Reclaiming a historical figure ahead of her time
Professor Jennifer Harris writes a children’s story about Ellen Harding Baker's inspired marriage of science and creativity
Professor Jennifer Harris writes a children’s story about Ellen Harding Baker's inspired marriage of science and creativityBy Wendy Philpott Faculty of Arts
The Department of English faculty boasts an impressive group of published poets and novelists, giving great credibility to their new specialization in Creative Writing. Now they can add a children’s author to this complement of expertise with the publication of Professor Jennifer Harris’ picture book, She Stitched The Stars: A Story Of Ellen Harding Baker's Solar System Quilt (Albert Whitman & Company), available in bookshops this October.
You could say the book is very Waterloo Arts in the way it tells a tale rich in STEAM themes — that is, science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.
The story’s subject, Ellen Harding Baker, was an Iowa housewife with a fascination for astronomy who, in 1876, began sewing a quilt that accurately depicted our solar system. Today, the quilt hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
While Harris is a seasoned scholar, she’s new to writing and publishing children’s literature. “I'm a literary historian. I do a lot of work recuperating lost 19th century writers, particularly women writers, and I'm always on the lookout for interesting topics,” she says.
“I stumbled across Ellen Harding Baker and was riveted. Yet, there isn’t much preserved about her beyond the quilt and some vital statistics, so I couldn't quite figure out how to approach her as an academic topic.”
But the story of the quilt so enchanted Harris that she thought she might try to write a children's book that imagines how the quilt was created. “I know a lot about children’s literature, but I don’t know a lot about children’s publishing, so that was where I started. I sat down and wrote this story.”
With beautiful illustrations by Louise Pigott, Harris’ story shows Harding Baker as the mother of three daughters who are encouraged to explore and follow their curiosity about the world around them. Together, they plan, research, and sew the quilt, while still attending to their traditional domestic tasks.
In a glowing review, Kirkus magazine says, “the lively portrayal of the girls and their mother sparkles with curiosity and joy; it’s sure to inspire questions in young listeners as it embraces feminism, history, creativity, and science.”
Writing a wonderful story is one thing, but to have it published was another new experience for Harris, and one that began in a classroom with computer science majors.
“I was teaching a professional writing course and I was having the students write a formal letter,” she recounts. “How do you write a letter that's compelling? I thought I should model that for the students and wrote to a literary agent about my manuscript.” Amazingly, she was signed by the first agent she pitched, which is particularly impressive considering writers must often pitch dozens or hundreds of literary agents. “I think it says a lot about the value of professional communications.”
For Harris, writing Harding Baker’s story was also a political act of reclamation. “It's such a shame when we don”t write about people who did great things because they were undervalued in their historical moment and the details of their lives weren't preserved.
“So, imagining Ellen’s life was the way I could get around that — to honour and celebrate her in a literary fashion — and I felt did her justice with this kind of lyrical imagining of the genesis of the quilt.”
Harris wanted to inspire creativity and scientific curiosity for the children and parents reading the book. “Historically there’s this kind of derision around women’s work and crafting combined with scientific inquiry. I think there’s far more recognition of those intersections now, but I still wanted to draw attention to the way in which we can have these creative approaches, where vibrant and interesting things can come out of it. Of course, today we have all kinds of science institutes that have artist-in-residence programs, and that's a very valuable thing. In that way, I think Ellen Harding Baker was ahead of her time in marrying those two worlds.”
With a book launch there’s often a book tour. But during the pandemic, publishers have been pushing authors to engage on social media “in a meaningful way,” says Harris.
So, of course, she involved her own children in a very creative solution.
“When we realized we wouldn't be able to put the children in camp this summer, we needed a project that we could do as a family. Instagram was the answer.”
The concept was to depict a book tour with scenes featuring dolls and a perfect mini replica of the book set in bookshops, museums, galleries, as well as an airport lounge (and there’s more). “The project also allowed me a little bit of time to work while the children were on scavenger hunts for things around the house to build our Instagram scenes. It’s been entertaining for the whole family.”
She Stitched the Stars in not a one-off for Harris. Her second picture book, When You Were New, will be published by HarperCollins in 2023. And she has several other manuscripts under submission.
With this first book, Harris hopes its young readers will see that there is room for different kinds of explorations. “Ellen Harding Baker did things in an unconventional way, and there’s value in that kind of creativity and in sharing it with others.”
The University of Waterloo acknowledges that much of our work takes place on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples. Our main campus is situated on the Haldimand Tract, the land granted to the Six Nations that includes six miles on each side of the Grand River. Our active work toward reconciliation takes place across our campuses through research, learning, teaching, and community building, and is centralized within our Indigenous Initiatives Office.