Who doesn't love a daring adventure story when she sees it? And when it's a non-fiction picture book? All the better. When it features a brave lass at the helm? Unbeatable. And there we have Dare the Wind: The Record-breaking Voyage of Eleanor Prentiss and the Flying Cloudby Tracey Fern and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully, published only last month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Dare the Wind tells the story of young Ellen Prentiss, who was born "with saltwater in her veins." Her father nurtured her interest in the sea, and Ellen learned navigate and sail on her own. When Ellen grew up, her love for adventure never waned, and her husband was given command of a clipper ship built for speed. With the Gold Rush on, Ellen raced from New York, around the tip of Cape Horn, and into San Francisco to stake her fortune. She not only navigated the clipper safely, but she set the world record for speed along the way.
Question: You're a Massachusetts gal, and so was Ellen Prentiss. Is that what drew you to her story? Could you talk about the "ah-ha" moment when you decided to write a book about this daring seafarer?
Tracey Fern: I'm always on the lookout for great real-life stories that feature a unique person mixed with a dash of adventure or discovery. My "ah-ha" moment came when I picked up David Shaw's book, Flying Cloud, on a whim. I knew instantly that I had to write about Ellen. Ellen's story – a young woman performing a traditionally male role, clipper ships, a race, storms – had it all! It was an added bonus that she was from Marblehead, Massachusetts, which is one of my favorite towns. I love walking the narrow, cobbled streets, imagining Ellen learning to navigate ships in the harbor.
Q: All of your books are about lesser-known characters in history. Where do you get your ideas? And how do you know whether to run with an idea or not? Can you talk about your creative process?
TF: I find ideas from all types of sources. I've always been an avid reader and many of my ideas come from books, magazines, newspapers, and websites. But I've also gotten ideas from things I've heard on National Public Radio or TV. I have a huge "idea" file that I constantly add to whenever I run across an interesting story. Many of these ideas go absolutely nowhere, but I find that if I return to an idea a few times, then it's time to do a bit of research to see if I think the character is unique enough or interesting enough to support a picture book. I usually work on multiple projects simultaneously, so that if I get stuck on one, I can set it aside to percolate while I work on something else. A picture book can take me several years to write, with multiple revisions and lots of input from my writer's group until I think it is ready to submit to an editor.
Q: You seem to mine history for your books and magazine articles. What draws you to narrative non-fiction?
TF: I'm not sure why I'm so drawn to history. I've always just been a bit of a history nerd. Something about real people and their stories is very inspiring to me. I love to figure out what motivated them!
Barnum's Bones – as well as the subjects of Buffalo Music (Clarion, 2008) and Pippo the Fool (Charlesbridge, 2009) – have wonderful things in common: They pay attention to details. For Ellen, it's reading the sea. And for Barnum, it's finding fossils amid the everyday landscape. What is it about paying close attention to the little things that made for success for these two characters? What are you trying to show young readers?
TF: It's interesting that you ask! I've never thought about this similarity and wasn't consciously trying to show this to young readers. But I do know that as a writer, I try hard to pay attention to the "telling details" that help me show character traits! I seem to be drawn to somewhat obsessive characters – people who are passionate about what they do. I think I try to show young readers that following a passion can result in some amazing things!
Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your books and writing?
TF: I hope to write books that young readers will enjoy and will want to read again and again. I hope my books are rich enough with character and detail and significance and fun that readers will not only enjoy the story, but will also be intrigued enough to explore the subject further. Creating more history nerds would be awesome!
Q: What will we see from you next?
TF: I'm very excited about my next book! It will be a picture book about Noah Webster entitled, W is for Webster, to be illustrated by Boris Kulikov, who also illustrated Barnum's Bones. It will be published by Margaret Ferguson Books at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.