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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Vivian Kirkfield

Magic Happens When You Make Every Word Count.

I love interviewing authors and illustrators. Especially when the author is a dear friend. Today, I get the privilege to spend some time with one of my best kidlit friends - Vivian Kirkfield.

Vivian is an amazing cheerleader and supporter of all children’s authors and illustrators. She's interviewed innumerable debut authors and highlighted their books on her website/blog - Picture Books Help Kids Soar. She created the #50PreciousWords Writing Challenge, the companion #50PreciousWordsforKids Challenge, and was a mentor for Justin Colon's #PBChat Mentorships.

She’s the author of three books that published in 2019 - Pippa’s Passover Plate (Holiday House), Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting Book (Pomegranate), and Sweet Dreams, Sarah: From Slavery to Inventor (Creston Books) - and one due out in January 2021 - From Here To There: Inventions That Changed The Way The World Moves (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Vivian’s newest picture book, Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe, releases in fifteen days, on January 28th, 2020.

For some basic information on Vivian, check out our earlier interview (here).

Welcome back Vivian,

What was your inspiration for Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe? How did you hear about their friendship and why did you want to write about them?

I love surfing the internet – looking for golden nuggets and tidbits of info that might make for a great story for kids. I especially love discovering hidden layers of personality in famous people. I think it is so valuable for kids to learn that we are all complex beings – and what we see on the outside of a person often doesn’t indicate who that person really is.

Growing up in the 50’s, I was well acquainted with the music of Ella Fitzgerald and the movies of Marilyn Monroe. But I had no idea they were friends until I saw a photo of them sitting together in a nightclub. And when I researched to find out what the picture was all about, I uncovered a whole new understanding of who these icons really were.

It's interesting what a simple photograph can inspire. How did the process of creating and publishing Making Their Voices Heard differ from your other nonfiction book - Sweet Dreams, Sarah: From Slavery to Inventor (2019)?

Sweet Dreams, Sarah was a nonfiction pb bio crafted with very little information because there was nothing that had been written about her and she died a long time ago. On the other hand, there was a lot of information about Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe…these two famous performers were public figures and popular celebrities. I was able to watch YouTube video interviews that both had given – seeing and hearing your main characters is eye-opening and a great way to learn more about them.

Another difference between writing Sarah and writing Voices is that Sarah is about one main character. But with Voices, I had to make sure there was a balance…it was important for them to be on equal footing – first of all, because they were…and second of all, because the editor and I wanted to portray not only how Marilyn helped Ella, but also how Ella helped Marilyn – to avoid any accusations that this might be a ‘white savoir’ story. And I’m happy to say that the critics agree…we succeeded!

"This warm story emphasizes Ella's role in her (Marilyn’s) success, thus avoiding the trap of the white-savior narrative. Many white artists have benefited from imitating black ones; this is the rare narrative to acknowledge that." – Kirkus

(For those reading this who haven’t heard that term before, it refers to a white character who rescues people of color from their plight. It’s a story where the white character and her heroism is the focus of the story and the person of color is minimalized).

I like the balance you struck and I wonder if it isn't just as hard to create a biography when there is a lot of information, as when little information exists. Having worked with five different illustrators, did you have any “ah ha” moments that will help you in creating future books?

The past few years have definitely been an education. I’ve been so fortunate to work with five different illustrators…and I did have several ‘ah ha’ moments.

The first was with Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting Book (PomegranteKids 2019). The illustrator, the fabulous Mirka Hokannen, is one of my Storm Literary Agency sisters and so we already knew each other. Fortunately, she is not only a talented artist, but also a dedicated illustrator who understands the importance of research. When she was doing first sketches, she contacted me and she pointed out that one of the animals didn’t live in the Colorado ecosystem. And I was sure it did…after all, it lived in Colorado Bend State Park! Unfortunately, Colorado Bend State Park is in…TEXAS. I’ve relayed this story many times already…it was early on in the publication process and it was no problem to switch out the text and change the animal. But what I learned was that I needed to pay even more attention to detail.

As I became more comfortable with the publication process and working with editors – working with illustrators doesn’t happen often because most of the time, the editor is the conduit for questions – authors and illustrators don’t usually collaborate and there are good reasons for that. Some authors can try to impose their vision on illustrators and prevent them from expressing their creativity and their vision for the story. HOWEVER, I also believe that making a book is a team effort – the role of the editor is paramount – she/he needs to make sure that the project is moving forward and the concerns of both author and illustrator are heard. So, the second ‘ah ha’ moment came when I realized that I had a right to be an advocate for my stories.

The worst thing we can do is give children a book that has inaccurate or inconsistent information. If you see something is wrong at any point in the publication process, speak out and speak up – as I mentioned in one of my SCBWI workshop presentations: BE POLITELY PROACTIVE!

Both important "ah ha" moments and great advice. What and/or who did you find the biggest help in researching and then writing Making Their Voices Heard?

I mentioned earlier that I watched YouTube video interviews of both Marilyn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald. This was truly helpful, not only for the information, but also because they helped me get a better idea of the personalities of these women. They were also helpful because they provided direct quotes – things these women actually said.

But even these interviews and the books I read weren’t enough. I needed to verify that Ella and Marilyn were actually friends…and I felt that none of those sources were enough…not even when Marilyn was asked who was her favorite singer and she answered, "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.”

So, what was I to do? I became a detective and reached out to the author of several Marilyn Monroe books. She kindly directed me to the president of the oldest Marilyn Monroe fan club. And he graciously gave me the phone number of the woman who had been Ella’s promoter for thirty-seven years. I called her and she talked with me for two hours! And verified that yes – they were friends!

What a wonderfully, amazing chain of events that allowed you to create this book. Do you see a common thread among your books?

I love bringing history alive for young readers…and so nonfiction picture books are definitely one of my favorite things to write.

But I think the underlying threads in all of my stories, even my fiction ones like Pippa’s Passover Plate, are that (1) nothing is impossible if you can imagine it, that the only failure is the failure to keep trying, and (2) friends stand by each other and make their voices heard to bring about change.

Friendship and persistence are great common threads, not only in your books, but in your life as well. How long did it take for Making Their Voices Heard to go from idea to contract?

Oh, that’s a great question, Maria! I wrote the story at the end of 2014/beginning of 2015 after I took a class in writing nonfiction and I began writing a ton of stories. This was one of them and I gave it to critique buddies and polished it a bit and brought it to a conference in the summer of 2015. An editor loved it. Asked me to revise/polish more. Loved the revision. But couldn’t get her team to acquire it because they worried it was a ‘white savior’ story.

Fast forward to the summer of 2016. I sat next to a different editor at another conference. She asked what I was working on and I mentioned the Ella/Marilyn story. She was intrigued and asked me to send it to her. She loved it. Asked me to revise/polish more. Loved the revision. But couldn’t get her team to acquire it…for the very same reason.

Jump to early 2018. My agent and I sent the story to Little Bee Books. The editor loved it. Asked me to revise/polish more. Loved the revision. And bought it! HURRAY! But we had a very intense revision process that followed very soon after…daily emails with her suggestions/requests…and my revisions. For five days we traded the manuscript back and forth until the end of the week when she said – a bit like the Professor in My Fair Lady… I think she’s got it - this is it! I credit editor Courtney Fahy with her perceptive eye in knowing that we needed to create that ‘balance of power.'

So, four years and three different editors & sets of revisions finally resulted in this beautiful book. Talk about persistence. Do you have a favorite spread from Making Their Voices Heard?

Text © Vivian Kirkfield, 2020 . Image © Alleanna Harris, 2020.

That’s a difficult question to answer. I love the nightclub scene where Ella and Marilyn sit shoulder to shoulder, two women sharing their hopes and dreams and plans of what might be. And I love the scene where they are walking along the street, two friends chatting about how they will make their voices heard to take a stand against discrimination.

What is the hardest thing for you about writing children’s books?

The hardest thing about writing children’s books is two-fold: I want to be everywhere participating in everything, which doesn’t leave enough time for the writing part. AND, I have so many ideas of what I want to write that my brain sometimes feels like it will explode.

And once I start writing a story, after having researched as much as I think I need to, it’s hard to formulate the pitch (which is what helps me know what the story is going to be about and helps me decided what info to keep and what to delete). And then the opening lines are not always easy to craft…and for me, opening lines are paramount…they are the doorway into the story…they set the tone and flavor of the words that will follow.

Thank you for your candor. Though I think too many ideas might seem to be a blessing to others. Is there something you want your readers to know about Making Their Voices Heard?

I want readers to know that Ella was so shy, she almost never went out. But she stood up for her rights and sued Pan Am airlines when they bumped her off a flight to Australia because of her race…and she won!

And I want kids to know that even though Marilyn had a reputation for being a ditz…she was anything but…she was smart and strong, an early supporter of Civil Rights, and she was the first female movie star to run her own movie production company.

At a time when women in America couldn’t get a credit card without the signature of a male relative, these women stood up and made their voices heard.

I'm glad you and Alleanna created this book about these are two smart, strong women and a friendship very few people knew about. Having gone through three book releases and associated readings and school visits, do you have any advice for those just learning their book is to be published? (Anything you would do/try differently this time?)

• Get a good calendar to keep track of appointments, events and blog posts. • Check out Josh Funk’s post: • Join a debut author/illustrator group for the year your book will be coming out…these groups form early and fill up fast…but you can always go onto the kidlit Facebook pages and gather a new group together. It’s a wonderful way to cross-promote and support each other and in these groups, there will usually be someone who is great at website building, someone else who is comfortable with social media, etc. There is no reason to try to do it all yourself…there is strength in numbers…united we stand and move forward! and • Do what you are comfortable doing – and don’t try to do everything – and most of all – HAVE FUN!!!!

Thank you for these excellent suggestions and resources! Besides From Here To There: Inventions That Changed The Way The World Moves (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, due out January 2021), what other projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

Thanks for mentioning From Here to There, Maria. I’m so very excited about this nine-story nonfiction pb bio compilation illustrated by the talented Gilbert Ford. The writing of it is worthy of a story in itself…maybe next year we will tackle that in a blog post.

But other than that, yes…we just sold another nonfiction pb bio – but the contract isn’t signed yet so I can’t share details yet.

Plus, we just sent a revise and resubmit (R&R) to the editor of Pippa’s Passover Plate – it’s a sequel – more adventures for Pippa Mouse…and the illustrator, Jill Weber, has already seen the manuscript and she loves it. Fingers crossed that the editor agrees! My agent also has several other manuscripts out on submission – who knows what 2020 will bring!

All I do know is that I am having so much fun and feel blessed to be part of this incredible kid-lit community! The best part for me is connecting with everyone…both online in FB groups and blog challenges, as well as in person.

And we love the opportunity to know you and your books better. Thank you, Vivian for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to have you visit with me again.

Thank you so much for having me here, Maria. It was a joy to spend time with you in Sydney at the SCBWI conference in February and then again in April, at the Bologna Book Fair in Italy. And don’t forget the NESCBWI conference in Springfield MA this past May. And who knows what 2020 will bring!

Be sure to come back Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe.

Do you need more of Vivian's wisdom, humor, and heart? Then check out Vivian's Book Launch & Blog Tour dates:

December 5: Nancy Churnin’s The Kids Are All Write: Making Their Voices Heard

December 20: Sue Heavenrich’s Sally Bookshelf:

January 7: Kathy Temean’s Writing and Illustrating:

January 10: Beth Anderson’s Mining for Heart:

January 11: Helen Ishmurzin’s Author Spotlight:


[235 Daniel Webster Hway, Nashua]

January 23: Cathy Ogren’s Humor Me:

January 29: Book Reading - ANDERSON'S BOOKSHOP, NAPERVILLE @ 7 PM

[123 W Jefferson Ave, Naperville, IL]

March 21: Book Reading - THE SILVER UNICORN BOOKSTORE @ 11 AM

[12 Spruce Street Acton, MA]

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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