Meet the Biographer: Ann Ingalls

Last year,  Ann Ingalls and Maryann Macdonald co-authored The Little Piano Girl, a picture book about jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams. Ingalls, a former kindergarten teacher, lives in Kanas City, Missouri with her husband and two cats.

This week, Ann Ingalls talked to Kidsbiographer about collaboration, the line between biography and fiction, and the joys of introducing kids – and adults – to jazz.

Kidsbiographer: You and co-author Maryann Macdonald are sisters. How did you collaborate on The Little Piano Girl and how did it feel to work so closely with a family member?

Ann Ingalls: Maryann and I have collaborated of several projects. We understand one another so well and are really good friend in addition to being sisters. I would be happy to work with her any day of the week.

Kidsbiographer: What led you to write about Mary Lou Williams for young children?

Ann Ingalls: I first learned about Mary Lou Williams while writing J is for Jive, an alphabet book about jazz. A noted jazz historian suggested I take a look at Mary Lou Williams for that project. Once I took a look, I was hooked. I shared what I learned with Maryann and we agreed to team up on that project.

Kidsbiographer: Although The Little Piano Girl is about a real person, the book is classified as fiction and not a picture-book biography. Can you tell me about how you made that decision?

Ann Ingalls:  We did an enormous amount of research to write The Little Piano Girl. Because we know that Mary Lou was routinely invited into people’s homes, but we don’t know exactly what she might have said to those individuals, we had to create a bit of dialogue to move the story along. I hope readers will think this that was successful.

Kidsbiographer: Can you tell me about the research you did for this book?

Ann Ingalls: Maryann and I read the same books, both interviewed Father Peter O’Brien, Mary Lou Williams’ agent, read Mary Lou’s own handwritten notes, magazine interview and the like. I wrote the first draft and we passed it back and forth many, many times until we were satisfied with every word and phrase. Happily, Houghton Mifflin made very few changes.

Kidsbiographer:  How have kids responded to The Little Piano Girl? What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from children – and from parents and teachers?

Ann Ingalls: Parents, teachers and kids seem to really like this book and Mary Lou’s story. We have been to the Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, the American Jazz Museum and to many schools and libraries. Her story seem to resonate with others because everyone knows what it’s like to work hard to achieve something important. We are really happy to introduce Mary Lou to those who might never have heard of the “First Lady of Jazz.”

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Ann Ingalls: Maryann has several books coming out next year. Odette’s War, the story of a young Jewish girl who went into hiding will be released by Bloomsbury.

Maryann and I co-authored a book that Pilgrim Press is releasing this coming spring. Worm Watching and Other Wonderful Ways to Lead Young Children to Pray is a guide parents or teachers can use.

I have just completed a book on Thomas Garrett, the stationmaster on the eastern branch of the Underground Railroad that is under consideration at Calkins Creek and at several other publishing houses. Here’s hoping….

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