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by Laurie Wallmark

When I talk to kids, I tell them books have origin stories just like superheroes do. Nothing like mentioning Wonder Woman or Black Panther to get kids excited. Once I have their attention, and now that I have yours, I talk about four methods of coming up with ideas for a story. Most of the time, my story ideas come from a combination of these approaches.

My first method is follow your passion. As many of you know, I write picture book biographies of [dead] women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). Just to be clear, the dead part isn’t my passion, just my preference in choosing a subject. I do, though, love science and math. It’s also important to me that children know that no matter their sex, race, ethnicity, gender identity etc., anyone can enter these fields. I choose to highlight the accomplishments of women, an underrepresented minority in STEM professions.

STEM not your thing? That’s okay. Although if truth be told, it’s beyond me how anyone couldn’t love science and math.

Anyway, moving on. How do you like sports? Music or dance? Working with your hands? Animals? Books? (Of course you like books—what am I saying?!) Following your passion leads to a treasure trove of ideas.

Still nothing? Okay, let’s move on to method two—gathering ideas. Here are some ways and places to find them…

The easiest method is to keep your eyes and ears open. You never know when you’ll see a picture or overhear something that will produce a kernel of an idea. Another way is to try thinking silly.

Kids love silly. What’s the craziest thing you can think of? Family stories are always a goldmine of ideas. You can reach back to your childhood or think about things that your children did. These humorous anecdotes can definitely form the basis of a story.

How about travels? Have you visited any unusual places that might be of interest to kids? Even a museum visit can spark an idea. It did for me.

Current events, whether tragic or triumphant, often translate into great books. Kids want to understand the world we’re living in today, and you can help them. On the other hand, you can look back in time to historical people and eras. Understanding the past will also help kids understand today’s world.

One final idea for method two—mashups. Take two or more seemingly unrelated ideas, say dinos and a dance party. Put them together and who knows what will happen. (Actually, I do. MY DINO PAJAMA PARTY picture book is coming out next year.)

Neither of the above methods work for you? Don’t worry. I have two more. Method three involves starting with a story part. Maybe you’ve thought of a great character, full of life and spunk. From there, brainstorm situations she might find herself in. Or you might only have a title. I sat on the perfect title for years before figuring out the story that matched it. Another idea is start with a setting. Maybe you can use one from one of your travels above?

My fourth method was already mentioned by Kate Garchinsky in an earlier Storystorm post—I wonder. Here’s how I like to use this method. If this happens, then what? If someone does something, then what happens? And then? And then? And then?

So there you have it—four different methods. Mix and match them to come up with your next story idea.


Award-winning author Laurie Wallmark’s most recent book, NUMBERS IN MOTION: SOPHIE KOWALEVSKI, QUEEN OF MATHEMATICS, releases March 3, 2020. Her previous picture book biographies of women in STEM (ADA BYRON LOVELACE AND THE THINKING MACHINE, GRACE HOPPER: QUEEN OF COMPUTER CODE, and HEDY LAMARR’S DOUBLE LIFE) have earned multiple starred trade reviews and national awards. She has an MFA from VCFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Find her online at lauriewallmark.com, Facebook, Twitter @lauriewallmark and Pinterest.


Laurie is giving away a copy of NUMBERS IN MOTION: SOPHIE KOWALEVSKI, QUEEN OF MATHEMATICS.

Enter one comment below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below.

Good luck!

 

Today I invited author Laurie Wallmark to pontificate on a female computer science pioneer…and to introduce her new picture book biography, GRACE HOPPER: QUEEN OF COMPUTER CODE, illustrated by Katy Wu.

Laurie and I first met ten years ago (!!!) when I joined her critique group. Who could imagine that a decade later, we would be celebrating each other’s books?

Laurie, this is your second PB biography about an important female computer scientist (the first being award-winning ADA BYRON LOVELACE AND THE THINKING MACHINE). What drew you to your subjects?

People say, “write what you know,” but I disagree. If you’re not familiar with a topic or an idea, you can always research it. I’d rather say, “write what you’re passionate about.” After all, you and your story will be together for a very long time. From your initial idea to that first draft, from innumerable revisions to a published book, you will read your story over and over and over again. If you’re not passionate about the topic, this will turn from a joy to an agony.

I’m passionate about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Two of my four (so far!) careers have been in computer science, one as a programmer and the other as a professor. Therefore, it seemed logical that I write my first two picture book biographies about people who contributed so much to the field.

My other passion is wanting to make sure that all children—regardless of sex, race, religion, physical or mental challenges, etc.—realize that it’s possible for anyone to have a love for, and possibly a career in, STEM. Picture book biographies of strong women STEM show girls that they too can succeed in a traditionally male-dominated field.

What about Grace Hopper’s story inspired you to write it?

It bothered me that someone who was so instrumental in shaping today’s world of computers had been entirely overlooked in the children’s trade-book market. Grace is the person who made it possible for anyone (including kids) to be able to program a computer, not just engineers and mathematicians. By sharing her love and knowledge of computers and programming, she encouraged others to consider a career in software engineering.

Shouldn’t our children know about the accomplishments of someone who was so important to the birth of our modern technological society? Yes, there are a few school/library titles about her, but these are not books a child would pick up and read. They’re dry recitations of the events of Grace’s life. In addition, they contain factual inaccuracies.

Without Grace’s idea to use English words to program computers, probably fewer people would have chosen programming as a career. Without enough programmers, there would be fewer programs and apps written. Without programs and apps, our computers and phones would not be much less powerful.

So that’s why I wrote this book—to introduce children to one of the most important computer scientists who ever lived.

You write both fiction and biographies. Which do you prefer? (Am I pulling a Sophie’s Choice on you?)

I can’t believe you’re asking me to choose between my beloved children. And what about my third child, poetry? Luckily, as a writer, I don’t have to choose. In fact, my master’s thesis combined all three—fiction, biography, and verse. I wrote a novel in verse based on the life of Ada Byron Lovelace.

If I did have to choose, the answer would have to depend on my current project. I’m working on a biography of a woman mathematician right now, so biography is the favored child. Not to worry, fiction and poetry, you’ll soon have the chance to be number one in my heart.

What interesting facts about Grace Hopper did not make it into the book?

Because of the limited word count, one of the many challenges in writing a picture book biography is deciding what to include and what to leave out. For example, my book has a scene of Grace constructing a doll house. What’s not included in the book is she decorated that dollhouse by making her own tiny furniture, curtains, and rugs. She also sewed clothes for her dolls taking up residence.

Another incident, also from childhood, is when Grace’s canoe capsized. After her mother shouted for her to remember her great-grandfather, the admiral, Grace didn’t abandon ship. Instead she kicked her way back to the shore, dragging the canoe behind her.

These stories emphasize Grace’s self reliance and can-do attitude. But so do some of the stories that did make it into the book, so these two weren’t needed. Stories like how Grace convinced the Navy to let her enlist even though she was too old and too skinny. Or how she convinced her colleagues and the world how important it was for computer languages to use words instead of only numbers.

Laurie, thank you for decoding Grace Hopper’s life and presenting the world with another picture book biography about an important female computer scientist. Congratulations on all your work and success!

Award-winning author Laurie Wallmark’s debut picture book, ADA BYRON LOVELACE AND THE THINKING MACHINE (Creston Books, 2015), received four starred trade reviews (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal) and several national awards, including Outstanding Science Trade Book and the Eureka Award. It is a Cook Prize Honor Book. Her recently released picture book biography, GRACE HOPPER: QUEEN OF COMPUTER CODE (Sterling Children’s Books, 2017), earned a Kirkus star and was well-reviewed in several trade journals. Laurie has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from VCFA. When not writing, she teaches computer science at Raritan Valley Community College.

Click here to join Laurie as she travels from blog to blog to introduce her picture book biography about Grace Hopper.

Sterling Children’s Books is giving away a copy of GRACE HOPPER: QUEEN OF COMPUTER CODE. Please leave one comment below to enter. A winner will be randomly selected in about two weeks.

Good luck!

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:

BLOOP
illus by Mike Boldt
HarperCollins
July 2021

ABSURD WORDS
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
November 2021

"PRIVATE I" SERIES #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
2022

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