“Whoosh!” Research and texting with Lonnie Johnson

whoosh-cvr_largeSo in this installment, I’ll talk about research for the book Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions, written by Chris Barton. For research, I wanted to interview Mr. Lonnie Johnson. I had so many visual questions. But for awhile, I didn’t think I would be able to talk to him. I tried calling and sending emails, but to no luck. Finally, I just began to sketch the book using some available resources, and, well, making some educated guesses.

But I worried about getting something wrong. In fact, I worried and procrastinated so much that missed my first deadline. Turned out, missing that deadline was a blessing in disguise. One day many months later, his secretary called, and an hour later, I was on the phone with the creator of the Super Soaker water gun!

Johnson was a pleasure to talk to, jovial, we laughed quite a bit. He’s definitely a smart guy, some of tumblr_mi53q0SWzL1qzuf8co1_500his scientific jargon flew right over my head! With his permission, I recorded our conversation. He graciously answered my questions, and even offered me his personal phone number where I could  text him with followup questions. It was a tremendously generous gesture—though he joked, “If you give out my phone number, I’ll come through this phone to get you!” I didn’t tell a soul, not even Chris Barton!

With my questions now answered, I felt better about completing my sketches. But as I sketched more questions came up. The Super Soaker had undergone many stages of prototypes. Which one should I picture at various stages of the story? I asked Mr. Johnson in a text message.

A few weeks later while waiting in my car before a school visit, an image of a gun popped up on the screen of my phone. It alarmed me. The gun was large, long with a white barrel. My heart skipped. Was someone threatening me? That’s when I realized the photo had come from Mr. Johnson. He’d sent images of early prototypes of his Super Soaker.


I continued sketching, but I had more questions. The beginning of the story begins with young Lonnie Johnson being creative in his make-shift kitchen workshop, with various things from the junk yard spread across the table. An early version of the manuscript mentioned a Chinaberry shooter in the scene. What in the heck was that? A quick Google returned several results. I created a sketch, but I was unsure. Below was my guess as to what his shooter might have looked like:


After our phone conversation, I realized my guess was wrong. I created another quick sketch and texted it off to Mr. Johnson. He answered my question with his own sketch of what his shooter would have looked like and how it would have worked. I wasn’t too far off, but now I had what I needed to be 100-percent correct!


And that’s how I worked over the next few months. I sketched, sent questions off to Mr. Johnson. He answered my questions, sometimes with more sketches. In another scene, teenage Johnson creates a robot to enter in a high school science fair. He named the robot Linex, and controlled it using a remote control. I had a somewhat great photo of the actual robot, but not the remote control. I visualized a hand-held remote control, but I was very wrong. I shot off my sketch to Mr. Johnson, and he drew a sketch of what it really looked like–it was tabletop size!—almost as big as the robot itself. I decided that it was too complicated to include in the scene, and so I pictured Linex only. See below. 

unnamed copy

There were several other communications between us. He helped me to visualize his job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, too. I envisioned him working with some complex engineer-y looking equipment, with TV screens and a plethora of knobs and wires. Mr. Johnson said absolutely not. His position at NASA was more of a desk job, so he suggested that I picture him behind a desk or delivering a PowerPoint, which I did.

I haven’t had a chance to speak with Mr. Johnson since, but fingers crossed that he liked the book. He certainly praised The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch(!).