Soaring Into Scientific Storytelling
Terp NASA Employee Turned Children’s Author Publishes Picture Book About Female Airplane Designer
The transition from working rocket launches at NASA to writing children’s books might seem like a giant leap, but for a UMD alum, the move was more like one small step.
Kirsten W. Larson MBA ’02, who for six years relayed shuttle launch and project news to the media as a NASA public relations specialist, rerouted her science communication skills toward children’s books about nature, robots and more. Her latest, “Wood, Wire, Wings: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane,” hits shelves today. Larson’s debut picture book, it uncovers the little-known history of one of the first female airplane designers.
“I call myself a science translator,” she said. “(NASA) was really good prep for writing nonfiction books, where I have to look at research and complicated concepts and figure out a way to communicate that to children.”
While working at NASA’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, Larson earned her MBA at the nearby University of Maryland, bolstering her PR experience through marketing courses. When her husband, a military test pilot, was reassigned, they relocated to California. There, she managed a business consultancy and taught courses at the University of Phoenix’s Southern California campus—until Larson’s two kids helped pull her into writing.
“Eventually, when I had my own children and started reading books to them, they were really interested in nonfiction,” she said. “That’s a world that I came from. I thought, ‘I can write something like this.’”
She started out writing for children’s magazines before working on book series for schools and public libraries, covering topics like drones, Mars and even how astronauts go to the bathroom. While she produced over 20 such pieces as a freelance writer, she had never produced a work of her own from conception through research.
That changed when Larson read “Rosie Revere, Engineer” by Andrea Beaty, a fictional picture book about a young female inventor. At the end, Larson found illustrations of the first women in aviation, including airplane designer Emma Lilian Todd. Despite her and her husband’s background in the field, neither had ever heard of Todd, and Larson found little easily-accessible information about her. She was intrigued.
“It would be really inspiring for children to learn about women designing airplanes, not just as pilots,” Larson said. “It became important to me to put her back into the narrative of history.”
She delved into newspaper archives, tracked down old magazine interviews and coordinated with other researchers to find out as much as she could about Todd. The book uses quotes, anecdotes, timelines and illustrations to tell the story of the designer, who “couldn’t imagine life without tools or tin, wires or wheels” as she looked to improve on the famous Wright brothers’ model by developing her own flying machine in the early 1900s.
“A heroine of the skies is given her due,” Kirkus Reviews writes about Larson’s book. “A person who disappeared into history after adding to the knowledge of the era, Todd is resurrected here as a role model who can provide encouragement and inspiration by virtue of her single-minded dedication and resilience.”
Women, especially in STEM, have traditionally been underestimated, Larson said, and she enjoys shedding light on their work through her writing. She has another similarly themed picture book, “The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of,” on the way next year, and she’s also working on a graphic novel she’ll only say features an underdog female protagonist.
“One of the biggest takeaways for me is the power of perseverance,” Larson said. “We talk about the fact that Lilian did not get things right the first time. There were lots of crashes, lots of mishaps, lots of redesign. I want kids to understand that that’s how inventors and engineers work.”