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We have been showered with gorgeous picture book covers lately and the latest one is truly a gift! It’s RIVKA’S PRESENTS, written by Laurie Wallmark and illustrated by Adelina Lirius.

It’s 1918 on the Lower East Side of New York City, and Rivka is excited to start school. But when her father gets sick with the flu, her mama has to go to work at the shirtwaist factory and Rivka needs to stay home and take care of her little sister. But Rivka figures out a way to learn anyway: she trades chores with the grocer, the tailor, and an elderly neighbor for lessons. As the seasons change, Rivka finds she can count pennies for the iceman and read the labels on jars of preserve. And one day, papa is no longer sick, and Rivka can finally start school! Full kindness and love for your neighbors, here is a story that introduces life on the Lower East side for a Jewish family during the flu pandemic of 1918.

RIVKA’S PRESENTS releases July 11, 2023 from Random House Studio.

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 at and Twitter @lauriewallmark.

♫ ♬ 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 and Twitter @lauriewallmark

A new non-fiction picture book biography from Laurie Wallmark? YES, PLEASE!

But first, let me tell you a few facts about my friend Laurie.

  • We were in our first critique group together 13 years ago.
  • We’re in a critique group together again now.
  • She was the first person to tell me an agent wanted to talk to me. (Yes, this one’s about me.)
  • We chair the RUCCL 1-on-1 Conference together. This year it will be the RUCCL Home-to-Home Conference.
  • She loves writing about “dead women in STEM”.

When asked about why she likes writing about these women, Laurie says that she’s guaranteed they won’t make any major discoveries AFTER their biography is published.

Excellent point.

And now, let’s reveal the cover for CODE BREAKER, SPY HUNTER, illustrated by Brooke Smart!

CODE BREAKER, SPY HUNTER: HOW ELIZEBETH FRIEDMAN CHANGED THE COURSE OF TWO WORLD WARS tells the exciting story of how Elizebeth’s code-cracking skills helped capture rum runners and break up Nazi spy rings. But there’s more…

Take a look at the book cover. See how a ribbon of letters surrounds Elizebeth? It contains a coded message. Other hidden messages are scattered throughout the book’s illustrations. Can’t figure it what they say? When you read the book, the back matter will show you how to crack the code.


This book will be released by Abrams Books for Young Readers on March 2, 2021.

Let’s also take a sneak peek inside!

Looks like another winner by Laurie!

Now if I could only break the code of writing a picture book biography…


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, Facebook, Twitter @lauriewallmark and Pinterest.


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!

I awoke this morning and thought, “What a fine day for a new blog post.” Of course, I also thought, “What a fine day to go swimming” and “What a fine day to finish reading that book.” Sensing that I have packed today’s schedule, I decided that said blog post would have to be ultra-short. (I would have said “uber” short, but that word has been bogarted by some taxi service.)

So here I have pieced together quick quotes and sage snippets from the SCBWI events I attended in the spring—New England SCBWI and New Jersey SCBWI.

I hope you enjoy while I do the backstroke with a soggy book.


“A picture book is an amazing thing, a world unto itself. You can do anything in those 32 pages and that is the thing I love about it.” ~David Wiesner

“As I create, I am continually asking myself ‘why is this happening?’ You know you are desperate when you go to the ‘magic button’ solution.” ~David Wiesner


“Be nice. Be resilient. Set goals. Adapt & learn. Your biggest achievement is just around the corner.” ~Jarrett J. Krosoczka

“Don’t do a $50 job like a $50 job, you’ll get $50 jobs your whole life. Do it like a $500 job and you’ll start getting those.” ~Jarrett J. Krosoczka


“It’s not necessarily ‘write what you know.’ Write what you want to know ABOUT. The passion for that subject will come through.” ~Wendy Mass


“When it comes to the nitty gritty marketing of your book, always remember, something is better than nothing.” ~Laurie Wallmark


“A postcard is the best way to get our attention. I get 60 emails a day…it’s too much. I like the tactile nature of a postcard. I love feeling them and looking at them…if they hit anything in me, I keep them.” ~Laurie Brennan, Associate Art Director, Viking


“Characters who make interesting mistakes are inherently interesting. The kind of mistakes your character makes defines her. How a character acts in the wake of a mistake should be unique and personal to her. Failure is fertilizer: a world of things can grow from the mistakes your character makes. Someone who is always right is BORING.” ~Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen


“I wanted to write a book where my daughter could see herself—that’s me!” ~Suzy Ismail

“Writing from a multicultural perspective is no different than writing. All writing is about crossing boundaries.” ~Suzy Ismail quotes Debby Dahl Edwardson


And, finally, my favorite quote…which is still making me think long and hard:

“How are you creating a literary world besides being a literary creator?” ~Donalyn Miller


by Laurie Wallmark

When I teach classes on writing for children, I tell my students there are only three necessary traits for being a writer. They raise their pens, ready to record the insider tricks I’m about to share that will pave their road to publication. Unfortunately, there are no magic incantations or secret handshakes to initiate you into the world of writers. All you need are three things:

  • a modicum of talent;
  • a willingness to learn and improve your craft;
  • and perseverance.

When I say “modicum of talent,” I mean exactly that. You don’t need to be the next Maya Angelou or Ernest Hemingway. You do, though, need a little something. As a child, were you the one who enthralled your classmates on the playground with your stories? Did you write love poems or protest songs? Do you make up fairy tales for your children every night? Are you a journal writer or blogger? Do people turn to you when they need someone to write up an account about an event? Did you answer “yes” to any of these questions? Excellent. You obviously have a “modicum of talent.” You’re a writer.

But that’s only the first step. You need to be willing to learn and improve your craft. I’ve met too many people who, once they’ve gotten an agent or that first book contract, feel that they are now a “Writer,” with a capital W. They think that now they’ve made it up the first rung of success, there’s nothing else for them to learn about writing. They couldn’t be more wrong. No, you don’t need to go out and earn an MFA in Writing for Children or a PhD in Children’s Literature (not that those are bad things), but you can always learn more about writing. Attend conferences and take workshops. Read craft books and blog posts. Have your manuscripts critiqued and return the favor for other writers. But the most important way to improve your craft is to read mindfully in your genre. Read. Read. Read. Analyze the books you read. What works and what doesn’t work? Learn new techniques from the positive and learn what to avoid from the negative. Read!

The last, and most important writerly trait, is perseverance. Becoming a professional writer is not the easiest of career goals. It takes a long time to hone your craft to the needed level. Along the way, you’ll encounter many barriers. I knew most of my published writer friends long before they had their first book contract. They kept writing in spite of the many rejections they received along the way. To state the obvious, if you stop writing, you’ll never be published.

When I was in high school we had to choose a class motto. (Stay with me. This is related.) The administration thought our choice wasn’t appropriate and cleaned it up to “Always Persevere,” translated into Latin as “Semper Perservere.” I prefer our motto in its original form, though. Here it is as my final piece of advice:

Keep on Truckin’!


Laurie Wallmark writes exclusively for children. She can’t imagine having to restrict herself to only one type of book, so she writes picture books, middle-grade novels, poetry, and nonfiction. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. When not writing or studying, Laurie teaches computer science at a local community college, both on campus and to students in prison. The picture book biography, ADA BYRON LOVELACE AND THE THINKING MACHINE (Creston Books, October 2015), is Laurie’s first book.

PrizeDetails (2)

Laurie is giving away a copy of her debut picture book, ADA BYRON LOVELACE AND THE THINKING MACHINE.

Leave a comment below to enter for your chance to win.

Ada cover 72dpi

This prize will be given away at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You will be eligible for this prize if:

  • You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
  • You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
  • You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge.

Good luck, everyone!

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