I love how much I have learned over the last few years JUST from reading nonfiction picture books. Today’s book was another story I hadn’t heard before.
Elisa Boxer visited my blog earlier this year for another nonfiction picture book. She is an Emmy and Murrow award winning journalist whose work has been featured in publications including The New York Times and Fast Company. She has reported for newspapers, magazines and TV stations, and has a passion for telling stories about people finding the courage to create change. She is the author of The Voice That Won the Vote, A Seat at the Table, One Turtle’s Last Straw, SPLASH! and Covered in Color, which Kirkus recently called “compelling from cover to cover” in a starred review. Elisa lives in Maine, and has several more books on the way. You can learn more about her at her website.
SPLASH! ETHELDA BLEIBTREY MAKES WAVES OF CHANGE is a nonfiction picture book biography of someone I’d never heard of before. Here is a woman who managed to change the world, not despite her disability, but because of it. It’s a fantastic true story of Ethelda who suffered from Polio and learned to deal with it by swimming. She then went on to win medals, make changes for women’s rights and public access to swimming pools, and much more. Her story is amazing and quite frankly I’m absolutely blown away I’ve never heard of the FIRST woman in the world who won all of the swimming events in a single Olympics! Mind blown! AND the watercolor paintings here are stunning. There are SO many different ways water is shown. I feasted over these illustrations.
Welcome back Elisa.
Me: I love Ethelda’s story. Her perseverance in so many different ways is incredibly inspiring! How did you hear about her? What gave you the idea to turn her story into a picture book?
Elisa: I’m so glad to know you’ve been inspired by Ethelda’s perseverance! I stumbled upon her story soon after I’d finished writing The Voice That Won the Vote, about the mom who helped save suffrage. I was looking for another little-known, barrier-breaking woman to feature in a picture book, and swimming is a sport I’m particularly passionate about. So Ethelda popped up during an internet search combining unsung heroes, women’s rights and swimming. When I learned that swimming helped her heal from polio, and when I realized there weren’t any picture books about her, I knew I’d found my next subject. And Sleeping Bear Press was the perfect home. They had published Vote, and it turns out my editor, Sarah Rockett, had dressed up as Ethelda for her 8th grade “Become a Historical Figure” project. So, it was meant to be! 🙂
Me: Wow! What a connection! Once again, the writing here is SO incredibly tight and well crafted. There’s a repeated refrain throughout that just sings. How many revisions did this story undergo to get to that state?
Elisa: Thank you so much, Jena. That refrain was actually one of the first sections I wrote. Having spent a lot of time in pools and oceans over the years, I know that sense of being lifted, held and carried by the water. There aren’t many things in this world that can at once make you come alive, feel expansive, feel free, and provide a sense of peace. For me, the water is one of those things. I channeled those sensations while crafting the refrain, so that pretty much stayed the same throughout the revision process. And each scene leading up to the refrain felt like such a natural flow from the beginning. Out of all of my books so far, this one had the fewest number of revisions, and those focused mostly on adding in and refining more details about Ethelda’s life.
Me: Can you tell us a bit about your research process? How long did it take you to research all the different facts and tidbits that went into this story?
Elisa: There are a lot of basic facts about Ethelda available online, so I started there. But many sources actually contradict one another. So, I spent several months doing a significant amount of cross-referencing and reaching out to various experts via email and telephone for clarification and confirmation. I also spent a lot of time tracking down photos and getting permission to use them in the back matter. And while there’s a lot of information available about Ethelda’s specific accomplishments, there’s not a whole lot that goes deeper into who she was and into her motivations as a barrier-breaking, convention-challenging rebel. For me, that aspect is a huge part of her story.
Me: I noticed that you put a note about the text in the back matter addressing invented thoughts or conversations that the main character might have had in your story. I know there’s a lot of rules to writing nonfiction and some people find that to be a violation. Why did you decide to include invented thoughts in a nonfiction picture book? Did you receive pushback on using them from your critique group and/or editors?
Elisa: I really appreciate this question. I’ve made a study over the past few years of the various ways authors choose to handle fictionalized elements in picture books that are often shelved as nonfiction. As you know, approaches vary widely. The general rule, for straight nonfiction, is that everything in the text needs to be 100 percent verifiable as fact. In many cases, however, a picture book will be classified as nonfiction, but after reading it, I’m fairly certain it contains at least some fictionalized thoughts or dialogue. I always look for clarification in an author’s note, and sometimes I find it. One of the best examples of this, in my opinion, is the stunning picture book biography Marvelous Cornelius, by Phil Bildner, illustrated by John Parra. It’s about a sanitation worker in New Orleans who became a hero in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It includes fictionalized dialogue and scenes that enhance the energy of the story, and Bildner addresses this directly in his author’s note.
But typically, when I look for clarification about certain elements that feel fictionalized in picture books, I don’t find it. So, one of my goals with SPLASH! was to be completely deliberate and transparent about the fictionalized internal and external dialogue that I chose to include.
And why did I choose to include these fictionalized elements? Each time I connected with the energy of this project, the overriding feeling was a spirit of bravery, rebellion, and courageous rule-breaking that came out in certain scenes and carried the project forward for me. It felt essential for the type of story I wanted to tell. For example, in the scene where Ethelda defied the beach police by taking off her required swim socks, I could literally hear the conversations of the shocked women around her as they began to slowly question why they swam with uncomfortable socks. Could I have written that scene without fictionalized conversation? Absolutely. Would it have been as impactful for conveying the spirit of courage and change that Ethelda’s actions prompted? I don’t believe so. But there’s no way I would have done this without being fully forthright about it.
I had originally put this clarification in the author’s note, and let my editor know that it was important to me to be transparent about these fictionalized elements. Not only was Sarah supportive of this, but she took it one step further and actually suggested we pull that section out and highlight it as a separate note about the text in the back matter. It was a brilliant move on her part. It was also a risk, because there are strong opinions about this whole issue. We took a leap. But I am incredibly happy to say it has paid off more than I could have hoped, based on a recent Booklist review that specifically addresses this point. Here’s what it says:
“Showing respect for the line between fact and storytelling, the straightforward narrative delivers information about Bleibtrey’s life while designating the occasional fictionalized words or comments with italics or by placement within speech balloons.”
The fact that Booklist called this treatment “showing respect” was a reflection for me that we had succeeded in navigating that line with integrity.
Whether it’s this or something else, there will always be people who disagree with your handling of a situation, right? We all have such different lenses, and that’s a good thing. For me, it comes down to knowing and trusting yourself, and operating from a place of personal alignment. If you follow that internal compass, which I did in this case, you can’t go wrong.
Me: I love that. My grandfather on my mother’s side had polio. Why is overcoming illness and/or physical obstacles something you want to share with young readers?
Elisa: While researching and writing this book, I was housebound and debilitated with two chronic illnesses that, several years later, continue to challenge me on a daily basis (Lyme disease and mast cell activation syndrome). And while I can never know the struggles of polio, I do understand the importance of honoring and accepting physical limitations while exploring ways to support healing. It can be such a difficult balance. But I believe chronic illness really does hold up a mirror and show you the truth of who you are and what matters. Little victories mean more. You’re forced to make daily choices and shed what feels inauthentic because your energy and mobility can be so limited. You develop deeper compassion for others who are struggling, especially silently. There’s a recalibration of boundaries and priorities. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it stinks. But it’s also an invitation to find meaning and purpose. I have so much respect for people who have managed to turn their personal pain into a tool for inspiring others.
Me: The illustrations by Elizabeth Baddeley are wonderful. I love the textures she uses throughout and what it looks like being under water. Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Elisa: Isn’t Elizabeth’s art just mind-blowing? Exactly, her texture and her sense of movement make you feel like you’re right there in the water! We recently got a Kirkus review that speaks to Elizabeth’s ability to convey multiple levels and layers through her art: “The blues and greens of the water reflect both depth and movement and the shift in Ethelda’s life from stillness to freedom. The illustrator’s use of line is particularly effective, showing Ethelda moving through water and space.”
There’s so much depth to Elizabeth’s illustrations, and that includes emotional depth as well. I think the biggest surprise for me was how deeply and profoundly moved I felt when I saw the preliminary sketches, and how moved I continued to feel through the final art. I was already intimately familiar with the story, obviously, but it was as if Elizabeth’s illustrations took my sense of Ethelda to a deeper place. The way Elizabeth was able to convey Ethelda’s strength, ferocity, determination, defiance, and so much warmth, empathy and compassion–this both elevated and deepened the story for me in a way I hadn’t expected.
Me: Are there any future projects we can look forward to seeing from you that you can tell us about?
Elisa: I’m super excited about Covered in Color: Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Fabrics of Freedom, which releases August 16th. It’s a picture book biography about the legendary artists who spent their lives challenging convention and breaking barriers. You might be noticing a theme in my work 😉
Covered in Color features amazing illustrations by Susanna Chapman and it’s published by Abrams. I have another book with Abrams coming out in 2023, Hidden Hope: How a Toy and a Hero Saved Lives During the Holocaust. It’s based on an actual hollowed-out toy duck that a French Resistance hero used to hide secret documents from the Nazis. I just saw the final art for the book and it’s difficult for me to describe just how powerfully Amy June Bates has conveyed the hiding, the fear, the heroism and the hope in this story.
My first YA book releases in 2024, along with several more picture books, and honestly, I can’t even believe I just typed that. Books were some of my strongest lifelines growing up, and the fact that I get to spend my days writing them and sharing them with young readers is something I will never ever take for granted.
I’m so grateful to you, Jena, for your thoughtful reviews and questions, and for the chance to chat about all of this. Thank you so much!
Aww! You’re welcome Elisa. I can’t wait to read those! And thank you for stopping by my blog again today.
Dear readers, today is the day SPLASH! is released into the world. It’s the story of a woman who made a difference in this world and was quietly forgotten by history. It’s a story of a woman who sought healing for herself and found peace in the water. It’s the story of a woman who overcame and took on the law in her efforts to change things for the better for others. Trust me when I say that this is a story I don’t think you’re going to want to miss. Find a copy and give it a read. You won’t regret it.