The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with KT Johnston and Review of Jubilee: The First Therapy Horse
KT Johnston writes historical narrative nonfiction about ordinary animals from the dusty past who had an extraordinary impact on a person’s life, and in the process, left a mark on humanity itself. KT earned a degree in biology and conducted wildlife studies before settling into a more stationary corporate career as an analyst. She and her husband live in Minneapolis and have two grown children. KT hopes to inspire readers to be mindful about our world and those we share it with, one true story at a time.
For additional information see our earlier interview (here).
KT’s debut picture book, Railway Jack: The True Story of An Amazing Baboon (2020) is considered one of the “Best Children’s Books of the Year” according to Bank Street College of Education, and is a Washington Library Association’s 2022 Towner Award Nominee! (https://www.wla.org/towner-award).
Her newest book, Jubilee: The First Therapy Horse and an Olympic Dream, released yesterday!
KT, thank you so much for stopping back by to talk about your newest book and your writing.
It’s great to be back in the saddle with The Picture Book Buzz! (Like what I did there? 😉)
You're so punny! Did you find anything particularly helpful in keeping you inspired and writing these past couple of years?
I consult from my home office and do my writing there too, so other than my husband officing in another part of the house, my day-to-day life didn’t change a whole lot when the world shifted to home-based everything. Some days I’m energized to work on a story, others I’m not. I don’t pressure myself to write every day and am not influenced by number of words on the page in order to call it a good writing day. I’m motivated by the stories themselves: running across something that might make a good book, digging in to research a potential from my stuff file, the arc of a story forming in my mind or materializing in a manuscript…. Often it comes down to energy, and I discovered that listening to a favorite song before settling in to write can charge me up more than I would have thought!
That's a fun strategy! Might have to try that. What was your inspiration for Jubilee: The First Therapy Horse and an Olympic Dream?
I ran across Lis and Jubilee’s story when I was researching Railway Jack. It had all the elements for me: an animal who’d had a remarkable impact on an everyday person’s life in a way that left ripples in society today. No widely-known celebrity; no heroic animal feat; just a life that any of us could be living. When I learned that Lis had been inspired by her accomplishments with Jubilee to pioneer the world’s first therapeutic riding center, I knew I had to tell their story.
How many revisions did Jubilee take from first draft to publication? And what was the toughest aspect of researching and/or writing Jubilee?
I think my process is atypical. I don’t do a revision 1, revision 2, etc. I don’t “let it all out” in a first draft in order to get something onto the page to work with. I have my arc planned before writing, based on my research, so I have a route to follow, and I edit along the way. It’s like combing snarls out of hair; when I sit down to continue on a story, I re-read what I’d written previously as a running start, and tweak as I go so it’s in decent-enough shape to support the next part of the story. However, I usually write the beginning and ending first, so it’s not necessarily a linear build. I imagine there are people who’d say I’m doing it wrong and would like to break me of my bad habits, lol, but it works for me this way.
The toughest part of creating Jubilee was that I’m sure there are interesting details of their story that were inaccessible to me, in articles written in Danish or not found in libraries and media databases I could reach from the U.S.
I'm not sure there is (or should be) any one way to write. Is there anything you want your readers to know about or gain from Jubilee?
There is a lot in Jubilee that readers of any age can contemplate or talk about, and discussion questions in the back matter can help seed those conversations.
Lis was a real person who lived the experiences chronicled in the book. She contracted a debilitating disease, and despite what others said her capabilities would be, she set her own goals to bounce back from it. She recognized how a horse—the right horse—could help her. Through that partnership, hard work and adaptation she was able not only to meet those goals, but exceed them. Lis championed her achievements in a time when women did not have access to the same opportunities in sports competition that men did, in a time when disability was mostly endured and generally pitied.
As a result of her journey, Lis was the “first” of many things, and Jubilee was as well. Finding all those firsts in the story is a good treasure hunt for readers.
Hint: Author’s Notes are where readers can often find the “what happened afters” and authors’ reasons for “why.” A lesson plan idea for teachers: extra points to students who finds a nugget or two in the back matter—evidence that they were curious beyond the story’s final words!
It's cool that both Lis & Jubilee accomplished 'firsts.' It must have been exciting to see Jubilee come alive in Anabella Ortiz’s illustrations. Which is your favorite spread?
Text © KT Johnston, 2022. Image © Anabella Ortiz, 2022.
Cover aside, which I love for the visible connection between Lis and Jubilee, my favorite spread is where Lis’s husband is helping her back into the saddle after a spill. It epitomizes the essence of the story: determination and perseverance through adversity, progress despite setbacks, that it’s OK to accept a leg up from time to time, and Jubilee’s calm, steady, ready nature.
Amazing how the crux of the story can be encompassed in one image. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I have one picture book manuscript ready to go, about a bird at the turn of the century; another that’s close (a sheep in the 1870s); a third I’m wrestling with telling because there is not enough primary source material to complete the arc as I’d like it to be (a dog in the 1920s); and quite a list of other potentials (land, water, and air).
Ooh, these sound intriguing. Especially given your interest in writing about animals who’ve "impacted an everyday person’s life in a way that left ripples in society today." By the way, what is the word count of Jubilee and did you have to worry about it?
Jubilee’s word count is 1700. I’ve read, and it has been my albeit limited experience, that nonfiction is more forgiving on word count. I also write for independent readers on the older end (8-12yo), reluctant readers, advanced younger readers, & also want to interest ESLs of any age—though hopefully my stories also enthrall younger children being read to(!) So, I am conscious of using more words, some “tougher” words, longer sentences, higher word count, and discussable themes. I’m not sure I could even write any differently! One goal in my writing is to expose kids to what I call “delicious language,” so that they might learn to express their own thoughts with greater description and more precision.
I, for one, am very glad that you do write this way. It makes for a delicious book for children and adults. What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, the Little Belt mountains region outside of Harlowton, MT. That’s where I spent my first summer and fall after college, tracking elk in a forest management study. I was on my own, living in the midst of nature in a rustic Forest Service cabin—getting around by compass, topo maps, and a USFS 4x4; hauling my own water from a spring; and gauging whether midnight calls of nature could wait until the sun arrived to accompany me to the outhouse. There are more spectacular wild places in our country that I do long to visit, but I stepped across that invisible precipice of growing up and fell into adulthood in the Little Belts of Montana.
Thank you, KT for stopping by again and sharing your time and thoughts with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.
To find out more about KT Johnston, or contact her:
Review of Jubilee: The First Therapy Horse
and an Olympic Dream
Such perfect timing with the Winter Olympics about to kick off. While equestrian events, and the rider's partnership with their horse, is unique to the Summer Games, the same determination and perseverance through adversity, progress despite setbacks, and learning that it’s OK to accept help up from time to time, applies to the Winter Games, too. This is a delightful book celebrating two Olympians whose special partnership changed their lives and others around the word.
Jubilee: The First Therapy Horse and an Olympic Dream
Author: KT Johnston
Illustrator: Anabella Ortiz
Publisher: Capstone Publishing (2022)
Perserverance, determination, accepting help, overcoming obstacles, and the Olympics.
Lis Hartel became paralyzed after contracting polio in 1944. Her dreams of riding horses and competing in the sport of dressage were shattered. After months in the hospital, doctors told her she’d never ride again. Lis tried anyway. How do you stay on a horse without using your legs? How do you give the subtle cues needed in dressage with limited mobility? With hard work—and an unlikely horse named Jubilee. After years of training together and creating a new way of communicating, Lis and Jubilee danced into the competition ring, and eventually all the way to the Olympics. Lis Hartel was the first woman with a disability ever to win an Olympic medal, and the first woman to stand equally beside men on the Olympic winners' podium in any sport.
As a girl, Lis Hartel couldn't imagine life without horses. Horses were
her playmates. She went on long trail rides with them, dashed around
in a pony cart, and practiced jumping.
At age thirteen, she began competing in a sport called dressage.
Dressage is like ballet on horseback. The horse has to carry out exact
movements based on cues from its rider. The pair are judged on how
smoothly they work together, like a single dancer.
What I LOVED about this book:
From a horse crazy girl to a two-time Denmark national dressage champion, it seemed Lis and her horse Gigolo were unstoppable. Until . . . Lis caught Polio.
Text © KT Johnston, 2022. Image © Anabella Ortiz, 2022.
On her return home, the doctors warned that "she'd be lucky to walk again - with crutches" and probably never ride again. But Lis was determined. KT Johnston and Anabella Ortiz's deep-toned, bold illustrations do a great job showing how Lis fought the diagnosis, the pain, and the paralysis with determination and laughter. Demonstrating the strength and heart of this brave woman, as she reminded herself that "even the smallest improvement was a big achievement." After she could walk with crutches, she asked her husband to put her on Gigolo.
However, now Gigolo was injured. Adapting, Lis accepted her husband's suggestion and decided she and a young horse, Jubilee, could learn together. Many horses are amazing at sensing what their riders need. Jubilee was extra careful with Lis. Daily walks and grooming sessions cemented their friendship and helped Lis progress with her recovery. Soon, Lis could ride unassisted. But she couldn't use her hands (too weak) or her legs (still paralyzed) like a normal rider to guide Jubilee.
In dressage competitions, the rider has to use barely perceptible cues of twitches on the reins or slight pressure of the legs to guide the horse through the dance patterns. Lis and Jubilee learned to communicate through "very small movements in her back." They trained and trained, both growing stronger, confident, and connected. Two and half years after getting polio, the determined duo started competing. And one year later qualified for the Olympics. BUT - women weren't allowed to compete in dressage in 1948.
Text © KT Johnston, 2022. Image © Anabella Ortiz, 2022.
Remaining determined and persistent, Lis and Jubilee continued to compete. Taking first place in Sweden, Finland, and at the Prix St. Georges. When the rules changed in 1952, Lis and Jubilee trained harder, won the Danish championship, and headed to the Olympics. You are going to have to check out the book to read the touching, inspiring ending. An author's note details the legacy of equine therapy centers around the world which resulted from Lis and Jubilee's partnership. It's a touching look at the first ever therapy horse, who inspired the creation of equine therapy centers which helped people around the world. Overall, this is a wonderful tribute to Lis Hartel and Jubilee's determination, persistence, and friendship,
- make your own horse companion (https://www.annwoodhandmade.com/cardboard-stampede/).
- is there something you want to do? Think about this goal, can you break it up into steps? As you succeed in each step, no matter how small, celebrate your accomplishments.
- if you haven't seen dressage competitions before, watch some of the Olympic moments of other Para Equestrians (https://www.paralympic.org/equestrian/videos).