As a fourth grade teacher, I am always on the hunt for new picture book biographies that my students will love. When I heard about Tootie Nienow’s debut picture book biography, There Goes Patti McGee, The Story of the First Women’s National Skateboarding Champion (Macmillan, 2021), I knew it would be a book my students would want in my classroom. As Darcy Pattison says, “Kids don’t care what the person DID; instead, you must engage kids with the person’s character and personality.” That’s what Tootie does in the book, creating an understanding of Patti McGee’s character and her determination to skateboard that broke down the boundary for the next generation of female skaters when skateboarding was seen as a “boy’s” sport. Patti’s meaningful contributions can be found within the text and in the fun and informative backmatter.
The book is filled with a big bold voice, figurative language, and illustrations packed with movement. Let’s learn about the creation of There Goes Pattie McGee! Please enjoy an interview with Tootie, followed by an interview with Erika Medina!
Lexi Alexander: Tootie, welcome to Writers’ Rumpus! Thank you for taking this time to share with us. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself as a writer and your writing journey?
Tootie Nienow: I’ve always loved reading. I also love to listen to and tell stories about daily life. Once I became a school librarian, the highlight of my day was sharing good stories with my students. After reading hundreds of stories, I realized I had stories to tell that others might be interested in. I began to write them down. When I read them they were really boring. I joined SCBWI and started taking classes. Ten years later, my first book is finally going to be published.
LA: Patti McGee is so brave and her impact on skateboarding is evident. What part of her story first captured your attention? When did you decide that this story idea should be turned into an actual book?
TN: Patti first captured my attention when I saw the image of her doing the handstand on her skateboard. Her grace and strength made it look so easy.
When did I decide that this story should be turned into a book? That is a funny question; by the time I first met Patti, I had studied hundreds of picture book biographies and knew there needed to be some tension and setbacks but when I asked her what was difficult about her road to the championship, she said, “Nothing, I was just having a good time.” So I had to imagine what might have been hard and when I asked, “Did it hurt when you fell?” she said, “Oh yes, I always had cuts and bruises.” And when I asked, “Did anyone ever say anything mean?” she said, “Oh yes, people used to yell at me to get off the sidewalk and some girls in my neighborhood would call me a tomboy.” I was glad that her memories of that time were only good ones but I really had to pry the plot out of her.
LA: The illustrations in your book are beautiful! They create movement, integrate action words, and include names of tricks. Did you include any illo. notes in your manuscript?
TN: I did include a note about the handstand because Patti was, understandably, proud of her form. She took years of gymnastics and even on a rolling skateboard she was able to keep her legs straight and her feet together for her competition handstand. I also had to research what skateboard tricks were popular in the 1960s and learn all the names.
LA: Can you tell us a little bit about your revision process? Did you ever change the point of view, tense, or organization of the story during the revision process?
TN: I wrote about 30 drafts, playing with different central themes. And I did change from present to past tense. I was stuck for a long time until one day, I thought about the spelling of her name, and the voice of the story spilled out. I thought about Patti skating around town, “There Goes Patti, Patti with an “i”! Bold, Confident, Courageous!” To me, Patti with an “i” behaved differently than Patty with a “y”. I ended up cutting the “Patti with an “i” part but it gave this story a voice.
LA: I’ve never written a picture book biography, but from my research they are significantly different than the fiction picture book genre. What resources and mentor texts did you find most useful?
TN: I think Picture Books and Picture Book Biographies are really only different in that a biography has to be true. All the facts must be accurate. I interviewed Patti so many times that we are now friends. I just wanted to make sure I had her story right. Then I dove into research. I read books about skateboarding and learned skateboarding terms. I even I interviewed my son, who is a skateboarder. Then I bought old issues of magazines. That was really fun. I love historical research like that. I got a copy of Skateboard Magazine that was printed in 1964. It had this amazing musty smell.
LA: So what’s next for you in your writing journey?
TN: I am working on a few other picture book biographies. The one I’m most excited about, is about a surfer. We’ll see what happens in the new year.
LA: Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know?
TN: I would like my readers to know that they can do anything they put their mind to. About 15 years ago, I decided I wanted to be a School Librarian. I went back to college, volunteered, and found out what it takes. I interviewed for about three years and then I finally got a job. It was so worth it. I love my job. Then, I decided I wanted to write a book. It took a lot of work, research, and classes, but I was determined and I made it happen. Whatever you dream, if you do the work, you can achieve it! I really believe that!
Lexi Alexander: Erika, welcome to Writers’ Rumpus! Thank you for taking this time to share with us. Can you tell me a little bit about your typical illustrating process?
Erika Medina: Of course! I love talking about illustrating! I usually start with really rough, scribbly characters. This is my favorite part because I can make it extra dynamic. I experiment and play with many smaller thumbnails. After I’m done with the sketching stage, I often work in Photoshop. Although, for my current project I’m working in Procreate. I might go back to paper for the start of my next project. It feels more natural to work on one big piece so you can see everything instead of switching from file to file.
For a big project, I work backwards from my deadline. I map out what I should get done every day so that I have confidence I can make the deadline. I might do the flats and shadows one day. You can’t think of everything, so I leave time for the unknown too!
LA: So you used Photoshop for Patti McGee?
EM: A lot of Patti McGee was created digitally using Photoshop. After I finished sketching on paper I uploaded them into one file so I could see if the character looked consistent across spreads. I also have to take a step back sometimes. It’s just like writing where you get tunnel vision. I have to come back later with fresh eyes.
LA: How did the illustrations evolve over the course of your work?
EM: I was excited to illustrate Patti McGee because I like to draw dynamic characters and gestures. It was hard to suggest movements for some skateboarding tricks and we wanted to make sure the tricks looked distinct. Skateboards used to be much smaller, the tricks were simple and the illustrations needed to accurately represent the 1960s. The author, Tootie, was familiar with the tricks, which was helpful. It was hard to find references because they didn’t have social media to document them. They were trying to adapt surfing tricks for the skateboard. Tootie had the names but it was difficult to find them. I had to ask, what does that look like? She knew everything and was very helpful.
LA: Wow! There are so many changes that happen during the process. Do you have to start an illustration over if you get feedback that something needs to change?
EM: There’s a spread that I really enjoyed with palm trees and Patti McGee had a backpack on. I had already colored everything when Tootie pointed out Patti never used a backpack so we took it out. I didn’t even have to draw what was underneath because the backpack was on its own layer. I just had to see if it reflected differently in the shadows. Usually my character is its own layer and the background is several layers. It takes time but it’s a really non-destructive process. Some authors will joke about layer anxiety, making every little detail its own layer. It’s definitely a balance.
LA: What have you learned about being an illustrator? What is most important?
EM: You really have to respect the process. The sketches just have to be informative so that the people looking at them understand what is going on in the image. Adding too much detail and color [to sketches] is a waste of time because there are going to be changes. You have to remember not to take feedback personally. When you illustrate, your drawing is your interpretation of the story, you highlight the theme. Other people might have a different vision, but everyone just wants the book to be the best it can be. In Patti McGee, I knew the poses were going to change. Just remember to go for the story and information, the rest can come later!
You’ll also find a process and style that your comfortable with. When you enjoy your work people will connect more with it. It’s like there’s a halo of love around that work, it’s not something you can pin down to one specific part of the illustration.
If you’d like to connect with Erika you can do so here: