Lori Mortensen talks about Away with Words, The Daring Story of Isabella Bird

We’re delighted to welcome author Lori Mortensen to Story Snug. Lori’s new picture book, Away With Words, The Daring Story of Isabella Bird, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell, will be published in March 2019 and takes a fascinating look at Isabella’s adventures. We were fascinated to know why and how Lori researched and wrote the story of this pioneering British explorer.

Away With Words - Story SnugAway With Words, The Daring Story of Isabella Bird: This is the first-ever picture book biography of Isabella Bird, who was a true trailblazer as well as Victorian- English adventurer, and the first female member of the Royal Geographic Society.

Isabella Bird wanted more than her proper 19th-century life in England. She began traveling — first to the English countryside, then to America and Canada, and eventually around the world. She turned her experiences into bestselling books that captivated readers with her vibrant descriptions and impressive expeditions.

Isabella Bird showed the world that women could be persistent, independent, daring, and successful.

Watch the trailer for Away With Words here.

We had never heard of Isabella Bird before, Lori. Why did you choose to tell her story?

Interestingly, I hadn’t either. I discovered her when I began searching online for women’s firsts. First woman doctor, first woman astronaut, etc. However, when I discovered Isabella Bird was the first female member of the Royal Geographic Society, I wanted to know more. Once I delved into some research, I knew I wanted to tell her exciting story.

How and where did you research the book?

The internet has revolutionized research making it much easier than in years past. Some historical books are now online in the public domain, many historic sites have websites, experts are a click away, and once you know what books are available, it’s easy to reserve them at the library or buy them online.

How did you choose what to include and what to leave out of Isabella’s story?

It was difficult to choose and I revised the manuscript many times. However, when you’re writing for children, the short word-count limit forces you to make tough choices about how to share the essence of someone’s story and connect with young readers.

Which of Isabella’s experiences did you find most interesting? Are there any events that didn’t make the book that you would like to share with us?

Throughout my research, I loved Isabella’s stubborn determination to conquer whatever she faced. One of my favorite Isabella treks was when she rode across a snowy, windswept desert. “The demon wind seized on us,” she wrote, “a steady, blighting, searching, merciless blast” that cut through her six layers of woollen clothing as if they were nothing. “I was so helpless and in such torture,” she continued, “that I would gladly have lain down to die in the snow.” The reader can feel her torment, yet she found the strength to survive and keep going.

Unfortunately, two of my favorite scenes in an earlier version didn’t make it. I wrote:

Longing to see the New World as well, she sailed down to Maine and discovered that even misfortune was still adventure and a raging storm at sea did not quell her thirst for discovering what lay beyond. “Wave after wave now struck the ship,” she wrote. “The wind sounded like heavy artillery, and the waves, as they struck the ship, like cannonballs. I heard the men outside say, ‘She’s going down, she’s water-logged, she can’t hold together!’” Thrown against a beam, Isabella noted she was knocked “insensible for three hours.”

Riding a train through a blazing forest fire in Maine was equally exciting. “On, on we rushed,” she wrote. “We were enveloped in clouds of stifling smoke—crack, crash went the trees . . . the flames hissed like tongues of fire, and then, leaping like serpents, would rush up to the top of the largest tree.”

During her travels, she suffered many injuries, including six broken ribs and a fractured ankle. Once, her horse drowned while she was crossing a raging river. Of course, with 10 books about her daring explorations, I could only include a fraction of her adventures in a picture book.

Wow! It sounds like Isabella had a really action packed life!

We really like the comic book style of the illustrations with their speech bubbles. Did you discuss your vision of the story with your illustrator, Kristy, or did she work independently?

I’m glad you liked Kristy’s graphic-novel approach to Isabella’s story. Interestingly, authors don’t make decisions about art. Rather, the editor hires the illustrator they feel is the best match for the project. Then, they work with the illustrator along with the art director. Kristy did a wonderful job.

Our favourite illustration shows Isabella dining on curry with apes in Malaysia.

Away With Words - monkeys - Story Snug

Which is your favourite illustration from the book?

One of my favorite illustrations is when Isabella is dangling by her frock at Colorado’s Long’s Peak. I think readers can imagine what it felt like to dangle there in the chilly air waiting for her friend to cut her loose.

Away With Words - hanging - Story Snug

We almost chose this as a favourite illustration too!

Do you have a favourite location or environment to write in?

My favorite place is my office where I’m surrounded by pictures of my family, books I’ve published, and I’m free to let my mind wander wherever it will in the peaceful quiet.

Strange Mr. Satie - Story SnugDo you have a current favourite picture book?

I have a library of picture books that I love for different reasons. Some of my favorite picture book biographies are Alice Ramsey’s Grand Adventure by Don Brown, Strange Mr. Satie by M. T. Anderson and Petra Mathers, and The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass.

Do you have a favourite childhood picture book?

Where The Wild Things Are - Story SnugThe first picture book I remember is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. When I was about seven years old, I checked it out from my school library and brought it home to read for my birthday that night. It was so exciting! It was about a boy surrounded by monsters!

Can you tell us about any future titles or projects that you’re working on?

I’m looking forward to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s 2020 release of another picture book biography. Unfortunately, it’s too early to reveal who it’s about. However, I’m thrilled that it will be illustrated by talented Chloe Bristol.

Thank you so much for answering our questions Lori. 

Thanks so much for your interest in me and Isabella Bird at Story Snug. It’s been my pleasure.

You’re welcome! Happy New Year to you and your family 🙂

Author: Lori Mortensen / Illustrator: Kristy Caldwell

Age Range: 6 +

About Lori Mortensen

Lori Mortensen - Story SnugLori is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 100 books and over 500 stories and articles. Her new picture book biography, Away with Words, the Daring Story of Isabella Bird (Peachtree Publishing), is about a Victorian traveler who defied society’s boundaries for women and explored the world. Recent picture book releases include If Wendell Had a Walrus (Henry Holt), Chicken Lily, (Henry Holt), Mousequerade Ball (Bloomsbury) illustrated by New York Times bestselling illustrator Betsy Lewin, and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range (Clarion, 2016) a sequel to Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013. When she’s not letting her cat in, or out, or in, she’s tapping away at her computer, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding her latest stories to life.

For more information about Lori’s books, events, critique service, and upcoming releases, visit her website.

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