In May, Sue Stauffacher will mount her bicycle in Grand Rapids, Mich., where she first learned about the subject of her picture-book biography Tillie the Terrible Swede, illustrated by Sarah McMenemy. The author will ride roughly 200 miles, stopping at schools and museums along the way, to Chicago, where Tillie Anderson, a young Swedish immigrant working in a tailor shop, first discovered the bicycle and began to race in the 1890s.

Donning a cycling outfit much like the one Tillie designed, created and wore herself more than a century ago, Stauffacher tells us why Tillie and her bike have much to teach young people about fitness, community, perseverance and independence.



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How did you discover Tillie Anderson?

Kids ask where ideas come from and I say, “The bathroom at Big O’s restaurant [in Grand Rapids, Mich.].” There was a framed postcard on the bathroom wall that said something like “TILLIE THE TERRIBLE SWEDE RIDES PAST THE PANTLIND HOTEL.” I wondered, “Who is Tillie the Terrible Swede?” So, I Googled her. There’s very little about her, but I could write away for back issues of some old magazines that mentioned her. This was 2005. I got so excited about her.

How did you decide which details to include and which to leave out?

The impulse is to include all these details, but there’s a point at which it becomes too much for the medium. I feel that with a picture-book biography, the goal is to pique children’s interest about a person, and I wanted the book to race along, like Tillie did. I ask myself, “If I leave all this in, what am I losing in terms of energy and flow?” The illustrations do a lot.

Did you have contact with artist Sarah McMenemy?

I haven’t had contact with Sarah directly. Sarah had [a scrapbook I had put together about cycling]. Also I had been in touch with Alice [Olson Roepke, grandniece to Tillie Anderson]. Tillie had left her memorabilia with Alice. Alice was excited about the book, and she sent PDFs of newspaper clippings to Sarah…It’s very seamless. I can easily comment on the illustrations and give feedback, and that’s passed on. Her illustrations were so delightful.

Did Tillie set a trend with the outfits she made? In the illustrations of the velodrome races, it seems as though the other female cyclists are wearing outfits similar to hers.

The other riders did wear outfits like Tillie’s. Some of the other racers’ outfits still looked bulky. Some of them had bloomers, some had tunics. Tillie was on the cutting edge with the body-hugging outfit. She was about the speed! Tillie belonged to that class of elite athletes, like the Williams sisters and Michael Jordan. You can see her saying, “This is the most streamlined.”

You have written other picture-book biographies, of Althea Gibson and Bessie Smith. You’ve also written a number of middle-grade novels. Do you approach them differently?

Imaginerience, my blog, explores the question “What is my creative process and how can I help kids with their process?” It’s a combination of imagination and experience.

In Althea Gibson’s story, even with all that information, I’m still making things up—I’m making up dialogue. I want to be true to the emotional and factual information we have about the people I write about. I think kids think, “You’re different, you can do that.” And I say no, I’m not, and ask them, “What happened yesterday? What piqued your interest in the news?” Truth is stranger than fiction. You just have to be openly searching for story topics.


Pub info:


Tillie the Terrible Swede: How One Woman, a Sewing Needle, and a Bicycle Changed History

Sue Stauffacher, illustrated by Sarah McMenemy

Knopf/Random House / Jan. 25, 2011 / 9780375844423 / $17.99