Wednesday, January 20, 2021

A Labor of Love: Writing a Compilation of Nonfiction Biographies~a guest post from Vivian Kirkfield

We start 2021 with a fabulous guest post from author Vivian Kirkfield, with a look at writing picture book biographies, using her newest, stellar compilation of picture book biographies, FROM HERE TO THERE: INVENTIONS THAT CHANGED THE WAY THE WORLD MOVES as a mentor text. Being one of Vivian's critique partners, I had the privilege of seeing these 9 stories all come together in one book. Vibrant illustrations accompany Vivian's rhythmic texts. I will say, my favorites are the stories of Bertha Benz and Raye Montague. Take it away, Vivian!

Thank you so much for inviting me to Grog Blog, Tina! I’m so excited to be celebrating the launch of my newest book baby, a nine-story compilation of nonfiction picture book biographies, illustrated by the brilliant Gilbert Ford and published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Book Baby. When I first heard that term many years ago, I wondered what it meant. A writer friend explained that it was what authors call their new books. Having experienced childbirth three times, I wasn’t sure about equating having a baby with creating a book. The planning. The pleasure. The pain.

Hmmm…then again, maybe creating a book is a lot like having a baby. Especially this one about visionaries whose innovations altered the landscape of the planet. But how, you may be asking, did such a compilation book come about?

The path to publication started in 2016 when I wrote a story about Eric Wickman, the founder of the Greyhound Bus Company. I had gotten in the groove of writing nonfiction bios a year before and I already had a contract for Sweet Dreams, Sarah. My sister told me about a friend who was a friend of Eric’s granddaughter. A Swedish immigrant, Eric came to America in 1905 with only $60 in his pocket. After several failed business ventures, he opened a car dealership, but when he couldn’t sell even one car from his showroom, he bought it himself and started a shuttle service.

That felt like such a great story to me. I did some research and was able to speak with the granddaughter who was extremely helpful. When the story was ready, my agent sent it out on submission – and in the summer of 2017, the amazing Ann Rider at HMH let us know she loved it. However, she had a concern because Eric Wickman is pretty unknown and she worried that the bus wasn’t a popular enough vehicle to merit a stand-alone picture book. Would I be willing to write a few more narrative nonfiction bios about inventors of other things that go?

Of course, I said YES! Ann originally asked me to give her a list of 5 or 6 ideas. I submitted a short list with a brief description of what I might write. I guess you could call that a proposal, but it was nothing like a true nonfiction proposal…here’s a glimpse of what I sent her:


From the beginning of time, people longed to go. Fast. Slow. High. Low. First, they walked. Next, they used animals. Then they set their sights on faraway lands, peered into the depths of the oceans, and cast their eyes on the stars, and wondered…how can we get there?

With a bucketful of determination, a willingness to work hard, and a spark of imagination, these visionaries changed the way we go.

Note to editor Ann:

I’m attaching the two sample stories: BUS (tightened from 650 words to 420, hopefully keeping all the fun and quirky bits that you loved) and BIKE (which you mentioned you thought would make a very kid-friendly chapter).

And here are some ideas for the other three or four things that go, but I am open to any ideas you have and can research and write on any topic you prefer.

COMPUTER-DESIGNED SUBMARINE: of great interest because it gives the collection some diversity (Raye Montague is an African-American woman, one of the hidden figures, not of NASA as portrayed in the movie, but of the Navy during the 1950’s).

SKATEBOARD: originally created by surfers in California to use when stormy oceans prevented them from riding the waves. They screwed roller skate wheels onto their boards and surfed the city streets. And in 2020, skateboarding will debut as an official sport of the Tokyo Olympics.

HOT AIR BALLOON: has a fabulous aha moment and was invented by two brothers working together as a team –  the creative genius with ADHD, and the practical scientist who kept the project on point. (I wrote this as a stand-alone picture book, but can tighten it for the compilation).

CAR: might never have left the workshop of Karl Benz if not for his wife’s secret plan to promote the car by taking the kids on a road trip to grandma’s house. (there is a stand-alone picture book coming out in October from Charlesbridge)

Ann and I chatted, both via email and on the phone, as we made decisions regarding what stories I should write. Early on, she encouraged me to be careful with my research:

Looking forward to chatting, Vivian!   Just fyi, as you write the stories, its best to keep notes for the back matter close at hand.   Documentation has become more important these days; all direct quotes, for example, need citation.   We can discuss further but, in the meantime, attached please find documentation guidelines from HMH.

 Over the next few months, I researched and wrote. In October, Ann decided that instead of targeting Grades K-2, we were going to gear the stories to Grades 3-6. In addition, she suggested we change the title to THINGS THAT MOVE so that we could include robotics. By December, I had a better idea of what I wanted to do and had already written a few of the stories although I still didn’t know how many stories there would be. I reached out to Ann again with this email:

 Hurray! What a joy to connect with you! Yes, I, too, am excited about this project and thrilled to join with you in shining a light on the lives of these incredible visionaries.

 You mentioned that Eric Gets America Moving is perfect in tone and format...this truly helps me as I craft the other stories for the collection. I thought it would be cool to have inventions that span air, water, and land. Each was a ground-breaking moment in history that changed the way the world moved and left a legacy that touches our lives today. In addition to that BUS story:

·  TRAIN (All Aboard: George Stephenson and the First Steam Passenger Train - which you have seen and which already has the sidebar notes).

·  BIKE (With His Own Two Feet: Karl Drais and the Invention of the First Bicycle - this needs sidebar notes and I hope you love this story as much as I do...I think kids will think it is cool to find out how and why the first bike was built)

· BALLOON (The Boy Who Dreamed of Flying: Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier and the First Manned Balloon Flight which has an awesome AHA moment and is polished, but would need sidebar notes). Or, if you'd rather have a story about an airplane/drone, I could write that.

· ROBOT (George's Robot...taking your suggestion, I wrote a story about the man who invented the first industrial robot which should appeal to kids who love science fiction. It also has a great AHA moment.

· CAR (Genius Camp: How Three Men and a President Paved the Way for Better Roads. It's about how Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone took President Warren G. Harding on a camping trip to convince him to sign a bill to allocate $162 million for better roads...this story is polished, but needs sidebars - or if you don't feel that topic relates closely enough to 'inventing', I also had started writing a story about Bertha and Carl Benz and the first gasoline powered automobile.

· SUBMARINE: I thought injecting some diversity into the collection might be a good idea (Raye Montague is an African American woman) and it gives the book something that moves in the water. The story has a great AHA moment, but I need to flesh the story out and I wasn't sure if creating a program that designs submarines with a computer was too abstract an invention for the book. If you'd prefer another water vehicle, I am happy to research and write that one.

This makes if you only want five or six, we can eliminate whichever you wish. Or Ann, I am totally open to any suggestions regarding these stories or any others you would prefer for THINGS THAT MOVE. I embrace feedback, revision is my friend, and I look forward to working with you. 


At this point, Ann let me know that she really wanted 7-10 stories…and she definitely wanted one about the rocket. She also preferred the story about Bertha Benz over the Genius Camp one. I felt we needed more diversity as well – and I suggested doing a story about the folding wheelchair, which opened doors for mobility-challenged individuals. She loved that idea!


In one of her previous emails, Ann had let me know that she loved the structure of the BUS story. And that information was very helpful as I wrote each subsequent manuscript because ‘all’ I had to do was use BUS as a template and recreate the magic. 😊


1.     Engaging opening lines.

2.     Child main character who has a dream/goal.

3.     AH-HA moment.

4.     Fun language/great rhythm/excellent pacing.

5.     Legacy paragraph that shows how the invention impacts us today.

6.     Satisfying ending that echoes the opening lines.


Once I had my list of visionaries, I researched them, online at first, and then I dug deeper, using books, newspapers, and when I was lucky, interviews with family members. I would write a rough draft and revise and give it to one of my critique groups. And would move on to the next story. When I received feedback on a previous manuscript, I’d revise that one. Somehow, with the help of my amazing critique partners who were always ready to look at a new draft or a revised one, I did it!


The contract called for all of the manuscripts to be delivered to Ann’s inbox by May 1, 2018. Counting back nine months brings us to the end of August which is when I started to seriously write these manuscripts. Nine months. Yup…creating this compilation was definitely like having a baby – and, like having a baby, it was definitely a labor of love!



Vivian Kirkfield~

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 picturesque town of Bedford, New Hampshire. 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 where she hosts the #50PreciousWords International Writing Contest and the #50PreciousWordsforKids Challenge. She is the author many picture books including Sweet Dreams,( Sarah (Creston Books); Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe (Little Bee Books); From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and the upcoming Pedal, Balance, Steer: Annie Londonderry, First Woman to Bike Around The World (Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills & Kane, Spring 2023). You can connect with her on her websiteFacebookTwitterPinterestInstagramLinkedin, or just about any place people with picture books are found.





  1. Vivian, You put so much thought and energy into this book. Thanks for sharing your process and how you chose the people and inventions to include. Can't wait to get my copy!

  2. You really have so much to be proud of. I only wish I could figure out how to do my research as concisely. I'm used to writing fiction on tight deadlines, but I can't seem to get the facts sorted out as quickly as you do. Thanks for sharing the details of your journey! Can't wait to read this


  4. Thank you, Vivian for sharing this journey you took with your editor. I have learned so much that will surely serve me when I have the pleasure to work with an editor on one of my books. I ordered my copy and cannot wait to read it. Congrats to all.

  5. Great post, Vivian. It's fun to read your correspondence with Ann. Vongrats on a beautiful, bouncing book!

  6. I love how you pulled all this together, Vivian. You're a role model for us all!

  7. I'm truly blown away by your perseverance, professionalism and flexibility!

  8. Such a great researcher and writer. You can tell you put your heart into this book. Congratulations!

  9. I never get tired of hearing from our Vivian. She is such an inspiration for all of us with her can-do spirit. I will be ordering this one.

  10. I'm so looking forward to reading this one, Vivian. Your stories are taking off like wild-fire!☺️

  11. Great post! Your list for the template of BUS is a mini workshop by itself! Can’t wait to see the book.