Her Name Was Mary Katharine: The Only Woman Whose Name Is on the Declaration of Independence, the important, historical picture book by Ella Schwartz & Dow Phumiruk, releases TODAY with Christy Ottaviano Books and we get to talk to the fabulous author/illustrator team who created it! Are you ready?
Welcome to the blog, Ella & Dow!
Q 1. Ella: When and how did you discover the story of Mary Katharine Goddard?
Ella Schwartz: I came across a random mention of Mary Katharine Goddard in a random news article. The article mentioned, in passing, that her name was on the Declaration of Independence. My first thought was: How could this be? There is no woman’s name on the Declaration! The article gave no specifics but triggered me to research more. I figured out pretty quickly Mary Katharine’s story deserved to be told.
Q 2. What was one of the most surprising discoveries each of you made in creating this book?
Dow Phumiruk: I was immediately shocked to learn about this influential woman left out by history books. It really makes a person wonder what else is missing! I’m so glad to help bring her story to attention now.
Ella Schwartz: I went through so many emotions writing this book. Here was a woman whose name is on one of our nation’s most treasured documents. She should be celebrated and honored like any of the founding fathers and yet hardly anyone has ever heard of her! Like Dow, I was shocked at how selective history can be. Who gets to write history? Who gets to say which historical figure should be remembered? I’m honored that Dow and I finally get to tell the story of this remarkable woman who deserves to be celebrated.
Attention to Details
Q 3. In addition to your answers to #2,…
Ella: What surprises did Dow bring to your story?
Ella Schwartz: There are so many nuances to Dow’s gorgeous illustrations that surprised and delighted me. There isn’t a single known photograph of Mary Katharine Goddard in existence today, so I worried depicting what the heroine of our story looked like could be challenging. However, I was already familiar with Dow’s previous work and knew if anyone could do Mary Katharine justice it was her! Dow’s drawings of Mary Katharine blew me away! She captured the period beautifully, but certain small details surprised me. Notice the ink stains on Mary Katharine’s fingers. Notice how Mary Katharine’s hair is gathered under a bonnet. All these nuances are what makes the story come to life beyond the words.
Dow: Did Mary Katharine’s story—or the fact that it’s about the Declaration of Independence—or Ella’s text –take your illustrations in a direction you didn’t expect?
Dow Phumiruk: When I learned that Ella had taken pictures of the newspapers, I knew I wanted to incorporate those somehow into the book. My family and I had planned to visit the Library of Congress ourselves the spring that the pandemic arrived. I was so glad Ella had been there already! I decided to use many of the photos as textures for the backgrounds on several spreads. You can see examples of this on both the jacket and the image here.
Q 4. Dow: In addition to the fact that you had NO photos of Mary Katharine to go by (More about this in Q 8.), what other illustration challenges did you encounter in this project?
Dow Phumiruk: I decided to draw the image of the Continental Congress drafting the Declaration of Independence in a unique way. I used an aerial vantage point, which I had not seen in any of the reference paintings I had searched through. Then, to add energy to the spread, I tilted the spread diagonally. With these techniques, I wanted to give the feel of a dynamic and tense time, when the colonies’ future lay on the line. This made for a very challenging drawing of the room from above, extrapolated from all the stage view paintings I had found. I also was tasked with depicting the Revolutionary War in a way that was appropriate for children, and this, too, was challenging. On a spread that mentions that the war raged on, I drew wounded soldiers in pencil and all in white, in the sky like clouds. It’s an abstract and subtle portrayal of the soldiers’ fear and agony.
Writing a Historical Picture Book–and Research
Ella Schwartz: My previous books have all been STEM focused chapter books. This was my first foray in historical picture books. My background is in the sciences, so my previous books came about a bit more organically. Mary Katharine forced me to really dig into RESEARCH. I learned quickly that I couldn’t trust anything on the Internet, especially Wikipedia. Since Mary Katharine’s story had never been told before, I had a massive responsibility to get the historical details right. My research involved several late-night sessions in the bowels of the Library Congress pouring over manuscripts and documents that were hundreds of years old. I am so grateful for the amazing librarians at the LOC. I could not have written this book without their help and research assistance.
Q 6. Tells us about your upcoming projects: Yes We Will (Dow) & Is It OK To Pee in the Ocean? (Ella).
Dow Phumiruk: YES WE WILL is an anthology written by New York Times best-selling author Kelly Yang. It includes biographies of several incredible and important Asian Americans, from sports legends and artists to activists and politicians. I had the privilege of creating one of the spreads alongside other Asian American illustrators who contributed to the project. I drew a row of children and a row behind them of adults, squared to the viewer. They are all holding hands to show their strength together in defending their rights as Americans in that early time of anti-Asian discrimination. Sadly, as you know, this discrimination has not been eliminated from our country, and I think this book will be an important one both for people to learn about our incredible changemakers as well as for young Asian American children to see themselves in our book.
Ella Schwartz: IS IT OKAY TO PEE IN THE OCEAN is the second book in my middle grade STEM chapter book series. The book helps kids understand the impact humans have on the ocean ecosystem and encourages them to be agents of change. Spoiler: It really is okay to pee in the ocean!
Balancing our #kidlit & real lives
Q 7. How do you manage to balance your busy #kidlit careers with real life, family—and Ella, with your job as a “cybersecurity warrior interfacing with the U.S. federal government on strategic technology initiatives.” (!)
Dow Phumiruk: It’s a struggle! I always need to be as efficient as possible in my work, whether drawing or writing. If I am stuck on one part of a project, I leave it and work on a different part or different book while letting the problem sit in my subconscious for a while. But I always keep going. I also think about new story ideas and think about any problem areas as I try to fall asleep at night or while I am out walking the dog. Essentially, it’s whenever I can. If I am tight on deadlines, I let go of any nonessential elements of my life. I rarely watch TV, though some weekend time with the family is a priority for me. Fortunately, my kids are pretty much all grown now, and I work only one day a week out of the house, teaching medical students. But clearly, squeezing in creative time when you are a caregiver or full-time employee in a “day job” is quite difficult. I was much easier on myself back then!
Ella Schwartz: It’s definitely a struggle! I work a full-time day job, so most of my writing is done in the evenings, after the kids have gone off to bed. I find the middle of the night is my most creative and productive time. I drink way too much coffee. I also don’t watch any TV, except for family TV night to watch new episodes of anything Marvel or Star Wars on Disney+. Those are non-negotiable in my house! I don’t think there’s any magic to balancing writing, day jobs, and family. It’s just a matter of minimizing distractions and prioritizing time. I am grateful for an extremely supportive husband who gives me the space and time to pursue my writing. I know I could not do this without the support of my family.
Q 8. Ella: since your bio says you’re always asking questions, what question would you like to ask Dow? –Dow, please answer Ella’s question.
Ella Schwartz: With pleasure! Dow, in the book you depicted Mary Katharine both as a young girl and as a grown woman. As you know, there are no known pictures of Mary Katharine in existence. How did you decide what Mary Katharine should look like?
Dow Phumiruk: Great question, Ella. I started with the decision to make her strong in some way. I made her tall, for the physical leverage longer limbs would have to work the printing equipment I saw in my research. I chose a medium brown hair, a common hair color. I wanted her eyes to hold a steely gaze, such that men of the period would take her seriously. And then I searched for the style of clothing women wore then and dressed her in this way. I was told she would have a leather apron and always a bonnet (originally meant to keep long hair out of the fireplace), so I included these. For childhood, I extrapolated her features down to a younger age. That is an art class in itself to recognize that children have larger heads/foreheads, smaller noses and mouths in proportion to their faces, and generally thinner and finer hair, among other differences.
Wow! What great answers.
Thank you both for joining the blog today. HAPPY BOOK BIRTHDAY to this wonderful nonfiction picture book, AND a long-awaited recognition of Mary Katharine Goddard.
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Next week on the blog: Part 2 of our Shawn Peters interview and a #Giveaway of his #mg #kidlit #debut: THE UNFORGETTABLE LOGAN FOSTER (Harper Collins).