I’m excited to talk with Jennifer Thermes today about mapmaking, her love of history, and how her own house inspired a book.
What drew you to Emma Gatewood as a subject for your latest biography? Have you ever hiked any part of the Appalachian Trail?
I was inspired by Emma’s independence and determination to do something just because she wanted to, without even thinking she might be too old. A few people had solo hiked the entire trail before her, but she did it at a time when it had fallen into disrepair, and when women’s lives were much more constricted. I was also fascinated by the idea of the Appalachian Trail– a footpath that follows so many miles of changing landscape–and wanted to weave a map of it throughout a story.
In your writing and illustrating, you seem to have an affinity for history. Do historical subjects inspire you? What is your favorite time period?
They do! A love of history has led to the non-fiction books I write and illustrate today. Really, there’s something fascinating about all eras, so I can’t say I have just one favorite. I’m very happy to see how many stories about lesser-known people and periods of history are being published today.
You started out as a map designer for magazines and newspapers. How did you get started creating maps? What kind of research goes into that work? Can you talk a little about the aesthetics of a good map?
I was a design major in art school but always wanted to draw. Maps were a good combination of design and drawing. Research involves gathering information about geography, land shapes, picture reference, and figuring out what to include or not. (To be clear, I’m not a cartographer, much as I admire the work they do!) For me, a good map tells a tale of its own, while also inspiring a reader to want to learn more about the story. Clarity is important, but that doesn’t necessarily mean simple. Poring over details can be the best part of looking at a map.
How did you transition from designing for magazines and newspapers into writing and illustrating for children?
My map work caught the eye of a children’s book editor who asked if I had any story ideas. (I did!) For a long time I thought of myself as more of an illustrator than a writer, but I’ve always been a big reader, so the writing part felt like a natural progression of storytelling.
I was intrigued to learn you own an 18th century farmhouse in Connecticut. I have an 1898 Connecticut farmhouse with many cool, tucked away features. What is one of your favorite things about your house? Was your first book When I Was Built inspired by your own home?
It was! Our kids were quite young when we bought our home, and we spent a lot of time fixing it up. As we uncovered clues about the house, they had questions about what life might have been like for the people who lived here over the years, which in turn inspired the book. Again, the theme circles back to a love of history.
What’s the best part of being a children’s author and illustrator?
I’m happiest when drawing, or puzzling over a new idea. The feeling of possibility is creatively fulfilling.
Do you have any anecdotes from an event with kids that you’d like to share?
“Are you as old as your house?” Kid’s questions are the best kind of unfiltered honesty.
What’s up next for you?
Not sure how much I can share yet, but I’ve recently finished black & white illustrations for a middle grade novel written by a super talented writer, coming out in early 2019. I’m very excited for that book. And currently, I’m immersed in writing and illustrating a picture book about the story of the island of Manhattan. (“Obsessed” is more like it—my history-geek self is on cloud nine!)
What’s your favorite holiday?
Thank you so much for inviting me to be a guest on your blog!
Thank you, Jennifer! I know we’ll all be on the lookout for that middle-grade novel, and I can’t wait to see your next picture book! I wish you all the best with Grandma Gatewood Hikes the Appalachian Trail!
You can find Grandma Gatewood Hikes the Appalachian Trail at these booksellers:
You can connect with Jennifer Thermes on:
National Park Week Review
About the Holiday
Don’t you feel it? That little nudge to leave home and enjoy the outdoors again? Spring is the perfect time to discover or rediscover the beauty all around by visiting a national park. Whether you like hiking, camping, fishing, swimming, or just the quiet pleasure of a picnic, there’s a national park near you to enjoy. This year’s theme for National Park Week, which runs from April 21 through April 29, is “Park Stars” and encompasses everything from the starry skies to those rock-star rangers and volunteers who maintain the system of parks across the country. This year, why not join them in protecting our national parks and the wildlife that call them home.
Grandma Gatewood Hikes the Appalachian Trail
By Jennifer Thermes
With eleven children, a farm to tend, and chores to do, Emma Gatewood’s days were plenty busy. When she needed a bit of escape, “a long ramble through the hills behind the farm was all Emma needed to set her heart right again.” So when her children had all left home and sparked by a magazine article about the Appalachian Trail, Emma put on her walking shoes and took to “‘the longest footpath in the world.’” The article had said that no woman had ever hiked the Trail from beginning to end, and Emma determined to change that.
On May 3, 1955, at the age of sixty seven, Emma left her home in Ohio and traveled to Mt. Oglethorpe in Georgia to begin her hike along the 2,190-mile-long Appalachian Trail. With just a light homemade sack and canvas shoes, Emma made her way up the trail, eating berries and drinking from streams as she went. When the trail took her through small towns and mountain farms, she got a real “supper and a cozy place to sleep.”
Word traveled about the older woman hiking the trail, and “Emma soon became known as ‘Grandma Gatewood.’” In June Emma crossed into Virginia and at the beginning of July took a quick jog through Maryland. The magazine article had said that hiking the trail was easy, but Emma had a different perspective. She once said the trail always seemed to “‘lead you right up over the biggest rock to the top of the biggest mountain they can find.’”
Grandma Gatewood walked in all weather and saw sights that were sometimes dull, but more often stunning. During July she crossed Pennsylvania, traced an edge of New Jersey, and hopped a corner of New York State. Pennsylvania’s sharp rocks “tore the soles of Emma’s shoes, so she held them together with tape.” By this time the newspapers had heard about Emma too, and “reporters met her at almost every stop.” Pretty soon, the whole country was talking about her! When people asked her why she was doing it, she answered, “‘Just for the heck of it.’”
It was late summer and Emma was over halfway finished, but a bigger challenge was headed her way. A hurricane was swirling toward the East Coast. In early August, Emma hiked through Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont. When the hurricane hit, she was soaked by rain, threatened by falling trees, and blown by the wind. She found shelter in a hut where a group of teenage boys were also waiting out the storm. They carried her across a swollen stream, and Emma continued her journey.
She met up with boy scouts and even went to tea with someone who had pinned an invitation to a tree along the trail. On September 3, she crossed from New Hampshire into Maine. Cold weather was coming, but the last mountain was in her sights. She bundled into every bit of clothes she had, and with torn shoes, cracked glasses, and aching muscles, Emma scrambled up the mountain all the way to the top. She had accomplished what she set out to do—and two years later, she did it again!
A timeline and an extensive author’s note about Emma Gatewood and the Trail follow the text.
Inspiring from beginning to end, Jennifer Thermes’ story highlights a woman who lived life on her terms and accomplished a personal goal while, literally, blazing a trail for women and the elderly. The jaunty lilt of Thermes’ storytelling mirrors Emma’s brisk pace while giving readers an excellent sense of her personality and the twists, turns, and obstacles of the Appalachian Trail. Facts about landmarks along the trail are sprinkled throughout.
The story of Grandma Gatewood and the Appalachian Trail is a perfect match for Thermes’ superb artwork and map-making skills. Colorful and detailed two-page maps, set every three pages, keep readers apprised of the dates that Emma passed through each state on her trek north. In between, kids get to see Emma scaring off a bear, making friends with townspeople along the way, trudging up mountains, cooling her feet in rushing streams, climbing over rocks, and weathering the storm. Themes also includes some of the gorgeous vistas that have made the Appalachian Trail a must for hikers of all ages and experience.
Grandma Gatewood Hikes the Appalachian Trail would make an inspiring addition to home libraries for children who love nature, history, and the outdoors. The book would also enhance many classroom discussions and lesson plans from language arts to social studies to science.
Ages 5 – 9
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2018 | ISBN 978-1419728396
Discover more about Jennifer Thermes, her books, and her art on her website
National Park Week Activity
National Park Coloring Pages and Map
The National Parks are home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. Enjoy these coloring pages while you learn a little bit about four of them. Then check the map and see if there’s a National Park near you!
Picture Book Review