the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog

Winifred Conkling and RADIOACTIVE!

Posted by Adi Rule on Thu, Jan 07, 2016 @ 08:01 AM

We are glowing with excitement about Winifred Conkling's new nonfiction YA book, Radioactive! How Irène Curie & Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World (Algonquin Young Readers).

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In 1934, Irène Curie, working with her husband and fellow physicist, Frèdèric Joliot, made a discovery that forever altered the world: artificial radioactivity. This breakthrough allowed scientists to begin to alter elements and create new ones by changing the structure of atoms. Curie, a Frenchwoman, shared a Nobel Prize with her husband for their work. But when she was nominated to the French Academy of Sciences, the Academy not only denied her admission but also voted to disqualify all women from membership. Her exclusion from the Academy marked Curie’s gradual erasure from the history of atomic science.

Four years later, Curie’s breakthrough led physicist Lise Meitner to the scientific epiphany that unlocked the secret of nuclear fission. The Nobel committee ignored Meitner’s achievement in favor of her male research partner’s, but Meitner’s unique insight was critical to the revolution in science that led to nuclear energy and the race to build the atomic bomb.

With more than fifty period photographs and sidebars that help explain the related science, Radioactive! presents the story of two women still largely unknown despite their crucial contributions to world-changing discoveries.

Welcome, Winifred! So, tell us . . .

What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?

640px-FrzDuellImBoisDeBoulogneDurand1874.jpgWhen working on nonfiction, it’s easy to get sidetracked by fascinating factoids that are not-quite-on-point. I loved learning that Marie Curie slept with a dish of radium by her bedside as a nightlight and that her married lover was challenged to a duel by a newspaper editor to defend her honor. (After a spectacularly foolish showdown, they both surrendered without firing.) Ultimately, these and other bits of trivia had to be cut because I was telling Irène’s story, not Marie’s.

What was the spark that ignited this book?

I tend to do a lot of background reading on a topic as I’m trying to refine an idea for a book project. In this case, I had been reading about various women in science, initially thinking I was going to write something about the mother-daughter team of Marie and Irène Curie. (Marie discovered radioactivity and Irène discovered artificial radioactivity.) As part of the process, I read about Lise Meither, a physicist who was exploring some of the same questions that Irène was working on. That’s when it hit me: The more interesting story would be the tension between Irène and Lise, two women who were life-long pacifists who both made discoveries that were essential to the development of the nuclear bomb.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve Googled as research for your writing?

radioactive_sign_02.jpgFor this project, I researched some of crazy uses of radium. In the first part of the 20th century, radium was added to a number of consumer products, including paints, water, chocolates – even condoms. “Radium Girls” painted radium-infused paint onto watch dials and other instrument panels so that they would glow in the dark. These women licked the tips of their horsehair brushes to keep the points sharp. In my hunt for details I encountered some ghastly images of women deformed by facial cancers. (Avoid the nightmares; trust me on this.)

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

I think attending VCFA legitimized me as a writer. Lawyer and author Louis Nizer said: “He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.” I aspire to be an artist; my work always falls short, but my experiences at VCFA have helped me identify the kinds of books I strive to write.

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Just do it. You won’t regret it.

What do you wish you had known before you first set foot on the VCFA campus?

This is just the beginning. Even after graduation, the VCFA community provides opportunities for enrichment and support.  I’m lucky enough to be part of a critique group made of VCFA grads in the DC area. It’s an absolute joy to have the support and advice of a group of women who share my passion for writing books for children and young adults. It sounds so simple, but it’s a blessing to have found my peeps.

I couldn't agree more. Here's to our peeps! And congratulations on the release of Radioactive! Thank you for shining a light on these remarkable women.

WinifredConkling-25Edit.jpegWinifred Conkling is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction for young readers whose works include Passenger on the Pearl: The True Story of Emily Edmonson’s Flight from Slavery (Algonquin, 2015) and the middle-grade novel Sylvia and Aki (Tricycle/Random House, 2011), winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Literature Award and the Tomás Rivera Award. She studied Journalism at Northwestern University and received an MFA in writing for children and young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She graduated in January 2011 as a member of the “Bat Poets.”

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Topics: nonfiction, young adult, Algonquin Young Readers, Winifred Conkling, 2016 release

Winifred Conkling and PASSENGER ON THE PEARL

Posted by Tami Brown on Wed, Feb 04, 2015 @ 06:02 AM

Winifred Conkling is in the LaunchPad today with her powerful new novel Passenger On The Pearl. I'm especially partial to this book since Winifred unveiled an early draft to our all-VCFA critique group in Washington, DC. Congratulations, Winifred, on the publication of this compelling novel!

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The page-turning, heart-wrenching true story of one woman willing to risk her safety and even her life for a chance at freedom in the largest slave escape attempt in American history.

In 1848, thirteen-year-old Emily Edmonson, five of her siblings, and seventy other enslaved people boarded the Pearl under cover of night in Washington, D.C., hoping to sail north to freedom.  Within a day, the schooner was captured, and the Edmonsons were sent to New Orleans to be sold into even crueler conditions.  Passenger on the Pearl is the story of this thwarted escape, of the ramifications of its attempt, and of a family for whom freedom was the ultimate goal.

Through an engaging narrative, informative sidebars, and more than fifty period photographs and illustrations, Winifred Conkling takes readers on Emily Edmonson's journey from enslaved person to teacher at a school for African American young women.  Conkling illuminates a turbulent time in American history, showing the daily lives of enslaved people, the often-changing laws affecting them, the high cost of a failed escape, and the stories of slave traders and abolitionists.

Winifred Conkling studied journalism at Northwestern University and received an MFA in writing for children and young adults from VCFA in January 2011.  Her first book for children, Sylvia and Aki (Random House, 2011), won the Jane Addams Children's Literature Award for Older Readers and the Tomás Rivera Mexican-American Children's Book Award.  Passenger on the Pearl is her first work of nonfiction for young readers.

Hi, Winifred! Welcome! Tell us about your writing community (ha, as if I don't know!) Are you in a critique group?

I am lucky to be part of a VCFA Critique Group in the Washington, D.C. area.  We meet once a month and workshop one longer piece or shorter works from two writers.  Although we all went through the program at different times, we share a common understanding of what a productive critique discussion looks like.  I can't tell you how much I've learned from my critique partners.  I leave every meeting feeling inspired and encouraged.

Me, too! It's wonderful to keep surrounding myself with VCFA intensity and support! What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?

The lectures I heard at VCFA about point of view have proven immeasurably important to me in my nonfiction work.  History is big and unwieldy; it's tricky to figure out how to tell the stories of the past.  Choosing a point-of-view character has helped me focus my work and build a narrative arc in my nonfiction.  

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What was the most difficult element to cut or change during the revision process and why?

I was lucky to have a lot of excellent primary sources for my work on Passenger on the Pearl. In addition to source material about Emily Edmonson, I used the autobiography of the captain who sailed the ship during the slave escape.  His story is fascinating in its own right, but I had to resist the temptation to tell too much about him because this project was Emily's story.  I tried to share the relevant highlights and to let readers know what happened to him, but I wanted to add all the details of his life.  (Since you asked:  He spent four years in prison as a result of his efforts to help seventy-seven enslaved people find freedom, and he committed suicide alone in a hotel room several years after his release.)

What advice would you give to a perspective VCFA student? What do you wish you'd known before you first set foot on campus?

Just do it.  If you want to write, learn to do it well as you possibly can.  I don't know a better place to do that than VCFA.

It's not what I wish I had known, it's that I wish I had known about VCFA earlier in my life.  I wish I had gone through the program 10 years earlier. Where is time travel when you need it?

Here here for time travel! Thanks for dropping in to the Launch Pad, Winifred!

Passenger on the Pearl was published by Algonquin Young Readers. You can buy it at any bookstore now!

Topics: nonfiction, 2015 release, Algonquin Young Readers, Winifred Conkling

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