Behind the Scenes: “Searching for Just the Right Title” by Gretchen Woelfle

Once in a great while a title jumps onto the page. But mostly, titles are tough! Seldom is the title you start with the final one. It evolves with the writing and story. Here’s a post from Gretchen Woelfle about her quest for just the right title and how it became A TAKE-CHARGE GIRL BLAZES A TRAIL TO CONGRESS: THE STORY OF JEANNETTE RANKIN. 

Along with the post – A GIVEAWAY! Just leave a comment below to get in the drawing for a copy of the book!

1 Gretchen Woelfle

Searching for Just the Right Title: 

A Take-Charge Girl Blazes A Trail to Congress: The Story of Jeannette Rankin

by Gretchen Woelfle

Biographers have written eloquently about their creative process – finding a subject, drowning in research, deciding on structure, story arc, narrative voice. (I attended a biographer’s conference where I made immediate friends by simply asking, “Who are you writing about?” They responded with the same passion as if I had asked about their children.)

Choosing a title doesn’t get discussed as often as story arcs, but it can be important in developing a story. And it’s even more important to the end product. I’m often prompted to open a book, or just pass on by, because of a title. I expect I’m not alone.

Sometimes the perfect title comes to me before I’ve written a word. Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence did. Sometimes I write the whole book without finding the right title. Full disclosure: editors have done the job for me more than once (twice).

3 take-charge girl
Text reads: Jeannette Rankin was a take-charge girl!

Usually my title changes as I write and rewrite the book. But discards can guide me toward the heart of the story. So it was for A Take-Charge Girl Blazes a Trail to Congress: The Story of Jeannette Rankin.

I published a middle grade cradle-to-grave biography, Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer, back in 2007, my first book with editor Carolyn Yoder. The title simply described the narrative arc of her long life (1880-1973). Years later the book went out of print. There were no other children’s books about Rankin, and that bothered me a lot. Carolyn Yoder agreed to consider a picture book biography of her.

If people know anything about Jeannette Rankin, it’s probably her life-long pacifism and her votes in Congress opposing the U.S. entry into World War I and World War II, and her opposition to the Vietnam War. But that issue was too complex and advanced for younger readers. This time I chose a slice-of-life story, from her childhood to April 2, 1917, the day she walked up the Capitol steps as the first ever congresswoman.

4 JR @Congress
Jeannette Rankin strides into Congress as a crowd cheers her on. But she wasn’t looking for cheers: she had work to do!

My computer files indicate that the first two drafts of the story were written in December 2016, with two different titles: Jeannette Rankin Just Doesn’t Give Up, and Jeannette Rankin Blazes A Trail to Congress. The first title referenced Jeannette’s personality, the second, her biggest accomplishment. I might have nailed the best title early on.

But no, years passed and revised versions of the story piled up. I changed the opening scene several times, wrote long, cut the story in half, then added more words. Titles came and went.

To wit:

v1 Jeannette Rankin Just Doesn’t Give Up

v2 Jeannette Rankin Blazes A Trail to Congress

v3 Jeannette Rankin’s Rocky Road to Congress

v4 Jeannette Rankin xxxxxxxxxxx

v5 Jeannette Rankin’s Road to Congress

v6, v 7, v8 Jeannette Rankin Blazes A Trail to Congress

v9, 10 Jeannette Rankin and Her Big Ideas  or What’s the Big Idea, Jeannette Rankin?

V11 Jeannette Rankin and Her Big Ideas

V12 Jeannette Rankin: How a take-charge girl from Montana made her way to the U.S. Congress

2 Rankin front cover
In August, 2019 I signed a contract using the bland title of version 12. Editor Carolyn Yoder soon declared she wanted “a zippier title.”

Part of the challenge of a picture book biography is what to leave out. The focus is much narrower than in a longer biography. I chose to focus on Rankin’s commitment to improving the lives of women and children, something young readers could relate to. She became a social worker, but saw that without political action, she could have little impact. She joined the suffrage movement to empower women to elect leaders to address “women’s issues” – the welfare of children and families. She advanced that cause even further by running for Congress herself.

In the end, that story became A Take-Charge Girl Blazes a Trail to Congress: The Story of Jeannette Rankin. The main title was my idea, the sub-title came from my editor.

5 Rankin-statue
This statue of Jeannette Rankin stands in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center in Washington, D.C.

Does it work? Let’s parse it. A Take-Charge Girl: This phrase implies confidence and perseverance. Several scenes show Rankin displaying this trait from girlhood.

Blazes a Trail: This picturesque metaphor suggests the adventure of discovering a route through unknown territory, and marking the path for others to follow.

to Congress: Women, not girls, enter Congress. But the take-charge woman used her girlhood grit to get there.

The title captures character and accomplishments. But who was she? The subtitle tells the rest.

The Story of Jeannette Rankin: Now we learn her name.

The concepts of the discarded titles – didn’t give up, big ideas, rocky road – are woven into the story.

And the final title?  I believe I got it right.


Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of A TAKE-CHARGE GIRL BLAZES A TRAIL TO CONGRESS: THE STORY OF JEANNETTE RANKIN! (Continental US addresses only, please. Winner announced 2/17/23)

And…Check out these links!
discussion guide  

book trailer

BIO: Gretchen Woelfle is most curious – some would say nosy – about people who do extraordinary things. Her award-winning biographies include Answering the Cry for Freedom: African Americans and the American Revolution; Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence; and How Benjamin Franklin Became a Revolutionary in Seven Not-So-Easy Steps. When not traveling the world looking for new stories, Gretchen lives in Los Angeles, California. 

17 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “Searching for Just the Right Title” by Gretchen Woelfle

  1. Titles are so important and this one definitely works well. Sometimes I have a title before writing and sometimes I must brainstorm until one fits best.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gosh, this sounds so familiar. The struggle to nail a perfect title is real (and sometimes trumped by marketing and search engine concerns). So much so that it often feels like you’re searching for the elusive snow leopard. But I do think you got this right! Congrats! I love the art, too…..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s always encouraging to my students when I can use a real life example of why edits, redo’s and constructive criticism are part of the writing process and NOT failures.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. How fun to learn what Gretchen Woelfle went through to get the title for her book. I am excited to share this information, along with the book, with my students.

    Liked by 1 person

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