We are delighted to welcome author and illustrator Azadeh Westergaard to Cynsations today. Azadeh’s debut picture book, A Life Electric, illustrated by Júlia Sardà (Viking, 2021), focuses on the life of Nikola Tesla. Booklist gave the book a starred review calling the book “An elegant and enlightening look at a man who brightened the whole world.” Welcome, Azadeh!
What drew you to the life of Nikola Tesla?
Years ago, I read Nikola Tesla’s collection of autobiographical essays in a book called My Inventions (which first appeared in Electrical Experimenter magazine in 1919) while doing character research for a middle-grade novel I was working on. I was utterly charmed by Tesla’s writing voice, brilliant mind, and beautiful strangeness.
So when the time came to write a picture book biography, he’s the first person who popped to mind. Then when I started the research process and learned about Tesla’s passion for pigeons, I was hooked!
On a side note, I had named the protagonist of my middle-grade novel Nikola, before I ever knew anything about Nikola Tesla the inventor. So if it weren’t for my fictional Nikola (inspired by a painted wooden statue I purchased in a thrift shop in Greece many moons ago), I would never have picked up My Inventions at my local bookstore.
What’s your research strategy when beginning a project? What tools do you use to keep the information organized once you find it?
I always look for a child-friendly angle into the story, whether in terms of the work my subject does or experiences from the subject’s childhood that might resonate with a young reader. If I am passionate about the subject and can find that sometimes elusive child-friendly hook, then I know I have something I can work with. In the case of writing A Life Electric, I knew I was on to something when I learned that Nikola Tesla was passionate about caring for and feeding pigeons throughout his life.
I organize my research notes and drafts in Scrivener. I create a separate Scrivener document for each subject that I am researching and store images, photos, quotes, drawings, newspaper article links, etc. in separate folders within the Scrivener document. For research that I find extremely useful, I mark them with an asterisk and label them EXCELLENT or GOLDMINE in all caps as a reminder to refer to that piece of information often. Scrivener is an incredibly robust application and the perfect companion tool for writers—I highly recommend it!
For resources, I research newspaper archives; museums, state, and university libraries; Google Scholar for any academic papers on the subject; Google Books for a peek into works I might be interested in; Ancestry.com to track down long lost relatives of the subject, and Archive.org for out-of-print or hard to find books. Old YouTube videos/interviews are also a surprisingly useful resource.
Once I am ready to write a draft, I often use a program called Freedom to block myself from online distractions and then turn to a desktop writing app called Flowstate. It’s an excellent tool for shutting down the critical mind… you commit to writing for a certain period of time (i.e. 5 minutes, 15 minutes, etc.) and if you stop typing for more than a few seconds it deletes everything you’ve written. It’s a nerve-wracking process, it but gets quick first drafts on the page.
Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?
I listened to tons of podcasts by and about the writing process both by adult and children’s writers, joined SCBWI and attended a few of their conferences and submitted manuscripts for critiques and read a lot of craft books.
My favorites writing books include: Stein on Writing by Sol Stein (St. Martin’s, 1995), The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch (Random House, 2003), and of course, Anne Lamott’s brilliant Bird by Bird (Anchor, 1994), which to this day still makes me laugh out loud.
I am also a huge fan of the writer, Joan Aiken (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase series Yearling, 1962) and have always gotten a lot out of her book, The Way to Write for Children: An Introduction to the Craft of Writing Children’s Literature (Elm Tree Books, 1982). It’s a slim volume first published in the United States in 1988 but packed with no-nonsense advice from a master of the craft.
In terms of actual writing classes, attending the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program from 2017 to 2019 was a turning point in my professional life. If I didn’t get Mary Quattlebaum as my first semester advisor, I am not sure I would have pursued a picture book biography at all.
Mary also introduced me to some excellent craft books that I continuously refer to, including The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children by Nancy Lamb (Writer’s Digest, 2001), Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway (Pearson, 2003), and my top pick for aspiring picture book writers: Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to Publication by Ann Whitford Paul (Writer’s Digest, 2009). Some of my biggest takeaways from all these books: err on the side of specificity, use concrete language, and aim for economy of language. Run-on, generic sentences be gone!
I also had the honor of working with the brilliant writers and humans Martha Brockenbrough, Liz Garton Scanlon, and Linda Urban during my time at VCFA, and they were each instrumental in helping me develop as a writer. For A Life Electric in particular, Martha’s inspired feedback helped me get to the emotional heart of Tesla’s life story and she asked just the right questions to help me steer the manuscript into publishable form.
And last but not least, a class that really inspired me and which I attended a very long time ago was Monica Wellington’s Picture Book Illustration class at The School of Visual Arts (SVA). It’s truly one of the best continuing education classes for aspiring picture book writers and artists out there, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. At the moment, it’s being held online so it’s a wonderful opportunity to take it even if you don’t live in New York.
In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of connecting your manuscript with a publisher?
I signed up for a monthly Publishers Marketplace membership and searched for agents that represented books/authors that I admired and/or that seemed like a good personality match for me based on what they wrote in their bios and manuscript wish lists. I got very lucky with my agent, Alyssa Eisner Henkin. She was one of the first agents I reached out to, and since she represented one of my favorite picture book biography writers, Jen Bryant, I was over the moon when she suggested a phone call after I queried her with my manuscript.
I loved her enthusiasm not only for my work, but for the kidlit industry in particular. She’s extremely bright and looks at projects from multiple sales angles, which is what you want your agent to do! She’s a dream to work with, and I have had an extremely positive experience working with her.
Together we came up with a short list of editors to submit my manuscript to, and I was thrilled when Tamar Brazis expressed interest. She, too, is drawn to the eccentric and overlooked figures in history, and I love the craftsmanship of the books she’s edited and published, including my hands-down favorite, Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault (Abrams, 2016). With Tamar at the helm, I just knew the project would be in excellent hands.
As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?
Nikola Tesla was an immigrant and a naturalized citizen of the United States, as am I. As an immigrant who moved to America when I was seven, Tesla’s deep longing and idealization of his childhood experiences in his birth country deeply resonated with me. This pining for the elusive lost “home” of childhood is a longing that many exiles and emigres often feel—this abstract longing for a home no longer there, lost in the chapters of childhood but ever-present in our hearts and memory.
What advice do you have for others interested in writing picture book biographies?
You must feel passionate about your subject, and you’ll know it when you find the right person. I have a long-running list of potential subjects and I do mini-research dives into each of them.
Often, I know when the subject is not right for me halfway through the research process. It’s like a promising first date that fizzles between appetizers and dessert. You’ll be spending a lot of time with your subject both pre and post publication, so for it to work it really must feel like true love.
Meghan P. Browne
I’m thrilled to welcome fellow Austinite and VCFA alum Meghan P. Browne to Cynsations to discuss her picture book biography, Indelible Ann: The Larger-Than-Life Story of Governor Ann Richards, illustrated by Carlynn Whitt (Random House Studio, 2021).
What are your favorite structure tips? Since today’s picture book biographies are seldom birth-to-death stories, how do you zero in on the events or incidents to highlight?
Well, Indelible Ann is a birth to death story, but even so, it was hard to pick exactly which life threads to include in 40-some pages. Governor Richards lived a full life, and she could spin a yarn like nobody’s business. In fact, I think her gift for oral storytelling was truly one of the greatest factors in her success in life and politics. Ann used stories from her life and the lives of those she knew—filled right up to the brim with wit and humor—to build relationships and convey her stance on issues.
I knew I had to harness that spirit in the book, which is why I leaned into using direct address and the refrain, “Just wait… You’ll see!” When I was deciding which of Ann’s life elements to include, I tried to pick as many as I could from her childhood to show readers the kind of person Ann was as a child, and how her experiences as a kid influenced her larger-than-life story.
If your research turned up tough topics or difficult events not normally addressed in picture books, how did you handle that in the text?
Carlynn and I included Governor Richards’s alcoholism in the pages of the book, and let me tell you, there were quite a few iterations of that portion of the text. I actually applied for a grant with this manuscript the month before it sold, and the panel of judges noted that my inclusion of Ann’s struggle with addiction wasn’t compatible in a picture book marketplace.
But here’s the thing: there are kids all around us who are struggling directly or tangentially with big issues that make everyone uncomfortable: death, divorce, disease, addiction, abuse. I hate those things as much as the next person, but those things exist, even if we’re too uncomfortable to publish them. I’d even say that by not publishing them, we may inadvertently stigmatize those hard experiences. Keeping those struggles off the page doesn’t do a thing to let kiddos in tough spots know that they are not alone.
My editor and I went back and forth a few times on whether or not to and how to address Ann’s alcoholism in the main pages of the text. We eventually decided to dedicate an entire spread to this part of her journey, and made explicit mention of her disease in the back matter. I think Carlynn’s artwork on this particular spread is hauntingly perfect, and I’m so grateful for the way her art elevates my telling of this portion of Ann’s story.
In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of connecting your manuscript with a publisher?
I was humbled to have received multiple offers on this story.
My agent, Alyssa Eisner Henkin, did a great job helping me determine exactly where I wanted this story to go. My choices were incredible, but I have been so thankful to have senior editor Annie Kelley at Random House Studio to guide me from manuscript to publication and champion this book. She totally “got it” right from the beginning. She squealed with me when we landed a jacket blurb from the amazing Holland Taylor, and she helped me take deep breaths and trust myself when I was second guessing some word choices. Annie believed from the get-go that we needed a talented Texan illustrator on the Indelible Ann ticket, and she found the win of the century in Carlynn Whitt.
I’m overjoyed for a second chance to work with Annie on The Bees Of Notre Dame, illustrated by E.B. Goodale, due out Fall 2023.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
Probably the very next thing on my horizon is the Texas Book Festival. I really cannot believe that I get to participate as an author at TBF this year. It feels like getting invited to the Oscars, except better.
My next book, Dorothy The Brave, illustrated by Brooke Smart, is due out with Viking Children’s on March 29, 2022. It’s the true story of one of our country’s living national treasures, Dorothy Ann Smith Lucas, who flew as part of the trailblazing Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) in World War II. Dorothy’s is a pretty incredible story, and I can’t wait for young readers to learn more about her life.
The Bees Of Notre Dame will be out in fall 2023, and recently I’ve been staying busy working on some longer-form projects as well as some more fun nonfiction picture book stuff.
Azadeh Westergaard (aa-za-dé) is an Iranian-American writer and illustrator based in New York City. She received her BA from Harvard University in Visual & Environmental Studies and her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
She loves books and family in equal measure, which is why you’ll usually find her at home, happily surrounded by her beloved picture book collection, dashing husband, three delightful boys, and one extra-large golden doodle.
She is represented by Alyssa Eisner Henkin at Birch Path Literary.
Meghan P. Browne was born and raised in Austin, Texas. She left her beloved Lone Star State to attend the University of Arizona in Tucson, the land of saguaro cacti, the loveliest winters, and gorgeous Santa Catalina Mountains. There, she was a four-time Foundation Scholarship recipient and varsity letter winner for the Wildcat swim team. She graduated from the Honors College with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science.
Meghan returned home to Austin and the bluebonnets and blue skies of her childhood where she lives and writes these days on the south side of town with her husband, Greg, their three children, and a menagerie of honeybees, goats, chickens, a barn kitty, and their beloved dog. She recently graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts with a Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults.
Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle-grade fiction. She is represented by Lori Steel at Raven Quill Literary Agency. Connect with her at stephanimartinelleaton.com.
Gayleen Rabakukk teaches creative writing classes for the Austin Public Library Foundation, is an active member of the children’s literature community and former assistant regional advisor for Austin SCBWI. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.