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).
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?
When 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?
For 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.
Winifred 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.”