Friday, August 2, 2019

Writer Spotlight: Susan Santone

Charlie Barshaw coordinates our quarterly Writer Spotlight feature and interviews writers of SCBWI-MI. This quarter's subject is Susan Santone.

Susan Santone: Rescued Rabbits, PBS and the U.N.

Your grandfather was an illiterate immigrant. Your father had to learn his English in real time at school. Your mother took turns going to school with her siblings because there were not enough shoes to go around. Neither parent went to college. How did this background history affect your life?

Like parents everywhere, mine wanted to provide their kids with opportunities they didn’t have. A stint in the Army helped my father land a white collar job in the Chicago area, and we move there from Philadelphia when I was four. He kept advancing over 30 years and finally retired as a Vice President of a Fortune 500 corporation—something that would be virtually impossible today with only a high school education. Because of him, we were solidly middle class. My parents supported my activities in music, art, and other extracurriculars, even though they had never experienced these things. They were always relentless cheerleaders, even when they didn’t fully understand the game.

I fully recognize that I’ve had opportunities others haven’t had, with my way further eased by my being white. This is one reason social justice and equity are central to my educational work. I feel a deep obligation to use all I’ve been given to ensure education provides everyone with the same access. 

You mentioned “Food First” by Francis Moore Lappe as a turning point in your early 20s. How did this book change your world view?

To be honest, I didn’t have a worldview before I discovered that book, an exposé on global hunger. I was a music education major (French horn), and between constant rehearsals and “less-than-woke” schooling that kept me oblivious, I was only vaguely aware of the vastness of the world’s problems—let alone their roots. Food First changed all of that, educating me about economic injustice,
deforestation, imperialism, poverty . . . the list goes on. Stunned and sickened, my response was This. Ends. Now.  And the way to change it? Education. I was convinced that we could solve hunger and injustice if people understood the underlying causes—and that meant integrating the issues into K-12 curriculum. Fired up, I did a 180 and threw myself into a decade-long re-education, formally and informally. I took courses, gained certificates to teach social studies and English to non-native speakers, taught in a variety of settings, and traveled to expand my understanding of the world (discussed next). My unwavering quest was to find a creative way to meld my divergent interests and skills to make a difference.

 In your mid-20s, you spent a year in Germany teaching English and working on an organic farm. What do you remember from that year?

That year was everything time abroad should be: new friends, travel, and adventures. I studied German before I went and then gained fluency pretty quickly through immersion: I lived in an apartment with German roommates, played in the community orchestra, and translated academic papers for professors at the nearby technical university. The city I was in, Karlsruhe, is a great size for exploring, and I bought a boy’s ten-speed bike at a garage sale (I still remember the man questioning my purchase). I named the green bike Sparkles (no glitter was involved), and he became my chariot. I rode him all over town and into the countryside, day and night. Maybe it was the newness of it all, but I’ve never had a bike that has brought me so much magic.

When did you visit India? What stuck with you about that experience?

I traveled around India for 6 weeks in my late 20s (when I was living in Seattle) because I wanted to experience a non-Western culture. I went over with a friend, but we decided to part ways when we got there, so I ventured out on my own. True to my nerdy self, I had learned some Hindi before I went, and that enabled me to talk with people, read signs, and navigate outside of tourist areas (where Hindi was spoken). I remember being struck by, well, everything: the vast size, the overwhelming beauty, the kindness of the people, the huge contrasts in wealth, the diversity of languages and landscapes. The experience also taught me the incredible goodwill that comes from learning a bit of someone’s language, however imperfectly. 

Early in your education career, you taught in schools in Chicago and Seattle. What was different in those school systems? What was similar?

As “urban” school systems, the Seattle and Chicago districts shared similar challenges, especially segregation. Divisions by race, ethnicity, and/or socioeconomic status occur both across and within schools. Residential patterns strongly influence school demographics, meaning that the cities’ segregation was reflected in segregated schools. Beyond that, segregation occurred within schools through (for example) “tracking” that placed students of color/low-income students in lower-level courses. The disciplinary practices were likewise disproportionate. Sadly, these are problems that still occur today. Preparing educators to change these conditions is a big part of my work.

After you lived in Seattle, you moved to Ann Arbor in 1993 and taught ESL and piano. Were those early years a struggle?

Actually, no. By that time, I was used to picking up and making my way in a new place through “gig” work. I not only enjoyed teaching piano and ESL, it also left me time to figure out how to carve out a career in sustainability- and justice-focused education. During that period, I was very prolific in children’s writing and art/illustration. In fact, the works-in-progress I discuss later in this interview are revivals of projects begun at that time (and even before). 

Education is obviously of vital importance to you. What teachers or courses influenced you the most on your journey?

My high school band inspired my interest in education. From there, the courses needed to earn my additional certificates introduced me to teaching strategies beyond the specific world of music. But most influential was the SIT Graduate Institute (the best school you’ve never heard of), where I got my Master’s in International and Intercultural Management. I really found my groove there because I got the support to integrate my interests in curriculum, sustainability, education, and more. 

You were the founder and Executive Director of “Creative Change Educational Solutions.” What was its original mission?

I founded the organization in 2002 with a mission to “provide innovative education to help create a sustainable world: a healthy environment, a fair economy, and a just and equitable society.”  For 16 years, our small team met the mission by providing schools and universities with curriculum and professional development focused on the elements of a “sustainable world” as defined in the mission. We created a sizeable portfolio of curriculum and course materials for kindergarten through college on topics ranging from sustainable food systems to ecological economics to racial equity.

Creative Change recently dissolved with the publication of your 2018 book, “Reframing the Curriculum: Design for Social Justice and Sustainability.” Was the book a culmination of 16 years of Creative Change work? Was it bittersweet closing up shop?

Reframing the Curriculum compiles the philosophy and approaches developed at Creative Change. Because the book carries on the organization’s mission, the closure felt logical and satisfying—a “mission accomplished” milestone. I also bring the academic side of the work into my teaching at the University of Michigan School of Education. My courses, which focus on educational reform, social justice, and multicultural education, provide an opportunity to shape prospective teachers in an in-depth way.

For those of us not in the teaching profession, what is curriculum? Why is it so important to your message?

To understand the role of curriculum in education, we need to think about the role of education in the larger world. Here’s the framing I use in my book (and TEDx talk): The future is a story yet to be written, and today’s students will write tomorrow’s chapters. But what story are we preparing them to write? That depends on the curriculum. 

Curriculum is the heart of the educational experience. It’s what students learn, and it determines where they will take the story. The term ‘curriculum’ can refer to a broad course of instruction; actual instructional materials; or the constellation of unseen factors that affect the learning experience, including teachers’ expectations of students, narratives about what is valued and who belongs, etc. All of these factors are interdependent, amplifying their impact on students’ academic and social-emotional development.

Our world is unfolding as an epic, a drama, a tragedy and a comedy all rolled into one. If children are to shift the plot towards more positive outcomes, curriculum must equip them as actors and co-authors with the capacity to influence change. For me, it’s about providing students with the education they need to “author” the future they want.

What work did you do with the United Nations?

I did several projects: In 2003, I created a curriculum on human rights and anti-discrimination for their online educational portal, then called the “Cyber Schoolbus.” The materials were available worldwide, and we did the first on-the-ground pilot with the Ypsilanti schools, where the program was the basis for a multi-day orientation for 9th graders with the goal of building community. 

In 2012, I worked on a project called Safe Planet, which focuses on education about reducing environmental toxins, particularly through international agreements. We were looking at big-picture environmental justice issues such as the accumulation of toxins in the food chain and the populations most vulnerable to this. 

Finally (and this is not actual ‘work’ with the UN), I was part of a panel at the 2018 UN Conference for Nongovernmental Organizations held at UN headquarters in NY. The panel focused on improving education for migrant and refugee children.

You worked as an advisor for WGBH and PBS Kids for the shows Plum Landing and LOOP SCOOPS. What was your role?

Both shows are multimedia, educational programs. LOOP SCOOPS
Loop Scoops
offers videos on the science and economics of sustainable design, while Plum Landing combines animation, live action videos, and community-based activities to get kids exploring nature in their local communities. For both programs, I worked remotely with a team of animators, researchers, and educators to provide input on scripts, refine the scientific and environmental content, and adapt the evaluation tools. It was a delightful opportunity to combine my educational- and creative sides.

You are a member of SCBWI with some writing projects “under wraps.” 
The young adult novel “The Shape of Change,” was a runner-up for the novel mentorship. Where does that project stand now?

After much fine-tuning, I’m now querying. An agent requested pages in the spring, and although she passed, the small step gave me confidence that I’m moving in the right direction. 

The novel places a sheltered girl’s social awakening against a backdrop of family secrets and the ecological crisis she unknowingly set off. The story is set in Curvelia, a mythical land where everyone and everything is made of living shapes ruled by cycles of growth and decay. (Curious readers can check out a quick synopsis and spot illustrations here.) 

What is your WIP picture book about? Are you also illustrating it?

Balloons Gone Bad is about a band of rebel balloons whose grand scheme to drive the birds from the sky goes horribly awry. The story features twisted verse and mind-bending illustrations (created years ago), redeemed by a sweet ending. 
High above, a flock of pointy-beaked birds jostle for space with a gaggle of balloons. A few pecks, and the balloons are dead. Determined to banish the threat, the balloons suck up all the air and fill up the sky with masses of bulges, tufts, flaps, twists, and tails. Delighted with their victory, the bloated heads revel in their greatness and a bird-free life. But when the good times become smothering, it’s a race against time to deflate—and the balloons can’t do it alone. (Readers can take a peek here.) 

Tell us about your chapter book.

Rodger the Chameleon Learns the Serious Business of Being a Tie tells the story of a superstar,  kaleidoscopic chameleon who must discover where home truly is. As with the picture book, I created the illustrations many years ago.
Talented and ambitious, Rodger can do it all: Plaids, stripes, and geometric shapes. Black to white in under five seconds. Although he’s the idol of every reptile in the garden, Rodger is sick of entertaining his simpler fans and playing with his grass-colored friends who—at best—can darken just a shade or two. Fed up, he takes off in search of challenges befitting his gifts and an audience sophisticated enough to appreciate them.
But the wider world throws him more than he expected. A scrape with a dog’s tail, a plaid couch, and a denim-clad butt land him in a closet where the ties teach him the Art of Looking Sharp. If Rodger-as-Tie can save his owner by camouflaging stains at a business lunch, he’ll earn the coveted title of Fashion Master. But before he can stake his claim among the elite, Rodger must choose between walking the red carpet and being true to his colors. 

Have you added to your rescue pet collection? 

Last year, I adopted a female, Cinnabun (the brown one), as a partner for Benjamin after his prior
Cinnabun and Benjamin
partner passed. Thankfully Cinnabun and Benjamin bonded quickly. (Bonding rabbits can be brutal; they are vicious fighters when they don’t get along.) I haven’t taken in any other pets since then, but I donate to various small mammal rescues, especially when there is a crisis, such as the recent discovery of hoarding situation in west Michigan involving 150 rabbits.

Susan Santone is an educator, speaker, executive, writer, and all-around busy and fascinating person. For more on Susan , visit her website :

Charlie Barshaw conducts quarterly interviews with SCBWI-MI writers for The Mitten Blog.


  1. Fascinating and inspiring to hear Susan's story. Thank you Susan and Charlie for a exciting read.

  2. Yes, fascinating and inspiring! Great to learn more about you, Susan, and your many projects. I hope to get to talk to you more about all of this at an SCBWI-MI event soon!