Stories Behind the Books

Q & A: How I Did It - Stories Behind the Books

Q

How did you come to write Betsy Ross?


A

When I lived in Philadelphia, I felt fortunate to be in a city that had so much history wherever I went. One of the most famous places is the Betsy Ross House on Arch Street which was in walking distance of my house. It is a wonderful museum, full of historic things to see and read about. Betsy captured my interest because she was one of the few women in colonial times to work outside the home and run her own business. I did a lot of research for the book at the museum (www.betsyrosshouse.org) and the Philadelphia Free Library which also has a large picture file.



Q

Why was it important for you to research images?


A

In a 32 page picture book, the text tells only half the story. The other half is told in the pictures: What did houses look like inside and out? People's clothes? If there are known pictures of historic figures, how well can I interpret that? Are there pictures of the historic places the text mentions? What kind of transportation was there? What did every day objects look like? What did the city look like? The country?

I research everything I draw and paint in my books as thoroughly as I can. It is important for readers of picture books to get an accurate account of what things looked like. I have always found library picture files to be extremely useful and in recent years have used image files on computer search engines. I also have many books in my private library, especially ones with images of American colonial times since I have written and illustrated many books set in this time period. But sometimes I have to count on other images to help me deduce and compile what things might have looked like.



Q

You said Philadelphia had a lot of history. Did you find other stories that would interest young readers?


A

Yes! When I was doing research for Betsy Ross, I came across a small book which was the reprint of a journal that Jean-Pierre Blanchard, the famous balloonist, had kept on his historic flight from Philadelphia to Woodbury, New Jersey in 1793, a few years after Betsy had sewn her famous flag. It was the first air voyage in the United States (www.centennialofflight.gov). I based my book The First Air Voyage in the United States - The Story of Jean-Pierre Blanchard on the journal I found just by accident. Many of the historic figures that were there to see the flight were famous historic figures that appear in Betsy Ross. I was lucky to find another story just by browsing in the library!



Q

Why did you write about Abigail in Abigail Adams?


A

Abigail was a woman ahead of her time. She was the wife of the second United States president, John Adams, and the mother of the sixth, John Quincy Adams. In Abigail Adams you will read how she supported the American Revolution, was never silent about her opinions, did not believe in slavery and thought that women should have the same rights as men. Abigail is admired for her beliefs even now. Click on www.abigailadams.org for more information about this fascinating woman.



Q

How do you choose which famous historic figures to write about?


A

I want young readers to know that heroes can also be people that have lead quiet lives and have become famous by quiet pursuits like writing and painting. These people worked hard at the tasks they enjoyed and did not have a goal in mind of being famous. It just happened.

  • Laura in Laura Ingalls Wilder was a pioneer farm wife her whole life, but she had stories about her experiences growing up a pioneer girl that she felt had to be told. She wrote Little House on the Prarie. A useful web site is www.lauraingallswilder.com
  • Anna in Grandma Moses was the famous folk artist who was a farmer's wife her whole life, but had dreams of painting and finally started when most people think of retiring. It was not too late for her to follow her dreams. Go to www.benningtonmuseum.com/grandma_moses_gallery.aspx for more information about this amazing artist.
  • Louisa in An Alcott Family Christmas grew up in a loving, but poor family. She always dreamed of writing and eventually wrote Little Women based on her family experiences when she was growing up. Click on www.louisamayalcott.org to learn more.
  • Maud in Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote Anne of Green Gables. Maud was almost an orphan being raised by her grandparents. This lonely girl wrote many stories about her experiences and never gave up belief in her talent for writing. You may want to visit www.lmmontgomery.ca to learn more.


Q

How do you write a picture book biography? Your books are 32 pages long with a lot of pictures. How do you know which facts about a person's life to include?


A

I always read at least three biographies and an autobiography - if there is one- for each historic figure, so I gather a great deal of facts about each person's life. I have to pick only a few facts that seem the most important to give a true picture of how a person's life was shaped. I have to make sure that there is drama in telling the story. What made the child into the person who they became? What are the turning points in their life? What hardships did they overcome that made them stronger? When it was difficult to go on, why didn't they quit?



Q

What about Sergio in Sergio and the Hurricane? It is the story about a boy in Puerto Rico who experiences a big storm. How did you get his story?


A

I was in Puerto Rico in September 1989 when Hurricane Hugo hit the island. It was a huge Category 5 with winds at 140 m.p.h. with gusts up to 170 m.p.h.

I was staying at a hotel in the old part of San Juan, the capital, and through my window, I watched the wind peel paint off buildings and fling objects around like toys. The hotel satellite dish was lifted off the roof and slammed into an empty truck below, crushing it. I spent many hours listening to the wind howl and the rain lash at the window.

After the hurricane, the hardships Sergio experienced were the same ones that I did. I had been there for only one day when Hugo hit but the real discomfort came after the storm had passed. The streets were flooded so it was dangerous and impossible to walk with electric lines down and broken glass everywhere. Giant old trees had toppled blocking the streets. There was no running water.

It was very hot, humid and still. Of course there was no air conditioning or ice. I remember really needing a shower when one night there was a rainstorm and I ran outside behind some bushes and soaped up in the warm rain as it fell.

There were no movies, no TV, no restaurants and the beaches were full of downed palm trees and debris. There was nothing to do, so I spent many hours reading and at night I had to read by dim candlelight. There were no commercial flights back to the U.S.A. for ten days because military planes were bringing in supplies to the stricken island. When commercial planes started flying again, was I ever glad to get home!

You, too, can write about an interesting experience you've had. Keeping a journal or writing notes will help you remember the facts. Maybe you will write a picture book, too.



Q

I have written a children's picture book story but I can't draw or paint the way you do . Should I find a friend to illustrate my story?


A

No. If you have a manuscript, find a publisher to send it to using the Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market following its guidelines. If the publisher accepts your story, the art director will match your story to an appropriate illustrator. Find a lot of useful information in this book by going to writersmarket.com.



Q

Your painting style has been called folk-art. What can you tell us about how you do your illustrations?


A

When I was young, I loved reading comic books. I loved the bright colors, flat patterns and textures. I think I carried my love of that to my art today. I like to think of all the elements of a painting in terms of patterns: how many kinds of textures can I include in a painting without making it too confusing. I like simplicity and so think that is the way I connect with children's simple taste and love of color. I believe there are no color combinations that don't go together if you use them in the right amounts. I like to keep it simple, direct and tell what I have to tell.

When I first make a dummy - a pretend book that is the size my finished book will be - I do a lot of research in the picture files of libraries, do images searches on-line, or go to the many books I have in my studio. I make a lot of sketches on very thin paper called tissue paper and eventually when I believe I have the correct sketch to go with the text, I tape the sketch into the dummy.

When the dummy is finished and I have sketches on all 32 pages - the usual length of a picture book - and my cut-up manuscript is in place on the pages, I send it to my editor who checks it with her staff and gives me the go ahead to do finished art.

I use watercolor paper stretched on board on which I have traced my drawings in pencil.

I paint with gouache which is a thick water color paint that comes in a tube. I can use it either mixed with a lot of water which is called a wash - I use this technique a lot on skies or snow - or I can use it thick which gives strong color and can cover other colors.

This part of making the book is like eating the icing off a cake. Now my story is done and I can do what I love best - painting!



Q

There are so many children's books on the market. Why should I write another? Hasn't everything been told already?


A

The story you will tell will be unique to you. No one else will tell a story like you will. So, give it a try. If you have a story that must be told, then tell it! Good luck!