. We were both drawing on life experiences we never imagined at the time.

Elad started a family with his wife, Michal, and I knew that fatherhood fueled Elad’s passion for our project. I got divorced and was laser-focused on ensuring my children experienced the transition as seamlessly as possible. I was also alarmed by the animosity in the political arena and wanted this book to help children, including my own, understand the essence of being American.

As we navigated the circuitous path to put this book into the world, we learned a lot. Some of those lessons were typical of the process. We discovered what books were out there and where the gaps were. But others were unique to the story we’d set out to tell together. We challenged our own belief systems and empathized with one another’s viewpoints and perspectives. We read, and reread, books about how our great nation came to be and how it has matured. We acknowledged the importance of patriotism in our lives and determined that it was every bit as seminal to shaping the people we have become as our respective religions and ethnicities have been. Patriotism is a core creed for each of us and in conversation with friends, family, and acquaintances in both of our lives, we learned that whatever our preconceptions about what patriotism means, its the ties that bind us all.

In May 2016, Elad was back in the Bay Area on business, and we agreed to meet in a crowded lunch place in San Francisco to work on the first draft of the book. We sat down that day knowing that patriotism — a pride and love of country, and the values we share, that bind us together — is what we wanted our book to be about. We distilled complex concepts to make them more accessible to young children. We explored the essence of what it means to be American and why it matters. It took several other working sessions, in person and by phone, before we landed on a draft that made us both proud.

In January 2017, Sourcebooks acquired the publishing rights to our title when it licensed the publishing rights to the other Little Pickle Press titles. And today, the Advanced Reader’s Copy is out in the world and Sourcebooks will publish it in April 2019.

It is our hope that as you read our book to the children in your life you can engage in discussions with them about what our flag represents, why we have fireworks on the 4th of July, why we sing the National Anthem before sporting events, how national parks came to be and why they are so precious, what a first responder is and how they keep us safe, and on and on. With context and vocabulary in their minds and, most importantly, pride and love in their hearts, we are honored to inspire children as they set out on the journey of discovering what it means to be American.