Emily Arnold McCully’s name has long been familiar to lovers of children’s literature; it has appeared on dozens of picture books, both as illustrator of other authors’ works and as author and illustrator of her own. In 1993 she won the Caldecott Medal for Mirette on the High Wire (Putnam, 1992), which was inspired by the true story of 19th-century French tightrope walker Charles Blondin. McCully spoke with PW from her home in upstate New York, about writing her first YA biography, Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business – And Won! (Clarion, July), and why Tarbell’s groundbreaking journalism remains relevant today.

Let’s start with the obvious: What inspired you to write a YA biography after writing and illustrating so many of your own picture books, as well as illustrating numerous books by other authors?

I’ve always considered myself more of a writer than an illustrator. And I’ve been interested in history all my life. The context of people’s lives especially interests me, and Ida Tarbell’s time – basically the decades around the turn of the [20th] century – was so much like our own. The balance of life was upset by predatory practices. There was a gigantic gap between rich and poor – there was a 1% then, too! – great unearned wealth, blaming of the poor, immigration issues, concerns about destruction of the environment. Ida Tarbell was the most famous woman of her time, and her writing encompassed so many of the issues we are dealing with today. Her mission was to restore the American dream. I didn’t see any way to do such a complex story as a picture book. And I wanted to introduce young people to a woman who was called the most important woman in America in her time, and to her mission.

What drew you to her story?

I was always interested in her as a figure. My parents met at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., which Sam McClure, the founder of McClure’s Magazine, and John Phillips, his partner and the managing editor, attended. My parents were very proud of these graduates and used to talk about them a lot.

[Tarbell was a writer and editor at McClure’s]; I first heard her name as a girl and was immediately drawn to it – Ida Minerva Tarbell. Such a wonderful name! As an adult I began learning more about her; about 25 years ago Kathleen Brady wrote an adult biography [Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker], which I read. I have always been interested in the period of history in which she lived, and in muckraking in particular.

Ida Tarbell wrote the most important business history of the century, the story of Standard Oil, and it was also the most popular. It was serialized in McClure’s, which was aimed at middle-class Americans instead of at the elite, like other magazines with comparable content, such as The Century. So while McClure’s readers were “regular” people, not intellectuals, they waited impatiently for each new installment of Tarbell’s groundbreaking history of John Rockefeller’s powerful conglomerate.

She cared most about unfairness and to that end she uncovered the truth about the wiliest, most secretive of robber barons, telling the story so that readers were mesmerized and the government was compelled to break up the trust. It took great courage for her to write that story; in that era children were told to behave or Rockefeller would get them!

The process of writing a biography for an older audience must have been very different from your usual work. How did you approach this new experience?

I did much of the research at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., which [Tarbell] attended, and where her papers are. She kept only minimal journals, but she did write an autobiography, in which she justifies her life in a very clear-headed way. She didn’t like introspection, and left out the emotional components of her life. Then I had to do a lot of research about John Rockefeller’s life, which ran parallel to hers, in order to write about Standard Oil, and about the oil industry in general. Ida Tarbell was uniquely qualified to write the history of Standard Oil because she grew up in the oil region, and her father was directly affected by Rockefeller’s shady activities. But she wrote her book scrupulously – she was a woman of great integrity – and backed up every statement she wrote with documentation. And Sam McClure insisted on accuracy. He read every word she wrote over and over, as did others at the magazine. The only time she let herself go was in a character sketch of Rockefeller that she was allowed to do at the end of the history, and then she was vituperative!

How did the research process for this book differ from the process for writing your picture-book biographies?

A picture book is a matter of compression – extreme compression! I wrote the proposal for this book in 2006 and it took six years to write the book. Then, I haven’t written anyone’s whole life in picture-book form. I believe it’s much more effective for a picture book to focus on one drama or one aspect of a life that is emblematic of that life. For example, I did a book on John Muir [Squirrel and John Muir, FSG, 2004] that focuses on the first months he spent at Yosemite. He was working for a man who ran a hotel there, and whose daughter was the first child born there. She was a little girl who didn’t want to grow up and Muir was a man who didn’t want to grow up, and they formed an alliance of sorts. My book was about their relationship.

Do you do less research for your picture books than you did for this one?

A picture-book biography takes months, not years – they don’t require as much research as a big book, but they still demand a lot. When you’re telling somebody’s story, you always have to know a lot more than you put in. In writing biographies, I feel a little like I’m trying to imitate the way Tarbell worked – presenting assertions that are well documented, which I believe is especially important when writing for young readers.

What about doing research for the artwork?

Ah, that’s a whole other kettle of fish! It’s always a challenge, even though there are visual resources everywhere. I like my pictures to look like they came from the era I’m writing about. I look at lots of period images and try to make my art suggest that it derives from the past.

Since you are so well known for picture books, did you encounter any resistance from publishers to working in a different genre?

I only presented my proposal to one editor, Dinah Stevenson at Clarion, and she was willing to try me out. I had written two adult novels, as Emily Arnold, in the 1980s [A Craving, Avon, 1983, and Life Drawing, Delacorte, 1986], and I had illustrated two picture books for Dinah, but I had never written for her. She took a really big chance on me with Ida Tarbell.

You have two new picture books coming out soon, too: Strongheart: The World’s First Movie Star Dog (Holt, Nov.) and Queen of the Diamond: The Lizzie Murphy Story (FSG, Feb. 2015). Like many of your picture books, these are also biographies. Were you working on these at the same time as Ida Tarbell?

I’d been working on Strongheart for a long time, and Lizzie Murphy was written and illustrated after Ida was finished.

Why did Strongheart and Lizzie Murphy appeal to you as book subjects?

Both of these books are examples of taking a small piece of a life and turning it into an emblematic story about that life. With Strongheart, I was looking for animal stories because I had done Wonder Horse for Holt and my editor there, Sally Doherty, was interested in more. Strongheart was a precursor to Rin Tin Tin; he was the first animal to be groomed to be a movie star. He was only a star for a brief period, but he was tremendously popular – in fact, he made German shepherds become popular pets in the United States. In that book, I just loved doing the 1920s-style illustrations.

As for Lizzie Murphy, who was the first women to play major-league baseball, she grew up in Rhode Island, working in the textile mills. I’d done a book on textile mills [The Bobbin Girl, Dial, 1996], so I understood them. A friend in Rhode Island told me about Lizzie, and since I’d played baseball as a child, she got to my heart. I proposed the idea to Margaret Ferguson at FSG, with whom I’ve done numerous books, like the one on John Muir, and she liked it.

How do you go about selecting the stories you want to tell?

A character has to exhibit something that leaps out at me and appeals to me: courage, enterprise, curiosity. Ida Tarbell is a very good example: she was such a “good” person – inoffensive, modest and charming – but from her childhood on she was a real risk-taker.

How is the process of writing and illustrating your own work different from illustrating other authors’ stories?

The process is pretty much the same, actually, but I worry more about whether I’ll please the author when it’s somebody else’s book.

Do you have a favorite among your books?

Of course, Mirette on the High Wire has to be right up there, but I’m also very fond of Beautiful Warrior [Scholastic/Levine, 1998]. It’s about a Chinese nun who was a kung fu warrior in the 17th century. When I began researching her, she turned out to be a mythological character, but she opened up worlds I knew nothing about: Chinese history, Chinese art, the martial arts. I had to talk to all kinds of people, including kung fu masters and Zen Buddhists. There was quite a lot I had to simplify into the story, and I turned it into a fable. I was also very pleased with the pictures; usually I’m not! And I’m pleased that boys really like it, too.

I don’t have a favorite among books I illustrated but didn’t write, though I really liked illustrating Dare the Wind by Tracy Fern (FSG, Feb.) because I got to research marine paintings, and I enjoyed the freedom of painting marine scenes. It was great fun doing the ship in different conditions – slapping the paint around!

What medium do you usually work in?

I’m completely self-taught and it’s always been watercolor, sometimes pen-and-ink first, sometimes not.

How did you start illustrating children’s books?

I was supporting my adult fiction writing by designing book jackets and illustrating pharmaceutical ads when I was commissioned to do a poster advertising a radio station in subway cars. They asked for an image of children playing. The poster enjoyed a week of exposure and then the subway workers went on strike. I was crushed. But in that one week an editor at Harper & Row, Ellen Rudin, saw the poster and tracked me down. She asked me to illustrate a children’s book set in the subway, Sea Beach Express by George Panetta. That led to another, then another.

Do you plan to continue writing YA nonfiction?

I’ve been thinking about whether I can do another biography. I would like to, but I haven’t settled on anyone yet. I’m part of the Women Writing Women’s Lives group that is associated with CUNY [City University of New York] and that’s been very inspiring. The members are women scholars, primarily university professors. A friend invited me as a guest and because I was working on the Ida Tarbell book they let me stay. Some of the women are writing about living subjects and some about dead subjects, and that’s a whole other decision to make. The process is very different. And then, of course, I’m waiting for this book to come out to see what the reaction is.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a historical novel for Arthur Levine about Sacagawea’s son, the baby born on Lewis and Clark’s expedition, and I’m working on a new early reader for Holiday House’s I Like to Read series. I’ve written and illustrated several of these 24-page books, and am about to do the artwork for one entitled Fern’s Party. I also have two other books in the works: a picture book about Clara, the rhinoceros who toured Europe in the 18th century, and a chapter book, Sister Spies, about a white woman and her freed slave who operated as spies for the Union in Richmond during the Civil War.

You work in a lot of different genres!

Yes, that’s the great boon to working on children’s books. There’s such a great variety to choose from.

Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business – And Won! by Emily Arnold McCully. Clarion, $18.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-547-29092-6