Laurie Wallmark’s acclaimed Women in STEM biography picture books include Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code, Hedy Lamarr's Double Life, and Numbers in Motion: Sophie Kowalevski, Queen of Mathematics. Her fifth book in the series, Code Breaker, Spy Hunter, about cryptanalyst Elizebeth Friedman, is out this month from Abrams. Sandra Nickel’s debut picture book, Nacho's Nachos: The Story Behind the World's Favorite Snack, published in August 2020. Her first Women in STEM picture book biography released this month, The Stuff Between the Stars: How Vera Rubin Discovered Most of the Universe. In honor of Women’s History Month, we asked Nickel and Wallmark to interview each other about why they’re drawn to telling the stories of remarkable women, how they find their subjects, and the most interesting facts they’ve discovered in their research.
Sandra Nickel: You’re known as the queen of picture book biographies about women in STEM. You’ve written about code makers and code breakers, mathematicians, and women who led double lives. Did you know you wanted to take on this theme from the beginning? Or did it happen book by book?
Laurie Wallmark: I’ve always loved math and science, and I knew I wanted to share this love with children through my writing. Did I know I would have five published picture book biographies of women in STEM, another one coming out next year, and more on the way? Absolutely not. I feel fortunate I’ve had the opportunity to tell the stories of the many unsung women scientists and mathematicians. I keep an ever-growing, ever-changing list of possible subjects for future biographies. In fact, since I’m known for writing about dead women in STEM, after Vera Rubin died, many friends sent me a copy of her obituary.
Sandra, how did you discover Vera?
Nickel: Exactly like that. The New York Times put out a beautiful eulogy to Vera the day after she died. Kate Hosford, a fellow alum of ours from Vermont College of Fine Arts, told me about it. When I read the article, I was immediately captivated by Vera. I was also heartbroken. She showed what no other scientist had been able to prove—that dark matter makes up 80% of the universe. Yet, she was passed over for the Nobel Prize in Physics, as it was given to man after man, and never a woman. Forty years of being passed over! It was so immensely unjust that I started researching Vera’s story that very day. I couldn’t make up for the missed Nobel, but I could write a story that kids all over America might read.
Your heroine from Code Breaker, Spy Hunter—Elizebeth Friedman—also went unrecognized, didn’t she?
Wallmark: Yes, but for a different reason at first. Her work was classified Top Secret. When it was finally declassified, people still didn’t appreciate her contributions. Her husband, on the other hand, who was also a cryptanalyst, became well-known. I wanted to make sure Elizebeth got the recognition she so rightly deserved. As a computer scientist, I know even today, women in STEM do not always receive the proper credit for their achievements.
Are you also a scientist?
Nickel: Who was it that said, “Science is curiosity?” Sally Ride, I think. In that sense, yes, I’m a scientist! I’m curious about almost everything. But in the way that I think you mean it, no. Although I do have a Bachelor of Science, but in the social sciences.
Wallmark: Even though I have degrees in biochemistry and information systems, I’ve now also written about astronomers and physicists, inventors and mathematicians. No matter the field, I have to do the research to make sure I get all the details absolutely correct. We don’t want kids to be led astray. Once I have the facts, I need to explain them in a way kids can understand.
Do you have trouble doing the research?
Nickel: Since I love learning, I love research. I’m definitely a believer that no topic is too complicated for kids. You just have to find the right way to tell it. And for me to tell it, I have to learn it first.
Wallmark: Agreed. I actually wrote my MFA graduate thesis at VCFA on how to explain scientific facts and concepts in picture books. I knew I ran the risk that what might seem easy or obvious to me, wasn’t to children and non-scientists. I wanted to make sure any kid could understand what I was saying. And speaking of any kid, just because our books are about women scientists, that doesn’t make them “girl” books. Both boys and girls need to appreciate that, yes, women can be scientists.
Nickel: Absolutely. All children—parents and librarians and teachers, too—are going to be fascinated by Elizebeth Friedman.
Wallmark: As they will about Vera. One of the most interesting things about Elizebeth’s story is, unlike most other people who grow up to be scientists, she wasn’t interested in math and science as a kid. She loved books and languages, and she majored in English in college. She’s a great example for kids who might feel a little less confident about their math or science abilities. But when an opportunity arose, Elizebeth took it, and set out on a new path.
Nickel: Vera also forged her own path. Other astronomers were racing against each other so they could be the first to pull ahead of the pack with new theories and observations in other areas of astronomy. Vera couldn’t join in that race because she was dedicating time to her children. Instead, she chose to look at questions no one else was looking at. By doing this, she made immense discoveries relating to dark matter. I love that both of our stories plant seeds in kids’ minds that their paths can take twists and turns that differ from everyone else’s.
How did you discover Elizebeth’s path, since her work was hidden for so long?
Wallmark: A book about her, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone, came out in 2017. After reading it, I knew I had to learn more about this amazing woman. Luckily for me, her papers are archived at the Marshall Foundation in Lexington, Va. Even more luckily, one of their amazing librarians, Melissa Davis, was able to help me with my research. (Thank you, librarians everywhere!)
How did you check your research?
Nickel: Once I finished the manuscript for The Stuff Between the Stars, I contacted Dr. Megan Donahue, the president of the American Astronomical Society, and asked if she could read it and make sure I got things right. She generously did, and then the story went off to [illustrator] Aimée Sicuro to do her magic and create the wonderful illustrations.
Wallmark: I love how throughout the book Aimée manages to keep that look of curiosity on Vera’s face, whether as a child or an adult. Her curiosity is what drove her science, and that comes through so clearly in the illustrations.
Nickel: One of the many things I love about Brooke Smart’s illustrations for Code Breaker, Spy Hunter is how she weaved ribbons of code through several of the pages.
Wallmark: I’m so happy we were able to do that. Originally, the ribbons had random letters on them. I suggested they contain coded messages, which I then provided. Brooke then had the incredibly difficult task of hand-lettering them. After that, it was back to me to check all those “random” letters. I checked and double-checked, because I’m so afraid a 10-year-old reader will find a mistake I made. I know in your book, Aimée also had to interweave information, such as Vera’s graphs and equations, into her illustrations.
Nickel: And she did it in a beautiful, dreamy way that welcomes readers in. Do you ever worry that kids might be frightened off by the math and science in your stories?
Wallmark: That’s one of the reasons I write about women in STEM—so kids can see that scientists and mathematicians are regular people just like they are. By making the facts and concepts accessible to children, it makes them less scary. When I do presentations about encouraging children’s interest in STEM, I mention that sometimes children are afraid, whether because they think it’s too hard or they’re afraid of failing. I think when STEM is presented in an inviting way, many children will embrace it.
Nickel: I couldn't agree more. It’s one of the reasons picture books are such fantastic vehicles for talking about STEM. The combination of illustrations and inviting text goes a long way in demystifying things. The biographies also show the excitement the protagonists have for their fields. And as we all know, excitement is infectious.
So, Queen of Women in STEM biographies, do you have another picture book in the works?
Wallmark: Indeed, I do. I have a picture book biography coming out in fall 2022 about the astronomer Maria Mitchell. She was the first American to discover a comet, one of the first paid astronomers in the United States, and the first female astronomy professor. In addition, she worked to convince others of the need for women in the sciences.
How about you? Do you have another book on the way?
Nickel: I do—Breaking Through the Clouds. It’s about Joanne Simpson, the first female meteorologist in the world. In the 1940s and ’50s, meteorology was a real boys club. One professor at the University of Chicago even told Joanne, “No woman ever got a doctorate in meteorology. And no woman ever will.” The male meteorologists also ridiculed Joanne for being interested in clouds, which they thought didn’t affect weather in any real way. Well, Joanne was stubborn, and she proved them all wrong. She not only earned her doctorate in meteorology, her work with clouds sparked an entire branch of science. Like Vera Rubin, Joanne was also a huge supporter of other women. A young female meteorologist, who flourished in the wake of Joanne and her work, said Joanne Simpson didn’t simply blaze a trail for women, “she blazed a road.” Just think of all those female meteorologists we see on TV now. Isn’t that fabulous?!
Wallmark: Absolutely! Diverse scientists bring diverse ideas, which leads to greater scientific progress.
Nickel: Yet another reason to celebrate Women’s History Month. Here’s to all the incredible women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics!
Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars by Laurie Wallmark, illus. by Brooke Smart. Abrams, $18.99 Mar. ISBN 978-1-4197-3963-7
The Stuff Between the Stars: How Vera Rubin Discovered Most of the Universe by Sandra Nickel, illus. by Aimée Sicuro. Abrams, $18.99 Mar. ISBN 978-1-4197-3626-1