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What's Up in YA

“I wanted there to be a story for everyone”: Writer/Illustrator Rachel Ignotofsky On Celebrating Women

Hello, YA Fans!

This week’s edition of “What’s Up in YA?” is sponsored by Unbound Worlds and Cage Match.

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This week, in honor of March being Women’s History Month, I wanted to talk with an author/illustrator who started her book career last year with a title that highlights remarkable achievements of women through history.

Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science is a collective biography featuring women from all eras of history and the work they did. Laid out in an appealing, graphic-heavy style, the book distills the scientific progress women of all backgrounds achieved.

Aside from what the book does in the inside,Ignotofsky’s work presents an opportunity to talk not only about nonfiction, but also a chance to talk about what categorizing books as “YA” does or does not mean. Women in Science is the kind of book that is perfect for YA readers, as much as it’s perfectly suitable for middle grade readers, as well as adult readers.

Without further ado, get to know Ignotofsky, her work, the work of rad lady scientists, and what she’s working on next (spoiler alert: we need this, too!).

 

Tell us a bit about your background and why you wrote and illustrated Women in Science.

I am an illustrator with a passion for science and history. Women in Science is my first book and I could not be more excited to share it with the world. I graduated from Tyler School of Art in 2011. When you go to school for Graphic Design you learn how to organize images text to make information instantly impactful. I wanted to use my skill set to make topics I think are interesting and important easy and fun to learn about.

I have a lot of friends in education and I was thinking a lot about why science and engineering is still considered such a “boys club”. There is still such a massive gender gap in STEM fields even though girls test just as well as boys do in math and science. I wanted to do what I could to encourage girls to follow their passions. I truly believe that one of the best ways to fight against this kind of bias is by introducing young adults to strong female role models. There are so many female scientists who have changed our world with their discoveries, but many have landed in obscurity. So I decided to use my own skill set –illustration and design to help celebrate women and their accomplishments. illustration is a powerful tool when it comes to telling stories, and I wanted this book to not only be educational but also feel fun. My hope for my book is to help make these women household names and inspire a whole generation of girls!

 

Can you give us a peek into your creative process? What’s a day in the life like?

All of my projects, whether it is a book or a poster starts with the research. It is the information that determines how I lay out a page. For this book I read some great books like Headstrong by Rachel Swaby and  Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne. I also used documentaries, obituaries, the Nobel Prize website and interviews with the women I found online. I write around one or two stories a day and then it is time to draw.

I want to make the information as accessible as possible so I first figure out what I am saying visually versus what is actually written in words and how to weave the information into the illustration. Once it is all planned out, it is time to have fun. I usually listen to fun audio books or trashy TV while drawing each spread.

How did you choose which women to include in your book?

I wanted there to be a story for everyone. I wanted a diverse group of scientist in all different fields. Astronomers, paleontologists, marine biologist, computer programmers, volcanologist, and mathematicians are only a few of the types of scientists and fields of study in this book. I also wanted a breath of history and women who came from different cultural backgrounds and economic classes. This way you don’t just learn about science you also learn history. This book is also about suffrage the civil rights movement, world war two and the space race. The women in this book used their unique perspective to change the world.

 

What women were most fascinating and/or surprising to you to write and illustrate?

It’s wasn’t really a surprise, but it was the fact that although the women in the book had very different backgrounds and challenges passion for their work was very similar. No matter what stood in their way, sexism, Jim Crow laws, segregation, persecution during the holocaust, being unpaid or fired due to their gender — it did not matter. Each challenge was met with this unyielding love of science. They would work in their childhood bedroom, a dusty attic or in a small shack, with no respect. I did not matter as long as it got them closer to their discovery. You read their stories and you think that is a pioneer, that is someone who changes the world.

Do you consider yourself a Young Adult writer? How do you categorize your work and why?

I went into writing the book for everyone – from adults to seven year olds. I wanted there to be something to learn for everyone. I am excited that my book is so accessible to young adults. High school and Middle School are a powerful time in a person’s life. They are trying out new things, trying to figure out who they are and their place in the world. If my book helps them discover their passion in life and introduces them to their career path, that is all I could hope for!

Who is your dream reader? The one that, if you were to stumble upon them on a bus or subway reading your book, you’d melt?

 My dream reader is a young girl who is being introduced to these stories for the first time and they gain a new role model. If my book inspires someone to go into science, or want to change the world that would be the dream. But if I saw one of the women in my book reading my book, like Maryam Mirzakhani, Mae Jemison or Sylvia Earle — that would be the ultimate.

Let’s dig into your own reading life a bit now. What writers and what illustrators are some of your influences? What are some of your favorite young adult books now? What were some of your favorite books as a teenager? 

What inspires and informs my work is science and history. It is my passion to take dense information and organize it in a way that is beautiful and fun to read. I want my art work to have a positive impact on the world, empowering young people to follow their dreams and to learn more about the world around them.  I truly believe that illustration is one of the most powerful tool there are when it comes to learning and storytelling.  As a kid I struggled a lot with reading, you can begin to feel insecure about your abilities to be “a smart kid”. But books and television shows like Magic School Bus, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Amelia’s Notebook, and the Classics Illustrated comics series were filled with whimsy and illustration. They made me feel like I could approach any topic without fear and inspired a lifelong love of learning in me.

Scientific Literacy and understanding history could not be more important. We need to grab the attention of children and adults to learn more about the world around them so that they have the tools to make informed decisions.  But sometimes dense information like learning about particle physics or Hyperbolic geometry can feel scary. I hope my books can introduce people to complicated topics and ideas so they experience the joy of learning and gleefully want to bust down the doors to learn more. 

The graphic novels I’ll stay up all night reading are very different then the work I make and is my escape. A lot of my favorite books and authors I loved as a teenager are still inspiring me today. Graphic novels like Sandman (Neil Gaimen), Maus (Art Spiegelman), Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi) really had an impact on me growing up.  My recent favorites would be Black Hole by Charles Burns, Ghost World by Daniel Clowes (I am about to read his book Patience that came out last year)

 

In honor of Women’s History Month, tell us about some of your lady-identifying heroines, fiction or real? Is there a woman from history you’d love to see a book written about?

Lise Meitner, Sylvia Earle, Katherine Johnson, and Mae Jemison are just a few women from my book who have completely inspired me.  Please read their stories, watch their documentaries and listen to their interviews and just be humbled by their genius.

Shirley Chisholm is someone I think needs to have a movie made about her. She is the first African American Woman elected to congress and her story is amazing. Go out and read about her autobiography Unbought and Unbossed.

  

What’s next for you? Can you tease us with what it is that’s lighting you up about this project?

I have a bunch of new projects being released this year that I am super jazzed about. First off, March 7, a guided journal I made called I Love Science will be in stores. It is filled with a bunch of resource pages like html coding vocab, geometry equations, which I think is good for everyone to have handy. But it also has prompts to inspire exploration and critical thinking about our universe and empowering quotes from female scientist throughout history.

The other big project I have been working on that is coming out this July is Women in Sports: 50 Fearless Athletes Who Played to Win. The most basic stereotypes that women have to fight is that our bodies are inherently weaker than men. For many, strength is associated, independence and an ability to lead, So how can we fight this stereotype? Well, with stories of women throughout history who have perused their passions in sports– who have broken records, climbed the tallest mountains in the world and have bench pressed over 300lb. Women in Sports is filled with stories of women who could not be stopped from earning their victories.

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