Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Author Interview with Kirsten Larson + Another Opportunity to win WOOD, WIRE, & WINGS!

Congratulations to Rosi Hollenbeck who won OUR WORLD: A First Book of Geography. (Psst, children's writers, if you haven't discovered Rosi's blog, you need to head on over there. She is my west coast counterpart with book reviews as well as links to other great writing blogs.)


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
about airplanes!

CAROLHow 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 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 or on social media @kirstenwlarson

Headshot: credit Tammie Holcomb

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Our World: A First Book of Geography--A Review and Giveaway

My friends who are picture book writers, parents, grandparents, or teachers will LOVE Our World: A First Book of Geography, As I said in an email to the author, Sue Lowell Gallion, it is one of those books that you read and say to yourself, "Why didn't I think of that?" And then you have to go buy it for a young reader in your life.  


Our World is not only a beautifully written and illustrated board book about our world but when folded back it becomes a freestanding globe with a magnetic closure. Excuse the pun, but this is an out-of-this-world concept. The illustrator, Lisk Feng, did an outstanding job of bringing Sue Gallion's words to life. 

Our World begins with,

Many places to explore,
From mountain peaks to ocean floor.
Look around you, step outside . . .
Find forests tall
And grasslands wide. 

The poem continues by mentioning jungles, deserts, polar caps, bodies of water, mountains, etc.  

On the opposite page from each poem, there is a brief exposition of the natural wonders that are vividly depicted. 

This page describes the rivers, lakes, and oceans. The text reads:

High in the mountains, snow melts and flows downstream to form rivers. Other rivers begin as underground springs or lakes. Rivers flow into oceans. Did you know that most of our planet is covered in oceans? Fish, coral, and other animals thrive in shallow waters. Some creatures also live in the cold, black ocean depths. In some places, the ocean is deeper than the tallest mountains on Earth!

One of the pages shows the whole world. The poem reads, 

Continents large, islands small, 
Salty seas surrounding all.

The second to the last page shows a view of earth from outer space as an astronaut might see it. The exposition reads, "The light and warmth from the sun is what makes life on Earth possible for plants, animals, and humans too." The poem reads,

Our blue planet,
Warmed by sun:

The reader turns to the last page and finds a sweet illustration with this simple, yet poignant text:

A living home for everyone.

Because of the way in which the book is constructed, toddlers will enjoy flipping the pages and seeing how the magnets make the globe stick together. Pre-readers will enjoy rhythmic poetry. The text is informative for second through fourth graders, which makes the book a great preschool and elementary school resource when studying geography and ecosystems. 

You'll find an activity guide here and a hands-on activity guide to make an inflatable globe here.


Interested in winning this book? I bet you are! Please leave me a comment with your email address (if you are new to my blog). Giveaway ends July 24 at 5 PM! As always, if you share on social media or subscribe to my blog, you receive an extra chance. Just let me know what you do!

Monday, July 20, 2020

Writers, Have You Heard? Angela and Becca have ANOTHER Thesaurus + Giveaway

Congratulations to Erin Ellison who won WOOD, WIRE and WINGS from last week's blog. For those of you who didn't win--you'll get a second chance when I feature Kirsten Larson's publication journey in an upcoming blog.


As many of you know, I am a HUGE fan of One Stop for Writers  and Writers Helping Writers, the brainchild of Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. (Click here for my behind-the-scenes interview with them.)

You might have thought that seven thesauri would be enough. But not for them! They realized that your character's choice of occupation speaks volumes about him or her. So, of course, they decided to do something about it. The Occupation Thesaurus is releasing TODAY and boy, does it have a lot to offer!

Let's say you are working on developing your protagonist, antagonist, or an important secondary character. A part of what you want to figure out is what your character does to support herself or her family. Their choice of employment will say a lot about who that person is. Here is the list of jobs detailed in this thesaurus; please click on the link and be impressed with the 124 entries! 

Angela and Becca provided a sneak peak into one of those occupations: firefighter

You'll see that each occupation includes training, necessary skills and abilities, useful skills or talents, helpful character traits, sources of friction, people they interact with, how the occupation meets the character's internal needs, how to switch the stereotype, and considerations about why a character would choose that job. Just reading through one entry could give you dozens of ideas for a story as well as insight into your character. 

In addition, amazing writers in our community have put together additional career profiles for you, based on jobs they have done in the past. (Shout out to my friend, Jarm Del Boccio who contributed "Children's author"!) This is a great way to access accurate information so you can better describe the roles and responsibilities that go with a specific job, right? To access this list, GO HERE

If you're like me, you might like all this information at your fingertips. If you join One Stop for Writers, then this thesaurus-- along with all seven others is right there--waiting for you to browse, brainstorm, and create.  

If you'd rather purchase a print or digital copy of the book, here is a list of e-tailers who have it.


To celebrate the release of their new book, Writers Helping Writers has a giveaway happening July 20th to July 23rd. You can win some great prizes, including gift certificates that can be spent on writing services within our Writer’s Showcase. Stop by this site to enter! FYI, although I love your comments on my blog, this is Angela and Becca's giveaway. So leaving me a comment won't qualify you for entering their contest. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: A Review and a Giveaway

Congratulations to Jo Lynn Worden who won Will You Be My Friend? from last week's blog.

I have received a number of picture books from publishers recently, so if you love picture books...stay tuned!

WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane by Kirsten W. Larson (Calkins Creek, 2020) is a picture book biography that will entertain and educate elementary school readers. Because of its historicity and accessible language, I think it could also be useful for reluctant readers in middle school classrooms. You will find a teacher's guide here and a hands-on engineering activity here.


"To Emma Lilian Todd, problems were like gusts of wind: they set her mind soaring. 

Sometimes the problems seemed small, like where to find metal cans to craft her inventions. (Solution: she saved tin cans from her supper.)

But soon Lilian's challenges ballooned." 

In this way, the author immediately invites the reader to see Emma's character and conflicts. The time period is invoked on the cover illustration, promising readers the type of story they will find within the covers. 

Early in the book, the reader discovers that Lilian's role model was her grandfather, who invented his own carriage wheel. Like him, she also whittled and fiddled and dreamed of inventing something useful. (Hooray for great family role models!)

Her first invention was a weather vane that she made out of a broken toy and Christmas ball from their tree.

It worked!

One day she took apart a clock and enjoyed the challenge of putting it back together again. (sounds like Benjamin Banneker, doesn't it?).  Her mother encouraged her by making sure she had the tools she needed. (Hooray for great mothers!)

Since inventing things wasn't women's work at the end of the nineteenth century, Lilian worked at the U.S. Patent Office, typing up plans for new machines. "While Lilian's fingers raced across the keys, she constructed each contraption in her mind."

Pretty soon, she was working on creating blueprints for her own fantastic flying machines. After long days of typing, she built small airships in her Manhatten apartment. 

In 1908 she read about the Wright brothers flying machine in which the operator had to lie flat. She wanted to build a machine that was operated by a woman who would swing in a basket from a balloon below the machine. Lilian studied birds and pretty soon airplanes took over her apartment and her life. 

Lilian experienced many failures but she learned from each one. She was mocked by men but in 1908 she wrote, "they admit that my ideas are all right and that a full sized aeroplane built in accordance with these same despised models will fly---which is the principal thing after all, isn't it?"

One of the richest women in the world at the time, Olivia Sage, provided much needed financial support. Lilian found a space to assemble her design, she hired men to build it and bought supplies. 
Although she experienced many set-backs, in November 1910, she watched from the ground as the pilot took off in the air. 

I doubt Emma Lilian Todd envisioned the future of flying which included her own contribution, but she looked forward to "driving" an aeroplane at some point. That same year her plane successfully got up in the air, she wrote, "There is no work so exasperating, so delightful, so mean, so difficult, so exhilarating, as building aeroplanes..." 

Although I found this picture on Wikipedia, it is unclear if Lilian ever flew the plane herself. What is clear, is that she was the first woman to design a successful airplane on her own.

I believe this is a much-needed story of determination and perseverance. The next generation--girls and boys--needs role models of adults who do not easily give up and diligently work to fulfill their dreams. The detailed illustrations by Tracy Subisak complement the text beautifully. Teachers and home school educators will appreciate the endnotes showing the early days of airplanes, as well as the extensive bibliography. 


Leave a comment (with your email address if you are new to my blog) by Friday, July 17 at 5 PM if you would like to enter this drawing. As usual, if you become a new subscriber or share on social media, I'll add your name twice--but make sure you tell me what you do! U.S. addresses only. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Will You Be Friends With Me? A Board Book Review and Giveaway

Kathleen Long Bostrom's newest book, Will You Be Friends With Me? (Hachette Book Group) has come out just in time for International Friendship Day. This simple board book with inviting illustrations has a powerful message: children will look different and have different preferences--but they can still be friends. 


From the opening of the book: 

I wake early, you sleep late.
My hair's curly, yours is straight.
I say, "Now!"
You say, "Wait?"
Will you be friends with me?

The book shows children in a variety of play, school, and sports settings. Throughout the text, children point out differences between themselves with the narrator asking the recurring question, "Will you be friends with me?"

In the middle of the book, the narrator observes that working together is better than being alone:

Let's play leapfrog.
Jump up high!
Maybe we will touch the sky.
We can do it if we try!

The theme, "It's okay to be different from one another" is clearly shown:

I like morning.
You like night.
We're just different
That's all right.

The concluding spread celebrates diversity and friendship.

The illustrations by Jo de Ruiter are cheery and friendly. Young readers will see themselves in the activities depicted. 

Will You Be Friends With Me? will be a useful resource in the Pre-K classroom as well as a fun book for families to read together. 


If you are interested in winning this book, leave me a comment by 6 PM on July 10. If you are new to my blog, make sure you leave your email address also. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

This Promise of Change: A Review and Giveaway

Congratulations to Linda Andersen Gutheil who won FREE LUNCH from last week's blog. She plans to donate it to a local school. Thank you, Linda!

This Promise of Change: One Girl's Story in the Fight for School Equality co-written by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy is a book you won't be able to put down. Jo Ann Allen was one of twelve students in Clinton, Tn who integrated Clinton High School in 1956. Debbie Levy has given voice to Jo Ann's stories in a unique nonfiction biography that uses more than eight varieties of poetry. That is quite an accomplishment.

But as Jo Ann and Debbie would most likely be quick to acknowledge, their accomplishment pales in comparison to what the twelve students achieved in those difficult months. 

In a book that is told so beautifully through poignant poetry, it is difficult for me to select just a few poems to share with you. Instead, I'm going to bring you snippets from several to entice you to read it yourself. (NOTE: The last line of several poems appear in a slightly larger font. This is a blogger issue; not the way in which they appear in the book. My apologies to the authors.)


Promise opens with a brief description to the Hill where Jo Ann and her family lived, worshiped, played, held concerts, and went to school--until it was time for junior high and high school when the Negro students were bused twenty miles to Knoxville to a Negro high school. This is a stanza from the poem, "MY SCHOOLS," about her elementary school:

... Green McAddo had no cafeteria, no gymnasium 
and no indoor bathrooms
until the time I started first grade.
The grammar school in town did,
and also had separate classrooms for every grade,
but that school was whites-only,
and still is. (p.21)


Clinton High School.
Here it is, right close, right down the Hill,
with its solid red brick and clean white trim
for white students only.
We walk by it, not to it,
because it's their school,
but not big enough
for twelve Negro students
who look at it every day
but have never been inside.  (p.25)

When a judge in Knoxville rules that Clinton can no longer ignore the Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954,  Clinton High School is forced to integrate. It wasn't that the community, principal, town newspaper, or teachers wanted to, they were had to. 

Throughout the book, there are headlines from local and national newspapers and magazines; signs in the town, quotes from the Tennessee constitution, prayers, interviews, and legal rulings. Here is one:

"We have never heard anyone in Clinton say he wanted the integration of students in the schools, but we have heard a great many of the people say: 'We believe in the law. We will obey the ruling of the Court. We have no other lawful choices.""
Editorial in the Clinton Courier-News written by editor Horace V. Wells, Jr. August 30, 1956. (p.62)

At first, Jo Ann thinks that, 

If school were weather, I would say it's serious
with a chance of friendly.  (p. 75)

On the second day, she sees protestors and glares on the way to school. She thinks that "clouds [are] rolling in on my forecast."  (p. 78)

This is from the poem, "LEFT UNSAID":

So my two great-great-grandmothers
had children with light complexions,
and narrow noses like yours (and mine),
and thin mouths like yours (and mine),
white enough to pass for white,
which means that
in the branches of my family tree
there are ancestors
who are as white
as you. (p.84)

By the end of her first week of school, the shouting and harassing increase. The students stop eating at the cafeteria because it feels unsafe. The sheriff drives them home. People ask if they want to quit and they say no. In the poem, "HEARING/UNHEARING" Jo Ann thinks, 

But now, I don't want to walk out.
I want to walk in.
I can't unhear what I hear.
I won't walk away from it, either. (p.91)

Less than a week later, riots break out in the street. Here are a few stanzas from "PEACEKEEPERS":

The tanks roll in at lunchtime,
a show of growling might,
As if in answer to the prayers
we prayed in fear last night.

Clinton's leaders asked for them;
the governor agreed.
They saw the lawless trampling
of the bigoted stampede. (p. 107)


The news is something
that happens
to other people
in other places

Until it happens to you. (p.124-5)

Tension escalates with the KKK burning crosses on the Hill. 


Scattered on our chairs
A prank straight out of cartoons
They think we don't look? (p. 173)


And so I go through the school day
surrounded by a hard shell of silence,
chitchat and cheer bouncing off the walls,
none of it meant for me.  (p. 180)

Eventually, all the "little" acts of hatred add up to too many "BIG THINGS":

Where once they kept their distance,
the white kids who hate us
are up close now, hard on our heels,
truly stepping on our heels--
Gail Ann's are bloody.  (p. 193)

After Thanksgiving break, the twelve students return to hair pulling, hands tearing their books, insults, wicked notes in their locker, nails and eggs thrown at them, and more buttons worn by students which say, KEEP WHITE SCHOOLS WHITE.

The school board suggests they return to Austin High. 

Here are two stanzas from "WHAT ARE THEY THINKING?"

This plan is good if you're a fan
of the Klan.
It treats us as less than
every white man.
It can't stand.
We will finish what we began.

To be clear:
a bus to Knoxville again--
that's moving in the wrong
direction.  (p. 209-210)

The principal closes the school after violence erupts and a pastor is beaten. At an election that follows that event, all the white supremacist candidates lose. Jo Ann calls that, A REAL VICTORY.

Before all this,
before all that happened
I thought there was nothing I could do
about segregation.
I'm just a girl, I thought,
one girl who tries
to look at the good side of things,
because there's nothing I can do
about the bad.
I'm still that good-side-looking girl.
but now when I see the bad, I'll think--
I'll know---
there's something I can do about it. (p. 233)


As you can tell by the number of poems I quoted, I believe This Promise of Change should be a part of every middle-grade Social Studies curriculum. It is easy to read and even the reluctant reader (or the boy who doesn't like poetry) will be hooked by this riveting true story. The back matter includes information about what happened to each of the twelve students; a scrapbook of photos, notes from both authors, a civil rights timeline, and several pages of resources. The authors also put Clinton, Tn into the context of the Civil Rights struggle. 


I spent a pleasant thirty minutes chatting with Debbie via Zoom about historical fiction for older middle-grade readers.  I slipped in a few other questions also. For the record, she is now working on a poetry collection and a nonfiction historical picture book. If you look at the list of books she has written, you'll see that many are about social justice. I asked her about this passion and she said, 

I seem to return in my books to the theme of the Other or Outsider. Surely this has roots in my Jewish identity, for Jews have been and still are so often the Other. But also, for me the best of Judaism is tied to the quest for justice, and so it is tied to the themes of such books as This Promise of Change and We Shall Overcome. And then there’s my status as the daughter of a refugee. My mother, the protagonist of my nonfiction-in-verse book The Year of Goodbyes (re-released in 2019 in a new edition), was the Other as a girl in Nazi Germany, and when she immigrated to this country in 1938. I cannot emphasize enough her influence on me as a fighter and as a person who was always open to and interested in those who were different from her—treating others as she wished she’d been treated when she was the ultimate Other.


I am giving away this book in conjunction with the summer issue of Talking Story on Community. If you are interested in winning Promise, please leave me a comment along with your email address if you are new to my blog. A winner will be chosen on July 18


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