Oh, the things you can learn from a children’s book.
Who knew, for instance, that the first woman to through-hike the Appalachian Trail alone was a 67-year-old mother of 11 grown children who simply decided one day — sans hiking gear and wearing a pair of canvas sneakers — to walk the entire trail because she had read in a magazine that it was “easy?”
Yet, this is the story of Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, the first woman to not only hike the entire Georgia to Maine trail, in 1955, but the first to do so three times, completing another through-hike in 1957 (to see the things, she said, she had missed seeing the first time) and a sectional hike in 1964, at the age of 76.
Jennifer Thermes, a Connecticut-based author and illustrator, is not the first to detail Gatewood’s achievements, but she is among the first to distill the adventure into a lavishly drawn and colored format aimed at children: the large-scale picture book “Grandma Gatewood Hikes the Appalachian Trial” (Abrams Books for Young Readers).
Drawing on her mapmaking skills, Thermes’ book makes this 60-year-old story relevant to today’s young — and older — readers, while her watercolor and colored pencil illustrations complement the text, bringing an out-sized story into tiny hands and the minds of all those open to learning a thing or two.
To talk about that learning process, and the process of turning a life-journey into a book for young readers, Thermes recently agreed to answer a few questions from Mountain Times.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mountain Times: When did you first learn about Grandma Gatewood and what inspired you to tell her story in an illustrated children’s book?
Jennifer Thermes: The idea for the book actually started with the Appalachian Trail. I’d been fascinated by the A.T. for a few years — the way the trail meanders up the eastern seaboard through changing terrain — but I struggled with how to tell a compelling story about a place. Something was missing. I came across Emma’s name while reading about people who had hiked the trail, and her experience completely resonated with me. The book became her story. There was something about her “just do it” sensibility that I found appealing — tough, but with kindness underneath it all. Also, I fell in love with her dry sense of humor.
MT: What most surprised you about Grandma Gatewood’s story?
JT: She didn’t let fear hold her back from doing what she set her mind to, which was especially amazing given the life she had lived and the constraints society placed on women at that time.
MT: What did you find to be the most challenging part of writing and illustrating this adventure story?
JT: The biggest challenge was how to tell a good story using the limited number of pages in a picture book, while sticking to the facts. I really wanted kids to connect with Emma. Weaving the words and pictures (and maps) together was like assembling a magnificent puzzle — frustrating at times, but fulfilling when all done.
MT: There is so much to Grandma Gatewood’s life story, how did you decide what to include and what to leave out?
JT: That’s always a tough one! Nonfiction still has to have an exciting storyline to keep a reader’s interest. With any story, I look at each scene and ask, “What would a kid like about this?” Also, I could address some of the more difficult parts of Emma’s life in the author’s note, since some things were not relevant to her time on the trail.
MT: What did you learn from writing and illustrating “Grandma Gatewood Hikes the Appalachian Trail?”
JT: Everyone has a story, and is fascinating in their own unique way.
MT: In addition to being an author and an artist, you are a map illustrator. The maps you include in “Grandma Gatewood Hikes the Appalachian Trail” are beautiful, simple and intricate all at the same time. How did you develop an interest in map work?
JT: My background is in design, and I’ve always loved to draw, so maps are the perfect combination of design and drawing. Plus, I love poring over maps. They tell stories of their own.
MT: Of all the takeaways from Grandma Gatewood’s life — never giving up, you’re never too old to try something new, female empowerment, trust and resilience among them — what do you hope readers will most learn from her story?
JT: Well really, all of the above! I would simply add, go outside, take a walk, appreciate the natural world around you. Nature is soothing for the soul at any age.
MT: If you had the chance to ask Grandma Gatewood just one question, what would it be?
JT: I would love to know what she thought about while she walked.
MT: Last question: Have you recently found yourself with the desire to set off with a backpack, a walking stick and 2,160 miles of trail in front of you?
JT: Absolutely yes! I’m still trying to figure out how I could possibly meet my art deadline for the next book and hike the A.T. In the meantime, long walks around my neighborhood are quite lovely.