The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Elizabeth Partridge
Elizabeth Partridge grew up in a wild, messy household with four siblings, numerous cats, dogs and other creatures and also creative artists and photographers on almost every branch of the family tree. She now lives in a messy, exuberant three-generation household in Berkeley, California. Fortunately, one room is her office-space where she closes the door to dream, strategize and write her next book. Elizabeth graduated with a degree in Women's Studies from the University of California at Berkeley, and later studied traditional Chinese medicine. She was an acupuncturist for more than twenty years before closing her medical practice to write full-time.
She’s the award-winning author of seventeen books, including Boots on the Ground: America's War in Vietnam (2018), Dogtag Summer (2011), Marching to Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary (2009), Big Cat Pepper (2009), Whistling Up the Dawn (2003), Kogi’s Mysterious Journey (2003), Moon Glowing (2002), Annie and Bo and the Big Surprise (2002), This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie (2002), and Oranges on Golden Mountain (2001), Pigs Eggs (2000), and Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange (1998).
Her newest picture book, Parks for the People: How Frederick Law Olmsted Designed America, releases April 5th.
Welcome Elizabeth, thank you so much for coming by to talk about your newest book and your writing.
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?)
Here’s my writing process:
My goal in the morning is to start my writing day at 9 am. Sometimes I begin my day by answering a few emails to get the clutter out of my brain so I can concentrate. I have the great good fortune to have two writing buddies who are both on west coast time. We write in 25 min on / 5 min off bursts, using our phones as timers. There is a bit of text chatting on the 5s, I have to admit! And a bit of 5 min becoming 10 as we grab a snack, etc. I actually have a pretty short attention span, so getting up from my computer every 25 minutes and sitting back down is a great reset for me. It’s lucky I am also stubborn, because that is how I get my work done: one stubborn step after another. Which I enjoy!
I like the idea of collaborative writing bursts between reset breaks. Where did the inspiration for Parks for the People: How Frederick Law Olmsted Designed America come from?
Parks for the People is a book of serendipity. Several years ago I went to visit my publisher, Viking Books, to say hello to the amazing people I know there. I love working with Jim Hoover, one of the best designers in children’s books. He had just finished a book illustrated by Becca Stadtlander titled Look! What Do You See? and was eager to show it to me. The editor, Leila Sales, was also thrilled with the book. Leila wanted to do a book on Olmsted, and asked if I would like to write one and have Becca illustrate it. I said yes, right there on the spot.
Just goes to show, always answering "yes," (and timing) is a wonderful way to get stories. How hard is it for you to switch between writing middle grade/young adult and picture book genres? Do you have a favorite genre?
It’s not hard at all for me to switch between genres. In fact, I like to switch. (Probably part of the short attention thing. Keeps life interesting.)
I like to work on picture books when I need something short, and on longer middle grade or young adult books when I am ready to take a deep dive. Nonfiction is my sweet spot, and I often use photographs in my books. My subject matter for the older books can be pretty intense, so the picture books are a chance for me to be in a lighter space.
I can see where breaking it up can help. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
I had odd reading habits as a kid. I read through everything for kids in our house way out in the country. When I was eight, we moved to Berkeley. The house had belonged to my mother’s great-aunt, and it was full of all kinds of ancient children’s books. I mean, turn-of-the-last century old. The bookshelves had a front row of books and a row behind that. I read my way through any of the books that seemed interesting. My mother took us to get library cards when we were young, and once I could walk to the library by myself, I had everything possible to read.
That doesn't sound odd to me. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about Parks for the People?
Text © Elizabeth Partridge, 2022. Image © Becca Stadtlander, 2022.
Of all the things that seem obvious to know about Olmsted’s work, I had no idea (and I suspect many other people don’t know) that Olmsted was the first landscape architect of the United States Capitol. These are the beautiful grounds and paths which lead up to our Capitol, the seat of our democracy. It’s so important, and so much history has taken place right on the grounds he designed.
I didn't know that either. I'm glad you wrote his biography. He was a very interesting person. How many revisions did Parks for the People take from first draft to publication? What was the toughest aspect of researching and/or writing the book?
Oh, there were plenty of revisions! I am a slow writer, and … well, pretty obsessive. I think of picture books as poetry. Every word has to be the best possible one.
I am also a pretty obsessive researcher. I love to dig deep and see what is there for me to work with. One of the amazing things I discovered was the terrible cost to the people who were living in a place and were kicked off to build the park. Before Central Park was a park, there was a village called Seneca Village where two thirds of the residents were free Blacks. They were forced off the land to build the park. And in Yosemite shortly before Olmsted went there and began planning the initial way to drive through the park, the Ahwahneechee people had been driven from the valley where they had lived for thousands of years.
There were also wonderful, lovely things to discover about Olmsted and the incredible way he set up parks in cities as a norm to aspire to for growing cities all over America.
Another thing I loved doing for this book was the timeline. It really put Olmsted's parks in perspective. I could include really kid-friendly details (that actually had nothing to do with Olmsted) like when the Safety Bike was invented, as well as chronicling the waves of immigration into America.
I do like the way you juxtaposed Olmstead & the U.S.'s timelines. When you first saw Becca Stadtlander’s illustrations for Parks for the People, what surprised, amazed, or delighted you? Which is your favorite spread?
Everything surprised, amazed, and delighted me. Every single spread. What I had loved about her previous book Look! What Do You See? was the way Becca’s illustrations looked like old nineteenth century folk art. I kept her artwork in mind as I was writing.
It's kind of cool knowing who the illustrator will be and their particular style as you are writing. And I think that Becca did such a great job of capturing the physical and cultural changes throughout the 1800's. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I’ve just finished a book on the Japanese American incarceration during WWII, Seen and Unseen: What the Photographs of Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyatake and Ansel Adams Reveal about the Japanese American Incarceration (Chronicle Books). This is an example of a long, intense project. Now I’m switching back to a picture book, this time on my grandmother, the photographer Imogen Cunningham (Viking Books).
Ooh, that sounds interesting and definitely like one of your longer, intense books. Almost circle for you as your first book was on Dorothea Lange. What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
Oh, it’s easy to answer this question: Yosemite National Park. When I started Parks for the People I didn’t realize Olmsted had played such an important role in the park.
As you can see, there was a lot I didn’t know about Olmsted and his work. That’s one of the great things about writing nonfiction for kids: it’s so satisfying to be able to be curious and learn about the world, and put it in a book.
Thank you, Elizabeth for participating in this interview. It was wonderful to get to know you.
Thank you for inviting me to this interview!
Be sure to come back Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF sneak peek post on Parks for the People: How Frederick Law Olmsted Designed America.
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