Mary Losure is the author of a new book for older kids, Isaac the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Reveal'd. Her other books include Backwards Moon and Wild Boy. A former reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, she lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book for younger readers about Isaac Newton?
A: It began when I discovered that as a boy, Isaac Newton had lived all by himself in the attic of an apothecary’s shop and kept a tiny, secret notebook. I also knew he’d grown up to be an alchemist—a kind of sorcerer.
I hoped kids would be interested in a book that was not about the bewigged-old- guy- on- a- pedestal many people picture when they hear the name Isaac Newton, but about a lonely, angry boy who somehow grows up to be the world’s greatest alchemist.
Q: How did you research the book, and what particularly surprised you in the course of your research?
A: I built the story around three main sources: one was the secret notebook, which is now in the Morgan Library in New York City. (It’s also on-line at a fabulous site called The Newton Project.)
The other two sources were books we know Newton read as a child—he copied bits and pieces of them into the notebook. They’re called The Mysteries of Nature and Art, and Mathematicall Magick. Together, the notebook and those two mysterious books offered a window into Newton’s childhood.
When I went to England, I was surprised to see signs carved into the walls of the farmhouse where Newton was born: hex symbols to keep witches away. In the ancient library across from his school, you can find a scholarly work about animals, and among the animals described are sea monsters, dragons, and unicorns.
I realized something that really hadn’t sunk in before—that England in the 1600s, when Newton was growing up, was a place where people really did believe in magic.
Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Isaac Newton?
A: The apple story! The idea that Isaac Newton is sitting under an apple tree, an apple falls to the ground, and all of sudden, WHAM! He understands...gravity!
It’s just not true that suddenly, out of nowhere, Newton understood the forces that control the cosmos. Yes, Newton was a genius, but from the time he was a small child he wondered about the world and how it worked. He did an immense amount of hard, painstaking work before his discoveries were clear in his mind.
Q: The book also includes a variety of fascinating illustrations. How did you track those down?
A: I found most of them in the course of researching the story. I began with The Mysteries of Nature and Art and Mathematicall Magick. Digital copies of the actual illustrations from those books were available free of charge from two wonderful institutions—the Library of Congress and the Hathai Trust Digital Library.
The images from the tiny notebook were much more difficult—at this writing the only way to see the actual pages is to view them on microfilm at the Morgan library. They had to be digitized especially for Isaac the Alchemist.
The rest of the illustrations fell somewhere along that range between free- and- readily obtainable to much- more- difficult- and- expensive.
Figuring out which images to use and how was a huge job, though, bigger than anything I realized when I began. And getting the permissions—yikes. My editors Deb Noyes and Carter Hasegawa at Candlewick were saints. And Amy Berniker, who was the designer, rules the cosmos.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now, I’m in the middle of yet another narrative nonfiction project requiring a ridiculous amount of work. (It’s the story of three dead poets when they were young, and not famous—but wanted to be.) I’m also working on a middle-grade fantasy.
I like having several projects going at once. I also think when you write both non-fiction and fiction, what you learn from writing one book helps you with the other. I hope so, anyway!
Q: Anything else we should know?
--Interview with Deborah Kalb