I always enjoy hearing the story behind the story and Vicki Conrad’s story behind her newest picture book biography is full of twists and turns, not unlike the swampy Everglades themselves. A Voice for the Everglades: Marjory Stoneman Douglas (Albert Whitman and Company) led Vicki on a several year “scavenger hunt” (to borrow her phrase) not only to gather essential information but to figure out how to present it to younger readers. Her quest described below is a great reminder that there is nothing simple about picture books but, oh!, how rewarding when we get it right, as Vicki does with this lyrical biography.
My picture book, A Voice for the Everglades (Albert Whitman and Company) began when I read a short summary about a woman named Marjory Stoneman Douglas who saved the Florida Everglades. My curiosity led to a research project that felt like a never-ending scavenger hunt. One fact led to another, and pretty soon I spent two years reading about South Florida, water tables, the history of environmentalism in the United States, along with every plant and animal in the Everglades. I buried myself in research.
Then I had to write the book.
If I had known the difficulty of the endeavor before I began, I don’t know if I would have even started, but I am so glad I did.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas is a Florida hero and became my personal hero. She endured a traumatic childhood, yet became a leader in Florida’s Conversation of the Everglades. One difficult part of writing this story was that Marjory’s personal life did not fit well into a children’s picture book. Born in 1890, Marjory’s mother was mentally ill, and took her away from her father, Frank Douglas, at five years old. Marjory thrived in school, but endured a sad and lonely home life. A brilliant student, she attended Wellesley College and was known for her strength in public speaking. However, in a twist of fate that was a blessing in disguise for Marjory and the whole of Florida, she married a con artist right after college. She and her father were reunited when the con artist husband tried to steal money from him. After the con artist was found out, Frank Douglas put Marjory on a train to Florida.
Now, this is a fascinating story, but not one for a children’s book. I struggled with how to communicate Marjory’s deep connection to the Florida Everglades along with important elements of her life story in a way that would speak to children.
Marjory had a thriving writing career and a large group of environmentalist friends. She also landed in Florida when Miami was a shanty town, but the plans of the developers were monumental. Unfortunately, draining the everglades was part of the plan, which caused devastating effects. They literally did not know what they had until it was gone.
I realized the Florida Everglades were a character as well. This story could not be a straight biography.
This is where Marjory’s presence was vital. For years Marjory and her friend Ernest would boat out into the Everglades and explore. Ernest was serious about creating a national park and they fought bad legislature for years. They could not get people to see that this place was more than a swamp. Until Marjory wrote a book. And that changed everything.
Still. I did not know how to write this book. As my agent stated, “You have to find a way to tell it that is more than just a narrative of bad legislature.” She was right. I took 4 months to re-read all my research. I read a thick and dense book about the history of water use in Florida. I felt like I was making a huge batch of something with many ingredients, waiting for it to come out in an edible form.
I ruminated for weeks and realized the thread to weave it all together is the notion that we are all connected. Every part of the Everglades needs another part. Human choices effect nature; people and the planet are intricately connected.
So, I started from the beginning of the Everglades, when a lake overflowed and covered South Florida in shallow mass of water. Water full of life, yet not fully understood until Marjory spoke for the River of Grass.
This is how I created a lyrical, science-based biography. I am so proud of this book, and the hard work it took to get it right. I hope you take time to read it to a young person, and fall in love with Marjory and the Everglades like I did.
Vicki Conrad spends her days teaching children to read and evenings writing stories she hopes with inspire young readers. Growing up, she was always found with a book in her hand, and she has stayed that way ever since. Her first book, Just Like Beverly was released from Sasquatch Books in 2019. It received a starred Kirkus review and was a Junior Library Guild Gold Selection, as well as one of NPR’s Best Books of 2019. Her next nonfiction picture book, A Voice for the Everglades, is a science biography about Marjory Stoneman Douglas saving the Florida Everglades. Vicki is a curious seeker of knowledge and lover of history. She has called Seattle her home for many years.