Hayley Barrett is the author of the new children's picture book biography What Miss Mitchell Saw, about the 19th century astronomer Maria Mitchell. Barrett also has written the picture book Babymoon. She lives outside Boston.
Q: Why did you decide to write a children's picture book about astronomer Maria Mitchell?
A: In my author's note for the book, I explain how I'm not sure when or where I first learned of Maria Mitchell. I expect I read something about her when I was a child, and she stayed with me with for years and years until I began to work on What Miss Mitchell Saw. As I did my preparatory research, I fell in love with her life story. Once I decided on an approach, I began to write.
Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?
A: Of course, I read everything I could on Maria Mitchell's life and her many accomplishments. In addition, I set about learning whatever I needed to know about Nantucket history, astronomy, whaling, celestial navigation, and more.
I was determined that the book be correct in every element. To that end, I sought out the expertise of Jascin Leonardo Finger, deputy director and curator of the Mitchell House, Archives, and Special Collections at the Maria Mitchell Association on Nantucket. Her assistance was invaluable as this story developed from an idea to a beautiful, fact-packed book.
One surprising fact I learned about Maria Mitchell is that towards the end of her life, she resided in Lynn, Massachusetts, not far from where I live now. Her nephew built a small observatory for her there, and I wish it still existed.
Q: What do you think Diana Sudyka's illustrations add to the book?
A: Diana Sudyka is this book's dream illustrator. From the first moment, I knew she'd be perfect for it.
She accomplished infinitely more than a depiction of events and people in Maria Mitchell's life. She captured the great lady's starry-eyed wonder, her remarkably loving family, and her cherished island home. And she gave the book its stunning comet! What a comet!
Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?
A: I hope they are swept away by Maria Mitchell's story. I hope they are swept into their imaginations, into their intellects, and into their own personal aspirations. If this book manages to continue Miss Mitchell's life work and launches an astronomer or two or 10, that would be especially great.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have two more books on the way. Girl Versus Squirrel will be published by Holiday House in June 2020. Renée Andriani did the book's adorably squirrelly illustrations.
The one to follow—my fourth—is still a secret, but I'm very excited about it and hope to see an announcement soon. That book's gifted illustrator is doing magnificent work so far. Wait 'til you see it!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: So far, it looks like I'm an author and not an author-illustrator. While I sometimes create visual art, I haven't yet wanted to try illustrating one of my own books. Why? I'll offer two reasons:
Firstly, I love writing for illustrators. I strive to delight and energize them with my words, to inspire them to create magnificent art. This is true for every manuscript I write, and it's true from the absolute start. I keep my book's maybe-future-illustrator in mind the whole way through.
The second reason is visual variety. Because my books have different illustrators, they do not resemble one another. Juana Martinez-Neal's gorgeous illustrations for Babymoon are nothing like Diana Sudyka's gorgeous illustrations for What Miss Mitchell Saw. Isn't that super fun? I think so.
I appreciate this opportunity, Deborah. Thanks for inviting me to talk about my writing and What Miss Mitchell Saw.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb