Monday, March 11, 2013

What Made Them Who They Became?

March 11 - Today's post contributed by Alexandra Wallner


     All accomplished people were once children who grew up under various circumstances and had to overcome difficulties along the way. However, each person had one thing in common - drive to realize a vision.

     In my books, I aim at showing young people how famous people worked hard and overcame obstacles to reach their goals. I include as much information from my research as I’m able, to inspire young people to identify and stick to visions of who they might become when they grow up.

     Susan B. Anthony’s (SUSAN B. ANTHONY) life-long work resulted in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that gave women the power to vote in the United States. Sadly, she never saw the fruition of her struggle, since she died fourteen years before. But it was her charisma and determination that brought an important shift to America.

      Abigail Adams (ABIGAIL ADAMS) had to fight for an education in Colonial America when she was a child because she was female. Later, she influenced her husband, President John Adams to address women’s rights.

     Betsy Ross (BETSY ROSS) owned an upholstery business in Colonial America at a time when women did not own businesses. She influenced George Washington to change his design for the American flag.

     Jean Pierre Blanchard (THE FIRST AIR FLIGHT IN THE UNITED STATES -  THE STORY OF JEAN PIERRE BLANCHARD) had dreams of flying when he was a boy in France during the 1700’s. He finally accomplished the distinction of achieving the first flight in a balloon in America.

     I most appreciate and identify with the writers and artists, though.  Laura Ingalls Wilder, (LAURA INGALLS WILDER) a pioneer woman, worked so hard at every day survival that her dreams of writing remained unrealized for a long time. She took notes her whole life and finally had time to write later in life.

      Grandma Moses, (GRANDMA MOSES) a farmwoman, who dreamed of painting since she was young, did not paint as a career until she was at retirement age, proving it’s never too late to follow a dream.

     Lucy Maud Montgomery (LUCY MAUD MONTGOMERY) overcame a lonely childhood with writing. She sent out story after story until publishers saw the value in her work. She would not be discouraged by rejection.

     Although Louisa May Alcott (AN ALCOTT FAMILY CHRISTMAS) loved writing, when she was young she helped support her impoverished family by working as a domestic servant, teacher and nurse, writing only at night when she had time.

      J. R. R. Tolkien (J. R. R. TOLKIEN) worked as a professor to support his family while he was writing THE HOBBIT and LORD OF THE RINGS that took him many years to finish.

     My favorite subject, though, was Beatrix Potter (BEATRIX POTTER). She had a lonely Victorian childhood, so painting and writing became her friends. When she was a woman, she painted many scientifically correct watercolors of different kinds of mushrooms but they were rejected for publication because they were done by a woman. She self published her first children’s book. After, when she found a publisher, she became the most popular children’s author and illustrator of all time. With the royalties her books earned, she bought many acres of land in the Lake District of England and turned them into a trust thereby becoming an early conservationist.

     I hope that the triumphs of each of these people speak to young women and men today since they are all stories of determination and not giving up against, at times, almost insurmountable adversities. I hope that, although these people lived many years ago, the human spirit underneath the stories is still the same as it is today and will inspire young people to do their best to follow their dreams.

     I have always been careful in my research and enjoy this part of the process of creating a picture book. What facts are important to include in a 32- page picture book to give a real sense of the life story of a person? I do the research for my books by reading at least three adult biographies and autobiographies of each famous figure. The images for the paintings come from trips to various historic sites where I take photos and draw sketches, from brochures of various museums, from library picture files, from my library of reference books, and most recently from Internet search engines. Children, teachers, librarians and parents are keen observers of what is depicted in picture books since the illustrations tell half the story.

Alexandra Wallner
Alexandra Wallner was born in Germany after World War II to a Ukrainian father and a Bohemian (the German part of Czechoslovakia) mother who were refugees from the Communists and the German Army. They fled to the American Zone in Germany where her father was a doctor for the International Refugee Organization and her mother was a painter and writer.  She immigrated to the United States at age six. She spoke only German when she entered the first grade and without allowances for foreign students in schools at that time, the teacher gave her all failing grades. Her father, who spoke seven languages, taught her English by reading comic books  – Little Lulu, Donald Duck, Katy Keene. The pictures helped tell the story of the words. That was the beginning of her love of picture books. At the end of the year, she received A’s in every subject, but still had trouble spelling her last name, Czesnykowski. Her mother printed it on the inside flap of my Lone Ranger book bag and one day the teacher caught her copying it.  The teacher embarrassed her in front of the whole class, so she determined to learn that, too. The obstacles she faced as a child were not as grave as those of the famous figures she writes about. Still, she writes, "they were my difficulties. I think because of my childhood experiences, I appreciate the hurdles these people had to overcome.  I feel fortunate to have been able to earn my living doing two things I love to do most: painting and writing."  To learn more, visit her website: .


  1. All the women above pushed boundaries! So inspiring ! Thanks for sharing this list! I love to read biographies to DD and this is such an excellent list. We have read about Jane Goodall,Martha Graham,Maria Merian and Elinor Smith.
    Thanks Alexandra for the excellent post.

  2. I love the question you pose - and the selection of books. Thanks for bringing them to our attention.

  3. It's amazing to think what experiences guide people to achieve greatness