A spark and a twitch
Profile:Everything clicked for local author Catherine Thimmesh when she began writing children’s books.
by Mikki Morrissette
Whether it's hanging from a trapeze 40 feet in the air, activating the imagination of school kids with an interactive show-and-tell about the first moon walk, or cocooning in her contemporary Eden Prairie home to write her next children's book, 40-year-old Catherine Thimmesh finds ways to invigorate her life and others by discovering the new and noteworthy.
|Catherine Thimmesh latest book, “Team Moon,” explores the unheralded women and men behind the 1969 moon mission. |
Photo by Lisa Radunz Strohkirch.
|"Discovery, in its simplest terms, requires a sense of awareness and the ability to
distinguish the new and noteworthy."
- Catherine Thimmesh
Her latest book, for example, doesn't simply explain the extraordinary moment in U.S. history when Neil Armstrong became the first human to stand on a celestial body and look into the heavens and view Earth. Thimmesh knew there was something even more unique than that to share with kids.
"If it was purely up to the astronauts, they wouldn't have gotten much farther than the parking lot," Thimmesh said. "I am a space nut. I love the moon. And while appreciating the aesthetic beauty of the moon, I knew that, by golly, people have actually walked on it. How did it get done? I was interested in what happened behind the scenes. Really, the astronauts were only 10 percent of the story. They didn't work in a vacuum. It was ordinary Joes (and Janes) who made it happen."
So Thimmesh wrote "Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon," written for ages 9 and up, which explores in 80 pages the unheralded men and women who made the 1969 mission possible. Such as a seamstress who helped sew the spacesuits, and told her, "We didn't worry too much until the guys on the moon started jumping up and down. And that gave us a little bit of an eyebrow twitch."
Finding a "twitch," or spark to motivate is what drives Thimmesh's work. Although her curiosities have led to several award-winning books for kids, she doesn't describe herself as a passionate person. "For me, that means someone who throws themselves into something non-stop, who wants to know every detail. But I get bored easily. I like to try new things. Get new perspectives. That tends to trigger something for me."
As an adult, she's attended Space Camp in Alabama. She's taken a class at SeaWorld. And she has strapped on a harness every week for the last three years and leaped into the air as a flying trapeze student at Circus Juventas.
"Frightening" is how she described the first few times she climbed up a twisting rope ladder to a small platform and leaped into uncharted territory like an aerial Armstrong. But now she leaps without a safety line.
Petite and lithe, it's actually possible to picture this suburban writer and mother of two flying through the air with ease. Yet she's never been an athlete. For her, it simply comes with the territory of being a dabbler who gets bored easily.
Talk to Thimmesh about her background and you won't get many clues to the discoverer that she's become. She grew up in Golden Valley in rather typical fashion with a stay-at-home mom, two siblings, and a father who loved art. She tried majors at the University of Minnesota in English, theater, physics (one week), and broadcasting, before ultimately settling on art history. Her first job out of college was co-owning with her father a high-end contemporary art gallery in downtown Minneapolis, which consisted of a lot of waiting-for people to walk in the door, for sales-before it closed three years later.
To fill the time while running the gallery, she took a class at The Loft, where her schedule happened to mesh for a children's writing course. And that's when she found lift off.
Thimmesh dabbled deeply enough to get a job at a children's publishing house. She helped organize a children's book-writing conference, which enabled her to get a free review of a five-page synopsis for a fictional story about a girl locked in a library who discovers a book about female inventors. The editor who read it didn't care so much for the fiction story, but did like the idea of creating an actual nonfiction book.
Her first book featured intelligent, independent, strong-minded inventors of incredible innovations, all of whom happened to be women. "Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women," was published in 2000 by Houghton Mifflin, which has published three of her books since.
"The Sky's The Limit: Stories of Discovery by Women and Girls," celebrates the remarkable stories fueled by the curiosity and creativity of scientists-who, again, happen to all be women.
"Madam President: The Incredible, True (and Evolving) Story of Women in Politics," was largely inspired by a conversation between Thimmesh's daughter and a friend, then first graders, who were discussing the "fact" that a woman could not be president of the United States. Thimmesh realized that the misunderstanding was not because of a lack of faith, but because they simply had never heard of a female president before. They didn't know it was an option. So she created the title, and then figured out a book to go along with it. Her book includes 23 profiles of women involved in politics in the U.S. and abroad, written for grades 4 to 7.
Ironically, when Thimmesh went to the library every week as a kid with her mother, nonfiction was never on her reading list. "I didn't like it at all," she said. That's why the books she writes are written and illustrated in a way to give enjoyment to the reader. "I don't write books that you would do a book report from. Although they are factual, and filled with information, I want more than anything for kids to be entertained by them."
Thimmesh's 9-year-old son, a voracious reader, and 11-year-old daughter don't particularly enjoy nonfiction either. But every night when the moon comes out, and the acrobatics and discoveries are done for the day, Mom and/or Dad snuggle together with the kids to read anything from picture storybooks to young-adult novels. Their current read is "Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy," by Gary D. Schmidt, a novel about prejudice and tolerance in 1912 Maine.
A few years after that first-grade conversation, Thimmesh's daughter is inspired to be who she wants to be, even if that means trying to convince boys to let her play baseball (her current interest). "She darn well thinks she can do anything," Thimmesh said. "And my son is being brought up the same way, that he and his sister can do anything that interests them. So far, so good. Of course, books and discussions aside, when you send them out into the world with other kids, there are biases that come up. It's ingrained in the culture. It starts when they are young, of course. Even going through the drive-up window at McDonald's when they are 3, there are 'boys' and 'girls' toys. Why should that be?"
It is in describing her pet peeves that Thimmesh's spark really lights. She hates phrases like "she throws like a girl," or even the word "tomboy," which implies that only boys are natural athletes. "Even as a young girl, we didn't have terms like 'feminist,' but I knew it wasn't right for me and others to feel bad for being a girl. I guess that's why I like to celebrate the strength that women have as a given. To recognize our independence and creativity" without qualifying it with "even though I'm a woman."
Thimmesh enjoys the fact that boys read and comment on her stories of women and girls as well. "Subtle, yes, but I guess I am trying to contribute to a gender-blind universe," she said.
The profile appears in every issue of the Minnesota Women's Press. It reflects our founding principle and guiding philosophy that every woman has a story. Readers are welcome to submit suggestions for profile subjects.