Friday, July 31, 2020

Jeannine Atkins and her Pioneering Women

Today I welcome Jeannine Atkins, the acclaimed author of over a dozen books for young readers and for adults.  Through the years, her books have garnered a galaxy of starred reviews and awards. Jeannine teaches writing at Simmons University and makes her home in western Massachusetts.

Welcome, Jeannine! You have written about pioneering women in science, math, the arts, religion, and more. So many courageous women! Did you make a conscious decision to concentrate on writing about women or is this a theme that evolved in your work?

I tend to write in forms I love to read and as a girl some of my favorite books were biographies. And my favorites featured girls, including fiction and biographical blends such as Little Women. As an undergraduate at UMass I took a course called Lost New England Women Writers and learned the joys of research, which set a course.

How do you find your women? What draws you to a subject? Are you always on the lookout for someone new to write about?

One woman often opens a door to another. Recently I’ve focused on women in math and science, and while some names have been more preserved than others, the well-known women often worked with and were friendly with other women, just as famous men worked with men whose names are now barely known. I’m drawn to people who were dedicated to various kinds of wonder, but also those who appreciated ordinary and beautiful parts of life such as spending time with children, working in gardens, having tea with friends.

Have you traveled in the course of your research? Where and for whom? What do you seek in traveling to a place where your subject lived or worked?

Place is really important to me, and is one reasons I like writing historical verse rather than biography. The places where someone lived can fill in details that add texture and may even bloom to metaphor. I like traveling when I can and feeling a sort of mystical connection that also happens in archives, but sometimes I rely on letters or photographs. Concord, Mass. is close enough to feel almost like a second home and it was a treat to walk where May Alcott walked. One Mother’s Day, my daughter walked with me from the Alcott’s home to Walden Pond.

You’ve discussed some women, such as Mary Anning and the Alcotts, in more than one book. How do you manage a fresh approach to a subject you’ve written about before?

Mary Anning and Louisa and May Alcott had such rich lives that have affected me long before and after I’ve written about them. Becoming Little Women: Louisa May at Fruitlands, was the first book I wrote, though not the first to be published. I deeply connected with Louisa as a young writer. Learning about her led me to her artistic sister, May, and many years later I focused on her after seeing her wonderful drawings and paintings in the historic Orchard House, where Louisa wrote Little Women, and being flabbergasted that she could be so dismissive of May/Amy’s art. Unlike the Alcott family where much was recorded, we don’t know many facts about Mary Anning, and I wanted to go back in Finding Wonders and explore more than I could in the picture book, Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon. I loved visiting her home by the sea in England, a small town where by the end of the day a shopkeeper greeted me by saying, “You must be the woman who loves our Mary.”

I interviewed you on Lupine Seeds in 2009, soon after your picture book, Anne Hutchinson’s Way, came out ( In that interview we discussed your approach to “creative nonfiction” and the line you draw between fiction and nonfiction. I noticed that Finding Wonders and Little Woman in Blue are shelved in my library’s fiction stacks. Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon and Wings and Rockets are in nonfiction. How do you view the differences between these books? Was your writing process different?

No, my writing process wasn’t different and I don’t really see them differently. My technique does pose problems for librarians as there’s a blend of nonfiction and fiction, so most shelve where they think readers who want such books are likeliest to find them. Historical fiction like Little Woman in Blue is easier, but I think of my books as being based on true stories, and I stick with the known facts, but imagine my way into the gaps. Poetry has historically blended fact and fiction, which is one reason I love it.

Your next book, coming out in August, is Grasping Mysteries: Girls Who Loved Math. It’s written in verse, as was Stone Mirrors, Borrowed Names and Finding Wonders. How do you choreograph the dance between poetry and fact? Do you practice poetry regularly? Do you have any advice for those who aspire to writing poetry?  

For me the core of writing free verse about history is compression, so my guideline as I revise is: Can I say this more succinctly? Often details help. I hope small things taken from particular places not only add to setting, but also characterization and even plot and theme as I show how something appeared at one moment, then seems changed in another. I practice poetry regularly, but for me it works best in alliance with story, which is why I like verse narrative. I also read poetry regularly. Some of the tomes, letters or articles I rely on for research are not beautifully written, so for balance, I look to poetry to remind me what language can do.

Most of your books have been for children, but Little Woman in Blue, a historical novel about May Alcott, was written for adults. What made that subject more suitable for adult readers? Do you think you’ll write for adults again?

I was moved by May’s story, but there wasn’t anything in particular about her childhood I wanted to explore. The themes that mattered to me were that of ever-present work versus romance along with sisterly rivalry/ambition and love, so those were adult themes.

Do you have anything new in the works?

I’m smitten with another scientist!

Wonderful! I can't wait to discover who it is. Anything else you’d like to share with our readers? 

Thank you for reading!

Indeed! And thank you so much for joining me on Lupine Seeds. To find out more about Jeannine Atkins and her books, visit







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