Monday, December 12, 2022

Q&A with Katie Mazeika




Katie Mazeika is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book biography Annette Feels Free: The True Story of Annette Kellerman, World-Class Swimmer, Fashion Pioneer, and Real-Life Mermaid. Mazeika lives in Ohio.


Q: What inspired you to create this picture book biography of swimmer Annette Kellerman (1887-1975)?


A: I ran across a picture of Annette Kellerman in the summer of 2017. At the time, I was looking at interesting women from history for a series of illustrations. The way she was proudly posing in the photo wearing her homemade swimsuit caught my attention, so I looked her up.


The more I learned about her the more I felt like I wanted to tell her story. I was amazed by everything she’d done and shocked I had never heard of her before. I also think I related to Annette’s childhood disability, having lost my eye as a toddler, and that made me want to tell that piece of her story.


Q: How did you research her life, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I read through countless newspaper articles and reports in US and British papers going back to 1905. In Australian papers I went back even further, since Australia was where Annette was born. I went through swim competition records, English Channel Swim records and photographs of the places mentioned in the book, such as Melbourne Aquarium (which, unfortunately, was destroyed in a fire), the London Hippodrome, and Revere Beach in Boston.


I also found a collection of many of the costumes Annette wore throughout her career, including the traditional women’s swimsuit she wore. All the costumes had the dates she wore them and were often hand sewn, usually by Annette.


These were donated by Annette’s sister to the Sydney Opera House along with some photos and videos of Annette. They have a photo of her dancing as a little girl in this collection and a video of her training the Kellermanettes. Using all this I built a timeline and from there her story.


As for the biggest surprise, I came across a video (maybe on YouTube) of Annette, in her 70s, still swim dancing and still able to hold her breath for more than three minutes.

Q: Did you work on the text first or the illustrations first, or both simultaneously?


A: In this case a single illustration came first. Then I decided I wanted to write her story, so I spent time researching and writing the text before I went back and did the art.


Q: In the book's Author's Note, you discuss the impact of Kellerman’s childhood disability--involving weakness in her legs--on her swimming career--can you say more about that?


A: Annette’s parents were both professional musicians. She was classically trained as a dancer. The photo I found of her as a child shows her in pointe shoes at 5 or 6 years old. That is very young to be trained enough to dance on pointe. Had she remained healthy she probably would have gone one to have a career as a ballerina, but when she was put in [leg] braces, dance was no longer an option.


After she learned to swim and once felt confident in the water she immediately started dancing again, because she loved dancing. And from that a whole new sport developed (artistic swimming, also called synchronized swimming).


Annette discussed that if it hadn’t been for her disability, she would never have discovered swimming, which led to so many other significant events in her life and some significant changes in the history of swimming.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m just finishing up a second picture book biography with Beach Lane Books (this one is about Beulah Henry, the inventor known as “Lady Edison.”) Beulah is another fascinating woman that I was surprised I hadn’t heard of before. She holds more mechanical patents than any woman in history.


What makes that accomplishment so astounding is that she only attended finishing school, where young ladies were taught how to be good wives. She had no training in engineering, mechanics or even science.


As I wrap up that book, I am starting a third book with Beach Lane Books. This one is about Sears kit houses and community and I’m really looking forward to seeing how it comes together. I also have a third book I illustrated in the Chicken Soup Babies series coming out in March, Playdate! (With Bear Too?) by Jamie Michalak, published by Charlesbridge.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: There is a free curriculum guide for Annette Feels Free on my website. I also have spots open for WRAD [World Read Aloud Day] if any educators out there are looking for an author/illustrator to read to their students.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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