Welcome to the blog! With me today is a friend, the wonderful and vivacious Shari Swanson, who is here to talk about her latest picture book:
Gertie, The Darling Duck of WWII was published by Sleeping Bear Press on March 15, 2023. Shari is represented by John Rudolph.
El Space: Like your other picture book, Honey, Gertie is narrative nonfiction. How did you hear about Gertie? What made you turn this story into a picture book? [To see photos of the actual Gertie, click here.]
Shari: Years—maybe decades—ago, poking through a used book store, I found a book: Reader’s Digest: Animals You Will Never Forget. It had an account of the Gertie story, and I was captivated. For me, the story represents everything good—people coming together toward a common goal, kindness, concern for others—and it was a powerful beacon of hope in a dark time. True to the title of the book I never forgot Gertie’s story. At one point in time, I was writing a daily devotional and wrote a brief summary of the Gertie story as a devotion based on Psalm 91:4: “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” This is how I will always think of this story. But, even with time, still the story persisted for me; my time with Gertie wasn’t done. When I was pursuing my MFA, I returned to Gertie’s story, dove deep into the research, and crafted it into the final picture book.
El Space: Please give a quick snapshot of your process for researching.
Shari: I am so fond of research and all the treasures that are uncovered along the way. For Gertie, I poured over the 1945 editions of the Milwaukee Journal as my starting spot. It was fascinating to watch the rise of the little duck story until she was sharing the front page with very consequential events in WWII. Even the ads in the newspaper, many of them duck-centered, were fascinating to understand the time and how important Gertie became to people. From there, I rounded out my research with all the secondary sources I could find about Gertie, with help from the Milwaukee Public Library and Milwaukee County Historical Society (photo below), and then took a dive into WWII itself so I would feel grounded in the time and place.
In general, I absolutely love research and tend to go quite deep and broad as pretty much everything fascinates me. I love primary sources; all of the quotes in both Honey and Gertie are sourced. I love the contemporaneous quotes I find because they draw me right into the time and personalities of the speaker. But, in general, very little of what I discover ultimately finds its way into the book. For example, with Gertie, I researched why the river by Gertie’s nest was so dirty—sewage emptied directly into the river!—and how the flushing station worked. I also became fascinated by bridges that open to let big ships pass by. I’ve tucked what I learned there into my quiver in case that might turn into a future book down the line.
El Space: What draws you to historical settings?
Shari: I love that there are some things about humans that are universal and some that are dependent on time and place. I’m interested in how people respond to the specific challenges from the time in which they find themselves. With history, we can see where we are and look back to where we were and consider the impact past events have had on our present.
One of the things I found tremendously compelling about Gertie’s story was how everyone rallied around her and around the war effort. Everyone helped. In these times of division, that kind of unity uplifts me.
In researching Honey: The Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln, I was fascinated with the ripple effect of kind actions. We know who Abraham Lincoln came to be, and how important he was to our country, so tracing those ripples back to an original kindness, like Honey saving his life, felt very powerful. Without Honey, no Abe.
El Space: What do you think are the ingredients of a great nonfiction story?
Shari: So far, I’ve written narrative non-fiction which means that all the elements of a fictional story are right there in the non-fiction: characters, time and place, a dramatic arc, a climax, and resolution. Personally, I love when a non-fiction story has each of these elements. In Honey, the climax turns on whether Honey will rescue Abe when he is stuck in the cavern. That is as consequential as any fictional story could be. And the resolution when Honey comes through, bringing help, is so rewarding, particularly when we know who little Abe grew up to be.
At Shari’s book launch party
In Gertie, again, the stakes are life and death. Will the bridge tenders be able to save Gertie and her brood when the eyes and hope of the whole world are on them? When juxtaposed with the concurrent events of the war, this little duck’s struggle takes on new depth and meaning.
To me, these high stakes stories make for page-turning non-fiction. The happy resolution in both of these stories leave the reader with a sense that all is right, or can be, with the world, and that people (and dogs) can accomplish great things when working together.
El Space: What inspires you as you write?
Shari: I love children and want to give them stories that will feed their souls as well as their intellects. Hopeful stories of people coming together inspire me and, when I find a good one, particularly if there are animals involved, I’m eager to pass it along with hopes it will inspire others as well.
Shari with her granddaughters, Ella and Lily
El Space: What are you working on next?
Shari: I’m not sure what will be my next published book, but I’m at work on several: a non-fiction picture book gold rush journey, a middle grade fantasy, a non-fiction-inspired picture book about a prisoner’s daughter, an early chapter book fairy tale, and an early chapter book legal fiction which I hope can be a series. I’m focusing on finishing, and then we’ll see where things go.
Thanks, Shari, for being my guest!
Looking for Shari? Look for her on her website, Twitter, and Facebook.
Looking for Gertie, The Darling Duck of WWII? Check out Bookshop, Barnes and Noble, Amazon
One of you will be handed a copy of this very book! Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced sometime next week.
Book launch photos by Todd Swanson. Author photo courtesy of Shari Swanson. Animals You Will Never Forget book cover from Open Library. Photo from 1940s from Wallpaper Safari. Gertie cover photo by L. Marie.