One of my favorite things to do here on Writers’ Rumpus is interview kidlit authors. Because creative people are fascinating, aren’t they? Sometimes an author’s published work has made such an impression on me that I need to hear more about it from them directly. Other times, it is the actual person and their life experiences that I find the most interesting. And sometimes…sometimes I am lucky enough to get both–like this time. Yipee!!
Have you met Emmy award-winning journalist and picture book author Elisa Boxer? Chances are, you have seen or read something of hers in the last couple of decades. Elisa’s expansive career in journalism has included news anchoring for an ABC-affiliate (that’s right, she was on tv), news reporting for newspapers, magazines, and tv, penning essays for the New York Times, creating the Mindful Ink column at Inc. magazine, and being a parent team blogger for Today Show. Oh yeah…and she also writes some of the most amazing picture books I have ever read…about fascinating people (yes, there is a theme here). It is this last part that brings her here with us today.
Elisa has three–you read that right, three nonfiction picture books out this year, and more on the way. I can personally attest that each is a unique work of art, tailored in style and format to the particular subject matter covered:
Vibrantly illustrated by Marta Alvarez Miguens and released in May, this book recounts the true story of a wayward straw that finds its way up the nose of one poor, unsuspecting sea turtle off the coast of Costa Rica. The rescue team, led by marine biologist Dr. Christine Figgener, records a video (you may remember it) that goes viral, sparking public outrage and a ripple of awareness felt around the world.
Growing up with polio in the 1920’s, Ethelda starts swimming as way to relieve her pain, but it ends up becoming her passion. In between winning Olympic medals in competitive swimming, she bravely makes waves of social change for those around her. Beautifully illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley, Splash! is a Junior Library Guild selection, released just last month.
Already garnering a Kirkus starred review, this book explores the life and work of large-scale art creator and creative visionary Christo. Escaping Soviet-controlled Bulgaria, he meets his partner Jeanne-Claude and they proceed to take the art world by storm. One of his most familiar works, The Gates (2005), swathes Central Park in a beautiful sea of saffron. Gorgeous illustrations by Susanna Chapman capture both the time period and the stunning art produced by the duo. Equally beautiful is the colorful and fluid language used to tell the story. Covered in Color comes out next week!
Hilary Margitich: Elisa, welcome to Writers’ Rumpus! I am so thrilled to talk to you today. Admittedly, I feel a twinge of pressure, as I consider you to be a maestro at interviewing people of all sorts (wish me luck, fingers crossed!).
Elisa Boxer: Hilary! I am thrilled to be joining you. I’m gonna need a moment. That introduction is making me blush.
HM: You have three incredible books out this year, each covering fascinating stories of real-life events and people. Tell me what inspired you to write each of them. How did you hear about these stories and what compelled you to share them with today’s kids?
EB: I love stories that focus on alchemizing something painful into something powerful and beautiful. The whole dark-to-light theme. On the surface, these three books are so different, but that’s what they have in common, and that’s what compelled me to share each of them with kids in the form of picture books.
With One Turtle’s Last Straw, I knew I wanted to do a story on the subject of plastics pollution harming marine life. During my initial research, I stumbled across the video of the sea turtle who nearly died from swallowing the straw. It tugged at my heart. I reached out to the marine biologist who led the rescue team, and when she told me this was likely the result of someone just casually tossing a straw in the trash, I knew I had my opening scene.
With SPLASH!, I had just finished writing The Voice That Won the Vote, about the little-known mom who helped save suffrage. I wanted to write another book about an unsung hero. As a former competitive swimmer and diver, I began searching for barrier-breaking women in that field, and up popped Ethelda Bleibtrey. The fact that she was the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming intrigued me, but when I learned how she used the water to help heal from polio and create social change, I knew I had my next picture book subject.
I’ve long been fascinated by Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s huge public art installations. When I began digging into Christo’s background and discovered he grew up under Fascism and then Communism, I was struck by the contrast between his childhood oppression and his adulthood marked by the opposite – gigantic, colorful expressions of freedom. That contrast was the inspiration for Covered in Color.
HM: As a journalist, I’d imagine that your brain must somewhat wired for finding a good story. Does this transfer over into how you write nonfiction picture books and how so? Is there a factfinding/creative process you follow?
EB: I definitely think my journalism background helps with the research process for nonfiction. And with interviewing people, which is one of my favorite parts of the process. But when it comes to deciding whether something will make a good story, the only things I really listen to are my gut, my heart and my intuition. If they’re telling me yes, then it’s a go!
HM: I’ve noticed that while your picture books all follow solid story structures, each has a unique stylistic quality that goes with the subject matter. This includes how you tell the story and what kind of backmatter you include. One Turtle’s Last Straw has a community involvement aspect to it, while Splash! conveys an emotional element related to your own life. Covered in Color uses language that is as colorful as the art itself. Did you plan that, or did it just sort of happen as you were writing?
EB: I love this question. Each book I write has its own energy. I feel that from the very beginning. When I open up a file to work on a certain story, it’s like I’m engaging with a person. Each one has its own soul. And when I’m working with the soul of a particular book, everything from the rhythm to the words to the elements to the voice – they all come together in a way that directs the flow of the story. So, this manifests in concrete ways, like which backmatter to choose and which quotes to use and how to structure the story. And it also manifests in more subtle/ethereal ways, like style and tone and underlying message. I never know until I begin working on a book how that energy is going to gel, and how the soul of the book is going to emerge. But I’ve gotta say it’s one of the most fascinating things for me, to feel that develop and to follow it through.
HM: We sometimes hear that there is an oversaturation of picture book biographies on the market, yet you have written and sold so many successful ones. What do you think is the special sauce that makes a great picture book biography–one that a publisher will want to snap up?
EB: I think the key is to find a subject that resonates so deeply with you that you can’t not tell the story. Through your unique lens. With deep emotional resonance for kids. Bonus points if the person is an unsung hero. But well-known figures work too, especially if you find a fresh angle. It’s such a competitive market, yes, and a lot of picture book bios have been acquired, especially in recent years. But I think there’s always going to be room for books about people overcoming obstacles and doing extraordinary things. Because those are the kinds of stories that give us all inspiration and hope.
HM: Tell me about your journey into writing for children. Is this something you have always wanted to do as a writer, or was there a particular event or moment that lit a spark inside of you?
EB: I’ve been writing books for children ever since I could hold a pencil. I always had deep feelings and strong emotions as a kid, and never really felt like I could express them. Except through writing. That’s how I would process a lot of grief and sadness. When I was in kindergarten and my dog Frankie died, I wrote THE KITTEN AND THE PUPPY, about a kitten looking everywhere for her puppy. When she couldn’t find him, she cried a puddle of tears and then a duck came and swam in it:
Here’s a closeup:
You may have heard of this book, because as you can see, it won a Coldicot (sic).
HM: Now that you mention it, I do remember hearing a lot of buzz about that one. Elisa, what kind of things are you working on now/next and where can our readers follow you on social media, etc.?
EB: I’m so fortunate to have several more picture books coming out over the next few years, including Hidden Hope (illustrated by Amy June Bates, publishing with Abrams in 2023) and Tree of Life (illustrated by Alianna Rozentsveig, publishing with Penguin/Rocky Pond Books in 2024). And I’m super excited to be working on my first YA book, a nonfiction anthology that publishes in 2024 with Rowman & Littlefield called Dear Younger Me: What 30 Trailblazing Women Wish They’d Known as Girls. It’s a passion project for sure. Every book is, really, and I honestly can’t believe I get to spend my days writing for kids and connecting with them.
twitter: https://twitter.com/eboxer (@eboxer)
IG: https://www.instagram.com/boxerelisa/ (@boxerelisa)
Facebook: Elisa Boxer journalist & author
HM: Thank you so much for talking to me today, Elisa! It was such a treat to get to know more about you and your work. I can’t wait to read more of your books. They are inspiring, and so are you!
EB: Blushing again!
Hilary, thank you. This has been so much fun. Very grateful for your thoughtful questions, and for all the incredible work you do for the children’s literature community!
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, One Turtle’s Last Straw, SPLASH! 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 https://www.elisaboxer.com/