Welcome to my book blog. For this Q & A, please welcome author (and my friend) Kirsten W. Larson. Trust me, this woman is going to make her mark in the world of kidlit. Jois us as she discusses her new book, WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE published by Calkins Creek.
Can you describe the journey to publication for this book?
I first researched and wrote WOOD, WIRE, WINGS in March 2014 as part of Susanna Hill’s “Making Picture Book Magic” class, so it took almost six years from first draft to published book. For two years, I revised with my critique group and in response to agent and editor feedback at conferences and from queries. In February 2016, I queried agents with the book and signed with my agent, Lara Perkins of ABLA, soon thereafter. This was the first manuscript we sent out. My editor, Carolyn Yoder, asked for an R&R (revise and resubmit) before offering in February 2017. After that, there were still two more rounds of revision. So my takeaway: The publishing process, especially for picture books, is slow.
Where did you draw the book’s inspiration?
The book Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts inspired this book. The name of Lilian Todd and a note that she was the first female airplane designer appeared in one of David’s illustrations. Though I’d lived and worked around airplanes my whole life, I’d never heard of Lilian. Neither had my husband, who’s a test pilot and aviation history buff. I knew Lilian’s story was one I needed to tell.
Please share some of your writing process.
My writing process has evolved quite a bit since WOOD, WIRE, WINGS, but for each book my research process is similar. I start with secondary sources and read widely about the person and/or time period I’m tackling. Secondary sources provide needed context for primary sources and also point the way to primary sources through endnotes and bibliographies. I typically have both a file box for books, copies of print sources, and drafts. But I also create a file in Evernote for electronic sources. I use the Evernote web clipper to clip journal and newspaper articles, online letters and diary entries, etc.
When I feel like I’m starting to see the same information over and over again, it’s time to write. Normally I start with a timeline or what I call my “kitchen sink draft,” which has all the names, dates, and details that probably won’t appear in the final draft. Then I can let all specifics go and be more creative with my structure, storytelling, and voice. I also carefully consider what must be said with words and what can appear in the illustrations.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always been a writer in some fashion, and my interest and experience has mostly been nonfiction, specifically journalism. I wrote a newsletter filled with articles about my family when I was in high school. It included breaking news about birthday parties and trips to the dentist. In college I was a reporter and editor at the college newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, and wrote for two different newspapers in my hometown. I also interned at NASA as a college student, working in the public relations department. (We call it Public Affairs at government agencies). That’s the career field I eventually went into. I didn’t turn to writing picture books until I had two children who devoured nonfiction children’s books about space, weather, and everything else imaginable. Reading those books, I realized I could write them and would probably have a blast doing it.
How did working at NASA influence your writing?
Working at NASA Public Affairs, I considered myself a translator for technical information. My job was to work with the news media providing the information they needed to inform the general public about NASA’s work. That often involved “translating” technical talk and engineer-speak into everyday language when writing press releases and newsletter articles, for example. This was great practice for writing STEM-based picture books where I often read journals and talk with experts. Working at NASA also influenced the subject matter of my first two picture books, which focus on women in aviation and astronomy.
Why do you write nonfiction?
I write primarily to satisfy my own curiosity. Whenever I tackle a new subject, it’s an excuse to become an expert in that field. If I can write a children’s book about the topic, then I know I truly understand the material myself.
Where do you see your career headed? Do you have other WIPs or projects in the pipeline you would like to mention?
I have two more forthcoming nonfiction picture books, only one of which is announced. THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars are Made Of, is being illustrated by Katherine Roy and will be published by Chronicle Books. I continue to research and write nonfiction picture books but have also tackled graphic novels, another favorite genre. I’m revising a Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales-type graphic novel that marries history with fictional elements.
Please share your favourite kidlit books that have inspired you and served as mentor texts. Pick one classic and one contemporary book. What is it about them that moved you?
I’m a huge fan of mentor texts, and the books I use are tailored to each project. For WOOD, WIRE, WINGS, I had Debbie Levy’s I DISSENT (illus. Elizabeth Baddeley, Simon & Schuster, 2016) by my side. That book really showed me how to provide just enough historical context in an interesting way. One of my favorites from childhood was THE MONSTER AT THE END OF THIS BOOK, a Little Golden Book featuring Grover, by Jon Stone, illustrated by Michael Smollin (1971). It’s such a perfect example of strong page turns propelling the story forward and a surprising ending. I still have a copy.
What is the best (one) piece of advice you would give to other writers?
Because of the nature of publishing, I think the best thing we can do for our work is to enjoy the journey. We must make sure each book is the story we want to tell, even if it never sells. Finally, there are always people who can help us tell the story better, whether it’s a critique partner, an agent, an editor or an illustrator. Being able to really revise and reimagine a story in response feedback is perhaps the greatest skill a creator can have.
And a bonus Q- If you could be any flavour of ice cream, which one would you be and why?
I’m a big fan of pistachio gelato, which I learned to make in Italy.
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, 2020) and THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle Books), as well as 25 nonfiction books for the school and library market. Kirsten lives near Los Angeles with her husband, lhasa-poo, and two curious kids. Her house is filled with LEGOs, laughter, and lots of books!
Website: www.kirsten –w-larson.com
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