I started chatting with Kirsten Larson, the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS, about what led up to her writing about Emma Lilian Todd. Since so many of you were interested in this biography, I thought you would enjoy hearing Kirsten's publication journey and have another opportunity to win a copy. Boyds Mills & Kane was happy to oblige, so make sure you leave a comment at the end of this post along with your email address if you are new to my blog.
Without further ado, here is Kirsten!
CAROL: Tell us a little about your career. How did you go from working at NASA to writing children’s books? Would you also share some of your own childhood/teenage interests that prompted you to work with rocket scientists and become a writer? In other words, what about your life experiences led you up to writing a picture book?
|Like Lilian, airplanes were in Kirsten's blood. Here she is|
trying on her father's Air Force helmet.
KIRSTEN: I’ve always been interested in science, though I never pictured myself becoming a scientist. I remember being enthralled by Sagan’s THE COSMOS in middle school and captivated with particle physics after writing a paper about neutrinos.
At the same time, I was always a journalist in some way, whether it was creating family newsletters with hard-hitting headlines like “Family Goes to the Dentist”, reviewing movies for the local paper in high school, or working at the college newspaper.
When I got an internship in public affairs at NASA in college (where I studied both history and English), all my interests came together. Explaining complex science and engineering concepts to the news media and the general public was great practice for explaining them to young readers.
CAROL: How did you research WOOD, WIRE, WINGS?
KIRSTEN: Normally I start my research by reading secondary sources about my subject. For me, I can better understand primary sources when I can fit them into some kind of context. I use those secondary sources to point the way to primary sources, and I am always thankful for books filled with footnotes, indices, and bibliographies. I find primary sources most helpful for hearing my main character’s voice and for providing sensory details needed to build scenes. Primary sources aren’t always reliable for facts like dates, for example, and I always look for corroborating sources.
With that said, my process for WOOD, WIRE, WINGS was different. There really weren’t any secondary sources about Lilian Todd specifically, just a few pages in a biography about her funder, Olivia Sage, and a mention of Lilian in a history of the Aeronautic Society in New York, of which she was a member. So while I say my normal process is to start with secondary sources, with Lilian I had to start with newspaper and magazine articles from the early 1900s, which is where I found the bulk of the information about her. At the same time, I read secondary sources about the early history of flight to gain a broader understanding of the period and how Lilian’s work fit into it.
CAROL: Why did you decide to write about Emma Lilian Todd?
KIRSTEN: In 2014, I was exploring an idea I’d jotted down in my writer’s notebook: Rosie the Riveter. I had a stack of books from the library including Andrea Beaty’s Rosie Revere, Engineer, illustrated by David Roberts, which included Lilian Todd in a list of female aviation firsts. Though I have lived and worked around airplanes my entire life, I had never heard of Lilian Todd. Nor had my husband, an early aviation buff. I knew I had a story.
In Kirsten's first job after college, she traveled to air shows like
the Reno Air Races to talk to the public about NASA and its aviation programs.
It was good training for writing a picture book
CAROL: How many drafts did you write? How long was it from inspiration to publication?
KIRSTEN: After six months of research and writing, I had a solid draft. In response to critiques from my critique group and professionals, I continued to revise the draft over the next couple of years. The book underwent so many revisions over the years, it’s really difficult to count. You can see some of my other opening lines here. I even wrote it as a middle-grade historical fiction (only a chapter). Just like inventors, writers never get things right the first time. We have to keep tweaking.
CAROL: I love that comparison--I totally agree! Do you belong to a critique group? If so, what part did your critique partners play in your journey?
KIRSTEN: I am in two critique groups — one focused on nonfiction, and another focused primarily on picture books. I can’t overstate the importance of having good critique partners. No matter how practiced you are, there’s always a gap between what you think you wrote, and how it comes across on the page. Critique partners help you find these gaps. And occasionally, when you can’t figure out a way to fix things, they can help spark new ideas and ways forward.
CAROL: What were the bumps in the road for you?
KIRSTEN: Sure, I’ve had plenty of bumps. Rejection is the lifeblood of book creators. WOOD, WIRE, WINGS sold only after a revise and resubmit from my fabulous editor, Carolyn Yoder at Calkins Creek. And even then I revised it again after it sold, and one more time after we had Tracy Subisak’s dummy, and I could cut quite a few words.
And then perhaps the biggest bump was the book released just before COVID-19 resulted in shelter-in-place orders across the country, which forced the cancellation of in-person events.
Yet, the bottom line is there are always opportunities for creators who are willing to remain flexible. I’ve been able to participate in events teacher and librarian events in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Missouri virtually, which I never would have been able to do in pre-pandemic times. Much of this has been made possible by partnering with other book creators, particularly the Soaring 20s debut picture book group.
CAROL: Was it difficult finding an agent? Any recommendations on that process?
KIRSTEN: I got lucky and was working on a popular theme--women-in-STEM at a time that the market was hot. I sent this manuscript to six agents over a couple of years. (I queried a fiction STEM book too.) The first time I queried in 2014, my work was far from ready. By 2016 my work was much improved. The best resource I know of for querying is SubItCub.com. You’ll find excellent advice on writing queries, tracking queries, researching agents, and so much more. There’s also a Facebook support group.
CAROL: How did publishing your school and library books prepare you for writing and publishing WOOD, WIRE, WINGS?
KIRSTEN: They taught me not to be too precious with my words, to see editors as collaborators who could help me make my work stronger.
CAROL: Are you a member of SCBWI? If so, how has that been a part of your journey?
KIRSTEN: I’ve been a member of SCBWI since the beginning, and especially value the regional conferences for the craft focus and the camaraderie of my local “Mingle” (monthly gathering). My editor, Carolyn Yoder actually critiqued WOOD, WIRE, WINGS at an SCBWI CenCal Writers’ Day Conference. So yes, SCBWI has been a critical part of my success story.
CAROL: What advice would you offer writers who want to write nonfiction picture book biographies?
KIRSTEN: I summed up my best advice for writing nonfiction picture book biographies in 5 Tips for (Un)Writing Narrative Nonfiction. At the end of the day, we have to remember biographies are stories first and need to contain all the elements of fictional stories — strong characters and character arcs, meaningful takeaways, etc.
Kirsten used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. Kirsten is the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, February 2020), A TRUE WONDER: The Superhero Who Changed Everything (Clarion, 2021), illustrated by Katy Wu, and THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Fall 2021), as well as 25 nonfiction books for the school and library market. Learn more at kirsten-w-larson.com or on social media @kirstenwlarson
Headshot: credit Tammie Holcomb