EasternPennPoints contributor Anna Forrester recently had a chat with Rachel Dougherty about Secret Engineer, Rachel’s upcoming debut book as an Author/Illustrator. Secret Engineer will be released next month on February 19. Here’s what they had to say.
Anna: Hey Rachel—thanks for coming to chat here at EasternPennPoints. Congrats on the upcoming release of Secret Engineer: How Emily Roebling Built the Brooklyn Bridge (Roaring Brook Press, February 19, 2019)—it looks BEAUTIFUL, and totally interesting!!
Rachel: Hi Anna! Thanks so much, I’m so excited this book will finally be out in the world!
Anna: I love that a Philadelphian ended up writing the first children’s book about Roebling and her work getting New York City’s most iconic bridge built. How did that happen?!
Rachel: I didn’t grow up with a local connection to the Brooklyn Bridge, but I’ve always been drawn to history stories and biographies, especially those that might have been overlooked. With some biographies, you can tell right from the start that a person is going to be special—for example, prodigies like Mozart. But my favorite ones were always about people modestly wandering through the world, who have seemingly insurmountable challenges dropped in their laps and conquer them just the same. That’s how I came to love Emily Roebling.
Anna: Were there other things that drew you to Roebling?
Rachel: Though Emily always loved learning, women born in 1843 were expected to become wives and mothers and not much more. In marrying Washington Roebling, Emily joined a family of engineers pushing limits of contemporary bridge design. Emily’s father-in-law, John A. Roebling, was building a bridge to connect Brooklyn to Manhattan. At the time, Roebling’s design would be the longest suspension bridge in the world, if he and Washington could pull it off. Though she was always interested in their work, Emily couldn’t have guessed that the success of the Brooklyn Bridge would all depend on her. It’s just a fascinating story!
Anna: What were some of your biggest challenges in writing Roebling’s story?
Rachel: I think the biggest challenge was trying to explain caissons, which are watertight chambers used in bridge construction, to an elementary-age audience. Frankly, they’re even a little difficult to explain to adults! But it was really integral to the Brooklyn Bridge story, and especially to Emily’s story, so there was no option but to figure it out. It took us tons of tries and revisions (endless thanks to my incredibly patient editor), but we finally landed on something digestible.
Anna: This is your debut as an author/illustrator, but you’ve separately authored and illustrated other books too. Can you tell us a bit about the other books you’ve worked on?
Rachel: I’ve illustrated a few picture books that tell historical stories or interesting facts through a fictionalized guide character. Your Life as a Cabin Attendant on the Titanic and Your Life as a Pioneer on the Oregon Trail, by Jessica Gunderson, were my first published projects. They came out with Capstone in 2012. In 2014, I illustrated Martha Peaslee Levine’s The Twelve Days of Christmas in Pennsylvania for Sterling, which applied Pennsylvania travel facts and history to the classic Christmas song. Working on these projects inspired me to try to write a nonfiction picture book of my own, and I landed upon the story of President Calvin Coolidge’s fantastic menagerie of pets. Talk about a true story that’s been overlooked! That story eventually evolved into an easy reader, A Raccoon at the White House, which was published last summer by Simon Spotlight, illustrated by Rachel Sanson.
Anna: Is the research for the text different from the research you do for illustrations in a historic book?
Rachel: For me, research for writing and illustration go hand in hand. I start in the library and online and pull as many sources as possible. My stacks of photocopied book pages and notes might seem like overkill, but cutting details out of a story that’s too long is easier than stretching a few facts into an interesting book. Once I’ve spun all my accumulated data into a draft, I move on to reference photos.
With key dates, places, and characters already established, I can easily dig through photos and paintings from the right era. I make a folder on my desktop (with subfolders for clothing, hairstyles, buildings, etc.) and save any reference that I might need to draw the historical details correctly.
For Secret Engineer, that meant accumulating a photo bank of Victorian gowns and interiors and hundreds of images of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Throughout the process of researching, the story evolves. Sometimes details I find while reference-hunting make their way back into the writing, and sometimes a phrase from a letter or a newspaper article appears in the art. Research helps to ground any story, especially a historical one, with authenticity.
Anna: It sounds like an amazing—and fun—process. I’m excited to read through Secret Engineer again with an eye toward those sorts of details! What’s next—is there anything else you’re working on now that you can tell us about?
Rachel: I have a manuscript in the works that’s all about the democratization of color and the wild fashion fad that causes. I know that sounds a bit vague, but it’s still in pretty early stages.
Anna: That sounds fascinating. In the meantime, congrats again on Secret Engineer—we’ll be looking for it on February 19!!
Rachel Dougherty is the illustrator of three educational picture books: Your Life as a Cabin Attendant on the Titanic, Your Life as a Pioneer on the Oregon Trail, and The Twelve Days of Christmas in Pennsylvania. Rachel is the author of A Raccoon at the White House. She is a lifelong history buff and has always paid special attention to the stories of brave and commanding women. Secret Engineer is the first picture book she has both written and illustrated. She lives in Philadelphia. Visit her online at www.racheldougherty.com.
Anna Forrester lives and writes picture books in Philadelphia. Her debut, Bat Count (ill. Susan Detwiler) was named a 2018 Outstanding Science Trade Book and won the 2018 Giverny Award for science picture books. Visit her online at www.annaforrester.com.