Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Hedy Lamar’s Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor by Laurie Wallmark and Katy Wu

I almost never review children’s books on this blog, but today, I’m going to make an exception because Hedy Lamar’s Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor by Laurie Wallmark and Katy Wu is A-MAZ-ING. Seriously. You NEED to order it right now.

I know it’s only February, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be my favorite picture book biography of 2019. It’s hard to imagine anything better.

Here’s a brief description:
To her adoring public, Hedy Lamarr was a glamorous movie star, widely considered the most beautiful woman in the world. But in private, she was a brilliant inventor.

During World War II, Hedy collaborated with another inventor to develop an innovative technology called frequency hopping. It was designed to prevent the Nazis from jamming torpedo radio signals to make the weapons to go off course. Frequency hopping is still used today to keep our cell phone messages private and protect our computers from hackers.

When Hedy was finally recognized for her incredible accomplishments in 1997, the 87-year-old had just three words to say: “It’s about time.”

Why do I love Hedy Lamar’s Double Life so much? Because it does a phenomenal job of explaining some pretty technical physics concepts in a way that any upper elementary student can understand. The text, art, and design work together to show and describe how Hedy’s brilliant idea—frequency hopping—works and why it’s so important.

The text makes use of meaningful, kid-friendly comparisons and superb scaffolding. It also includes plenty of details to bring Lamarr to life as a character.

The illustrations seamlessly integrate diagrams that show how changing frequencies can thwart an enemy’s efforts to tamper with torpedoes.

The design incorporates quotations from Lamarr that highlight her passion for science and inventing, and make the presentation more personal.

I was really curious about how all the different components of this book came together and I thought you might be too, so I asked author Laurie Wallmark if she’s be willing to answer a few questions. Luckily, she said yes.

MS: You are extremely talented at explaining complex science ideas to your elementary-aged audience. Do you have a science background?

LW: My science background is both through self-study and traditional coursework. As a child, I was a math/science kid. I read every popular math and science book I could get my hands on. For two summers in high school, I attended summer math and science programs sponsored by the National Science Foundation and taught by college professors. My undergraduate degree is in biochemistry, and one of my masters degrees is in Information Systems—combining people, processes, and technology to produce useful information. (The other is an MFA in writing for children and young adults.)

MS: What are some of the nonfiction craft moves you employed to make the technical information in this book easy to understand?

LW: My MFA thesis was on how to explain STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) in picture books. Here are three of the techniques I explored.

1. You don’t always have to use the technical term when you’re describing something. For example, I wrote, “Hedy made a flavor-cube that changed plain water into soda.” I didn’t write, “Hedy found a way to carbonate water.” The science of carbonation has nothing to do with Hedy’s story, so I didn’t need to include a word that I would then need to define.

2. When you want or need to use a technical word, it helps to provide the definition immediately adjacent to the word in the text instead of only in a glossary at the back of the book or in a sidebar. I wrote, “The speed of the [piano] wire’s movement, or its frequency, produced the correct note for that key.” Without stopping the flow of the story, the readers can understand what the term “frequency” means. As a secondary benefit, in this case, children also learn a bit about how a piano works.

3. Another technique I use is to compare a technical concept with an idea more familiar to children. To explain how missile guidance systems worked, I compared them to walkie-talkies. (Since modern-day children might not know what a walkie-talkie is, I used technique # 2 and gave its definition—a two-way radio.)

MS: For fiction picture books, the author and illustrator often do not interact and the author is not involved the art and design process. Was that true for this book or did you have a chance to review and comment on the sketches?

LW: I was lucky in that I had the chance to review and comment on several iterations of sketches and final art. Sometimes my comments related to the scientific or historical content (see next question), and sometimes they were just my opinion. Sometimes the editor and art director took my suggestions, and sometimes they didn’t. When you’re a picture book author, you have to be able to let go of control over the illustrations and the design of the book.

MS: I love the way this book employs a fun art style, making even the most technical drawings seem friendly and approachable. Does illustrator Katy Wu have a science background?  
LW: Katy doesn’t have a scientific background. For a book like this, that’s where the author and illustrator combination can be useful. For example, at one point in the text, I explain how the existing torpedo guidance system worked and why Hedy’s system, “the hopping of frequencies,” would be better. With my nonexistent artistic skills, I sketched how the waveforms should look for Katy. She then turned this simple sketch into the beautiful illustration you see in the finished book.

MS: Whose idea was it to incorporate quotations into the design? Where did these quotations come from?

LW: Using quotations actually started with my book, Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code. Grace made so many witty, memorable comments, that I knew I had to include them with my story. The hard part was choosing which quotations to put on which page and which needed to be left out entirely.

Since I had the same editor, Meredith Mundy, for my Hedy Lamarr book, it seemed natural to include quotations again. I had a treasure trove of relevant sayings to go along with the story. They came from primary and secondary sources, both in print and on video. These included interviews and presentations Hedy gave as well as articles, documentaries, and books.

MS: Thanks so much for giving us a window into your creative world, Laurie. Now I appreciate Hedy Lamar’s Double Life even more.


  1. Thank you for this fascinating post. I had Hedy Lamar on my list of interesting people to write picture books about about five years ago but never got much further as other commissioned projects took over. I'm so excited it's been done now and in what looks like a fantastic book. I'm ordering it now (from the UK). And I'd love to read the MFA thesis. It sounds fascinating (and I'm currently working on a STEM biography that will benefit from really good descriptions!). Thank you. Clare x

  2. This sounds like a great book! I really enjoyed the post, and as a fellow author, the techniques Laurie shared were of particular interest. I look forward to reading her book! Thank you both for an informative interview!

  3. I love this book. Thank you for sharing Laurie's technique for explaining complex concepts!

  4. I've been lucky enough to get a peek at Laurie's new book, and I absolutely LOVE it. So glad you highlighted it here so others can learn about it.

  5. Thank you so much for this post. I’m ordering this book right now.