What fascinating women Laurie Wallmark has chosen as subjects of her picture book biographies: Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, Hedy Lamarr. Her newest biography also offers insight into another determined woman, Sophie Kowalevski. Laurie’s post today also offers insight into the tough decisions a writer makes in bringing complex characters to life within the tight constraint of a picture book. Read on for Laurie’s writing advice and then be sure to read Numbers in Motion: Sophie Kowalevski, Queen of Mathematics (Creston Books), illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg.
One of the hardest parts about writing a picture book biography is deciding its focus. With such a limited word count, you need to make hard choices about what to include and what to leave out. Here are some examples of how I decided which details to keep and which to leave on the proverbial cutting room floor for Numbers in Motion: Sophie Kowalevski, Queen of Mathematics (Creston Books).
I knew I wanted to concentrate on Sophie’s love of mathematics, and how that came to be. I was fortunate I could find stories from her childhood which would show her interest in math at a young age. These incidents, like being fascinated by the math equations on her bedroom wallpaper and learning math on her own to better understand physics, demonstrated how important math was to her.
To continue this through line of her love of math, I showed her determination to overcome the many challenges she encountered as a woman in the 1800s to pursue an advanced education in math. She ended up having to study math at three different universities. At Heidelberg University she was allowed to attend classes, but could not receive college credit. When she had taken all the math classes she could, she moved on to the University of Berlin. There she was not even allowed to set foot on campus, so she had to study privately with a professor. Neither of these universities would grant her a doctorate, so she went to Göttingen University to write her thesis. Talk about persistence.
As much as I would be happy to have a picture book totally consisting of mathematical terms and formulae, that would not be a story. Here’s how I solved that problem (so to speak). I needed to include that fact that Sophie used a technique in math called partial differential equations. In the text, I only mention the term and give a simple explanation. I left the more detailed explanation for the back matter in a section called, “Sophie’s Math.” This way, children who are interested can find out more, while I was still able to keep my story moving along.
Sophie had a life outside of the world of math, and it was important to show this. One event I struggled with was how to portray the method she used to leave Russia and study in Germany. At the time, Russian woman were not allowed to leave the country except in the company of her father or husband. In the text, I said she found a man to be her partner in a “marriage of convenience.” I did not say (other in the timeline) though, that years later she had a daughter with him. In addition to not being relevant to the story I wanted to tell, I thought it might be confusing for children.
Sophie was more than just a brilliant mathematician, She was also a talented author, writing a memoir, a novel, two plays, short stories, newspaper articles, and hundreds of poems. I really wanted to include this information in the text, because it would give more insight into her personality. It didn’t work, though. Talking about her writing stopped the forward motion of her story, switching it off to a sidetrack. Luckily, there was room in the book for an author’s note in which I could give her literary talents the spotlight they deserved.
In writing a picture book biography, you need to do a lot of research. Afterwards, you want to include every one of those fascinating tidbits you uncover about your subject’s life. But you can’t. Instead, you need to figure out what story you want to tell. Only then can you separate the wheat from the chaff.
Award-winning author Laurie Wallmark writes picture book biographies of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math. Her books have earned multiple starred trade reviews, been chosen as Junior Library Guild Selections, and received awards such as Outstanding Science Trade Book, Crystal Kite Award, Cook Prize Honor, and Parents’ Choice Gold Medal. Laurie has an MFA in Writing from VCFA and frequently presents at schools as well as national professional conferences (NSTA, NCTE, ALA, TLA, etc.). She is a former software engineer and computer science professor. You can find Laurie on the Web at www.lauriewallmark.com and @lauriewallmark.