Pioneering aviator Betty June Skelton broke air, land, and sea records, and even trained to become the first woman in space. She broke so many barriers that she was nicknamed the "First Lady of Firsts." Award-winning author-illustrator Meghan McCarthy brings Betty's remarkable story to life in the brightly illustrated, information-packed Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skelton (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2013).
While some picture book biographies tend to play the illustrations straight and serious, Meghan's nonfiction books are recognizable immediately by her signature, wide-eyed style. In a starred review, Kirkus says the "acrylic cartoon illustrations play up Betty’s spunk and derring-do with McCarthy’s trademark googly eyed expressions." Her delightfully lively style makes her other titles easy to spot: Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2010), Seabiscuit the Wonder Horse (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2008), The Incredible Life of Balto (Knopf, 2011), and Strong Man: The Story of Charles Atlas (Knopf, 2007), to name a few.
Question: You've written about bubble gum, a legendary racehorse, a life-saving dog, among many other topics. What inspired you to choose the life of little-known aviation pioneer Betty Skelton?
Meghan McCarthy: I actually struggled with this topic at first because Betty seemed to have an awe-inspiring life. When I write a biography, I like to include a little struggle—something to give the story a nice arch. But Betty was such a positive person that I couldn’t find any struggle! She put a positive spin on everything! I know it seems odd that I, a writer for children, would be looking for some sad drama, but I kind of was. I couldn’t find any. Even when Betty wasn’t chosen to go to space, she was okay with it. She seemed to enjoy the experience and said she loved working with the astronauts. She’d followed the career of John Glenn her whole life and wrote him letters but said he never wrote back. She just laughed about it. She was such a good-natured lady.
Why is Betty Skelton the person to write about? Because she didn’t care if girls weren’t supposed to fly planes or race cars or jump boats or be advertising executives. She just did what she wanted to do. As a kid I was like that. I played on an all boys baseball team. I distinctly remember running home and telling my dad that I needed a glove and socks and a “cup.” My dad sheepishly explained why I didn’t need one of those! Betty did things bigger and better than I ever could and that’s what I think is so awesome.
MM: I’m so glad you asked this question because I don’t think a lot of people know that authors are limited to certain page counts. Picture books are either 32, 40, or in certain cases 48 pages. I was fortunate enough to get 48 pages for Daredevil. I always have a vision for the overall look of the book, but a lot of times I have to alter it because of the page-count limit.
An example of a spread that I wanted in Daredevil and was able to keep because I had 48 pages to play with was the wordless spread of the young Betty flying solo. Flying solo was a turning point in her life, and it was a powerful one. I didn’t want words or other images to clutter the page. I wish I had more opportunities to spread out my stories and sentence structures. Doing so also makes it easier for kids to digest nonfiction text.
Even with 48 pages, I still had to limit what I could talk about. Betty did SO many things. I had to pick and choose. As with all picture book biographies, they’re snippets of someone’s life. I pulled out small pieces—things I thought kids would relate to and find interesting. The goal with my books is to get kids excited about the subjects they’re reading. I want them to run to the computer after reading one of my books and read more. Lots more. I want them to become the researcher.
Q: What I loved about the book is the positive tone. Betty experienced so many disappointments – especially training with the Mercury 7 astronauts only to be passed over for the ultimate flight. But there is no whiff of bitterness here; you just show a strong woman who moves on to other fascinating adventures. Was she really such a positive force?
MM: Betty was really that positive. I didn’t exaggerate or skirt over anything because I was writing for kids. If you watch the oral video biography with Betty done in the late 1990s you’ll see what I mean. Betty really wasn’t upset about not going to space, which I found a little perplexing. Some of the astronauts, such as John Glenn, were against women going into space and said some pretty sexist things. It seems hard to believe that she couldn’t have been a little upset about the way things were. She may have been somewhat angry, but she didn’t exhibit this anger publicly. From all accounts that I’ve read, everyone said she was really a sweet lady.
Q: Why have you chosen to write and research historical figures over writing fiction?
MM: I started out my career writing fiction. At the time when I decided to write my first nonfiction book—Aliens Are Coming – there weren’t a lot of fun choices for kids in the nonfiction genre. The fiction market, on the other hand, was flooded. I didn’t feel that if I continued writing fiction, I’d be contributing anything substantial to it. I thought that if I applied the same sense of humor and fun found in my fiction books to nonfiction works, I could contribute something new to nonfiction. As I delved into my topics I realized that I wasn’t just educating children, I was educating myself. I was really enjoying the process.
I have discovered that I have the ability to take adult subject matter and make it kid-friendly. If you approached the me as a grade-schooler and told me that I would be writing nonfiction books, I’d never believe it. That me was the space-cadet in the back of class doodling in a note pad. I’m writing books for the kids like I was.
Q: Who or what has been your favorite topic to write about so far?
MM: That’s a popular question kids usually ask when I do school visits. My answer is that I don’t have a favorite book or topic. I learn something new from each book that I do. I do tell kids that Aliens Are Coming is important to me because it was my first nonfiction book. It is pretty cool that I got to paint so many slimy aliens for a nonfiction title.
My mom doubts that I don’t have a favorite subject. My favorite is always the current book that I’m working on. Right now I’m working on a graphic novel that is somewhat about Thomas Edison. I’m learning so many things about him. Some of the details are really surprising!
Q: What do you hope young readers take away from your books? What do you hope to accomplish as a writer?
MM: I want kids to get excited about history, science, and the world around them. There are so many interesting things to learn. It’s all in how it’s taught.
Q: What will we see next from you?
MM: My next book is called Earmuffs for Everyone! And it’s about the invention of earmuffs. There will be a lot of goofy paintings of people wearing silly contraptions that were considered early versions of earmuffs.