CAROL GORDON EKSTER: Heather, I love that you write children’s books about real women who overcame extraordinary obstacles and never gave up on their dreams. And you tell their stories so beautifully. How do you decide which women to write about?
HEATHER LANG: Sifting through the many incredible women who have blazed trails is an exciting and challenging adventure. I am drawn to lesser-known women whose stories have not been told or fully explored. Sometimes there is a golden nugget that hooks me—like Alice Coachman tied together sticks and rags to make her own high jumps. Sometimes the topic fascinates me—like early aviation or sharks! In the end, I’ll only work on a book if I’m super passionate about the subject, and the research is there to support the story.
CGE: Do you only write nonfiction and only picture books?
HL: I actually started out writing fiction—picture books and chapter books. I have a dozen manuscripts I never sold from those early years of writing. Once I wrote my first nonfiction book, Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman, Olympic High-Jump Champion, I became addicted to the research, and now I spend most of my time on nonfiction. But I still write some fiction. I love how it stretches my imagination.
CGE: Can you tell us a little about what inspired your newest book that was recently released, Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark, published by Albert Whitman.
HL: I grew up with the movie Jaws and was terrified of sharks. I thought it would be fascinating and rewarding to write about a personal fear. When I read about Eugenie Clark, I knew I had found the perfect woman.
Genie was brave enough to research sharks in the ocean at a time when few women were scientists and we knew very little about sharks. As part of my research I learned to scuba dive. And my fear of sharks—well, it’s turned into a passion for them.
CGE: I know this is a tough question, but was there one of your books that you felt more passionate about writing?
HL: That’s like asking which one of my four kids I love the most! It seems I’m always most passionate about the book I’m writing at the time. I was especially passionate about writing Swimming with Sharks, because I met with Eugenie Clark and worked on the book with her. She is an amazing role model. She never judged sharks or others based on rumors or superficial information. In the 1930s there were no facts to indicate sharks were mindless or vicious, so she set out with an open mind to discover the truth. I love that about her. My passion also stemmed from my discovery that sharks are endangered and critical to conserving our oceans and our planet.
CGE: Tell us about your journey into becoming a published children’s author.
HL: After seven years of rejections for my fiction, I needed some inspiration. What better way to be inspired than write a picture book biography about trailblazer Alice Coachman?!
One day I decided to treat myself to a critique with Karen Klockner at namelos. Not only was her feedback invaluable, but she connected me with Boyds Mills Press editor Larry Rosler, who accepted the manuscript.
Finding an agent took even longer. When I read about Karen Grencik at Red Fox Literary, I knew she would be a fantastic fit for me. So I signed up to have a critique with her at the NESCBWI conference. A month before the conference, I received an offer from Boyds Mills Press for Fearless Flyer, so I emailed Karen and asked if she would mind looking at the manuscript early. We hit it off immediately! She is my dream agent. 🙂
CGE: And congratulations on your starred reviews with School Library Journal and Booklist. It’s pretty sweet to be noticed for your books. They are wonderfully written. Are you someone who gets the words right the first time, or do you bring your work to critique groups and revise often? Tell us about your writing process.
HL: Thank you! I always tell kids, I’m not really a writer—I’m a rewriter. It’s the truth! My first drafts are way too long and rambling and sloppy. My critique group helps me figure out the best way to focus the text and make those brutal cuts.
I write many drafts to determine the story arc, the pacing, the voice and tone. I am always revising and searching for just the right words. I play around with language when I’m in the shower, driving the car, on walks with my dog. The book becomes a part of me while I’m writing it and enters my thoughts at the most unexpected times.
CGE: Your books are beautifully illustrated. What was your reaction when you found out that Floyd Cooper was selected to do the art for Queen of the Track? Tell us about your experience and interactions with your illustrators.
HL: I was speechless! I had long admired his art and couldn’t believe Floyd Cooper would be illustrating my book. I don’t think I truly believed it until I saw the art.
I rarely interact directly with my illustrator while the book is being made, which is the norm for picture books. But since my books are nonfiction, we do work together indirectly through our editor and art director. When I am researching, I always keep my illustrator in mind and collect photos or information that might help with the art. Then I share via a Dropbox folder. My editor also asks me to provide illustration notes and look at the sketches for accuracy.
Raul Colon and I did have a few direct interactions when he was finishing the art for Fearless Flyer. Raul emailed me and asked if I had a picture that showed what Ruth Law’s name looked like on the top of her plane. I dug up a black and white photo and looked back at my research to confirm that the letters were indeed red. Every time I look at the book, I’m so happy we had that exchange, because those red letters on the top of her plane just pop!
Raul and I have become friends since the book came out. He is an incredible artist and person. We just did a joint event in NYC to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Ruth’s flight, and it was amazing to hear him talk about his creative process for Fearless Flyer.
CGE: What does the future hold for Heather Lang?
HL: In the near future, I have another picture book biography coming out in the spring with Albert Whitman: Anybody’s Game: The Story of the First Girl to Play Little League Baseball. In the longer term, I hope the future holds lots more research adventures and books—both fiction and nonfiction, picture books and longer books. And I look forward to many new connections with passionate educators and writers and book-lovers—people like you, Carol! Thanks so much for having me on Writers’ Rumpus and for all you do for kid lit!!
CGE: Thank you, Heather, for your beautiful books that will inspire little boys and girls for years to come. And thanks for generously offering a signed copy of Swimming with Sharks. To our Writers’ Rumpus group, for a chance to win this special book, enter the Rafflecopter at this link.
You can watch the book trailer here.
And you can connect with Heather here: