by Ann Rousseau Smith, SCBWI CenCal News Liaison
Kirsten W. Larson, former NASA employee, is the author of numerous nonfiction books and magazine articles for curious kids. Her most recent book is a nonfiction picture book biography. Wood, Wire, Wings: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane (Calkins Creek, February 2020) explores the failures and successes of self-taught engineer Emma Lilian Todd as she tackles the challenges of designing an airplane in the early 1900s.
Kirsten agreed to take a few moments from her busy schedule promoting her book to answer a few questions on the origins of her riveting new book.
ANN ROUSSEAU SMITH: Your new book, Wood, Wire, Wings: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane, came out in February 2020. Congratulations! I was hoping you would share a little about your experience getting this book published. What was your inspiration for the subject matter?
KIRSTEN W. LARSON: Hi Ann, thank you so much for having me on the Kite Tales blog!
To answer your question, the book journey for Wood, Wire, Wings is fairly long and full of twists and turns, but I will try to be brief. The inspiration for the book came from the book Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts. One of David’s illustrations included a sketch of Lilian’s airplane and noted that she was the first woman to design an airplane. Though I’d lived and worked around airplanes my whole life, I had never heard of Lilian Todd. Neither had my husband, who’s an aviation history buff and a test pilot much like Lilian’s pilot Didier Masson. I knew I had to tell Lilian Todd’s story and put her back in the narrative of history.
I spent about six months researching and revising an initial draft, which was a challenge because there were no biographies and few secondary sources about Lilian. She also didn’t leave a diary or journal, and there were no letters from the time period. My research was mostly in newspaper archives, magazines, and historic aviation journals. Still, after about six months, I had what I thought was a solid draft after a few rounds with my wonderful critique group.
ARS: I understand you submitted the manuscript for a critique at one our SCBWI CenCal Writer’s Day conferences. How did that go?
KWL: Let’s just say that I have learned so much about the picture book writing craft from Carolyn Yoder at Calkins Creek, both through the SCBWI CenCal critique and the entire bookmaking process.
When Carolyn critiqued Wood, Wire, Wings at SCBWI Writers’ Day in October 2015, my book was a bit of a mess. I’d sort of lost my focus on Lilian and gotten swept up in the historical time period. Carolyn’s notes were both extensive and enormously helpful. She suggested I tighten my focus on Lilian, and really show her as a woman of action. Carolyn made suggestions for weaving the historical context into the story instead of relegating it to infodumps. She also reminded me that every word counted in a picture book (the book was well over 2,000 words!) and suggested I storyboard the book to help with pacing, tension, and understanding what could be said with words versus illustrations.
Carolyn was so encouraging, and I felt uplifted by the critique. She praised the parts of the story that were working, including my research, and noted the marketing potential for the story. And she paper clipped her card to my manuscript, which gave me hope that if I got it just right, she might like to see it again.
ARS: At what point did you send the manuscript to Carolyn Yoder at Calkins Creek, an imprint at Boyds Mills & Kane?
KWL: I wanted writing children’s books to be my career, so my next step, after revising the book and ensuring I had a strong body of work, was to query agents. I sent my now-agent, Lara Perkins of Andrea Brown, Wood, Wire, Wings, and signed with her in April 2016. We did a bit more revision on the book before sending it to editors, including Carolyn Yoder. Carolyn bought the manuscript after I finished a revise and resubmit. I still had loads more to learn about writing picture books!
ARS: The book is beautifully illustrated by Tracy Subisak. I know interaction between an author and illustrator varies depending on the project, but were you able to provide input for Tracy’s illustrations?
KWL: Tracy’s illustrations are so much more lovely than I ever could have envisioned, and I am so grateful we were paired for this project. At the beginning of the illustration process, I provided Tracy with historic photos and physical descriptions of Lilian’s plane and other historic elements of the book at Carolyn’s request. Then Carolyn asked me to review the illustrations at every stage of the process to ensure historical accuracy. I had input on the dummy sketches, color palette, and final art. Carolyn’s attention to detail when it comes to historical accuracy in text and art is incredible! Through the process I learned to appreciate the level of work and craft that goes into nonfiction illustration. Creating something both beautiful and historically accurate is such a feat.
ARS: I see you have another book due out in 2021 from Chronicle, The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy. Are there any other projects you might like us to know about?
KWL: I do have a third picture book in the pipeline, but it’s not yet announced, so unfortunately I can’t share. But I can say I’m excited about The Fire of Stars with Katherine Roy and Chronicle. The book is a dual biography of how stars form and what formed a brilliant scientist, Cecilia Payne, an astrophysicist who discovered what stars are made of. It was a challenge to write, but in a completely different way from Wood, Wire, Wings. I think that’s the case with each and every book I write. I never like to do things the easy way, but that’s what makes writing nonfiction for young readers fun.
Thank you, Kirsten!
For more information about Kirsten and her books, visit her website. Kirsten is also a member of The Soaring 20s picture book group and STEAMTeam2020. Check out her posts at STEM Tuesday or join her on Twitter or Facebook.
For information on SCBWI-CenCal events (open to all SCBWI members!), go to cencal.scbwi.org.
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Images provided by Kirsten W. Larson and the SCBWI Central-Coastal Region.