Lori Mortensen remembers dashing through the pouring rain to her mother’s Chevy after school. “We’d go home and Mom would heat up some hot chocolate on the stove while my sister and I played…At that moment, life was perfect,” she says. Memories play an important role in Mortensen’s stories. “That’s one of the things I love about writing. Although I’m writing for young readers today, I’m drawing from the memories, joys and insecurities I had while I was growing up. Growing up is universal, so no matter what our age, it’s something each of us shares.”
An avid reader as a child, Mortensen recalls falling into the unique yet familiar worlds of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series or Beverly Cleary’s Ellen Tebbits. “I was the same age as [Ellen], so I loved experiencing [her] ups and downs…It was exciting, yet comforting at the same time.”
As a dance major in college, Mortensen recalls being word-oriented even then. “My choreography teacher would feel [the movements] organically through her body,” she says, “but I mapped it out on paper.” Looking back, Mortensen now sees that her interest in dance was a different medium to channel creativity to tell a story.
In the bustle of graduation, work, and marriage, children’s literature became nothing more than a pleasant memory for Mortensen. She worked in a variety of fields, including dance education, sign language interpreter, and a food preservation specialist as Master Canner. However, the birth of her three children reintroduced her to the magic of children’s literature. A creative writing class at American River College followed by Bud Gardener’s course on writing for publication gave her a goal. “I realized [writing] was something I wanted to do more than anything else I’d ever tried,” she says. She narrowed her focus to writing for children with a magazine writing correspondence class sponsored by the Institute of Children’s Literature.
Mortensen published more than 100 articles in children’s magazines. “When I reached my goal, I switched to work-for-hire books,” she says. Working for Capstone Press, Picture Window Books, and KidHaven Press, Mortensen received specific assignments to create stories with a specific word- and page-count about pre-determined subjects. For instance, her biographies about Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart, and Marie Curie began as assignments from the editors at Picture Window Books. With Vote for Our Zoo, Mortensen was assigned to write a story about a class that voted on an issue. She created a neighborhood Save Our Zoo campaign in which the children participated.
The author of more than two dozen books for children, Mortensen admits to using her children’s antics as the spark of a story or article idea. “We had a lot of pets, including guinea pigs, hamsters, a ball python, and four cats,” she says. No one liked to clean the guinea pig cage, so Mortensen seized the dreaded chore as the idea for Dirty Gertie, a story about responsibility.
Mortensen’s newest books, Come See the Earth Turn: The Story of Léon Foucault and In the Trees, Honey Bees!, received recognition from the National Science Teachers Association and the Florida Reading Association Children’s Book Awards. “It’s an honor to know children are reading them,” she says.
As a school-age child, Mortensen remembers a field trip to a museum where she saw a pendulum swinging to prove that the Earth rotated. She revisited the topic when, as an adult, she read William Tobin’s biography about Foucault. She read that Foucault had sent invitations to his peers to see the Earth turn. “I thought that would work well in a picture book,” she says. “Nothing else was written about him for children.”
In the Trees, Honey Bees! was inspired by her bee-keeper father-in-law who managed over 300 hives. “Each time we visited, he was working with his bees so I began thinking about bees. The more I researched, the more I realized there were many things I wanted to share with readers about these amazing insects that I hadn’t read in children’s literature before.” Written in fluid rhyme, In the Trees, Honey Bees! incorporates information from several beekeepers in El Dorado County where Mortensen resides.
Cindy Moo sprang to life because of a cow knick-knack that Mortensen saw in a thrift store. “It was sitting on a crescent moon and I thought it would be fun to write a story about how the cow got there,” she says. The story begins with a cow that overhears a child reciting “Hey Diddle, Diddle,” and decides to jump over the moon herself. Told again in Mortensen’s clear, simple rhyme, readers will delight in the ingenious ending.
Mortensen describes her writing career as a series of small breaks: her first magazine sale; her first work-for-hire project; her first trade picture book. “Whatever success I’ve achieved, it’s because I sat down and made it happen. Don’t wait for someone to knock on your door and ask. Do what you want to do.”