Dear Dreamwalkers, my good friend and fellow author Laurie Ann Thompson joins us today for a new Creative Conversation. Laurie’s beautiful award-winning children’s books offer future change-makers hope and inspiration, providing paths to a better world.
Laurie was kind enough to introduce me to the amazing Ammi-Joan Paquette her agent, and now mine. Thanks, Laurie! I asked her to swing by and share the story behind her newest book.
Atheneum Books for Young Readers. May 5th, 2020
“Discover the inspiring story of Senator Elizabeth Warren and her lifelong commitment to working hard and advocating for equality in this compelling and accessible picture book biography.”
Janet: Welcome Laurie! Let’s start with the here and now. I’m sitting in my office above our garden, sipping iced tea with fresh lemon. Where are you and what’s your brew?
Laurie: Hi, Janet! What an honor to be here. I’m sitting in my sunroom with my dog, drinking green tea with pomegranate and cranberry.
Janet: Ah, sounds delicious! Grab something hot or cold to drink, Dreamwalkers. We’re about to dive in.
I just read an early copy of your wonderful book! Elizabeth Warren’s Big, Bold Plans Can you tell us how this story came about?
Laurie: Of course! This was an unusual project in so many ways, including its origins. Usually, I come up with an idea, research it, and work on drafts. Then, when I think it’s finally ready, I send it to my agent, who (if she agrees it’s ready!) sends it on to editors. This one went the opposite direction! An editor I had met at a conference reached out to my agent to see if I would be interested in writing a picture book biography of Elizabeth Warren. I had long admired Warren and it was an editor I was excited to work with, so it was an easy YES! My only concern was that it had a very tight deadline.
Janet: I can see the ramifications of a swift “Yes!” I sold Stealing Death to Egmont on its first 30 pages alone. They loved it and asked if I could get them the rest in three months. I said, “Yes!” hung up the phone ecstatic, and bent double with a tremendous stomachache. Three-hundred twenty more polished pages in ninety days? Ack! What had I done? Luckily, there were a lot of chase scenes in that book. How did you handle the scope of the Elizabeth Warren biography, working at top speed?
Laurie: Fortunately, I didn’t get a stomachache, but it was definitely intimidating! My first book, Emmanuel’s Dream took almost ten years from when I first started working on it until publication.
This project would be eight months–total–from the very start of the idea until the book would be on shelves! It is illustrated, which meant the writing had be finished much earlier to leave time for the artist. Plus, it was nonfiction, which meant meticulous research had to be done before any writing could begin.
Janet: Yikes! How did you go about the research then? Did you devise a plan?
Laurie: Ha-ha, yes, I had a plan for that! For several weeks it was all Elizabeth Warren, all the time. I got several of her books in audio format and listened in the car, in the shower, doing housework, walking the dog. I printed newspaper articles and carried a stack with me everywhere to whip out whenever I had a spare moment. And when I was at my computer, I watched videos of interviews so I could hear Warren in her own words. I even went to see her live at a rally! I immersed myself in as much background material as I could find, taking notes on pertinent facts and potential scenes. Then I fast-drafted three different approaches, sent the best two to my editor, and started revising her favorite.
Janet: That’s great. It seems that having no choice, no time to worry, you just took it on! Much the way Elizabeth Warren does. The book was thoroughly researched, yet it flows easily and seamlessly as a story. I love how it moves from tension to resolution, showing Elizabeth’s commitment to people from a young age, beginning with her family when she pitches in after her father’s heart attack. Her determination is inspiring. She’s always searching for the way to make things work.
Laurie: Oh, thank you! I feel like every one of my books has had its own lesson for me to learn and apply to the process of writing it, if that makes sense. For Emmanuel’s Dream, for example, it was his story of determination and persistence that kept me going on my long and often uncertain path to publication. And yes, reading about Warren’s ability to do what needed to be done, while constantly adapting to new challenges, showed me how to buckle down and do the work necessary to tell her story.
Janet: You really buckled down! And it’s such an inspiring read. Elizabeth goes from challenge to challenge. There are so many moments when I would have given up, but Elizabeth Warren’s made of stronger stuff. It’s one reason I love reading biographies. A true story of a woman who keeps trying, who breaks past boundaries gives me hope. It kindles a little flame of, “If she can do it, I can.” I know other readers will find that kind of hope in these pages, too.
Laurie: Well, I think you are an amazing, strong woman in your own right, Janet, and I can’t imagine you ever giving up on something you believed in. It’s one of the things I love most about you, and I take constant inspiration from your example of compassion paired with quiet courage.
But, yes, it’s always helpful to gather more of those kinds of stories, isn’t it? That’s why I love writing biographies, especially for young readers. Knowing someone else has struggled, and ultimately overcome–or even survived without overcoming… it does give us hope and inspire us to keep going. I think we all need that, whatever our age or stage in life.
Janet: I’m grateful for your kind words, Laurie. You inspire me. Courage is contagious. I want to let you know how much I enjoyed Susanna Chapman’s lively illustrations that flow from page to page, bringing out Elizabeth’s vitality. I also loved the moments when the text changed to Big, Bold Type, in a kind of crescendo!
Laurie: Susanna is nothing short of amazing! Her artwork has been one of the many great joys of developing this project throughout the entire process. From the beginning, she was seeing my earliest drafts and starting her own research and sketches in parallel. I was getting to see her illustrations progress even as we were still revising the text. I cannot fathom how she created such fabulously researched, detailed watercolor paintings (!) in such a short amount of time. I am blown away by her care for the work as well as her professionalism and talent. She brought the text to life so beautifully.
Janet: That’s so unusual to see her early sketches. I loved the moments when parts of the story were incorporated directly into the illustrations. For example, the words She would be a teacher showed up as writing on a chalkboard.
Laurie: I think that is just part of Susanna’s brilliance and attention to story. She decided what phrases to pull out. Occasionally, when we saw the text incorporated into the art, we decided to go back and edit the text, since giving it so much emphasis had subtle effects on meaning. So, even more than most, this book was truly a collaborative effort between author, illustrator, editor, art director, and copyeditors. It was so much fun to be part of such an amazing team!
Janet: I love how the team effort shows up as a strong, beautiful story of a woman who overcomes again and again. I felt a shiver at the end — but won’t give the end away here!
One last question before I let you go. What did you learn from writing this book?
Laurie: This book was a powerful lesson in getting out of my own way. I can be a bit of a perfectionist, and a control freak, and perhaps I overthink things sometimes (always?). I knew I didn’t have time to indulge in any of those with this project, and it was marvelous! Not only did I have so much more fun with the process, but I showed myself I can do good work without investing time and energy in those destructive thought patterns. Sometimes boundaries and constraints force us to improvise in ways that are both surprising and authentic. In this case, they helped me gear my creative process more toward play, experimentation, and trust in my intuition. Those are all things I’m sure will help with any project, regardless of deadline.
(Not to say I don’t still wonder how different the book would be if I’d had my usual years to work on it. Better? Worse!? We’ll never know. I’m still working on not overthinking that aspect of it!)
Janet: Ha! Ha! Do you hear that, Dreamwalkers? It is possible to create art without angst. When we don’t have time to second-guess ourselves (due to fast, hard deadlines. And other constraints we face when life takes a U turn), we might just play our way through. It’s still work. Yes. But when the perfection problem is swept aside, we have space to move. And maybe dance a little, too.
Thank you so much, Laurie for talking with me today, sharing your thoughts, process, and your courageous heart.
Laurie: Thank you so much for having me, Janet. Keep on courageously creating!
Watch the fun Video of Laurie and Susanna’s collaboration on Simon Kids!
Simon Kids YouTube channel, here: https://youtu.be/kbr0RMijARE
Last, But Not Least
Parents and Kids. Check out Laurie’s newest At Home Learning Resources as you’re working from home just now. There’s a lot to see and do and Laurie knows how to make learning fun!