I am a fan of picture book biographies and always excited when I find one that is about something
unexpected. In The Bag! written by Monica Kulling introduces us to Margaret Knight, an exceptional woman from the 1800's who invented the flat bottom paper bag.
I enjoyed this book thoroughly and would recommend it highly. Not only is it interesting to learn about the birth of something we take for granted but it is also inspiring to read about a woman during a time that being ingenious and self reliant were a negative.
Monica's clear and concise writing makes this biography easy for children to retain and marries well with David Parkin's realistic yet slightly caricaturistic style.
I had the honor of interviewing Monica and I know you will find the backstory to In The Bag! just as entertaining as I did. Thanks, Monica!
How Did In the Bag Come To Be?
Years ago, I got the idea to write about the “aha moment” that occurs in every inventor’s life, and which becomes the motivating force in the creation of his or her invention. I wrote a story about George Eastman and his camera, but no one, at the time, wanted it. Then I wrote about Henry Ford and how he invented his Model T. Eat My Dust! Henry Ford’s First Race was published by Random House in 2004 in their Step Into Reading line. Three years later, Random House published my second inventor book, Listen Up! Alexander Graham Bell’s Talking Machine.
When Tundra Books accepted It’s A Snap! George Eastman’s First Photograph as the first title in what they called the “Great Idea” series, I not only had a home for more inventor stories, but was able to open up my writing from the leveled reader to the picture book format. This has given me more space to tell a story and the illustrator a larger canvas.
The first two books in the Tundra series were about men, so I was looking for a woman to write about. When I came across Margaret Knight, even though her invention might not be as monumental as the car or the telephone, I was fascinated by her struggle to hold onto her patent for the paper bag machine. The story of how she fought for the right to claim her invention was the best gift a writer could find, a ready-made struggle, “ripped from history’s pages,” as it were. Here was a man willing to go to court with his only defence, “this Knight woman can’t be the inventor of this machine because women don’t understand machines.” If not for Margaret’s meticulous note keeping, her story might have ended quite differently.
How Do You Make Biographies Interesting to Young Children?
I begin each biography with research from many sources. Then I decide on the story’s focus — the tighter the focus the better. In the case of Francis Scott Key’s Star-Spangled Banner, it was the fact that FSK was a poet who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, writing a poem that became the national anthem.
Once I’ve got my focus, I write out a rough version of the story, bringing in all the facts. I don’t care about word length at this point. Then I divide the story across a 32-page lay out. The inventor stories are about 1,200 words in length. Once the story is in dummy form, I go back to writing and trimming, making sure each spread has action and something different from the previous spread to illustrate. No talking heads, please!
Finally, and this is the most time-consuming, I rewrite as many times as it takes, not only to bring the language down to the level of the grade-two reader, but to make sure the prose has a rhythm and a fun, easy manner. I don’t want word-dominated spreads, so I try to keep action in mind as I write.
My final run through of the text involves reading it out loud. That’s the true test of how well the sentences are laid out, whether the information is clear, and whether the story is unfolding in a compelling, dramatic fashion. So that’s the process in a nutshell — as Wallace Stegner observed, “hard writing makes easy reading.”
How Do You Get Your Non-Fiction Ideas?
When writing my biographies, I mostly follow my fascinations. Who interests me and why? What aspect of the individual’s life intrigues me? There must be struggle, quirkiness, obsession, or qualities of that nature to act as a hook on which to hang my story. I’ve found all those aspects present in the lives of inventors. They are often visionaries, lone wolves, a little wacky and off the beaten track, spending years to realize their ideas and regarded as crazy in the process. And then, no one can live without the invention and the inventor is called a genius. How’s that for a complete about-face?I like to “pepper” my biographies with dialogue, setting scenes in which the historical characters act out their lives for the reader, rather than merely describe the facts of the life. Critics who are purists don’t always appreciate this. But a quote from Kathryn Harrison captures what I mean and also, perhaps, why I choose to write biography in this way. “I couldn’t change the facts. I could only play with how the people might have responded to the facts of their lives.” Children respond to playfulness and learn best in those conditions. Playful writing is a draw for them. Another source for my ideas is research and reading. In my research on one individual, I often come across interesting facts about others and people I hadn’t heard of and wish to explore.
Monica Kulling Brief Biography
I have been writing and publishing biographies and fiction for young readers for many years. My latest book, the third in Tundra Books “Great Idea” series, In the Bag! Margaret Knight Wraps It Up, was chosen by the Smithsonian as one of the Ten Great Science Books of 2011. The fourth book in the series, Going Up! Elisha Otis’s Trip To the Top, will be out in October 2012. I have also written about a well-mannered dog, Mister Dash, and an unruly girl named Daphne. Merci Mister Dash! will have a sequel in Spring 2013, Mister Dash and the Cupcake Calamity. I live in Toronto with my partner, two dogs, and four cats.