Heather Lang writes nonfiction picture books about extraordinary women, including The Original Cowgirl: The Wild Adventures of Lucille Mulhall, Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine, and her upcoming book Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark (December 2016). But today she looks back and shares the story of writing her first picture book, QUEEN OF THE TRACK: ALICE COACHMAN, OLYMPIC HIGH-JUMP CHAMPION
—"a rich, deep depiction of Coachman's determination to overcome obstacles." (Booklist
)Q. Was QUEEN OF THE TRACK the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. I wish! It took me seven years to write something worthy of publication.
When my kids were little my love for Jane Yolen’s OWL MOON inspired me to write a lyrical picture book called GETAWAY about the kids’ fishing adventures with their grandfather. My kids illustrated it, and we gave it to my father-in-law for Christmas. It might have been a sweet story, but let’s just say I had no business submitting it to publishers. Maybe I’ll take it out of the drawer someday and work on it again…Q. What inspired QUEEN OF THE TRACK?
A. QUEEN was my first attempt at writing nonfiction. I had written and submitted half-a-dozen picture books and two chapter books and received lots of rejections. I was a lawyer in my previous life and always loved research, so I decided to try nonfiction. Why not?! I immediately adored the research—the treasure hunt. I love sports, so I searched for a female athlete, and when I read about Alice Coachman I was amazed I’d never heard of this phenomenal woman. As the rejections continued to trickle in on my fiction, Alice inspired me to keep going. I kept a quote from her on my desk: “When the going gets tough and you feel like throwing your hands in the air, listen to that voice that tells you, ‘Keep going. Hang in there.’ Guts and determination will pull you through.” Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. “Queen of the Track,” was one of Alice’s nicknames. Although she wasn’t treated like a queen by society, she behaved like one and really did dominate the track for a number of years in sprinting events and the high jump. The title also worked nicely with the ending—the King presents Alice (“the Queen”) with her gold medal.Q. What resources did you use while researching QUEEN OF THE TRACK?
A. I read newspaper and magazine articles, lots of books about the 1948 Olympics and the segregated south, and an adult biography. I watched video interviews and historic footage and studied old photos. And of course, my favorite resource was Alice herself.
She and her son were so helpful—answering my many questions. It was such a thrill to finally meet her in person after the book came out. We spent a wonderful day together in Albany, Georgia!Q. How did you decide where to start and end this nonfiction story?
A. It’s always a challenge with picture book biographies deciding whether to focus on one event or a short part of a person’s life or even an entire life. Lots of things factor into that decision, like what research is available and what I really want my book to be about. I decided I wanted the book to be about Alice’s incredible determination and tenacity in the face of so many obstacles—poverty, segregation, and gender discrimination. In order to pull that off, I needed to start with her childhood. I always knew I wanted to end the book with her winning the gold medal—such a high point.Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I had to look back at my first draft to answer this—there were sooooo many drafts. I love the scene when she ran barefoot on the dirt roads and tied together sticks and rags to make her own jumps. It’s the fact that drew me immediately to this story, so that has always been a favorite. I also love the spread on the bus in London—where, unlike the segregated south, she could sit in any seat she wanted to admire the English countryside. That scene was not in my early drafts, and I love the emotion the art conveys.Q. Did QUEEN OF THE TRACK receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. No, I was extremely lucky on this book. I had a critique with a former editor from Boyds Mills Press. She was so helpful and in the end offered to send it to Larry Rosler, a Senior Editor at Boyds Mills. The 2012 Olympics were going to be in London for the first time since 1948 (when Alice won gold), so there was a big marketing tie-in. (And no, I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t realize this when I started writing the book—it was dumb luck!) They accepted it right away.Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on QUEEN OF THE TRACK.
A. I had to sit down and take some deep breaths! Then I immediately called the people who had been with me every step of the way—my husband and friends from my writing group.Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. Zero. The publisher had a great relationship with Floyd Cooper, and they knew right away he would be perfect for the book. I was ecstatic. Imagine having your first book illustrated by Floyd Cooper?!Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. It’s difficult to describe the thrill! It’s the first time when I truly believed there would be a book. And Floyd’s art was gorgeous. He captured Alice’s spirit and the mood perfectly.Q. How long did QUEEN OF THE TRACK take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Two years and four months!Q. Is there anything you would change in the book today if you could reprint it? (Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?)
A. The truth is—I can always find something to tweak. It’s as difficult for me to stop tinkering with text as it is for me to stop researching. I’m sure there is a word I would replace or a phrase I could edit. But I’m really happy with the pacing of the book, so I don’t think I’d add any other scenes. If I did, I’d have to take something out, and there’s nothing I could part with!Q. Can you share any funny or memorable parts of letters from kids about QUEEN OF THE TRACK?
A. One little girl offered me some advice—she said, “If you get more determined like Alice Coachman, I’m sure you could get better at the high jump.” My bio on the flap mentions how I jumped 3 ½ feet in sixth grade and won a blue ribbon. Apparently she didn’t think I was blue-ribbon-worthy!Q. When you do readings of QUEEN OF THE TRACK, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. Kids love the suspense of the ending spreads--when she fights for gold at the Olympics.Q. What is your #1 tip for writing picture books?
A. Other than read and write a lot, which I think most serious writers do anyway, I’d say, join a critique group and surround yourself with other writers.
Not only does my writing get better from critiquing other writers’ work, but the feedback and support is essential in this tough business.Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. That’s a toughie. It depends on the kind of book and what the problem is with the text. One thing I often do is rewrite the text in a different point of view. My picture book biographies have all been in third person. Early on I like to write a draft in first person. You will be amazed at the things you discover. It shows where you have holes, and it can really help with voice when you go back to third person.Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’m really excited about my next book SWIMMING WITH SHARKS: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark, coming out on December 1st. I’m having fun working on a book trailer, marketing materials, and my website. I’m also working on a new picture book biography and playing around with some fiction!
Thanks so much for these terrific questions, Karlin. It’s been a lot of fun remembering the challenges and joys of that first book! And congratulations on NADIA—what a fantastic book about another trailblazing Olympic champion!To learn more about Heather and her books, visit her website. Read More