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Children’s Book Illustrates Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom’s Uncommon Life

"Lin's Uncommon Life" book cover; headshot of Elinor Ostrom
Lin's Uncommon Life was published in April 2023. Book cover courtesy of IU Press. Photo courtesy of Indiana University.

In 2009, a short three years before her death, Elinor “Lin” Ostrom became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. She received the award for her groundbreaking research that demonstrates ordinary people are capable of creating parameters for the sustainable and equitable management of shared resources.

While winning a Nobel is certainly her most notable accomplishment, Ostrom’s legacy lives on through IU Bloomington’s Ostrom Workshop, which she co-founded in 1973 with her husband, Vincent Ostrom. For the past 50 years, the Workshop has been a place where researchers come to seek and share solutions to the world’s most pressing problems involving communal and contested resources—from clean water to secure cyberspace.

As a woman born in the early 1930s, the road to these significant feats was littered with roadblocks. In high school, Ostrom was advised against taking math courses beyond algebra and geometry. (She later taught herself calculus.) Ostrom went on to graduate from college—at a time when women made up less than half of the student population—only to be considered for secretarial jobs. Years later, UCLA faculty discouraged her from getting a PhD in economics and hesitantly granted her admittance into the political science program.

Ostrom’s story of perseverance is illustrated in Lin’s Uncommon Life. The 44-page children’s book—written by Scott Shackelford, BA’05, the executive director of the Ostrom Workshop, and Emily Castle, the Workshop’s assistant director and librarian—was published by IU Press in April 2023.

“I have three girls. We were reading the Rebel Girls book series that talks about different female pioneers throughout history, and Lin was never mentioned in any of them,” Shackelford says. “Emily and I wanted to fill that gap.”

Illustration of Elinor Ostrom at Nobel Prize ceremony; headshot of Elinor Ostrom
On Dec. 10, 2009, Elinor Ostrom received her Nobel Prize medal during a ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. Illustration by Hannah Dickens. Photo courtesy of The Nobel Prize.

The pair began working on the book in 2019. Ostrom has no living relatives, so they relied on books and old interviews to piece together the economist’s childhood. They discovered that in addition to her academic hurdles, Ostrom encountered several personal challenges—her parents divorced, she had a stutter, and she didn’t fit in at school.

“We were interested in what her life was like from an early age, and the obstacles she had to overcome to become the woman and leader she eventually did,” Shackelford explains. “Some of her early travails showed Lin that success was possible if you pushed hard to overcome a lot of adversity along the way. [Her] fortitude was really striking.”

In the following Q&A, Shackelford and Castle discuss the challenges of writing for elementary-aged kids and their plans for getting the book into classrooms across the country.

Had either of you written a book prior to this?
Emily Castle
: I [previously] worked at the Indiana Historical Society, and I worked on a collection of images of Abraham Lincoln that they turned into a book.

Scott Shackelford: I have four books on the topic of cybersecurity, and I’ve written dozens of journal articles. I’ve done a lot of writing, but nothing as fun as this.

People often underestimate how difficult it is to write a children’s book as an adult. Was it challenging to write for a certain age group?
: [The first draft] was pretty dense, even when we tried not to be. A lot was left on the cutting room floor. There’s so much more that we could have included from her personal story as well as her professional one. We had teachers and other specialists review the book to ensure consistency with the target reading level.

What age group is this book best suited for?
: We wanted to write something for second through fourth graders. I think we imagined that kids would be able to read it themselves, but also have a parent nearby to help explain things, if need be. [We hope] this book helps young kids realize that they can work hard and achieve things even if they get knocked down.

Scott Shackelford and Emily Castle posing for photo
Scott Shackelford and Emily Castle. Courtesy photo.

How did you determine what to include in the book? Lin had an eventful life of highs and lows.
: We really wanted to portray [Lin] as a kid, so she’d be more relatable. We tried to dwell on issues that some kids have firsthand experience with, for example, a speech impediment or different types of family challenges. I think it’s an opportunity to show that a lot of people have dealt with those [challenges] and have gone on to be really successful.

During a special training, you introduced teachers in Bloomington, Ind., to Lin’s Uncommon Life. Can you tell me about that?
: With the help of Frank Alexander, a curriculum consultant, and Stephanie Serriere, BS’00, PhD’07, a professor at IUPUC, we developed a lesson plan for grades 2–4 based on the book. The plan was designed to be used around Earth Day, during Women’s History Month, or when teaching children about civic engagement or the environment.

Thanks to a grant from the IU Arts & Humanities Council, we were able to share the lesson plan with 20 second, third, and fourth-grade teachers from the Monroe County Community School Corporation. We’re hoping that Elinor Ostrom will be better known locally (and eventually nationally) as a result of these lesson plans.

Rapid Fire with Scott and Emily

Where is your favorite writing spot? Did you write Lin’s Uncommon Life at the Ostrom Workshop?
: I’d often use the library in the Workshop. It’s a quiet hideaway.

SS: It was fun to [use the library] because you’re surrounded by the work that [Lin] inspired and even a picture of her. I often prefer to write outside. I also love bookstores—Morgenstern’s in Bloomington is awesome.

Do you have a favorite writing snack?
: Peanut butter M&Ms.

SS: Coffee and almonds.

Can you name a book that you’d like to see turned into a movie?
: Lin’s Uncommon Life, of course.

SS: The Three-Body Problem series by Liu Cixin. I think Netflix is making that into a series.

Can you name a book that you always recommend to people?
: I like mysteries. I always recommend the first book of the Richard Jury mystery series, The Man with a Load of Mischief by Martha Grimes.

SS: I love The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey. I also like Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian. His most recent book, Project Hail Mary, is even better.

What are you reading now?
: I’m reading Think Like a Monk by Jay Shetty, and I’m listening to a mystery series about Sherlock Holmes imagined as a woman, Charlotte Holmes, by Brittany Cavallaro.

SS: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

Read an excerpt from Lin’s Uncommon Life.

This story is part of our IU alumni author series, Novel Ideas.

Written By

Samantha Stutsman

Samantha Stutsman, BAJ'14, is a Bloomington, Ind., native and a senior content specialist at the IU Alumni Association.

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