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Spot the Difference: Wood, Wire, Wings: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane

Updated: Apr 9

Guest post by Kirsten W. Larson

(NO AI TRAINING: Any use of this blog post to “train” generative artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to generate text is expressly prohibited.)


Evolution of an Opening: Tracing the Revisions of Wood, Wire, Wings: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane


As writers, we all know that opening lines are crucial for hooking the reader. But crafting the perfect opening often takes numerous revisions and rewrites. This was truly the case with my first picture book biography, Wood, Wire, Wings: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020). I learned so much about writing these books from editor Carolyn Yoder.


I began this book in February 2014 in Susanna Hill’s Making Picture Book Magic Class. One of my earliest drafts from March 2014 opened by establishing Lilian's innate curiosity and tinkering spirit from a young age. Starting with a character trait is a common technique in picture book biographies:


"Even as a child, Emma Lilian Todd couldn't hold a bit of wire or scrap of tin without twisting and turning them, tinkering until she had something new.


While most girls in 1860s played with dolls, Lilian transformed a toy and a Christmas tree

topper into a working weather vane, her first practical invention."


I sent my draft through my critique group soon thereafter. The opening of my next draft (May

2014) keeps this childhood anecdote but tightens the writing and adds more context contrasting Lilian with other girls of her era:


"While many girls in the 1860s played with dolls, Lilian Todd toyed with bits of wire and scraps of tin. She couldn't hold them without twisting and turning them, tinkering until she had something new. In her hands, a toy and a Christmas tree topper became a working weather vane. It was her first useful invention."


I got my agent, Lara Perkins at Andrea Brown Literary Agency, with this draft. We then rolled

up our sleeves and began to work on the manuscript together. During that process, I came up with a different opening in May 2016 (shown below). It drops the idea of Lilian being different from other girls, which could apply to almost any barrier-breaking woman of the time. Instead, I really leaned into what made Lilian unique, introducing her as a prolific tinkerer surrounded by her tools and materials:


"Toolbox by her side, Emma Lilian Todd whacked and snapped and snipped. In her hands, wood, wire, and tin transformed into tiny airplanes.


When she ran out of metal, Lilian saved tin cans from her supper. Ta-da! Propellers.

But building model airplanes wasn't enough for Lilian. She dreamed big...”


We went out on submission with the manuscript and got interest from Carolyn Yoder at Calkins Creek. But the manuscript wasn’t quite there. Carolyn asked for a revise and resubmit, which led to the opening below in January 2017. This time I pulled back, using a broad premise to frame the story as one about problem-solving:


"When Emma Lilian Todd saw problems, she sought solutions. Some problems were small, like where to find tin to make her machines (Answer: She saved tin cans from her supper.) Other problems were huge. This is the story of how Lilian solved the biggest problem of her life -- how to fly."


Calkins Creek acquired the manuscript in early 2017, but there was still work to do. In April

2017 I submitted the final opening, which was accepted. It combines pieces from the previous versions into an evocative metaphor. I also improved the voice with some flight-related language. The final opening highlights Lilian’s problem-solving nature, captures the idea of her as a maker and tinkerer, and establishes her problem/goal.:


"For Emma Lilian Todd, problems were like gusts of wind: they set her mind soaring. Sometimes the problems seemed small, like where to find metal to craft her inventions (Answer: She saved tin cans from her supper.) But soon Lilian's challenges ballooned. This is the story of how Lilian puzzled out the most exciting problem of her day -- flight."


As you can see, it can take many years, lots of input, and many revisions to hit on that “just

right” opening. It’s a process. But if you stay flexible and open, you’ll hit on that just-right

beginning that makes your story sparkle.


Side-by-side comparison:

March 2014

May 2014

May 2016

Jan. 2017

April 2017

"Even as a child, Emma Lilian Todd couldn't hold a bit of wire or scrap of tin without twisting and turning them, tinkering until she had something new.


While most girls in 1860s played with dolls, Lilian transformed a toy and a Christmas tree

topper into a working weather vane, her first practical invention."

"While many girls in the 1860s played with dolls, Lilian Todd toyed with bits of wire and scraps of tin. She couldn't hold them without twisting and turning them, tinkering until she had something new. In her hands, a toy and a Christmas tree topper became a working weather vane. It was her first useful invention."

"Toolbox by her side, Emma Lilian Todd whacked and snapped and snipped. In her hands, wood, wire, and tin transformed into tiny airplanes.


When she ran out of metal, Lilian saved tin cans from her supper. Ta-da! Propellers.

But building model airplanes wasn't enough for Lilian. She dreamed big...”

"When Emma Lilian Todd saw problems, she sought solutions. Some problems were small, like where to find tin to make her machines (Answer: She saved tin cans from her supper.) Other problems were huge. This is the story of how Lilian solved the biggest problem of her life -- how to fly."

"For Emma Lilian Todd, problems were like gusts of wind: they set her mind soaring. Sometimes the problems seemed small, like where to find metal to craft her inventions (Answer: She saved tin cans from her supper.) But soon Lilian's challenges ballooned. This is the story of how Lilian puzzled out the most exciting problem of her day -- flight."

If you are interested in what this blog series is all about, read all about it here: https://www.leamaryanow.com/post/the-spot-the-difference-blog-series-an-introduction

__________________________________________________________________________________


Kirsten used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids and grown ups too. Kirsten is the author of several nonfiction picture books, including the ALA Notable and NCTE Orbis Pictus-honor book, The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, 2023). She also is the author of the middle grade, true graphic novel, Light of Resistance, illustrated by Barbara McClintock, (Roaring Brook, 2025), along with 30 nonfiction books for the school and library market. Kirsten has drawn on her revision superpower to create the craft book, Reimagining Your Nonfiction Picture Book: A Step-By-Step Revision Guide (Both/And, 2023). Kirsten lives near Los Angeles with her husband and two curious kids. Learn more (and sign up for Kirsten’s newsletter) at kirstenwlarson.com.

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6 Comments


Guest
Apr 06

This was such an informative and illuminating article! Is my first time on sub and I had no how much revision takes place even after acquisition! Thank you both so much for this article!

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klarson13
Apr 06
Replying to

Happy to help. And good luck on sub.

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volkmann
Apr 02

Kirsten,


Thanks for being part of this. Your analysis of the process is so helpful.


I have a question: as you moved through those revisions, what compelled you to change the opening each time? Specific 'notes' from agents/editors? Or more general notes that created overall changes, including to the opening? Mentor texts that gave you new ideas?


It may be all/none of these - and the purposeful 'tinkering', instinct, and your burgeoning talent 'simply' lead you to this fabulous opening - although the process is far from 'simple'. :)


As someone who has yet entered into the revision process with an agent or editors, it is kind of a relief to know that a manuscript can become a bit more…


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klarson13
Apr 02
Replying to

Hi Beth,


When I took Making Picture Book Magic with Susanna Hill, she encouraged us to brainstorm at least three different openings and then pick one. I was learning to write picture books, so I tinkered with my story frequently! My critique group saw lots of versions. Their feedback drove the May 2014 revision. There were other versions in between shaped by my critique group and professional critiques. Work with my agent drove the 2016 revision. Then work with editor Carolyn Yoder shaped the later revision.


So, all of the above? Writing picture books is definitely a team effort.


Kirsten

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sanaa ahmad
sanaa ahmad
Apr 02

Thank you so much. As an aspiring author,this context of observing the opening through its many phases really proved beneficial.

Aside from that, I personally loved the version after the revise and resubmit in 2017 :)

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klarson13
Apr 02
Replying to

It was a long road to get there! Just keep writing and revising. And thanks for your kind words.

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