Vivian Kirkfield had a tremendous 2019 with three books releasing, and she’s off to a busy 2020! Like the women she writes about in MAKING THEIR VOICES HEARD, she has found her voice and is making it heard in the kid lit world! Writing a story with two main characters, means not only connecting the reader on an emotional level, but also the characters. Thank you, Vivian, for sharing your process!
AND VIVIAN IS OFFERING A GIVEAWAY!! Just leave a comment below to be entered to win your choice of either a copy of MAKING THEIR VOICES HEARD (US addresses only, please), or a PICTURE BOOK MANUSCRIPT CRITIQUE. (I know, tough choice!)
Thank you so much, Beth. It’s an honor to be here on your blog, sharing my newest nonfiction picture book biography, Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe (Little Bee, illustrated by Alleanna Harris).
According to the lyrics by Richard Adler,
“You gotta have heart
All you really need is heart
When the odds are saying you’ll never win
That’s when the grin should start.”
Okay, so we know we need to have heart in song lyrics. And a book is just like song lyrics without the music (although a good picture book story does have lots of musicality). Heart is really important for a book…especially a picture book.
When a story has heart, the reader makes a connection to the characters. And when the reader makes a connection to the characters, the reader cares about what happens – and wants to find out – and turns the pages. AHA!
But how does the writer ‘put’ heart into the story…how does the writer help the reader make that connection with the characters. These are some of the things I did for MAKING THEIR VOICES HEARD.
1. I started the story by actually talking about what was in the hearts of the main characters:
“On the outside you couldn’t find two girls who looked more different. But on the inside, they were alike—full of hopes and dreams and plans of what might be.”
2. I showed their struggles:
“Ella had to sing for her supper on the streets of New York City, but she dreamed of sharing her voice with the world.”
And because this is a book about two women, I needed find a balance…if I said something about one woman, I had to say something about the other.
“Marilyn painted airplane parts in a Hollywood, California factory, but she hoped to become a great actress.”
3. And in only a few words, because we try to keep things simple and have low word counts in picture books, I had to show how they worked towards their goals with only a few well-chosen words:
“Goodbye street life. Hello, jazz band. Song after song, Ella scaled high notes and low notes on her way to fame.”
Right there you can feel how she struggled…high notes and low notes – life wasn’t always a bowl of cherries. Ella had to fight discrimination and gender inequality, and she was painfully shy. And jazz was not accepted in mainstream America at that time.
“Goodbye factory job. Hello, studio contract. Movie after movie, knowing just when to laugh or cry on cue, Marilyn inched closer to stardom.”
Marilyn isn’t running, she isn’t skipping…she is inching her way up the ladder of success. With one word, we can create a whole gamut of emotion and…heart.
4. These two women were icons…huge celebrities in their time. But even though they were successful, they still struggled. And that’s important in a book – we have to throw rocks at our heroes. Which is why I love writing nonfiction. I don’t have to make up the rocks. I just have to report on how big they were and how many times they hit the hero.
“For years, Ella’s velvety shube-doobie-doos wowed audiences. But still, in her own country, too many doors were closed.”
“Marilyn dazzled fans with her baby blue eyes and breathy boo-boo-be-doos. But when she asked for better scripts and a higher salary, the studio bosses ignored her.”
5. Then something happened that changed everything. Marilyn listens to Ella’s recordings to improve her own singing.
“Over and over, she listened to Ella vocalize, harmonize, and croon those jazzy blues as only she could.”
And when she gets rave reviews for her new movie, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, in part because of her singing, and she is given more control by her studio bosses over her future scripts, Marilyn goes to Ella’s next show to thank her and discovers that Ella is having a problem. And what do you do when a friend is having a problem?
That’s right! You help in any way you can. For Marilyn, this meant sticking her neck out, because in the early 1950’s, whites and blacks didn’t mix much. But Marilyn was all heart. She believed that when something was wrong, you spoke out against it. More than that, she believed you did something about it to engender change. This is what we call allyship these days. It’s becoming a popular word because it means all talk and no action is no help to marginalized people. It means you step up and help to make the change. And this is exactly what Marilyn did.
6. And finally, in a story that has heart, when we get to the end, we want to FEEL.
“For the rest of their lives, Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe remained good friends. Ella never missed one of Marilyn’s movies. And Marilyn never stopped listening to Ella’s songs.”
And because one of my favorite ways to end a story is to circle back and echo the beginning, these are the final lines:
“On the outside, these two starts couldn’t have looked more different. But on the inside, they both understood that sometimes even stars need a little help to shine.”
Surfing around the internet in late 2014, I discovered a photo of Ella and Marilyn. Sitting shoulder to shoulder in a nightclub, you could tell there was a relationship of trust and camaraderie between them. And I wondered, what was the story behind that picture? I dug deep and discovered what had happened and I wrote the story in the next couple of months. I brought it to a conference in the summer of 2015…an editor loved it. Asked for revisions. But she couldn’t get her publisher to acquire it. The next summer, the same thing happened at a different conference with a different editor. More revision, but still, no acquisition. And then, in 2017, we sent it to Little Bee Books and editor Courtney Fahy loved it…asked for revisions (you know that happens most of the time, right?). And early in 2018, she acquired it! And after she acquired it, we did an intensive week of daily back and forth email revisions. Like Stephen King says, “Writing is rewriting.” But each revision made it a stronger story…and the reviews have been wonderful. It seems that my story is full of heart – and for that, my heart is full!
Thank you so much, Beth, for this wonderful opportunity. I’m excited for your nonfiction pb bio that JUST LAUNCHED earlier this month…and if people go to my blog today, they will find a Perfect Picture Book Review of your fabulous Lizzie Demands a Seat.
And there’s lots happening with my book launches – next week, Saturday, January 18 at 11am, I will be at the Nashua, NH Barnes and Noble reading my book. And then I fly to Chicago for school visits and a launch at the Andersons Bookstore in Naperville, IL. I even have a book event at Books of Wonder in NYC, but don’t know yet the exact date…it will have to wait until March when I get back from Chicago.
Writer for children—reader forever…that’s Vivian Kirkfield in five words. Her bucket list contains many more than five words – but she’s already checked off skydiving, parasailing, banana-boat riding, and visiting critique buddies all around the world. When she isn’t looking for ways to fall from the sky or sink under the water, she can be found writing picture books in the quaint village of Amherst, NH where the old stone library is her favorite hangout and her young grandson is her favorite board game partner. A retired kindergarten teacher with a masters in Early Childhood Education, Vivian inspires budding writers during classroom visits and shares insights with aspiring authors at conferences and on her blog, Picture Books Help Kids Soar where she hosts the #50PreciousWords International Writing Contest and the #50PreciousWordsforKids Challenge. She is the author of numerous picture books. You can connect with her on her website, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Linkedin, or just about any place people with picture books are found.
DON’T FORGET TO LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW TO BE ENTERED IN THE GIVEAWAY FOR YOUR CHOICE OF THE BOOK (US addresses only) OR A PICTURE BOOK MANUSCRIPT CRITIQUE. I’ll announce the winner on next Friday’s post.