In 1901, the owner of the power and lightcompany in Livermore, Calif., gave that Bay Area town's volunteerfirefighters a four-watt bulb to help them find their equipment in the dark.That lightbulb, made of carbon filament and hand-blown glass, has been burningever since, and is thought to be the world's longest continuously burning bulb. This story inspired Janet Nolan to write The Firehouse Light, a May release fromTricycle Press. Illustrated by Marie Lafrance, the picture book chronicles themyriad changes that occur in the town—notably in firefighting equipment andtechniques—over the decades, as the steadfast bulb continues to glow.
The long-lived lightbulb has achieved celebritystatus: it has caught the attention of Ripley's Believe It or Not and the Guinness Book of World Records, has beenthe subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and even has its ownWebcam and dedicated Web site.
Nolan can't recall exactly when or where shefirst heard about the bulb, but does remember her reaction. "I walked around inan excited daze for a while," she says. "I kept thinking of all the things thathave happened—all the things that have been invented and all the warsfought —while this tiny lightbulb kept burning. In our disposable society, itstruck me as awe-inspiring."
The author explains that she initially wrote thebook as "almost a literary timeline" encompassing many historical details, buteventually she streamlined the story. "Rather than top-load the book with historicalhappenings, I focused in on the town and on firefighting, since obviously thefirehouse is where the light has always burned," she says. The author explainsthat she spent many hours at her hometown library in Oak Park, Ill., "readingbooks about different eras to get a feel for everything that was going onduring each decade—in areas like transportation and communication."
To unearth particulars about the bulb'shometown, Nolan contacted the Livermore Heritage Guild, an information resourcefor those interested in the town's history. "The people there couldn't havebeen more helpful," she comments. "They sent me lots of newspaper articles andold photos and helped me research details—like at what point in time the townhad only one stoplight. I really wanted to get it right."
Several retired Livermore firefighters and staffers atvarious firefighting museums provided Nolan with useful information about theevolution of firefighting gear, methods, and vehicles. And she paid a visit toher local fire station. "The firefighters there were wonderful," she says."They showed me around and explained how everything worked. They even let me geton the trucks. I wanted to understand what I was writing about."
Nolan submitted The Firehouse Light to Tricycle Press, which is located in Berkeley, less than an hour's drive from Livermore. Editor Kim Keller, who acquiredthe book, notes that the story's multiple strands appealed to her. "I loved theintersection of history, firefighting, and the extraordinary nature of thelight bulb burning for more than 100 years," she observes. "I think the bookwill appeal to children on many levels." Nolan credits Keller for suggestingshe pare down the original text and focus more closely on firefighting history.Keller lined up Lafrance to illustrate the bookafter discovering samples of her art online. "I wanted to find an artist whocould give this book a look that was historical, but not overly realistic," sherecalls. "In the book, Marie stays true to her folk-art style while convincinglydepicting the passage of time."
Though she hadn't heard of the Livermorebulb, Lafrance, a Montreal resident who lived inSan Franciscoyears ago, was immediately drawn to the project. "The text had poetry to it,and I was fascinated by the light that is always there," she says. Given whatshe calls her art's "vintage quality," she remarks that she "had more fun" withthe older scenes, "since it's more stylistically interesting to me to illustratesomething that happened 100 years ago. The fire trucks then were much nicerlooking than they are today."
Her research for The Firehouse Light opened her eyes to today's firefightingvehicles as well. "When you do a book, you get so involved in the subjectmatter," Lafrance explains. "I thought about firetrucks for such a long timethat now, when I see one, I get a pang of recognition. I want to say, ‘Oh, Iknow you!' "
Nolan will meet Livermore firefighters—andfinally see the famed lightbulb—in June, when she travels to California for severalauthor appearance, including a launch party at Towne Center Books inneighboring Pleasanton and a signing at Livermore Heritage Guild. "I am veryexcited about meeting so many people who helped me with the book, and seeingthe bulb at last," she says. "Some people may doubt that this is a true story,but by my way of thinking, there is no doubtabout it. Of course it's true. I am avery big supporter of this little bulb!"
The Firehouse Light by JanetNolan, illus. by Marie Lafrance. Tricycle Press, $15.99 May ISBN978-1-58246-298-1