Happy Fall, Creatives! And what better way to celebrate the changing of the seasons than with an author interview. I am extremely excited to welcome Jennifer Harris to this Behind the Page interview. Today we are chatting about her upcoming picture book debut, She Stitched The Stars: A Story of Ellen Harding Baker’s Solar System Quilt, illustrated by Louise Pigott (Albert Whitman & Company) available on October 1, 2021.
Although this is Jennifer’s picture book debut, she is no stranger to writing non-fiction. As a professor of English at the University of Waterloo, Jennifer has published many articles in academic journals. She also has a second picture book, When You Were New, forthcoming from HarperCollins in 2023.
She Stitched The Stars: A Story of Ellen Harding Baker’s Solar System Quilt tells the story of Ellen Harding Baker, an Iowa storekeeper’s wife and mother with a curiosity that reached far beyond the stratosphere. This lyrical story imagines the creation of the quilt from the perspective of Ellen’s daughters. At the time, girls and women were expected to limit their pursuit of knowledge. Ellen took the expectations placed upon her, to stay home and embroider, and used them to stand out. The quilt she made hangs in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Jennifer, Welcome to Behind the Page! I hadn’t previously heard of Ellen Harding Baker. How did you first hear about Ellen?
I’m always looking for lesser-known nineteenth century women writers to research for academic reasons. And it was while I was digging that I came across Ellen. She wasn’t a writer, so she didn’t fit in terms of my other work. But I just couldn’t stop thinking about her and this tremendous achievement. I knew I wanted to share her story with as many people as possible. More people will read this picture book than will ever read one of my academic articles!
I love how you found a way to make it work. As a write it takes skill and knowledge to find the right audience and format for our stories. When writing a picture book biography it can be tricky to find an engaging point of view. to get the right point of view. How did you decide to tell the story is told from the point of view of Ellen’s three daughters?
To be honest, no other point of view ever occurred to me. The idea of the children describing the process of research and creativity, becoming active participants, was quite organic. I should say that the children in the story are composites. Ellen had more–and more boys as well! That’s where the editor and the illustrator came in, deciding how many children should be pictured for visual reasons. Anyone who wonders where the other children are–probably out chopping wood or feeding the chickens or something.
That’s amazing that no other point of view occurred to you! Shows that you were the right author to tell this story. The part that resonated with me the most was how Ellen and her daughters took the expectations put upon them and used them to stand out. What did you resonate with most?
Ellen’s commitment to researching this solar system and working on the quilt over several years was fantastic. This was a labor of love for her, and she must have been exceptionally proud of her work. While many women were interested in science, we’re accustomed to seeing it manifest in more conventional ways in the nineteenth century. Women who were interested in botany collected specimens and sketched them, for instance. Stitching a teaching aid like this was unusual.
Just as the quilt was a labor of love for Ellen, I can tell this book was a labor of love for you. What has been your favorite experience while working on this book?
I love editors and learning how editors think. That’s been such fun, getting to learn more about the editorial side and what is happening in their world. To hear them talk about what their press is and isn’t acquiring, or how decisions are made…. I’m not a Real Housewives person. But a Real Editors series? Riveting.
I would definitely tune into a Real Editors series. If anyone out there has the power to make that happen, Jennifer and I would gladly be your test audience. But speaking of editors, was there a piece of advice that really helped you or applied when working on She Stitched the Stars: A Story of Ellen Harding Baker’s Solar System Quilt?
It’s funny because I actually teach professional writing to first-year university students and then work with my graduate students on perfecting their academic voice. As part of that, we talk a lot about form and pacing, as well as your hook. So it wasn’t so much that I was thinking about specific advice, as I was aware of those things and the importance of flow. Because you need to know where you hook people, where you defy expectations a little or invert something to amuse the reader. Shaping the story to keep people from losing interest–that’s really important. And children are the best test of that. When my children read, they are amused by those small turns and moments that an adult reader might skip right over.
The market is pretty saturated with picture book biographies so shaping the story is a big key to publication and of course marketing it afterwards. She Stitched the Stars: A Story of Ellen Harding Baker’s Solar System Quilt is your picture book debut and I am sure it has changed shape from rough draft to polished. Has publishing your first picture book changed anything about your writing process?
I’m better with sitting with things until they’re ready to be written. I know some people say you should make yourself write every day for a certain period of time, no matter how bad the output it is–just get something down. But when I force things, they don’t feel right. I’m better off letting an idea percolate, then jotting it down when it has a shape. And even then, it might sit for days or a week before I have a chance to type it out, and start to play with the phrasing and structure.
Thank you for stopping by and giving us a look behind the page, but before you go, what snack fueled you while working on this book?
If I could figure a way to eat only things containing chocolate and still be healthy, I would. But I feel compelled to set a good example for my children, which means I have to sneak chocolate. This is not the great tragedy of my life or anything. But chocolate does make me happy.
Thank you for reading this fun Interview with Jennifer Harris. Make sure to grab your copy on October 1st or request it from your local library. If you love it, write a review. Reviews are a free and priceless way to support authors and illustrators. If you’re not following Jennifer already, you can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @mypbjam.
If you enjoyed this interview, make sure to comment, share, or subscribe. (or all three if you feel called to.) Our next Interview at Behind the Page is a Double Cover Reveal with Amber Hendricks. Until then, take care and stay creative!