I love writing fiction. When I write a fiction picture book, I can control everything (insert maniacal cackle here). If I want to have a happy ending, poof: one flick of the magic wand and it’s done. If I need a big obstacle right in the middle of the story, poof! If I want to change the setting, add a dragon, or change a bear into a hamster—poof, poof, poof!
When I set out to write a nonfiction biography of astronomer Dr. Nancy Grace Roman, I didn’t realize I would be losing my magic wand.
Suddenly…there were problems outside of my control. Nancy Grace was known as the “mother of Hubble” because of her role planning and advocating for the Hubble Space Telescope. Understandably, every editor interested in my story wanted Hubble front and center. And yet…Nancy Grace had retired from NASA before Hubble actually launched. I waved my magic wand over and over, but I couldn’t change that fact. I also couldn’t make Nancy Grace the one who singlehandedly fixed Hubble when a problem with its mirror resulted in burred images. Nor could I add in Hubble photographing an alien to add a little extra excitement.
Without a magic wand to rely on, I had to take advantage of every ingredient in my lair in order to brew my story. Here are the ingredients that went into my cauldron:
Eyes of newt: Critique partners
I have two critique groups, and both groups read draft after draft of this book. Even with my magic wand, I rely on my critique partners enormously. Without it, I needed them more than ever.
Dragon scales: Flexibility
At first, I wrote this biography as a chapter book. After we heard from editors that a non-series chapter book wouldn’t work, I rewrote it as a text-heavy picture book, a sparsely-worded picture book, a lyrical picture book, and everything in between. I rewrote again and again, exploring different angles and voices. Finally I hit on the right one.
Spiderwebs: Mentor texts
During the years I worked on this biography, I read a lot of great nonfiction picture books to figure out how other authors managed to pack in voice and story arc and inspirational messages while wrestling with cold hard facts. Some of them are pictured below.
Pond scum gathered at midnight: Persistence
How many rejections did this story receive? I lost count. How many drafts did I write? I lost count. But in the end, the right draft found the right home at Albert Whitman.
Unicorn horn: Agent
I did persist in writing many (many!) drafts, but my agent Erzsi believed in every one of those drafts and persisted in sending out the submissions again and again. She could have said, “Let’s move on to other projects.” Especially after years (years!) of rejections. But she didn’t. She never wavered in her belief that I could tell this story, and she never stopped believing we would find the right publisher.
Owl feathers: Experts
You would be amazed how generous busy experts are with their time. Most scientists at universities have email addresses readily available on the Internet, and I was astounded by how readily astronomers and other experts took the time to read my work (in some cases, multiple times) and give me feedback.
Toadstools: Dark Chocolate
Okay, this one is a given. You can’t write a book without eating lots of dark chocolate along the way. At least I can’t.
Fairy dust: Editor
Even after Albert Whitman bought my book, there was more work to be done. My editor, Wendy McClure, pushed and prodded and questioned and fact-checked through several additional drafts until the book was the best it could possibly be.
Finally, with all of these magical ingredients coming together into a powerful potion, ALWAYS LOOKING UP: THE STORY OF ASTRONOMER NANCY GRACE ROMAN will be out in fall 2019, illustrated by Louise Pigott. Even though I couldn’t use my wand when writing this book, I know that Nancy Grace’s story will leave young readers informed, encouraged, and inspired. And that is truly magical.
Laura Gehl is the author of picture books including One Big Pair of Underwear (Charlotte Zolotow Highly Commended Title, International Literacy Association Honor Book, Booklist Books for Youth Editors’ Choice); Hare and Tortoise Race Across Israel, And Then Another Sheep Turned Up, and Koala Challah (all PJ Library selections); the Peep and Egg series (Parents’ Choice Recommendation, Amazon Editors’ Pick, Children’s Choice Book Award Finalist); and My Pillow Keeps Moving (Junior Library Guild selection). Upcoming releases include Except When They Don’t (Little Bee), Dibs! (Lerner), Juniper Kai: Super Spy (Two Lions); Judge Juliette (Sterling); Always Looking Up: The Story of Astronomer Nancy Grace Roman (Whitman); Apple and Magnolia (Walker); Willa’s Sleepover (Page Street Kids); and the Baby Scientist series (HarperCollins). Laura lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with her husband and four children. Visit her online at www.lauragehl.com.