Simply 7 with Lindsay Metcalf–“Beatrix Potter, Scientist”

Apparently this is the time for confessions in my blog.  I admit that I was NOT a huge Beatrix Potter fan until I read Susan Branch’s book “A Fine Romance” a few years ago about her amazing trip to England (which was right up this Anglophile’s alley).  The section she wrote about visiting Beatrix Potter’s house had me in tears of recognition and awe.  And I immediately jumped on the Beatrix Potter band wagon.  How could I, also a writer and illustrator, NOT be a fan of one of the first women in literature who successfully did both of these things?  WELL, today’s Simply 7 only grew that love of Beatrix Potter ten fold.

Lindsay Metcalf credit_AnnaJacksonLindsay Metcalf is a journalist and author of nonfiction picture books: Beatrix Potter, Scientist, illustrated by Junyi Wu (Albert Whitman & Company, 2020); Farmers Unite! Planting a Protest for Fair Prices (Calkins Creek, 2020); and No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History, a poetry anthology co-edited by Lindsay H. Metcalf, Keila V. Dawson, and Jeanette Bradley, illustrated by Bradley (Charlesbridge, 2020). Lindsay lives in north-central Kansas, not far from the farm where she grew up, with her husband, two sons, and a variety of pets. You can learn more about her at her website.

Beatrix Potter Scientist COVER“Beatrix Potter, Scientist” is a picture book biography that tells another angle to the story we’ve all heard before.  I knew Beatrix Potter was a scientist of bugs (from that Susan Branch book), but I had NO idea about her actual scientific work and discoveries with plants!  This book blew my mind and in some ways broke my heart.  It explores a piece of missing history and chooses to deal with it.  I found that one piece just by itself fascinating, but this is a book that needs to be read.  It explores a piece of women’s history about a popular figure people like to think they know everything about.  Yet this book found fresh ground to explore.  THAT is how it’s done!

Welcome to my blog Lindsay.

Me: You come from a journalism background.  What is it then that draws you to picture books?

Lindsay: The short answer: My kids (who are short) and the format (also short). Plus, I think kidlit creators are allowed to tell cringe-y jokes because kids laugh at those. At 9 and 10, my boys mostly roll their eyes now.

Truthfully, I hadn’t thought much about picture books until my oldest son’s second birthday in 2011. He received a copy of Oliver Jeffers’ STUCK, and I remember thinking, kids’ books are this good now? I was blown away by how much I enjoyed it as an adult, and I didn’t mind reading it over and over to my toddler, who memorized the words and interacted with the illustrations. I wanted to bring that joy to kids, too. But my second son was an infant at the time, and I didn’t have a silent moment long enough to hear my thoughts. The day he started preschool three years later, I started writing my first picture book.

You would think with my journalism background I would have started with nonfiction, but no. Instead I took time to break all the rules of fiction picture books: 1) writing about my kid; 2) not leaving room for the illustrator; 3) writing waaaay too long; 4) not studying mentor texts. I didn’t even know that a picture book was called a picture book. Thankfully, Googling “How to write a children’s book” led me to SCBWI, and the kind, generous folks in the Kansas/Missouri region helped set me on the path of learning and growing.

A year later I wrote my first nonfiction picture book, and my critique partners loved it. I thought, duh! I am trained to craft short stories based on research, so why didn’t I think of this earlier? As a kid, though, I hadn’t enjoyed reading nonfiction for children. I didn’t connect as much with recitations of dates. Once I started reading the immersive narratives being published today, I knew I had found my sweet spot.

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© 2020 Albert Whitman and Company

Me: I love that! This is your first picture book nonfiction biography, with two more coming out this fall!  What is the secret to your success?  How do you find such amazing nuggets of real life to turn into a picture book?

Lindsay: I guess my secret is reading widely, being present, and allowing myself to unravel the thread of curiosity when it hits.  As a kid, I annoyed my parents with too many questions. I became a journalist who got paid to ask questions. As an author, most of my reading and observing looks like wasted time. I still subscribe to several newspapers, and I keep clippings that sound interesting or write them down in my story ideas file. I have hundreds of ideas! But the ones that really work as books are the ones that spark a fire that consumes you, keep your mind churning late at night, and leave you desperate to return to the work every free second.

I got the idea for BEATRIX POTTER, SCIENTIST reading a Brain Pickings article about Beatrix Potter’s background in mycology. I found a treasure-trove of primary sources to immerse myself in, including Beatrix’s journal and letters. Did you know that she wrote her journal in code over a sixteen-year period? Reading the version translated by Leslie Linder — who spent almost as long trying to crack the code — felt like being in on a secret.  

NO VOICE TOO SMALL: FOURTEEN YOUNG AMERICANS MAKING HISTORY, my second book (September 22, Charlesbridge) is a poetry anthology co-edited by Keila V. Dawson and Jeanette Bradley, and illustrated by Jeanette. That one came about when the three of us met in a private Facebook group related to the March 2018 KitLitWomen initiative founded by authors Grace Lin and Karen Blumenthal. I had been collecting names of young activists in my idea file before Jeanette posted about the need for a book about activism. We decided to write about contemporary kids because so many were using their voices where the adults weren’t.

And FARMERS UNITE! PLANTING A PROTEST FOR FAIR PRICES (Calkins Creek, November 2020) started with a text from my dad, who is a wheat, corn, soybean, and milo (grain sorghum) farmer. He had attended a local demonstration of old tractors, including one bearing a giant sign: “Washington, DC, or BUSTed”. Digging a bit, I learned that the owner of the tractor, along with thousands of others, had driven cross-country in 1979 and camped on the National Mall in protest of economic conditions that were driving them off their farms. My favorite part of creating a book is diving down the rabbit hole of old newspapers and primary sources, and this story had many! In fact, the book needed twelve pages of back matter to fit the author’s note, timeline, and the dozens of sources and source notes.

Me: That’s a LOT of back matter! What was it about Beatrix Potter’s science background that first grabbed you and drew you to write about it?

Lindsay: The fact that she even had a science background! I mean, she spent a decade obsessing over fungi before she published The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Who knew? Not me! Suddenly Beatrix Potter was more than an all-caps name on the front of a book. She was a three-dimensional human who indulged curiosity, stared down setbacks and discrimination, and reveled in her pure enchantment with nature. All of that resonated with the girl in me who was told no, who grew up on a farm believing that her dreams might be just out of reach. Beatrix’s drive—her ability to switch gears and reinvent herself—resonates with the adult version of me, a journalist by training, children’s author by grit, and forever fan of the natural world.

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© 2020 Albert Whitman and Company

Me: Did you have to do a lot of research for this story?  Can you tell us a bit about that process for this story?

Lindsay: The research was pretty straightforward, since Beatrix’s life has been well-documented. My first stop was Linda Lear’s excellent 2016 biography, A Life in Nature. Her thorough foundation helped provide the context for the primary sources I found throughout her pages and pages of footnotes. I checked out books containing Beatrix’s journal and letters from a university library, and cross-referenced Beatrix’s passages with modern-day and period photos of the locations she mentions. I wish I could say my research included a trip to London, the English Lake District, and Scotland. Someday! Fortunately, the treasure trove of sources I found, including many of her original fungi paintings digitized by various museums, were all I needed to write a 32-page picture book. I was fortunate to find two experts who were willing to vet both the mycology references and Beatrix Potter facts.

Me: Wow, that’s thorough! Junyi Wu’s illustrations in this book are absolutely perfect.  Did you communicate with her at all during the creation of them?  Were there any illustration surprises for you?

Lindsay: I agree, Junyi really nailed the nostalgia of Beatrix Potter but in her own style. I had a few historical notes on her sketches, but those went through the editor and art director at Albert Whitman. Junyi and I didn’t communicate directly until recently when we began discussing book promotion. As for surprises, just seeing Beatrix’s world rendered in color when I’d only seen her in black and white is its own serendipity. And Junyi’s flower-filled jacket flaps and backmatter are absolutely dreamy.

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© 2020 Albert Whitman and Company

Me: Any advice for other picture book writers?

Lindsay: Be patient, keep learning, and work on other projects while you wait for news on your submissions. In the beginning, I struggled mightily with patience. I’d come from a newspaper where I was filing five to 10 stories a week and getting them published the next day. Waiting months for a rejection? Torture! I still struggle with the waiting, but fortunately, my agent now handles submissions and filters the rejections. She sends me monthly submissions updates, which helps me stay on top of a project’s status without obsessing over my inbox.

Farm kittens

The newest litter on my parents’ farm. Photo taken in July.

Me: That’s great advice.  When you were a child, were you also drawn to nature and animals like Beatrix?  If yes, what was your favorite find?

Lindsay: I was! As I wrote above, I grew up on a farm. My parents were often busy with chores, and my younger brother and I didn’t get along so well. (He’s a wonderful human and we get along great now.) So I spent a lot of time exploring outside, riding my bike down our gravel road, watching the birds, and hunting for crawly critters. My favorite find, by far, was kittens! Most of our farm cats weren’t tame, a new litter was usually a surprise—and an opportunity to tame them. I should put kitten tamer on my CV. Now my kids do the same thing when they visit the farm.

Hee!  Kitten tamer!  That’s a unique job description.  Thank you again Lindsay for visiting my blog.  Dear readers, this is a biography you must read.  Study it for its fresh perspective on a well known pop icon, as well as how to handle a piece of missing history.  It’s incredibly well researched and interestingly written.  You won’t want to miss this one.

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