♫ ♬ You’re a code breaker, spy hunter, heartbreaker don’t you mess around with me… ♫ ♬

Today I have a very special guest on the blog. No, not Pat Benatar…it’s the queen of picture book STEM biographies, Laurie Wallmark! Cool tidbit—I have known Laurie longer than anyone else in kidlit because we were in our first critique group together…aaaaand, we’re in the same critique group (albeit a different on) once again.

Laurie’s here today to celebrate the release of her newest book: CODE BREAKER, SPY HUNTER: How Elizabeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars, releasing March 2 from Abrams, with illustrator Brooke Smart.

This is a special book, as Laurie discovered new ways to enhance the story with fun approaches not typically seen in picture book biographies.

Laurie, kids love secret codes and messages. Is that why you decided to make this your next STEM biography? 

What do you mean kids love secret codes and messages? How about me? I love secret codes and messages, too, and have ever since I was a kid. Remember, I was a computer programmer for many years. And what are programs, but coded messages to communicate to and from computers? They can also be like secret messages for those who don’t understand the computer language.

I enjoyed having the opportunity to both delve into Elizebeth Friedman’s life and learn more about codes and ciphers. In fact, writing the section in the back matter about “Cryptography Today,” gave me an excuse to further research the subject. I have the best job.

Oh, will you be writing your next book in codes and ciphers, then?

Ooh, wouldn’t that be fun? But I did something close to that in this book. If you look at the cover and some of the interior pages, you’ll see ribbons with letters on them. Originally, the illustrator was going to fill these ribbons with random letters. I made her and my life more difficult by suggesting that these ribbons actually contain real coded messages. I had to figure out the codes, then Brooke had to carefully hand-write each letter. (I can’t imagine how much work that was for her.) Even though we double- and triple-checked the ribbons, I’m convinced some eagle-eyed ten-year-old out there will find a mistake I made.

I hope the secret message isn’t “be sure to drink your Ovaltine” like in “A Christmas Story”!

When you’re working on a PB biography, how do you distill a person’s life into just the most salient points? How do you decide what’s most important in a life full of importance?

Before I answer your question, I want to mention a secret message that has nothing to do with books. This was hidden in the parachute of the Mars Perseverance. The white and red triangles represented binary code for the secret message, “Dare mighty things,” which is the motto of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In addition, the outside ring of the parachute holds the code for the GPS coordinates of JPL.

Anyway, on to your question. Finding a focus for a picture book biography isn’t easy. This is not only because of the limited word count, but also because I’m writing a story. And just like when I write fiction, sometimes I have to “kill my darlings.”

Because I write about people who are not well known, I tend to write what are called cradle-to-grave stories. I cover from the person’s childhood until after she has made her major accomplishment(s). Obviously, I can’t touch on every event in her life.

It’s hard, though. I try to make sure I cover the basics of the person’s life and accomplishments. After all, I want children to know why my subject is important. Once I do that, it’s all about writing a story that flows—a story that will draw a child in.

I noticed in the book illustrator Brooke Smart wrote some of Elizabeth’s quotes in handwriting instead of leaving them within the book’s text. Was there a significant reason for this treatment? 

Unlike “nonfiction” biographies from years gone by, these days everything in biographies must be completely factual. Some authors get around this by including a note in the back matter that explains what is true and what isn’t. I personally don’t like this method, because a child might not read the note and be mislead by the text.

I chose a different approach. I identified a series of Elizebeth’s quotations I thought would help illustrate her thoughts and personality. Unfortunately, there wasn’t an easy way to include them within the text without making up the surrounding dialogue. Or, as discussed above, interrupting the narrative flow. Instead, I matched the quotations to events happening in a specific spread. Then, Brooke was able to artistically include the quotations in her illustration.

That method works beautifully! 

Is there anything about Elizabeth you wanted to share but you couldn’t fit into the book? 

There are always aspects of a person’s life that you need to leave out because, as mentioned above, word count limitations or story flow. I would have liked to include the fact that her father didn’t want her to go to college. In spite of that, she sent applications to multiple schools, determined to figure out a way to pay the tuition herself. Her father ended up loaning, not giving, her the money for school. The anecdote says so much about her determination, but it just wouldn’t fit. As it is, the book is jam-packed with scenes, so this is one that had to be left behind.

Speaking of scenes from the book, which is your favorite?

I love the scene with Velvalee Dickson, the “Doll Lady.” First, Velvalee is such an unusual name that it seems fake, even though it was her real name. Second, I can’t imagine how she cracked this code. How could she possibly realize that in a letter about dolls, “little boy” referred to warships or that “fisherman with net” meant minesweeper?

I can understand how decoding ciphers, where one letter or symbol is substituted for another, works. I might not be able to do it myself, but it makes sense to me that other people have the knowledge of math and the tools to do so.

But what an amazing brain Elizebeth must have had. She read letters that were supposed to be about dolls and not only realized they contained secret messages but figured out the code. There’s a reason Elizebeth Friedman is known as one of the world’s greatest cryptanalysts.

And you’re one of the world’s greatest picture book biography authors! Congratulations on CODE BREAKER, SPY HUNTER!

Blog readers, Laurie is giving away a copy of her book.

Leave one comment below to enter.

A random winner will be selected in early March.

Good luck!

Award-winning author Laurie Wallmark writes picture book biographies of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) as well as fiction. Her books have earned multiple starred trade reviews, been chosen as Junior Library Guild Selections, and received awards such as Outstanding Science Trade Book, Best STEM Book, Crystal Kite Award, Cook Prize Honor, and Parents’ Choice Gold Medal. Her titles include ADA BYRON LOVELACE AND THE THINKING MACHINE, GRACE HOPPER: QUEEN OF COMPUTER CODE, HEDY LAMARR’S DOUBLE LIFE, NUMBERS IN MOTION, and CODE BREAKER, SPY HUNTER. Laurie has an MFA in Writing from VCFA and frequently presents at schools as well as national professional conferences (NSTA, NCTE, ALA, TLA, etc.). She is a former software engineer and computer science professor. You can find Laurie on the Web at lauriewallmark.com and Twitter @lauriewallmark