Monday, March 18, 2013

The Trickle Up Effect

March 18 - Today's post contributed by Tanya Lee Stone

The Trickle-Up Effect
By Tanya Lee Stone

My newest picture book biography is about the first female doctor in America—Elizabeth Blackwell. We hear about “firsts” a lot, so what makes this “first” worth highlighting? Elizabeth Blackwell was a true inspiration to thousands upon thousands of women who went on to become doctors after she opened that door. In fact, so many women followed in her footsteps that there are now more women than men in the average medical school class.

Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? gives kids a bit of insight into the kind of girl Elizabeth Blackwell was that made her pursue something that no one at the time thought was even remotely possible. It also shows them what medical school was like for Elizabeth, at a time when there were no other girls in a medical school class!

It’s a pretty big topic for a picture book, and people often ask me why I choose this form for some of my biography subjects. “It’s the trickle-up effect,” I tell them. What do I mean by that? Well, I’ll tell you. I am often dismayed that some of the extraordinary people in our world are not better known. That we don’t have at the tips of our tongues the names of the people who have pushed aside boundaries to pursue their dream, paving the way for others who come after them. That more of these pioneers are not embedded in our collective brains.

And so begins my evil plan.

Step 1) Choose the format: The picture book biography is a very specific beast. My intention is never to tell someone’s whole life story; how could I in such a small amount of space? Instead, my goal is to impress young readers with how extremely cool and interesting I think a particular person is in hopes that they will, in turn, become as fascinated. I choose the aspects that I believe capture who that person really is, and what might have inspired in them such trail-blazing personality traits, and then I pick the one thing that person did that I find the most fascinating.

Step 2) Target the audience: Young readers continually delight me in how receptive they are to learning about extremely cool and interesting people. They LOVE nonfiction and are eager to read it, especially when it is presented in a lively and engaging way—Enter the Illustrator! (I can’t tell you how much I love Marjorie Priceman’s illustrations in Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?)

Step 3) Plant the seed: When a strong enough seed is planted in the minds of young readers and they really enjoy the experience of learning about an extremely interesting and cool person, they remember it. (I hope.) It becomes a part of their knowledge base. As they get older and perhaps come across this person’s name again—in a fleeting line in a history textbook, for example—that familiarity will kick in and they will be ready to learn more. And Bam!—after a while, you have a bunch of grownups walking around who know one more extremely cool and interesting person!  
Ta-Da! The trickle-up effect!

Tanya Lee Stone was an editor of children's nonfiction for many years.  After moving to Vermont, she returned to writing, and has written a wide array of titles including a young adult novel, biographical picture books, and narrative nonfiction for young people.  She has three books coming out in 2013:  Who Says Women Can't be Doctors? (Henry Holt);   The House that Jane Built (Henry Holt); and Courage Has No Color (Candlewick).  


  1. I love your theory, Tanya! I would also like to add that nonfiction picture books are a perfect choice for sharing with adults with disabilities. I frequently offer "storytime" for adults of varying abilities and they love inspiring nonfiction picture books.

  2. What a great theory- and thanks so much for participating in Nonfiction Monday!

  3. Best evil plan EVER.

    Loree Burns

  4. Great find! Sounds like a *perfect*book for our DD. Thanks for sharing!