Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s author of more than 100 books. Recent releases include Nonsense! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, If Wendell Had a Walrus, illustrated by New York Times bestselling author/illustrator Matt Phelan, Away with Words: The Daring Story Of Isabella Bird, Mousequerade Ball, illustrated by New York Times bestselling illustrator Betsy Lewin, Chicken Lily, and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, a sequel to Amazon bestseller Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg. When she’s not hiking around, camera in hand, she’s tapping away at her keyboard, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding her latest stories to life. Today she lives in the foothills of Northern California with her family and the wonderful assortment of birds that come her way. To find more information about upcoming releases, reviews, teacher activities, and more, visit her website at www.lorimortensen.com.
Why did you decide to write a picture book biography about Isabella Bird?
I discovered Isabella Bird when I began searching online for women’s firsts, such as first woman doctor, first woman astronaut, etc. However, when I discovered Isabella Bird was the first female member of England’s Royal Geographic Society, I immediately wanted to know more. Once I delved into some research, I discovered that her life as a woman living in the Victorian era was supposed to unfold much differently. Not only did society expect her to stay home and manage a household, she was born with chronic health issues that could have discouraged any plans she may have had. Yet, in spite of the odds against her, she forged a daring new path that took her around the world, and wrote 10 bestsellers that chronicled her exciting explorations.
How do you conduct your research?
Once I’m intrigued with some initial research, I dig in and look for everything I can find about the subject. In the past, I relied on my local libraries, but with the internet, the world is at my fingertips. I begin by looking for books, either to buy or check out, then I visit reliable internet sites that include museums, historical sites, historical societies, universities, books in the public domain, newspaper clippings, and experts wherever they may be.
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft?
It takes time to research a subject thoroughly, and when it feels like I’ve found all that I can reasonably find, I organize the information into categories such as the subject’s childhood, accomplishments, challenges, setbacks, pivotal moments, and quotes. Once I’m familiar with the information I’ve found, I’m ready to write the first draft.
Does your research continue once you begin writing?
Interestingly, it does. As the manuscript takes shape, sometimes finding that extra bit of information is the key to making a scene complete. In AWAY WITH WORDS, for example, I realized I wanted to include quotes from newspapers from her era, and quotes from people who heard her lectures. Finding these quotes required extra research, but they made all of the difference. “The woman must be devoid of all delicacy and modesty” said one. “She exercises a spell over the listener” said another. “No one has an adventure like Ms. Bird.” When Isabella Bird passed away on October 7, 1904, the New York Times declared she was “one of the most daring women travelers who ever lived.”
Which of Isabella’s experiences did you find most interesting?
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 woolen 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.
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.
Why is it important to tell stories like Bird’s?
Everyone has obstacles in his or her life. It is important to know that boundaries can be broken, and lives can be enlarged and changed in spite of the daunting roadblocks that may stand in our way. In Isabella’s case, she not only broke through the boundaries of English society, she conquered mountains, crossed deserts, and wrote books that opened new worlds to her readers and what showed the world what a woman can do.
Do you have any other recently released picture book biographies?
Yes! NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey about curious, mysterious, brilliant, eccentric, whimsical, sometimes dark, sometimes silly, one-of-a-kind creator, Edward Gorey that was released just before the pandemic hit in March 2020. Although Isabella Bird and Edward Gorey have very different stories, they both lived their lives in their own unique and independent way, a theme that always resonates with me, and hopefully readers everywhere too.