#20Questions with Author Vivian Kirkfield
Updated: Feb 4
Author Vivian Kirkfield shares about a heart-pounding phone call, childhood shyness, and skydiving in this #20questions post!
Throughout 2020, we conducted #20questions interviews with the authors and illustrators of #DiverseKidlitNF books. We thought it would be fun and fascinating to hear the diverse answers from our diverse creators, about our books’ diverse topics, using the same #20questions for each author and illustrator.
By the end of 2020, our blog will host a fabulous resource for educators, librarians, and conference organizers about creating high-quality, diverse nonfiction picture books, and what makes our #DiverseKidlitNF books and creators special.
Now, enjoy learning more about MAKING THEIR VOICES HEARD and Vivian Kirkfield!
1. Vivian, what inspired you to write this book?
I’m always looking for new story ideas—and I especially love uncovering unknown events or unknown facets of people’s characters. When I saw a photo of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe sitting shoulder to shoulder in a nightclub, I could feel there was a connection between the two—but I’d never heard that they were friends. Then I dug a bit deeper and discovered that Ella had been instrumental in helping Marilyn gain more control over her career…and Marilyn had helped Ella break down racial barriers. And the deeper I dug, the more I wanted to share this story with young children.
2. How did you approach the research for this book?
These days, we are so very fortunate to have the internet at our fingertips. My first line of research was to look online for any information I could find. Sometimes, when you read an article online, you can find the sources that author used. Plus, because these women were public figures in the not too distant past, they gave many interviews which are available on YouTube. In this way, I was able to learn even more about them. I also scoured the library for books about both of these icons.
But, when I couldn’t pin down whether or not they were actually friends, I reached out via email to the author of one of the books on Marilyn Monroe. The author, a retired university professor, referred me to the president of the oldest Marilyn Monroe fan club. And, when I reached out to him, he provided me with the phone number of the woman who had been Ella’s promoter for thirty-seven years. With my heart pounding, I called her—she was delightful and happy to chat. And yes, she verified that Ella and Marilyn were friends.
3. What’s something that surprised you while researching this book?
I grew up listening to Ella’s recordings and watching Marilyn’s movies. But I had no idea that Marilyn had been a very shy girl, stuttering when she spoke with adults. And my research also revealed that Ella, who seemed to have no problem jamming with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and other jazz greats, was in fact, extremely shy and never wanted to go out. Watching her interviews, I could see that she felt uncomfortable…but once she got on stage, she was unstoppable. As a child, I, too, was timid and preferred staying home with my books and dolls—it was eye-opening to find out that these icons felt the same way when they were young.
4. What was your favorite part about writing this book?
My favorite part was the compare and contrast—I loved showing how these women were so different, yet so much alike. I think this is an important concept for children to grasp…that no matter what we look like or what traditions we follow, in our hearts we all have hopes and dreams, and plans of what might be…just like Ella and Marilyn.
5. What was the hardest part about writing this book?
The hardest part of writing this book was to show the balance—how each woman contributed to the other’s success. Courtney Fahy, editor at Little Bee Books, was very sensitive to the need for us to show how each helped the other. And I’m thrilled to say that according to the reviewers, we definitely accomplished this:
This warm story emphasizes Ella's role in her [Marilyn’s] success, thus avoiding the trap of the white-savior narrative. Many white artists have benefited from imitating black ones; this is the rare narrative to acknowledge that. – Kirkus
6. Who is this book’s ideal reader, in your eyes?
The ideal reader? Children in grades 2-5 who are developing the skills that are required to be a good friend. Kids who will see themselves in these diverse main characters, discovering that it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s where you’re going that counts. And the parents who will appreciate the gender and racial barriers these icons battled, and the grandparents who will remember swaying to Ella’s music and laughing at Marilyn’s comedic talents.
7. What do you want kids to know about this book?
I want kids to know that friendships matter, that we stand up for what is right, and that every person is a complex human being—what we see on the outside is no indication of who that person really is.
8. What do you want educators and librarians to know about this book?
I hope that educators and librarians will find great value in the many layers of this book and the many layers of the main characters: Friendship, Racial and Appearance and Gender Discrimination, Civil Rights… This nightclub incident happened in 1954, before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and before Martin Luther King, Jr. made his I Have a Dream speech. Yet, Marilyn stepped out of the box her studio bosses and society tried to put her in when she stood up for Ella. And in the same year, Ella fought racial discrimination by suing the airline that bumped her from a concert tour flight—and she won!
9. Who is the publisher for this book?
Little Bee Books!
10. When is the official release date for this book?
January 28, 2020!
11. What do you like most about writing children’s nonfiction books?
When I was a kid, I read the Encyclopedia Britannica for fun. I loved finding out about real people and places and events…and I think there are lots of kids just like that these days. I love the idea of kids picking up a book for entertainment and sticking with it because the narrative is engaging…and then pursuing the topic because their curiosity was sparked.
12. What’s the biggest challenge in writing children’s nonfiction books?
The biggest challenge? Sifting through the information and deciding what the focus will be…which then turns into what to leave in and what to leave out of the manuscript.
13. How did you get into writing children’s nonfiction books?
I embarked on this writing journey in 2012 after my son took me skydiving and I realized that if I could jump out of a perfectly good airplane, I could probably do anything. I was blogging to get the word out about a parent/teacher guide that I had written the year before. It focused on using picture books to help kids build self-esteem and I was connecting with other lovers of picture books…many of them were actually writing picture books and I realized that I wanted to do that. But my first manuscripts were mostly stories about first day of school or sibling rivalry. And then I took an online class in writing nonfiction and a bell went off and I realized that I loved writing nonfiction PBs…I loved bringing history alive for young readers.
14. Which other children’s nonfiction books inspire you?
I love Hannah Holt’s The Diamond and the Boy; Barb Rosenstock’s Through the Window: Views of Marc Chagall’s Life and Art; Nancy Churnin’s Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing; Laurie Wallmark’s Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine; Beth Anderson’s Inconvenient Alphabet…but my list could go on and on.
15. Do you have other jobs besides writing children’s books? (If so, what?)
I was a kindergarten teacher for many years, but now my life revolves around picture books (well, actually, when I was a kindergarten teacher, picture books were part of the daily routine). In addition to writing, I have a manuscript critique service and I speak at conferences and do school visits. I also serve as a mentor to newer writers, am active in several critique groups, and just recently, I partnered with the Hawaii SCBWI and Little Bee editor, Courtney Fahy, to present a webinar on writing nonfiction.
16. What’s something that surprised you about being a children’s book author?
What surprised me about being a children’s book author is how fearless I have become. I used to avoid going places I’d never been or doing things I’d never done…but earlier this year, I went around the world, speaking at conferences and doing school and library visits. And I used to get panic attacks when I even contemplated standing in front of an audience, but now, although there is a bit of nervousness, I am excited to share my message that nothing is impossible if you can imagine it!
17. What’s something about you that would surprise kids to know?
I went skydiving at the age of 64…it does surprise kids…and their teachers…when I tell them about it…but they love it!
18. What do you think makes a great nonfiction writer?
I believe the 4 P’s are key elements for a great nonfiction writer: PASSION—you need to love the topic/person you are writing about—that helps you connect with them and write an authentic story; PATIENCE—you need to research the topic/person carefully, digging deep to find the truth and paying close attention to the details; PRACTICE— you need to write the manuscript and rewrite it many times until the opening hooks you in, the pacing keeps you moving forward, and the ending satisfies; PERSISTENCE —you can never give up…the only failure is the failure to keep trying.
19. Do you have any advice for kids who want to write children’s books?
Advice to kids who want to write children’s books: BE A READER first…read lots of books in the genre you want to write. And then, BE A WRITER…keep a journal or notebook handy and always be writing. SHARE YOUR STORIES with parents, teachers, and friends. SCOPE OUT WRITING CHALLENGES for kids and enter. I have a writing challenge for kids in grades K-6 every May called #50PreciousWordsforKids…we’ve had stories submitted from four different countries and 15 states…and I hope 2020 will be a banner year since I’ve been sharing information about the challenge with teachers when I do school visits.
20. Where can people find you online?
I blog at Picture Books Help Kids Soar where I review picture books and provide a craft activity on Perfect Picture Book Friday and interview authors and illustrators who share their writing journey and a yummy cookie recipe on Will Write for Cookies.