Posts Tagged Biography

Catherine Urdahl Interview + VIRGINIA WAS A SPY Giveaway!

We’re very excited to spotlight author Catherine Urdahl today on the MUF blog and her new book Virginia Was A Spy! (Cathy has generously offered to send a signed copy of Virginia Was A Spy to one lucky winner–US+Canada. See details at bottom.)

Hi Cathy! Thank you for sharing Virginia Was A Spy with me. This was such an interesting biography about a trailblazing woman who was a spy . . . but as your book reveals, she was much more than a spy.

About the Book

Can you give us a short summary about the book?

Virginia Was A Spy is the true story of World War II heroine Virginia Hall. Virginia was an American who overcame huge obstacles—including an amputated leg—to become the first female secret agent working in occupied France. She was a master of deception and disguises. At one point she posed as an elderly milkmaid, selling homemade cheese to the Nazis in order to get close to them and listen in on their secrets.

When did it come out?

The book was published in August 2020.

Tell us who would especially enjoy this book (as it’s both a picture book and aimed at lower middle-grade readers). I wrote this book for ages 8 and up—anyone who’s interested in spy/adventure stories, incredible (and unrecognized) heroines, and World War II history. In addition to the main story and the wonderful illustrations by artist Gary Kelley, the book includes back matter with more details for older readers.

About the Author

Can you describe your writing journey? Did you enjoy writing as a child? Did you always plan on writing for kids?

I’ve always loved reading. My favorite part of school—especially in the early years—was going to the library. Once I was so lost in my book I didn’t notice that my class had left. I wrote (and illustrated) my first homemade book in second grade. In high school and college I wrote poems and short stories. Then I went to work in corporate communications, writing articles for company newsletters and brochures. But more and more, I dreamed of writing for children. I finally started writing, taking classes, and meeting with a critique group. After a lot of practice—and a lot of rejection—I published my first book, Emma’s Question, in 2009 and my second book, Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten, in 2011.

What draws you to writing nonfiction? To biographies about women?

I love learning about people in history—what they did and, more important, why they did it. Whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, character is the most fascinating element for me. Researching a real person is like getting to know someone layer by layer and figuring out how their actions impacted history and even how we live today.

I especially love writing about unrecognized women like Virginia. History books are filled with the stories of men. But women were there, too—often behind the scenes, since both laws and stereotypes kept them from the roles that made men famous. Each of these women made specific contributions—and became part of the larger story of women’s rights and roles in our society.

What message do you hope readers will take away from Virginia Was A Spy?

Virginia fought for the right to be herself and fulfill her purpose. She heard no a lot—from the men of the U.S. Foreign Service, who said a woman with a wooden leg could not be a diplomat; from downed pilots who didn’t trust a woman to help them escape; and from British spymasters who thought it too dangerous for her to return for a second mission in France. Countless people underestimated her ability, both because of her gender and her amputated leg. But Virginia didn’t take no for an answer. More than anything, I hope readers are inspired by her determination to be herself and to make a difference.

Research and Writing Process

What got you interested in the life of Virginia Hall? Why did you think this was an important story to tell?

I first read about Virginia in an anthology about women in World War II. I admired her courage; she actually fought for the right to be a spy, despite the extreme danger. She didn’t let anything stop her—not even her heavy, wooden leg, which she had to drag through snow drifts on a 30-mile escape hike through the mountains. I wanted to honor her courage and determination, as well as her significant contributions to the Allied victory in World War II. But on a more personal note, I was drawn to write about someone so different from myself. I sometimes struggle to find courage to take action—even though the risk is NOTHING like Virginia faced. Maybe I could learn from her, even though I definitely do not have what it takes to be a spy!

Virginia was always unconventional—doing what others thought was unacceptable for women at the time and fighting against those who wanted to hold her back. Which of Virginia’s roles during her life surprised you the most and why?

Virginia’s whole life was surprising, given expectations about women’s roles at the time. But for me, the biggest surprise comes near the start, when she volunteers as an ambulance driver. Virginia had traveled to Paris to escape her disappointment about being rejected by the U.S. Foreign Service. But when war broke out, she took a huge leap from being a young woman exploring her favorite city to a person risking her life to rescue injured soldiers near the front lines. As an American, she could have returned to the United States, but she chose to stay in France.

Your book contains so many fascinating details about how Virginia operated as a spy (like putting a flowerpot in her window to signal she was home). What was the most interesting detail you found in your research? There were so many interesting details—it’s hard to choose. But one of my favorites is how Virginia and her doctor friend disguised downed Allied pilots as French farmers and helped them escape the country. Many of the pilots didn’t speak French, so if the Nazis stopped them their covers would be blown. To solve this problem, the doctor bandaged their necks and gave them notes explaining they had suffered throat injuries and could not talk.

Virginia went to great lengths to hide her identity (even changing the fillings in her teeth). Why did you think it was important to include these kinds of details in your book?

Specific details help readers enter into the story and understand what being a spy really involved. Imagine changing all the fillings in your mouth! Secret agents like Virginia had to pay attention to every little detail. If they didn’t, they increased their risk of being caught. So the little details are important in telling the story of a spy.

What took more time than you anticipated when researching/writing/revising?

I had so much interesting information, but I couldn’t include it all. I had to decide which details were most important for showing Virginia’s character and the actions she took. I also had to figure out how to shape these details so the book would read like a story and not just a list of facts. Both of these things involved lots and lots of rewriting and lots and lots of cutting!

For Teachers

How can teachers use this book in their classrooms?

My website——contains several free classroom activities, including a step-by-step biography-writing project and a character-trait activity, as well as profiles of other female spies. Teachers also could use the book as part of a study of World War II—as a way to highlight the work of all the unrecognized heroes.

Cathy launched her book with a spy hunt in the summer of 2020 at Excelsior Bay Books in Excelsior, MN, that my son and I had fun playing!

Are you doing school visits or events related to this book? Tell us more! (What grade range? What’s your focus—history, writing, or both?)

I love doing school visits—both virtual and, when it’s safe, in-person! I use Virginia Was A Spy for grades 3 and up (including middle school and high school) and tailor the visit to the specific grade level. I offer a variety of programs, including a “story-behind-the story” presentation, which talks about the overall brainstorming/research/writing/revision process, as well as presentations on biography-writing, women’s history, and spies.

For younger students, I offer presentations using my earlier books—Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten and Emma’s Question.

I love this book, Cathy. Thanks so much for sharing it with us on the MUF blog!

Please click the giveaway link below BEFORE SATURDAY MIDNIGHT and comment, retweet, follow MUF, etc. for a chance to win a signed copy of Virginia Was A Spy. The winner will be announced on Sunday, March 21.

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STEM Tuesday–Peeking into the Mind of a Scientist/Engineer–In The Classroom

STEM TUESDAY from the mixed up files

This month’s book list offers fascinating stories about the lives and learning of scientists, famous and not-so-much, real and fictional.

That said, here and there, you may find content you want to be prepared to address, so be sure to read the books before you bring them into the classroom experience. That should prove no burden, as the books offer a lot of food for thought, richly textured profiles, and insights into STEM fields.

This month’s suggested activities fall into two categories: Getting to Know the Characters and Book-Specific Extensions.

Getting to Know the Characters

Chart Traits. Keep a running wall chart to track the characteristics and life experiences of the real scientists in these books—for example, Charles Darwin, Sylvia Acevedo, Irene Curie, and Lise Meitner—as well as Calpurnia in the novel. Different students can read different books. Complete the chart as students independently make their way through the reading. In the first column, list the scientists; dedicate each additional column to a trait or descriptor, each suggested by students based on “their” scientists. These traits might include: “intensely curious,” “passionate about science,” “imaginative,” “ambitious/has dreams or goals.” Students can place post-its with brief notes that illustrate when they see that a specific scientist demonstrates a given trait.  Use these notes as a basis for exploring similarities and differences among scientists, and for reflection.

After students complete the books and the chart, consider setting up small group discussions of follow-up questions, such as:

  • Which traits do you see as helpful and/or counterproductive to the scientists in their professional lives? … To their personal lives? Do you think there are examples of any one trait being be both helpful and counterproductive for any of the scientists?
  • Complete these sentence : “I share [trait] with … [scientist(s]. For example, I…[story from life to illustrate similarity].” “Something I don’t quite connect to with …[scientist] is…”
  • A life lesson I learned from each character is…
  • Out of all of these scientists’ interests, the ones I strongly share are: ….
  • How do the social norms and circumstances of each person’s time and place help or hinder their journey?
  • What opportunities and obstacles helped and hindered the scientists in their personal and professional journeys? Have you experienced anything like this? How might your knowledge of one or more of these scientists help you in your own life, personally or as you aspire for academic and, later, career success?
Additional activity suggestions:
  • Connect these scientists’ stories to the NGSS science and engineering practices. Have students create their own graphic organizers to reflect how they see these practices in action in these books.
  • If possible, invite scientists into the classroom for students to interview. Students can enter each scientist and anecdotes into the chart.
  • Each of the scientists in these books experienced both positive moments (successes, support from others) and set-backs (fears, life events, failures) in their professional and personal lives. Have students create a Chutes and Ladders style game representing these events, labeling each chute or ladder entrance’s game square with the episode from the corresponding scientist’s life. Each game piece can represent one of the scientists. Landing on a chute or ladder entrance that depicts an episode from the game piece-scientist, the player gets an additional turn. Later, keep the game available for informal time.
  • Discuss how other people—friends, family, and colleagues—support the achievements of the individual scientists in the books.
  • Take a cue from the Radioactive! teacher guide: Create a shared graphic of things that students are curious about. This will help connect students to the scientists and each other, and foster a culture of curiosity. Have students add the scientists’ likely responses to the graphic.

Book-Specific Extensions

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgSupport Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgThe Curious World of Calpurnia Tate and Charles and Emma

Both books may help students find their inner naturalists. Build on this opportunity with these ideas:

Collect Their Thoughts. Ask students to contribute inexpensive, readily available objects – seeds, leaves, pebbles, shells, marbles, and even paper clips of different configurations —  to an “interesting stuff” classroom collection. Challenge students to sort, organize, compare and contrast objects in the collection.  Conduct a collection circle discussion once a week:

  • Which objects do you find most interesting, and why?
  • What stirs your curiosity?
  • Do you know anything about this object? What interesting connections can you find between it and something else in the collection?


Make Science Social. At the beginning of the Charles and Emma, readers learn that Charles values the stimulating intellectual conversations of the day. Calpurnia also deeply enjoys the social aspect of science.  Help students experience this excitement with free-form, dorm-style, no-right-answer(-at-least-not-yet) science talks. Create a culture that encourages them to speculate, challenge each other, and use their imaginations to develop possible explanations for their questions.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgSomething Rotten

Look Inside. Author Heather Montgomery (one of STEM Tuesday’s own!) may be the real-world’s answer to Calpurnia. Like Calpurnia and her brother Travis, Heather embodies both curiosity and a connection to the natural world. Help students follow in Calpurnia and Heather’s footsteps by offering dissection opportunities for your students; if not with animals, then with plants or gadgets.

Do Some Good! Look for a citizen science opportunity, such as this one (in Vermont), to share road kill sightings with scientists so they can study and help wildlife. Or think about organizing your own study of a small section of your community. Students might track road kill along their bus routes for a period of time. They might not be able to investigate the details from the bus window, but they could create maps of the routes and areas of relatively frequent road kill incidents.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgPath to the Stars

Explore the Results of Rocket Science. On Page 289 of her autobiography, “rocket scientist” Sylvia Acevedo mentions two NASA projects she worked on. Visit NASA web pages to find out more about these missions. Solar Polar Solar Probe, now called the Parker Solar Probe, which launched this year, some 30 years after she worked on the project, and Voyager 2 Jupiter flyby. Check out the pictures of the results of these probes’ successful missions!


Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgRadioactive!

Know the Alpha, Beta, and Gamma of Radioactivity. These resources can help kids grasp some of the book’s science content:


Bonus: Teacher Guides!

And, finally, for discussion ideas, as well as a few STEM-related activities, check out the teachers’ guides available for each book.


Drop Us a Line. As always, we at STEM Tuesday are eager to hear what you think of these ideas, how you use and adapt them, and how else STEM books have brought excitement to your classroom. Please leave a comment.

Picture Books and the Middle-Grade Reader

Think of picture books and often we envision a toddler on a parent’s lap, listening and pointing. Or a pack of preschoolers sitting criss-cross applesauce on a colorful rug, heads tipped up to see the pictures while their teacher reads aloud. Or maybe a first grader, sitting alone with a book, intently studying the words in a picture book, their eyes darting from picture to text and back again, making connections and feeling their confidence swell.

Oh, there’s usually no debate surrounding the place of picture books in the lives of the youngest readers and prereaders. But something often happens around second grade, somewhere around the time chapter books are mastered, and the role of the picture book is diminished, if not eliminated.

By the time readers reach the middle grades, picture books are often nonexistent or scoffed at. “You’re too old for that book,” I heard a parent tell a fifth or sixth grader at a bookstore. “You can read harder books than that.”

And, yes, I’m sure that young reader was perfectly capable of tackling longer texts, but picture books have so much to offer readers of all ages. Let’s take a look at some new picture books that middle-grade readers could not only enjoy, but that could spark a deeper level of learning and understanding.

pb older reader

Picture Book Biographies Picture book biographies are everywhere and can serve as an excellent visual and literary introduction to someone middle-graders may never encounter anywhere else..

pb william hoy story

The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by Jez Tuya, Albert Whitman, 2016.

pb to the stars

To the Stars!: The First American Woman to Walk in Space by Carmella Van Vleet and Kathryn D. Sullivan, Illustrated by Nicole Wong, Charlesbridge, 2016.

Picture Books to Address Social Issues  Civil and human rights issues such as homelessness, poverty, equal opportunities, or segregation can be difficult for the middle-grader to grasp, and yet these problems exist in their communities, families, and in the ever-present media. Often a picture book can open the door to discuss more complex topics at an appropriate level.

pb separate never equal

Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh, Abrams, 2014.

pb marvelous cornelius

Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Phil Bildner, Illustrated by John Parra, Chronicle, 2015.

Picture Book Origin Stories Older readers love to ask deep questions: Like where did doughnuts come from? and Who invented the super-soaker, and Why? Origin stories can inspire young inventors to dig deeper into science and become problem-solvers themselves.

pb Hole Story of Donut

The Hole Story of the Doughnut by Pat Miller, Illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch, HMH Books for Young Readers, 2016.

pb whoosh

Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton, Illustrated by Don Tate, Charlesbridge, 2016.

Picture Books for Content Areas  Math class is probably the least likely place you’ll find middle-graders reading picture books, but there are some great reasons to put picture books into the hands of young mathematicians. And scientists. And paleontologists. And astrophysicists.

pb boy-who-loved-math

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos by Deborah Heiligman, Illustrated by LeUyen Pham,  Roaring Brook, 2013.

pb blockhead

Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D’Agnese, Illustrated by John O’Brien, Henry Holt, 2010.

Picture Books to Address Environmental Issues Upper elementary and middle schoolers hear phrases such as “global warming” and “our carbon footprint,” but explaining just exactly what these mean can be challenging. It’s likely they are already a part of a “reduce, reuse, and recycle” initiative, at school or at home. Picture books can help them understand how they might do more.

pb One_Plastic_Bag_Cover_Miranda_Paul1

One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia by Miranda Paul, Illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, Millbrook, 2015.

Picture Books as Art Study The youngest readers look at the pictures in a picture book. Older readers can study them. They can understand how illustration contributes to the story-telling, how a picture book is a visual experience as well as a literary one. Older students can discuss how the artist’s choice of style, media, and color palette create mood and pace. This can be done with every picture book, any picture, all picture books, fiction or non. But, I’ll leave you with one that makes me smile, and I think any middle-grader would smile after reading it, too.

pb maybe something beautiful

Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood by by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell, Illustrated by Rafael López, HMH Books for Young Readers, 2016.

Michelle Houts is the author of four books for middle-grade readers. Her first picture book, When Grandma Gatewood Took a Hike (Ohio University Press, September 2016) is the biography of Emma Gatewood, the first women to walk the Appalachian Trail alone in one continuous hike.