Monday, March 18, 2019

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY of Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird by Lori Mortensen

Written By Lori Mortensen
Illustrated by Kristy Caldwell

Post by Lori Mortensen

STORY SUMMARY: “Isabella Bird was like a wild vine stuck in a too-small pot. She needed more room She had to get out. She had to explore.”

That was easier said than done in Victorian England. But Isabella persisted, and with each journey, she breathed in a new ways to see and describe everything around her. First, out in the English countryside on her father’s horse. Then, off to America, Africa, Asia, Australia, and more.

Daring Isabella Bird, the first female member of the Royal Geographical Society, challenged society’s boundaries for women and wrote 10 bestselling books about her explorations. “No man,” she once declared, “now ever says of any difficult thing that I could not do it.”


When it comes to picture books, the story behind the story is one of my favorite topics. I’m always curious about where authors get their ideas and equally excited to share the stories behind my stories. I think these behind-the-scenes stories are endlessly unique and fascinating.

For example, I got the idea to write my rhyming picture book Cindy Moo (HarperCollins) when I was browsing around my local thrift store and happened to find a worn figurine of a cow sitting on a crescent moon. As soon as I saw it, I knew I wanted to write a story about how the cow got there.

Another time I was visiting my local library when the words, “Mousequerade Ball” popped into my head. Once I had the title, the story seemed obvious. It would be a counting story where an increasing number of mice would arrive at a ball. This turned into the rhyming, counting picture book Mousequerade Ball published by Bloomsbury.

Then, there were the Houdini dogs next door that regularly escaped from their backyard and raced down the street. Within minutes, my neighbors were chasing after them yelling for them to come back. After one false start and plenty of revisions, this turned into my most popular rhyming picture book, Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg (Clarion) about a cowpoke trying to catch his dirty dog for a bath. It became one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013 and inspired a sequel, Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range.

Most of the time, however, coming up with an idea is a matter of sitting at the computer and making it happen.  That was the case for my latest picture book biography release Away with Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird (Peachtree). Like most people, I’d never heard of Isabella Bird before. However, one day when I was at my computer looking for a new project, I decided to research women’s firsts online—first woman doctor, first woman astronaut, first woman lawyer, etc. When I discovered Isabella Bird was the first woman member of the Royal Geographical Society, I was instantly intrigued. After all, how many women explorers did I know? Practically none. Once I delved into some research, I knew I wanted to tell Isabella’s exciting story. 

Much like Isabella’s adventures, writing a picture book about her turned into its own journey with a lot of twists, turns, and detours. One of the first challenges was deciding how to tell her story. After many revisions and approaches, an agent, and more revisions, I thought it was ready. But my agent disagreed. In time, the agent and I parted ways and I put the manuscript away.

Months later, I began working on it again. I loved Isabella’s unlikely story and I wasn’t ready to give up on her yet. This time around, however, a metaphor sprang to mind that became the heart of the story:

“Isabella was like a wild vine
stuck in a too small pot.
She needed more room.
She had to get out.
She had to explore.”

It made all the difference. The metaphor created a thread and captured Isabella’s story in a way that other versions hadn’t.  On the way to publication, there was a new agent, more submissions, more rejections, more editors, the long-awaited offer (Hallelujah!), and then the search for the perfect illustrator. When I began writing her story, I had no idea the journey from first draft to publication would take 10 years. However, when I think about it, it seems only fitting that the manuscript about this wild-vine adventurer would have its own share of bumps and detours along the way.

In 2020, Houghton Mifflin will publish another picture book biography that is still under wraps until the release date is closer. The story behind this story? I was on one of my morning walks when I heard a podcast about someone I knew would make a terrific picture book biography.

Those are just a few of my stories behind the stories. What will your story be?

Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 100 books and over 500 stories and articles. Recent picture book releases include Away with Words, the Daring Story of Isabella Bird (Peachtree), If Wendell Had a Walrus (Henry Holt), Chicken Lily, (Henry Holt), Mousequerade Ball (Bloomsbury) illustrated by New York Times bestselling illustrator Betsy Lewin, and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range (Clarion) a sequel to Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013. Lori lives in Northern California. When she’s not letting her cat in, or out, or in, she’s tapping away at her computer, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding her latest stories to life. For more information about her books, events, upcoming releases, and critique service, visit her website at and follow her at Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.


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  1. I wonder if Houdini's parents moved away from your neighborhood and into mine, because we had one such Houdini. Thanks for sharing how the ideas for the stories originated. It's so interesting!

    1. Maybe they did!Thanks for your comment. :-)

    2. I agree -- Lori's post was fascinating. I too truly enjoyed hearing the stories behind her stories. I know she has more books -- I wish she would have went on... LOL

  2. I find it so comforting that you started this 10 years ago and that you kept working to find the right way to tell the story. We all need to remember that some projects are like that. I can't wait to read Isabella's story!

    1. Yes, I agree -- it's so encouraging! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Lori's post!

  3. I really enjoyed reading these "stories behind the stories", seeing how Lori got her inspiration. I've read quite a few of these books and enjoyed them so much.

    1. I am so happy that you are enjoying them, @Elizabeth Varadan! I am so enjoying collecting them and sharing them!

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