The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Claudia Friddell and Review of Grace Banker

For children’s author, Claudia Friddell, the next best thing next to time travel is discovering and sharing exciting real-life stories from long ago. A former elementary school teacher, Claudia loves talking to students and teachers about the magic of bringing history to life through books. When she’s not visiting schools, digging for treasure in the library, or writing at her home in Baltimore, she’s walking her two stubborn doxies, Camden Yards and Wrigley Field.


Claudia is the author of the picture books Saving Lady Liberty: Joseph Pulitzer's Fight for the Statue of Liberty, illustrated by Stacy Innerst (Calkins Creek 2020), George Washington’s Spies (Totally True Adventures) (Random House 2016), and Goliath: Hero of the Great Baltimore Fire (True Stories), illustrated by Troy Howell (Sleeping Bear 2010).

Her newest picture book, Grace Banker and Her Hello Girls Answer the Call, released Yesterday.

Welcome Claudia, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest books and writing.


ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)


CLAUDIA: I write wherever and whenever I can! Sometimes when I’m brainstorming ideas, experimenting with style, or taking notes, I like to curl up in a chair with pen and paper. Water seems to encourage my creativity, so I get some of my best ideas in the pool, in the shower, or in the tub! When I’m researching, writing, or editing I tend to spread papers and books out on a desk or table in my home or at the library. I love days when I have the time to get lost in writing zones, breaking only for food and a few walks! If I had it my way, I would write every day—but life gets in the way!


Like many writers, I’ve enjoyed writing since I was young. In school, my favorite assignments were writing papers and essays. I have always loved reading and writing poetry. In college, I took lots of poetry classes and fell in love with studying the craft of writing. And, as a teaching assistant for an English professor I found that I actually enjoy editing. That’s a big part of writing books!


Most of my time has been spent writing narrative nonfiction books. As an elementary teacher for twenty years, I loved reading and teaching from nonfiction picture books. My students loved learning about real people and events from well-told, beautifully illustrated books. I learned just how much kids enjoy nonfiction when presented in a kid-friendly way. I do love to write poetry and hope to learn more about writing memoir, novel in verse, and graphic novels.


I'd love to have a pool (or a hot tub) to float ideas in! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?


As a young girl, I had a very important friendship with a woman in her 90's. She was born in 1887 and lived to be 101! Time traveling with Big Frances as she recalled memories of her life before cars, electricity, and technology hooked me on the treasures from the past. I think she not only brought history to life for me, she is the reason why I love to share interesting stories from the past with children.


You're so lucky to have had such a special friendship. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?


That is way too hard to answer! Some of my favorite childhood books were the Little House books, The Giving Tree, Pippy Longstocking, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Sounder, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and The Incredible Journey. Beverly Cleary, Shel Silverstein, and Laura Ingalls Wilder were three of my favorite authors.


Thank you for listing a couple of titles I hadn't thought about for a while, but really enjoyed as a kid. With the publication of Grace Banker and Her Hello Girls Answer the Call, you'll have written four nonfiction picture books. Did either the writing, research, or publishing, differ from your other books? If so, how? Was one easier or particularly harder to write?

Every book adventure is unique. The main differences often have to do with the research. Having the opportunity and privilege of working with Grace Banker’s granddaughter, Carolyn, made this book much more personal for me. It was such an honor and a joy to spend time with Carolyn looking through her grandmother’s wartime keepsakes at her family lakeside cabin in New Hampshire where Grace enjoyed quieter days, long after the war. Having access to Grace’s diary and a treasure trove of mementoes enabled me to weave her own words into the story and add more personal touches to the book.


Wow what a rare and special privilege! Of your books, was one easier or particularly harder to write?

This question really has me thinking! Each book presents its own challenges, and writing nonfiction is always labor intensive. Especially because the types of books I like to write often involve subject matter that isn’t always kid-friendly—wars, disasters, and human hardships! I often compare my search for forgotten stories from the past to digging for treasure. There is so much information to sift through, it’s hard to decide which nuggets to include to make people and events from long ago interesting and relevant for today’s young readers.


Goliath was difficult because I had very few primary sources and Goliath’s heroics come at the very beginning of the fire. Building that story arc was tricky!


Saving Lady Liberty was difficult because it took me a while on the front end to figure out how I wanted to tell the story, and it took quite a lot of work on the back end to create eight pages of back matter! I am so fortunate to work with a fabulous nonfiction editor, Carolyn Yoder at Calkins Creek, who understands how enriching and important relevant back matter information is for not only the reader but for educators as well.


For Grace Banker and Her Hello Girls Answer the Call and my upcoming book about Clara Barton, To the Front! I loved the challenge of using very different styles to weave their own words together with mine.


I like your comparison of writing nonfiction to a treasure hunt or an excavation. What was your inspiration for Grace Banker and Her Hello Girls Answer the Call? How did you discover this story?


I was inspired to write Grace Banker after reading Elizabeth Cobbs’ wonderful book, The Hello Girls. The Signal Corps Girls’ contributions in World War I fascinated me. I was particularly drawn to Grace Banker’s spunk, patriotism, and leadership. When I learned it took 60 years for these heroes to be recognized as the first women to officially serve in the US Army, I knew children—especially young girls—needed to meet them!


I'm glad they finally got recognized and that you shared their story. How long did Grace Banker and Her Hello Girls Answer the Call take from the idea to publication? How did this compare to the creation of Saving Lady Liberty: Joseph Pulitzer's Fight for the Statue of Liberty?


Almost 3 years! Narrative nonfiction books take a long time to produce! It took about a year to research and write. Sometimes the back end of the picture book process takes longer than the creation of the story! It took another two years for Elizabeth Baddeley to research and create her amazing illustrations and for the production team at Boyds Mills & Kane to help get it ready to send off to the printer. It takes a village!


Saving Lady Liberty took longer—almost five years from start to finish. Part of that had to do with my writing it several different ways before figuring out how to weave Joseph Pulitzer and Lady Liberty’s stories together. Stacy Innerst did a phenomenal job researching the time period and incorporating his newspaper knowledge to create gorgeous art to accompany this story. That takes a lot of time! And then, there was all that back matter…!


Wow! Do you find that you ever need to submit your manuscripts with illustrator notes?


I do send lots of my research notes and images to my editor who can share them with the art director and illustrator. I rarely include illustrator notes with my text. I do offer comments on sketches and final art but usually only for historical accuracy. I have been so fortunate to have worked with illustrators who are meticulous researchers.


Did anything surprise you when you first got to see the illustrations for Grace Banker and Her Hello Girls Answer the Call? Do you have a favorite spread?


I was thrilled to see how many important relevant visuals Elizabeth packed into her art in such clever ways. There were so many interesting details that I wanted to include but couldn’t because of the limited text. Elizabeth did a brilliant job incorporating many of them. One example is the page where the operators are sliding down the bannister during the raid. It is such a kid-friendly visual— and it really happened!

Text © Claudia Friddell, 2021. Image © Elizabeth Baddeley, 2021.


I love them all! I especially love the Afterword scrapbook spread. Elizabeth did a wonderful job piecing together images of authentic photos, mementoes, and a poem I found in Grace’s treasure trunk. Seeing that page reminds me of looking through Grace’s keepsakes. Thanks to Elizabeth’s artistic spread, children can feel like they are right there looking through her treasures as well!


What a great way to bring the reader along on the treasure hunt. Is there something you want your readers to know about Grace Banker and Her Hello Girls Answer the Call?


I’d like them to know that Grace and the other Signal Corps Girls are wonderful role models for young girls and boys today. They were hard-working, resilient problem solvers and communicators who maintained positive attitudes during times of great pressure and danger. And, through perseverance, they received the recognition they deserved for their accomplishments and contributions. I love the words at the end of the book that Grace wrote near the end of her life— “One fights best with patience and with understanding.” Beautiful words from a quiet hero who faced challenges with grace.


Facing challenges with grace and understanding is something I think of country needs right now. Where did you find the inspiration for Saving Lady Liberty?

Field trip!! When I visited Liberty Island with friends six years ago, I saw Joseph Pulitzer’s statue in the sculpture garden and wondered, “What in the world did he have to do with the Statue of Liberty?!” I went home and started to dig for treasure—the story. When I learned that if not for Joseph Pulitzer’s first crowd funding effort to raise money for the pedestal, Lady Liberty would not be standing in New York’s harbor. That seemed like an American patriotic story that kids should know!


Especially since a large part of the fund raising was done by children donating their change. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child or now as a writer.)


That’s a hard one. Lots of people inspire me in different ways. My father’s love of lifelong learning and his passion for pursuing creative endeavors and never giving up on them has certainly inspired my own passion for researching and writing throughout my life.


What is the hardest part about writing nonfiction for you?


The hardest part is finding a kid-friendly way to bring complicated real-life stories and historical events to life for young readers.


You do a great job of it! How have you been staying creative this past year? Is there anything that has helped you “prime the well”?


I have been fortunate to have had a ‘well-primed well’ these last few years! Right now, I am busy finishing up a middle grade nonfiction book about a handicapped woman who was the Gestapo’s most wanted spy in WWII. Not only was she a graduate of my daughter’s school a century ago, her niece happens to live two blocks from me!


Wow, that's amazing. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


My picture book, To the Front! about Clara Barton’s heroics at the Battle of Antietam, comes out the spring of 2022. My book Road Trip! about Thomas Edison and Henry Ford’s camping trips comes out in the fall of 2022.

I can’t wait to share them all with young readers and educators!


They sound interesting. I'll be keeping an eye out for them. What is your favorite animal? Or one you are enamored with. Why?


Definitely dogs. I particularly love dachshunds. They are little dogs with big attitudes! Mischievous, stubborn, and funny, they love to tunnel making them fabulous foot-warmers and the best snugglers ever!


Big attitudes, indeed! Thank you, Claudia for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.


Thank you so much for inviting me to join you. I loved your questions!


To find out more about Claudia Friddell, or get in touch with her:

Website: http://www.claudiafriddell.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/claudiafriddellauthor



Review of Grace Banker and Her Hello Girls Answer the Call


I really enjoy finding nonfiction books about people, animals, or events that are unfamiliar to me. I knew that calls to and from battlefields were routed through switchboards, but I knew little about the women who performed these tasks and the conditions under which they worked.


This book does a great job of bringing the reader on the journey that these brave, dedicated women took and highlighting their crucial service to the military during World War I.



Grace Banker and Her Hello Girls Answer the Call


Author: Claudia Friddell


Illustrator: Elizabeth Baddeley


Publisher: Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills & Kane 2021


Ages: 7-10


Nonfiction


Themes:

Biography, WWI, persistence, history, heroism, and grace under fire.


Synopsis:

Led by twenty-five-year-old Grace Banker, thirty-two telephone operators — affectionately called "Hello Girls" back in the US — became the first female combatants in World War I.


Follow Grace Banker's journey from her busy life as a telephone switchboard trainer in New York to her pioneering role as the Chief Operator of the 1st Unit of World War I telephone operators in the battlefields of France. With expert skill, steady nerves, and steadfast loyalty, the Signal Corps operators transferred orders from commanders to battlefields and communicated top-secret messages between American and French headquarters. After faithfully serving her country—undaunted by freezing weather and fires; long hours and little sleep, and nearby shellings and far off explosions—Grace was the first and only woman operator in the Signal Corps to be awarded the Army's Distinguished Service Medal.


Opening Lines:

Grace Banker opened the newspaper

on a brisk December morning in 1917 -


The world was at war, and General John J. Pershing,

the commander of US troops across the Atlantic,

was calling for female telephone operators

to join the fight against Germany.


What I LOVED about this book:

The opening illustrations immediately center the reader in the time period. The text gives the date and the briskness of the morning, but the car, banners to join up and buy bonds, and an Uncle Sam placard combine with Grace's wisp of breath to viscerally place you in 1917.

Text © Claudia Friddell, 2021. Image © Elizabeth Baddeley, 2021.


All her life, Grace Banker strode bravely "through a man's world." Her willingness to buck tradition (go to college and work outside the home) placed her in the perfect position to assume the role of chief operator in the Signal Corps. Despite the long hours, cold, leaky buildings, and dangerous shrapnel and fires, Grace and the women she managed - her Hello Girls - were determined to do their part for the soldiers and to help win the war. The inclusion of quotes from Grace's diary and letters intimately brings out both her grit and humor.

Text © Claudia Friddell, 2021. Image © Elizabeth Baddeley, 2021.


Over here a Chief operator has a twenty

four hour job ...

Lt. Riser came to dinner . . . very late

. . . I set the alarm clock off under his chair ...

When the war ended in 1919, Grace was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, but she and the rest of the Signal Corps were not acknowledged as veterans and not entitled to benefits. The back matter explores how the fight to gain recognition and benefits for these women finally succeeded - in 1977 - seventeen years after Grace died.


I really enjoyed Claudia's playful use of language. For instance when Grace "answered the call and crossed her fingers" (mailing in her application) then got "the call to serve overseas" (acceptance letter from the Signal Corps), or when "burning barracks couldn't stop Grace's girls from plugging on" ( working - by physically plugging in cords).


As Claudia mentioned above, Elizabeth Baddeley masterfully added in numerous historical details into her bold, colorful illustrations. In this spread, not only are the Hello Girls sliding down the banister during an air raid, but the ship they travelled on was "dazzled." [If you are unfamiliar, or curious, about the pattern on the boat by sure to read Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion by Chris Barton, illus. by Victo Ngai.]

Text © Claudia Friddell, 2021. Image © Elizabeth Baddeley, 2021.


Overall, this is an intriguing look and overdue acknowledgement of the tireless, dangerous, and important work Grace Banker and many other women did to serve their country and help end World War I. The addition of their fight for acknowledgement and benefits, statistics, a timeline, practical information on switchboards, historic photographs, and sources make this an excellent introduction to the Signal Corp and their role in WWI.


Check out Claudia's Virtual author visits and parent-child book clubs:

- http://www.claudiafriddell.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/grace-banker-flyer.pdf

Maria Marshall
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