Today I’m sharing a very interesting nonfiction picture book biography by an author-illustrator.
Katie Mazeika is an author and illustrator with a BFA from the Columbus College of Art and Design. When she isn’t in the studio, she likes to spend time at the theater, in her garden, or getting lost in a good book. She is the author-illustrator of picture book biographies including Annette Feels Free and Beulah Has a Hunch!. She lives in Ohio with her family and two dogs. You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Twitter or Instagram.
BEULAH HAS A HUNCH is a nonfiction picture book biography about Beulah Louise Henry. She was a female whose brain worked so differently that she became a female inventor. Our modern umbrella is most likely due to her unique engineering! She had 49 known patents by the end of her life and became known as “Lady Edison.” She was so outspoken in interviews and magazines that she paved the way for other females making their way in male-dominated professions. And YET I had never heard of her! I was astonished when I read this book to learn all about her, her learning challenges, her battles with her own family and society to do what she could do best, and her ultimate success. This is a story that I will definitely be sharing in my classroom. It’s fantastic!
Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start creating art? How did that bring you to writing and illustrating this book?
Katie: I lost my eye to cancer when I was three years old. After that, I spent the next few years in and out of hospitals, going through chemo and radiation therapy and dealing with complications from the initial surgery. Sometimes I was in the hospital for months at a time.
I spent much of that time drawing and reading (or being read to). I kept that up through school. Reading everything I could and drawing. In high school, when I learned about illustration as a career, it was a natural fit. I could tell stories with art. In college, I fell in love with children’s illustration and picture books. That’s when I started to think back to the books I loved as a kid. MADELINE by Ludwig Bemelmans was a favorite. When I was a kid, it was the only book available with a main character who spent time in a hospital. Madeline also had a scar, and she wasn’t embarrassed about it- she showed it off! I knew I wanted to make books like that, where kids like me felt seen.
BEULAH HAS A HUNCH!, and my previous book, ANNETTE FEELS FREE, are both about strong women who did amazing things and happen to have a disability or neurodivergence. I’ve always enjoyed picture book biographies. My shelves are filled with them. I wanted to create picture book biographies that resonated with the kids who don’t often see themselves in books.
Me: I love that. Can you talk about your art process for this book? Did you use traditional media or digital, or a blend of both? What made you decide to use this medium for this book?
Katie: I use Photoshop for the final art. My early sketches and thumbnails are done by hand, but once I have an idea of how I want a spread to lay out, I take it into Photoshop to start cleaning it up and adding details.
I love Photoshop because it makes trying different things easy to do. It’s just a new layer. I used more layer blending modes in BEULAH HAS A HUNCH! than I have in any other project. It gave me the depth of colors and the really bright, almost neon shades I wanted to illustrate Beulah’s synesthesia.
Me: I had never heard of Beulah and I would think I should have heard of “Lady Edison” before now! What gave you the idea for this story?
Katie: I have never heard of Beulah either. So when I came across an article about her, I was intrigued. I particularly liked how different she was from Annette Kellerman (the subject of my previous biography.) Annette was bold, willing to be brash, and loud. Beulah, by contrast, was raised to be very ladylike and demure. And she never gave that up. Even when she was running two manufacturing plants, she came to work every day in a dressing gown and pearls.
Me: Can you tell us about your research process? How much research did you need to do before you could write and illustrate this book?
Katie: I start research for all nonfiction or informational fiction books with a deep dive into everything I can find on the subject. With Beulah I filled a three-subject notebook with facts about Beulah. I was l looking to either confirm facts with multiple sources or weed them out. I also put together several timelines. For Beulah, I had one for her patents when they were submitted when the patent was granted. Another timeline follows where she lived, and a third tracks her society page appearances. And finally, an education timeline. I spent quite a bit of time looking at the history of Charleston schools and even found a source with yearbooks from Beulah’s schools l going back to 1910.
At the same time, I fill Pinterest boards with clothing, furniture, and hairstyles of the time period. President Garfield’s home is local to me. It’s of the same period and is maintained as a museum with original furnishings, wallpaper etc. I walked through and took a lot of photos there. I also found Beulah’s childhood home, thanks to a Charleston holiday home tour. I used the tour pictures and Google Earth to get accurate references for the exterior of Beulah’s childhood home.
All this takes months. Eventually, the facts point in a certain direction, and I can start to envision a narrative or story.
Me: I love your approach to the subject, sharing Beulah’s childhood and how she knew and talked about her own neurodiversity before it was even a thing (i.e., her hyperphantasia and synesthesia) and wasn’t afraid to discuss it. Was this story always this well written? Or did it become this polished through many revisions with your critique group, etc.?
Katie: Thank you!!! I live by Anne Lamott’s advice and start with a “lousy” first draft. BEULAH went through many, many revisions.
Me: You are both the author and the illustrator of this wonderful story, your second author-illustrator picture book. What was harder, the writing or the illustrating of it? Why?
Katie: That’s a tricky question. I guess the writing can be harder. I’m visual and want to dive into the pictures. But I do really enjoy writing and love doing both together. For example- When I wrote BEULAH, I had a strong vision of who she is, but that personality comes through more in the illustrations than in the text. I like writing, knowing I can fill in those blanks with art.
Me: Any advice for new picture book writers and/or illustrators?
Katie: Read recent picture books, a lot of recent picture books. Just make a habit of regularly going to your local library to see what’s new. There are so many wonderful books, and what’s popular and successful today is very different than even just ten years ago.
That’s good advice Katie. Thank you for stopping by my blog today.
Dear readers, this book was published October 17th. If you haven’t had a chance yet to read it, I highly recommend it. Here’s a true story of a neurodivergent female who became profoundly successful as an inventor when such things were not possible or well known. This is a story that must be read!