Shelli R. Johannes, SHE PERSISTED: Florence Nightingale

Shelli R. Johannes, SHE PERSISTED: Florence Nightingale

Zibby speaks to critically acclaimed author and repeat MDHTTRB guest Shelli R. Johannes-Wells about She Persisted: Florence Nightingale, an inspiring chapter book biography about the woman who revolutionized modern nursing, with a foreword by Chelsea Clinton! Shelli shares Florence Nightingale’s story – from abandoning high society and refusing to marry to treating soldiers on the frontlines and transforming the health-care system. She also talks about her career as a picture book writer and reveals the projects she is working on next!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Shelli. Thanks for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” this time to discuss Chelsea Clinton’s She Persisted: Florence Nightingale.

Shelli Johannes: It’s good to be back. Thank you for having me again.

Zibby: Of course. Explain. How is Chelsea Clinton involved? How are you involved? How is Florence Nightingale involved?

Shelli: Chelsea Clinton’s series is all about women being empowered and how they got to where they were, as far as heroes, from a perspective of persistence. That could be current people or people from the past. That is her whole theme of that series. They wanted to do Florence Nightingale to celebrate the nurses and doctors after COVID and everything that they had done on the front lines. I actually had worked with Jill Santopolo, who is the major editor over the series. Just with some of my STEM books, I think they thought I would be a good fit for Florence Nightingale. I was excited to dive into it because I didn’t know much about her.

Zibby: She was a hero. I’m pretty sure I dressed up as her for either a school fair or Halloween. I just totally remember dressing up in my mom’s bathroom. I don’t know. I’ll have to ask her about it.

Shelli: You were the lady of the lamp, probably. That was her big call to fame, was the lady of the lamp.

Zibby: Florence Nightingale is really credited for basically starting nursing altogether. What happened before her? Paint the picture of life before Florence Nightingale, how she burst on the scene, and how she transformed the industry.

Shelli: She is kind of known for starting the modern nursing world. There are two other figures that I think are really important just to mention, which is Mary Seacole, who was a Black British Jamaican woman who met Florence Nightingale but also was part of the Crimean War and started a British hotel for soldiers. Then Clara Barton, of course, who was over in the United States about the same time, kind of overlapping, was key to the Civil War. Florence Nightingale, before her, I think there weren’t a lot of women in nursing. It was a lot of men. Everyone looked down on nurses. They were considered lower class. They were considered not serious about their job. I don’t think it was a very high profession that people were pushed into. Florence Nightingale came from a very wealthy family.

Zibby: Wait, they still called it nursing, even though — do we know this?

Shelli: I think it was still called nursing, but it wasn’t great to be a nurse. It wasn’t a very well-established field. It was mostly doctors, and they were all male. There wasn’t a lot of caretaking of the patients at the level that I think nurses were coming in and taking care of them.

Zibby: Got it. Okay, keep going.

Shelli: She was born in Florence, Italy. Her parents loved Italy, so that’s why they named her Florence. She just never saw herself as a society girl. Even from the very beginning, her father saw that she was really smart, so he really educated her and her sister — her name’s Pop — and took them in this little bookcase in his office and would teach them math. They spoke many languages, kind of against the mother’s wishes. The mother really wanted them to be very high society and marry. Florence Nightingale had no intention of marrying and never did marry, even though she had gotten many, many proposals. She was very smart, loved math, loved science, loved languages, loved to write. She was a writer. When she was sixteen, she got this calling that she was supposed to be a nurse and help people, a calling that her parents were not very supportive of. Hence, she persisted and really pushed forward in an industry where women were not respected.

Zibby: How did she do that? I guess I have to read. I’ll have to read the book to find out.

Shelli: Yes. She loved taking care of animals. She would go to the local hospital and help during some of the outbreaks. She, kind of under the pretense of traveling around Europe as a high-society woman, would stop by churches and talk to nuns who were taking care of people. She would stop by hospitals. She would stop by and learn all of these different ways that people were taking care of people who were sick. Eventually, against their will, she enrolled in a nursing school in Germany and went to Germany out of the high society, turned down all of her marriage proposals. She’s twenty at this time, so going against not only being in a wealthy family and their expectations, but also expectations just during that Victorian era.

Zibby: Did you read The Mitford Sisters? It’s not the same timeline.

Shelli: No, I didn’t.

Zibby: It’s by Marie Benedict. It’s about these four society girls, these daughters of a society family, essentially, one of whom is a writer. She chronicles how her older sister, who was the queen bee, this blond, beautiful whatever, she ends up getting a divorce right at the beginning of the book. It’s about how she persisted but also went against all of the norms of her family and actually ended up being involved with World War II and Hitler and all this other stuff, and how their little sister was. I feel like Florence and the Mitfords would have an interesting cross-generational conversation.

Shelli: Marie Benedict writes a lot of great historical books about strong women.

Zibby: How did you decide what to include in the book? It’s a chapter book series. I never know how to talk to the right age child. I’m always writing, this is too old. This is too young. How do you nail that? I know you have so much experience with the whole children’s world, so how to get the writing to the right age? What is the right age? Then how do you pick what to include when you have so much information about someone’s life?

Shelli: This is my first chapter book. I’ve done a lot of picture books and early readers. I was nervous but accepted the challenge. I was persisting and excited to be a part of this series. Obviously, there are many, many other Chelsea Clinton chapter books on current and past historical women, so read that. I really wanted to get into, who was Florence the girl? Who was the Florence the woman? If this is for nine to twelve-year-olds, who was she at that age? What inspired her? I think sometimes when we’re that age, we don’t realize the things that we love and how they can play into our futures. Sometimes we maybe discard them or think they’re not very important. She loved math. She would collect seashells. She would organize them by shape and by size and by type. She would catalog them. She was very meticulous about numbers and how things were categorized. That was just something that she loved. She, later on, ended up also developing the rose diagram, which is a statistical diagram.

After she went and trained in nursing — she knew a lot of high-society people. There was a man who was the war secretary when the Crimean War started — they wanted to send over nurses because the death rate was so high in this war that they couldn’t figure out what was going on. She volunteered. He chose her, which was unheard of at the time in being a woman. All men over on the battlefield. She got to pick thirty-eight nurses to travel with. It was a thirteen-day travel, seasick, cockroaches, rats. Goes over there and realizes that most of the people are dying because of sickness or disease. It’s not because of their battle wounds. It’s because they’re getting dysentery and cholera and getting very sick. The conditions were so bad. People were lying in their own feces. There was blood. There was no one cleaning there. There wasn’t a great amount of food. The water wasn’t clean. She went in there with not any of the support of the male doctors and just decided, I need to clean this place up.

All of her math and science and language that she loved when she was little came into play. She could speak to anyone. She used her math and statistics to figure out how many people were dying. They didn’t even know how many people were dying, who was dying, what the statistic was. She actually took the statistic of forty-five percent of a death rate and lowered it to two percent by the time she had left in about six months just from doing sanitation, everything we use today in modern nursing, washing hands, keeping linens clean, separating the sick from the healthy. A lot of those things that we used during COVID to keep ourselves safe, she really implemented. It all came from when she was a kid and she helped animals and helped sick people in town. I love that this series shows you the person behind the legend or the hero and how they grew up to be that way and what they had to go against to get there.

Zibby: Wow, very cool. I feel like we need role models now more than ever. We’re trudging uphill against so many things in our society.

Shelli: She really brought holistic patient care. It wasn’t just a doctor coming and saying, hey, take this pill. Here, I’ll sew you up. As you know if you were her at Halloween, she would dress up at night, and she would walk this four-mile hospital. She would talk to these soldiers. She would take care of them. She would write letters for them. She implemented a call bell, which is similar to the call bell system we have today. They had little hand bells that they could ring. She and her nurses would go and take care of them. She really felt like if you took care of the person as opposed to the problem, that they had a better chance of survival. She was right.

Zibby: Not all doctors ascribe to that even now. People, they bring in their whole teams, and they talk about you like you’re diseased or whatever. Not that this has happened. Even with having a baby or whatever, it’s like, okay, she had a C-section. I’m like, hello?

Shelli: I’m here. I’m a person. The nurses, thank goodness for them. They’re the ones that come in. Really, they’re the ones that take care of the dirty stuff. They’re changing bedpans. They’re changing your medicine. They’re making sure that you’re comfortable. They’re bringing you food. They’re really the caretakers of the hospitals. Without them — they were essential in COVID. I love that we’re celebrating nurses because I just don’t think they get enough credit for the care and the love and the sacrifice and responsibility that they have to their patients.

Zibby: Totally. Every time I’ve been in a hospital, I’m like, as soon as I get out of here, I’m going to send all these flowers and cakes and thank you gifts to these nurses. Oh, my gosh, they’re so amazing. Then I go back to my life, and I always forget. Is that the most embarrassing thing to admit?

Shelli: No, it’s not because life gets busy. This is a time where we can celebrate them, during Women’s History Month in March, and really say thank you for everything that they did. As you know, taking care of those patients — a lot of them were alone. Being there for them, that’s the heart of a nurse.

Zibby: Yes, so true. Who are the other people being featured in the series? Are you writing all of those as well?

Shelli: No, I am not writing all those. I would love to. It really is all women. It’s not even just women in science or nursing. Harriet Tubman, Sally Ride, Malala. It really covers the gamut. It covers from dance to science to math to space travel. Jane Goodall. It really just covers the gamut of, these are strong women who have fought to stand up for something that they believed in, whether that was taking care of someone or being an activist or making a change in the world. Florence Nightingale is mine. They have a whole slew of lovely writers that are in charge of the different books as they come out.

Zibby: What was the experience like for you? I know you were scared. What was it like doing the chapter book?

Shelli: I feel such a responsibility to — obviously, it’s fact based, so trying to just swallow from the hose of historical facts and what is right and what isn’t and what to include, but also wanting to appeal to kids. What’s fun about her? What’s fun about her is she loved animals. She had sixty cats in her life. She would take care of these animals in the same way that she would really take care of humans. She even rescued an owl when she was in Athens, in Greece, and named the owl Athena and ended up bringing that owl back. It was her pet owl that she would carry in her pocket with her. She was very loving to all sentient beings and really pushed against the status quo. She could’ve gotten married, had her money, and lived a life of sewing and parties and entertaining, which is what her mother and her sister did. Instead, she wanted to make a difference.

Even after she left the war, she came back — she was bedridden. She was very sick. She got Crimean fever. She was bedridden for the rest of her life but still, from her bed, helped transform the health-care system in Great Britain, knew Queen Victoria and would work with her to make sure that soldiers were taken care of and that people were taken care of, and wrote. She was a writer. She wrote 13,000 letters in her life to family members, to friends just telling about those experiences. They have all of those letters. She wrote two books on nursing and hospitals as well as a — what I think is funny, a little obscure fact is she wrote a fiction novel called Cassandra, which was really about a girl who was going up against the societal norms of the time and dealing with the oppression of men and society. I love that she was a writer and a mathematician and not just a nurse. She was a whole person.

Zibby: That’s so cool.

Shelli: She had quite the life and ended up dying when she was ninety.

Zibby: Ninety? Oh, my gosh.

Shelli: Ninety. Bedridden. Did all of this, wrote all these letters, did all of this change to the system from her bed.

Zibby: Wow, that’s a lot of time, from age twenty to ninety. She was in bed the whole time? That’s not how I pictured her.

Shelli: It was probably about forty years at the end of her life by the time she got back from the war and was starting to do these bigger changes.

Zibby: Oh, okay. Still, wow.

Shelli: Still, forty years bedridden.

Zibby: I was in bed for four months with my twins when I was pregnant, and that was really long.

Shelli: Yeah, and she’s accomplishing things. She’s writing. She’s making a difference. She’s not giving up. She’s pushing her cause.

Zibby: Now that this book is done, what are your next projects in the que?

Shelli: We still have some more books coming out with the Loves Science series. Mostly, I Can Read. We just had one release in January, which was Wind and Water. We have another one releasing next January. All of the books are going into paperback. Any of the picture books that didn’t go into paperback are getting ready to go into paperback. I’m really excited about that, especially now with the printing and everything going on in the industry. I think kids need to be able to have accessible and affordable books. The paperbacks give them that. Also, a chapter book series that hasn’t quite been announced that will tackle sustainable farms, a girl that lives on a sustainable farm. That will be coming out 2024 or 2025. Hopefully, more. We have little lines in the water. You know how that is.

Zibby: I know how that is. That’s awesome.

Shelli: Keeping all those lines in the water. One comes out. You put another one in.

Zibby: The life of the writer.

Shelli: I love, in the book, the series includes, what are some things that kids can do? at the end. What can you do to push this forward? At the launch party that’s happening at Little Shop, they’re having the kids not only dress up as historical characters, but write letters that we’re going to end up taking to the hospitals to nurses just thanking them.

Zibby: That’s so nice.

Shelli: Also, having a soap-making party so they can make soap to keep things clean. There’s a lot of little things in the back to say, hey, here’s how you can honor Florence Nightingale and this whole plight of nursing and really making a space for yourself. Fun activities that they can really do at their level.

Zibby: Love that. This is a good birthday party gift, birthday party idea. You could do the soap making.

Shelli: I think that would be fun.

Zibby: A nice way to give back.

Shelli: Write letters and let them know how much we appreciate them. We wouldn’t have made it these last two years without our nurses. A year ago, that was in the news, but I think we’ve forgotten that a little bit. We’re just trying to shine a light to say, hey, we’ve come this far. We’re getting back to normal because these people took care of us and our loved ones at times when we couldn’t and didn’t know how. I love that kids will walk away from this knowing Florence the person as opposed to the lady of the lamp.

Zibby: Have you had a good nursing experience, a good experience with a nurse?

Shelli: My grandmother passed away of MS. She was in the hospital for a very long time. The nurses kept her laughing. The nurses kept her moving. I had two C-sections. I wouldn’t have made it without my nurses. They just bring light to sometimes a dark time when you’re dealing with a lot of other things. You know how it feels when you just feel horrible. You kind of lose that light a little bit when you don’t feel good. Nurses are the ones that keep that light going. I love lady of the lamp because I think that’s what nurses do. They bring in that light. They bring in the humor. They bring in the care. They bring in the love when other people can’t be there, and the understanding, at a time where doctors can’t. Our family may not know what we need.

Zibby: True. The real warriors.

Shelli: I know you had a lot of experience with that. We’ve all had experience and appreciate.

Zibby: Yes, absolutely. In case listeners haven’t heard your prior episode, can you give a summary of how you got to this point in your career?

Shelli: I started out with writing picture books that were science focused. Really, it was about, at a time when my daughter was younger, she was starting to move away from science. She loved science and had said that science was just for boys. I got this idea about a series, which was really a Fancy Nancy, taking the — it’s fun to be pretty and pink and fancy, but you can also be smart. It was really a Fancy Nancy for science. That’s really what kicked off my writing career, in addition to some of the other series. I have Theo TheSaurus and Unicorn. I never thought I would be a picture book writer. I always thought I would be a dark YA writer. Maybe someday I’ll get back to that. I definitely feel like I have a progression. Now I’m moving into chapter books. I hope I get a chance to do another She Persisted series because I loved learning and researching and finding out more about that.

Zibby: Did you see — my husband just told me this. Danny and the Dinosaur is now going to be a live-action movie produced by — HarperCollins Productions is making a live-action movie out of it.

Shelli: Really? Oh, wow.

Zibby: I know. I didn’t know HarperCollins was making movies.

Shelli: I didn’t imagine that book being a full feature. He gets the dinosaur. They’re running through the town.

Zibby: They run around. They have a nice day.

Shelli: What’s going to happen?

Zibby: Ice cream.

Shelli: It’s going to be a sequel.

Zibby: It’ll be a short film.

Shelli: I also wanted to give a quick call-out to the illustrators. Alexandra, I think it’s Boiger, and Gillian Flint are the illustrators for that entire series. They do a lot of hard work. They do the internal illustrations as well as the cover. There are many, many more books coming out this year. I hope it continues.

Zibby: I hope so too. It’s really awesome. I’m so glad to have chatted with you about it. Congratulations on writing that.

Shelli: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Always look forward to hearing what you’re up to.

Shelli: Me too. Good luck with your bookstore. Congratulations on all your books coming out. I love seeing them. The What If, I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but it’s on my pile. I love doing your book club. I love book ambassadors. I love being a part of everything that’s been going on for the last couple of years from when I started book club. It’s been really nice to just watch from the sideline to see that journey and to feel like, oh, this happens. We can do this.

Zibby: Thanks. Thank you. It’s all because of everybody who’s been involved. There has to be some demand for it, so thanks. You’re a part of it.

Shelli: I’m excited. Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks a lot. Bye.

Shelli: See you soon.

Shelli R. Johannes, SHE PERSISTED: Florence Nightingale

SHE PERSISTED: Florence Nightingale by Shelli R. Johannes

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