I have been wanting to interview Vivian Kirkfield on my blog for a few years now, but time and opportunities kept slipping away from me. No longer! Today is the day!
Vivian Kirkfield is a former Kindergarten teacher and an inspiration to all who know her. After retiring from teaching, she has written and published several picture books, gone sky diving and parasailing, and traveled around the world to visit her kidlit friends. She lives and writes in Bedford, New Hampshire. You can learn more about her (and be inspired yourself!) at her website. And don’t miss her international writing contest #50PreciousWords coming up at the beginning of March. It’s a fun writing challenge! (More details in the blog below.)
Her book “From Here to There: Inventions that Changed the Way the World Moves” is a colossal picture book at a whopping 96 pages with chapter breaks. BUT don’t be intimidated by that! This is an excellent STEM collection of inventors that can be read slowly over time with those chapter breaks making it ideal for classroom inclusion. I can see reading one a day and having great class discussions about hot air balloons, rockets, and many more things that revolutionized our world! Plus it is chock full of illustrations by the talented Gilbert Ford that make each story stand out on its own. This is a fantastic collection of non-fiction biographies that have been written in the most brilliant little capsules that will captivate readers’ attentions. I cannot recommend it enough.
Me: Just like I am now, you were a teacher (now retired). Did you develop your love of picture books because of reading to your Kindergartners? Or to your own children? What is it about picture books that made you want to write them?
Vivian: I’ve had a love affair with picture books for as long as I can remember. The first book I fell in love with was THE LITTLE HOUSE by Virginia Lee Burton. I must have been two or three-years old, sitting on my mother’s lap, turning the pages – and I knew this was something magical – like I was stepping into another world. Maybe that’s why I decided to teach kindergarten – I knew reading picture books was a big part of the kindergarten ‘curriculum’ in those days. And of course, I read picture books to my own children while they were growing up. The magic is still there when I open a new one – and my hope is that some of my stories may create that same magical feeling for the children who read them.
Me: You have several nonfiction picture books published now. What is the secret to your success? How do you find such amazing nuggets of real life to turn into a picture book?
Vivian: I’m not sure it’s a secret, Jena. 😊 At every webinar and workshop, I share all of my steps. And if there is any secret, I believe it is that the FOUR P’s: Passion, Practice, Patience, Persistence – are what it takes to find success on this path to publication.
Those amazing nuggets are part of our lives – in the TV shows we watch, the books we read, the online articles we scan, the conversations we have with family and friends. When I hear or see something that sparks my curiosity – I dig deeper. And if my heart engages with the story of that person, I know I have to write it.
Me: What was it about the invention of machines that first grabbed you and drew you to write about it?
Vivian: “From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves” came about after a conversation with my sister. She told me about a Swedish immigrant who came to America in 1905, speaking no English and with only a few dollars in his pocket. He failed at many jobs, but when he couldn’t sell even one car after investing his money in a car dealership in 1914, he turned lemons into lemonade. He started a shuttle service with the floor model and that was the birth of the Greyhound Bus Company. After doing research, I knew I had to write that story! And when HMH editor Ann Rider received the manuscript, she asked if I might possibly write several more stories about other ‘inventions’ that move.
What drew me into the project, and what draws me into every story I write, is that ordinary people accomplish extraordinary things. I love how, when challenged, people rise up and create solutions to problems. And I write about these visionaries so that children can be inspired to believe that they can do the same.
Me: I love that! This book is quite lengthy with nine chapters, and it also has quite a significant bibliography. You obviously did a lot of research for this story! How long did this project take you to research? How long to write it?
Vivian: Probably the most amazing thing about this entire project is how quickly it came together. The editor received the manuscript about the founder of the Greyhound in the summer of 2017. There were several back-and-forth emails between my agent, the editor, and me. I believe the contract was signed in December 2017. I sent the editor my thoughts about which types of stories might work for the compilation:
You mentioned that Eric Gets America Moving is perfect in tone and format…this truly helps me as I craft the other stories for the collection. I thought it would be cool to have inventions that span air, water, and land. Each was a ground-breaking moment in history that changed the way the world moved and left a legacy that touches our lives today. In addition to that BUS story:
- TRAIN (All Aboard: George Stephenson and the First Steam Passenger Train – which you have seen and which already has the sidebar notes).
- BIKE (With His Own Two Feet: Karl Drais and the Invention of the First Bicycle – this needs sidebar notes;;;I hope you love this story as much as I do…I think kids will think it is cool to find out how and why the first bike was built)
- BALLOON (The Boy Who Dreamed of Flying: Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier and the First Manned Balloon Flight which has an awesome AHA moment and is polished, but would need sidebar notes). Or, if you’d rather have a story about an airplane/drone, I could write that.
- ROBOT (George’s Robot…taking your suggestion, I wrote a story about the man who invented the first industrial robot which should appeal to kids who love science fiction. It also has a great AHA moment.
- CAR (Genius Camp: How Three Men and a President Paved the Way for Better Roads. It’s about how Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone took President Warren G. Harding on a camping trip to convince him to sign a bill to allocate $162 million for better roads…this story is polished, but needs sidebars – or if you don’t feel that topic relates closely enough to ‘inventing’, I also had started writing a story about Bertha and Carl Benz and the first gasoline powered automobile.
- SUBMARINE: I thought injecting some diversity into the collection might be a good idea (Raye Montague is an African America woman) and it gives the book something that moves in the water. The story has a great AHA moment, but I need to flesh the story out and I wasn’t sure if creating a program that designs submarines with a computer was too abstract an invention for the book. If you’d prefer another water vehicle, I am happy to research and write that one.
The editor loved all of my suggestions…she decided on the Bertha Benz story for the car…and she wanted two more…she wanted the rocket and I added the folding wheelchair. Since I already had a picture book story that I’d written a few years before about the first hot-air balloon, I was tasked with writing SEVEN full-length picture book biographies in less than seven months. From idea. To research. To rough draft. To polished submission-ready manuscript.
My deadline was May 1, 2018 and meanwhile, we had signed two other book deals. Fortunately, there were no revisions needed for one of those, and only minor revisions required for the other.
But it was definitely a challenge – and I guess I must love challenges. I even hosted #50PreciousWords that March – and continued to give feedback to my critique buddies for their manuscripts. By the way, a word about critique buddies: they are like precious gems. I cherish mine. Without them, I never would have been able to accomplish this feat! They were always ready to look at a new story or a revision. Seven manuscripts in seven months! I definitely kept them busy. Luckily, I have lots of critique buddies! 😊
One of the things that works in my favor is that I’m retired. I can stay up as late as I want (sometimes till 3am or later) if there is something I need to finish. I won’t recommend my schedule (what schedule???) to any writers out there – but it works for me. 😊
Me: That Bertha Benz story is one of my favorites. I’m glad you went that route! And I cannot believe that you got Gilbert Ford to illustrate your book! I loved his work in “Mr. Ferris and His Wheel.” Since you did so much research, did you communicate with him at all during the creation of the illustrations? Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Vivian: Most of the time, editors choose the illustrator from artists they enjoy working with. I was exceedingly fortunate that Ann Rider loved Gilbert’s style and had worked successfully with him previously. She sent him the text when I completed all nine stories and he loved the whole concept! And my writing!
I did see sketches (LOVED THEM!) and then a black & white PDF…and then color layouts. All along the way, although I didn’t communicate with Gilbert, the editor always asked if there was anything I thought needed to be changed/tweaked. It was a wonderful experience. And he’s been really helpful. He designed the awesome bookmarks and has been wonderfully responsive when I’ve needed a jpeg made from one of the spreads in the book for a presentation.
The only illustration surprise was the color palette, and that was the happiest surprise ever! I love the purples and pinks, and then the greens and yellows. The pages pop and the picture bring the story of each visionary to life!
Me: There are some really great stories in this book. I don’t know that I could pick a favorite! What was one of your favorite historical discoveries while researching for this book? Anything that was cut out that you really wished could’ve been included?
Vivian: Hahaha…asking a writer which is her favorite story is like asking parents which is their favorite child! But perhaps I can speak to the question of my favorite historical discovery while researching the book. 😉
Joseph Montgolfier’s mother had 16 children. That’s back in the 1700s in France! And his grandmother had 18. And most of Joseph’s brothers and sisters survived. That amazed me! I also loved discovering that he was a different type of learner – he ran away from home at the age of 12 because he was a different type of learner and school was painful for him. He worked at a silk-worm farm until his family tracked him down and brought him back. He was so uncomfortable around other people, his brother had to go to Paris to demonstrate the balloon in front of the King of France. The day they launched the first manned balloon ascension, Benjamin Franklin was in the crowd because he was there to sign the Treaty of Paris between the United States and England to finalize the terms of the Revolutionary War. FASCINATING!
And all of these facts do not clog up the narrative because they are in sidebars of one sort or another. I love that the editor requested that! Each story has similar snippets of history that I loved discovering and that I hope kids will love discovering too. Who knows what new path a child will take after reading a book like this!
Nothing was cut and there were actually very few revisions of the text. I’d sent the completed manuscript and the editor would send me her feedback, usually just tiny tweaks to change a word here and a phrase there.
Me: Wow! That’s amazing given the length of the book. Great writing! Any advice for new picture book writers and/or illustrators?
Vivian: Write with passion.
Revise with joy.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Never give up.
Always give back.
And follow your dream because nothing is impossible if you can imagine it!
I love that Vivian. Thank you for stopping by my blog today. Dear readers, if you haven’t had time to track down this book yet, I highly recommend it. There were SO many fascinating snippets of history here that I’d never heard of before. Fascinating is absolutely the right word because Vivian’s writing sings in each story and Gilbert’s illustrations really do bring each one to life. This is not a book to be missed.