Cover Reveal and Interview with Azadeh Westergaard – The Life Electric: The Story of Nikola Tesla
Tesla. It ain’t just a car.
I’m always in the market for a new picture book biography. Sometimes the subject matter doesn’t even have to be special. As long as the writing is good and the art splendid, I tend to be on board. But to hear that there’s a new Nikola Tesla bio on the horizon?
Now I field a fair number of requests for interviews, and quite frankly I don’t have the ability to do them all. But when Azadeh Westergaard wrote me about her upcoming book (The Life Electronc: The Story of Nikola Tesla, on shelves July 27th and illustrated by Júlia Sardà) she knew JUST how to pique my interest:
“When you worked at the New York Public Library, you may have noticed that the corner of 6th Avenue and West 40th Street is also named Nikola Tesla Corner. This sign commemorates three important markers in Tesla’s life: the location of his last laboratory at 8 West 40th Street, the Engineers Club at 32 West 40th Street which awarded Tesla the prestigious Edison Medal in 1916, and most significantly, this is where Tesla showed up every day with a bag of bird seed in hand to feed his beloved pigeons. My narrative weaves Tesla’s two lifelong loves — animals and inventions — in a truth is stranger than fiction biographical account of this truly remarkable, yet often overlooked genius.”
Well. I’m not made of stone.
Betsy Bird: I’m so freakin’ excited to read your book. It’s not that we haven’t seen other Tesla picture book biographies out there, but I’ve always been quite convinced that the world was in need of a wider variety. What inspired this particular book and your particular take?
Azadeh Westergaard: Thank you, Betsy! I found Tesla in a roundabout way. I was working on a middle grade novel and felt compelled to name my protagonist, Nikola. The only historical figure I knew with that name was Nikola Tesla, but I didn’t know much about him. When I eventually stumbled upon a copy of Tesla’s My Inventions, his delightful collection of autobiographical essays, I was so taken by his unique voice that I decided to model my fictional Nikola with some of Nikola Tesla’s character attributes.
Then in my first semester at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program, I had the good fortune to work with the gifted author and teacher, Mary Quattlebaum, who asked if I had any picture book biography ideas, something animal-themed perhaps? I immediately thought of Tesla, googled “Nikola Tesla + animals” and stumbled upon his passion for pigeons. Needless to say, the more I learned about Tesla’s life story, the more intrigued I became.
That said, I’ve always been more of a humanities person so tackling the life story a scientific genius like Tesla felt a bit daunting. I also wondered if the whole pigeon angle was too far-fetched. Well, my doubts were laid to rest on my way home from work that night. As I waited for the bus debating whether I should embark on this project or not, a pigeon dropping landed on my shoe. Now I’ve lived in New York for a long time and thankfully that had not happened to me before, so I took it as a sign that I should go ahead with the project.
Then to move things along, during my second semester at VCFA, I lucked upon another gifted author and teacher, Martha Brockenbrough, whose enthusiasm and sage editorial insight emboldened me to push my way through the research and get to the heart of Nikola Tesla’s life story as succinctly as possible.
BB: So Tesla actually liked pigeons? Really? Tell me more. That’s sort of a forbidden love in NYC these days.
AW: Tesla didn’t just like pigeons, he was head over heels in love with them! He religiously fed the pigeons behind the main branch of the New York Public Library and in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral with bird feed that he personally developed for maximum nutrition. In fact, he was so devoted to the city’s pigeons that if he ever had to miss a day, he hired messenger boys to feed his flock on his behalf. He was always on the lookout for injured or ill pigeons, which if he couldn’t nurse back to health himself, he’d send to the care of Dr. Raymond Garbutt, the chief veterinarian of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York City.
As you can imagine, Tesla’s love of pigeons didn’t make life easy for him and brought him much professional ridicule in his later years. My intention for this book is to introduce young readers to Tesla’s formidable scientific legacy and to show them that his interest in pigeons (nature’s original wireless messengers!) came out of a life-long love for all living creatures — a devotion that began from his earliest years growing up on his family’s farm.
BB: Kids today certainly may have a better grasp on Tesla than I did when I was a child. To what do we owe this sudden surge in his 21st century popularity do you think?
AW: Unfortunately, Tesla ended his life in obscurity and poverty. After a meteoric rise early in his career with the breakthrough of his alternating current (AC) induction motor and countless other innovations, his name eventually fell through the cracks of history and it’s taken the world some time to properly recognize and acknowledge his enormous contributions to the generation and distribution of electricity and to our everyday lives. In part I think this is because he was so far ahead of his time, with concepts like “wireless communication” which were simply unimaginable at the time and for which he was mocked. And now that technology has caught up with Tesla’s visionary ideas and inventions, there has been a surge of interest in him as the many documentaries, biographies, and Hollywood films that celebrate his life can attest to. The ubiquity of Elon Musk’s Tesla, Inc., the electric car brand, certainly doesn’t hurt either!
BB: I mean, I have to ask it. Does Mr. Edison make a cameo in this book at all? And, if so, how does he come across?
Edison makes a brief cameo in the narrative and his relationship with Tesla and George Westinghouse is discussed in further detail in my Author’s Note. The three men clearly had a pretty complex relationship and I do write about the Current Wars and Edison’s shenanigans which definitely doesn’t cast him in the most flattering light.
BB: I am okay with that. You know, sometimes I believe that those amongst us born under lucky stars will get our picture book manuscripts paired up with people like, for example, the remarkable Júlia Sardà. And you managed it! Well done! had you been familiar with her work before? And how are you liking her interiors?
AW: Thank you — believe me, I know how lucky I am! My truly lovely editor, Tamar Brazis, was incredibly inclusive through the whole bookmaking process and we both agreed that Júlia’s illustration style would be an amazing fit for the manuscript. I first saw her work in One Fun Day with Lewis Carroll: A Celebration of Wordplay and a Girl Named Alice, written by Kathleen Krull and was so taken by her art, I purchased all of her books for my picture book collection. I also love what she did in The Liszts, written by Kyo Maclear and Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein, written by Linda Bailey… and don’t get me started on her incredible book covers and interiors for Sweep, written by Louise Greig and Duckworth, The Difficult Child, written by Michael Sussman.
Júlia has the singular gift of appealing both to the adult and child aesthetic sensibility, which for picture books is a truly winning combination. And she definitely dazzles with the interior spreads in this book, thanks also in no small part to the artistry of the book’s designer, Opal Roengchai.There is humor, pathos, and all sorts of brilliant details for a child to get lost in, including an earthy color palette and Tesla-centric themes and patterns that run throughout. I truly couldn’t be happier with how the book turned out.
BB: Are there any other picture book biographies out there that you particularly enjoy and recommend to others?
AW: One of my absolute favorites, and one I consider the gold standard for picture book biographies is Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. It’s reads like a love letter to Louise Bourgeois’ mother and the tremendous influence she had on her as an artist. The lyricism of the text paired with the gorgeous illustrations literally makes me swoon. It is just perfection inside and out.
I am also a huge fan of Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s collaborations and my favorite is The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus. Jen Bryant introduces us to Peter Mark Roget as a list making child and masterfully follows the threads of this obsession into adulthood. Meanwhile, Melissa Sweet uses Roget’s habit of categorizing and collecting synonyms as an illustrative device on every spread, adding both depth and detail to the narrative. It’s a terrific example of art and text carrying equal weight on the page to make a picture book truly come to life.
BB: You are a woman of discerning taste, I can see. Finally, are you planning to do any further biographies for kids in the future? If so, would any have a science-y bent?
AW: Yes, definitely! The research process gives me enormous pleasure and I have a running list of potential subject contenders, both in the humanities and sciences.
Coming up, I will be working on an unannounced picture book biography with my editor, Tamar Brazis at Viking. For this one, I am going back to my cultural roots and writing about an Iranian artist, thanks to an astute suggestion made by my wonderful agent, Alyssa Eisner Henkin, which sent my imagination running.
Many many thanks to Azadeh for answering my many questions. Did you see how she fielded that one about other picture book biographies? I’ve never tried that one someone before, and I just loved her recommendation.
And now . . . as promised . . . . the cover in question:
Editor: Tamar Brazis
Illustrator: Júlia Sardà
Book Designer: Opal Roengchai
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers/Penguin Random House
Release Date: July 27, 2021
Find Júlia Sardà online at juliasarda.com.
And many thanks to Azadeh for today’s interview and reveal.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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