Thursday, January 23, 2020

Q&A with Tami Lewis Brown

Tami Lewis Brown is the author, with Debbie Loren Dunn, of the new children's picture book Instructions Not Included: How a Team of Women Coded the Future. Her other books include Soar, Elinor! and We Really Do Care. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you and Debbie Loren Dunn come up with the idea for this book?

A: When my daughter Julia became a software engineer I discovered the women programming pioneers and right away I knew they would be great topics for a picture book biography.

I'd also been interested in writing about women who worked together as a team to accomplish something amazing and Betty, Jean, and Kay were a perfect team.

Meanwhile, my good friend Debbie Dunn had been working on a manuscript about another early female computer scientist. Debbie is a computer scientist herself and she has a deep understanding of both technology and nonfiction books for children.

Getting together to write this book seemed natural but it turned out even better than either of us expected. 

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: Debbie's experience as a computer scientist was incredibly helpful. She'd even programmed one of ENIAC's successors herself, when she was in school.

We found so many primary sources- everything from original electrical schematics to the newspaper ad Betty, Jean, and Kay saw, recruiting female mathematicians for what turned out to be the ENIAC project.

Betty, Jean, and Kay had all been interviewed extensively. We watched dozens of hours of interviews and panel discussions, much of which we found online.

Our biggest challenge was that when Betty, Jean, and Kay were working their contributions were minimized or misattributed to the men managing the project. We dug deeper to discover how much the women really did and to correct those historic inaccuracies.

Q: What do you think Chelsea Beck's illustrations add to the book?

A: We were thrilled when Chelsea signed on to illustrate Instructions. Her art brought a great vintage techie vibe to the story. We also love how her illustrations seem to capture Betty, Jean, and Kay's individual personalities.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story of these three women, and what do you see as their legacy today?

A: There are several things I hope kids will take away from the book.

One is that women and girls make a great team. When we work together we can accomplish anything!

Another is don't let someone else's expectations stop you. In the 1940s few women had careers in math or science fields but Betty, Jean, and Kay loved math and they carved out important careers for themselves. Girls belong in STEM careers-- we were the original computer programmers, after all!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have two non-fiction picture books coming out in 2020. Perkin’s Perfect Purple is about William Perkin, the teenaged boy who discovered aniline dye and changed the world with chemistry. Debbie and I co-wrote Purple, too, and we can't wait to share it with the world!

My other book is called Art Is Life. It's about Pop artist Keith Haring and it's absolutely GORGEOUS! Illustrator Keith Negley did a wonderful job of capturing Keith Haring's kind, exuberant spirit and his joyous art. I have ideas for several other nonfiction books for kids but they're all at the early research stage.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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