Author Teresa Robeson on Writing the Picture Book Biography, QUEEN OF PHYSICS
Updated: Nov 21, 2019
I’m delighted to have my dear friend and critique partner, Author Teresa Robeson on my blog to discuss her debut picture book, QUEEN OF PHYSICS: HOW WU CHIEN SHIUNG HELPED UNLOCK THE SECRETS OF THE ATOM. Rebecca Huang illustrated the artwork layered with meaning. And this book was published by Sterling Children's Books.
1. What drew you to write about Wu Chien Shiug?
Teresa – I was drawn to Wu because she shared my Chinese heritage and my love of physics. Also, her struggles with racism and sexism are ones I’ve faced myself. But she persevered and succeeded despite all the hardships, and therefore I felt that her life is an inspiration and worthy to be told.
2. Clearly a great deal of research went into QUEEN OF PHYSICS. Can you give us some insight into your process?
Teresa – Since Wu had passed on by the time I started writing the first draft, and I couldn’t get a hold of her family to talk to, I relied on various books and articles written about her, as well as books and articles written by her. Particularly helpful was author Sharon Bertsch McGrayne. She not only answered my questions but also allowed me to use a quote she got from personally interviewing Wu.
Also, researching the physics was important to me. I constantly read books, and watch The Great Courses classes, on physics, but because I’m not a professional physicist, it’s not a language I use daily. Therefore, I had to take great care to make sure I didn’t get anything wrong, and I had to work at making it understandable to kids.
3. How did you structure Wu Chien Shiug’s story?
Teresa – Because of the need to show how the ideas and biases of her time shaped her future and her struggles, I had to follow a linear, almost “cradle to grave,” structure beginning with her birth and following her life as she grew up. I knew from day one that I did not want to take the story to the end of her life, as fascinating as it is even in her later years. I mainly wanted to show how she overcame those struggles, and how she was denied the Nobel Prize several times but yet kept working in the field she loved.
If she were less multifaceted and was only known for just one thing, I would have picked a more slice-of-life structure. If there were already a ton of books written on her, I would also have gone with a moment in time structure because I could have the luxury of closely examining a particular event in her life.
4. How did you make readers care about and/or relate to Wu Chien Shiug?
Teresa – To help readers sympathize with Wu, I started with the idea of the birth of a girl back in the early 1900s: “what would become of her?” I hoped that question would make people consider deeply how much harder it was for women back in those days. But I didn’t want the story to be a downer. Through the text and Rebecca Huang’s art, I think we were able to show how Wu was a fun and curious little girl whom readers, especially adventurous little girls could relate to.
5. Did you consider various voices before finding the right one to share Chien’s story? Or did you develop the voice organically?
Teresa – I think the voice developed organically (due to my being to relate to Wu) and it really hadn’t changed much from the first draft. Even with Jane Yolen’s guidance, the voice never changed…but that’s a sign of an excellent mentor, isn’t it? She helped me tighten the story and made it more lyrical without taking away any of the voice and tone I cultivated.
6. Themes of courage and determination thread through your picture book biography. What led you to focus on these themes?
Teresa – Courage and determinations were Wu’s dominant traits. . .her name “Chien Shiung” means “courageous hero.” Therefore they guided the story, and it wasn’t so much that I chose to focus on the themes. I couldn’t really have a story of her life without talking about those qualities.
7. Did you study previously published picture book biographies as mentor texts?
Teresa – Oh, yes! I read tons and tons of them. I adored so many of them but some of my absolute favorites were SWAN by Laurel Snyder (who is one of my favorite authors), illustrated by Julie Morstad, ON A BEAM OF LIGHT by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky, and I DISSENT by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley.
Thanks, Teresa! I appreciate you sharing how Wu Chien Shiug's life and
work in the field of physics connected with you.
Teresa Robeson draws upon her Chinese heritage, Canadian-American sensibilities, as well as her background in science and love of nature when she writes. She has been published in children and adult magazines. QUEEN OF PHYSICS (Sterling Publishing), a picture book biography, is her debut. Her second book, TWO BICYCLES IN BEJING (Albert Whitman), is due out in Spring 2020. Teresa’s hobbies include making art, making soap, knitting, baking, helping out around the homestead, and wowing the chickens with her bilingualism (they are not impressed).
Connect with Teresa on social media.
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