Behind the Scenes: “Finding the Focus in Big Picture History” by Jennifer Thermes

My sister was the one who loved horses in my family. A pair of disgruntled ponies instilled a wariness in me, but as an adult, I appreciate the beauty and power of horses. Jennifer Thermes’ new picture book HORSE POWER: HOW HORSES CHANGED THE WORLD caught my eye after I had spent time thoroughly enjoying her previous book, MANHATTAN: MAPPING THE STORY OF AN ISLAND. (I shared that book in a blog post a while back.) Here Jennifer shares her process of finding and maintaining focus, a huge challenge with a “big picture” topic. 

Thank you to Jennifer for offering a GIVEAWAY! Just leave a comment after the post for a chance to win HORSE POWER. 

Congratulations to last week’s winner of one of Ann Marie Stephens’ math books, Laura Perdew!

HorsePower_CoverFinding the Focus in Big Picture History by Jennifer Thermes

Horse Power: How Horses Changed the World, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021

From ancient images on cave walls, to paintings, sculptures, statues, and more, humans have always been enamored by the horse. As a young girl, so was I. Seeing the world from high on a horses’ back, becoming attuned to another living creature, and learning about the unique personalities of every different horse was magic to me… including their warm, earthy smell!

Today, horses are mostly seen as a luxury. But from the time they were first domesticated up until the early 20th century, horses were the engines that powered much of human history. Horses evolved in a way that made them easier for humans to domesticate. They were used in agriculture. They carried travelers and traders across the land, enabling people from different cultures to communicate and connect with each other. They inspired inventions, including the design of all kinds of wheeled vehicles­—which in turn led to the need to build better roads. And they were used to wage war. (It’s helpful to remember that horses had no say about any of the ways in which they were used.)

HorsePower_art_01

The idea of one element of history leading to another across long spans of time fascinates me. The challenge with big-picture history becomes how to narrow the focus of the story to fit into the limited number of pages in a picture book. In the case of Horse Power, I had 48 pages, plus endpapers to work with.

I’m a huge fan of using sticky notes to remind myself of the main points of the story. In the case of Horse Power they read:

Horse Power thumbnails
Early thumbnail process sketches – figuring out the balance between words and pictures.

1) Talk about the horses (without anthropomorphizing them!)

2) History in which horses played a part.

3) How horses influenced humans and society.

These reminders may seem obvious, but after being immersed in countless interesting facts and events, while at the same time trying to figure out how to balance the information between words and visuals, it’s easy for your brain to gallop off in too many directions! Keeping these notes to myself on the wall where I can see them every day helps me stay focused on the main throughline of the story.

HorsePower_art_02

It’s also good to remember that a picture book can’t possibly contain every nugget you want to include. And often, limitations are good, because they force you to hone in on your story. The reader can use the book as a jumping off point to learn more about the subject.

Horse Power_reference pic
Reference photo from the NYPL Digital Collections.

Finally, I like to envision the book as an overall design that makes it readable straight through as a story, or one that a reader can jump in and out of. By using sidebars, illustrations, and maps to convey tidbits that might not fit into the main narrative, I hope to make the book something that the reader wants to return to again and again–  to learn something new each time!

Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win HORSE POWER! (continental US addresses only, please)

BIO

Jennifer Thermes is an award-winning author, illustrator, and map illustrator. Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island(Abrams, 2019) was a 2020 NCTE Orbis Pictus Honor Book. She is fascinated by the connections between past and present history, and how the world today has come to be the way it is. To learn more, please visit https://jenniferthermes.com/.


22 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “Finding the Focus in Big Picture History” by Jennifer Thermes

  1. Oh, I’m so excited to read this and see how you narrowed focus. I love the points you made and suggestions to help us kid lit creators stay on task.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This book sounds great. Narrowing the scope for a picture book – bio or other NF in particular – is always such a challenge. Thank you for sharing your process.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “The idea of one element of history leading to another across long spans of time fascinates me.” I love books that show connections…with history, with science…you name it.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. The first thing I thought of here was War Horse, the story about a horse during WWI. So true that much of our world was shaped by the “use” of horses before the internal combustion engine was invented. This sounds like an interesting read.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi, there!
      I found this fascinating because I bought Manhattan at Books of Wonder uptown (now closed) at your talk with others on NYC. I just listened to BOWERY BOYS history podcast about horses in NYC, so this is topic fresh in my mind. It’s interesting in so many ways. Your technique is a good way to hone in. Picking out rose main points to meld it all together into a flowing storyline. (CBIG)

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Horses are still my favorite of all animals. I still wish I had the land to be able to own and care for one. I’m going to love reading your book.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. This sounds like a wonderful book .I can’t wait to share this with the two wonderful horse women in my life.
    Staying focused and on topic is one of the strategies I always attempted to get my students to use when they were writing non fiction.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Really enjoyed Jennifer’s journey and process. My daughter was quite a horsewoman when she was younger. She would have enjoyed learning more about this history of horses. Sounds like you had fun researching and choosing what to share.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. What a wonderful topic for a Children’s book! I love nonfiction. Horses are fascinating animals, and growing up, I loved reading author Marguerite Henry’s stories about horses. Thank you for sharing your process, Jennifer.

    Liked by 2 people

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