|Debbie Loren Dunn and Tami Lewis Brown|
Tami Lewis Brown and Debbie Loren Dunn are the authors of the new children's picture book biography Perkin's Perfect Purple: How a Boy Created Color with Chemistry. They also collaborated on the book Instructions Not Included. Brown lives in Washington, D.C., and Vermont, and Dunn lives in Austin, Texas.
Q: How did you end up writing about chemist William Henry Perkin, and what do you see as his legacy today?
A: We like to say that our world looks, smells, tastes, and feels different because of William Henry Perkin. The color is perhaps the most visual legacy; however, it’s more than all the different colors of aniline dyes we have today. The dye allowed medical researchers to stain and see bacteria and microbes which led to a role in cures for tuberculosis, cholera and a host of other maladies.
On a fun note, his scientific process known as “Perkin’s Synthesis” brought about synthetic smells and tastes.
Q: What kind of research did you do to write this book, and did you learn anything especially fascinating?
A: We researched Shadwell in East London, his childhood neighborhood, as well as the rare snail that was only known to be found in ancient Tyre, the different methods that dyers used over the years including soaking the material in urine to prevent fading.
It was fairly easy to explore William’s childhood neighborhood because this is the same area where, about 50 years later, Jack the Ripper stalked his victims. There are loads of Jack the Ripper archives and experts who’ve uploaded resources so we could take a tour of William’s world online.
We hoped to visit London in person to film a “William Walk” for school visits, but unfortunately the pandemic cancelled our plans. Hopefully we’ll be able to do that soon.
We took so much pleasure reaching out to current royal experts and textile experts and receiving details from them, and we loved researching the newspapers that discussed how his purple was making a splash in Paris, London and New York in the mid 1800s. We talked to several chemists that volunteered their expertise and explained coal and coal tar properties to us.
With respect to fascinating finds, we discovered that William’s grandfather was a secret alchemist with equipment in his cellar. While it wasn’t his grandfather’s career and his own dad didn’t respect chemistry as a job for his son in the mid 1850s, it is an amusing link to his ancestry during times when chemistry was called alchemy!
William’s grandfather set out to turn ordinary metal into gold and William set out to find a cure for malaria. We love that parallel that showed up in research. There were so many pieces of great research finds that didn’t fit into the main story.
Q: What is your writing process like? How do you collaborate on your books?
A: After finding a topic that we are both so excited about, we get together…either in Austin, Washington, or Vermont…and storyboard and tease out the theme. Then we both go off and research on our own and bring what we have found together. Then we write a very drafty draft and keep honing that. We read bits and pieces aloud over the phone and we edit and edit and edit on google docs together.
Q: What do you think Francesca Sanna's illustrations add to the book?
A: Francesca Sanna brought SO MUCH to the story and she made the book extra special in our eyes! The illustrations are beautiful, don’t you think?
As we turn through the pages, we feel each illustration is a beautiful piece of art on its own. We are in awe of the way she took our words and made the book a complete story. What a talent to be able to draw like she does. We feel very fortunate that Francesca Sanna agreed to illustrate our book.
We were really thrilled that the art director and publisher chose to splurge and print the book with FIVE distinct shades of purple. It really conveys the richness and depth of William’s discovery and all that color makes Francesca’s art pop!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: We just finished working with someone on our joint website. There are tons of new features and activities for kids. And we’re brainstorming lots of new ideas for our next joint book.
Tami has another new picture book biography, Art Is Life, The Story of Artist Keith Haring coming out on Dec. 1, so she’s also super busy getting ready for that launch.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: It is a great deal of fun to write together. Writing is a mostly a solitary profession, so to have a partner on a book project is the best!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Tami Lewis Brown.