Last week I wrote about my happy discovery of nonfiction kids’ books by Heather Lang. Her most recent title is “Fearless Flyer,” about early aviatrix Ruth Law. This week Heather answered some questions from me about the picture book biography. Enjoy!
Do you enjoy flying?
I’m what you would call a fearFUL flyer. I always do experiential research for every book, which I knew might be a little scary for this one! I wanted to do something that would help me understand what it was like to fly in an open cockpit. Since I couldn’t find an early biplane, I decided paragliding was the next best thing. Once I let go of the initial panic and terror, it was a wonderful experience—soaring up and down like a bird. It inspired me to weave the theme of liberty into the story—both the freedom she felt and sought as a pilot and as a woman. I’m not saying I want to become a regular, but I’m not as afraid of flying anymore!
How did you first learn about Ruth Law?
Since I’m a nervous flyer, those early aviators who risked their lives going up in their flimsy flying machines have always intrigued me. I read a lot of books about flying and early aviation and was especially fascinated by the women who came before Amelia Earhart. They are virtually unknown. Ruth’s spunky personality drew me in right away, and I loved how she became a mechanic, learning every nut and bolt on her machine.
You included many direct quotes from Ruth in the text, which is not as common in a picture book. Why’d you decide to do that?
Ruth had such a lovely way of expressing herself. She hooked me with her words, so I desperately wanted to use them. I thought having Ruth help tell her own story could be powerful. Using quotes is a fantastic way to show instead of tell a story, but sometimes I think dialogue tags can wreck the flow of the text. By starting with a quote, using a different font, and carefully selecting and placing quotes, I avoided using tags. It’s made the book really fun to read aloud with kids. I’ll often pull in a volunteer to play Ruth Law!
What’s something cool you learned about Ruth that you had to leave out?
That’s a tough question. Since I focused the book on her flight from Chicago to New York City, I had to leave out a ton. Luckily FEARLESS FLYER is a 40-page book, so you’ll see many of those golden nuggets in the back matter. And I’ve added more to my website.
I would have loved to see Raul illustrate Ruth wing-walking. By 1921 crowds were demanding even more daring acrobatics during air shows. Ruth would climb out on top of her plane and stand there, while the pilot did upside down loops. It’s no wonder her husband-manager couldn’t take the strain anymore. Ruth loved flying, but she loved her husband more, so she retired.
Your bibliography lists articles from Ruth Law’s scrapbook at the National Air and Space Museum’s archives. How did you figure out that that resource existed?
Early on in my research, I was reading a newspaper interview with Ruth from 1958, and the article described her thumbing through her scrapbook! That was one of those yahoo moments, where I jump up and down and my dog starts barking. It led me on a treasure hunt, ending at the National Air and Space Museum archives. In addition to Ruth’s scrapbook, the NASM had a biographical file and a large photo file . . . JACKPOT!!
What’s something that surprised you (in a good way) about Raul Colon’s illustrations?
As I write and revise, I frequently consider how to leave room for the illustrator. I’m always imagining possible illustrations. Well, I never could have imagined anything as gorgeous as Raul’s art. The autumnal palette takes my breath away. And the varied perspectives of her flying coupled with his etched lines bring so much energy and excitement to the story.
Your books and blog focus on “girls with grit.” There are many of those to choose from. What are the deciding factors for which women you write about?
I’m really drawn to brave women who overcame significant obstacles and persevered—women who amaze me. I suppose I write about women I aspire to be more like. I’ve had to develop a lot of grit on my journey to become a children’s book author, and these women inspire me every day to keep going and hang in there! When I identify a woman, I ask myself, would I want to be stranded on a deserted island with her for a few weeks? After all I am going to spend a few years of my life with her—thinking about her, writing about her, and delving into the details of her entire life.
Of course the subject has to fascinate me as well. And then there are other major factors to consider, like whether there is enough information and primary source material. This can take some time to determine, and it’s hard to let it go when it turns out there is not enough 😦
I’m really excited about my next picture book bio coming out on December 1st: SWIMMING WITH SHARKS: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark, illustrated by the super-talented Jordi Solano. Wait until you see his amazing shark illustrations! Genie was an outstanding scientist and an even more incredible person. As a pioneer ichthyologist (fish scientist) and the first scientist to study sharks in their natural environment, she earned the nickname “the shark lady.” Genie was diving and researching and publishing until the day she passed away in February 2015 at age 92. I am so grateful I had the chance to meet with her at the Mote Marine Laboratory in 2014. Her input and research assistance were invaluable. I’m thrilled that more kids will get to know this remarkable woman.
As far as new projects—in addition to some more picture book biographies, I’m trying to stretch myself with some fiction, and I’m playing around with some longer nonfiction as well!
Thank you to Heather for talking with me. I know I’ll be looking out for the Eugenie Clark biography in December!