Feb 27, 2021

Interview with Laurie Wallmark: Woman in STEM (who is NOT DEAD!)

I've shared picture books by Laurie Wallmark in recent weeks (HERE and HERE) and among my thousands of Goodreads reviews. When you read as many books as I do, there truly are stand outs among them. Wallmark's titles about WOMEN in STEM are such books, and are included on my MATH recommendations page. Now it is my great honor to host Laurie for an interview about the March 2 release of her latest title, CODE BREAKER, SPY HUNTER: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars, illustrated by Brooke Smart.


Code Breaker, Spy Hunter
Harry N. Abrams, Inc. March 2, 2021

Without further ado, let's get started. 

(My questions are marked SB, and  Laurie's responses are LW.)

SB: Laurie, thank you so much for spending time with the blog readers here, and for sharing the excitement of this upcoming release with us. I’m eager to hear more about your work on Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars, but I’d like to begin with a “chicken-or-egg” question related to your WOMEN IN STEM titles.

The first picture book, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, was published in 2015. I enjoyed reading several interviews about that book and I know other readers will, too.

(Readers, I suspect you'll want to read Laurie's interview here to find out more about Laurie's  latest book, but I urge you to check out her earlier blog interviews. She provides quick links to them on her website, but I suggest you begin HERE and HERE.)

Laurie, your comments in those interviews make it clear that your personal interest in math and computers began in childhood, and that you enjoy writing about strong women in STEM. This series feels as if it might have been a lifelong dream for you, but did you intend to write a series of picture book biographies about historic women in STEM, or was it a consequence of Ada’s success? 


LW: I truly never thought of writing a book series. As an unpublished author, my main focus was on getting someone to buy any of my manuscripts—fiction or nonfiction, picture book or middle grade. I knew it was important to try different categories and genres of writing to see what was best for me. What if it turned out that picture book biographies weren’t my strong suit? But I couldn’t help myself. Even before Ada sold, I had already started on Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code. As a computer scientist, I so wanted to share the stories of these two important people in the field and maybe inspire a child in becoming a software engineer.


SB: I can fully understand that goal of having your work published, particularly considering the amount of time and effort that you invested in researching and writing the nonfiction titles.

The depth and breadth of your research is impressive to me as a writer and educator, but even more so as a reader. Your thorough knowledge forms a seamless scaffold for your narratives so that the subjects of the biographies come to life on the page as fully formed humans, living and achieving within the societies of their times. The research details never bog down the page-turning quality of your storytelling. I complete your books feeling as if I knew these women. How familiar were you with any of them before you begin your research?

LW: At this point, I’m so familiar with both Ada and Grace, it’s hard to remember this wasn’t always the case. Because of my interest in math and computers, I certainly knew their names and the basics of their achievements. But that was it. I knew nothing about their lives—the part that draws children into a book. Having the opportunity to dig deep into their stories—their failures and successes, challenges and victories—was a gift. 


SB: Let's move on to some CODE BREAKER, SPY HUNTER questions!

I find the inclusion of quotations by your subjects in each of these titles to be powerful and revealing. That is particularly true in CODE BREAKER, SPY HUNTER. Your bibliography includes some recent books about Elizebeth Friedman, but you also accessed primary sources. Elizebeth Friedman lived during the twentieth century, which should have made material like this easier to find. But she was a SPY, for goodness sakes, and worked for/founded the secret agency that eventually became the CIA! Please share some aspect of your research that felt as if YOU had broken a code or found your way into Elizabeth’s life despite frustrating obstacles.


LW: Luckily for me, Elizebeth’s papers are archived at the Marshall Foundation in Lexington VA. Their online collection contains correspondence, personal materials, newspaper clippings, photographs and more. Even more luckily for me, research librarians are wonderful resources, so when I couldn’t find the information I needed, librarian Melissa Davis was able to help me. Browsing through Elizebeth’s archive was invaluable in helping bring her story to life.         

SB: Yay, librarians!


LW: A resource that wasn’t available to me while I was researching is a book for teens coming out in October, by Amy Butler GreenfieldThe Woman All Spies Fear: Code Breaker Elizebeth Friedman and Her Hidden Life. It will be interesting to see how another kidlit author, albeit one writing for an older audience, handles different aspects of Elizebeth’s life.

Interior images: Code Breaker, Spy Hunter. (Capturing a Nazi spy ring!)
Harry N. Abrams, Inc. March 2, 2021

SB: I'll look forward to reading it, too. (Blog readers, I've linked the author and title above if you care to check out this resource later.)

 Back to your picture book which is, in my opinion, highly accessible for curious young readers, but equally intriguing for middle grade and teen readers, as well as for adults. In part that's due to the illustrations of Brooke Smart, and to the art designer for effective page layout, including that continuous reel of coded messaging. The visual excitement and suspense surrounding  your compelling text supports the emotional content, high stakes, and pace of the developments in the field of cryptography. Curious readers will examine every inch of coded tape weaving throughout the book. In a story spanning two wars and using extensive technical terminology, as well as both Elizebeth’s family and professional lives, were you concerned that this complexity could confuse young readers? Would you share your reactions to and involvement with the visual side of Elizabeth’s story?


LW: I’ve had the benefit of being paired with the most amazing illustrators and art directors (not to mention editors) for my books. I was involved in the illustration and layout process from the beginning, starting with the rough sketches. I gave feedback—some that was taken, some that wasn’t—but all my suggestions were seriously considered. I had the privilege of seeing Brooke’s illustrations come to life step-by-step.


My biggest contribution to the illustrations, other than supplying the quotations, was figuring out the codes that are in the artwork. I gave Brooke streams of seemingly random letters, and she had the hard task of hand-illustrating them. I’m sure it was a lot of hard work. Once she was done, the codes came back to me to check. My biggest fear is that a ten-year-old reader will find a mistake I made.


SB: I doubt there are errors,  but I have NO doubt that countless kids will be busily solving that code and will let you know if you've slipped up at any point. By the way, I am thoroughly impressed with the various ways in which Friedman's quotations appear on the page. Perfect!

Moving on...

I devour the extras that authors choose to include in back matter, but even more so when it comes to your work in these pages. You consistently organize and write this supplemental material with clarity and flare that demand my attention and make me want to tug someone’s elbow and share the information. Rather than a basic glossary, your CODES AND CIPHERS page presents readers with integrated understanding of challenging vocabulary, as if in a conversation with the author. The CRACK THE CODE challenge page will be a hit, and your lightly-illustrated timeline reads like a bite-sized synopsis. CRYPTOGRAPHY TODAY advances the history of code-breaking directly into our handheld and other digital devices. The quotation citations and bibliography are essential, and remind readers that documentation for nonfiction works separate fact from imagination.


Please tell us something about your approach to back matter, in terms of what and how you choose to include material, and how you decide what has to hit the cutting room floor.


SB: I adore back matter. When you research a picture book biography, there’s so much information that you can’t include in the main text. Sometimes it’s because it would interrupt the flow of the story. Other times, the concept is complicated and needs a more extensive explanation. And of course, there’s that limited word count in picture books. Very often what ends up in the back matter I had originally included in text. 


In Code Breaker, Spy Hunter, one piece of back matter came as a suggestion from the publisher. In Elizebeth’s time, most code breaking was still done by hand or by dedicated machines like Enigma. The publisher thought educators would want students to know more about cryptography today. I agreed. Now, I had to research and understand how computers code and decode messages, so I could explain it to kids. Luckily for me, I love doing research, especially when it involves math and computers.


One of my books, Numbers in Motion: Sophie Kowalevski, Queen of Mathematics, has a piece of back matter that’s unrelated to STEM. It’s about why Sophie’s name is written so many different ways (Sofie, Sofya, Sophia, Sophie—along with variations of her surname). I talk about how her name was transliterated from the original Cyrillic alphabet and the common way Russians assigned surnames. The nerd in me found this fascinating, so I thought kids might, too.


SB: Wow, I am so anxious for readers to get their hands on this book and begin to explore the many aspects of Elizebeth Friedman's life on the page. You've been more than generous with your responses, but I'll push my luck...

I must ask who is next to come under your intense biographic investigation, if you are able to share that.

LW: My next picture book biography about a woman in STEM, astronomer Maria Mitchell, comes out in Fall 2022. She was the first American to discover a comet, one of the first paid astronomers in the United States, and the first female astronomy professor. In addition, she worked to convince others of the need for women in the sciences.  


I also have a picture book coming out in 2021—Dino Pajama Party (Running Press Kids). So now, in addition to writing about dead women, apparently I also write about dead reptiles. I’ve had people ask if the book is nonfiction, because they know my other books. Um, no. I'm pretty sure dinosaurs didn’t wear pajamas.

SB: Congratulations! That will be an exciting and fun experience for you, and the first of many fiction titles, I hope. Variety is always an energizer for writers. 

Readers, Laurie was kind enough to extend her responses to include a question for our recent giveaway winner, Susan Wroble:

 SW: I think of series as coming out of the same publisher, but this series seems to have three publishers. Did the publishers think that your books would compete with ones you had previously written for them, or what is the story behind the different publishers?


LW: Although all of my books up until now have been about (dead) women in STEM, they’re really not a series. I wrote each one as a stand-alone book. 


As to why they’re not with the same publishers, that’s an easy question to answer. Just because an editor accepted one book, that doesn’t mean she’ll accept the next one. She might not like it, the publishing house might have a similar book coming out, or it just doesn’t fit with their list. My Numbers In Motion: Sophie Kowalevski, Queen Of Mathematics was rejected by one publisher for a funny reason. They had a book about another mathematician named Sophie (Germain) on the way. 


I was lucky enough that after Sterling Kids started the series “People Who Shaped Our World” (originally called “Women Who Shaped Our World”) with Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code, the editor also accepted Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life.

SB: Thanks, Susan, for that great question. 

I wondered about it, too.

Laurie Wallmark
Woman in STEM who is NOT dead!

SB: On behalf of readers here, and from me personally, THANK YOU, Laurie, for taking time from an obviously busy writing and working life to share so much of your book-background with us. Congratulations on this March release, on your Dino PJ party (that should be a fun launch!) and on your continued success in whatever you pursue. I for one will stay tuned for anything and everything you write.

Readers, you can follow Laurie at her: 

Blog: All News, no Schmooze

on Twitter: @LaurieWallmark

on Facebook: Laurie Wallmark Author

and view a video on her website in which she speaks about why she writes, HERE.



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