Behind the Scenes: “How a Single Photo Can Bring a Book into Focus” by Elisa Boxer

I love discovering old photos when I research a subject! They’re such an essential and valuable part of learning about another time and place. But they can also be the inspiration for the dive into the past or a driving push through the writing process. Here, Elisa Boxer shares how one photo sustained her as she wrote.

Elisa is offering a GIVEAWAY, too! Your choice of a signed copy of any one of her books, or a 30-minute ask-me-anything about publishing call. Just leave a comment below to enter the drawing!

PICTURE THIS: How a Single Photo Can Bring a Book into Focus

 By Elisa Boxer

Sometimes, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

Universal History Archive via Getty images

Or, in this case, 900 words plus back matter.

That’s the word count for SPLASH! Ethelda Bleibtrey Makes Waves of Change, which releases later this month. It’s my newest picture book, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley and published by Sleeping Bear Press.

This photograph inspired me throughout the research, drafting, and revision process. And it continues to inspire me in the promotion and publication phase.

In 2018, on the heels of writing about the mom who helped save suffrage in The Voice that Won the Vote, I was searching for another little-know fearless female who made history. I came across the story of Ethelda Bleibtrey, the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming. She took up the sport to help herself heal from polio, and ended up using the water as a means to break barriers and create change.

This photo from 1922, of an actual policeman measuring the actual distance between an actual woman’s bathing suit and knee, came up early on in my research.

I thought it must be a joke.

Nope. In the early 1900s, policemen did indeed roam the beaches with measuring tape, making sure women’s bathing suits were long enough to be socially acceptable.

Women held out their legs so men could get accurate measurements. If insufficient modesty was determined, the women could get arrested for indecent exposure. This was normal.

Oh, and many cops also arrested women for swimming without socks. In the summer.

My reaction to this involved some internal dialogue that was not exactly child-friendly, but I knew this whole situation had to make it into the picture book I was about to write.


This is Elizabeth Baddeley’s ingenious depiction of Ethelda Bleibtrey’s arrest for daring to swim without socks.

The spread after this one explains all about the beach police, and how Ethelda’s sockless swim helped change the rules about what women were allowed to wear to the beach.

I wrote these scenes fueled by the sense of injustice, inequality and incredulousness I felt when I first came across that photo of the cop with the measuring tape. I wanted to set the scene for readers so they could form their own opinions about what were considered appropriate roles for women back then.

As picture book creators, and as deep feelers, we often talk about the themes we weave as threads throughout our books. More often than not, these themes for me have come in the form of words: Courage, rebellion, friendship, empathy, hope, etc.

And then come the visuals.

But in this case, the visual came first.

Early on in the process, I printed out the photo of the beach police and taped it to the front of the paper file folder I used for gathering research and writing notes to myself. The photo even made it into the back matter. I’m so excited for young readers to have it as a reference point. It symbolizes, perhaps more than words ever could, the spirit of the story I have wanted to tell from the very beginning.image

Is there a photo that can inspire you?

Don’t forget to leave a comment below to enter the GIVEAWAY! Drawing 7/22/22. (US addresses for a book choice, please.)

And…if you enjoy a book, please take a moment to support authors and illustrators by leaving a review with online booksellers.

Elisa Boxer is an Emmy and Murrow award winning journalist whose work has been featured in publications including The New York Times and Fast Company. She has reported for newspapers, magazines and TV stations, and has a passion for telling stories about people finding the courage to create change. She is the author of The Voice That Won the Vote, A Seat at the Table, and One Turtle’s Last Straw, as well as the forthcoming SPLASH! (recently named a Junior Library Guild Selection) and Covered in Color, which Kirkus recently called “compelling from cover to cover” in a starred review. Elisa lives in Maine, and has several more books on the way. Visit her at

17 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “How a Single Photo Can Bring a Book into Focus” by Elisa Boxer

  1. Visuals come first for me, too. Ideas next, with research following to develop the story. Thanks for this showing that utterly shocking photo. I guess the police had time on their hands then.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing that photo. How great that it made it into the backmatter of your new book. I love how Ethelda is smiling and the woman in the background is cheering in Elizabeth’s illustration. I look forward to reading your latest book!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I just returned from a PD at the Library of Congress about teaching with primary sources and this is exactly what we learning about!! Love how the image played a part in your research and in the story!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am so happy you shared this book! I didn’t know this happened to women. Men have dictated what women could and could not do for so long. Good for girls to see how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is another part of our history that I never knew about until reading this post and my emotional reaction is the same as the author’s. Thank you for writing this incredible book.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Incredible! I knew about the measuring, but not about the socks! That’s what I love about non-fiction picture books these days…they’re soooo engaging, informative, and interesting. I’m sure SPLASH will make a huge splash for exactly those reasons. I ❤ the illustrations too!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I can’t believe the officers didn’t have anything better to do then measure the distance between swim suit hems and knees. My reaction is one of outrage and disbelief! Thank you for showing today’s women what those before us had to deal with!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I have been looking forward to reading this book for some time. How interesting to learn that the book was inspired by a photograph.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you for writing this story, I need this book in my classroom! I read ‘Her Fearless Run’ to my class, and they were sure it couldn’t be true. We need books like yours, now more than ever.

    Liked by 1 person

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