Friday, February 23, 2024

Q&A with Vivian Kirkfield




Vivian Kirkfield is the author of the new children's picture book biography Pedal, Balance, Steer: Annie Londonderry, the First Woman to Cycle Around the World. Kirkfield's other books include From Here to There. She lives in Bedford, New Hampshire.


Q: What inspired you to write a children's picture book biography about bicyclist Annie Londonderry (1870-1947)?


A: Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog, Deborah. I appreciate the opportunity to chat about my newest book.


Usually, my books spring from an online image or a snippet someone shares with me. But this book started as a request from HMH editor Ann Rider in 2018 when I was working on the manuscripts for From Here to There.


She asked me to write a stand-alone book about how the bicycle helped women gain more independence. When we sent the manuscript to her, she didn’t fall in love with it. And so, my agent sent it out on a wider submission – and Calkins Creek editor Carolyn Yoder saw promise in it.


Which just goes to show how subjective this industry is – and we should have faith that if we have a really strong manuscript, it will eventually find a good home.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: To research the story, I followed my usual process: checking online articles, viewing YouTube, and following up with any books I can find on the topic. And that’s where I got lucky!


Peter Zheutlin, Annie’s great grandnephew, had written a book about her, Around the World on Two Wheels. The book was fascinating and the research he did was amazing. I emailed to thank him and to ask if he’d be willing to look at the manuscript when I was finished.


His response was better than I could ever have hoped for. He was excited there would be a children’s book about Annie. And he told me that the very next weekend, he was giving a presentation at a bike shop about an hour from my home where they’d be viewing a documentary about this intrepid cyclist.


Of course, I went. It was lovely to meet Peter and learn more about Annie. Plus, he offered to read the manuscript when I was finished writing it. He’s been a fabulous asset to the project and was our authenticity expert when the color layouts were done.


It's always a plus when you can connect with family when you are writing a nonfiction biography.


Peter was able to share insights I wouldn’t find in a book or online article and what I discovered really surprised me. His family had never spoken about her – Peter, an avid cyclist, started doing research for his book about her – and that’s when he learned that she was his relative!


Q: What do you think Alison Jay’s illustrations add to the book?


A: Alison Jay’s art is perfect for this story – and her illustrations bring the story to life! The research she does is meticulous – and her quirky style is exactly right for the intrepid traveler and forward-thinking woman that Annie was.


Q: The Horn Book review of the book says, in part, “Perseverance and a willingness to try new things win the day in this lively picture-book biography.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love the description – perseverance is key to the success of any project or undertaking. In fact, perseverance/persistence is one of the five Ps I’m so fond of talking about at conferences and school visits. If we don’t give up, we WILL succeed. And Annie definitely did NOT give up.


Regarding trying new things…I was a timid child…and never wanted to try new things. But when I turned 64, my son gave me a very unusual birthday gift. He took me skydiving.


And the very next year, I jumped into writing for children the same way I jumped out of that plane…with my whole heart…because I knew that if I could jump out of a perfectly good airplane, I could probably do anything.


And now, 12 years later, I have six published books…and more on the way. Like Annie, we have to be willing to try new things.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Thank you for asking, Deborah. And I love how the question before segued right into this one.


I do have several books in the pipeline…One Girl’s Voice: How Lucy Stone Helped Change the Law of the Land, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon (Calkins Creek/Astra, Spring 2025).


Plus a sequel to Pippa’s Passover Plate for Fall 2025 with Holiday House, but it hasn’t been announced yet.


And also, a board book called Friends Count with PJ Publishing, also unannounced. I tell people that I am living my dream…and it’s true.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I host a contest for writers every March called #50PreciousWords – last year we had 756 submissions. Quite a few of the stories have become real books…and last year, Federico Erebia’s 2021 entry morphed into a 50,000-word YA novel, Pedro & Daniel (Levine Querido, 2023).


Over the past two years, the #50PreciousWords Literacy Initiative has donated over 700 brand new children’s books to local schools in need.


Also, every May during Children’s Book Week, I invite children from all over the world to send their 50-word stories to me – and on Mother’s Day, I post all the #50PreciousWordsforKids entries and every child receives a Certificate of Participation that can be printed out and personalized. What a great way to encourage young people to discover the storyteller that lives in their hearts.


Thank you so much for having me, Deborah. It was a pleasure visiting with you. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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