Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Crafting a Story with Two Main Characters--Where Giving Each Equal Weight Is Important, Guest Post by Vivian Kirkfield



Author Vivian Kirkfield is no stranger to the kidlit world. You can find her just about everywhere in kidlit social media. Her newest picture book, Making Their Voices Heard, debuted the end of January. I, Tina Cho, invited my critique partner to share her writing expertise with our Grog readers. Take it away, Vivian!

Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to share on the Grog Blog, Tina. I’ve seen a question come up several times on Facebook groups that are devoted to writing, and I thought I would speak to that.



How do you craft a story with two main characters where giving each equal weight is important?


Before I wrote the draft for MAKING THEIR VOICES HEARD: THE INSPIRING FRIENDSHIP OF ELLA FITZGERALD AND MARILYN MONROE, I used several picture books as mentor texts. One of the most helpful was Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick. Another book was Martin and Mahalia: His Words, Her Song by Andrea Davis Pickney, illustrated by Brian Pickney. I studied how the authors introduced their characters and how they relayed information about their lives and how their lives connected.





I’d already done a bunch of research, but none of my sources, mostly books about Ella and Marilyn, spoke about their friendship. I had to become a detective. I contacted the author of one of the Marilyn Monroe books. She didn’t know but she directed me to the website of the president of the Marilyn Remembered fan club. He didn’t know either, but he kindly gave me the phone number of the woman who had been Ella’s promoter for thirty-seven years. It was so hard for me to call her…I’m really timid that way. But I knew I needed the information because I knew I wanted to write an authentic and accurate story for children…and I wanted it to be a story that children could relate to – a story about friendship. Even young kids know about playdates and going to a classmate’s birthday party and how it feels when your friend is mad at you. How to be a good friend is an important lesson for kids. And although it’s true that each of these icons had enormous talent, each was being limited because of discrimination of one kind or another…and it was their friendship and respect for each other which helped break those barriers.

I took a deep breath…or maybe a few…and I called Audrey Franklin. I got her answering machine. And left a message. Miracle of miracles…she called me back the next day - we chatted for hours and she verified that they were, indeed, friends.

So, now I had verified they were friends, but I knew I also had to balance these two superstars. The mechanics of the text set out to do that. I began by introducing both women and pointing out how they are different yet the same.


Ella and Marilyn. On the outside, you couldn’t find two girls who looked more different. But on the inside, they were alike—full of hopes and dreams, and plans of what might be.

Next, I showed how Ella got her start – going from living on the streets to playing with a real band. Then, on the next page, I showed how Marilyn got her start – going from working at an airplane factory to signing a studio contract.

But we need to throw rocks at our heroes, right? And what I love about writing nonfiction is that I don’t have to invent the rocks…these women really faced huge obstacles and barriers. On the next two spreads, I show how Ella, though a jazz phenomenon, battled racial discrimination. And then I show how Marilyn faced an industry run by men who controlled her career.

So far, so good. I was keeping it pretty even and balanced. Now I wanted to show how Ella helped Marilyn…and then how Marilyn helped Ella. The nightclub incident where Marilyn persuades the owner to book Ella by promising to bring the media to his doorstep was easy. There was plenty of online information about that – and Ella even speaks about it in an interview. But how was I going to show how Ella helped Marilyn? That was definitely a challenge.


I found interviews where Marilyn mentioned how much she loved Ella, not only as a singer, but as a person. Ella was actually her idol…Marilyn was a fan girl! And then I read several articles that spoke about how Marilyn studied Ella’s voice to improve her own vocals to get ready for her singing role in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Bingo! When critics gave Marilyn rave reviews and her bosses amended her contract and gave her a higher salary and more control over script approval, I knew I had what I needed. Because this was a BIG deal – it’s what she had been fighting for all along. Marilyn also used Ella’s records to help with her insomnia – she’d fall asleep listening to Ella’s voice.

Now when Marilyn spoke, her bosses paid attention. And reporters and photographers followed her everywhere. Determined to thank Ella in person, Marilyn bought tickets to Ella’s next show.

After the show, Ella and Marilyn sit shoulder to shoulder, chatting. When Marilyn discovers that the Mocambo club refused to book Ella, she wanted to help her friend the way her friend had helped her.

Putting their heads together, Marilyn and Ella hatched a plan.
And I love the illustration Alleanna Harris did.



Marilyn put her career on the line to a certain extent because in those days, there was a lot of racial discrimination (not much has changed, unfortunately) and movie studios controlled what their actresses could and couldn’t do. By calling the nightclub owner and insisting that he book Ella, Marilyn stepped up and spoke out. This is what we mean by allyship. You don’t just give money to the cause…you step in and make it happen. The Civil Rights movement was just in its infancy…in fact, the nightclub incident happened in 1954 and it wasn’t until the end of 1955 that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus.

I was able to show that both of these strong women admired and respected each other. Ella said, “She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her time. And she didn’t know it.” And Marilyn said, ““Well, my very favorite person and I love her as a person as well as a singer. I think she’s the greatest and that’s Ella Fitzgerald.”

I also wanted to show how we are all complex individuals. Most of us know Marilyn as a sexy Hollywood star…and kids probably don’t know her at all. Similarly, most kids may never have heard of Ella, but her music was genius…in fact, at the very first Grammys in 1959, Ella Fitzgerald won for best female pop vocalist and best improvised jazz performance. I thought it was time for kids to discover these two special women and how differences in race, color, and creed played absolutely no role in their amazing friendship. And how poignant a time for a book like this. We can, and must, all step up, making our voices heard for what is right, so that our nation can be healed. Covid-19 will, at some point, have a vaccine that will protect us from it. But this sickness of hatred and anger can only be healed with kindness, love, compassion, and with the willingness to listen to the voices of people of color.

Most of you who know me know that I am an extremely optimistic person and I’m always trying to find a positive, even in the darkest of times. My older sister used to call me Pollyanna, after the storybook character who finds something to be glad about in every situation. And I think I have found it. Young people are stepping up and refusing to allow this hatred to go on. A high school junior reached out to me last week. As a school service project, she is building a website where she will showcase videos of teachers reading aloud books from different cultures. She wants to use Sweet Dreams, Sarah and she wrote to ask my permission. Of course, I checked with the publisher who is totally on board. What thrilled me the most were the young girl’s words: “Your book has had a profound impact on my life and has given me the confidence to use my voice.”

And THAT is why I write books for children! Just like Ella and Marilyn, everyone needs to make their voice heard.


Bio: Writer for children—reader forever…that’s Vivian Kirkfield in five words. Her bucket list contains many more than five words – but she’s already checked off skydiving, parasailing, banana-boat riding, and visiting critique buddies all around the world. When she isn’t looking for ways to fall from the sky or sink under the water, she can be found writing picture books in the quaint village of Amherst, NH where the old stone library is her favorite hangout and her young grandson is her favorite board game partner. A retired kindergarten teacher with a masters in Early Childhood Education, Vivian inspires budding writers during classroom visits and shares insights with aspiring authors at conferences and on her blog, Picture Books Help Kids Soar where she hosts the #50PreciousWords International Writing Contest and the #50PreciousWordsforKids Challenge. She is the author of numerous picture books. You can connect with her on her websiteFacebookTwitterPinterestInstagramLinkedin, or just about any place people with picture books are found.

Vivian's books:
PIPPA’S PASSOVER PLATE (Holiday House) illus by Jill Weber
FOUR OTTERS TOBOGGAN: AN ANIMAL COUNTING BOOK (PomegranateKids) illus by Mirka Hokkanen
SWEET DREAMS, SARAH (Creston Books) illus by Chris Ewald
MAKING THEIR VOICES HEARD: THE INSPIRING FRIENDSHIP OF ELLA FITZGERALD AND MARILYN MONROE (Little Bee Books, January 14, 2020) illus by Alleanna Harris
FROM HERE TO THERE: INVENTIONS THAT CHANGED THE WAY THE WORLD MOVES (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2021, illus by Gilbert Ford

33 comments:

  1. What a fabulous blog post! Thank you Vivian for showing how you balanced both characters in Make Their Voices Heard and for sharing the high school junior's request for Sweet Dreams, Sarah. Everyone's voice does need to be heard. Always.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Kim! I'm hoping that the post helps other writers as they craft their own manuscripts. And yes, everyone's voice does need to be heard...you are so right!

      Delete
  2. This is a wonderful interview! What you've said, Vivian, speaks right into the turmoil of our circumstances. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's really interesting, Angie...as I look at so many of the new books that are launching this year...they really apply to what is going on...I'm so proud to be part of this amazing kidlit community and so happy that this story may help kids make their voices heard!

      Delete
  3. Thank you so much, Tina...I really appreciate the chance to share a bit of the craft that went into the making of Making Their Voices Heard. I hope it is helpful to everyone!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Tina and Vivian, you both are everywhere w/your books. Great craft post for us NF peeps. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey dear Kathy...and you are everywhere, commenting and supporting and encouraging...very grateful for your friendship!

      Delete
  5. making your voice heard AND helping another to get their voice heard - a story filled with heart. and even showing a path forward.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love that, Sue...showing a path forward...definitely something we want to be doing.

      Delete
  6. Thank you, Vivian and Tina, for this timely interview filled with heart and voice!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad you enjoyed the interview, Charlotte...I was so happy when Tina asked me to talk about how I balanced the two main characters.

      Delete
  7. Great post, Vivian, about digging for what we need to make a manuscript work. And positivity helps! I, too, used these two books as mentor texts when writing a bio about a pair of artists. So helpful! And I love that the young woman contacted you about Sarah. That's thrilling and inspiring! Cheers to your next books that inspire kids (and adults) to do more.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are always there, Jilanne...cheering me on! There are other books now with two characters...Nancy Churnin's Martin and Anne is a favorite of mine...but it wasn't written when I wrote Voices. And yes, I'm so thrilled about the young woman's project...I get to chat with her on Zoom on Friday.

      Delete
  8. This is great, Vivian! I love peeks into process as much as I love the terrific books that result. I can't wait to read Making their Voices Heard.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Donna. I feel the same way...love to find out how other writers craft their stories.

      Delete
  9. Replies
    1. Thanks so much, Cathy! It's fun doing a post like this because it gives me a chance to think back to the journey each manuscript went on before it became a book.

      Delete
  10. Vivian, I love this book and its message of friendship and standing up for a friend. And I also loved your description of finding the information you needed to get the facts right. Thanks for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Christy...thank you for stopping in to leave such a lovely comment. It was definitely a detective hunt to make sure the book was accurate.

      Delete
  11. Oh My Goodness! This is fabulous! You took me step by step through how you worked your magic. PLUS - you showed my how to be brave. I'm working up my courage to sell LAKE FUN to a few Norris Marinas. I'll breathe like Vivian did...then I'll get after it! Thanks, Vivian!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are so brave, Rinda! And I love LAKE FUN! Glad you enjoyed the step by step...and good luck with the promoting and marketing...it is tough...but you have such a wonderful product for their kids!

      Delete
  12. I loved your wonderful interview dear Tina and Vivian, going through the steps to pace out this amazing non-fiction bio. Great Book. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And thank you, Diane, for all of your help during the writing/revising stages...where would I be without our critique group? Heaven only knows!

      Delete
  13. This is something I've discussed with my CPs, so it's fascinating to read how you handled it, Vivian. I especially like the anecdote at the end about the girl creating a website and including Sweet Dreams, Sarah.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's definitely a challenge to balance two main characters...hope relaying my experience will help you and your CPs. And yes, I'm thrilled that the student is including one of my books as one of her website read-alouds...we chatted on Zoom yesterday...and she'll be including that chat on the website also.

      Delete
  14. Great information. Thank you both.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for stopping by, David...happy the info will be helpful!

      Delete
  15. So inspirational, Vivian! Thank you for your constant positivity and for being a super strong voice in our community! I aspire to be like you. 💕

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are very kind, Carrie...but for me, it is you and Kirsti with your ReFoReMo who are the inspirational ones.

      Delete
  16. What a wonderful interview, Vivian! Thank you for helping all voices be heard, my friend! From telling the important stories that our children need to hear, helping them find their own voices, and lending your voice to support others in the writing community and elsewhere, I am so grateful for the work you're doing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh my...that is high praise indeed, but somehow, dear Jolene, it doesn't seem like work at all. I'm just having so much fun!

      Delete
  17. Vivian, every time I read an interview by you, I am inspired! Thanks for this behind the scenes look at your process!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And I am inspired by the enthusiasm and positive energy that is so much a part of this kidlit community...and I'm always eager to share what works for me.

      Delete