Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!
Today we’re interviewing Kirsten W. Larson, author of Wood, Wire, Wings: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane. “This inspiring work shines a light on a lesser-known inventor who was the first woman to design an airplane,” says School Library Journal.
Mary Kay Carson: Tell us a bit about your book Wood, Wire, Wings. How did you come to write it?
Kirsten Larson: WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane, illustrated by Tracy Subisak, is the true story of early airplane designer Emma Lilian Todd. Todd was the first woman to design a working airplane on her own, which flew in 1910. That’s only seven years after the Wright Brothers, and she worked during the same period as the Wrights as well as Glenn Curtiss and other notable early aviation pioneers!
The idea for that book came straight out of the pages of the best-selling picture book, ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts. The book contains a timeline of female firsts in aviation towards the end, and there was Lilian’s name. I had never heard of her even though I’ve lived and worked around airplanes my whole life. I knew I had to tell her story, especially when I found out how few people had heard of her.
MKC: To whom did you imagine yourself writing to while drafting the book?
Kirsten: Writing picture books is always a balance. I always keep my reader in mind, primarily students ages seven and up. That means I have to think carefully about what students know and what they need to know to understand the story. And then there’s always the question of what can be shown in the illustrations, because often pictures say things far better than my words ever could. Yet because picture books are designed to be read by an adult to a child, especially for younger students, I can often use richer language than you might find in very early middle grade like chapter books.
MKC: Did you chose a particular angle or slant or the book? Why?
Kirsten: When I’m writing a book, I try to think of all the ways it might appeal to different readers and fit into school curriculum. In the case of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS, the narrative of the book closely follows the engineering design process, from Lilian’s to initial design to testing, tweaking, and testing still more. That was deliberate. I wanted to book to be able to be used to teach the engineering design process. I also wanted readers to realize that few inventors or engineers get things right on the very first try. Instead, it’s 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, as Edison supposedly said. In other words, it’s about persistence. I felt that was a message readers needed to hear.
MKC: What other books for kids about women who changed science would you recommend?
Kirsten: I could rattle off at least a hundred. I appreciate that STEM Tuesday has included my picture book here, as many picture books, especially biographies, are for the upper elementary age group. A few of my favorite Women Who Changed Science picture books include Teresa Robeson’s QUEEN OF PHYSICS, illus. Rebecca Huang, Laurie Wallmark’s HEDY LAMARR’S DOUBLE LIFE, illustrated by Katy Wu, and HIDDEN FIGURES by Margot Lee Shetterly, illustrated by Laura Freeman.
In terms of non-picture books suitable for middle grade readers, I am a huge fan of Joyce Sidman’s THE GIRL WHO DREW BUTTERFLIES, Martha Freeman’s BORN CURIOUS: 20 Girls Who Grew Up to Be Awesome Scientists and Tonya Bolden’s CHANGING THE EQUATION: 50+ U.S. Black Women in STEM.
MKC: Why do you choose to write STEM books?
Kirsten: I think I gravitate to STEM books for a few reasons. First, I do have a background in STEM. For many years, I worked in public affairs at NASA, which gave me a crash course in STEM communication. I’m also intrigued by how scientists and engineers go about their work; I find so many parallels between STEM processes and the process of writing and publishing books. STEM and writing are deeply creative fields that require deep observation, a willingness to revise ideas, and dogged persistence. Finally, I gravitate to underdogs and people who turn traditional notions on their heads. That means I often write women’s stories, whether they are in STEM or other fields, or even fictional characters like Wonder Woman.
Wood, Wire, Wings: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane (Calkins Creek, 2020) by Kirsten W. Larson and illustrated by Tracy Subisak.
Download a complete educator’s guide and access other teaching resources on the author’s website. You’ll find all the resources here.
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Your host is Mary Kay Carson, author of Wildlife Ranger Action Guide, The Tornado Scientist, Alexander Graham Bell for Kids, Mission to Pluto, and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson