The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Emma Bland Smith
Emma Bland Smith is a librarian and award-winning author.
Born in Scotland, she grew up in California and has lived in New York, Santa Barbara, and Paris. Now she’s back in San Francisco, just a block from her childhood home, living in a creaky old house with her family, pets, and too many cookbooks and coffee mugs.
Emma’s the author of 15 books, including Mr. McCloskey's Marvelous Mallards: The Making of Make Way for Ducklings, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander (2022), The Gardener of Alcatraz: A True Story, illustrated by Jenn Ely (2022), The Pig War: How a Porcine Tragedy Taught England and America to Share, illustrated by Alison Jay (2020), Claude: The True Story of a White Alligator, illustrated by Jennifer M. Potter (2020), Odin: Hero Dog of the Fires, illustrated by Carrie Salazar (2020), To Live on an Island, illustrated by Elizabeth Person (2019), Journey: Based on the True Story of OR7, the Most Famous Wolf in the West, illustrated by Robin James (2016), two chapter-book series, and an “Images of America” book on San Francisco.
For more information on Emma, check out our earlier interview (here).
Her newest book, The Fabulous Fannie Farmer: Kitchen Scientist and America’s Cook, releases on January 29th.
Welcome back Emma,
What is one of the most fun or unusual places where you’ve written a manuscript?
I worked in situ on The Pig War: How a Porcine Tragedy Taught England and America to Share, in a wharf-side café in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, Washington State. That was about as picturesque and memorable as it comes!
I love Friday Harbor; it's such a charming and beautiful place. What was the inspiration or spark of interest for The Fabulous Fannie Farmer: Kitchen Scientist and America’s Cook?
When my daughter was in fourth grade, she had to dress up as an inventor for a class project. She chose Fannie Farmer, who has been called “The Mother of Measurement” because she popularized the use of standard cooking measurements such as teaspoons and cups.
Although I owned several old Fannie Farmer cookbooks, I knew nothing of the real person behind them. (For all I knew, she was just an invented figurehead, like Betty Crocker!) After learning about her through my daughter, I immediately wanted to write a picture book bio about Fannie.
Hooray for school projects. I am so glad you looked into her and wrote her biography. What was the toughest aspect of researching and/or writing The Fabulous Fannie Farmer?
There were several. One was that there was almost nothing about her childhood. Another was that I could see almost too many different ways to tell her story. I struggled to decide which one I should focus on, so as not to make the book too haphazard or cluttered. It needed focus! I had to decide whether to frame it around her being someone who succeeded despite many obstacles, or around her quest to make fine cooking accessible to everyone, or to double down on the math and science angle. Could I position her as an unlikely feminist? I simply thought about the story for at least a year before putting words on paper. (And thank goodness for the back matter, where I was able to expand on all the themes!)
It is wonderful that you got 8 pages of back matter. It allows the reader to get to know Fannie and her kitchen science legacy in greater detail. When you first saw Susan Reagan’s amazing period illustrations in The Fabulous Fannie Farmer, did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?
Text © Emma Bland Smith, 2024. Image © Susan Reagan, 2024.
I absolutely loved them from the very beginning! Susan is a pro at illustrating historical books, and she does a tremendous amount of research. You can pore over the pages of this book just picking out all the delightful details and scenes, like the antique measuring cups and the period clothing. I think my favorite spreads are the ones that include food, because Susan made it all look so delicious.
I was totally enthralled by the clothing, period kitchen appliances and tools, and the glorious meals. How many revisions did you end up working through? Was there a particularly tricky portion?
I had lots and lots of revisions, first with my critique group, then my agent, and finally my editor. One tricky part was the beginning. I considered starting the book when Fannie was an adult, then flashing back to her earlier days. (I’ve done that in two other books.) I tried leading with illness, when she had polio—I thought that could be dramatic. But in the end both my agent and editor liked the idea of beginning with her as a child, as a way to help the young reader immediately relate. That was problematic because we have no primary records about her childhood, but I found a work-around. (Read the first page and see if you can identify it!)
I think you and your editor hit on a wonderful way to start Fannie's story. Is there something you want your readers to know about The Fabulous Fannie Farmer?
This is my first book that includes recipes! That has been a dream of mine (I’d really like to write a cookbook one day!), and my editor, Carolyn Yoder, gave me the go-ahead. I got to choose two recipes. I wanted them to be recipes that were in the original 1898 cookbook, but also ones that people—especially kids—would still want to make today. (So, no gelatin mold salads or tongue sandwiches!) Finally, I wanted recipes that were technically a little tricky and that relied on precision and accuracy, since those were Fannie’s trademarks. I landed on popovers and angel food cake! I adapted them and tested them many times. I hope kids will have fun making them!
The recipes are a little fiddly, but totally worth trying. They are a super fun treasure to discover within the book! Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Well, actually, while writing Fannie Farmer I learned about a young Black woman from New Orleans who took Fannie’s cooking course in the early 1900s, then over the next few decades went on to become a hugely successful cook in her own right. She wrote a masterful Creole cookbook (the first one not written by a white person), and even got her own cooking show, in 1949. She was one of the first Black people on television!
I contacted experts who know more about this inspiring woman, and even went to New Orleans to talk to one of them in person—and to take a Creole cooking course! My next book will be a picture book biography about her! More info on that coming soon, I hope.
That is SO exciting! I'm really looking forward to seeing this book. Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
© Marin Convention & Visitors' Bureau
Oh wow, great question! I love so many parks! I live near Golden Gate Park and walk there with my dog several times a week. We also have a wonderful network of public open spaces in the Bay Area where I absolutely adore hiking, usually on my own, which is great for thinking and pondering. The Marin Headlands, right across the bay in Marin County, and the hiking trails on the Peninsula, just south of the city, are some of my favorites—wild and windswept, usually not crowded, with great ocean views.
As far as parks I’d like to visit, I’d love to walk the Lake District trails in England!
Thank you, Emma, for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you again.
Be sure to come back on Friday for a Perfect Picture Book post on The Fabulous Fannie Farmer: Kitchen Scientist and America’s Cook.
To find out more about Emma Bland Smith, or contact her: