Welcome to my blog, Blissfully Bookish. For this Q & A, please welcome an author who wrote one of my favorite middle grade nonfiction books, Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines. Her name is Sarah Albee! Here she is discussing her new middle grade nonfiction book, Troublemakers in Trousers: Women and What They Wore to Get Things Done, published by Charlesbridge.
Where did you draw the inspiration for Troublemakers in Trousers: Women Who Dressed Like Men to Get Things Done?
I’ve always been interested in writing about people who have been erased from the historical record, and sadly, “women” is a rather large category. I also wrote a book for National Geographic a few years ago called Why’d They Wear That? in which I explored history through what people wore. So I guess this book is the center of several Venn diagrams!
What is your writing process, and does it vary depending on the project?
I wish I could say that with every book I write, my process grows more streamlined and my notes more organized, but the truth is, every book feels like a first book, and I struggle to find the core message and the structure and, well, how to tell the story. But at least I can say that the more history I research and write about, the more robust my brain’s “knowledge bank” seems to be. It’s always great when I’ve got a good idea for a book, but, as they say, the devil is in the details.
Please paste a short and compelling excerpt from your book.
This is from the author’s note. It’s not the whole thing, but I think it sums up a lot of why I wrote the book:
When I was in third grade, I showed up at school wearing a black-and-white checked pantsuit. It was the seventies, so I’m pretty sure it was a hundred percent polyester. I thought I looked extremely “dy-no-mite.” My class was going on a field trip—some sort of outdoor nature expedition—and I figured that surely the dress code for girls wouldn’t apply that day. I was wrong. The school principal called my parents. My dad had to leave work and bring me a skirt to change into. That was a pivotal moment in my life—an awakening of sorts. I became suddenly aware that double standards and dumb rules existed, and a lot of them were unfair to girls in particular.
The following year, my fourth-grade gym teacher divided our class into groups: boys and girls. When I learned that the boys would head off to the other side of the divider to play basketball while the girls learned “dance,” I put my tiny foot down. (I was the smallest kid in my class.) I wanted to play basketball. I was ordered to sit on the sidelines. As punishment, I couldn’t participate in either activity. These episodes caused me to develop a strong sense of indignation. I became keenly aware of injustice and was quick to point it out. I was a really fun little sister, as I bet you can tell. Just ask my older siblings.
Back in the day, girls like me were called tomboys. Nowadays many such girls are known as good athletes. I grew up (and up some more) and became a college basketball player. Luckily came of age at a time when attitudes about what girls should wear and what sports they should play were changing. Still, my early experiences stayed with me. Those feelings of indignation were knitted into the fabric of my personality. Maybe that’s why I wrote this book. Maybe the cumulative impact of those feelings prompted me to seek out bigger stories of injustice and triumph.
I loved your book Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines. How do you go about choosing your topics and themes, and more importantly, your hooks?
I’ve been fascinated by poison my whole life, and the idea for this NF book was prompted by a lifetime of reading fiction, in which poison factored into the plot. From Snow White to Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie mysteries to Shakespeare—poison has always fascinated me, and I wanted to find out what happens at the molecular level when a person is poisoned. And also, to try to understand the psychology behind the often-monstrous mind of real-life poisoners!
Do you have other WIPs or projects in the pipeline you would like to mention?
I currently have five books in the pipeline, and four of them are nonfiction picture books! I believe the pandemic both highlighted and also exacerbated the struggles many kids have when faced with densely-written text without accompanying visuals. Picture books are, as my teacher-husband has informed me, an excellent dual-coding strategy, not just for young kids, but really for every reader.
What is the best (one) piece of advice you would give to other nonfiction writers?
Blargh. This one is easy for me to toss out there, and yet I really need to remind myself about it every time I sit down to write. So here is my advice:
Ask yourself: Why will a kid care about this?
I think many of us—and dare I say I’m including not just myself, but also some editors and reviewers and others in the publishing world—love writing that fascinates us as adults, but it’s really eye-opening to hang around kids and see what THEY want to read or know about. Teachers know what I mean, of course. I’m fortunate enough to be around loads of kids when I visit schools, and also because I am married to a teacher, but I still must remind myself constantly to think about my reader!
And a bonus question just for kicks! If you could be any animal, what would you be and why?
A dolphin. They’re so smart, and they (hopefully) don’t have to spend all of their time searching for food, so they have time to play! They just look like they’re having so much fun.
Sarah Albee is the New York Times bestselling author of more than 150 books for kids, ranging from preschool through middle grade. Recent nonfiction titles have been Junior Library Guild, Bank Street College of Education Best Books, and Notable Social Studies Trade Books selections, as well as winners of Nerdy Book Club and Eureka! Nonfiction Children’s Book Awards. She especially loves writing about topics where history and science connect.
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