The Science of Writing and Illustrating a Biography for Children


Author and illustrator Mary Ann Fraser breaks down her scientific process for creating an educational biography for young readers. 

Recently I was asked to speak at a STEMposium about the creation of my latest book, Alexander Graham Bell Answers the Call. The book chronicles Alexander (Aleck) Bell’s childhood. I’m not an educator, but while preparing for my talk, I looked at the current science standards for elementary education and made a remarkable discovery — the process I use as an author and illustrator of children’s books is much like the method employed by scientists. Using Alexander Graham Bell Answers the Call as an example, the steps typically break down something like this:

1. First, much like a scientist, I posed a question. In the case of the Bell book, I asked, “How did Alexander Graham Bell grow up to become the inventor of the telephone?”

2. Next, I conducted background research. Whereas a scientist might examine previous studies and other experts in the field, I sought out archives, museums, literature, and libraries. Along the way, I gathered visual references, Bell’s own notes, and family photos. 

3. I developed multiple strategies and solutions by testing out various points of view to determine how best to tell my story. A book is a puzzle with many pieces that must work together to make a whole. Often, I use a storyboard as the map to putting them together. Later I add very rough sketches.

4. I created a prototype. I started with a loose dummy, which is a mock-up of the book derived from my final storyboard. I then refined the layout through multiple revisions which included re-sketching, shifting elements between pages, multiple edits to the text and its positioning.

5. Following the sale of the project, I then spent over two years testing, evaluating, and redefining my work. This involved developing a new approach to my art. Bell and his family had embraced photography early on. I decided to do the same by incorporating reproductions of photographs from the Bell archives, as well as original photos of my own, into the art. I scavenged for ephemera which could be added to enrich the imagery. I drew diagrams to explain complex concepts.

The outcome of these five steps was not only the book, but also a new way of looking at my process. I no longer consider my work space as simply a studio or office. I think of it as a laboratory — a story laboratory, and I am the inventor.

Purchase Alexander Graham Bell Answers the Call for your readers today!

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  • Mel Schuit
Comments 2
  • Maria Marshall
    Maria Marshall

    Wonderful post. I loke the image of a story laboratory and inventor!

  • CS Perryess
    CS Perryess

    Fascinating to get a glimpse into Mary Ann’s process. Thanks so much.

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