Congratulations, Laura, on one of your latest books, a picture book called The Astronomer Who Questioned Everything about Maria Mitchell, who, in 1847, discovered a telescopic comet and later on went to be the “first professional female astronomer in the United States; first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Science; the first woman hired by the U.S. government for scientific work, and one of the first female professors at Vassar, the pioneering American women’s college.”
How did you learn about the story of Maria Mitchell?
I first heard of Maria Mitchell through the blog Brain Pickings (now called The Marginalian). The author, Maria Popova, also wrote at length about Maria Mitchell in her book, Figuring. I was so intrigued I wanted to find out more, so I went to the library. One of the books I found was Finding Wonders by Jeannine Atkins; this beautiful collection of stories in verse motivated me to try writing about Maria Mitchell for younger readers.
What is it about her story that made you want to tell others about it?
The first thing that attracted me to Maria Mitchell actually had nothing to do with astronomy. It was this quotation:
I really resonated with this. When I was little I used to feel anxious when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, because I had no idea. I wanted to do something purposeful with my life, but what should that be? Now I see my teenage children struggling with the same dilemma. With so many choices—or sometimes not enough choices—it can be tough to figure out what to do and which way to go. So, I wanted to know more about the woman who said these words, what she meant by them, and how she found her way.
What I discovered was someone who was bounded by certain limitations (including being a woman in the early 19th century), but also blessed with some advantages (like growing up in a Quaker community and a household that believed in educating girls). She made the most of the opportunities she had, and while it took time for her to find her way vocationally, she ended up creating a remarkable life.
Knowing what to do with your life is still a question everyone has to wrestle with. Like Maria, we all have to work within our own particular combination of limitations and opportunities. I was drawn to her as an example of somebody who used the tools she had to help her find a path that was right for her.
These tools included: stillness and silence (Maria was a Quaker and discovered very young the power of silence to allow us to observe our own thoughts more clearly); and patience, perseverance, and discipline (including making careful choices about friendships and how we spend our time). “I was not born with any special abilities,” she once remarked, “But I am unusually persistent.” She was also mindful, courageous, and self-aware.
I thought other people (especially children) might also connect with this story about a girl who was struggling to figure out who she was and what she wanted to become, and who found a way to do something meaningful.
What is the goal of telling Maria’s story?
Part of my goal is to inform—to shine some light on a fascinating person whose contributions to science and education and women’s rights are not as well known as they could be. But I also want to inspire—to help children find in Maria’s story new possibilities for themselves.
I was fascinated to learn that the American astronomer Vera Rubin first realized that women could be astronomers when she read a children’s book about Maria Mitchell! Years later, when it was time for her to apply to university, she chose Vassar College because she remembered that Maria Mitchell had once taught there, and she figured it would be a welcoming place for women in science.
I love this because it shows how powerful a book can be in the life of a child.
You learn a lot about Maria in the telling of the story itself, but even more at the end when you offered factual information. Why was it important to include the information at the end?
I think offering additional information in the back matter makes the book more useful for teachers and librarians. It also appeals to young readers who want to know more about Maria and her life and times.
What do you hope kids—and adults—will take away from Maria’s story?
Maria Mitchell accomplished so much as a trail-breaking woman in a field dominated by men. She had many character traits, like persistence and determination, which make her a wonderful example for all kids—not just girls. These things are important.
But what I value most about Maria Mitchell, and what I hope readers will take away, is captured in the title of the book. Maria Mitchell really did question everything.
You can think about this two ways: First, she had a lot of curiosity, which is essential for understanding the world and other people. Second, she was an independent thinker and never simply accepted anything because some authoritative person told her it was true. She asked good questions, was rigorous about examining evidence, and taught her students to do the same. For me she has become a kind of model for critical thinking.
Part of what I love about her is that she was not afraid to change her mind. A lot of people are very defensive about what they believe. When someone challenges them, they will argue and fight, without really stopping to wonder whether there might actually be something new to learn. Maria Mitchell wanted proof and she examined the facts carefully. But if new and better evidence came along, she would adjust her thinking based on it—because that is what science, and the pursuit of truth is all about.
When did you decide you wanted to tell Maria’s story?
Almost as soon as I learned about her! I have always loved stories about people’s lives, and I was enthralled by this young Quaker girl, up on her roof on a tiny island in the Atlantic, learning how to read the stars. The fact that she and her small telescope beat out some of the greatest astronomers and observatories in Europe to find a telescopic comet was just so satisfying!
How long did it take from pitch to the book in our hands?
I submitted the story to Kids Can Press in December 2018. My editor, Jennifer Stokes, helped me polish it, and in February 2019 it was accepted for publication. I first held the finished book in my hands in March 2022. The whole process takes a long time!
Did you find writing the story difficult? Were there any stumbling blocks? How did you get over them?
The hardest part about writing a picture book biography is trying to condense an entire life into 32 pages. You need to find a particular angle or theme or narrow in on a specific segment of someone’s life, or the story will be too messy and complicated.
For example, Hayley Barrett has written a beautiful picture book about Maria Mitchell called What Miss Mitchell Saw. She focuses on how Maria watched diligently and quietly for so many years and was finally seen and appreciated when she discovered a comet. I wanted to tell more of the story and show readers what Maria goes on to do with the rest of her life. So, in my book, the discovery of the comet is not the climax of the story, but an event that opens doors so Maria can go in new directions. There is room for both accounts of her life—and I find it exciting to see how different writers treat the same basic material.
Another stumbling block was figuring out how to handle quotations. Maria Mitchell had a tart sense of humour and wrote remarks in her letters and journals that made me laugh out loud. I wanted to capture some of that spirit, but it was tricky because she wrote and spoke in the old-fashioned language of her 19th century Quaker community. At first, I just simplified her words and used direct speech. But then I learned that because she is a historical figure, I could not use quotation marks unless I was quoting her exactly.
This was a dilemma, especially in the part of the book where Maria has begun her career as a professor and keeps bumping up against pointless rules and opposition to women in higher education. She responded with such sharpness and conviction, and I wanted the readers to hear those comments coming directly from her! Then my editor came up with the idea of letting the narrator speak for Maria but adding emphasis and punch by highlighting (through enlarged hand-lettered font) the words describing her reactions: Absurd! Preposterous! Ridiculous! That turned out to be a good solution.
What is your writing process?
My process varies slightly depending on the project, but I always begin by brainstorming and writing notes by hand, then drawing an outline or map of the story so I can see its structure—the flow and movement—before I try to put flesh on it.
Walking is a regular part of my life, but when I am working on a story it becomes particularly important. When I walk my mind relaxes and I can sort through problems, untangle knots, and often find the words or phrases that elude me when I am at my table.
I always write longhand (cursive), usually in a bound blank book. I scribble and scratch things out and rewrite all over the pages because I like to have a visual record of my revisions; sometimes I end up liking an earlier version better. When I delete something on the computer it’s gone—like it never existed. I also read my work aloud as I write. Picture books are for sharing in community; they are often read aloud in story circles in classrooms or libraries, or by grownups to their children. So, I try to get a sense of how my words sound off the page.
One thing I am working on is writing with greater awareness of the illustrator and illustrations. I used to think I needed to describe every detail. Now I understand more clearly that I am part of a team and that I need to leave space for the artist to interpret the words. Now I ask questions like, “Do I really need to say this, or can it be conveyed through the illustrations? Where could a page turn go? Is there too much text?”
What were the changes within the book from pitch to final product? How did it help the story?
One of the biggest changes was the introduction of the image of Maria as a collector. In my first drafts, I talked about her searching for a way or a path for her life. But that was too abstract for young children. So, I imagined her collecting things—starting with interesting objects on the beach, then moving into things like words and ideas and questions. I think this made Maria more relatable, because most children love to look for little treasures and fill their pockets with the things they find.
Depicting Maria as a collector also tied in nicely with my earlier theme of searching for a path through life. The ideas and questions and experiences she collects turn out to be the raw material she uses to make a way for herself in the world. This is true for all of us. It also helped me come up with an ending for the book. I really love the idea of her passing on her delight and wonder to her nieces and nephews, roaming the shore with them and encouraging them to become collectors too.
You are busy. You have another book coming out in September and have written more than a dozen books, both fiction and non-fiction. Do you have a favourite (fiction or non-fiction)? Why?
There are things I love about each. I enjoy the creative freedom of fiction, but I also appreciate the discipline of working with facts in non-fiction, and the challenge of conveying information in a way that is engaging and meaningful.
Much of the non-fiction I have written is either quite lyrical (e.g., Sun in My Tummy) or includes a lot of storytelling (e.g., The Astronomer Who Questioned Everything), so perhaps the line between the two is not as sharp for me as for some writers.
Is one type (fiction or non-fiction) easier for you to write than the other?
Non-fiction requires a lot more preparation—getting the ground ready through reading and research. You can’t just find an idea, grab a pen, and start writing. So, in that sense, it can be more laborious. On the other hand, non-fiction often suggests its own structure: key events in a life; steps in a scientific discovery; the sequence of natural processes and cycles. Having a framework to start with can be very helpful. In terms of the actual writing, I don’t find one any more difficult than the other.
How do you find your ideas?
I like that you speak of finding ideas. That rings true for me. Children often ask me how I come up with my ideas, and I always tell them that most of the time I don’t! The ideas are already out there; my job is to pay attention and find them. I admire people who have lively and vivid imaginations, but that is not essential to being a good writer. It is enough to be a keen observer and build stories around things you notice or wonder about.
Like Maria Mitchell, I have always been a collector. When I was a little girl and went for walks with my parents, I always came home with my pockets bulging with bits of beach glass, acorns, pebbles, or whatever I found that appealed to me. Writing is a bit like that. Whenever I come across something that strikes me as interesting or beautiful or intriguing, I write it down in a notebook. Those little seeds of ideas just sit there until they are ready to germinate—and I can never predict when that will happen.
I try to help the process along by reading a lot—both fiction and non-fiction. During the pandemic I started listening to podcasts, especially ones about science and the history of science. I am also very interested in mythology from all over the world, and in stories about people whose contributions to all these fields have been suppressed or forgotten. I love coming across fascinating historical figures I had never heard of.
I also try to pay attention to what is going on around me, because sometimes good ideas come from comments people make or questions they ask. My book Sun in My Tummy sprang from a question a little boy asked me one day over lunch. The idea for What Grew in Larry’s Garden came from a newspaper article. Other books have been sparked by documentaries, displays in museums, funny things my kids said when they were little, and even footnotes in books!
Is there a similarity in writing between fiction and non-fiction?
For me they are quite similar, though this may because I write picture books, so the non-fiction tends to have story-like elements. Whether I am writing fiction or non-fiction, I still have to be very selective about the words I use because there are so few of them. I aim for simplicity and clarity (and a bit of humour helps, too).
As I mentioned earlier, in my experience the biggest difference between the two is that non-fiction requires a lot of careful research. You want to make sure everything you say is accurate and that you have evidence for it. This can be a challenge when you are writing about people whose fields of study are not your area of expertise. One of upcoming books is a picture book biography about the astrophysicist Cecilia Payne. Last summer was I had to write the back matter for that book, and I spent weeks surrounded by textbooks, trying to understand things like spectroscopes, and emission and absorption lines. It’s a lot of work, but I love learning new things.
Do you write full time or do you have another job?
I work at a library at the University of Toronto. Part of my job involves developing a collection of picture books, and helping people understand how useful and powerful picture books can be for all ages. I also have three teenage children, so I am pretty well occupied most of the time! Someday I would love to write full time, but for now, I carry a notebook with me wherever I go and work in bits and pieces.
Is there any project you are working on now?
I have a few books in the process of publication. Those require a different kind of work: editing, revising, writing back matter. This summer I have also been spending time with some older stories (ones that have been rejected over and over) looking for ways to pull them apart and try to make something new and better out of them.
Do you have a dream project?
For many years I wanted to be an Egyptologist, so one of my dreams is writing a book set in ancient Egypt. And even though picture books are my first love, I would like to try my hand at writing a novel (maybe a novel in verse) someday. Other than that, my dream is simply to be able to keep on writing and publishing.
Anything else you would like to say?
I would like to acknowledge Jennifer Stokes, my first editor at Kids Can Press, who saw something special in this story, and whose editorial skills made it even better. It was Jennifer who paired me up with illustrator Ellen Rooney, whose stunning art (and sense of humour) really make the story sparkle. Illustrators need to do a lot of research too and Ellen did a marvelous job of making the all the details historically accurate. I am so grateful for Jennifer and Ellen, and for Olga Kidisevic, who shepherded the book through to publication.
The Astronomer Who Questioned Everything is from Kids Can Press and retails for $21.99.