You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Picture Book Biography’ tag.

♫ ♬ 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…


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!

Like this site? Please order one of my books! It supports me & my work!

Enter your email to receive kidlit news, writing tips, book reviews & giveaways. Wow, such incredible technology! Next up: delivery via drone.

Join 14,064 other subscribers

My Books

Blog Topics