Available now in time for Women’s History Month is Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers. This new picture bookintroduces children to the young main character in the morning when she’s squeezing her eyes shut to recall her favorite dream. In this scene, she dreams of being able to fly, soaring above “a place her baba described as the carpet of a million sunflowers.” While having flying dreams is not uncommon, readers soon see more of the fantasy element come into play when, after getting up, Loujain joins her father to get their wings out of the shed. The joy in Loujain’s face as she makes believe she can fly is palpable. But in reality, she’d never fly anywhere because she was a girl, and girls were forbidden to fly. How could this possibly be fair?
The sunflowers Loujain fantasized visiting were in a picture taped to her wall and she was determined to see them. While her father knew the harsh reality, her mother did not want to discourage her daughter. But at school kids teased Loujain for thinking a girl could fly when only boys were allowed. Loujain pleaded with her father to give her lessons. His wife told him, “Why should flying be only for boys?” Especially, she added, “if we all can use wings?”
Loujain had the good fortune to have open-minded, caring parents and a father who clearly agreed that it was not right to keep girls from spreading their wings and taking to the skies. Her baba lovingly trained her and after preparing her, they set out the very next day on the journey to see the amazing sea of sunflowers.
The powerful symbolism conveyed in this story will not be lost on children who perhaps in their lifetime have experienced or heard about gender bias whether in sports, academics, employment, the arts, or in other fields. Of course in this case it’s a metaphor for the real-life Loujain AlHathloul who made history for challenging the ban on women’s right to drive cars in Saudi Arabia and was imprisoned because of it. She is no longer in prison, but her restrictive release conditions and her dream of bringing more freedoms for girls and women are described in the authors’ note.
Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers invites multiple reads and discussions in the context of women’s rights/gender bias and discrimination, perseverance and persistence as well as pursuing one’s dream. Green’s gorgeous and energetic art, created in acrylic gouache and colored pencil adds to the enjoyment of each read. I love her varied composition from page to page and the glorious color palette she’s chosen. Every spread, especially ones with the sunflowers, feels so expansive and full of possibility, just right for this hopeful and empowering picture book.
“A behind-the-scenes look at the creation and evolution of Wonder Woman, the iconic character who has inspired generations of girls and women as a symbol of female strength and power.
Perhaps the most popular female superhero of all time, Wonder Woman was created by Bill Marston in 1941, upon the suggestion of his wife, Elizabeth. Wonder Woman soon showed what women can do—capture enemy soldiers, defeat criminals, become president, and more. Her path since has inspired women and girls while echoing their ever-changing role in society. Now a new group of devoted young fans enjoy her latest films, Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984, and await a third installation being planned for theatrical release. This exceptional book raises up the many women who played a part in her evolution, from Elizabeth Marston to writer Joye Hummel to director Patty Jenkins, and makes clear that the fight for gender equality is still on-going.”
Hi Kirsten! Welcome to Good Reads With Ronna and congratulations on the publication of A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything, a truly wonderful picture book that I’m so excited to discuss with you, especially on your launch day! Like you, I grew up on comic books (Archie) although to be honest the only superhero I followed as a child was Superman. Somehow I came late to the game with Wonder Woman. Patty Jenkins’ first film was my first introduction to the backstory.
GOODREADSWITHRONNA:Can you believe the young girl in the 1970s who was a Lynda Carter fan is the one who’s written about Wonder Woman?
KIRSTEN W. LARSON:I wasn’t someone who always wanted to be an author when I grew up, so I feel lucky to have stumbled on a career later in life that feeds my curiosity. I love research and that thrill of feeling I’ve gotten a book “just right” in terms of voice, structure, etc.
GRWR:I’m curious if once the idea hit you to write the history of Wonder Woman, you knew you’d approach it with a comic book style format (which I ADORED by the way)? Did you do the research first and then decide how to find your way into sharing the story or did you always know how you’d do it?
KWL:I always envisioned this as a biography of the character of Wonder Woman, showing her character arc across the decades. This was a rare book for me. The finished book is very close to the original drafts. The main difference was the addition of some of the more modern incarnations of Wonder Woman that bring the character up to the present. I always envisioned comic-book style illustrations, but of course, the choice to illustrate the book that was entirely up to editor Jennifer Greene, the art director, and illustrator Katy Wu.
GRWR:A TRUE WONDERcould not have been an easy manuscript to write for someone used to the more traditional nonfiction structure. What was that like having to write a script with setting, narrative, thoughts, speech, and sound effects?
KWL:You may be surprised to know that I wrote A TRUE WONDERjust like any narrative nonfiction picture book. I did have a global illustration note suggesting the comic book style, as well as the trading card format for the sidebars about significant people who contributed to the Wonder Woman character. But it was illustrator Katy Wu who broke out the illustrations into panels and dropped the quotes I included into speech bubbles. She deserves all the credit.
GRWR: Whoa, I sure hope Katy sees this and all your compliments because the art and prose work seamlessly. Did you and the illustrator Katy Wu get to collaborate?
KWL:Katy and I didn’t collaborate at all, which is fairly typical for picture books. She did all her own research. I provided some minor comments on her dummy, but that’s it. We’ve only corresponded since we started marketing the book.
GRWR:I am so impressed! So, do you have a favorite spread?
KWL:Yes! The final spread, which talks about how Wonder Woman inspires us to become heroes of our own stories is my hands-down favorite. I tear up every time. Katy illustrated it with a diverse group of women, and it is perfect.
GRWR:Based on your previous STEM books and NASA background, writing about Wonder Woman is a departure for you though it is definitely a STEAM read. What are your feelings about that, and do you think you might write more non-STEM books in the future?
KWL:I love to write about underdogs and women who defy expectations, and the character of Wonder Woman falls into that theme. Plus, comic books are a big part of geek culture. Just think about how much time the Big Bang Theory characters spent at the comic bookstore, or trying to get tickets for San Diego Comic Con.
GRWR:LOL!InA TRUE WONDER I learned SO much about the early days of comic books, especially how the business was populated by white men keen on keeping superheroes men. Yet it was an exceptionally enlightened man, Bill Marston, with a wife working full-time as the family bread-winner who pitched the idea of Wonder Woman to Charlie Gaines of All-American Comics, the precursor to DC. Tell us more about that fateful turn of events in the male-dominated industry.
KWL:This probably won’t surprise anyone, but comic books have been under attack almost since their inception. Just before Wonder Woman was introduced, parents and educators complained about the violence in comics. They argued that comics were a poor substitute for classic literature too (sound familiar)? But Marston thought comics could be a force for good. It was his wife, Elizabeth Marston, who suggested the idea of a female superhero. And that’s what Bill Marston pitched – a female superhero who he hoped would be a good influence on children.
GRWR:Women writers and staffers behind the emergence of Wonder Woman ultimately played crucial roles in empowering the character and women in general during WWII when a majority of men were off fighting. You mention more than a handful and even write in your back matter about Joye Hummel (who wrote under a male pen name) and several others who made an impact on the representation of Wonder Woman including Gloria Steinem. Can you speak to how they contributed to feminism?
KWL:Through the years and often behind the scenes and uncredited, women have contributed to Wonder Woman as authors, artists, editors, and consultants. These women were ahead of their time in what continues to be a male-dominated industry. At the same time, second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem and Joanne Edgar grew up reading Wonder Woman comics and sort of adopted her as their mascot, putting her on the first cover of Ms. Magazine. Even today, we tap into Wonder Woman as a short-hand way to talk about strong and powerful women and sisterhood.
GRWR:What would like your young readers to take away from readingA TRUE WONDER?
KWL: I hope that children will find a way to channel their inner superheroes and make their own contributions to their communities and the world. We need everyday heroes now more than ever.
KWL: I find story ideas everywhere: books, movies, magazine articles, museums, you name it. Normally I do some initial research to learn whether the resources I need (like primary sources) are readily available, and to figure out if someone is already writing a book about the subject. If everything checks out, I start with secondary sources to get context, then dive into primary sources to hear the characters’ voices. The research normally guides me to a structure and voice, but there’s always a lot of experimentation. And walking, along with showers, meditating, and mentor texts, are great for when I get stuck during the writing process.
GRWR:That’s so helpful to know. Do you have a writing routine and a preferred place to write?
KWL:I write all over the place–in the living room, outside on my back patio, in my office. I get up before everyone else and try to write for at least an hour Monday through Friday after checking in with my accountability partner. Most days I dedicate another two hours to writing before turning to other things.
GRWR:What’s your go-to creativity beverage or comfort food when feeling frustrated?
KWL: I work with so many amazing contributors on STEM Tuesday, led by Jen Swanson. Each month, team members put together a themed book list plus classroom activities and ELA/writing activities. The last week of the month we have an interview with an author and a book giveaway. I write about writing. There is so much creativity happening in nonfiction and STEM writing right now. I love showing educators how they can use STEM books to teach writing craft.
GRWR:I agree that STEM reads and nonfiction have never been more exciting than right now. What’s a recent nonfiction book that you couldn’t put down?
KWL:Next year, illustrator Katherine Roy and I have THE FIRE OF STARS with Chronicle Books. It’s a dual narrative picture book about Cecilia Payne, who discovered the composition of stars, told alongside the process of star formation. After that, I have two more books under contract but not yet announced. One is a lyrical, STEM book for younger readers, the second is a middle-grade historical fiction, which I did write in full graphic novel script form.
GRWR:Thanks tons for taking the time today to chat, Kirsten. We could not be more excited aboutA TRUE WONDERand wish you every success with it. And happy book birthday, too!
KWL: Thanks for having me, Ronna! It’s been my pleasure. I love to connect with folks at my website Kirsten-w-larson.comand on social media @kirstenwlarson.
Kirsten used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. Kirsten is the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020), A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything (Clarion, Fall 2021), illustrated by Katy Wu, and THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Fall 2022), as well as 25 nonfiction books for the school and library market. Sign up for her monthly newsletter here.
One gusty day in early spring, a plastic bag snagged onto a bare branch of a tall maple tree in my backyard. In even the lightest breeze, it would whistle and snap in an irritatingly syncopated rhythm. I wished – to no avail – that newly sprouting green leaves would dampen the twisting, flapping, rustling and puffing. I encouraged squirrels to snatch the bag for nest-lining. I thought about climbing a ladder with rake in hand to yank it down. Finally one windy wonderful fall day, it was gone!
My plastic bag story is neither inspiring nor life-changing, but Miranda Paul’s new book ONE PLASTIC BAG is the complete opposite. Paul conveys the true story of Isatou Ceesay, a Gambian woman who uncovers a creative solution to reduce plastic trash in her community. Carelessly discarded plastic bags were causing problems. Water collected in the ugly plastic trash heaps and became a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Goats were sickened by eating the bags, and burning bags produced terrible smoke.
Ceesay devises a way to clean the bags and turn them into plastic strands that can be crocheted into purses. She organizes groups of village women to work together, cleaning trash from their community, producing income from the sale of the purses, and empowering the women in the process.
Paul uses simple lyrical devices to tell the story, employing a counting refrain throughout that “One becomes two. Then ten. Then a hundred.” Following the story of Ceesay, readers will quickly catch on to the idea that the actions of one person can ripple far and have a broader impact for the greater good.
The text brings Gambia to life by weaving elements of sounds, smells and color throughout the story in a manner that always seems natural and organic. Illustrator Elizabeth Zunon used her personal collection of patterned papers and shopping bags to make bright, engaging collage images that ring with authenticity.
ONE PLASTIC BAG is a wonderful story for classrooms and families alike who are interested in true stories about ordinary people finding a way to make a positive change in the world. The back of the book contains an informative author’s note, a timeline, glossary, and a list of other biographies about inspiring change makers.
Don’t miss this beautiful and inspiring true story from West Africa. You may find, as my daughter did, that you will never look at a plastic bag in the same way ever again!
– Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey.
Where Obtained: I reviewed a promotional copy of ONE PLASTIC BAG from the publisher and received no compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.