Meet the Biographer: Kate Klise

In 2010, Kate Klise published Stand Straight, Ella Kate, a picture book about Ella Kate Ewing, a Missouri-born woman who appeared as a giant at traveling shows in the late 19th century. This week, Klise talked with Kidsbiographer about respecting her subject, collaborating with her sister, and reveling in old-fashioned research.

Kidsbiographer: How did you learn about Ella Kate Ewing, and how did you decide to write about her life?

Kate Klise:  I first read about Ella Ewing in a monthly magazine published by my electric cooperative. I sent it to my sister (and illustrator) Sarah, in Berkeley,California, with the note: “Wow. Do you love her or what?” Sarah read the story and sent it back to me with “LOVE her!” written above Ella’s photo. There was just something so intriguing about this woman who stood eight feet, four inches tall and was, by all accounts, the kindest, most gentle woman in her little country town in northern Missouri. I couldn’t help writing about her.  

Kidsbiographer:  You and illustrator M. Sarah Klise are sisters. What is like to collaborate with a close family member? 

Kate Klise: It’s easy. I trust Sarah’s taste completely when it comes to the look and feel of a book. Occasionally I try to make suggestions, which she sometimes takes, but mostly ignores. Her instincts are better than mine on the art side. The only time we really insist on changes is when something is confusing in the story or the art. If we as adults can’t make sense of it, then our young readers will really struggle. 

Kidsbiographer: I love the book’s voice: it matches the down-to-earth Midwestern lady you present Ella Kate as. How did you conceive that first-person narrator? 

Kate Klise: I’m glad you like it! Of course using this voice immediately changes the genre from biography to historical fiction, but I like it better this way. I tried to write a straight-up third person biography, but it just fell flat. The manuscript was dull. Boring. It was driving me crazy. I kept thinking, “Here I have the most remarkable story of this fascinating woman. Why does my account of her life sound so boring?” Part of the problem, I think, was that I didn’t want to exploit Ella like others had done during her lifetime. I was trying so hard to be sensitive to her story that it distanced me from the power of it. And then as so often happens when you’re working on a book, as soon as I stopped thinking so hard about it, the answer presented itself to me. I was driving down a country road, listening to the radio when I heard Arlo Guthrie sing: “I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans. I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.” That’s when it hit me. I needed to rewrite the text in first person. I needed to be Ella. I practically flew home and rewrote Ella’s story from her perspective. That’s when the story started to work.

Kidsbiographer:   When you were researching Stand Straight, Ella Kate, which sources proved most valuable? 

Kate Klise: Newspapers. Thank goodness for public libraries that still have old newspapers on microfiche. I did most of the research for the book at the Scotland County (Missouri) Memorial Library and the St. Louis Public Library. Microfiche is such a clunky old technology, but there is something undeniably thrilling about sitting in the corner of a library and finding little gems in old newspapers that you know will make your story sparkle.

Kidsbiographer:   How have young readers responded to Ella Kate’s story? 

Kate Klise: It’s the one book I’ve written that I can read to first graders or seventh graders, and they all—almost without exception—are fascinated by Ella. Who doesn’t wonder what it would be like to grow up and up and up? My only regret is that we couldn’t find a way to create a page in the book that opened up and up and up until it was 8’4” tall. But the endpapers that show Ella’s shoe size (24) and glove size are fun.

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

Kate Klise: I have four books coming out in 2012, so I’m doing lots of loads of laundry lately where I forget to put the clothes in—or the detergent—or both. It’s the little things that slip through the cracks when I have so many projects on my plate. But I’m excited about them all! Grammy Lamby and the Secret Handshake (Henry Holt) will be out in May 2012. It’s a picture book based on a secret three-squeeze handshake our grandmother used to give us. (It meant “I love you,” which we found terribly embarrassing and corny—until we grew up.) The Phantom of the Post Office (Harcourt), the fourth book in the 43 Old Cemetery Road series will also be out in May 2012. My first grown-up book is coming out next spring/summer with Harper/Morrow. Called In the Bag, it’s based on a mysterious note I found in my carry-on bag several years ago at the Barcelona airport. And finally, the project I’m just finishing up—and consequently, the one I’m most excited about—is called Splinters. It’ll be out next fall from Feiwel & Friends. The title comes from an actual splinter my grandmother—the same grandmother who gave us the secret handshake—gave my father. She claimed it was a splinter from the Holy Cross. Of course my dad promptly lost the dang thing in our house. I’ve spent a lot of years wondering where that splinter was and if it could possibly be real.

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