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Efficiency Expert: Lillian Gilbreth, Larger-Than-Life

Mother of 11 children, Lillian Gilbreth was also a psychologist, a leading efficiency expert, industrial engineer, an author, a professor, and an inventor. Her biographer, Monica Kulling, tells us more. 

Book Cover Spic and Span

Throughout National Science and Technology Week (October 17–26), we're celebrating new Canadian books on science and technology. Today we're talking to celebrated children's author Monica Kulling about her latest non-fiction picture book in the "Great Ideas" Series, Spic-And-Span! Lillian Gilbreth's Wonder Kitchen, illustrated by David Parkins. 

Lillian Gilbreth might be familiar to you as the mother of the family that inspired the Cheaper by the Dozen book and films, and sequels too. But in addition to being the mother of 11 children, Gilbreth was also a psychologist, a leading efficiency expert, industrial engineer, an author, a professor, and an inventor. Her inventions included the electric mixer, and the compartments you use every day in the door of your fridge

Monica Kulling explains why she was so captured by Gilbreth as a character, and what it was like to render her life in just a few pages. 


49th Shelf: Lillian Gilbreth’s life was so remarkable—you’d scarcely believe it if it were fiction. What parts of her experience were most immediately compelling to you?

Monica Kulling: Lillian Gilbreth was absolutely larger than life. I think what impressed me most was her ability to remain calm and centered in the midst of so many demands on her time, both professionally and personally. From her mid-40s onward, Lillian was a single parent—and a highly effective one—in a time when this was not the norm. She didn’t lose her cool when this role was thrust on her, but rather marshaled her intellect and discipline to make a life for her family.

Lillian Gilbreth 1921

I’ve imagined that Lillian’s “happiness minutes” philosophy might have played a role in her strength of character. Lillian never lost sight of the value of downtime. I began the book with the poem "Lillian’s Time" to emphasize her quiet, reflective nature. At the dawn of each day, Lillian might have found clarity and focus in a few moments of meditative stillness.

49th Shelf: The intersection of science and the domestic throughout her story is fascinating. However, one of the excellent features of your books is always their subtle subversion of gender roles, and while Lillian Gilbreth was incredibly subversive, did you wonder about the implications of writing about a woman and her kitchen?

MK: When I decided to write about Lillian Gilbreth, I did wonder for a brief moment whether a story focused on the kitchen would be of interest to kids. I didn’t, however, think of the subject as stereotypical. After all, Lillian was in the kitchen far less than most women of her era. In my opinion, she elevated the kitchen to its rightful status, a room worthy of scientific expertise in its design, layout, and timesaving appliances.

My chief concern was whether the story of Lillian as inventor would stand toe-to-toe with the other books in the “Great Idea” series. I shouldn’t have worried. Lillian was up to the task! She excelled in the home and on the job.

"She elevated the kitchen to its rightful status, a room worthy of scientific expertise in its design, layout, and timesaving appliances."

49th Shelf: You have to be quite deft with your material, making an entire life story fit into the pages of a picture books. Were there details of Gilbreth’s life that you wish you could have included? 

The wealth of information about Frank and Lillian Gilbreth was overwhelming. There were so many fun facts I couldn’t include for lack of space. For example, I wrote two spreads depicting the family on their summer vacation on Nantucket Island. They called their summer home “The Shoe” after the nursery rhyme about the old woman who lived in one with all her many kids. I wanted to balance the work and efficiency themes of the story with a bit of fun.

Gilbreth Family

1923, Nantucket, Massachusetts, USA. The Gilbreth family sits atop a see-saw while they spend their 1923 summer in an old lighthouse on Nantucket Island. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

There’s a neat photograph of the entire family sitting on a seesaw with father on one end and mother on the other that I had hoped to work in. I thought David Parkins would have great fun illustrating that.

49th Shelf: What is your favourite anecdote or detail about Lillian Gilbreth? (I can’t believed she invented the electric mixer and refrigerator door compartments! On top of everything else!).

MK: I can’t think of any particular anecdotes, but I do wish I’d been able to include more of Lillian Gilbreth’s writings. She wrote many books, and one, Living With Our Children, published in 1928, showcases her thoughts on raising children. Most would agree that bringing up 11 children would make you an expert on the subject!

Here is a gem of wisdom from that book: “Each member of the home must not only be able to express himself but be urged to do so and given not only the opportunity but the rewards of expression.”

49th Shelf: What has been your favourite reader response to this new book?

MK: Spic-and-Span! was released this past August, so it's a little early yet to have received responses from young readers. However, I did receive one response that I cherish, and probably will for a long time, from Lillian Gilbreth’s granddaughter. She is the daughter of Lillian's eighth child, Daniel B. Gilbreth. 

Peggy’s email was so delightful that I've asked her if I might share a portion of it with your readers, and she’s agreed. Peggy wrote: “I recently purchased Spic-and-Span for my granddaughters because I am a granddaughter of Lillian Gilbreth. I love the book, including the great illustrations. I also think the series is a good idea. I hope children will read [the books in the series] and come away with the idea that one doesn’t have to be a 'certified' genius to come up with ingenious ideas; if they have one some day, they should definitely pursue it.” 

There’s so much to like about this email. Imagine hearing from someone who knew Lillian personally! Peggy eloquently expresses exactly what I want kids to take away from reading the books in the "Great Ideas" series—that is, to follow their passions and have confidence in their dreams. Turning ideas into reality is a matter of hard work and perseverance, but it can be done. Peggy’s words show how influential Lillian’s intellect and character were on her children, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren.

Monica Kulling was born in Vancouver, British Columbia. She received a BA in creative writing from the University of Victoria. Monica Kulling has published 26 fiction and nonfiction books for children, including picture books, poetry, and biographies. She is best known for introducing biography to children just learning to read and has written about Harriet Tubman, Houdini, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Amelia Earhart among others. Monica Kulling lives in Toronto, Canada.  

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