Researcher Stories: Melissa Koch

Color photo of a smiling woman with short hair, wearing a white top, leaning forward on the edge of a stone bridge

Melissa Koch. Photo: Charlie Langton.

Melissa Koch writes nonfiction for children and young adults. Her picture book about Lucy Stone, the suffragist and abolitionist, will be published soon, followed by a children’s novel about Stone. She has researched both at the Library.

How did you get started writing nonfiction for young people?

Writing was always a big part of my career in educational technology and the learning sciences. I’ve led engineering and design teams to develop new learning technologies. As part of that development, I’ve written nonfiction for young learners, parents, teachers and funders. While I enjoy fiction, I like the challenge of nonfiction. There are so many amazing stories to tell. The trick is to tell them well.

About 10 years ago, I asked myself what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I don’t see myself as ever fully retiring, but I was in a position to semi-retire. Writing and publishing books was the answer: It gives me the alone creative time I crave plus the fun of interacting with readers and traveling to promote my books. Once I saw how my toddler son interacted with books, I was hooked. Add the fabulous children’s book writing community to the mix, and I feel like I’ve found a great home.

I published “3D Printing: The Revolution in Personalized Manufacturing” in 2017 and “Forest Talk: How Trees Communicate” in 2019.

How do you select topics?

I write because I see patterns in the world that I want to share. When I see a pattern in something that others may have overlooked, I want to spotlight it in a way that inspires people to see the world in a new way and then act in new ways. All of my nonfiction children’s books focus on making STEM and social justice personal and valuable to kids. When it’s personal and valuable, it becomes a part of you.

What drew you to Lucy Stone?

Lucy Stone is a big part of who I am, but for most of my life I didn’t know about her.

In third grade, everyone in my class had to choose a superhero. I chose Susan B. Anthony. She was all that I wanted to be: She stood up, she spoke out, she made people listen to the importance of women’s rights. She challenged societal norms and asked everyone to see how women’s rights benefited all of us: women, men, children.

But throughout my feminist-infused childhood and early adult life, I was unaware of the hero who awakened Anthony’s superpowers.

Anthony said it was Stone’s speech in 1850 at the National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, that convinced her to become a suffragist.

Stone’s words mattered. How do we not know her name? That’s what I wanted to find out when I started researching Stone. When I looked, I found an amazing nonfiction story. Or two.

What resources at the Library have you used?

I started using the Library in the late ‘80s during college summer internships. While I don’t remember all the fabulous resources I used back then, I do remember spending D.C.-hot summer days at the Library surrounded by the cool, welcoming interior of the archives. I grew up in a small town in Iowa, so spending time in such a beautiful old building with history at my fingertips inspired me.

During the pandemic, I have missed sitting in that space as I research Stone. I’ve spent most of my time reading letters in the Library’s online archives. The letters between Anthony and Stone are of particular interest. Witnessing Anthony’s deferential tone in her early letters to Stone and how the tone changed in their letters to each other over time is extremely helpful in my research.

I am also thankful for all the people transcribing the letters from cursive through the Library’s By the People project. I thought I would be much better at reading cursive. I deciphered the many letters my grandmother wrote to me in cursive that would not have won any penmanship awards. But it’s really exhausting reading letters in cursive when you don’t have a strong context or connection to the author.

Do you have any advice for other researchers trying to navigate the Library’s collections?

Ask a librarian for help. They are fantastic! Thank you, Liz Novara, for all your help.

What’s next for you?

Publication of my picture books! I have several on submission. Fingers crossed.

I will also continue to use the Library for my Stone novel research. Actually, I’m thinking of watching what new archives the Library has coming online to inspire some book ideas. And when I can, I’ll return to the Library to sit and read.

 

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