An interview in partnership with Katie Mazeika
The Children’s Book Review
We’re thrilled to shine the spotlight on author-illustrator Katie Mazeika and her picture book biography Annette Feels Free: The True Story of Annette Kellerman, World-Class Swimmer, Fashion Pioneer, and Real-Life Mermaid (A Junior Library Guild Selection). Representation matters! You’ll be surprised by this piece of women’s history and how it’s shaped your time in the swimming pool— how one young girl with a disability has positively impacted the rights of women and girls today. Read on!
Let’s begin with the star of the book, Annette Kellerman. In your author’s note, you say: “Annette considered her disability to be a transformative experience, going so far as to call it her ‘greatest blessing.’” How did you first hear of her, and what connected you to her extraordinary story?
Katie Mazeika: I first came across Annette Kellerman’s story in the summer of 2017. At the time, I was looking at interesting women from history for a series of illustrations. I think I related to Annette’s disability, having lost my eye as a toddler, and so I continued researching her.
Why was it important to you to tell her story in picture book format?
I felt like a picture book could reach a younger audience and there were so many events in her life that translated beautifully into colorful, detailed illustrations.
Annette Feels Free has so much to offer readers: Overcoming adversity, the power of creative expressions, and the courage to fight for women’s rights that have paved the way for our children. How did you decide which of the many parts of Annette’s life you wanted to include?
I knew I wanted to include the events that impacted our history—Annette’s competitive swimming was a major part of her life, and she went on to make swimming a sport popular for women everywhere. Annette’s water dancing became rhythmic swimming, and then finally synchronized swimming, which became an Olympic sport in 1984. Lastly, there is her swimsuit, which was basically a man’s suit. After she was granted permission to wear that suit, she mass-produced them as the “Annette Kellerman Sun-Kist” swimsuit, and that was the start of a swimwear revolution for women.
Will you share your research process for your story’s text and illustrations?
I spent months researching Annette. I searched through newspaper archives, read both of her books, and her sister’s account of her life. As I researched the text, whenever I came across an image I thought might be good for the book, I saved it. I also went through the Sydney Opera House collection of her costumes. These costumes are labeled with the dates she wore them. I could find only one childhood photo of Annette. She is in a tutu, dancing. There were several late teen and adult photos of Annette. I even found videos of her. In one she is training her Kellermanettes to water dance. In another she is 70 years old and still dancing underwater.
Of all of Annette’s achievements, which one speaks to you the most?
That she stood up for the right to wear her swimsuit. She was only 20 years old, living in a foreign country. I think she was very brave to not back down.
Your beautiful illustrations—complete with rosy cheeks for the people and wispy water streams and bubbles for the water scenes—were rendered digitally. Can you tell us about your artistic process?
I work in Photoshop. My first round of sketches is often done by hand but then I scan that and redraw and layer on color and texture. Most of my images are well over 1000 layers when I’m done.
Is there a particular art spread that is your favorite or maybe challenged you the most while creating it?
I love the dive and the cover wrap. I love creating crowds and both of those have giant crowd scenes. The dive spread was particularly challenging because I wanted the focus to be on Annette, so I had to make the crowd interesting but subtle.
Your dedication is so sweet: “To my mom, who showed me that women can do anything, and to my dad, who always knew I was a writer (even when I didn’t)” I’d love to know how your mom demonstrated the sentiment of women being able to do anything. And how did your dad know you’d always be a writer?
My mom was a teacher because her family would only pay for college if she pursued a career appropriate for a lady. My parents divorced when I was young, and a good friend encouraged my mom to go back to school. So, my mom taught middle school during the day and went to law school at night while raising me and my brother on her own. She ended up graduating first in her class and has practiced law ever since.
As for my dad, he always encouraged my writing. I loved to write and won a few awards in high school. When it came time for college, I was torn between studying art and writing. My dad was all for writing school—he was sure that was my future. But I went to art school. Fortunately, I discovered picture books there, a perfect way to combine both!
I noticed that you live in Ohio. Have you ever been to Annette’s native country, Australia? If not, do you have plans to go?
I have never been. I’d love to go someday.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know about Annette Feels Free, yourself, or any upcoming books?
I am currently working on a second picture book biography with Beach Lane Books. It’s about Beulah Louise Henry, another groundbreaking woman. She was an inventor known as “Lady Edison.” She had more mechanical patents than any other woman in history, which is amazing since she never had any higher education beyond finishing school. I also have a book coming up about Sears kit houses; and one about the women who worked at NELA park, an Edison plant near my home that was the first-ever industrial park. The women in the book are based on members of my family who worked there in the 1910s to 1930s.
Written and Illustrated by Katie Mazeika
Ages 3+ | 40 Pages
Publisher: Beach Lane Books | ISBN-13: 9781665903431
Publisher’s Book Summary: Discover the incredible true story of “The Original Mermaid,” Annette Kellerman, a girl who wanted to dance, swim, and feel free—and who grew into a woman who fought for the right to do just that!
Annette loved to dance and twirl and pirouette. But when she got sick and had to start wearing braces on her legs, Annette stopped dancing. Until, one day, her dad took her swimming. Annette could finally dance again—in the water! She water danced her way to England, where she performed water ballets, attempted daring dives, and competed in swim races. When she competed against men (and won!), she realized it wasn’t fair that women had to swim in full skirts, so she made her own swimsuit, and fought for the right to wear it.
Experience the journey of an independent and determined young woman, who swam, danced, dove, and designed so she could live her life feeling free.
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About Katie Mazeika
Katherine Mazeika is an author and illustrator with a BFA from the Columbus College of Art and Design. When she isn’t in the studio, she likes to spend time at the theater, in her garden, or getting lost in a good book. She lives in Ohio with her husband, two kids (Lillian and Jack), and two dogs.
To learn more, and download a free curriculum guide, visit her website at katiemazeika.com.
This interview—Katie Mazeika Discusses Annette Feels Free—was conducted between Katie Mazeika and Bianca Schulze. For similar books and articles, follow along with our content tagged with Biographies, Fashion, Mermaids, Swimming, True Stories, and Women’s History. You may also enjoy the book list Excellent Books About Disabilities and the Fight for Disability Rights.