When I was younger, I was a HUGE fan of Wonder Woman and I had the underoos to prove it! Every week I would dress up to watch Lynda Carter kick butt and take names. When I heard there was going to be a picture book biography of Wonder Woman’s story, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it myself!
Kirsten Larson used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. Kirsten is the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020), A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything (Clarion, Fall 2021), illustrated by Katy Wu, and THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Spring 2022), as well as 25 nonfiction books for the school and library market. You can learn more about her at her website.
A TRUE WONDER is Kirsten’s second nonfiction picture book. It tells of the creation of the Wonder Woman comic book heroine, as well as the world around her that impacted that conception. It’s a fascinating read of how such a super hero came to be and all of the influences that affected both her genesis and her continued existence. It’s a very unique approach to telling her story. After all, it’s not quite a biography, is it? This is an intriguing book you won’t want to miss.
Me: I’m a HUGE fan of Wonder Woman. How long did it take you to research all the different facts that went into your story? Can you tell us a bit about your research process?
Kirsten: I started with secondary sources, primarily histories of the character, the comic, and its creator. Those sources had excellent bibliographies, which led me to my primary sources.
In terms of primary source research, we had planned a family trip to New York, Boston, and Philadelphia in March 2018 to show our kids the Revolutionary War-era sites. I scheduled time for primary source research at Brooklyn College, which has the papers of psychiatrist Dr. Lauretta Bender, a consultant on the comic, and Harvard University, which has the papers of Wonder Woman creator and writer William Moulton Marston.
With the help of amazing research librarians at Smith and the Smithsonian, I received digital copies of some of Gloria Steinem’s papers and the papers of Joye Hummel, who co-wrote Wonder Woman in the 1940s. And, in the dream of a lifetime, I interviewed Hummel myself about her experiences.
All in all, I think it was about four months of initial research before I started drafting. But of course the research always continues as you shape your story.
Me: Wow! That’s amazing. I can’t believe you did all that in four months. I love your approach to Wonder Woman’s story, telling about her origins and evolution over the years. What gave you that idea?
Kirsten: There were a couple of different story sparks. First, of course, was the 2017 Wonder Woman movie starring Gal Godot and directed by Patty Jenkins. It was such an event for so many of us, and I loved the conversations it started about how much the character means to so many people. That idea of a comic book character inspiring people to achieve in real life definitely planted the seed for A TRUE WONDER.
Because the movie was such a big deal, there was lots of press surrounding it, including a Smithsonian Magazine article by Harvard historian Dr. Jill Lepore. Dr. Lepore wrote the best-selling book, THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (2014), and the article summarized her book, which I bought a couple of weeks later. What I began to see through Dr. Lepore’s book and other histories of Wonder Woman was how she was both a product of her times but also shaped by women who worked on the comic or were influenced by the character.
Me: Your writing is so smooth and each transition fits perfectly into the story. How many revisions did it take to make the text of this story this wonderful?
Kirsten: Most of the time, I really struggle with my drafts, and it takes me many tries to hit the right structure and voice. This book was (thankfully) an exception.
So much of my very first draft is in the final book, and the differences are pretty subtle. In subsequent drafts, I added the sidebar/trading cards of various people who played key roles in Wonder Woman’s history.
Also my first draft ended with Second Wave Feminism and Wonder Woman appearing on the first Ms. Magazine cover. But of course it was the Lynda Carter TV show and later the Wonder Woman movie that had inspired the book in the first place. So I went back and brought the character into the present with addition of those pages.
All of my drafts had a similar inspirational ending, but that too changed with time. Here’s the ending from my initial draft, which ended with the 1970s women’s movement:
“Soon Wonder Woman became a symbol for the entire movement… Appearing on toys, t-shirts, and TV. Showing that together, women could be strong and powerful; bold, brave and beautiful.
Proving that each of us can be a Wonder Woman.”
Through revision that became a more universal message for all readers:
“For 80 years, Wonder Woman has changed people’s minds. And in turn she’s inspired us to change the world, making it a better place for all of us. ‘As lovely as Aphrodite — as wise as Athena — with the speed of Mercury and the strength of Hercules…’ Heroes of our own stories. What will yours be?”
Me: I love that. Katy Wu’s illustrations in this book are amazing! They fit so perfectly. Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Kirsten: Katy Wu’s style was a natural for this book. I’ve been a huge fan of hers since she did HEDDY LAMARR’S DOUBLE LIFE with Laurie Wallmark.
I always envisioned this book in comic book style, just as Katy illustrated it, but the big surprise for me was the final spread. I had an illustration note suggesting we have famous women dressed up as Wonder Woman to convey the idea that we’re heroes of our own stories. But Katy chose to have women dressed as themselves with Wonder Woman emerging above them. Katy also emphasized all types of diversity. Those choices make the spread so much more powerful, and I tear up every time.
Me: That is an incredible image. I love how many strong women you introduced and highlighted throughout this story. This is everything Wonder Woman stood for and definitely what your book promotes. Why are strong female role models something you want to share with young readers today? Why is “women can be anything they want to be” an important message for you?
Kirsten: For me, the real takeaway of this book is we that we all have the potential to be heroes, regardless of what we look like on the outside. Yes, this book focuses on women and girls, but the message really applies to all of us no matter our gender, our sexual orientation, our race, religion, or cultural heritage.
One thing that’s really touched me during this pandemic is the number of teachers, nurses, and other everyday heroes, who have sported Wonder Woman masks, tee shirts, and costumes as they went to work in the trenches. It’s an acknowledgment that, like Diana Prince, Wonder Woman’s altar ego, a hero lurks in all of us.
I want kids to discover how they can be heroes in their own communities.
Me: You mention that you were a fan of the Wonder Woman tv show in the 70s (me too!), but didn’t read comic books. Your story also starts out with parental concern that comic books were a terrible influence on children. This is still an argument against comics today. And yet graphic novels are now thriving like never before in the publishing industry. Would you encourage kids to read comics now?
Kirsten: I found it fascinating as I researched to discover that comics have always been under attack. And it wasn’t just because of violence and women in skimpy clothes. Adults argued kids were essentially rotting their brains on comics and should be reading serious stuff instead. It’s really so many of the same arguments we still see today.
Yet, I think most of us just want to raise readers. And that means encouraging kids to read (and reread) what they like whether it’s comic books, magazines, how to books, or great works of literature. I had a high school English teacher who made us analyze Sports Illustrated articles. The level of writing in that magazine was incredible, and I developed a new appreciation for the fact that you can find good writing almost anywhere.
As a medium, comics and graphic novels, like picture books, really require astute readers. You have to read not just the text, but also the illustrations (visual literacy). And sometimes what happens in the pictures is in opposition to the text, so you really have to pay attention to understand what’s going on.
All that to say, I am a huge fan of graphic nonfiction, historical fiction, and memoir. And I have my first historical MG graphic novel under contract.
Me: Yay! Congrats! That’s awesome news. Any advice for other new picture book writers?
Kirsten: I will probably never have a drafting experience like this book again. But, one thing I think really made this book easier to craft was my intense understanding of what the story meant to me personally. From the start, the book wasn’t just a history of the superhero through the ages, but also what she means to her fans.
I think interrogating why you are writing a story is so important for adding emotional resonance. I always write down my story spark so I can remember the initial point of inspiration. Then I ask myself questions. What does the idea mean to me? Why is this my story to tell? What do I want readers to realize by reading the book?
Sometimes I don’t have all the answers before I draft, but when I finally have them, I have heart of my story. That heart shapes the structure, the voice, and the takeaway — really everything.
That’s great advice. Thank you for stopping by my blog Kirsten.
Dear readers, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read this book, I highly recommend it. It tells the story of how one of the first female super heroes came into existence and what that has meant to hundreds of readers and women growing up with her as a role model. But even more, this is a story that will inspire anyone to be a hero right where they are living.